I want to bring poetry month to a close with – guess what – a poem. Predictable, no?
But which one? And by which poet?
Then I decided that it should be one of my own. (Because frankly, dear reader, it’s all about me.)
But which one? So many to choose from.
It needs to have already been published – so if anyone “steals” it the impact is minimal. (Who am I kidding? Impact. We’re talking about poetry, dude.)
Do we want funny? Moving? Sweet? (Scratch that. I don’t do sweet.) Hard-hitting? Thought-provoking? Political? Or one about a royal wedding?
Just messing with you. Don’t do weddings either.
Then this poem popped into my head. Probably because I visited the source of it yesterday with the wee fella and the pup.
The photograph is of a sculpture made by one of Scotland’s best kept secrets – the super talented Ronnie Rae. Go HERE for more details.
Ronnie was opening an exhibition in the gardens of Holyrood in Edinburgh in May 2006 – right by the palace and the Scottish Parliament building. All sorts of dignitaries were in attendance and Ronnie asked the Makar Press Poets (Sheila Templeton, Rowena M. Love, Jim Hughes and moi) to mark the occasion with a few poems.
He has some pieces on permanent exhibition in Rozelle Park, Ayr just a couple of miles from my home. So I dragged the wee fella along for a visit. (He was totally unimpressed. Thought his dad was a weirdo, staring at a clump of hewn stone.) He was eight-ish at the time and said those immortal words "I can't believe you are actually my dad."
The picture above shows one of the pieces and the one that got the words flowing for me. It’s called Golgotha Madonna and the statue allowed me to shift away from a lifetime of hyperbole and brainwashing and ceremony and think about the human story. This was a real-life woman whose only son was being horribly punished – tortured and crucified. As a parent, you can’t begin to imagine the pain she was in.
Like with anything else in life you are rarely aware of the impact you have. Until the kind and the brave point it out to you. Jim Hughes had a quiet word in my ear after the event. "This poem,’ he said, "Really moved me. I sat in the quiet and thought about your words and Jesus’ mother in Golgotha and I don’t mind telling you I couldn't stop crying."
That’s the power of poetry, people.
Anywho, time to let the words speak for themselves and to thank you for allowing me this indulgence throughout the poetry month of April. I hope you’ve enjoyed it.
Time for another dose of clever folks talking about poetry.
Today it's the turn of my good friend, Morgan Kenney.
I met Morgan about 15 years ago at a writers' conference. I had written about 6 poems and half a dozen chapters of a novel. He had the good grace to listen to my witterings, uninterrupted for what must have felt like hours.
Later on I learned he had forgotten more about poetry than I will ever know.
But something in me sparked the teacher in him and he became a huge influence in the burgeoning of any talent I possess. Before I met Morgan I enjoyed words. Over the years he has taught me to love and appreciate language.
I asked him if he would guest on this here blog. His task - to talk about what poetry meant to him. This is what he had to say ...
Language liberated humanity from the cave. Poetry liberated language from basic meaning, led us to explore inner space, enabled us to express intangible experience and feelings.
Poets are tuned to the magic of spoken sound, to the creative possibility of the combination of words into surprising and revealing images, to potential rhythm.
Poetry is jewel-words, multi-faceted, casting multi-coloured light on experience.
Poetry is elastic words, stretching into unsuspected areas of meaning; suggesting there is more than seems to be there; tempting daring interpretation.
Poetry is stimulating words that force us to reconsider set-pattern reactions, to allow new revelations to wash over our accepted reality, leaving us with new insights and a sharpened vision.
Poetry is sound … a song of life … a magical combination of sound into lush melody … words that sing with the crystal beauty of sparkling vowels, the soul of music …a combination of sharp vowels and long, soothing vowels … sounds positioned carefully so that they blend harmoniously or contrast dramatically.
Poetry is rhythm … words ordered artfully to produce a flow of rhythm that is relevant to the meaning.
Poetry is pattern … pattern in sound … pattern in shape … pattern in order of words … fresh pattern in the combination and mixture of words.
Poetry is influence … an attempt to describe and explain the individuality of the senses and thought … an attempt to kick-start the imagination of others … to heighten the sensitivity of others’ perception … to make a haunting impact of suggestion, a fugitive impression that defies analysis, description …to produce moments of bright satisfaction.
Poetry cannot correct the problems of the world, but it can suggest there is a truth that lies beyond our individual realities; a truth that encompasses a greater universe than the one limited by our senses; a multi-levelled truth to be investigated, enjoyed and treasured.
Now another special edition of May Contain Nuts for Poetry Month.
Alan MacGlas is publications editor of New Voices Press, the main publishing imprint of the Federation of Writers (Scotland) (details available at www.writersfederation.org.uk) and of Sawmill, the special imprint of the Scottish Association of Writers (details available at www.sawriters.org.uk).
He likes to put on his special editor face and pretend he's all curmudgeonly when he's actually very charming and as witty as the Witmeister living in Wit House, Wit Avenue, Cleverclogsville.
He says he's not touting for business, but if anyone wants to hire him he can be reached through either site.
Without any further ado, here's what the big man with the red pen has to say ...
There are questions that people often ask me at parties, such as, “Who are you?” and “How did you get in?” and “Would you please leave?”The answers are never easy.Sitting on the kerb with my feet in the gutter after being thrown out of a party is a moment that lends itself to contemplation of the deeper meanings and revelations of life.It is a moment when I might, if I could, look up at the stars, and wonder at such calm beauty in the midst of the chaos and cacophony of eighties music still drifting out of the premises from which I have just been defenestrated.But I can see no stars; for the inscrutable laws of the universe decree that it will always be raining at such moments, and I am aware only that my shoes, so elegant in the illusions of dry daylight, are rapidly assuming the guise and weight of gum-saturated cardboard around my feet in the gurgling effluent.Instead, certain bitter realizations come to me, about life, failure, and the manifest pairing thereof within my corpus.I do not complain.Failure is the stuff of art.Look at Vincent Van Gogh.Look at Andrew Lloyd Webber.I am intimately acquainted with failure.I know failure from the inside and the out. That’s why I am such a perfect editor.
To prove my credentials, I offer you the following five words: “I am a editor.”
To this, I hear your immediate riposte: “That’s only four words, and one of them is incorrect.”
So you think you’re an editor?You think that’s how easy it is?You think there’s room in this gutter for two, with the sodden dead leaves piling up against your obstant feet?Think twice, madam, think thrice, sir, before venturing into the cloacal (note from MM – yeah, I had to look it up too) torrent.And here’s why.
Re-examine my sentence.The information you were afforded prior to reading it was that there were five words.If you can count only four, then obviously one is missing; but why assume an error?The mere fact that I am drawing it to your attention shows that I was fully aware of the omission, and presumably had ample time to mend it.Therefore the omission was deliberate; in which case, you, as editor, must assume that I, the creative artist, had a purpose.Now you have work to do, for it is not the business of artists to explain their purposes; it is their business only to create art.It is for you, the viewer, listener or reader, to deduce the artist’s purpose, if any, or to construct, create or realize it, if the artist so bids.In this particular case, deduction is possible.The place of the missing word is indicated by the fault between ‘a’ and ‘editor’.What kind of word goes between an article and a noun?Usually, an adjective.In this case, since the article is ‘a’, the adjective must begin with a consonant.There are twenty-one consonants to choose from, but let us suppose it is F, for fun.So reconstruct the sentence.It now reads: “I am a f… editor.” So far, so good.Now, clearly it is an adjective that signals its presence by its absence. What sort of adjective would that be?One that is despised or even taboo in common speech… And so on.
That preceding paragraph has taken more than two hundred words to explain to you just one example, in the examination of a single, small, banal and superfluous sentence, of what it takes to be an editor.I am faced with the task of deconstructing and interpreting thousands upon thousands of such sentences, in prose and poetry scribbled by the talented and the differently talented, the hopeful and hopeless multitudes of literary Scotland, all of whom will receive my approval as no more than rightful recognition of their genius, or my modest suggestions for revision as the jealous ravings of an arrogant brick-brained philistine.Ecce vivus editori.You still want to join me in the gutter? Bring a bottle.
Bill is arguably the cleverest man I know (apart from him, her, him, oh and quite possibly him). Anywho, he is well-endowed (steady Thea, Marley) with the gray matter. He writes short stories, crime novels, historical-thriller-romance novels, children’s books, educational texts and even a number of pieces of drama have flown fully formed from his brain-space. (Apologies if I’ve missed anything, Bill.)
His latest work is a giggle-fest comic crime caper set in Aberdeen called The Sparrow Conundrum. It truly is hilariously entertaining. Click HERE for more details.
He argues that he knows nothing about poetry and therefore, I thought, what better way to prove him wrong than to ask him to write a blog post for May Contain Nuts.
Over to BK…
Even though I’m not myself a poet, it’s the literary genre I most associate with many phases of my life. As an adolescent I poured the stuff out, imagining that comparing a girl-friend’s hair to ‘an autumn fall’ (yes, I was that bad) opened up chasms of love into which she couldn’t resist diving with me. (She resisted.) But since then, the words of others have caught my emotions and sensations in ways I could never dream of – Yeats with his ‘He wishes for the cloths of heaven’, Byron’s ‘Oh that the desert were my dwelling place, with one fair spirit for my minister’, and, as I staggered towards what I took to be sophistication, Marvell’s ‘Had we but world enough, and time …’ and Ted Hughes’ visceral, feral stuff. And many, many others.
But it’s not just the predictable love poetry (predictable in the sense that ‘love’ and ‘poetry’ belong together), it’s all those other wonderful word combinations and rhythms that say more things than their literal meanings seem to restrict them to. Before I retired, I was lucky enough to have a job which involved holding tutorials on French literature with young, intelligent, interested people. There were some who thought analyzing novels and poems ‘spoiled’ them, and I could appreciate why they said that. If you’re carried away by a story or by rhythms, you don’t want some boring old academic pointing out the thematic correspondences under the surface. On the other hand, realizing that these lines weren’t just pretty, one-dimensional facets of an idea but deliberately tangled truths that gave new, unsuspected life and sense to experience gave them resonances which made the initial response even more intense.
There’s a poem by Gerard de Nerval simply called ‘Je suis le ténébreux’, which has the same haunting effect on me every time it comes into my head that it had when I first read it as a student. It’s a classic example of how poetry tears through the normal fabric of perception to imply, even to touch, heights and depths of being and sensation which go unsuspected in our day to day living. The first line ‘Je suis le ténébreux, le Veuf, l’inconsolé’ sets the tone. It’s untranslatable but literally it says ‘I am the dark one, the widower, the one for whom there is no consolation’. I’m sorry, the English words don’t have the concision of the original, which then goes on to include medieval and mystical references – all musical and redolent of centuries of human passions, disappointments, regrets, extremes and mysteries which echo in the universe each of us carries.
I’d need this to be a few thousand words long to even try to do justice to the importance of poetry, but Michael’s no doubt already tapping his virtual watch and making wind-up gestures, so I’ll end with a little example which, coincidentally, was presented to me this weekend. I was visiting my daughter. Her husband’s an actor and had just come back from a tour to Japan. He’s curious about everything and, though he speaks no Japanese, he learned several phrases. He also learned this (which I’m spelling phonetically, so I hope Japanese speakers will forgive the crudity):
Ta bi bi to to
Wagana Yo ba re n
Hatszu shi guri
I am a wanderer
So let that be my name
The first winter rains.
I have no idea what it means or signifies culturally, but those 14 words open huge perspectives, internal and external, and say as much as an entire 2000-word story. For me, more than anything else, poetry shows the commonality between me and others distant in time and/or space. François Villon wrote ‘Où sont les neiges d’antan’ (‘Where are the snows of yesteryear’) in the 15th century and it couldn’t be more modern.
Kaci sat under a tree, his belly full after an evening meal of couscous, watching the setting sun paint the ridge of the distant mountain gold and red. Wood doves called to each other in the olive groves around him to the accompaniment of children’s feet scuffing the dusty earth as they chased and fought and played.
One of the children broke away from the group. His little body rigid with anger as he stamped across to the trees.
‘Baby,’ one child shouted after him, ‘Zaki is a baby.’
Head down, Zaki tried to ignore the taunts until he was safely under the shelter of an olive tree. From Kaci’s vantage point he could see that once he was out of sight of the other children, the boy slumped on the ground and gave in to his feelings, sobbing into his sleeve.
Kaci climbed to his feet and as if the child was a wild animal approached him with care. Once he was sure the boy wouldn’t run off he crouched down beside him.
‘Zaki is a very wonderful name,’ Kaci said softly. The boy turned away from him, his face in his hands.
‘A powerful name.’ Kaci placed his hand on the boy’s bony shoulder. ‘Do you know what it means?’
Zaki lifted his head from his hands, curiosity stilling his emotion. He nodded. ‘It means clever.’
‘Oh, it is so much more than that, Zaki.’ Kaci said with a large smile. ‘It means the owner is so smart he could rule the world one day.’
The boy’s eyes widened as if struggling to contain such a notion.
‘The world?’ he asked.
‘A boy with this name is so smart he can understand every story his wise uncle could tell him.’
‘You are going to tell me a story?’ Zaki swivelled on his little bottom until he was facing Kaci. All Berber children loved to hear a story and the word hung in the air above Kaci’s head as if pinned their by Zaki’s excitement. Like butterflies to the sweetest scented flower the other children gathered around Kaci’s feet with a clamour of bare feet and dust.
Looking around at the small faces tuned in to hear his words Kaci told them his favourite fable. The very story his own father told him the day after the Frenchman had shot his dog.
"Many years ago there was an orphan child wandering about upon the earth. He was very sad as he had no father and no mother. Nobody on the earth would talk to him, or pay him any attention; nobody cared why he was so sad. Despite his anguish, the boy was unable to weep as tears had not yet entered the world.’
Ten little faces formed a pout of consideration as they assessed this news.
‘There was no tears?’ Zaki asked.
Kaci nodded. ‘No tears. This night, the moon noticed the distraught orphan boy walking about the earth and felt great compassion towards him. The moon left the heavens, slid down from the sky and came to lie upon the earth before the orphaned child. He addressed the child: “Weep, sad child! But you cannot let the tears drop to the earth, as it would make it unclean for people who get their food from it. Rather, let your tears fall onto me. I will then carry them back with me up into the sky.” The orphan child obeyed. For who could ignore the moon? The oceans can’t. The wolves can’t. So he began to weep. The first tears ever to fall, rolled down his cheeks and dropped onto the moon.
‘The Moon gave the lonely child a blessing saying: “From now on, every person shall love you.” When the child could weep no more, the moon returned to the heavens. Thereafter the orphan became happy and people would give him all that he needed and all that would make him rejoice. Every time you look at the moon's face, you will be able to see the stains left by the tears of the orphan child, the first tears ever shed.’
The children gasped in concert and as one they all craned their necks up to look at the great silver disc in the sky.
‘Uncle Kaci?’ asked Zaki. ‘Does that mean that it is always okay to cry? If the little boy in the story was given permission to cry by the moon, then how can it be wrong?’
‘Zaki, you are a very clever boy to work this out.’ Kaci reached out and patted the boy on the shoulder. Zaki beamed a smile, whirled to the side and ran away whooping with joy. He was quickly followed by a whirlwind of children that formed and swooped around him.
Kaci could only laugh as he watched them all begin a new game. He settled down under the tree and allowed his eyes to roam around the area as he regarded his clan at rest. This was his favourite time of the day. Everyone in the family was relaxed after a hard day’s work and they could look forward to some chat and music before nightfall and a well-earned sleep.
He was feeling good about his efforts on behalf of the family. He had recently been given work at the Mayor’s office as an administrator and as such was one of the few men in the family who was bringing in hard currency. At his young age this was a major achievement, but one that he wore with humility. He was in a unique position because of the gifts Allah had given him. Why should he not take advantage of them? And why should he allow this to make him feel better than anyone else? He had a duty to his tribe and the only pride he would allow himself was that he carried this duty out to the best of his abilities.
He heard the footfall of an adult and looked over his shoulder towards the houses. There were four buildings, low to the ground, made of mud and stone and thatched roofs. Homes where his father, his uncles and aunts and all their twenty-two offspring thrived despite the best efforts of the French.
He recognised the squat and muscular shape of his cousin Arab. Kaci couldn’t help but be flattered by the attentions of Arab. He was more than twice his age. He had fought alongside the French in the Great War and yet he sought out the words of an inexperienced youth like himself.
His father had warned him about Arab. Muttered something about “not to be trusted” and “a danger to himself”. There had been an argument. Threats were issued. And then everything died down. After all, thought Kaci, we are Berbers. We are family. Nothing is more sacred to Berbers than family. And loud voices were nothing new. His was a boisterous family and always the loud voices were talked down from their position of anger with humour and soon there were grins all around the room.
He watched Arab as he folded his legs and sat beside him.
‘You treat them too soft, boy,’ Arab’s eyes were black in the moonlight, picking up only the tiniest glint from the distant fire. ‘Life is difficult for an Algerian. We must toughen them up. Not tell them fanciful tales.’
‘Ach, you are a hard man, Arab. We should let the children be children for as long as we can. Life will be difficult soon enough.’
Arab’s answering laugh was loud and harsh. A sound that could often clear a room.
‘Mohand ou Yahia, Saoudi the Sage,’ Arab said, his voice dripping with mockery. ‘How old are you boy?’
‘Old enough,’ Kaci bristled. He would not be bowed by this man.
‘Yes, I heard that my young cousin was to become a man,’ Arab’s teeth were displayed in a smile. His voice was softer now. The change was so abrupt that it threw Kaci from his defensive tone.
‘Yes,’ he said a little more relaxed, warmed by the thought and yet nervous of his impending marriage. ‘Eighteen is a good age to take a wife, don’t you think?’
‘A wife is good for a man,’ Arab patted him on the shoulder. ‘Helps to keep his blood cool.’
Kaci fought to control his blush. Although he was a virgin, he had some experience with girls and he had overheard men talk.
The task of finding a wife was normally the role of a mother, but for Kaci and his brother Amar it had fallen to his father and Hana Addidi.
Eventually she suggested a girl from her extended family. She was 13 years and 6 months old. Hana Addida assured him that she was dark and she was lovely and she had a sweet temperament. Such was his trust for this kindest of women who had taken the role of his mother that her words were good enough for him.
The process of agreeing this match took almost as long as the prospecting. For the girl to qualify as being worthy of this position as his wife, his father had to make enquiries into the status of her family. If the family were of the same status as theirs, they would approach them and a dowry would be agreed.
The boy and girl would not see each other before the night of the wedding. They were young. What did they know about picking a mate for life?
Amar was marrying a cousin from a branch of the family that lived nearby. Kaci’s future wife was called Saada and Amar’s was called Messaouda.
Kaci stood before the baked earth walls of his family’s home and prayed the sun would rise soon and stop his shivering. By now there was enough light to see the high outline of the Djurdura mountain in the distance. Surely, the sun would reach the peak soon and from there slide into the winter sky. And then, at last there would be a little heat to leach some chill from his bones.
The dog lying chained at his feet turned his head to watch his antics, a question in the angle of his head and his large, brown eyes. Kaci bent down and hugged him, taking warmth from the animal. Its tail brushed back and forth across the grey dust of the earth in response. Kaci rubbed the dog’s head, just in that spot he loved so well; between the ears and at the top of his skull. The dog’s eyes all but closed in pleasure as the boy’s small knuckles did their work.
‘You like that, don’t you, Lion?’ This wasn’t the name Kaci’s father had given him, but Kaci thought it suited him better. Kaci was his registered name, but his family called him Mohand andwhen he was especially good, they called him Chouchou, which meant “Bright-eyed boy” in the old language. So if he could have all these names, why could the dog not share his good fortune?
Lion was not the biggest dog in the village, but he had the biggest heart and the loudest, most persistent bark. Bear and boar dare not enter his territory and he had even chased a leopard away from the field where the olives grew. Or perhaps Papa had pretended about that one. He was always laughing and teasing.
Kaci stood up and looked in towards the olive trees. Small as he was he still had a job to do at harvest, picking olives from the sacking that lay beneath the trees, while his uncles and older cousins climbed up and shook them loose. It was also his task to watch over Lion as he guarded the increasing pile of harvested olives in front of the family home. Although he was only six, Kaci already knew that other village children would be paid pocket money for any stray olives that managed to work their way under their gandora, the loose thin shift they wore in all seasons. He also knew that every olive gathered would improve his family’s financial position.
The Saoudi family, unlike most still owned some land. That it had not been taken over by some French Colon was a tribute to their hard work and persistence. It did however cause some jealousy among some of the extended family and neighbours. Kaci had heard his father, Hadj Yahia argue at the last village meeting that this was all part of the Frenchman’s plan. If the indigenes fight among themselves, he stressed, the French can go on stealing what remains of their land. He had even offered to share what he could with the poorest families of the area in an effort to stem the flow of resentment that surfaced every year around harvest time.
“Have I not also suffered under the French?”
Kaci remembered his father’s expression, dark with suppressed anger as he faced down some of the louder voices. This brought silence and everyone looked over at Kaci as they remembered his mother. Perhaps if there had been a doctor nearby and money to pay him she might have survived. He was only two when she died in labour. The lack of health care for the indigene was acute and the blood loss was too much for the local woman, who acted as midwife to try and repair.
He had pretended to examine the small wooden carving he was playing with, the image of his father standing tall in the room strong in his mind. He felt he might burst with pride at his father’s bearing, and his kindness. He too, would be a son who would help his fellow Algerians. He would grow into a wise man. One day, he would be such a man to make his father proud.
“Chouchou,’ he heard the familiar voice of his Hana Addidi from the door. ‘Go help the men with the olives. I will keep an eye on the dog.’ In the months that followed the death of his mother, Hana who was his Uncle’s wife, had become in effect, his mother. She had eight children of her own, but she was always available with a soft word and a warm lap. Kaci loved nothing better than to fall asleep in the evening, his belly full of couscous while she sang the old Berber songs and stroked his forehead.
‘Ok,’ Kaci sang and raced across to the field to join the men.
His Papa heard the drum of his feet on the road and ruffled his hair when he reached them.
‘Can I help, Vava?’
‘There is a leopard circling the olive trees,’ Hadj Yahia said with a smile, ‘Go run round the field and frighten him off with your fierce roar.’ The last of the leopards had been killed off years before, but it was fun to see the boy run.
Kaci was off, raising a storm of dust, roaring with all his might while his uncles and brother chuckled at his energy. Two circuits of the field later and there was no sight of the leopard. He re-joined his older male relatives.
‘The leopard is gone, Vava. I scared him.’ He roared into his father’s face to stress just how good he was.
Just then the noise of barking came from the direction of the house.
‘Sounds like the dog is chasing off some olive thieves. Why don’t you run over there and see if you can bark louder than him?’
His father was joined in laughter by the rest of the olive pickers as Kaci raced back to the house. With the wind roaring in his ears he promised that the thieves would soon hear his bark.
As he neared the house he was able to see Lion pulling at his chain, barking with ferocity that Kaci had rarely witnessed. He skidded to a halt by the dog, put a hand out to soothe him and looked round for the cause of the furore. If anything, now that Lion had the child to watch over, his wrath increased and he jumped to the end of his chain with such madness that he choked off his bark.
Kaci faced the cause of the dogs concern and realised that this was no olive thief. In the distance he saw the shape of a man on a large horse. Still the dog barked.
‘Quiet, Lion,’ Kaci reached for the dog’s collar, thankful for the chain, for without it Lion would surely be lunging at the horse’s flanks and would equally as surely receive a hard kick. With all of his strength he held on, willing the dog to be still.
Kaci struggled to keep his feet and still the dog tried to throw himself at the figure making its unhurried way up the dirt road to the house. He was close enough now for Kaci to make out the uniform of a Garde Champetre, one of the hated French field police.
The Guard was wearing his hat low over his face and all Kaci could see was the line of his nose and thin lips angled in mild irritation. He must have been a tall man, for he seemed like a giant on the top of his dun coloured horse. The horse snorted his concern over the closeness of the angry animal on the chain, but the Guard simply pulled at the bridle and drew nearer.
The Frenchman reached a spot that he seemed to consider safe enough for his horse, he jumped from its back and walked towards the boy and the dog, his focus never wavering from them, his expression not altering.
Still the dog lunged and barked.
‘Please stop, Lion, please.’ Kaci shouted as loudly as he could fighting to hide his own fear.
The Guard came closer.
And still the dog barked. And jumped. An electrifying bundle of hair and muscle.
The Guard stopped walking. With one fluid movement, he reached for the pistol at his side, pointed it at the dog and fired from point blank range down the animal’s exposed throat.
Dog and boy collapsed to the ground, like puppets whose string had been severed. Energy and fury cut off with the roar of a gun. Kaci held on to the dog’s neck, fingers entwined in his fur.
‘No. No. No. Lion,’ he screamed. ‘You killed, Lion.’ His ears rang with the report from the weapon.
The sound of the gun brought the men running from the field. Kaci wouldn’t, couldn’t let go and his Hana was there prising his fingers from the fur.
‘Chouchou,’ she whispered. ‘Please. Let go.’
His father picked him up and held him tight against his chest. Kaci screamed and twisted; kicked and punched at his father.
‘He killed Lion.’
‘Be quiet, Mohand,’ normally the use of his formal name was enough to stop Kaci in his tracks, but he couldn’t stop. The fury from the dog had been transferred to him. He landed a blow on his father’s nose and his father surprised, dropped Kaci. The boy lunged for the rough, blood-matted coat lying lifeless on the ground.
‘Who owns this sack of fur?’ The Frenchman spoke for the first time.
Kaci looked up at him through eyes thick with tears. The guard’s expression had altered slightly; he looked as if he had found enough energy to move beyond bored. Kaci’s little body was shaking with emotion, yet part of his mind was watching events with detachment. Some instinct told him there was still danger here and he had to be alert to it. The Guard had murdered his favourite creature with less thought than he might stub out a cigarette. What might he do to his people?
‘I do.’ Hadj Yahia answered, chin high.
‘Then you have committed a crime. You are charged with owning a dangerous animal and you will pay 16R.’
There was a loud gasp from the adults gathered nearby. Few of them spoke sufficient French to know exactly what the Guard had said, but they all understood the sum of money he was talking about. It was enough to feed a family for a month.
Everyone there had been touched by the case of the baby Akli. His older brother had died mere days after his birth, in a house fire and his father distracted by grief, had forgotten to register Akli’s birth. For that he had been sent to jail for six years.
What if his father was sent to prison too? If Hadj Yahia did not find the money would he have to sell off more land to meet the fine, as many of his countrymen had done in the past? If he did so, how would the loss of revenue from the olives affect the family’s wellbeing?
Kaci had not let go of the dog’s coat, his body still heaving as he sobbed. How could this foreigner come here and do this to his people? How could Allah allow this to happen? How could this man of flesh and blood and bone treat Lion, his best friend in the whole world in such a manner?
‘I will pay your fine, Frenchman,’ said Hadj Yahia, muttering a Berber curse under his breath. His eyes never wavered from the Guard’s face. But Kaci read something in them. Had he the words at that young age to describe what he saw, he would have been torn between defiance and acceptance. It was as if somewhere deep inside, his Papa was staring at some terrible truth.
Kaci swore that one day he would understand. He would watch. He would study and he would learn everything about the French, so that he and his kind would show that they were worth more; that they too were of flesh and blood and bone.
One day he would grow up to be a man worthy of respect, from everyone.
Bashir Saoudi is the son of the man I write about in The Guillotine Choice. The Prologue introduces the concept of the book - as the son determines to find out the truth of his father's life.
This is Bashir's story ...
The Guillotine Choice - Prologue
I can’t remember when I first learned that my father was convicted of complicity in murder and had served his sentence in Devil’s Island. It seems as if I’ve always known, in much the same way as I know how to breathe. In much the same way as I knew that he was an innocent in French Algeria. Nothing more than a convenient scapegoat while the Colon: the French turned an entire nation into beggars and worked on a system that another country further south on the African continent would adopt and name apartheid.
This was a different time, another era where a world recovered from one war and held its breath in fear of the next. A world far removed from the one I inhabit now as I fly first class with Air France from Boston to Algiers via Paris. Paid for and arranged by my American employer.
The cabin is quiet. The stewardess has read my reserve and has only intruded on my thoughts in order to offer me some food and alcohol. I shook my head at both offers.
‘Some water, perhaps?’ she asked, her face long with concern and for the first time I realised I had been crying.
I nodded, approximated a smile and wiped a tear from my cheek.
Water might do me good. My mouth was as parched as my thoughts. They kept going back to that last time before the news came through. The last time I saw my father alive.
He stood at the door of his house while my cousin drove me back to the airport. In the wing mirror I could see that he stayed to watch until my car shrank into the distance.
We hugged before I left.
We gathered a lifetime of hugs in that month.
His skin lined, his body shrunk, his eyes were framed in an expression of loss. From a distance of time I can read that expression.
He knew his time was drawing near.
As the stewardess placed the glass on the small table before me I wondered about fathers and sons. Was it every man’s experience to go back home, take part in the funeral service for his father and question what his father was really like and wonder what might have been?
I closed my eyes tight against the feelings that threatened to swamp me. I had to keep control, until the ceremony at least.
Snapshots of my father’s face played in my mind like a digital display.
The first time I remember seeing him. I was six. He was like a giant from a fairytale as he leaned forward, picked me up and held me close to his chest. I can still remember the combination of coffee and cigarettes hot on his breath and the rasp of the bristle on his chin as he pressed his lips against my cheek.
Then there was the angry man who threatened to beat me unless I worked hard at school. And the subsequent pride that shone from his eyes when I won the award that took me away from home for the first time, aged 14. I’m sure that the irony wasn’t lost on him that the education he was so desperate for me to gain, kept me away from him for most of my life.
After the boarding school near Algiers, I left the country wide-eyed and 17 to undertake a university degree in England and from there a job with a computer company that took me from Europe to the Middle East to North America.
I was part of a diaspora where the young and talented of Algeria were driven abroad in search of work fearing the seemingly endless conflict at home. To make matters worse, this was a time when a young newly-reformed country imposed the draft on all her young men. As soon as I stepped off a plane onto Algerian soil I would have been whisked away to the nearest army barracks and forced to complete two years service. A situation that I couldn’t allow because by now I had responsibilities of my own; my wife was with child.
Again, circumstances kept me away from home. I was desperate to go home and see my father. I even considered asking a doctor to give me a certificate to say that I was mentally unstable and therefore couldn’t serve in the army, but in the end I was too frightened that the Algerian army would see through this ruse.
When word came through in June 1991 that national service had been abolished I was on the first plane to Algiers.
We had a month together. A month where he waited each morning for me to wake up, a strong coffee on the table in front of him and a smile on his weathered face. He was an early riser and when he tired of waiting for me he walked up and down the main corridor of the house, knocking his stick off the walls and coughing.
‘What are we doing today, son?’ he would ask when I stumbled through to the kitchen, swabbing sleep from my eyes.
I sat beside him, my hand ready for the coffee that I knew my mum was bringing to me and shrugged, ‘How about we go for a drive?’
‘A drive would be good,’ he nodded and smiled. ‘I must go and pay a visit to...’ A different name formed on his lips each day. We had a large, extended family and as an important man in the region he had many, many friends. He also had many people calling on his time and wisdom.
The Berber way is to seek counsel and guidance from someone respected by all parties to a disagreement and as one such individual my father’s considered words were sought for miles around.
We also spent many hours visiting his parcels of land just outside the town. Here we wandered through his olive groves and lines of orange trees and as we walked he paused here and there to stroke a leaf or squeeze low-hanging fruit. As he walked and touched nature his low voice filled my ears with words heavy with wisdom much as the trees were bursting with fruit.
We both knew that the visit to the friends was the excuse. Even if no-one asked for his time we would have gone to the car and driven, we simply wanted to spend as much time in each other’s company as we could before the demands on my time forced me to leave. We had many years to make up for and although I didn’t know it, we had little time remaining to us.
In the car, he spoke nonstop as if trying to tip his brain into mine. I questioned and listened and marvelled that one man could have such a life. I always knew that my father was sent to Devil’s Island in French Guiana for murder. However, knowledge and understanding are distant cousins. The journey from one to the other as wide as the ocean that separated my father from his family in Algeria for the long years of his incarceration.
During those conversations in the car I sought to understand even a little of what he went through and as he spoke I would tear my eyes from the road and examine the skin, muscle and bones that had borne such troubles and with only the power of his will endured.
This book is my attempt to bring understanding to that knowledge; a son’s effort to get under the skin and into the soul of his father so that he might learn of and pass on his legacy to the world.
I’m interrupting my poetry month with a special blog or two about another project I have been working on for the last six years. This is an inspirational novel based on a true story of an innocent young man who was sent to Devil’s Island in the 1920’s.
The reason I’m talking about this now? It’s the London Book Fair and the son of the man the book is about is touting the novel with a few agents and publishers. This blog posting is to give them more of a frame of reference.
The blurb I came up with is this...
What Would You Do?
It was 1927. He was 20, newly married and a father of one son.
He was living in an Algeria colonized by the French.
A Frenchman was murdered.
Regardless of his innocence he was given the choice – 25 years Hard Labour in the world’s worst prison, Devil’s Island …
See his cousins sent to the Guillotine.
Based on a true story …
Writers Michael Malone and Bashir Saoudi are seeking representation/ publication for a novel that has been years in the writing.
Bashir Saoudi grew up knowing his father was an innocent convicted of murder.
The Guillotine Choice is part of his journey, learning the truth behind the man he knew simply as “father”.
The Guillotine Choice is a story of the worst that man can do and the best that man can be.
It is a heart-warming tale of fathers and sons, vengeance and redemption.
Here’s the synopsis ...
In January 1907, Saoudi Kaci Ben Yahia was born into a family of Berbers in the beautiful Djurdjura Mountains of Kabylie in an Algeria that was struggling under the heel of the colonial French.
Growing up as part of a tight family unit, Kaci was keen to do add his effort to the family’s benefit. Having earned an education - one of the few Algerians who managed to do so in those times, Kaci found work as a translator/ guide for a French Hydro-Electric Company. Very quickly, Kaci earned a position of trust and the respect of his employer.
One the morning of July 2, 1927, he accompanied his boss while they carried the wages of the Moroccan workers up to the dam. They were attacked, the Frenchman was murdered and the money stolen. Suspicion immediately fell on Kaci. He was Algerian and by virtue of his presence during such a crime he was deemed to be guilty.
Arrested and charged with complicity in the act, Kaci was offered a choice by the French authorities. He could give them the name of the killer and win his freedom... or stay quiet and be shipped out to the penal colony that was infamous the world over: Devil’s Island.
Kaci immediately understood the implications of the situation. While he was allowed home to his young wife and child, the killer would face the Guillotine.
Kaci knew the identity of the murderer, for he was his cousin, Arab.
He told his father that he could not live with himself if his words led to a member of his family being beheaded in public – and he chose silence.
Ultimately, this sacrifice was for nothing as Arab was caught with gold coin linking him to the murder and although he did not face the blade, he too was convicted to life in prison in French Guiana.
Few men survived the hell that was Devil’s Island. Of the 70,000 men who were sent there over the 140 years of its existence most died in their first year, and only the hardy, courageous and lucky were able to go home when France was forced by world opinion to close the penal colony at the end of World War II.
The Guillotine Choice is a novel based on the true story of an innocent young man and his years on the most notorious prison in the world. It is a story of endurance, of triumph over despair and an inspirational tale where a naive young man retains his dignity among the worst trials that man can suffer.
Come back soon and I’ll give you a sample from the book.
As part of Poetry Month on May Contain Nuts I thought it might be cool to hear from one of my favourite poets, who just happens to be one of my favourite people. Taking early retirement from teaching, Sheila found a whole new career in Poetry and has won prizes galore and fans aplenty with her honest, approachable and lyrical style.
I give you (you can imagine a drum-roll here) the divine Ms T herself - Sheila Templeton!
Hey Michael, a big thank you for inviting me to write as a guest on your blog. I know I used to be a bit of a grumpy old woman on the subject of blogs...but I have to say, yours is so good it's definitely winning me over! (note from MJM - flattery will get you everywhere)
And the fact your timing is terrific ie the launch of my new poetry collection is on Tuesday evening, details below, folks, is no bad thing either.
So having gone from shameless 'sooking-up' to shameless book promotion, here goes:
Your readers might like to know how you and I know each other. The answer is...through writing! We first met at a wonderful writers' course held down in Derbyshire, where you and I, Michael, bonded forever over the shared creation of a wee plasticine man with Rastafarian locks, an inhabitant of the fantasy world we'd created together.
Then we sort of fell into a marvellous group of four poets, the Makar Press, a publishing cooperative which we set up to publish our first collections...and almost accidently, turned into a much sought after reading/performance group! Oh the fun we had. We still do readings together, indeed we have one scheduled for the end of May at Culzean Castle. But we are being published elsewhere now, like my new collection Digging For Light pub by New Voices Press.
What has astonished me late in life is to find I LOVE PERFORMING. Me, who used to refuse to recite at my Grannie's Sunday afternoon gatherings, unless I could hide under the long fringed tablecloth, my personal audience-proof shield.
Fast forward a number of decades and here I am standing up in front of crowds, reading my own words, an exposing process which the first time I read in public, I was actually convinced I would die of fright. But I didn't. And I got better at it. Then many readings in the shelter of the Makar Press and got yet more confident, so that although I am often sick with nerves before a reading...now I know once I get out there, I'll love it. And that is quite something.
One of my favourite poets is an American poet called Mary Oliver. In When Death Comes, she says
'When it's over, I want to say; all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms...
I don't want to end up simply having visited this world.'
That's why I read poetry and write poetry. Because if I don't, I'll be selling myself short. I'll be playing small and who do we serve if we 'play small'? Nobody. It's patronising anyway, to pretend to be less than you are, just in the hope you won't offend anyone. I want to feel I am fully engaged with life, 'married to amazement.' It does help in being a writer if you are curious, nosy even...about other people, about the physical world, about your own inner process.
Sure, sometimes my words have raised eyebrows...and I wouldn't say I am either abrasive, or controversial, or even like to shock for the sake of it. But if a 'sweary' word is the right word, the only word for a poem, I'll use it. And I have!
It helped me when I began writing about 15 years ago, to read contemporary women poets. I ate up the likes of Liz Lochhead and Kathleen Jamie, two fine Scottish poets. I discovered it was okay to write about my own experience. I could say what it felt like to realise one day that my upper arms were best covered up! And yes, folks, that's the poem I have the 'f' word in!
I cannot imagine my life now without poetry in it. I go to so many poetry gatherings in Glasgow, I could get dizzy thinking about them all. I've been a judge at Poetry Slams. Now there's a nail biting genre. I've read outdoor, indoors, at open mics, as a 'head line act', as a two minute participant with everybody else. I'm often terrified, but I wouldn't have it any other way.
And I read, read, read poetry. I don't think anyone can write good poetry if they don't read good poetry!
So wish me luck on Tuesday night at the launch...Digging For Light, pub New Voices Press, 6pm for 6.30pm ,The Junction Bar, Tuesday 12th April,West George St, Glasgow G2 1DA. I'll be the one up by the microphone, trying to look nonchalant and cool and A POET...
Where Michael Malone interviews (coughs) himself ...
Q. So tell us, Mikey boy, why did you decide to go all digital on us?
A. For the craic, really. And In The Raw has now gone through four re-prints (500 copies sold – not bad for a wee poetry pamphlet) so I felt it was time to work on something new, but before I did I should give In The Raw one last wee hurrah. And everywhere I looked my writer friends were getting in on the e- act so I thought, why not?
Q. Why not indeedy. It was some time ago since many of the poems included within “In The Raw” were written, how do you feel they stack up after all these years?
A. Good question ...
Q. Thank you ...
A. And if you would stop interrupting I could answer. Anywho, were was I? Yes. Stacking up. Some of them more than others, if I’m being honest. I would venture that most creative types are never completely happy with what they’ve done and I’m no different. Some of the poems I feel stand the test of time. Others not so much. I can now see where I was trying too hard. Trying too hard to be “A Poet”: where the need to come up with an arresting phrase has affected the flow.
Q. If that’s the case, why didn’t you edit and come with a new and improved version of the book?
A. Aside from the fact that I hate editing, you mean? To be honest, I feel that ITR shows me at a place in time and from there readers can trace how I’ve grown as a writer (if I can say that without sounding too wanky). There again, all of the poems in the book were published in literary and poetry magazines so they must have something worthwhile. In some there was a line that saved them – in others the overall effect and theme of the poem was worth putting out there.
Q. Good save, Mick. Is there a theme with the book?
A. Aye. The theme is my life. Or, to be more accurate, a version of my life.
Q. What the feck does that mean?
A. Each of the poems contain a “truth”.A lot of them were auto-biographical. Some of them were observed and where the poem was better served by a “truth” other than what actually happened, I was happy to change that to improve the overall sense of the poem. You’ve heard the journalistic saying that suggests the truth should never stand in the way of a good story? Well, poetry isn’t so different.
Q. Which poems are more auto-biographical?
A. That’s for the reader to guess at.
Q. Oh, you tease.You talked there about truth – some writer friends have read your work and wondered how you could possibly be so honest in your writing. Is that difficult for you? Does it cost you sleepless nights?
A. Nah. I can’t help myself.I’m not so good at verbalising the jumble in my head and writing has for a long time provided an escape valve for all of that.
My first few forays into poetry were not so successful. That was when I was writing about other people and hadn’t quite hit on the power of the truth, so to speak. But once I did and used that in my work poetry magazines started to want to publish my work. I was at it long before I read Stephen King’s wonderful book “On Writing” where he said that you should write about your characters (for me that meant my world) as honestly as you can.
To be fair I used to worry about it. I used to worry that no-one would want to hear what I had to say. Now I believe my voice is as valid as anyone else’s. And if anyone else has a problem with what I have to say then they can kiss my hairy hole. Or not.
Q. Aye okay, draw your neck in, fella. What about your dual writing career of Poet and soon-to-be published novelist? (“Blood Tears” is available from Five Leaves Publishing , May 2012.) How does the writing process differ?
A. A novel is longer than a poem. By some way actually.
Q. Smart arse. You know what I mean. Answer the fecking question.
A. Who needs to draw their neck in now? (whispers: wanker) OK, let’s have a shot at answering this question ... I think writing one helps me when I’m writing the other. Poetry is all about noticing. And using ordinary language in an extraordinary way. In the noticing you record details that shine a light on the whole. Compare going for a walk against going for a drive. While walking the other day (with Bob and the wee fella) we saw a heron standing like a statue in the shallows of a river and we heard the insistent drumbeat of a woodpecker somewhere off in the woods. Driving past the same scene we would have had an overview of a wood warming into Spring. Writing poetry helps me notice the details that give life to a scene in a book. A l’autre main...
Q. I wish you wouldn’t break out into French, dude. So fecking pretentious ...
A. Shut it. On the other hand – izzat better? – writing so much prose where you are focused on the flow of the sentences helps when it comes to giving my poetry a similar feel and flow, making it in my view, more readable. Also there’s so much writing done for a novel that paying attention to that many words is bound to make you a better writer. Surely?
Q. (mumbles) you’d think so. And finally. The cover. Is it you?
A. Gawd, I am so fed up answering this question. No. It isn’t me. I’d need to lose two stones and wax the pelt on my back first. Actually, I’ve a funny story about the cover ...
Q. Eeesh, enough mate. Me me me. It’s all about me. Do you ever shut up?
In honour of the fact that I’ve published my first poetry collection to Kindle (you lucky, lucky people) I’ve decided to make this poetry month on May Contain Nuts.
No. Don’t exit just yet.
If you like poetry, you’ll enjoy it. If you don’t like poetry it’s probably because you’ve never really tried to. You had a crap teacher who read you some unintelligible stuff from ancient history with a tone of voice that suggested he/she’d rather be scratching their hole with a poisoned dart.
Poems are like people, they come in all shapes and sizes and just as you don’t like every person you meet, you won’t enjoy every poem you read. However, if you look you WILL come across a poem that will make you smile/ laugh/ gasp/ think/ hug your child/ friend/ partner.
In honour of this event I bought myself a copy of the newest collection from Bloodaxe called Being Human. In the bookshop I opened the book at random and my eyes lit on the following stanza ...
“I believe that if you roll over at night
in an empty bed
the air consoles you”
(excerpt from What I Believe by Michael Blumenthal)
How good is that? Gave me goosebumps. Simple language and in just a few words a whole world is revealed.
As for In The Raw, it was going out of print so I thought; why not? Everybody else is doing it.