The Spaced Land (4)

Stephen Livesey Ashworth

Fourth Vision

– Falling helplessly – through the Galaxy
– Will this starry abyss never end?
– Will I wander for ever, untethered?
– Must my stomach, again and again,
Turn at the whiff of yesterday’s leftovers?
– How long must it be till I enter
The land of the free, the life-long-lost country?
– Or find reason and power to sugar
The sour taste of that which defies explanation?
– Oh, how long must it be, when seizing
My heart’s desire I slip from the wire
Into the valley of the shadow of nightmare?
– But I shake away – last night’s phantoms
– Now another sun dawns, and another moon
– As I balance between expectation
And fear, between ardour and cynical gloom.
Scanning the starfields for specklets of light,
My heart’s in my mouth and my chest feels so tight
That I hardly dare look, it’s making me sick
– Better turn away, cancel adventure
– Run for safety and – shelve happiness
Where it belongs in the realm of conjecture.
– Is it better when travelling hopefully
Than to arrive? Whoever said that
Had never been stung by the road-side vipers,
Had never feared a traveller’s grave.
– As for me, my long-cherished goal
– And the heart-ache consuming my soul
Over the last umpteen trillion miles:
Raising my standard, to plant it forever
Secure in the College Fellows’ Garden
That lures my eyes on to voyage’s end,
Always just over the event horizon.
– Lost in caverns of self-speculation
– I drift lightless. But – now a wake-up call
Snares my perception, caresses my ear
– Trilling notes on a musical scale
Dance my heart up into tender surprise
– Friendly birdsong, both tuneful and clear:
Could I have landed in some paradise?
Look: sunlight dappled by rustling green leaves,
Air soft as velvet awakens the lungs,
Charges the spirits of ten million species.
Moisture soars up like a river on wings
And returns in a sky-song of drops on my face
– So the engine of nature’s vitality
Self-harmonises on resonant frequencies
– So I taste the miraculous melody
Kissing my lips, my face is all wet,
Is it raindrops or tears? I’m so happy I no longer care,
Let me only embrace you, and never let go!
I’m in love with this world and I hardly dare hope
That this uplifting ecstasy, blissful serenity,
Grail of my heart, will not pale in the night
– Leave me stranded there, back on square one
– Force me ever to relive the heavy
Grey horrors from which I have come ...
Moist is the living soil after the rain,
Sweet-smelling earth stains my hands and my boots.
– Now the mossy green mountains are crowned
By a graceful sky-arching tiara of colour:
I think I can reach out and grasp it forever!
Clarity glows in the wake of the clouds,
The heart growing lighter, the light coming fuller,
The fullness, uncountable joy. You old cynic!
– Did you really believe that you’d never
Discover the Blessed Isles? raise the Titanic?
Arrive at the end of the Yellow Brick Road?
Dance in the solid gold streets of Atlantis?
– In those dismal days did you believe that you’d
– Never laugh at the guardian of Eden?
– Never quench his flame-sword with a more subtle word?
Or receive the reward of ophidian sight
From the fruit in the hand of the Mother of Man?
– Look around, now you stand on the height,
And compute: could you comprehend or could you contemplate
Ever a life more complete than this river
Of exquisite joy, of bubbling laughter?
Perfect her contours, honeyed her breath,
Thrilling her touch with its magical health,
Wild her tresses, enchanting her moods
And the heave of her bosom in different dresses!
– Okay, so the bounty of nature
Is great. In a year or a month I’ll habituate.
– Too much ecstasy palls. Meanwhile,
How do I now meet the people?
Foundation is the slowest season, coaxing
Walls of stone out of the grass-green plain,
Glued one atop another with a mortar
Mixing myth and lust and calculated gain
With powdered bones, that echo through the sultry streets
Dim tales of atrocities and shame.
Over our shoulder looms the sacramental eye,
Observes our penances, and sanctifies
A field of unfathomable graves
Where grandfather clocks another century.
We dread eclipses and the death of kings.
Childhood treated us kindly. When the ice
Retreated to the north then we made love,
Rolling through the tittering ears of grass.
We kissed your faces, pressed you to the earth,
Obsessing on the curves beneath your skirts,
And unimpressed by tales of bloody birth.
You kicked and bit and scratched with panting breath,
Oppressed by thoughtless furies of disgust,
You did not yield before your village gates
Were broached, and lay battered in the fertile dust.
Afterwards we sat and watched the stars
And talked and thought and talked again for hours.
The age of the machine brought us despair, and hope.
Despair: when the voice of one we thought we knew
And loved the most, their passions, joys and fears,
Their bubbling secret springs of poetry,
The subtle meteorology of their daily moods,
All this and more, undone, collapsed in pieces on the floor,
Their human core unravelled and was lost
Amid a pile of wheels and pulleys, bevelled gears,
A Frankensteinian laboratory
Of nuts and bolts and wiring ducts,
Transistor circuits, memory chips and other little bits,
Capacitors and coiled springs that oscillate
Without a reason, having been the aggregate
Of random accidents throughout forgotten years.
Our nightmare task: to reassemble all these parts
Into a human soul, or, if we fail,
Then by our signature in blood we must give up
Control to Mephistophelean rule,
Regret our sacreligious bravery,
Abandon spirit and our guardian angel
To the fiends of hell, and march away
Enchained in perpetual clockwork slavery,
The husk, the two-dimensional human shell
Of what once had the right to feel
But now is nothing more than chemical:
Forever wedded unto death eternal ...
But hope there was as well. For the machine
Had eyes of glass that matched our eyes of flesh,
And feet of stainless steel that follow just the line
Ordained by differential equation,
And giving hands that turned the stony rubbish
Of the waste land into a market place
With products useful, educational,
And clever gadgets in the hospitals,
And medicines to sooth our aching teeth.
And looking through those eyes, we caught a glimpse
Of panoramas of breathtaking surprise,
And walking with those feet, we took a lesson
In the class which speaks in sentences
Of hissing steam and oily-smelling brass,
And browsing at the market stall, we bought
The golden key that fits the locks of slavery,
Opens the box of dangerous opportunity,
And wins us time to contemplate the paradox.
The age of war destroyed, and reassembled, us.
It mangled young men’s limbs, wrecked their sanity,
Deleted lovers, comrades, friends.
It marched us to the bullet-storm, the ponderous
Panzer charge, the mud and weariness and enmity,
The unheard screams beneath the grey Atlantic
Shipping-lanes, an Icarus in petrol flames,
Pink bodies trapped in burning steel chambers,
Thus a million action replays featuring,
In starring roles, blind panic, fear and shell-shock,
Wounds, and insufferable pain:
“Dearest, do not wait for me, today
My face and hands were blasted all away.”
We will remember them ... Until it starts again.
And all the while the spinning engines hummed.
For those who stayed behind:
        The siren howls the requiem
        That summons faithful sheep to die,
        To immolation in their homes
        By fire descending from the sky,
          To serve your country you must ask not why.
        There come the men in cruel hats:
        “Exterminate the untermensch!
        Destroy them like a nest of rats!”
        No matter that the victims blench,
          And shiver in a row before the gaping trench.
And neither you, nor they, can comprehend such angst.
But still the whirling dynamos roll on
And drone a swelling song of millions of amps.
The quality of mercy is overstrained,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the swelling mushroom cloud beneath.
It is twice curst: it is too little, and too late,
To save the smouldering wreckage of the cityscape,
Give comfort to a million individual griefs
Or justice to a single just complaint.
They shall not grow old ... What law is there
Age shall not weary them ... What law can there be
At the going down of the sun ... That can prevent it
We will remember them ... From happening ever again?
And still the engines chorused their refrain
Of gigawatts and busy megaflops,
Of passenger-miles and gross tons in the docks.
While pinstriped caesars played at war and politics,
Argued and cursed and shouted in despair,
Almost unseen, too obvious to note,
Too plain to recognise, too huge to care
What it might mean, in every continent
With whirring wings and probing mandibles
The Hive was teeming with creative toil.
A woman checks her lipstick on the bus
To work: the Hive is with her every mile.
A man dissects the sporting views of the Evening News:
The Hive owns every drop of ink.
With every phone call, every scheduled flight,
With every gas bill, every mouth of bread
(Sliced or wholemeal, malted, cottage or French),
The Hive connected cell with waxen cell
In spaces laced with stacked dimensions multiple
Like pallets on an endless warehouse floor
Conveyed by fork-lift trucks invisible,
And year on year augmented its trans-human strength.
And some were stung by angry bees and died
Of Salmonella or Thalidomide,
But many more consumed the honey food
The Hive afforded them, and were content.
And so the age put off its uniform,
Locked away its visions of apocalypse
Behind the TV screen or in the ocean deep,
Or in a distant land where folk had not yet
Learnt the worship of the mighty Hive.
The years let down their hair and rolled a joint.
The millennium came and went. The clock
Had not a thought of stopping. So
We grumbled about this and that, picked up
A wire basket, and went shopping.
“I am the sort”, she said, “that likes to talk
If it goes wobbly, for I know how silence hurts.
I’ve suffered through it all myself of course.”
Last time I saw her she was at the steps
To board the London coach and home to Hammersmith
(she never gave me the exact address).
A smiling face, a kiss, a longing glance,
Infinite in meaning on that hallowed eve
Yet strangely leaking into outer space
As week changed into week with little news for me.
        I’ll never fall in love again
        Until a pretty girl once more subdues me.
“I really appreciate”, she said, “your cheer,
And will be back on my feet soon without fail.
This feeling leads me to suspect pneumonia.
Need to lie down, need a bit of space to clear.
Sorry about this dreadful e-mail!”
So I replied: “I think you need a great big hug,
And someone there to ply you with vitamin C,
And bring you steaming cups of hot, sweet tea.
Please hurry up and get well soon for me,
And shake away that old pestiferous bug!”
        I’ll never fall in love again
        Until my balls once more absorb the drug.
A month on ice; I called her on the phone:
“How are you, darling, have you had good luck?”
She yelled at me, called me a pervert, and hung up.
“I’ve got an angel in my satchel”, so he said.
Have you really? I said. “Yes honest”, he said.
Oh no you haven’t, I said. “Oh yes I have”, he said.
Show me then! I said. “It’s invisible”, he said.

So what exactly does this angel do?
        “Helps prepare my soul to go to heaven.”
Heaven? So you’re going to be an astronaut?
        “Not space, you burk! Heaven. When you die.”
When I die, I know not where I’ll be.
        “It’s no joke. And my parents told me to believe.”
How d’you know that they are not misleading you?
        “Cos the Holy Scriptures say so too.”
Come off it, they were written yonks ago!
        “Yes. By God himself, I’ll have you know.”
Well God was ignorant of modern science then.
        “But truth when once created cannot change.”
We do not know the truth. We must experiment.
        “God knows, and if we trust him, that’s the best.”
But God is silent. Science has a voice.
        “God speaks to us through an inner place.”
You mean you get a funny little tingle?
        “I mean he speaks to my heart through my angel.”

Prove to me your angel really does exist.
        “You prove invisible radio waves are real.”
Transmitter here, receiver there, QED.
        “Your brain receives as well. Can you hear something?”
Only my own thoughts between my ears.
        “The bad are yours, the good ones are your angel.”
No they’re not. Are you calling me mental?
        “But your angel feels so sad when you deny it.”
I keep telling you there’s no-one else inside!
        “And I keep telling you there really is!”
So which of us is right? How can we choose?
        “Let ancient sacred wisdom be our guide.”
What reason can you possibly provide?
        “The word of God’s eternal; science changes its mind.”
Only when it finds a better theory.
        “Exactly. Science is so unreliable.”
And how do you know your book’s any more dependable?
        “I know I can trust the assurance of my angel.”

Let’s start again. You claim that science stinks?
        “It puts us in the power of the Devil’s tricks.”
Look: science is the noble search for truth, all right?
        “The only light is what the Lord reveals to us.”
Reveals? how? through superannuated texts?
        “And prayer, with my angel’s holy help.”
And what’s it saying now inside your head?
        “That you, my friend, are evil and must be destroyed.”
Well thanks a bunch. Cheerful fellow, isn’t he!
        “We’re all subject to the will of the divinity.”
Okay, suppose God tells you black is white?
        “The Devil must have hypnotised my sight.”
Don’t you trust the evidence of your own eyes?
        “Hasn’t a deceiver given you a nasty surprise?”

Have you ever travelled in an airline jet?
        “I flew to Grand Canary for a prayer meet.”
You hypocrite! The plane’s the proof of science.
        “Not quite. The plane’s a simple technical appliance.”
You staked your life that certain propositions,
Including those of fluid aerodynamics,
Metallurgy, chemistry and electronics,
Meteorology, computer modelling,
Were true and sound, trustworthy enough
To carry you safely at thirty thousand feet.
And these, I state, are engineering truth
Based on scientific theories
Unknown to the author of your theologies!
        “But wait, I never said science is all wrong,
        Only wicked when it turns us away from God.
        It tells us partial truths, like how long
        The 747 will fly with such and such a load.
        It leaves the greater questions unaddressed:
        Why was the world created? What is good
        And evil? Where will we go on Judgement Day?
        Can science answer these? Can it even ask?
        Instead it’s hell-bent on polluting
        God’s most wonderful creation;
        Hardening our attitudes
        With arrogance and every vile temptation.
        We must avert its devilish designs
        If we hope to claim our salvation!”
And yet you flew to Grand Canary for the week!
        “A minor sin. I know God will forgive the meek.”
What gives you confidence he’ll let you off the hook?
        “My angel tells me so!”
I give up.
Dear Sir, this line to you I pen
As your constituent.
The weighty matter on my mind
Is without precedent.
  Concerning future policies
  Of your government.
The universe is infinite
The Earth is very tiny.
Humanity must conquer space
To build a future shiny.
  Our country once was good at this
  Upon the ocean briny.
And so I call upon the state
To send a ship to Mars.
It will not cost us very much
Compared with motor cars.
  The flight will boost the Stock Exchange
  And college seminars.

        My dear Constituent, I thank
        You for your recent letter.
        Under our Party, Britain has
        Been getting better and better.
          We dare not risk expenditure
          That might make us a debtor.
        Your views are always welcome and
        Worth deep consideration.
        A pity Mars is out of sight
        Of our modest nation.
          Have you ever thought of a
          Career in aviation?

Dear Prime Minister, I write
To urge a course of action.
The voyage to the planet Mars
Is not a mere abstraction.
  We must begin before we suffer
  Financial contraction.
I wrote before to my MP
To press my urgent case.
Regrettably the idiot cannot
See our future in space.
  I really think you ought to sack him
  From his ministry place.

        Dear Sir, the PM passed to me
        Your missive of complaint.
        We’re doing everything we can
        Within a tight constraint.
          We always love to hear from you:
          Your letters are so quaint.

Dear Doctor, I’ve a feeling that
My voice has been ignored.
My heartfelt message to the world
Leaves people looking bored.
  I didn’t sleep too well last night:
  Do you think I’m a fraud?


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