Daily Archives: May 2, 2020

The Quarantine Quatrains: The Complete Poem

The garden hut mentioned in the poem, and where it was written

I have recently posted one or two sections of a longer poem called The Quarantine Quatrains, written in a kind of  loose conversation with Fitzgerald’s translation of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, and employing his same quatrain stanza form. The poem began in the same laconic, wistful, urbane manner as Fitzgerald’s original, and continued its theme of savouring and cherishing each moment of our brief lives, but, in these extraordinary times, my poem moved naturally towards something more meditative, and ends in elegy and prayer for those who have lost their lives.

The word Quarantine, of course contains the word 40, because 40 days was the original period of quarantine. I fear our lockdown will last much longer than that, but by my reckoning, today is our 40th day: a good day to publish these 40 Quarantine Quatrains, arranged in seven episodes. I will continue to post and comment separately on some of the individual sections, but here, for those who would like to read or hear it whole, are all seven sections of the complete poem. As always you can hear me read each section of the poem by clicking on the ‘play’ button or the Roman numeral.

The Quarantine Quatrains: a new Rubaiyat

 I

1

Awake to what was once a busy day

When you would rush and hurry on your way

Snatch at your breakfast, start the grim commute

But time and tide have turned another way.

2

For now, like you, the day is yawning wide

And all its old events are set aside

It opens gently for you, takes its time

And holds for you -whatever you decide.

3

This morning’s light is brighter than it seems

Your room is raftered with its golden beams

The bowl of night was richly filled with sleep

And dawn’s left hand is holding all your dreams

4

Your mantle clock still sounds its silver chime

The empty page invites an idle rhyme

This quarantine has taken many things

But left you with the precious gift of time

5

Your time is all your own – yet not your own

The rose may open, or be overblown

So breathe in this day’s fragrance whilst you may

To each of us the date of death’s unknown.

6

Then settle at your desk, uncap your pen

And open the old manuscript again

The empty hours may tease you out of thought

Yet leave you with a poem now and then

 

II

 7

I think of old Khayyam who ‘stood before

The tavern shouting open up the door’

And wish I might carouse the night with him

Alas that such carousals are no more

8

I’ll keep the rules my country has imposed

My life, like my small garden, is enclosed,

But still I’ll raise a glass and pledge my friends

Although, for us, the tavern door is closed

9

For in my cellar, ranged in dusty rows,

Are sleeping poets waiting to disclose

Deep memories of St. Emillion

Whose vineyards reach to where the Dordogne flows

10

And with these wines I travel where I please

From Rhineland to the lofty Pyrenees,

I saunter though the chateaus of the loire,

Drawing the cork on any one of these.

11

So with the poets let me praise the vine

And pledge my absent friends in vintage wine

Sensing, sometimes, the savour at my lips

Speaks of a love both human and divine.

12

And when I come to taste my life’s last drop,

When all that flowed in me comes to a stop,

Then let me see my saviour pledge his love,

Come close to me, and help me drink the cup.

 

III

 13

Some days I am diverted by a call:

The soft computer chime that summons all

To show a face to faces that we meet

Mirages, empty mirrors on the wall.

14

Alas that all the friends we ever knew

Whose lives were fragrant and whose touch was true

Can only meet us on some little screen

Then zoom away with scarcely an adieu.

15

We share with them the little that we know

These galleries of ghosts set in a row

They flicker on the screen of life awhile

But some have left the meeting long ago.

16

We used to stroll together on the green

Who now divide the squares upon the screen,

The faces of our friends, so far apart

Tease us with tenderness that might have been

17

Some day we’ll break the bread, we’ll pour the wine

And meet and kiss and feast beneath the vine,

Till then we’ll sweeten solitude with verse

And yearn through pain, and watch each day decline.

 

IV

 18

Here in my garden hut, just on the brink

Of making some new song of all I think,

A sudden thrill and ripple of true song

Makes mockery of my poor pen and ink.

19

Beyond my hut a vivid glimpse of red:

A bright-eyed robin by the garden bed

Sings his mellifluous and liquid notes,

That utter more than all I’ve ever said.

20

Three busy sparrows soon take up the song,

Chaffinches and blue tits join the throng,

A pattern of bright music nets the air

And catches me off guard and makes me long,

21

Long for the joys that I have yet to sing

Long for the sudden flight, the lifting wing,

Long for the songs of summers yet to come

Long for the freedom future days may bring.

22

Though sorrow runs so deep, and our brief songs

Are burdened still with all the ills and wrongs

Of this sad exile, something in us sings,

Sings from that garden where the soul belongs.

 

V

 23

On Sunday morning, standing on my lawn

I bless the kindling of this Sabbath dawn

And do not seek withdrawal from the world

Since all the world itself is now withdrawn.

24

In Piccadilly Circus, still as stone,

Its central hub become a quiet zone,

Eros may loose his arrow as he will

The little love-god languishes alone.

25

From Marble Arch and all along The Mall

Only the pigeons still stand sentinel

And all the streets that thronged with rush and fret

Are soaked in silence almost magical.

26

No need to find the Isle of Innisfree,

Or seek with Brendan islands in the sea

For now the town and countryside alike

Partake the Sabbath rest of Galilee

27

And all that smudge of noise, the muffled roar

Of distant rush hour traffic is no more

The ‘roadway and the pavement grey’ both keep

A greater silence in the deep hearts core.

 

VI

28

They say the Lion and the Lizard keep
The Courts where Jamshýd gloried and drank deep
:

But now in every corner of the world

The wild things flourish whilst the cities sleep

29

For when they see our influence abate

The banished creatures soon resume their state:

Blithe dolphins sport along the grand canal,

Coyotes call across the golden gate.

30

The grass grows green in every city square,

The little foxes, once so shy and rare,

Saunter our streets and boulevards by day

Whilst birds and insects throng the cleaner air

31

How soon the tide of nature has returned

How soon renew the forests that we burned

How soon they seed and repossess our streets

Those precious plants and animals we spurned.

32

Perhaps in all this crisis, all this pain,

This reassessment of our loss and gain

Nature rebukes our brief authority

Yet offers us the chance to start again

33

And this time with a new humility,

With chastened awe, and mutual courtesy;

To re-accept the unearned gift of life

With gratitude, with joy and charity.

34

Perhaps we’ll learn to live without so much

To nurture and to cherish, not to clutch,

And, if I’m spared, I’ll hold the years I’m given

With gentler tenure and a lighter touch.

 

VII

35

At close of day I hear the gentle rain

Whilst experts on the radio explain

Mind-numbing numbers, rising by the day,

Cyphers of unimaginable pain

36

Each evening they announce the deadly toll

And patient voices calmly call the roll

I hear the numbers, cannot know the names

Behind each number, mind and heart and soul

37

Behind each number one beloved face

A light in life whom no-one can replace,

Leaves on this world a signature, a trace,

A gleaning and a memory of grace

38

All loved and loving, carried to the grave

The ones whom every effort could not save

Amongst them all those carers whose strong love

Bought life for others with the lives they gave.

39

The sun sets and I find myself in prayer

Lifting aloft the sorrow that we share

Feeling for words of hope amidst despair

I voice my vespers through the quiet air:

40

O Christ who suffers with us, hold us close,

Deep in the secret garden of the rose,

Raise over us the banner of your love

And raise us up beyond our last repose.

 

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