Father of Lies

The heights of Parnassus can readily
accommodate a large crowd of people

Glorious at 75, on a summer’s evening
on my veranda, to be reading Herodotus.
Why didn’t I do this 60 years back?
To have formed my mind after his fashion,
endlessly enquiring, closed to no novelty,
embracing digression as narrative norm
as fresh facts crowded his pen, meticulously
distinguishing what he saw with his own eyes
from what was credibly witnessed, what
entertainingly rumoured, and what evident
nonsense but too hilarious to leave out.
He was wrong, of course, to claim Ethiopians
eject black sperm, or that Indians copulate
like beasts (Aristotle corrected these both),
but I applaud his Persians who debate laws
twice, once when drunk, and again sober,
adopting whichever’s doubly approved
(better that, than a second chamber).
His belief, that events are pre-determined
by oracles speaking in ambiguous verse,
seems as sound a historical method as any
whether your sages are Gibbon or Althusser.
His approach to poetry is matter-of-fact
(witness those crowds haunting Parnassus),
and his ruling myth, that free men of Athens
will always defeat the slaves of autocracy
is one I buy into, though his tribes at war
seem simultaneously just down the road
and all-too-menacingly-up-to date.

(with gratitude to Tom Holland’s translation)

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Living in the Delta

Darkness,
a wet tarpaulin weighing
down the mangrove, moulders
to a yellow fog, threadbare at dawn.
The fishermen stir from the fire,
their cigarettes trailing candleflies,
then slither narrow dugouts under
roots pale with oysters into the warm
crocodile waters of the creek.
After all these years of words it is still
discovery, the canopy whitening
over the surf, the silver glimmering beach,
and a medieval sea where pelicans
loom on a sandbank and these fishermen
like the centuries rock patiently
at anchor.

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Anxiety of Influence

I was 17 when, blessed suddenly with gold,
I happened in the sixth form library
on Blunden’s Poems of Wilfred Owen.
He had sat in this self-same dormitory,

engulfed in the same masturbatory rebellions,
the same teen-age passion
for Keats, the same hatred of Birkenhead
Institute for the Sons of Artisans.

What did I learn? That one of the names
on the school’s War Memorial, poppied annually
to reproach us, had a voice.
That technique is subliminal, a device

of rhetoric, his half rhymes echoing
shell shock. That poetry doesn’t flinch.
That it matters by calling poetry
into question. That he made pity heroic.

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A Parable of Austerity

Colin Turnbull’s
Mountain People (the Ik
of northern Uganda)

responded to the drought that killed their cattle
by abandoning their aged
in the bush to be eaten by animals.

Would Schäuble accept this from the Greeks
as pension reform? Would he require,
the youth having no prospect of work,

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Tattoo

(to the sound of Greek bagpipes)

Today, the Greek Government
executed by firing squad
1000 pensioners, along
with 2000 workers, as part
of a package of financial
reforms, to reassure
the markets and permit
the Troika to release one
more tranche of the bail-out.

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Funk Rap

To create, so I read, a sense of futility
in uncooperative detainees,
the damned souls of Gitmo are played
non-stop Britney Spears.

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In the Planetary Ballet

Tycho Brahe’s model of the universe
had all the planets (except earth)
revolving round the sun, while the sun,
with its planets in tow, revolved
around earth. So he kept the Jesuites
happy, and preserved his name
as a scientist. But this was no time-server,

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