Wednesday Nov 13

Thomson-Poetry Jeffrey Thomson is the author of four books of poems including Birdwatching in Wartime, winner of both the 2010 Maine Book Award and the 2011 ASLE Award in Environmental Creative Writing, and Renovation. Birdwatching in Wartime is currently being translated into Spanish and Russian. His translations of the Roman poet, Catullus, are forthcoming from Cambridge University Press. In 2012 Thomson was the Fulbright Distinguished Scholar in Creative Writing at the Seamus Heaney Poetry Centre at Queen’s University Belfast. Currently an associate professor of creative writing at the University of Maine Farmington, his website can be found here
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Slash City       
for my father, and his before him
 

 
Locked-down walls frame the old town and the oak grove
the city’s named for, and St. Columb’s cathedral stands
overwhelmed with Union Jacks for July as the Orange Order
gatehouse supervises Bogside tenements where murals
remember Bloody Sunday and Operation Motorman.
 
It all makes sense for a town nicknamed Slash City—
this eternal face-off, the stroke between the English
and the Irish, between capitol and plantation, a city
divided and the town signs painted again and over
again to read London/ derry in a palimpsest of rage
 
and repetition. Can I tell you I watched the police patrol
in squads of seven—full military formation—one on point
and one woman sweeping, turning again and again to check
her six, as I searched for my family’s Presbyterian Church?
Did I tell you that my family came through here,
 
that we’re a piece of all this trouble? My ancestor, William,
was planted—yes, that’s the term—as if he were some kind
of root stock the English hoped would dig in and spread,
tenacious as ribbon grass, with the other Scots to control
the last of the Irish chieftains. But what he found was Anne,

a catholic wife from Donegal, and a city where neither
were welcome.   A minor thing, his Church, it might as well
be a bank now, Doric columns and the high windows
framing the façade beneath the glazed light of the late sun.
William would have seen the beginnings of it all—civil wars
 
and a time called trouble—as he walked to church on these walls
where 14 sycamores line the Grand Parade (one each
the apprentice boys who locked the gate on the Jacobite king
a hundred years before he got there) between the Hangman’s
bastion and the Coward’s, where when the siege went bad
 
and even rats were scarce and the hides of horses tasted
of boiled death, it was easiest to escape the city. William
escaped, that much is true, in a fashion far from drama,
a slow boat to Penn’s sylvan land but I have returned
in hope of finding a way in through the locked door
 
of his story: how he walked here with Anne, her hand resting
on his arm, watching the sun break open clouds coming up
out of the west and talking softly about a New World. The soldiers
turn the corner, cautious as cats, as sycamores drop their seeds—
like thousands of tiny keys—across the walls of the city.                 
 

 

 
The Arab Baths in Ronda
 

 
Although once through the precise
retina of stars sunlight slipped
into the arched ceiling in the steam
room where men sat and chin-
wagged and watched slaves fan
steam from juniper fires through
four pairs of horseshoe porticoes
below brick barrel vaults,
they really aren’t Arab. All this
is Roman, a style lost in the fall
of the Empire and returned
in the conquest of Iberia, part
of the understrata we walk on
because the world is old and full
of stories, the way towns here
are named Frontera because
they were just that—frontier
between the north and south,
Roman and barbarian, then
Arab and Christian, and then
Fascist and Republican, each side
carrying the small particulars
of half an empire in a collection
of haversacks. Away at home
in Belfast, my son is fighting
in the school we’ve sent him to,
with all the easy cruelty and
conviction of youth and the rain
comes down without its usual
mercy as he steps from our flat
in his uniform each morning—
tie and suit coat where a red
Welsh dragon squirms
like a thin and tangled river
on the breast. He carries America
with him, my son, and his small
town back home like a sack
across his back that no longer
protects him from the rain
or the ache of being thirteen
in a country of new syllables
and old enemies, and so
I have had to tell him that
the town he left hasn’t forgotten
the small spring flower of his life
and moved on into its own
deep summer, but that, of course,
is a lie. We cross the New Bridge
built atop a Roman aqueduct
that collapsed into the Guadalevín’s
thin trickle years ago and where,
in 1936, Republican farmers
chucked 500 fascists into the gorge
below and a young man named
Hemingway watched and worked
the story into the voice of Pilar
who says, If you have not seen
the day of Revolution in a small town
where all know all in the town
and always have known all,
you have seen nothing . It’s Easter
 
holiday and we walk the old city,
its plazasof oranges and white-
wash and the bells,after a lunch
of oxtail, queso y jamón ibérico ,
and a bottle of tempranillo like
the nectar ofplums and sweaty
leather down by the south gate
where small sunlight breaks
the brick ceiling of cloud overhead.
We descend down the stone lane
below city walls built up century
by stone by century in hopes
of stopping anyone camped
below with a small bundle
of fire and a knife. And didn’t I
fight my way through my younger
life, a rage in me like the smallest
of fires burning in the distance
and huddled around as if it were
the only heat left in a dark world?
We walk, the two of us, down
into the Arroyode las Culebras
where the slither of the river
disappears into the canyon that
divides the city, old from new,
down to the baths that aren’t Arab
and a past that isn’t even past,
just a long shaft of willow and
bulwark and shadow, a ragbag
where the world assembles itself
each morning, riprap of stone and
olive trees and the epoxy of the rain
sealing it all togetherin the end.



El Café a la Esquina de Agua y Vida

 
 
Near the café at the corner of water and life
in the plaza of blood oranges at the bend
of the whitewash and archways of old stone,
between the congregation of traffic
and the soft hammers of the cathedral bells,
near baths made by Peter the Cruel and
along aqueduct fencing heading toward
the plaza of butchers, among side insectile
carapaces of smartcars hived inside
the old Jewish quarter, near where
the exhausted-piss whiff of the city wanders
off into the Jardines de Murillo where
fists of palms and geometric rigmarole
circle the fountain—ficus and terra cotta
frescoes of Christian excess, the gold leaf,
the halo, Madonna adoring—near the dead-end
of the road of death, beneath keyhole arches
at the mark of midyear in the shadow
of el Real Alcázar—layering of Christian
on Muslim on Roman on something far older—
where wings of the canopy angle out to hide us
from the arrogance of the noonday sun
in the square where the woman
at the public fountain, with an ache and
delicacy, runs damp hands through her
spray of dark hair, sops the hot arch
of her neck and trails fingers down her own
bare arms the way Christ might have washed
Magdelan had he been a just bit more human.