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A poem by JAMES NASH

Late sun restores the hillsí contorted form
That midday bleached of colour, depth and line.
Sharp tongues of light
Now curl about the tomb whose lime-washed dome,
Bright half ellipse amid small fields of green,
Has stood for a millenium or two
To celebrate an ancient saint or sage,
A priest-king of an unremembered age.
Once he controlled a thriving incense trade
From towered cities at the desertís edge,
Where caravans of myrrh
Were halted, measured and assessed for tolls,
Till anarchy regained its old estate
And hungry nomads scoured the tumbled stones
In hope of gold the ruins might reveal,
Or some fine agate carved into a seal.
But surely he enjoyed the evening breeze
While sitting, as did I, among good friends,
Lean, dark men sinewed like taut springs,
Quick moving, nervous, garrulous as birds,
With bubbling laughter welling up within
At all our own absurdities.
Did he not love the evening light that fills
With reds and blues and saffrons, those stark hills?

September, overburdened with the heat,
Makes moving of a limb an act of will.
Now patience cracks, the storms
Of blinding temper and the sand
Obliterate both landscape and the mind;
Exposure flays, the darkest recess fills
With dust and anger till pursuing rain
Restores menís reason and the land again.
But even blessings here have darker sides,
The land gives nothing but it claims its fee;
For life renewing floods
Revive vendettas that have run decades
And spill fresh blood to mingle with the old
In feuds of ownership of barren fields.
Neither your spells, old king, nor my vain threats
Could stop the killing that this land begets.
Old images persist. The snake-like files
Of hillmen, armed, dark stained with indigo,
Those twisting lines of blue,
Converging from surrounding mountainsides
To hector, parley or perhaps to pledge
A doubtful loyalty to their amir:
Their chanted rhymes of tribal escapades
Crescendo with the shouts, the fusillades.
The fear, the waiting for the raids, do you
Remember that? Seeing the work of years,
A small prosperity,
Built hand on hand, dissolving in the flames?
Yet those old battles had their recompense,
Intensity, an exultation, just to be alive;
The reputation and the pride it gave.
Old king, it must be quiet in the grave.

Yet did we wish to change those wilder ways,
The pride that soared with kite and lammergeyer
In knife-edged days,
When young men sought to etch an honoured name
Upon recited epics of the tribe?
We tried to force on anarchy a form,
To press amorphous dust into a mould,
Half hoping that the pattern would not hold.
Though one apart, I also loved this land
With passion just as potent as your own,
Wept for dead friends, your heirs,
And was consoled by brothers of your tribe.
Now what remains? Some fading photographs,
Curled sepia memories of past beliefs,
Whose truths are tangled into fairy tales
And turn to myths as recollection fails.

November 1993