Sunday, January 15, 2006

Posthumous Verses of Dubious Worth

WE'LL GO ONCE MORE A ROVING



by Sallie Tierney



Being an account of the travels of the poet Lord Byron,
touring England and Scotland with the Byron Society
during the Bicenteniary Year of his Birth.






CANTO ONE -- BYRON ON TOUR

"I am infinitely amused with my
pilgrimage as far as it has gone" Byron



In this magic age of super-sonic international,
intercontinental travel --
this age of fax and phone --
of love notes zinging through the stratosphere
and bouncing off of silken satellites,
it's strange to me that so much printed matter
vaporizes in the U.S. Postal ozone.
Perhaps that's why my invitation never reached me.
Or perhaps within the bureaucratic percolations
someone may have lost my invitation.
Or in coordination of the tour preparations
everyone assumed that someone else
had mailed my invitation.
Understanding person that I am, I'm sure the slight
resulted from some inadvertent oversight.

I pride myself that I'm adaptable --
after all my years of whores and pirates,
warring Greeks and petty poets,
pretty choir boys and long Venetian nights.
I’ve slept in cow sheds with Albanians,
breasted tides Aegean and political,
dined with the formidable de Stael,
and been shaven by Fletcher early in the morning.
(Trust me, world war though globally disastrous
could hardly be more personally hazardous).
Adaptability -- that clever manufacturer
of monsters, mystic force responsible
for crab grass growing in cement,
film actors in the government,
and burgers et as nourishment --
to mention just a few anomalies
engendered by adaptability.
Pragmatic person that I am,
I scrawled my BYRON
on my housemate's invitation.

Thus began our year of pilgrimage --
a year of stringent curbs on spending,
of rice casserole and bargain sausage,
of ticking days upon our calendar
and shopping thrifty air fare --
tempus fugit -- where oh where
did Sallie Tierney hide our passports?
Will I need my swimming trunks?
Who will sit the cats and water plants?
Days receding like the slug trail
of a dream -- did Britain
get our registration by the deadline?
No word of confirmation following
our astronomical deposit.
A frenzied fax a scant fortnight
before our flight rung flat
as coinage dropped into a well.
And yet so soon, too soon we knew
we'd hear the vespers bell.

At long, long length the two of us
deplaned at Heathrow on a brilliant,
quite un-English morning
just before the Summer Solstice.
Back in 1816 I had scraped this land
from off my boot heels, swearing I would never,
while breath still animated what was left of me,
spoil my footwear with its soggy soil again!
Ah, but "never" is a foolish vow, ya know --
and I've been known to change my mind
as often as Beau Brummell changed cravats.
And considering my eager ego,
how could little me forego -
but I have leapt ahead. As I have said,
sunshine greeted our arrival
to the shores of Albion.
Tierney, having never been to London,
left accommodations up to me.
And I could see no point in staying at the hotel
with the B. Society -- to me a bed's a bed,
but some are far too dear
and quite devoid of proper atmosphere. Instead
I steered us off to Holland House in Kensington,
where I had spent so many stellar evenings
basking in Lord Holland's hospitality
those golden days of my celebrity.
Pity that so little has been left
of either one. Hitler's bombing
took a massive toll upon the house,
and my celebrity was blitzkrieged by my spouse.
Hostile action left the East Wing broken
and forlorn in barbered shrubbery, a tattered
victim of Dutch gardeners and war's barbarity.

But in it's present function as a pilgrim's hostel
it afforded us a bed and bath we could afford,
and on the morrow eggs-bacon-sausage-and-tomato,
shared with a student from France and two from Chicago.
What bliss to be at Holland Park for breakfast --
cocks crowing in the wilds of Kensington,
milky-sweet roses blowzy over the fence rails,
matrons in print dresses airing their Airedales
and London, that lovely, shabby darling
just awake and loudly yawning.
I nearly strangled on nostalgia.
Though Tierney said she thought my gagging reflex
was more likely triggered by the bowl of Wheetabix.

Twenty-eight participants from half a dozen countries
boarded hearse-black taxis for the drive to Piccadilly.
'Twas to be the first of many touching ceremonies
(for a poet who believed sincerely even one was silly)
to floralize a Hyde Park statue, half forgotten,
of Lord Byron and his doggie Boatswain.

Cabbies go to cabby college some three years
before they're licensed and released
upon the London maze of narrow streets.
They're tested on their knowledge
of locales esoteric and historic,
all the atmospheric pubs and hotels.
But the bloke we drew that day
must have failed his statuary
'cause he dropped his fare on Piccadilly
several subways off from Byron and the puppy.
Had we wanted Nelson's Column or the Arc de Wellington
there would have been a mile less walking done.

There upon the lawn before a mob of Byronists
(and some with Keats and Shelley leanings)
stood Westminster's Lady Mayor beaming,
the golden collar of her office gleaming
on her most astounding jonquil suiting,
screaming purple-faced her speech, though failing
to be heard above the dinning
building crew creating yet another hole
adjacent to the monument. You know,
me thinks there's something mighty visceral
as drives a man to excavate and back-hoe
to congregate with other gents
in heavy rain, sultry sun, or even snow
beside a gouge in ancient fill --
something only men can comprehend
about the basic lay of land --
and shouting all the while
above their grinding engines
how the world could better be.
But that's a topic for another day.

What impressed me most were the expressions --
rapt, serious, and fraught with pure intentions
of both assembled congregations.
And how the literati
from Great Britain, Greece and Germany,
Malta, France, and Italy
heaped half the flower carts in Chelsea
on marble steps from Norway --
oh, the wreaths enough to sink the Bounty
of English laurel waxy green and glossy!
Everyone was beaming and we all took pictures
as the Byron Tour launched the grand adventure,
guided out upon the roads and by-ways
by Mr. Michael Rees, our eager able tour leader.

(Tierney just suggested that I hasten
with my comedy's narration
as I've thus far barely sketched the set
and cast some principal performers.
Without a leap from overture to action
I may be hefting quite a broad Brunnhilde
ere I warble out my closing aria.
Plus I forgot there for a moment
that my mortal audience still housed in clay
is used to sixty second adverts on the telly.)

My idea of travel's always been
to grab a grip and a gypsy notion --
take to winding roads for parts unknown.
I've never cared for tours,
Grand or otherwise, that ham-string you
with schedules 'til your eyes bug out.
Therefore yet another century
may pass before I wish to fend again
the crowds of Mayfair and the wild West End,
hearing only half the running
commentary in the din:
"and on this street the poet
mumble-mumble-rumble-WHOOSH
and may upon this very site have napped"
(or crapped, or caught the clap --
I lost the verb beneath the clatter
of a scarlet double decker
heading break-neck for the Strand).
We straggled up the pavement in the heat --
we staggered off the curbs and cursed our feet --
we wove the zebra crossings
as our Michael Rees called back
at frequent intervals that we were dawdling
and, yes, were sure to miss the most exciting
mumble-mumble-rumble-WHOOSH!

At length we thundered to a ragged halt
before my publisher's on Albemarle,
a building that's so little changed
I thought it highly strange
that my voluminous productions
earned a sum so paltry
for my frugal friend John Murray
there was nothing left of money
for improvements to the firm
beyond fresh varnish on the door trim.

I'm half a Scot, you know,
and Scots are known for thrifty ways.
Though to be honest half my habits
are of quite another shift
inherited from spendthrifts
in my Daddy Byron's genes.
Or so my mama, Catherine Gordon
always mentioned in a wondrous volume
when bills came home beyond my means.
'Tis true my spending runs to ordering
large special pizzas topped with anchovies,
but paying only when a blizzard strikes in Hades.

Still, I admire Murray's frugal turn of mind.
His careful resource conservation
kept us vagrant writers working
when less cautious publishers
became the fodder for solicitors.
And yes, my Murray often saved me
from my fiscally-destructive frivolities
by holding up my checks on technicalities.

He also kept my letters, and rough drafts
of all my major works --
behavior I can understand.
But what in Heaven's name possessed the man
to squirrel away my cast-off shirts,
boots, gloves, and for all I know
my unclaimed underwear,
against the depredations of the centuries?
Seeing thus enshrined
the contents of my clothespress
I thanked my stars
I'd had a top-notch laundress!

With such affection his descendants
kept the scraps of my existence!
I doubt that even I attached
as much importance to that life.
An obvious conclusion
when you think how miserably
I treated such a splendid constitution!
I found myself go positively maudlin.
I mused upon delusions and futilities
we take for truth in youth.
I mused and leaned my head upon my hand.
Just then John Murray number six,
a dapper bow-tied double for his ancestor,
approached and offered us a cheery grin,
some nibbles, and some wine.

I felt a trifle misty leaning
on the very fireplace to which
my Murray, Hobhouse, and Tom Moore
consigned my shady memoir.
Nothing's more restorative to one's perspective
than dry white wine to sip
and sandwiches to munch.
I returned the grin but kept the lunch.

That afternoon and on to supper
Michael swirled us through the city seas,
like a barracuda after minnows,
breaking in our shoes and sinews
in training for the tour proper.
At Holland House that night
we fell upon our cots
like victims of the plague --
while London stirred in fevered sleep
and theater crowds flowed
down the Strand toward Pizza Hut --
past shades of broken dandies
posing in the darkened doors,
past ghosts of ladies lost
to virtue centuries ago.
Midnight flooded over Charing Cross,
wove the corner with the winos,
spilled upon a pavement
where the dead once waited for the cart.
And Lady Thames, that geriatric bawd,
slithered under first one dusky bridge
and then another, nuzzled 'round the pilings
of Black Friars -- and at stroke of twelve
Big Ben spewed forth his throaty bellow
out across the turgid shadow of the Tower.
My dreams that night had much
the same complexion --
sweaty nights and strange accommodation
quite derange my sleeping Psyche,
a goddess in my case a smidge
too prone to hanky-panky!



CANTO TWO -- ON THE ROAD

"It is this 'craving void' which drives
us to Gaming -- to Battle -- to Travel"
Byron


A misty morning dawned in Kensington
and we were massed to take the road,
sleepy noses counted, luggage stowed
aboard a modern orange motor coach,
schedule checked and double checked,
and everyone had visited the loo.
The pilgrimage was on the move,
Michael gesturing and pointing madly
as we headed out of town past palaces
of Queen and Prince and Duke
(handy since my Tierney'd
somewhere lost her guidebook).

Few things can stir my sluggish blood
like setting out upon a journey,
open road as far as one can see,
adventure champing at the bit --
the sky and spirits soaring --
metaphor (though mixed) for life
at its least boring.
I have always been for throwing
bag and bird cage onto any carriage moving.
Yet here I show my age, for da'me
how I dearly miss the sound and scent
of well oiled harness and horse sweat!
When petrol engines sent to pasture
all our noble chargers
we lost so much of travel pleasure --
the cozy creak of finely
crafted woods and pungent leather,
four bay geldings dancing in the traces,
mud and shattered chickens flying,
carriage lurching, surging
like a sailing ship in heavy weather.
On second thought there's much
that can be said for heavy-duty shocks
and on-board air conditioners!

And now my friends, in keeping with the spirit
and to chase monotony along the motorway
let us have some travel music:
(I always scribble on a jaunt --
makes up any deficit in scenery,
and jogs my recall better than a map,
plus silences my seat-mate faster
than were I to fake a nap.
Of course to read my jostled scrawl
takes imagination once the ink is dry
and we are on firm ground once more.)
So here we go -- a little road song.
Please feel free to improvise a melody --
there's nothing fancy in the beat.
Hum along. Pretend you've got the window seat.

Roll on, oh pumpkin-colored coach, roll on!
"Sir Harry" our intrepid driver at your wheel,
up old West Way and turning on the M
past Hendon, Stanmore, Baldock, Brocket Hall.
Roll on through gently rolling English hills
in shades of green so shocking Caro Lamb
once used them on her party pantaloons.

Roll on, oh pumpkin coach.
Roll up the dusty drive of Six Mile Bottom
where my sister's home still stands
'mid golden sage, in drifts of lavender
and rose geranium, the lilacs arching
o'er a cobbled path. 'Twas here
Augusta's noisy brood once sported
on the shaggy lawn,
and I, her lonely loving brother,
lounged and watched the sun go down.
'Twas here our tour stopped for tea,
and watched red horses graze
beyond a white board fence.
And far too soon for me our visit ended
and we put our china down.
Far too soon for me
we climbed aboard our coach again.
Roll on, roll on, oh orange coach.
There's nothing left I care for here.
Rolling, rolling down the road
through drained salt marsh
and gloomy fen -- roll we past
the plow horse, herds and haystacks.

Roll on, oh coach of pilgrims, roll,
jaunting through a blazing countryside,
air-conditioned, cushioned,
cramped of knee, reciting all the worst
poems written by yours truly.
And now and then a stop to trace
the real estate where experts have deduced
some residue of pet or relative now rests.

Vroom, vroom, and we are off once more,
and in this photo see the weary thirty
threading through the nettles
out to "Byron's Pool" near Cambridge.
Here we stand upon the muddy bank
and Tierney wonders why I used to ride
so far to swim in this unpleasant murky stream.

As I recall it ran in clearer ways
those early days. But I was young,
and youth can overlook a lot of slime.
And here's a shot of that brown dog
that while we mused was duplicating
my dog paddle 'round the puddle.
The next is me and soggy Sallie
scorching under noon-time sun,
and drenched to our collective bones
as doggie lunged the bank
and shook out several liters of ablution
out upon our inattentive persons
in memory no doubt of trusty Boatswain,
my fastidious Newfoundland.

Next we find we're off our schedule.
Down the dusty lane we rolling go,
late for lunch, for tea, for dinner,
to make up the time lost never
out along the winding motorway.
Says Michael as he turns to Harry,
"I think that pub is where we turn",
but he is wrong, and soon
we're seven miles out of our way
and not a hint of anywhere to turn around.

On distant hills dead elm trees frown.
A far-off spire indicates an unknown town,
and Michael Rees and Michael Wright
are wrestling maps across a vacant seat,
arguing which is North and which is East,
tempers modulated by their public schooling.
Tierney and I, past all controlling,
are on the floor with laughter rolling.

Meanwhile Harry blurts a Cockney oath
expressively betraying his excitement
that we have run fresh out of pavement.
A startled farm girl reins her horse
as our orange carriage thunders past her
on the path that skirts her neighbor's pasture
Laundry flaps behind a barn amid the sheep.
And several ladies in the back begin to weep.

Roll on, oh please roll on
ol' coach to any place they'll sell
us candy bars or Cokes or petrol,
roll posthaste to where they have a public loo,
for we have ridden far since tea
and needs must find a place to see
to matters purely renal --
nothin' damps the joys of travel
more efficiently than rolling, bumpy
lanes on one's abused and battered kidney.

Here I delicately wheel my road-show ditty
to a halt and park it --
for providence divine or just dumb luck
restored our tour to its proper track.
We found ourselves in Nottingham --
our destination ere creative impulse
skewed our navigation.

Though somewhere in the dust
I also lost the place in my narration
where I intended to relate
our Cambridge University excursion.
Must have been that old addiction to digression
swept me off the road on yet another deviation --
Cambridge -- ah me, as I recall
before I wandered off the path
I was preparing to discuss our tour's sojourn
in the classic climes of academe.
I'd better stick to strict reportage for awhile,
at least till I relate the tale
of the ladder and the ale
and Tierney's near disaster with the rusty nail
She interjects that if I dare reveal this story
she'll deny it to her last two days in Glory.

The undulating streets of Cambridge shone
like molten aluminium --
oppressive and Athenian, the noon sun
searing jackets, coats, and jumpers
from our dripping shoulders.
Broiled to melt-down, our assembly
trudged its steamy way
toward college Trinity,
rooms I sought myself infrequently
being, I assure you, even less a scholar
than the fat brown bear I
billeted with Bob below the stairway.

As the mercury hit ninety, inky shadows
in the porticoes of Nevile Court
beckoned us like silken whispers
of a lovely wanton. Panting for relief
and trembling, we mounted single file
the narrow stair to what was once my suite.

Stairs -- a reoccurring theme in this poem.
And damned infuriating too that Fate saw fit
to bunk the Clubfoot Kid inevitably
up a flight so tortuous it'd break a Sherpa,
at altitudes that'd give a nosebleed to a llama!
Thus it was at Newstead and at Southwell,
and again here off the Nevile.
Now I think of it, in Greece as well --
I couldn't even manage dying at ground level.

What used to be my chamber
is now a barren den of blank
utilitarian demeanor --
beauty here believed to drive
a scholar off on flights of fancy,
and away from contemplations
in more lucrative directions.
Standard texts in somber colors
flanked the fireplace --
in that respect it hardly differed
since I'd left it, thought I wept
to see its woodwork slathered in flat paint
and floors denuded of their proper carpet --
my bedroom as hygienic as a monk's cell in Tibet.
And not one bear. Nay, nary a hair there.

A thousand scholars called this home
since I was cashiered out upon
an unsuspecting populace --
I hardly recognized the place.
What had I expected there to see --
my academic garb still hangin'
on the hall clothes tree?
Trinity's a little shorter
on the sentiment than Murray.

I found ironic what I did discover --
set amid a plethora
of scattered papers on the desk,
polished as an apple
sat the occupant's computer.
Of all the possible memorials
this seemed so fitting for our time.
There deified by daily orisons,
my daughter Ada's mental offspring,
her gift to all mankind --
magical! Promethean!
my electrical and silicon granddaughter,
the personal computer!

Did we go to lunch before or after that?
God knows chronology don't matter
so as the tale gets told -- computers
are for making lists and keeping people honest.
Let farmers sort their taters any way they want
for size and style and blemishment --
I'd rather use my brain for life's embellishment.

Therefore, let's say we scattered then
upon the town to scare up nourishment
there being nothing organized
for once in that regard.
Tierney and I, and Linda Leeds from Dayton, Ohio
set off to forage Cambridge,
hunger growling, prowling our environment
like gaunt lions after careless antelope --
though since Miss Leeds was vegetarian
our hunt was somewhat limited in scope.
Like P. B. Shelley, Linda gets the jitters
at sight or even thought of humans
munching on their fellow critters.

The British though are epic carnivores.
There's little that has ever walked,
or winged, slithered, crawled,
or swum that hasn't found itself
eventually in stew pot or a pasty.
Blank stares are all you'll get
when you inquire where the salad bar is at.
Vegies here are famine food to be subdued
by boiling till reminders of their earthly origins
evaporate in steam, and any nasty vitamins
are purged and poured into the drains.
Little wonder our Miss Leeds was growing peckish
after two days touring with the British.

Arm in arm we wove past neon pubs,
past shops purveying college T-shirts,
past windows filled with tourist tea things.
While my ladies sniffed about for lettuce leaves
at every cafe door, I occupied my mind
composin' poetics on the theme of dietetics --
which I'll share upon this page, being loath to waste
a single morsel once it's set upon my plate or page.
(No such constraints apply of course to you
once you have sampled of this stew.)

WHAT THE ROMANTICS ATE

Shelley chased his friends away with vegetables,
pushing boiled leeks and squash
'til paper peeled in every room from steam,
'til malnutrition settled up the score
and no one came to dinner anymore.

Keats insisted anything that didn't run too fast
became the stew. He only cooked the meat
enough to slow it down and followed it
with pints of anything his friends would buy.
He waxed rhapsodic over shepherd's pie.

Wordsworth I imagine taking middle ground:
a round of Yorkshire cheese, a neighbor's hen --
Dorothy toying with the continental flair,
popping daffodils into the salad greens
producing Lakes District version French cuisine.

Coleridge we needn't dwell on here. He didn't eat
at all from all accounts, but spent his life
composing strange incomprehensible verse,
residing somewhere in the Twilight Zone,
insisting all the while he wasn't stoned.

As for myself (you knew I'd get around to me),
I choose my food for sheer effect: potatoes
drowned in vinegar, washed down with Gordon's Gin --
nibbling or wolfing as suits the occasion,
and whatever will occasion the most sensation.

Having noticed somewhat a correlation
between a poet's victuals and a poet's voice,
I have viewed with some dismay
my poet-housemate's favorite fare:
cheddar cheese nachos with a squirt of lime,
medium hot salsa with a glop of sour cream.

Thus I mused and sauntered with the women
'til like beagles on a scent the cry went winging
and they pulled me down a gloomy alley,
down a flight of frightful stairs
(Stairs again! It's never ending!)
into a vegetarian establishment
beneath the Cambridge pavement --
no doubt a cellar built by Romans
as a place to salt away barbarians --
used much later as a priest hole or a dungeon
or to store the spuds and carrots in.
'Twas here my ladies chose to dine.

The rustic bricks were white washed,
tables mismatched, chairs rather uncertain
but the flowers grew from shiny new vases
and the cloths were white linen.
Linda ordered up a pilaf and tea with lemon.
I had mushroom quiche (don't laugh)
and a Guinness on draft.
Sallie had salad, a cup of corn chowder,
and (oh fateful order) a pint of icy dry cider.

I might have saved her a minor disaster
had I noticed her menu.
Might have warned her that tropical heat
and too little to eat
wash down with cold drink
could knock her forthwith on her aster.
One of my near-lethal ills in Venice
came from drinking chilled hock
after three sets of tennis.
(Ah me, that is as you've guessed
a white lie for the rhyme.
What I played was a whole
other game at the time,
though I vow that "love"
was a part of the outcome.)

But I was busily courting our waitress,
a coffee-eyed blond in a low errant bodice,
and failed to notice Tierney guzzle her cider,
failed to notice (my senses otherwise busy)
when Tierney, professing to be thirsty still
sent my charmer for a tankard of ale.

Thus it was that later that day
when we assembled at Trinity
to view the statue of little-lord-me
that takes up a quarter of the Wren Library,
Tierney (her step a tad less than steady,
her reasoning slightly befuddled) decided
she needed a photo of my much touted profile,
shouldered her camera (a Pentax ME)
and started to climb a fifteen foot ladder
in search of the mythical "optimum angle"
(the view from the floor
being straight up my nostrils).
I really thought she was doing quite well.
'Til ten feet up when her thigh found a nail.
(Or was it a splinter?
It got her attention whichever.)

When her wits are about her
she won't climb a chair to hang up a picture.
Yet there she was up on that ladder.
Sober she couldn't have faced the first rung --
tipsy at ten feet she hazily swung,
pain beginning to sharpen
what had lately been numb.

And down below her in a row
the stony busts of Britain glowered,
gold and leather volumes glowed,
and gentle pilgrims of the Tour
overcome by medieval grandeur
whispered -- as we well bred
will always whisper in proximity
to libraries or cemeteries,
or the death bed of a wealthy auntie.
Though no one heard what anybody said --
when suddenly a horrifying yelp went flying
like a rabid bat through gothic vaulting --
caroming off the somber shelving
like a frightened rabbit bounding
through the London Christmas shopping.

Until this incident society's
introduction to Ms Tierney'd
been a bit, how shall I say, sketchy.
Oh sure, the hands were shaken all around
and all the names changed hands,
credentials traded, pleasantries exchanged --
Professor Soandso from Suchandsucha U. --
Lady Whatshername from Puntin'-on-the-Loo --
Mr. Melton Verbiage plugging his new novel --
and one dear lady who'd rewritten my own bio
(her version an improvement on my poor rendition
but takin' longer in the writin'
than I had taken in the livin').
One gent was researching his thesis for a Ph. D.
(he seemed the only one still under thirty).

There we were all tweedy in our attitudes
and silver in our hair, well mannered,
and well schooled and quite well meaning --
certainly a pleasant, sober, quiet gathering
(in contrast to the Yank upon the ladder swinging).

If I were half the cad I'm said to be
I'd forge ahead with all alacrity,
letting chips fall where they may
(for the sacred sake of accuracy).
But I have certain obligations to this lady.
Plus she can pout so prettily
and cut the purse strings most summarily.
So friends, I'll extricate us all
from further harm by shipping
us post-haste to Nottingham.









CANTO THREE -- SHERWOOD

"Have I not had to wrestle with my lot?
Have I not suffered things to be forgiven?
Have I not had my brain seared, my heart riven?"
Byron


Oh Nottingham! -- if not the heart
at least the very lungs and stomach
of the noble British nation --
womb of the Industrial Revolution --
the living liver, spleen, and kidneys
of our modern civilization --
yet old when Norman sacked the Saxon.
Oh Nottingham! -- treasure of the Trent,
jewel of fabled Sherwood Forest,
home of Robin Hood, merry men, and Maid Marian,
city of lace makers, frame breakers,
and outlaw wielders of the mighty pen.
Nottingham! -- ancestral home of my Byron kin,
and site of Newstead Abbey, crumbling and lovely
seat of my eccentric and erratic family.

Look it up in Fodor's, Frommer's guide,
or Michelin -- you'll find
a black hole in the Midlands.
Every other burrow, burg, or barrow
gets an entry or a footnote somewhere.
Islands only visited by migratory heron
get a color picture and a caption.
You'll discover nothing written
on the land between Lincoln
and, let's say, Derbyshire.
Nottingham might as well be fiction. Sure,
but ask its residents and you will hear
they'd just as soon remain obscure.

One rarely sees Americans on tour here
unless they've lost their way to Yorkshire.
Except for several days occurring
every twenty years or so
when the loony Byronists come through,
clogging up High Pavement, straying down the Low,
tramping where the local bard was known to go.
Would he'd gone on farther sooner
and saved ol' Nottingham
its periodic week of bedlam.

Predictably we hit the town
so late Sir Harry feared the Union
hour rules would cost him his position --
screeching to halt before the hotel
seconds short of ax-fall.
We'd crossed the river Trent at sunset,
parked our coach behind the Ice Rink,
settled into Sherwood Inn,
where, yes, as usual they lodged me
upstairs, down a narrow hallway
in a room with view of rubbish bins,
the loading dock, and gravel driveway.
But honestly there's not much viewing
anyone can do while sleeping.
The beds were soft, accommodations ample.
The curtains married in the window middle.

Midnight saw me start awake
entangled in my sheets and sweaty,
nightmare parting me from sleep.
Some demon mayhap from my psyche
playing tasteless tricks on me.
Or nervous fears fermenting
from the residue of dinner.
Struggled to the window for some air,
threw back the drapes and there
beheld all Nottingham an eerie red
beneath a brooding moon --
a thousand street lamps glowing crimson
through sultry layers of pollution --
a city sprawling bloody in its doom.
Or was it my imagination
coupled with a touch of indigestion?

Solstice at these latitudes
wakes up the birds quite early --
around three or three-thirty --
a twilight time of larks ascending,
garbage cans upending, starlings
fending off attacks of crows,
sparrows mating loudly in the hedgerows,
pigeons in the shrubberies
beginning families --
every avian however circumspect
at any other season
goes berserk at dawn in June
with cooing, wooing, busy beak,
ragged wings and members --
amazing that they volunteer
for this fantastic agony each Summer!

Even more amazing how I managed
falling back to sleep amid the orgy
sleeping 'til the hotel staff
had toast and coffee ready.
Then I showered, shaved, and dressed --
pounced on breakfast with the rest,
and later joined the muster on the lawn --
our caravaning routine now patterned-in
as suicide is programmed in a lemming.
And in unison our programs we drew forth,
and all together found the day upon page four,
"Byron's Nottingham, Newark and Southwell".

I was not surprised to hear
that item one was a walking tour --
featuring Mrs Gwen Beaumont,
twin to Cristie's Miss Marple,
springy silver curls and all,
wisely sporting sturdy footwear
and possessing legs the envy
of a seasoned Thoroughbred mare.

She paced us to a warming trot
through the market square,
accelerating to a gallop
by the Castle, cornering
and down the back stretch
cobbles of High Pavement
toward the Lace Mart,
pointing out Swine Green

and Bridlesmith, the scene
of Blackmoor's Head where, dead,
they'd rented me a feather bed
while quarters of more permanence
were readied in the vault at Hucknall --
comparing the amenities and comforts
accommodations at the Blackmoor's Head
were far superior withal.

Gwen got us sprinting then
as the Market clock was bonging ten --
up Long Row, down South Parade,
and skidding to a huffing puffing halt
three minutes short of item two upon our chart.

Thus noonish off we went
by coach for Newark-on-Trent

to gawk at Ridge's rusty press
that had printed up my boyhood Idleness --

I duly left the throng
to grab a cheddar ploughman
post-museum at the Clinton,

an inn I used to frequent
far from Mother's temperament --

once escaping there
in just my underwear --

as crockery became airborne
I'd left the battle at a run.

Pigot 'cross the Green
retrieved my clothes unseen
and brought them in a bundle to the Inn.

Six months passed for me in London
ere I spoke a civil word to Mrs Byron.

Now a misty overcast descended
on the cider I upended --

shining drops of moisture
fell kersplat onto my cheddar
from the air or somewhere --

wondered if, unknowing, I was grieving
words long past and past retrieving --

ploosh, plash, pluttle, puddle
washed my sidewalk table
until I realized my stormy memory
was not the only weather in the vicinity.

After lunch we dropped by Southwell,
that genteel and sleepy village
I terrorized before I came of age.
A heavy mist was falling
there on Burgage Green --
as usual or it'd be tan.
The air was blue, the roses red,
the manor house lay dead ahead
under an unfamiliar chestnut tree
t'other side the fence of pickets,
just across the lawn from the Pigot's.

There's my little bedroom window
at the corner of the first floor
to the right of the new front door.
You gain it up a twisting stair --
I'll show you when we get there.
Mrs Malcolm Deane (who owned it then)
welcomes our contingent in,
shows us through her lovely parlor
(in my day the entry way)
then up to see my chamber --
barely large enough for bed and chair.
Don't let the designation "manor house"
impress you overly --
'tis smaller than a rancho
in the suburbs of L. A.

With apologies to Mrs Deane
I find the Pigot's house more interesting.
But then to me it's always been
more comfy and more welcoming.
Eliza Pigot was a loyal friend --
but rather lax in care of her decor
for there in eighteen-four
I scrawled my signature
and it's still there as bold as brass
upon her parlor plaster
protected by a sheet of glass.
You'd think at least she'd paper.

That night at Southwell Minster
we enjoyed a lavish buffet supper
following an excellent production
of The Weathercock,
a farce in which I'd played
the lead in eighteen-six,
(a Superstar for blocks).

And plunging me in social chaos
when the ladies of the cast
deadlocked on picking frocks
and I was forced to intervene.
And then there was the scene
resulting when our "Briefwit"
reported for the first performance
quite far gone with gin
to fortify his flagging spirits --
which sent my leading lady
into waves of fainting fits.

With all of Southwell out in front
expecting entertaining --
not suspecting more amusing
amateur theatricals
were playing out backstage
where we young players
mobilized to aid
our stricken fellow actor --
walking poor Captain Lightfoot
in the wings to get him sober,

bathing his temples with cool water,
declaiming oaths worthy Shakespeare.
As their leader I was near despair
but at long last the curtains parted
and we took the stage stout hearted.
And Lightfoot despite
a stagger in his footstep
proved a witty Briefwit.

Now I sat a spectator
instead of actor
in the Great Hall at the Minster,
my mind festooned with memories
of youthful thespian success,
my elbow nudging my cohortess
at the really funny bits.

Not that she or Linda needed prompting --
they were absolutely roaring.
Most especially when Tristram Fickle
(which had been my part in the original)
donned yet another driving passion
calling for a change of costume --
lasting long enough to get things fastened
ere a fresher passion beckoned.
Sallie said she understood
we'd been typecasting.
So exasperating.

'Twas dawn next morning --
Summer Solstice. I was strolling
North of Nottingham
'neath branchy arms --
descendants of old Sherwood.
Then stirs the feeling infinite,
so felt in solitude --
firming up my suitably Druidic mood.
I rambled through the greenwood
kicking acorn shells
and as I'd done in childhood
I pretended I was Robin Hood.
(As what child hasn't
since the fifteenth century?)
Fancy served me well
within a stone's throw
of the medieval city wall.

Oh, for a sturdy English bow
and several arrows true,
thought I -- I'd be a holy terror
of woodchuck, grouse, and hare --
Oh, maybe poach some deer
though only for the table
of those less meatily endowed
than we brave forest rangers --
oblivious to dangers
and t'hell with Sheriff's orders --
bold in Lincoln green we'd stand
for the nobility of the simple
honest thieving man.

But I was interrupted in my dreaming
(as was getting habit forming)
by constraints of time.
Had I been graced
with so few moments free
within the life we were retracing
my collected works would be a pamphlet --
counting cover, notes, and double spacing.

Still, at this point my feet are dragging
like two students tardy for exams.
Or prisoners hauled to court,
or puppies taken to their vet,
or -- fill in any simile
you want. I'll wait.
I'm having difficulty
moving on to Newstead Abbey.

Only natural, really --
this whole day was brutal
to my tender psyche,
emotionally a killing ground.
By sunset my poor soul
was in a sling --
my heart a pounding pound
of ground round.

True, one can't go home again,
but don't we all keep trying?
Home for me was Nottingham --
to be specific Newstead Abbey
from the day I stood a boy
in mizzling rain,
fresh off the hired coach
from Aberdeen.

There I was, new lord of leaking ceilings,
baron of the broken battlements
and Gothic drains --
inheritor of dusty ruin
standing shakily
in gorse and bracken.
It was my first true love
and second to my last.

I was enraptured, enchanted.
I must have been demented!
Still, no lad was ever captured
by a playhouse such as then I had --
gloomy empty halls for prowling,
ghosts and eerie winds
though the broken arches howling.
Most stimulating to the endocrines
and prepubescent urgings.
My early compositions
owe a heavy debt to Newstead's
moody dispositions.

On Upper Lake my mad Great Uncle
built a pair of Lilliputian castles --
fought imaginary naval battles
using chamber maids, a groom, and footman
as his navies, cabin boy, and boatswain.
I remember swimming in the shadow
of the castles' crenelations,
stroking bank to bank for recreation.

Predictably my mother limited our stays --
hired clean, dry rooms down Nottingham way
where 'til my majority she need not worry
I'd die from mildew, plague, or drowning.
Somewhere she could hang lace curtains
and not have them ruined by bat droppings.

Still, I rode out many times to visit --
a landlord has a duty to his tenants,
responsibilities to holdings hereditary.
Not to mention I was desperately in love
with neighbor girl and cousin, Mary.
(I've belabored that old story
elsewhere in my poetry.)

But I could dawdle on forever --
the Abbey's winding lane was lined
with purple rhododendron,
blooming late for our reception.
Newstead's courtyard was devoid
as Venus is of vegetation.
Pamela Wood and Haidee Jackson,
Keepers of the Abbey, met our bevy
in a crumbling doorway,

two Venuses of most amazing beauty!
Marked improvement over Old Joe Murray
who'd welcomed Byrons home for centuries!
Thought I, how fine to find
as ever Beauty reigns
within the heart of ruin --
diamond rainbows crystalline
from out the humble geode.
If my soul wanders here, well good --
to meditate on loveliness amid decay
I stand a ruin amidst ruins,
hungering for once to stay .

The grounds are now perfection,
peopled with a complement of peacocks
where the somber monks had grown
their cabbages and peas.
Devil's Wood has sprouted trees
and there's a Mary Garden in the garth
where I had only weeds.
A garden Japanese of artfully
selected ferns and broken rock
was something of a shock
this far from Fuji.

No time to contemplate this incongruity --
our keepers shooed the B. Soc. flock
inside to tour the interior --
through cleaned up crypt and up
to my room with its haunted closet,
down the Great Hall to pause at
walls of gloomy portraiture --
down again to walk the drafty cloister --
where once I pulled the floor
in search of papist treasure --
finding dusty bones in ample measure.
Though if the monks had hid their gold there
I'll be darned if I know where --
instead of digging up the yard
I play the Lotto now.
It's just as vain but not as hard
upon one's manicure.

Budgeting's a bitter pill to take --
eventually I had to bite the bullet
and put the Abbey on the market
(should have sent that metaphor with it)
but still for years it didn't sell
and went on draining out-of-pocket.
That dear ol' money pit --
when Colonel Wildman bought it
I almost pitied him his bargain --
but not enough to be humane
and let him off the hook.
Not with my piranha pocket book!

He sunk a fortune in the renovation --
wool carpeting and silky hangings,
gleaming furnishings and paneling
all of highest order.
T'was clear he hadn't taken
lowest bidder --
in the vaulted chamber
Boatswain used for kennel,
Wildman built a chapel,
bent his knees and prayed
his pension hadn't strayed.

We the guided fly like jackdaws
up and down the hoovered halls,
peck at curling tidbits sealed
in cases on the walls --
right eyes to remnants of my past,
so not to miss our luncheon repast.
And at noon our whole platoon,
save one, is seated in the dining room.

As tempting as the menu read
I skipped for quiet gardens
and an hour's memories of Newstead.
Through morning overcast
a tardy sun has burrowed --
I revel in its nourishment
upon the lichened steps
of Boatswain's monument.

Legend has it Boatswain
haunts my Abbey to this day,
though this I doubt.
For here his master sits
returned from foreign parts,
a throwing stick at hand,
but the dog is not about.
What Newfoundland worth his salt
would willingly miss out?
No. I'm the solitary
apparition on this lawn.
Nor lady dressed in white,
nor monk in black.
(Perhaps it is at night
they take their constitutionals.
Myself, I'm not traditional.)

Ah yes, the time alone --
time to watch the River Leen
spill sullenly into the lower pond,
to track the progress of a flock
of busy geese across the green,
to breathe the heady scents
of drying hay beyond the fence --
to drink the rural ambiance.
Such stuff and nonsense!
We all know I'm not a nature poet --
(I am the first to own up).

What would this sparse pasture
mean to me without the imposition
of the shattered Abbey?
Introduction of a human clutter
lends to Nature statue.
Greece without its ruins
is a rock pile in the sea --
Egypt leveled of its pyramids
is sand as far as one can see --
Venice sans palazzos,
bridges, gondolas, or history
is just a boring bog in Italy.

Thus I come to Newstead Abbey
not to gawk at verdant scenery
but to immerse myself
within the airy mystery
of what it means to be a human
(or, in my case, a Byron).

I think right here I’ll skip description
of our tour’s afternoon excursion.
Even for the dead, some topics
are distasteful, a bit painful.
Down right embarrassing,
the truth be told. So I won’t dwell
on the visit out to Hucknall
to lay some flowers on the floor
above the Byron vault.

Dying sets a man apart,
a freak among his peers.
Obligates, intimidates,
and sets in motion social gears.
Abandoned by its spirit,
nothing is as useless,
cumbersome, and out of place
as one's discarded carcass.
I would have rather ended
in a Grecian compost heap
than pickled and transported
back to be entombed in Nott's --
it matters not where a body rots
but ocean freightage don't come cheap!

Still, Augusta paid the mason
for the plaque upon the wall,
and Greece the laureled name
set in the floor --
the vault was hand-me-down
from scores of ancient Byrons
and there weren't a lot of mourners
trekking out to those environs.
Must have kept costs to a minimum
which would have pleased
heirs of Yours Truly the Deceased.

I slumped as far as I could go
in my pew behind a pillar,
envisioning invisibility
through the sermon in my honor.
Yellow dahlias on the altar
loaned the sun from someone's border.
Taped to the visitors register
a hand lettered reminder
of the bake sale to repair the organ.
The rector's daughter plays piano,
the mayor's kid solos on guitar.
A country congregation
is Saint Mary Magdalene --
a church it's good to be alive in.
I waited out the tributes, sniffling
in shadowed wings, a man forgotten,
even as they placed the laurel
on my gilded name.

















CANTO FOUR

"So, we'll go no more a roving
So late into the night"
Byron


What followed was a blinding flash
of A and B roads headed North,
and Cs and Ds along the Yorkshire coast.
Until as evening deepened we were halting
in the small North Yorkshire town of Malton.
What chanced that night to two of our party,
one being Ms Gregg and the other Ms Tierney,
I've set in a boozy sort of ballad
appropriate to spin the tale
of how the ladies nearly landed
in the Malton city jail.

And so to doggerel!


Two Yankee ladies took to the night
up a tiny Malton street
to get a pint of stout York ale --
perhaps some Yorkshire folks to meet.

Well, it wasn't a mile from the Green Man Inn
to the pub they call Blue Ball,
a pub the guides said country-wide
was one of the best of all.

Now, they found the pub a charming place
and soon were asked to share
a local woman's birthday round
with the cheery company there.

And thus the hours friendly flew
and friendships there were started.
Thus when the barkeep closed the place
none had a will to be parted.

So Yanks and locals went for coffee
and talked until quarter of one
when, finally tired, the touring ladies
were dropped at the Green Man Inn.

They tried the door and found it locked
and thereupon they rang the bell --
they rang and waited, waited and rang.
Around them a lonely silence fell.

Silence is golden we know it's been said
but not when it reigns on your side of the door
and locked on the other are pajamas and bed
and the street is deserted and lighting is poor.

So, missing inn curfew
on the cobbles they stood
while all other Byronists dreamed
the saccharin dreams of the boringly good.

The Yankee gals, not to be daunted,
set off on exploring the town market square
for though they were new here they knew from past need
communities kept public loos there.

But locks were the order of business
that night, and the lock on the pertinent door
took coin of the realm neither lady possessed.
So, questing, they set off once more.

And lo, through the mist at the top of the hill
a bright scarlet phone kiosk beckoned
and having a last ten pence left between them
they rang up the Sheriff of Malton.

Within moments the ladies returned to their inn
deliverance there to await.
They pictured a fatherly hero in blue,
of course nothing's fickle as fate.

What surprise, what delight when out of the night
to the rescue of these stranded travelers
came the total of Malton, North Yorkshire's police:
two squad cars and four handsome officers!

Now, American ladies locked out in the dark
are rare as apes in this region
where kitty-cats caught in a tree make page one
and the sheep auction serves as diversion.

So the meeting was jolly, spirits were high,
the gentlemen most reassuring.
The ladies were confident all would be well
and soon to their beds they'd be scurrying.

What was it we said about fate being fickle?
The officers knocked on the door with great gusto.
They beat on the bell, they rang up the desk.
They even attempted to jimmy a window.

Now if someone had wanted to rob this hotel
and made this much noise in the dastardly deed
the village of Malton would have risen for battle,
but in this case the whole town was deader than dead.

Not one single light flickered on to the ruckus,
not one sleeping person roused to the hail.
The men shrugged their shoulders, our ladies were grim.
One officer offered a night in the jail.

Now that was an interesting alternate lodging!
What would the rest of the Byronists think
when just after breakfast the squad car pulled up
and disgorged the Americans fresh from the clink?

The silver moon rode above Malton's clean streets.
On the hills out of town the flocks slept.
But fate ran amuck at the Green Man that night
and at such times we laugh lest we weep.

Comes a time for desperate measures.
Comes a time to pull out all stops.
When a man (or a woman) must ride to the fray
and look the enemy square in the chops.

One officer stooped and picked up a pebble,
swung back his arm and aimed at the inn.
The pebble thumped a second floor window,
still not a light was seen from within.

Soon cops and both ladies were lobbing more rocks
(it's a wonder no windows were shattered)
'til finally Rhoda from New Jersey peered out
shaken from sleep by the clatter.

She was ready in fact to report that rowdies
were running the streets and disturbing the peace,
never dreaming the ruffians pelting her window
were two Byron ladies and the Malton police.

And it can be told there was some persuading
before she was sure of their harmless intent,
before the need for rescue was noted
and grabbing her robe to the lobby she went.

The adventure was over, the town settled down,
but the legend was barely beginning.
Next morning at breakfast the word got around,
improving with each fresh recounting.

'Til sometime ere tea when two wayward Yanks
discovered (as I had before them)
an almost-innocent nocturnal ramble
had taken on mythic proportion.

Who ever knows where such things may lead?
One night I got drunk but woke famous.
These two got nowhere near lit as the lord
but were by supper notorious!

Well, that is quite enough of that --
I'm weary of this ballad format.
(Plus I know to snip this thread
of inquiry while I am still ahead.)
So on we go upon the road
to who knows where with who knows whom.
Together laughing, yawning, talking, stowing
shortbread in the overhead
and trying to address our postcards
as the coach negotiates the potholes
on the journey up to Aberdeen and Fyvie
on the great North Sea
in the neighborhood of Norway.

One morning out of Deeside,
an eon and an hour out
past unremitting fields, past stone barns
standing only in the mind,
past ruins of a wall
and remnants of a lane, we came
to Ballaterach Farm where,
six years old and limp from scarlet fever,
I had taken country air
(and dreamed precocious fever dreams
of pretty Mary Robertson).
A Mrs Williams owns the place these days.
And it was her new gate our coach
pushed through, fog rising from the stream,
smoke rising from our huge hot tires.
The sun was also rising.
On the hill crest out behind
the chicken coop dawn rose,
a majesty of noise and light, golden
on the knife-blade of a mountain,
subtle peach lacing fluffy clouds.
A morning gently pastel --
easy on the traveler's eyes
and fragile nerves. Romantic birds
warbled from perhaps an apple tree
(or maybe it was pear).
Mrs Williams turned
from hanging wash to stare --
unaware of our significance
or the significance of what we sought.
Eyes wide, mouth dropping
wooden clothes pins,
Mrs Williams stared
as thirty literary pilgrims
filed like monks into her muddy sty
to view the one remaining
scrap of Ballaterach's stair
(or could it be the kitchen hearth),
filed out to where her speckled pig
munched a hearty trough
of morning mash with practical
and, I thought, philosophical panache.
Moments pass. Pilgrims move along.
It is against the grain of life
for anything to linger long
and soon our motor coach
had left the lane.
Dust had settled
and the sun unfurled.
Mrs Williams, trembling slightly,
pinned a tea towel to the line
and never saw her pig the same again.
Moments like to these
rend men's lives into immortalities.

I took m'lunch upon a weathered bench
upon a gorse-rough cliff
above the turquoise sea.
Fleets of hopeful gulls
sailed cobalt sky above me
and my fine coarse Hi'land loaf,
Danish ham and French brie --
a warm breeze redolent of sage
and drying thyme perfumed my hair --
while far below upon the blinding beach
a tide of languid bathers
sprawled on Turkish towels
before the gypsy sun.

Weeks later I would learn
beyond my bench and blissful bathers
in the dark North Sea an oil rig
blew itself and all its crew
to shining stars as night
flowed black and sluggish
as a film of crude into the tide pools
of our sheltered cove.

Passion, hatred, love, destruction,
pigs, oil rig, a sagging laundry line,
a flock of gulls, a picnic in the thyme --
life in all perfection, life in paradox --
a universe we share with argyle socks
and fountain pens, and mountain tops,
mangoes, mussels, mallard ducks --
here we mortals giggle in our cups
oblivious most times to just how ludicrous
and precious is the scheme of things.
I say that life's a lovely heap
of wondrous rubbish
and we're all hip deep.

A thought that moves me back
to Castle Gight (it rhymes with tricked),
ancestral seat of Gordons small and great,
some Gordons well esteemed, but most ill-famed --
the clan of which my mother stood as laird,
(unluckily the thirteenth and the last of same).
The castle too has come to ruin,
sprawling tumbled on a shaggy knoll
above a reed-choked stream
within the confines of pasture
grazed by placid mongrel cattle.

How bucolic was the scene
of our little ramble to the castle,
how rural the environs
and how spirited we strode
between the emblematic
thistles toward the moat
(the scenery inflicting
minor damage to my coat),
and how vociferous
the thronging Byronists
that circled verily the fort
like Turks besieging Bucharest
or a SWAT team bent upon arrest.
The warning on the wire fence
was clear: "No Trespassing --
the Earl's not responsible for injuries".
It seems a castle is a fearsome thing
long after armies vacate with the war machines.
And sensible, respectful members of our tour clan
strolled off to view the River Ythan.

Whereas our Linda and Ms Tierney
(women of a breed that tamed a wilderness,
that braved a savage sea, women fearless
as a pair of Bengal tigresses
or New York cocktail waitresses)
hung back -- looked about them.
Looked at me. I prayed
they wouldn't do what I suspected
they were gearing up to do.
Suspected also since so many of my prayers
vanish to the same ethereal plane
socks go to when you flight them in the dryer,
'twas just as well I didn't waste divine attention
begging an exclusion from the coming expedition.
By the time I muttered through my amens
they were squirming through the fencing,
and were motioning for my participation.

Storming castles isn't what it used to be.
Built to ward off raids of nasty neighbors
one would think it proof against two gentle
ladies-fair armed with loaded cameras --
though major sections of the bastion
now reclined within a weedy moat,
though portions of the parapets
have gone to parlor-up a local goat.
Forward scrambled 'neath the crumbling arches,
dauntless females and reluctant me --
forward fumbled, stumbled, slid our party
into chambers dim and dangerous,
down rubbled stairs to nether regions
even bats abandon, even spiders shun
into a mason's fore-taste of oblivion.

Boisterous Gordons once called home
these cells now dank, and damp and dreary --
haven drier than a drenching rain,
cozier than hawthorn hedges,
preferable to braving bandit's knives,
though not by very much I vow.
Few hardy souls would wish to tarry now,
few book the master suite of late
in this remote countryside retreat.

When I say "castle" fruitful minds
might conjure a romantic palace
though little down at heel.
A colorful imagining --
evocative and gothic, sure,
but how 'bout we get real?
What we faced was an immense
and undistinguished knoll
strewn with rocks and rubble
one might take for natural
were it not pock-marked all about
with ugly window holes and one or two
low archways set in falling walls.
Abandoned human caves, a warren
blown apart and left to molder
back in sixteen something-or-other,
sleeping centuries in slime,
mildew, and lichen --
a narrow tower divided
into sleeping chambers half the size
of trappers' cabins, built to trap
the body heat of sheep
and fighting men, several dozen
children, and assorted harried women
through the icy nights
beside the river Ythan.

I found it all so awfully dismal
as we descended by a crumbling stair.
(This theme is taking a Jungian air,
positively archetypical --
like Gilgamesh into the Underworld
after immortality or Orpheus
after his Eurydice --
our quest was much more humble
prompted as it was by curiosity
and undertaken by two silly women
and a defunct poet prone to stumble.)

We found ourselves at length
in very like a demi-dungeon carved
into the bedrock of the hill,
a twilight mini-Chillon,
scented like a river bottom,
like a compost heap,
redolent of mud and mildew,
and several aged materials
of which we need not speak
but which were ever-present
in a medieval street.
From dripping ceiling
to oozing floor
an inhospitable and grim decor.
And everywhere strewn all about,
amazing in its incongruity,
the rotting pitiful remains
of other interlopers revelry.

Filthy as a border war it was,
where once the proud and fearsome
folks of Gight defied encroachment
of refinement, that import virulent
from the south of River Trent.
Here within the noisome confines
of the Gordon keep, compounding
what the ravages of Time
had set within the frame
were crumpled Coke cans, cellophane,
and candy wrappers, broken lager bottles
and a pizza box, potato crisp bags
and cigarette butts, some scraps
of female clothing by Playtex,
and one unmentionable item of latex.
We gazed appalled at the debris
of this our century. I thought to flee
to cleaner climes (anyplace would be).
But women, being women, (bless 'em)
pushed up their sleeves to tidy up some.

My feeling is debris is necessary
to our posterity -
a culture is as memorable
as its collected refuse is obtainable --
and knowledge of our ancient heritage
would lack reportage
and still by mists of Time be hidden
had recycling swept clean
the kitchen midden.

Or so I argued with my female friend
as they descended on the rusty cans
and by their exclamations indicated
I should be similarly dedicated.
Arguing with these two was a long shot --
of course it came to naught.
(As does stringing couplets
if ya don't know when to stop.
Though in working forms poetic
or romantic I'm never faithful long
or if I am I soon regret it.)

Tierney found a dusty sack
abandoned in a corner --
green letters on the side
spelled FERTILIZER.
How this redundancy
had come there was a mystery
but how we utilized it
fitted utterly.
Linda held the burlap open,
Tierney stooped and scooped a mine
of pulpy magazines and paper cups,
shards of glass and spoons of plastic,
cardboard cartons, orange rinds
and a bra with sprung elastic.
I tried to look enthusiastic,
while I shoveled up my share --
wondering what microbes or bacteria
with deadly purpose had designs
upon my gastric membranes.

In fifteen minutes we'd gathered
garbage sedimented on that floor
since the War to End All Wars.
It took all three of us to haul
it up those horrid stairs
and out of doors.
Down the lane where our orange
coach was parked in Tour range
(And that's the closest
anyone has ever come
to rhyming that one!)
the balance of the Byron gang
waited, milled around and waited,
worried we were lost again
or else had fallen in the Ythan.
Michael Wright was counting noses
for the fourth or maybe fifth time.
Yet again our noses missed the muster.
Someone spread the rumor
Megan, Gwen, and Lady Daly
were rounding up a searching party --
when at long last we were sighted
trudging down the farm-track
dragging what appeared at first
to be a body back.

And from a vanished battlement
the ghosts of the lairds of Gight
perused the oddest piece of pillagement
witnessed in the last five hundred years --
laughing women, jubilant as Vikings on a raid
(and one ethereal poet trailing the parade)
hefting their hard-won rubbish booty
off to a dustbin at the roadside.
And somewhere (don't I hope) it's written
this gets me some points in Heaven!
Or perhaps a generous Celestial grin?
I hedge all bets in the state my ectoplasm's in.
Well, the Gordon's best is gone
to dust or devilment,
and flesh-toned stones lie tumbled
'neath a smattering of gnarled oak trees.
As we departed, tattered doves
resumed their places on the parapets
and preened away all memories
of our invasion -- battered feathers falling
into mossy crevasses and lodging
in the hedgehog holes of Time.















CANTO FIVE


"Then the season of youth and its vanities past
For refuge we fly to the goblet at last;
There we find -- do we not? -- in the
flow of the soul,
That truth, as of yore, is confined to the bowl"
Byron


Within the pages of my journal
nothing much is seen
of the journey north to Aberdeen --
crows in stubble fields,
lots of black-faced sheep,
and various viburnums blooming.
I woke from napping on arriving
at the University were we'd be staying
and for once I had a private room,
which boded well --
determined to raise hell
I wouldn't wake a bunkmate
if I staggered in from the pubs late.

My first ten years were lived respectably
though less than regally in Aberdeen
conserving what remained of Mother's legacy
(my father had a natural talent for profligacy).
Amusements come in modest number
and of simple kind in towns this size.
It takes a liberal endowment of imagination
for a youngster such as I was then
to enliven such remote environs.
Yet I took it as my duty,
and responsibility and sacred destiny,
to keep the village gossips busy.
At five years old it wasn't easy.
Had to nearly kill myself
falling out of Abercromby's pear tree,
dress some bolsters up as me
and launch them off the first floor balcony
past my great-aunt and my mother taking tea.
Many other lively escapades I won't mention
earned for me a modest reputation
as a kid of some rambunction.
Still I don't think I was any wilder
than most boys fleeing from the boredom
of a cramped, conservative community.
(Though I'll admit that when I left at ten
it'd been a while since I'd been virgin.)

I grow weary of literary company --
all that so-so verse and ancient history,
looky here and looky there
and fifty-thousand flights of stairs.
We'd been pretty near a week upon the tour
and I was overdue for darts, a pasty, and a beer.
(And not that chilly, piss-poor lager
Yanks insist on swilling by the pitcher,
but a comforting and hearty brew
you're nearly forced to chew, thank you!)

My sense of humor'd gone as grey and flaccid
as Lock Leven had been placid.
Tierney, knowing me as well as anybody'd,
started looking worried lest I snap
under the weight of floral tributes,
and too many clergymen who felt it necessary
to make clear within a sermon in my honor
that while they liked my poetry per se
they had their reservations
on my soul's trajectory.

My normal cheery attitude
was getting threadbare at the knee.
By Aberdeen I trembled for my sanity.
Not that I have needed much excuse
to crawl off seeking alcohol abuse.
So tucking Tierney 'neath me wing
I fled to find some serious carousin'.
Ol' Aberdeen's a working class and college town
and as such it's a bank-up honest pub town.
No slick tourist fern bars here.

These beauties reek of stale smoke,
rancid sweat and slobbered beer.
And barrel loads of Northern cheer.
The pub is Britain's rumpus room.
That observation's not original with me
but as cliche as milky tea, Turner sunsets,
pipers on the biscuit tin, and jam on crumpets.

Drink up! For soon the glow will fade,
so soon will Time disperse our mad charade --
to airy nothing goes the memory
of where-all we made merry
or what dark brew our glasses graced.
Drink up! The evening's in its infancy
but once -- or twice.
Remember when we didn't give a flippin' hiccup
if we drank 'til we threw up --
when we didn't give a flyin' donkey
how rapidly we drained our pocket money,
or quaffed away our livers' immortality?
I swear I can't recall to what we toasted,
but hey, drink up until your stomach's busted.

No, can't recall the names of any pubs
we swigged and swaggered through that night.
All pubs are named the same at any rate --
some king or other royalty, some animal,
some hue significant to heraldry
and often as not a double-entendre --
we draped ourselves against the walnut bar
of shall we say the King's Bull Gules,
propped a foot or two upon the old brass rail,
waved a wavering howdy to the publican
and bid him draw two pints of anything
that matched the color of the paneling.
We made ourselves at home and looked around.
A comedy was on the telly in the wall.
The place was humming with talk of football --
it killed a mess of fans in Manchester.
The only woman present, other than my Tierney,
was a blond in heated argument
with some broad-shouldered gent
picking up his Guinness at my elbow.
At first I didn't catch the chance resemblance
she had to Caro Lamb -- the light was bad.
But soon I caught the tone of voice.
And then I caught the flying glass.

It's a fool that underestimates
a hundred pounds of wounded pride.
A woman wronged has everything on her side.
Never think because you have the upper hand in bed
your lady friend would stop this side of homicide
should you be caught some other gal astride.
From what I pieced together from the shrieking,
the gent by whom I had been standing
had neither kept his meaty hands to hefting pints
nor confined his mobile lips to drinking.

His Guinness deluged my new waistcoat and nankeens
as the fury launched a full-tilt lunge
for the throat of her erstwhile companion.
And just as other patrons peeled the prickly miss
from off her victim, the pub awash
with mayhem and screaming, who drops by --
(Tierney and I waist-deep in the fray)
but gentle Miss Leeds and quiet Miss Hoffman
seeking a sip before turning in.

And what they saw as they stood in the doorway
was their poet mopping spilled brew from his trews,
a flailing blond being pinned to the floor
(the cowardly cad having fled out the back door),
and Tierney picking broken glass from her shoe.
I knew there would be little use explaining.
Appearances were way beyond incriminating.

As I sit this morning at my keyboard
remembering our misadventures of that year
the infidels are carpet bombing Baghdad.
Distanced as I am by time and by geography
perhaps it's all too easy for me
to make light of human frailty --
ageless conflicts tear our world asunder.
Still, when do we need our humor more
to keep us sane than when we're in a war?

I bought the house a round.The blond cooled down.
Soon Kate (for so she was) and Sallie
were swapping stories of male perfidy.
And feeling ladies need some privacy
and wishing not to be around
when I became the topic,
as I knew I would --
and urged by my good manners
and excessive modesty
I removed my glass and self
to a table near the telly.

It is the nature of the human beast
to socialize itself --
mold itself to standard forms
to safeguard order and upholstery.
We are perforce a rather canine breed
and learn as pups the real and vocal
penalties for thwarting pack authority.
Such is the Airedale mentality
behind ladies clubs and football teams,
nations, cities, and families.
(Though lor' knows the genesis or utility
of that anomaly the literary society.)

Yes, folks will, with some exceptions,
pay their rents before eviction,
drive their cars the legal speed,
eat the pizza with their fingers,
eat their salad with a fork.
You're wrong if you believe I mock.
I prize a proper quiet life --
Sunday morning with my paper,
clean drawers folded in the drawer,
and something I can recognize for supper.
What I'm getting at is this:
though basic instincts lead us
into orderly and mellow actions,
baser inclinations buy subscriptions
to the gossip mags and tabloid publications.
We humans love to read about a rotter
but pray he doesn't date our daughter!

We gobble up the foibles of the rich
and richly infamous, the who-got-whom-in-bed,
and every ruined Debby on the center spread.
I may have been an early casualty
of that bitch-goddess Media,
but by no means was I the last poor clown
to wake up on page one of every rag in town,
then find by afternoon the publishers
had dealt the coup de grace
to yet another sterling reputation.
(Mine was closer, I admit, to plate
but not as bad as some would intimate.)

As I allowed my thoughts to wander
under the table twitched and dreamed
a golden Labrador retriever.
And across from me its owner,
red faced and mumbling in his beer.
I felt regrettably too sober.
I felt alone and lonely,
deserted, abandoned, unnoticed,
strangely melancholy suddenly
as if found guilty
of some heinous faux pas
and exiled from the company.
An out-of-place emotion
in a noisy public house --
much like developing
a sudden passion
for one's wedded spouse.

Perhaps it was the break-neck pace
with which we'd run the Tour race.
Perhaps I suffered from exhaustion.
Complicated by the interesting sensation
of beer-soaked clothing next my skin.
I fiddled mindlessly with my coaster,
and my glass, blankly tracking bubbles
rising toward the smeary rim.

At length the fella at my table noticed me
and grunted something through a sloppy grin.
I nodded my respects and hoped
that'd be the end of our relationship.
But he must have thought I needed cheering up
from what I gathered from his manner
as he slid his chair a little closer
intently gabbing on but saying
nothing I was up to translating.

The chap was burying all evidence of English
under lorry-loads of Glasgow burr
that even I, who had a Scottish mama,
found impossible to make much outta.
I wondered how much American he understood,
that language being so expressive
when one is in the mood for being rude --
was instantly ashamed of my bad mood,
for the fellow obviously meant well.

It's unlike me and unworthy to be antisocial.
I introduced myself therefore,
made a complimentary comment on his hound --
more nods and yakking then went on.
I bought another round.
Kate and Sallie joined us before long
and taking cues from me they grinned,
scratched the dog, and nodded,
listening intently to all the fella said,
practicing that female art so amazing
of appearing understanding and all-knowing
without a notion what anyone is saying.

I had planned to use this pub scene
as a podium for my ideas on war and women,
death and watered whiskey, famine,
pestilence and other dinner topics
fit to justify the ink and cotton bond.
You should have seen the fits and starts
I chucked into the can -- still one
extrapolates a lot about the nature
of our species from an evening
sipping suds in a British pub
with an oil rig crew
fresh from the cruel North Sea,
a dozen students from the University,
a yellow canine, a publican
with a Masters in Chemistry,
a Romantic poet beer-damp
to his silky Georgian drawers,
and on the tube a booming
rerun of "Fawlty Towers".






CANTO SIX


"Comfort must not be expected
by folks that go a pleasuring"
Byron


Let us now plunge ahead
with this our itinerary.
A key requirement of travel poetry
is that it move across geography --
otherwise we'll strand ourselves
first week of the Bicenteniary Tour
languishing in blithe and bonnie Aberdeen,
getting bored and boring by degree.

Monday morning rain was dingin' doon
as out we walkin' toured the town --
these walking tours begin to blur
and soon I am quite unsure
where in fact we are --
Mr Peacock's school of dancin',
Mercat Cross, the Mannie o' the Green,
the house of Provost Skene, Drums Lane,
the gutted Grammar School of Aberdeen,
Brig o' Balgownie where I rode me pony --
our motto seemed to be KEEP MOVING.
"It's a mansion a minute", quipped Valery.
At approximately sixteen-thirty
we broke for tea, evening
scheduled to be free.
Most wandered off to hit the galleries.

Dead of feet and drenched to bone
I went for a stovie at St Machar's Bar
and tried to make sense of it all --
went over my Aberdeen notes so far.
Found I'd scribbled most upon
my nurse May Gray's blue gravestone.

A thoughtful rector, worried
that we'd miss it in a sea
of weathered grey stones,
had painted it bright robin's egg --
the weirdest shade concocted
in a pair of centuries.
And sprawling there upon her table-grave
as once I'd done on Mr Peachey's,
I conveyed a tardy cheery-bye,
forgave the girl her early lessons
in the midnight ways of men and women.
These days I put such urges as hers
down to hormone surges.
Can't remember how I dealt
with it back then --
except to find an outlet for confusion
in my lover-strewn bedroom
and my sputtering pen.
Poesy feeds the soul in countless ways,
but can't provide you half
the lamb chops money buys!
What we is is hungry critters
trading sweat for fish and fritters.
On the barren fields of publishing and TV
it's spreading excrement that grows a money tree.
And "informed sources" make up for your deficit
if you have failed to thoughtfully
provide the requisite.

There have always been the volunteers
for jeers and pillory --
the seekers after notoriety and infamy.
But in this century these masochists
have spawned a whole economy
to feed and fee their publicists.
I myself have never had to pay
a specialist in slander.
My widow pioneered the profession
of character assassination.
I sometimes wonder if eventually
my tarnished fame will resurrect itself
from Annabella's diligence on my behalf.
There is a slender chance.

I am tempted at this juncture
to treat you to a lecture
on the wedded state in general,
and my disastrous union in particular,
but, aside from being such a dreary tale,
there are a dozen dusty volumes
vivisecting in a vivid prose
yours truly's spousal failings
and m'lady Byron's wifely woes.
Far more entertaining than any sketch
my memory might summon of that dreadful year,
for real creativity consult the mutineer.

Byron's Axiom of Human Interaction is as follows:
the probability that one will give offense
increases with the size of audience.
Or put another way: behavior deteriorates
inversely to the interest that it generates.
Introduce third parties to a marital dispute
and what began with loud discussion
ends with someone in concussion.

Time and time again I've seen it happen.
Set up bleachers for the spectators
and you've thrown the dove to alligators!
I'm fairly sure I might have kept my temper placid
had there not been mother-in-law and ladies maid
and half of London peering 'neath our window shade.
Nothing's more inspiring to a thespian-at-heart
than standing-room-only and the villain's part.

I've noticed my more odious compulsions
take Wagnerian proportions by the second curtain.
Tragedy or comedy it's all the same to me
if there's a critic on the premises.
I've played all roles from fool to gigolo,
though feel the part that's always been my nemesis
is that great gloomy fella, the "Byronic Hero".

I'd entered that dimension of the road,
a frame of mind alike to overload
where simple matters of existence,
the day-to-day procedures of survival
trivial in normal times, metamorphosize,
transmogrify to monsters
in some terrifying ways.

Oh, no, I hear you saying, he is bent
on balladizing blisters, eulogizing
restful sleep, lamenting o're
the dismal texture of the toilet tissue,
and the dreary sight of dripping undies
drying on a bed rail.
Where, you ask, has all the Romance fled?
Where the lofty sentiments,
the leafy glades, the moonlit raptures,
where the nightingale? The siren call
of beauty, where fluttered off
the lark of Shelley?
You are expecting rather much
from earth-bound me!

Here's your lesson, Reader, in reality.
Of greater import to the travel weary
than birds, or waterfalls, or statuary
is the nearest lavatory
and a bed (bug free) --
where the lever, switch, or handle
to the lights, the heat, the water?
How works the gravity-feed tea maker?
And (no minor matter) where in Scotland
did we lose the adaptor for my razor?
In olden days (never thought I'd use that line)
while Great Romantics fiddled with their pen-ends
gazing rapt on alpine scenery,
folks more functional were scrubbing up the pans
and mucking out the scullery.
Whenever I required munchies in mid-reverie
Fletcher'd make a run for the pantry.

Of any journey what's remembered
comes to less than an unmailed post card.
Memory's a most capricious, aqueous faculty.
Good thing for posterity
Michael Rees, not me, recorded
our itinerary for the Byron Society.
My rendition is a narrow drawer
of slightly yellow, cracking snapshots
no one can identify now.
I've mislaid many manor houses,
mayors and mayoresses, lords and ladies,
ceremonies sumptuous and teas resplendent,
emotionally draining tributes,
bagpipes, what nots, and theatricals.
The Tour went by in a blur --
except for sleepy and sublime Braemar.

Braemar Scotland sports a small hotel,
a mini-market, and a castle.
The latter, strangely, owned
by an elder lady born in Seattle.
(Her younger sister's living still
upon our Queen Anne Hill.)
Braemar's only street
floats an eager fleet
of tiny tourist traps.
(One of which is also owned
by the lady from Seattle.)
I pointed Tierney
at the plaids and sweaters --
mercifully removed my wretched company
(it having proved a cranky beastie recently)
and walked Mar Road the other way.

British Summer slides in sideways
near to Solstice --
two weeks later vaporizes
like a one-night-stand at dawn.
Strolling out that twenty-eighth of June
I knew that Autumn comes around too soon
for those of us addicted to the sun --
tempus fugit and all that.
With blazing warmth upon my forehead
glad I was I didn't have a hat.

City poet though I'm known to be
I'm not immune to the sublimity
of scenery --
of picnics quite replete
with crusty French, tomato, brie, and ham,
a pint of bitter set to cool
within the bosom of a shady pool.
Though often lumped with the Romantics,
I never starve for my iambics.
Straight way from purchasing
essentials at the market
upon an angling path I slipped away
through brackened copse
of drowsy birch down toward
the banks of River Dee.

Briars caught my trousers legs,
nettles brushed my cuff --
dust and insects
shimmered in the air
as if to beg me pause
my restless pilgrimage,
to feel the quickening
in each warm leaf.
And heard I whispers
of the vocal waters.
Brown parcel crushed
beneath one arm,
I balanced to mid-stream
and on a fallen dolmen
placed my cheese, the ale, and bread --
as if an offering to Pan.

My weary spirit traveled out,
a feather floating golden
over granite, over umber rivulets
where jewel-blue flowers
dipped their fragile petals
to the silver pool
where here the River Dee
is but a murmur flowing
through the Earth's worn bones --
the winter river but impassioned memory.

In yet another time I'd flung myself
against a fiercer water, dared
the undertow of mighty Hellespont,
struggled panting to a bank
where no fair Hero waited
for her damp Leander.
But I was so much younger --
there beside the gentle Dee,
my crusty bread bespread with melting brie,
my ale refrigerated in a shallow pool,
I nodded off amid the drowsy damsel flies
below a noisy waterfall,

upon my megalithic sofa dreamed
I was a poet, famous brilliant
military leader, lover,
bon vivant and dilettante
surviving yet another century
where comic trifles such as these
have all but ceased to matter --
woke in clammy sweat to see my jacket
floating down the river,
a raven finishing my dinner,
and by my pocket watch
I'd barely time to catch
the outbound coach.

I bounded -- I boarded --
breathing labored,
draped my dripping jacket
on a warm wheel well --
shivered under Tierney's
chilly glare --
she obviously angered
I had left her
to the not so tender mercy
of a butter-cozy
black wool cloak marked down
to thirty pound and thirty --
quite beyond her budget really
but impossible to leave
upon the rack so lone and lonely.

Wracked I was observing
the condition of my jacket sleeve
but getting little sympathy
from Jack Frost's sister Sallie.
My guess was it was PMS --
an explanation always handy
when you need to shift
responsibility.

So on we jostled, bumped,
and rumbled 'mid a dearth
of conversation,
jacket dripping on my shoe,
the chill beside me
icing up my clavicle.

Several misplaced castles,
one dead sheep upon the roadside,
one dead pheasant up the lane,
two unlucky rabbits later
saw us haul it up
at Stirling U. for supper --
which had died as well,
we being fifty minutes
off the posted schedule.
Sorrys all around
to all the gods of academe
and what remaining kitchen help
could still be reasoned with
brought forth the truly tepid
meal on which we fell
like pumas on a bison.
I ate the leather pudding
in Dickensian depression.

We found our dorm rooms
relatively quite palatial --
clean sheets and misty view
of Stirling Castle up the hill.
Keats and Shelley, had they been along,
would have written odes as the sun went down.
Lord Byron collapsed on the eiderdown.

Next day's journey brought us
into Mr. Wordsworth's Grasmere --
though why this stupid detour
when Lord Byron never went there
or even cared much for the duffer
puzzled me -- Ol' Willy-o-the-Lakeland
boasts of fans enough without a Byron loan
and I was antsy anyway to get along
through Bath and back to London
having had enough of mountain scenery
and botany and the Dee, the sea,
the stops for tea, a symphony
of honey bees on every heathered lea,
and the plain baloney of tour tyranny.
However this being a democracy
and this pensive poet
overruled by the majority,
I pouted as we passed Penrith
and clear to Grasmere Vale.

Long after daffodils
and well into roses we arrived.
One dusty street went either way
from Dove Cottage to the shaggy yard
where Death had planted Will
like a bulb of faded jonquil.

At the water-way an open-air cafe
Blossomed into lunch, and rather
than queue up before the cot
(and pay the two pound fee)
I ordered up a Harp and staked
a shady place where willow trees
swept a lyric bank of reeds
along the water's edge.

(Okay, what the hell --
one pastorale additional
before finale and the moral.)
I watched a flock of tourists
file across the bridge
and out the weedy path
to Wordsworth's plot,
observed them find their range,
aim and shoot their roll's worth
of weathered names and worn-out words --

from where I turned to savor
those amazing lilies
floating as my scattered thoughts
upon the stream between us --
propped my dusty feet
and sipped my drink as wisps of cirrus
promenaded inland with a stately gravity.
Had they been clouds more ominous,
more mountainous and cumulus,
rumbling with portent, omens
torrential sleet and hail,
I might have been more mentally
prepared for subsequent events
at Saint Anselm's Hall of Residence
in Manchester -- dread name
that to this very hour
plumbs the murky depths of horror.





CANTO SEVEN

"My case, as an author, is peculiarly
hard, in being everlastingly taken, or
mistaken for my own protagonist."
Byron


Lodged within the sluggish bowels
of Britain like some weighty dumpling,
indigestible and left to fester
is foul and smelly Manchester.
Happy and innocent the individuals
who've never visited the Entrails.
Apologies all 'round for the scatology
but I refuse to disavow my simile.
My moldy barony is thoroughly
embarrassed by the mutant presence
of this monstrous excrescence.

On that twenty-ninth of June
it had been lightly raining
off and on since dawn.
We'd trudged the sodden grounds
of Clayton Hall and Hopwood
in dripping Burberry's
and soggy London Fogs.
Driving down from Droylsden
the coach smelled like wet dogs.
Thunder rumbled off the bogs --
hunger rumbled in our midlands.
And as Harry parked us
by an iron gate, in unison
we sent our prayers aloft
to whichever saint had taken over
from Saint Christopher.

For if ever pilgrims needed patronage
it was our assemblage --
before us cloaked in ashen twilight
loomed Saint Anselm's Residential Hall
like Armageddon on a hangover,
like a three hour layover
on a twelve hour flight,
like beef stew after a fortnight.
I wondered what if not this hall
had sent the saint to martyrdom.
(I ceased to wonder
when I saw our room.)

Single file we gathered up our bags.
Michael issued keys and tiny maps
to help the wayward stay on track.
Dark narrow hallways slithered off
in all directions toward the Underworld.
I steeled myself for something Medieval --
thumb screws, the rack, or iron maidens.
We received our summons.
Tierney, Gregg, and I stepped forward.
Michael, our Archangel of Catastrophe,
handed us a rusty key
and pointed Heavenward.

Gregg had three large cases,
Sal and I two flight bags each.
There were no porters
this side of the Pyrenees.
Off the pale nail
of Michael Rees'
extended finger
rose a staircase --
an unholy Jacob's Ladder
barely shoulder-wide
ascending through an aperture
in crumbling plaster.
Just then I would have sold my nuts
to Molly Yard and thrown in Saint Peter
for the use of lift or escalator.

But far above, we hoped,
some beds with sheets awaited us
so off we hefted, shouldered,
dragged and lugged our baggage
toward the Spiral Nebula --
managed well the second landing
without stumbling, only slightly panting --
but by landing number four collapsing.
Flaking varnish on the banister
felt like sandpaper --
the pea-green stairwell
seemed to pulse and swell.

Two hundred years I've lived
a lorry-load of terrors --
chief of these is stairs.
Mine's a lame excuse
for wishing to remain
so close to terra firma
but I was not alone
in pausing half-way up
that daunting precipice.

All three of us debated:
we could retreat the way we'd come
and beg an alternate accommodation.
Which might prove a better
or a worse situation.
We could persevere on an off chance
we would reach alive the room we had.
(Coming down next morning
wouldn't be half bad --
we could lower our bags
on sheets from the beds.)
Or we could stop
upon landing until dead.

It was a civilized discussion
of our options.
I voted then for gravity
deciding our destination.
But the ladies opted
for the opposite direction.

Scrape, thump, bump,
scrape, thump, bump
went our bags on the ascent --
thump-bump, thump-bump
went our hearts in torment.
The rest of the travail
is but a blur until
our bodies and our bags
lay scattered everywhere
like dried up insect hulls
upon the gritty tower floor.

Here I present a thumbnail
of layout and decor:
off the yawning central room
was a microscopic kitchen
and a toilet to delight
an antiquarian --
windows there were above the plumbing
over looking nothing but a crowd
of factories, all smoking.

There remained a chimney
with a mantelpiece
for what had been a fireplace
sealed tight with brick and mortar.
I thought that once they might
have had a fire in the flue
that cracked the masonry beyond repair.
I later came to half suspect
they'd walled a former resident in there.

Always a gentleman of forethought
I staked a corner cot near the toilet.
(I'd been in life quite keen
on that invention.)
Optimistically set upon the bedside chair
my toiletries and travel clock and night wear.
Gregg and Tierney, that inseparable pair,
chose beds side-by-side in the opposite corner.

There being time before our supper
we lay back upon the couches in our clothes
to nap and calm our nerves
(and steel us for the trip
back down those wretched stairs).
Next I knew the moon was starin'
down upon my person through the sky light
like a vulture eyein' chitlins.

A mournful wail set cobwebs
quivering in every shadowed
corner of the room.
Another joined in ghostly moan.
Sal and Linda on awakening
had realized they'd missed
their chance for dining.
I of course was less put out
by this deficiency than they were.
And anyway my over-night was packed up proper
with shortbread I'd purchased at the border.
Sallie had a tin of instant coffee
and a small jar of peanut butter.
We found the lights and figured
out the gravity feed tea maker.

It was very close to midnight --
we were sipping from old mugs
we'd apprehended skulking in a cupboard,
were strewing crumbs across our duvets
when we heard the footsteps on the staircase.

'Twas at that moment Linda shrieked
and pointed at the wall above my head --
(I slopped my coffee on my trousers and the bed)
there unnoticed until then, shadowy and dim
as if some hasty effort had been made
to rub it out or paint it over --
but all the same perceptible
in shaky scrawl the words:
FROM SOMEWHERE THERE CAME EVIL.

Were this a film by Hammer
clouds of bats would squeak into the air,
candles shimmer, flicker and flair --
the fog machine would strip a gear
creating eerie atmosphere --
worm-white fingers would appear
upon the banister -- enter the Vampire.
But this is not the cinema -- it is reality.
We cannot wiggle out by turning off the TV.
Yes, definitely footsteps on the stairway --
clearly seen the haunted warning
scribbled by some prior victim --
no exit save a swan dive from the tower --
trapped like minnows in a barrel --
morning find our carcasses,
abject terror frozen on our faces.
The mystery of our demises
will for two days running
occupy the Manchester Guardian
then take a seat in local legend.

At the second landing, now the third --
footsteps pausing, then persisting,
closer, nearer, nearer still --
sound of something brushed
against the wall --
groan of burdened stair.
Our heartbeats flutter in the air,
breaths falter -- straining for the sound
and wishing not to hear --
then a whisper -- then a ...
what was that? A chuckle??!!

"We've found you at last! Missed you at supper,"
said Mrs Gwen Beaumont, shaking her finger.
"Couldn't sleep, you know, until we had found you."
"Good Lord!", said her companion, looking around her,
"Who was their decorator, the Witch of Endor?"
Jack, a noted American lawyer,
was silent in deliberation
whether we had grounds for litigation.
Soon the group was joined by Megan Boyes,
talented biographer from Derbyshire,
and Lady Daly bringing up the rear.
They'd all concluded
restful sleep precluded
for the midnight hour --
their lower dungeon cells
were just as bleak (if not as haunted)
as our gothic torture tower.
A brilliant group, they'd thought
to bring the gleanings of their suppers
wrapped in serviettes and brown paper.
One particularly sapient soul
had thoughtfully brought hock and soda.
We filched more mugs and a few tumblers,
then mugged and tumbled onto bits
of scattered furniture.

Lamplight flickered for an instant
like a wind-blown candle flame.
Something rattled at the window pane.
Then we heard the roll of thunder.
A nervous titter slithered past a kipper.
Gwen's? No, she ate bread and cheddar.
No matter -- stormy weather nearer drew,
tracking us like snarling hounds
down from wintry Windermere.
We, with antique instinct, huddled
'round a fireplace that wasn't there,
whispered this and that banality
as if afraid some phantom dean
might catch us skulking in the belfry.
Sleet clawed the lightning-shivered glass.

"Reminds me suddenly," said I,
"of a summer night I whiled away
with Shelley, Claire, Mary,
and Doctor Polidori
near Geneva at the Villa Diodati."
My skittish guests waxed pale
and turned as one to stare at me --
they knew the outcome of that story.

'Twas June of 1816 -- we had traveled to Leman
(familiar to you now as Lake Geneva, Switzerland)
where I had leased a villa for the summer.
I was up for riding, sailing, shooting, swimming --
all the verbs of sunny climes and long warm days.
(Were I a flower I would be a tropical hibiscus
espaliered to a whitewashed wall in Tarsus.)
Unfortunately the clouds that followed us from Dover
matched our several moods and tempers --
my messy marriage miserably over;
pesky Claire insisting I play lover;
Polly-Dolly blustering and vain as Lucifer;
Shelley fevered with a metaphysical distemper;
Mary chill and silent as a Russian winter.
And for a week the rain had kept us prisoner.
I thought I'd lose my reason altogether!

On one particularly fierce and soggy evening
(I believe it was June fourteen or fifteen)
after servants cleared away our supper --
we gathered for some sherry in the parlor
and to ease the boredom I proposed in jest
a spooky story writing contest.
To fan our inspiration
I read some ghost stories
translated from the German.
Sad to say one foolish tale about a woman
who sported peepers on her nipples
gave poor Shelley creepy-crawlies.
I was horrified my innocent commission
caused him mental indigestion --
dubbed the contest not my best suggestion,
told them to forget I'd mentioned it.

But little Mary, who 'til then
had been as quiet as the dead
took up my gauntlet forthwith instead.
The future Mrs Shelley was a child of eighteen years,
intelligent, serious -- but as is said
not dry behind the ears yet
(at least compared to me of twenty-eight).
I was positive that William Godwin's daughter
knew by rote her sentence structure.
But it hardly seemed fair sport expecting her
to hold her own in such exalted company
as Percy Bysshe Shelley and me,
two heavy-weight contenders
in the lists of poetry.
Still, she was young and eager
and not easily intimidated
(or she thought us overrated).

Later that same evening
Mary started writing --
not to be outdone I started mine.
Claire and Shelley dropped out early.
Polly toyed around with something silly.
I was getting nowhere with a yarn
about an English vampire --
decided to retire
as a fiction writer.
I threw the doctor my failed scrap
to do his literary will mayhap.

Oh dire consequences of a thoughtless act!
Oh fearsome wheels we set in motion unforeseen.
What dreadful offspring we unleash unmeaning
on a world beyond our understanding
by tinkering with the stage machinery,
fingering the props, and moving scenery!

My careless generosity came back to haunt me
when Polidori's adaptation of my story,
published as The Vampyre cast me
as a lady-killing bloodsucker.
Stoker later lifted the lead character
for a fantasy called Dracula.

Mary's story was of course her Frankenstein.
My modesty does not forbid me mention
I was also drafted into that production.
I show up as Baron Victor, Promethean creator
of the misunderstood and id-like creature.
So between Mary Shelley and the good doctor
I twice became the father of a major monster.

However trivial my motivation
for suggesting competition,
it's remained a half-knit sweater
in my mental storeroom ever since --
a needling humiliation
(you might think it vanity)
that I failed so miserably
to finish up my entry.
Here I was, the contest's instigator
and it seems its inspiration --
the premier poet of my generation,
everybody's damned and laureled darling --
loved and hated in similar proportion
in fifty different nations --
(I like to think with justification)
yet bested by a girl just out of school
and a man I knew to be an utter fool!

I can't imagine anything more maddening
and corrosive to the self-esteem.
It's not so much that I'd been beaten,
but that I'd turned out nothing.
Never in my life had I turned tail
from any honest challenge.
Played cricket on my Harrow team
yet barely walked without a cane.
I swam the savage Hellespont.
I was a world-class pistol shot.
I took on all the Turkish Empire in Greece.
No one had ever called me gutless.
But here I yielded up the field
without the slightest fuss,
threw in the towel with two pages barely
as summer rain washed Villa Diodati.
Doctor Polidori and Mary Shelley
bravely forged their immortality
while I diddled Claire in the conservatory.
I kick myself for opening that can of worms
(referring to the contest now
and not of course the lady).
We should have played Parcheesi
and gone to bed early.

Thusly, moodily I reminisced
that stormy midnight in Anselm's tower
for an intimate but stony bunch of Byronists.
No one had moved or even seemed to breathe
since I'd begun my monologue. I class myself
a smooth practitioner of oratory --
made a mark at Harrow and in amateur theatricals --
caused quite a stir in the House of Lords.
The theater is my second favorite recreation
(mine was the opening address for rebuilt Drury Lane)
and I'm a razor sharp judge of audience reaction.
Either I'd been more enthralling
than I thought I'd been --
or rigor mortis had set in.

I tried my damnedest to remember
if I'd fastened up my trousers.
A chilly feeling caught me unaware.
Moonlight strobed between the scudding clouds.
About a year went by without a whisper.
Gwen then brushed away a crumb
and someone cleared his throat.
Lady Daly took a sip of coffee,
shifted in her chair
beside the dusty radiator.
Gregg and Tierney eyed each other
like two felines finishing a plover.
I could not begin to fathom
what could be the matter.

Then Megan smoothed her skirt
and elegantly took the floor.
"Curious you mentioned ghosts and what not.
Throughout the Tour I have often felt
the strangest shiver up my spine --
felt a presence at my elbow
at Newstead and at Aberdeen
nothing rational explained.
On the stairway at John Murray's
I absolutely felt someone
brush past me haltingly.
At Harrow too and Hucknall
the supernatural shimmer was so thick
several of our group remarked upon it."

"Don't you realize, my dear," said Megan,
"that with the possible exception
of Linda Gregg and Sallie Tierney,
until just now when you spoke up
none of us had seen your lordship!
Byron, dear boy, time to wake up --
you are completing your tardy ghost story.
Why man, you are the ghost," said she.

I've had some moments of embarrassment
I feel I could have lived without --
more than my fair share in that department.
There were the unexpectedly returning spouses,
unpaid bills for ostentatious coaches,
an unbecoming belly-flop in Venice,
a bad review of Idleness,
several medical emergencies,
a pair of broken braces,
some shattered hearts, and cheap romances.
I thought I'd outworn my capacity to blush.
But Megan's revelation was a bit too much.
I felt a little wavery about the knees,
chagrined I'd shaken the Society,
entertained a fleeting urge
toward self-destruction --
then remembered how redundant
would have been the action.

It was an awkward moment
but we all rose above it
as the cloudburst fizzled out
against the window glass,
and moonlight won the night at last.







CANTO EIGHT

"Is this too much? stern Critic!
say not so:
Patience! and ye shall hear
what he beheld
In other lands, where he was
doom'd to go."
Byron



And few participants when asked
acknowledge they were there
that night at all.
Michael's story for the Journal
jumps from moated Clayton Hall
to Lady Oxford's Eywood.
But then he'd missed
our evening in the tower.
Would that I had! I would
conjecture several who were there
would have preferred a sleeping powder.
I've upon my table Megan's recent letter
telling how, at this year's dinner
in the House of Lords, Lady Daly
nudged her with a floral satin elbow,
whispering in her proffered ear
"remember Manchester".
At those two words the sordid episode
backwashed in memory like toweling
clogging up the plumbing.

Still, as I remember it,
once we'd broken ice --
once we'd shared another mug,
some hugs, and anecdotes
I'd say we took no further notice
of the drowsy spiders on the cornice,
or the reptiles in the moldings,
or the scritch-scritching
in the Stygian kitchen,
for all our laughter
and our hearty toasting.
Soon I fit right in with my companions,
not to be aboastin', and they and I
had quite forgotten my main function
was hauntin'. Pity no one
thought to pack a fiddle or accordion --
we had the makin's of a country hoe-down.

Near to dawn the revel raveled --
gents and ladies sought their beds.
Even I reclined at length
upon my cot of metal,
watching stars blink out
beyond the smeary skylight.
Gregg and Tierney mumbled to each other
like girls at summer camp
until a gentle silence told me
they'd surrendered to the night.

I listened to their breathing, slow and even
as a river dreaming through a wood.
Wondered what I'd dream,
if dream I would.
Thought what tender things
these living ones --
foolish innocents but generous
to take in such a vagabond.
Not that I am given to self-pity
but I wondered what I had to offer
worthy such amazing hospitality
and touching loyalty.
Felt a gulf, a vasty fissure
open wide between the sleeping beauties
and my ghostly reverie.

Where upon our journey
had I stopped comparing
what we saw to what it'd been?
Or tried to see it as it was
for my new friends?
While we explored Peaks Cavern
did I not still hold
to Mary Chaworth's phantom hand
though she had never welcomed mine?
While Linda shivered in the shadows
and Sallie edged along the weeping wall
wasn't I still resurrecting
futile adolescent yearnings --
wandering the cavern of my mind.

In cavernous Saint Anselm's Hall,
sprawled I there beneath a scribbled omen,
heard I then the larks exalting
in the dormer and the planetree
Sleep had obviously missed me.
I think it was four-thirty.
The alarm was set for six.
I, quiet as a cobweb,
wafted to the bathroom --
cat-washed in the rusty sink,
then tip-toed to the kitchen
for a coffee and to clean my pen.

A tiny table next a wobbly chair
sat beside the window there
overlooking blue slate roofing
of a lower building.
I filled my silver Parker,
sat before my tour journal,
penned a solemn vow
that 'til the final day in London
I would live within the spirit
of the moment -- flowing
with the eddies of experience
alert to every stone and minnow --
attentive of my fellow traveler,
stuck like bird lime to the NOW.
I'd shelve my dog-eared memories
and traveled ego in the overhead
with three remaining
tins of Scottish shortbread.

By nine we'd broken fast.
Mrs Beaumont left the Byron Tour
for her home in Nottinghamshire.
Dr Standish-Barry cited business elsewhere.
Lady Daly scooted off to Winchester.
Even dedicated Byronists sometimes
exceed their tolerance for nightmare.
But most of us pressed on to Bath
with the single-mindedness of psychopaths.

Bath was the beginning of my being --
was that why they put it at the end?
Here rich and lonely Catherine Gordon
met and married impecunious Jack Byron.
Bath was never lucky for the Gordons.
Catherine's father George had met the Reaper
when he copped a cropper into the canal.
Rumor has it there was nothing
in the least bit accidental in the fall.
Grandpa couldn't swim as well as I could
or he would have shot himself instead
but perhaps his marksmanship was bad as well.
I'll ask him if we ever meet in Hell.
And while I'm at it I will look for Daddy Jack
who owns a sizable estate in nether regions
having paid installments using other's purses --
diddling his sister, the maids, neighbor's wives,
and we children's nurses.
But who can fault a guy perfecting talents
Mother Nature in her wisdom gave him?
Might as well damn the snake for being slim.

I put this bit of background in
so you will know (in case you didn't)
the reason for our visit.
But Bath is reason of itself --
a sugar, caramel, vanilla fudge confection
the color of cream tea or coffee latte
nestled in a gentle valley
like a pat of butter melting
in the hollow of a baked potato.
Through millennia it's been a tourist mecca
soaking Roman and more recent wallets
as it soaked the aching backs
in mineraled and perfumed springs --
providing our forefathers
a damp equivalent to singles bars.
Maids and widowed matrons here went shopping
for their fortune, or at least a husband.
Gentlemen, (and lesser mortals)
bartered titles or good looks
for heiresses with fat bank books.

Now I'll give my tattered muse a rest
and keep the letter of my vow --
here graciously cede Bath
to our Ms Tierney
who's been breathing down my neck
all day to have her say:


Byron's gone about the town.
I'm off alone -- I almost said at last!
And summer slumbers over Bath.
Crowds of cotton shirts and tropic sandals
pulse through fast food joints
a block from the canal.
Our tour's lunching at the Berni Royal
but on my budget I'm confined
to Coke and burger take-away
which I purchased at McDonald's.
But that's okay with me --
I'm strolling miles of English history,
my mind ateem with visions
out of Fielding, Dickens, and Jane Austen.
How could Byron ever understand?
He takes it all so much for granted --
but I am dancing down the pavement
dressed in jeans and T-shirt
that transform themselves
to petticoats and satin sashes.
My paper sack of take-away
is a beaded reticule
in which I've hidden from my mother
a secret message from my lover.
I'm rushing off to meet him
in the square before St Michael's.
Tip-toe, tip-toe -- where is he?
In such a press it's hard to see.
In a clear space by the door
an artist chalks designs
he lifted from the Roman ruins.
My heart aflutter, I pretend to watch him.
When really I have other things in mind.
What detains my handsome swain?
It's minutes past the hour!
Has he found another lover?
How will I survive the horror
if he's been toying with my honor?
What on earth shall I tell Mother?
My daydream takes this tack
until I notice I am clutching tight
my reticule and smushing my Big Mac.
I turn my steps back to the Avon
searching for a bench to sit,
upon which I may dine
and watch red and yellow boats
navigate between the swans
like gondolas in Venice.
There are no benches --
but a sloping patch of lawn
beneath a tree presents itself.
I spread my shawl and rummage
through the greasy sack.
My chips are cold and stuck
to plastic catsup pouches.
The Coke is wet but flat.
From concrete shore to concrete shore
the river is a lime-green slough --
a thoroughfare for scooter bug and dragonfly.
Not far from here I spy the shade
of Grandpa Gordon contemplating,
by the look upon his face,
the gloomy possibilities.
The dour Scot had not, however,
had the pleasure of a burger
wrapped in soggy paper
leaking condiments and lettuce juice
into his jeans and walking shoes.
In view of that I think his self destruction
may have been a fraction
light on motivation.

As years go by I find I'm taking on
his Grandson's more facetious tone --
used to be I'd pare away my words
to modern minimal austerity,
my longest poem lumbering
to barely twenty lines --
a spare amalgam of e. e. cummings
and the Japanese.
Any rhyme that accidentally sprouted
was vehemently routed.
As was any hint of personality,
any messy and embarrassing lucidity.

So who of all the poets in our history --
who with the least in common with me
should solidify upon my step one day
but Geordie Byron packing
his inimitably bumbling destiny
and, might I add, a bulging portmanteaus
of pale excuses, dusty sexist attitudes,
inappropriate expressions,
and self-centered moods.

How his modern education
came to be my chief vocation
I am at a loss to know.
There's no more cruel contortion
of our Mother Nature
than two poets bunking in together.
I have known some poets in my day.
And not a few I've shared a shower with.
But let two scribblers scrap
for shelving or equal p.c. time,
and whatever they shared the previous evening,
whether all-out lust or simple fellow feeling,
all goes poof when the muse goes prowling!

It's just amazing how a gentle soul as I
can transform into something wildly raving
should he move my margin setting.
I'm sure you fellow writers
recognize the feeling.
I believe however
I've been instrumental
in persuading Byron
that our separate sexes seek
for Truth down different roads is all --

that what he viewed as female triviality
is just another life vocabulary.
And I am sure that even he
can now see educating women
wasn't quite the vast mistake
he once thought it to be.
May I ask who has the right
to dictate subject matter
to Apollo? What's more meaningful,
intrinsically, in John Keats'
scrap of Grecian crockery
over my dear Granny's pottery?
Or in Shelley's rubble,
ancient and Egyptian
over my next thrift shop
expedition?
In what peculiar way
are Wordsworth's daffodils
more metaphoric of the nature
of this vasty cosmos
than the bloomin' cosmos
I have planted
on my kitchen sill?

Thusly have I argued
on occasion with his lordship --
who, reluctant to give up
sans parting quip,
reminds me he reserves
the right to groan
when otherwise bright ladies
write in gushing iambs
on their female glands and hormones --
and other matters I agree
should be between a woman
and her gynecologist --
not her anthologist.

Of course his lordship, he'll admit,
has sometimes versified his own accouterments --
but argues he has classic precedents.
Still I'm not sure his efforts came to much
but giggles from those individuals who knew him well,
and blushes from the few who knew him better.

My thoughts drift now as feathers
floating in the shallows
out beyond bright motor launches
and the breeze-blown trash --
on my own in England dreaming
out across the Avon that since Romans
has been welcoming all swans
and sandwich sacks and suicides
in civilized equality.

What sort of creatures school
among our predecessors' bones --
what species glean our leavings,
what in Avon's depths is twitching
toward my sinking burger bun?
What beasts with rotted teeth
and pitted hide ooze forward
where the channel seeps
through ribs of broken boats
and Milky Ways, ruined Georgians,
and chicken skins?
What nameless nosers of the silted stream
look surfaceward and see a goddess
casting loaves for fishes.

Meantime I imagine banks of virgins
ruffling bright smocks and springy curls,
vying on the promenade for ghostly
captains, sirs, and misters --
pivoting in satin slippers
and nearly teetering into the river --
suddenly one dashing spirit strides
with definite Byronic swagger
past them all to drop a wicker basket
cornucopian with purple grapes, hot sausages,
and chilled cider down beside my greasy burger.

Byron joined it by me on the grass.
He and I deposited my fries
and Big Mac in the trash,
lounged and nibbled on the green,
plucked the grape stems clean
and sipped away the dregs of Summer --
and the Bicenteniary Tour.

Inescapably the shadows grow --
oh yes, that hungry beast Itinerary stalks us,
but we've days enough to laugh in left us.
So, philosophically we grab my cloak.
I drop our leavings in the tote,
link my arm with my companion's,
and together off we skip
(Byron sort of loping)
cloak aflying, basket swinging,
laughing loud
we might well be mistaken
for the Wolf and Riding Hood.

Join we now the crew aboarding
for the motor down to London.
I have gotten my few pence in
and it's after all Lord Byron's poem
so here I throw you to his wolfship
for some closing episodes and scenery --
Sotheby's, Bloomsbury,
and National Portrait Gallery --
maybe a bit of Brighton by the sea.


CANTO NINE

"I can not repent me (I try very often)
so much of any thing I have done --
as of anything I have left undone -- alas!"
Byron


A little breath, love, wine,
ambition, fame,
fighting, devotion, dust,
perhaps a name ...
perhaps the London bookstore signings,
exhibitions, and receptions
that get to be a yawn
but which everyone drops in upon.
Our journey up to London
(No matter where you are in Britain
it is always up to Town.)
took us first to Bowood via Chippenham
to see a showcase of my suit Albanian --
where members came to fisticuffs and snarling
over photographic opportunity.
I snapped pictures of the fray and blooding
finding that a thousand times more interesting
than flash shots of a manikin in sanguine.
And too they may prove handy stash
when down the road I'm running low on cash.

Next stop found us briskly trotting
out to Tom Moore's Celtic gravestone.
Oh the moment fleeting -- oh unsteady footing.
And the tempers cooling
out to Farleigh Wallop
where I thought to live one time,
if only for the funny name
('til Mr Hanson spoiled the picture,
marrying his simple daughter
to its rich but mindless owner).

We swooped in seconds the perimeter.
Then off in clouds of blue exhaust
upon the last lap back to Russell Square.
And as our orange carriage gasped,
its last before the Hotel Imperial
Sir Harry (stunned no doubt
he'd lived to rid himself of us)
piled our baggage on the pavement,
leaving with this parting comment:
"Next time -- though God forbid
there ever is a next,
ya better get the bloody Concord
to do this!"

We were too late for supper.
And Sal and I too late to register
as, I'll be honest, I'd intended
that we stay once more
at Holland House Hostel
but they were full -- as was the hotel.
However, we were lucky --
Linda Gregg had booked two weeks before
and we, too tired to be choosy,
plied her with a pizza and a beer
and wangled space upon her floor.

There's more -- there's always more.
Two days officially of the itinerary --
yet from this crossroads what we'd known
as sweeping possibility and vast horizon
narrowed to a rutted path squeezed
either side by metaphoric hedgerows
offering a pinpoint view
our final days of tour,
my recall ablur --

recall those sleepless nights
beside fair Linda's bed
wrapped in her proffered spread --
recall that unlike Kensington
the neighborhood of Bloomsbury awakens
not with roosters crowing
but with thumps and bumps of dustmen,
screeches, snorts, and trumpeting --
like thirsty water buffalo
charging on a water hole.

Recall the street was breezy
Saturday the second of July
as early strolled I
out for a cup of coffee --
inhaled the morning air
where curbside rubbish bags
awaited pickup there.
Time was, pollution meant to me
a rather shoddy choice of gin,
or a tipsy swim across the Grand Canal.

Our corruptions proliferate
with density of population and mentality,
and Nature's marvel: human ingenuity.
Sewage in the London streets and coal smoke
in our upper respiratories
have given ground to baggies in the bay
and petrol scumming up our tributaries.
This century we've saved an owl or two,
half a dozen whales, and the Byron collar.
But oh how rare a dollar worth a dollar!

Amazing how I drivel-on on subjects
I know even less about than mathematics.
I'd do well to stay away from global economics
and confine myself to pistols, poetry, and pasta.
All three remain a part of modern life so far.
Though gun control has targeted my pistol range --
and poetry is only read by those
forgotten souls who write it --
and the housemate is threatening
to put us on the latest diet.

Taxis prowled like panthers in the alley.
Joggers cut on either side of me
panting down through Bloomsbury.
I prowled the square where Eliot
had counted cats and coffee spoons --
and sold his fountain pen
for modest rents and postage stamps.
He knew his evenings and his afternoons,
and echoing his dying fall
I knew his early morning much too well
when stumbled I upon a plastic hill
containing crumpled news,
spoiled peaches, soggy swill
and other urban compost --
to gain my balance
slumped I drunkenly against
a streaky lamppost.

Perched upon the twist-tie top,
for want a bust of Pallas,
was a raven sable as
the Gates of Hades --
fixed me with a paralyzing gaze,
a feathered Nemesis

Is this the time, the place,
he might have heard me mumble,
surely he's read Joseph Campbell!
The proper place to spring
a spirit messenger device
or omen, animal or avian,
is early on within an epic poem.
He should have fluttered on the scene
some cantos ere to this --
I'm growling for some breakfast.

So before that baleful beak
could ope and utter
some weird cryptic blather
from the Universal gutter
I said, "if you have anything
you think I need to hear
how 'bout I lend an ear
two days from now
when I am flying outta here --

I'll let you soothsay all the way
'cross Iceland, Greenland,
and the Northwest Territory --
you can rag me on my every frailty
until we touchdown on the runway.
But damme, I'd feel silly
experiencing epiphany
on a street in London
when in the cafe waiting
are my eggs and bacon,
danish and a latte."

Quoth he, in accents gravely,
"old boy, I am a Tower Raven
and as such I am duty bound
not to be absent over long.
Besides which, fellows
of our feather do not fly
in tourist class.
Plus we've a union, man,
and I'm on overtime, alas.
So I shall say my piece
but once and slowly, Geordie.

If you're to learn at last
the meaning of your journey,
once the Tour's over
leave the ladies
Gregg and Tierney --
send them back to Trinity
to pick apart some poetry
at the after-tour seminar.
Pack your kit and underwear
and catch the train, you hear?"

Papers fluttered wildly in the gutter.
The raven climbed the air.
I quickly yelled, "Go where?" --
remembering that supernatural advice
is in the best times pretty rare
and to reject it is a classic error.
"Good Lord", he cawed, "What must I do
prepare a ruddy diagram for you?
Catch a northbound train, my Geordie,
home to Nottingham and Newstead Abbey."

And then he vanished like a salmon
or Walla Walla onion out of season.
(Though since he was a raven
perhaps a better simile would be
"gone like a dodo or passenger pigeon".)
You may remember I hadn't eaten --
so I filed the raven's exhortation
to review some other time
when I could hear my thinking
over stomach growling.

By the time I found a cafe
serving decent coffee
memory of my encounter
with the beaky augury
of Tower Hill had faded
to a pallid will-o'-wisp,
unexpectedly resurfacing
upon the last day of the Tour --
but more about that later.
I took my time over kippers
and traditional cold toast,
knowing my companions
would undoubtedly sleep in --
the prior evening we had been
to Sotheby's exhibition and reception
a fine collection of my manuscripts,
pistols, powder horns, spent bullets,
locks of graying hair,
a copy of Polidori's Vampyre
et cetera, et cetera --
the hall resembled a Mayfair wine bar
set within a rummage sale,
plastic champagne glasses everywhere
butting furiously as literati
toasted all the sacred cows of poetry
(with minor fisticuffs exploding
when Ms Tierney chose to champion the Lyric
while one stiff fellow counter-punched
that women (American, to be specific)
naturally would wallow in the shallow,
being quite incapable of writing
the superior and oh so masculine Satiric).

Confrontations tire one --
'twas well past nine a.m. before
the herd of sleepy heads met
at a bas-relief on Holles Street,
reputedly the spot where I was born
though naturally I don't remember it
and anyway the building's gone
replaced by a department store.
We placed a lovely wreath
on the appliance show window floor.

Hoofed we then to Marylebone
where Mother shortly after I was born
logged me into parish register --
yep, there I was all writ up proper.
Sad not one of us will last as long
as the paper we are printed on.
In this same church, before its renovating,
Miss Barrett married Mr Browning.
From what I hear a happy pairing
though of course the poetry they penned
is all that's left us in the end.

Our brand new chauffeur
drove us off to Holland House.
(Harry having left the country
suddenly -- suspiciously.)
Arrived we did. What can I say?
After all our miles of motoring
I lapsed immediately into coma
on the steps while boarding --
the first whiff of diesel
my sodium pentothal.

I came to half a lawn from the Orangery -
shivers playing an arpeggio
fortissimo upon my marrow --
above the Irish yews
storm clouds were mounting.
Then lightning strobed the tulip beds
and thunder pummeled the petunias.
'Twas then we learned
the natives in our number
as, like mushrooms springing
from a forest floor,
the brollies blossomed
under unexpected downpour.
The rest of us
were instantly besodden,
leapt like antelope
about the garden,
taking shelter
under any willing
pine or sycamore.
No doubt a water elemental
had followed us South
from Bath or Manchester.

We broke all records for reboarding --
sopping in our soggy socks,
locks adripping, eye-wear fogging,
puddles in the bus aisle running,
steamy windows blinding views
from Kensington past Grosvenor Place
and clearing smearily at Piccadilly,
grudgingly to lift completely
ere the Portrait Gallery.

Won't bore you with a catalog --
fifteen miles of halls festooned
with fifty thousand pounds
of peeling gilt and cracking paint
immortalizing British visage
from Chaucer on through Twiggy.
Mildewed, rushed, and getting hungry
we bee-lined it for the Regency.

Pinned against the plaster
were Godwin and his daughter,
Hunt and Shelley, and yours truly.
(Again in the Albanian.
Later on I bought the poster
from the gift shop on the ground floor.)
Decorative and awfully arty
if you're fond of flattery
but if you're asking me
I much preferred the perfect likeness
of John Keat's life mask --
delicate complete to lashes,
pores, and whisker stubble --
a disembodied nightingale
about to warble,
alabaster eyelids
fragile curtains
to the soul about to open.
Perhaps you've heard the rumor
that I didn't care for Junkets' poetry --
still I like him fine in pottery.

On to the White Hart Pub
for lunch and conversation --
hot steak pies, poetry, and yellow flowers.
(I think as well some pink carnations).
Ate too many pickled onions.
Drank an excellent dry cider.
Later dragged my clogging arteries,
subcutaneous deposits, and flabby belly
to Poet's Corner in Westminster Abbey.

Where my Byronists were generous
in overlooking how the Church
was just a trifle tardy
(and at that needed prompting)
welcoming my company
to flooring which last century
they fouled in honoring
that boring sycophant Bob Southey!
Still, remember it was hardly my idea
to grace their spotty paving
with a name they thought past saving.

Had I been chairman of the funding
I'd have spent the pounds
on projects with more practical
and lasting social meaning --
for instance pigeon toilet training.
All the way to Drury Lane
we ducked prospective student body.
It's my humble theory
there'd be no hungry Somali
if we shipped from off the Strand
its several billion London squab
plucked and frozen, smoked, or canned.
How is it that some clever chef
has not yet added pigeon curry to his menu?
Could be an instant gastronomic triumph
for a trendy uptown venue.
Humans make a meal of almost anything
provided proper labeling.
"Sky Prawns" sell like hot cakes
in the streets of Hong Kong,
but on the wing would represent
a locust plague in Tucson.

We've reached the tour's last few hours --
and here I'm blithering on Hart's and flowers,
poets, pigeons, legendary sky prawns.
Such varied fuel my verse runs on!
Yet sweetly painful thinking back
upon those city sights and scents,
recalling vividly my brief existence
and its peak events --
reopening the Drury Lane for instance.
Ah, to stand within its rooms again
with Michael reading lines I'd penned
to dedicate the building --
(was it 1812 or '13?) listening
and leaning on a polished lobby rail --
observing that the centuries, the flames,
the bombs or wrecking balls will always fail
while here a group of dedicated,
loving thespians prevail.


CANTO TEN

"The singing is over: but below stairs I hear the notes of a Fiddle,
which bode no good to my night's rest. The Lard help
us -- I shall go down and see the dancing."
Byron

Of the Tour just an afternoon remained --
a clutch of crowded hours,
nanoseconds on a geologic ruler --
soon our tattered group would scatter.
Thirty people thrown together,
strangers to each other
sharing breakfasts and bad weather
yet strangers all the same
and strangers it would seen
we would remain --
the single item I could see
we had in common
was that passe poet Byron.
Lean meat I thought
to feed undying friendships on.

Next day down the coast to Brighton --
the Pavilion under plastic wrap,
shored up with scaffolding
for alterations and a needed sandblasting --
all prepared for surgery but sleeping
in its sterile sheets, it being Sunday.
This affectation of my generation
had begun to fall in --
its builders having predeceased it
I would say it wasn't quite as temporary
as they thought they'd built it.
I bought a floral notebook
in the gift shop --
Brighton, being Brighton, parts
you from your hard earned money,
even on a cloudy Sunday.

Fishing piers and deck chairs,
hot dogs and arcades,
peep shows, discos,
popcorn, orange ice
and lemonade,
cigarette butts, bar fights
and neon --
such is (and always has been
in endless permutation)
Brighton.
Around noon we left it behind.
We were thirty
riding out to Hastings
crowded in a space
which left scarce room
for motion or exertion --
kept our conversation
to a minimum of animation.
The drizzle that from Manchester
had trailed our band now swallowed us
with all the relish of a shark
making breakfast of a goldfish.
And of farm land picturesque
we saw a battered barn
through heavy mist.

The cliffs that loomed in that terrain
were glassy under rain --
channel gulls forsook the skies,
small boats the wilding seas,
and tourists quickly shed
their shredded brollies.
Hastings, where Augusta
and myself had taken holidays
in balmy better days,
the Byron pilgrims braved
through blinding gusts a
mastodon, if he'd a mind to think,
might think quite daunting --
withall a wretched place
to find myself ahaunting.

Mourn the afternoon of parting --
wind moaning in the doorways,
down forsaken alley ways,
rain blowing sideways.
A Hastings memento
for many would be the ague.
I turned around
and all my friends were gone --
seeking somewhere dry
to have their tea
with probably a shot of brandy.

Who could blame them leaving me
for some place dry and cozy?
Ghosts are quite impervious
to living virus --
it is said among the dead
to be a perquisite
of incorporeality.
Of course since virus
in a staggering variety
has carried many of us off
it's like insuring against theft
by making sure you've nothing left.

'Tis not so difficult to die --
it's being dead that's difficult.
A state of endless depravation --
a place of hazy memories,
and borrowed passions,
going through the motions
of your lost humanity.
It's worse than senility --
it's an eternity
of failing functions
and reduced capacity.
But I needn't go on --
all know first hand anon
that life post-living
isn't for the craven.
Still, the wise man faced with obstacles
will turn his disabilities to assets --
will sugar with good humor
sour citrus dropped upon his head
and soon be sipping lemonade.
'Twas in that spirit,
since my living company had quit me,
I abandoned all pretense of body,
slipped onto the ether plane
and caught a lift upon an updraft,
alighting like a feather or a leaf
upon the dour cliff.
(Avoiding neatly some two hundred steps
cut shallowly into the precipice.
Expediency has its place.)

The village was a reef of rooftops
in a white and roiling sea,
the wind ice slivers
through what there was of me.
I was Manfred on the mountain
lost in thought -- a myriad
of worlds within
my disembodied mind
sent spinning through the eons --
restless sleeper far from Heaven,
this my second life illusion,
and how do I know,
maybe too the first one --
the Pilgrim of Eternity
but a chimera of Shelley's --
my epic journey so much shadow play
upon a wall, no part real at all.
Lost. Forlorn and lost
within a minimalist canvas
in a vortex of the tempest --
and 'round the nearest boulder
no convenient chamois hunter
poised to pluck me from the brink
of existential angst.
I rose unfettered
by the silken cord that once tied
mortal form to land and blood --
soared on phantom currents,
fearless as a sea bird,
breached the clouds above the town
and gazed through churning mists.
Below, the Channel was a dragon
growling 'round its treasured
land of emerald and walls of silver.

A worm hole spiraled open
in the purple atmosphere,
tunneling a focus
on a scrap of coast --
another place, another time.
A scream, as from an injured gull
hovered on the heavy air --
pale with lightning
a low square house
squatted landlocked
in the level marsh --
foxfire danced electric wind,
and in the muddy bay
a gathering of ragged ships
rocked dazedly at anchor.
It seemed a moment
sealed in amber --
fishing nets hung stiffening,
abandoned on their racks
like winding sheets
upon forgotten bones.

I knew the place --
had been there once before
but couldn't quite recall
the village blanketed
with such a pall
as cloaked it now.
But then when last I lingered
in the vicinity of Missolonghi
I'd been disadvantaged
by mortality.
I saw a barren room
above the noisome swamp,
an anteroom -- a warrior
weeping on his shirt sleeve.
Even war it seemed must wait
while someone grieved.
Beside the rumpled bed
a bag of coin
to meet some poor
beleaguered servant's pay --
death leaves no end of disarray.

From bodiless advantage
every detail sprang to life --
the flaking white wash on the wall,
a pistol hidden from its owner,
a wool capote fallen to the floor,
a soup dish full of blood
upon the side board cooling
like a Christmas pudding.
I didn't waste a backward glance
to the former intimate acquaintance
sleeping late upon the lean camp bed --
I didn't feel the need.
What could be said was said
at our last meeting.
He made no comment at my leaving
but just kept on dreaming.

Wearying of dizzy heights,
I pierced the pond of overcast
with my best jack knife --
plunging at the last
to dive a swan
down into town.
(Being in my formless makeup
it could have been a belly flop.)
I firmed my manly shape
outside a tea shop.

While raging tides of fortune swirl
and lesser microbes migrate
south for fairer weather
some compulsives cling
like bony limpets
to familiar scenes and habits --
never stirring from their lumps
of slimy granite
as if their lives depended on it.

Even on the Day of Judgment
these poor souls will shun the trumpet --
promptly at the stoke of four
they'll pour the Earl Grey
and butter up their crumpets.
Of course I caught up
with the Byron group
lifting pinkies amid chintz cozies
and Willow Ware cups.

Wayward Muse, capricious wench,
go garb yourself
in fitting somber hue --
a sable hood, a mask of black,
upon your trembling breast
a wilting lily.
Here we've reached the cul-de-sac
of partings and leave takings.
Stow your cap and bells and party jokes
while I say farewell to the Byron folks.

The Tour's done -- and in the gale
my jacket billows like a sail
ballooning from a schooner's mast
reminding me with every blast
that I must soon from this land be gone
now that the Byron Tour's done.
To paraphrase an earlier poem,
few have lived this long
and left so much undone.

I think of all the rowdy scenes
we shared -- at Loch Leven
the innkeeper who turned mean,
that mess in Galashiels that came to blows,
Malton's lockout, and our Manchester woes --
disaster on disaster since the Tour begun
(though not without its share of fun).
Having seen what I have seen
I cannot be what I have been.

Like some lone sea gull diving at a wake
my heart's had all the buffeting it wants to take --
I crossed the whitened foam
seeking once again my former home --
The poorest wretch on earth
still finds some humble hearth
at which to prop his dusty shoes
and take a well earned snooze --
I searched two continents for one
that I could call my own.
Few have lived this long
and left so much undone.
Hoped to reclaim upon this earth
that warm familiar hearth
where old friends bask within the glow
of my noble hospitality's show --
but yes, I should have known
those I remembered are long gone.
And now the Tour too has run
and having seen what I have seen
I will never be as I have been.

I take one lingering view
of this my native land before I bid adieu --
and know at last I've no just cause to weep
a lonely exile's tears, for I will
treasure hearts I've newly won --
though how this prize I won
is still a mystery to me I own.
Few have lived this long
to be at last by love undone
but after all I've done and been
I'll be damned if I'll complain.
And any way I never truly knew
what I had hoped to gain
by flying back to Albion.

But, you say, what happened
to that raven, Byron?
Have you totally forgotten
we were promised cantos back
another visitation?
Sloppy writing, flinging ravens
willy-nilly in the brew
without some follow through.
And I agree with you.
And I was getting to it too.

Though I'm tempted to renege
and type THE END, period.
Go to black and drop the curtain --
as the raven hadn't much to do,
I later learned, with the Byron Tour.
He had to do with a personal matter,
and why burden you with my old business
when it's bad enough this report's in verse
and not on video tape that fast-forwards.
Be glad I didn't trot out Sallie's slides --
she shot along the way twelve rolls
of hills, trees, knolls, and seasides,
unidentifiable and out of focus besides.
Here, you've come with me this far,
if you must have the bird for closure
I beg indulgence for a few lines more
'til after our banquet of farewell --
but prior to the tavern bill
since it was then the raven
lit upon the chandelier
above my final sip of black beer.

But to my subject. Let me see,
what was it? Oh yes.
What is writ is writ --
and about time too I'm done with it!
(I would have finished sooner
but I had some trouble with the software.)
Would that it be worthier
but then I'm older, lamer, rustier
than when I penned the Childe,
Don Juan, Beppo and the Giaour
plus I had a hero then
to spur my foundered poem
to its conclusion.

But see us at our final meal --
a frozen and remote tableau,
weary survivors at meat and potato,
each within his own thoughts sealed.
Seeking by a silence to forestall
the turn of Fortune's wheel.
I pushed my fork through something brown
speculating idly if it be veal,
lamb, salmon, or ground round.
Roasted, grilled, poached, or fried?
A glance showed others likewise occupied --
proximity to parting having set aside
our heretofore prodigious appetites.

Mere moments left
before the curtain drops,
before the lights go up --
Michael fumbles with his serviette,
Megan sips her cider absently,
Jacqueline, seated on the end,
hands a hanky to a teary Lady Daly
(she says there's something in her eye).
Jack, the New York lawyer,
is futilely soliciting a volunteer
to raise the farewell toast --
no one jumps up shouting "cheers!".
In fact an exodus is forming
for rest rooms and/or cloak room.
Then as if she holds the Holy Grail
Ms Tierney lifts her half-full
tankard of Bass Ale,
chimes it with her fork
to claim attention to her words
and gazing rafterward
proclaims "To Byron --
to his next two hundred years!"
and we the chorus rhyme
"Here, here!"


EPILOGUE

"You will have heard of our journeys
and escapes, and so forth, perhaps
with some exaggeration; but it is all
very well now."
Byron
(Missolonghi, 23 Feb. 1824
Two months prior to death)

The candles snuffed,
a still life left
of rumpled serviettes
and lipsticked goblets,
smeary serving plates
and cutlery in disarray
waiting for a waiter's tray.
Low voices dwindled out the door --
yet I lingered more.

Implications flooded
from the words she'd said --
"the next two hundred".
Spoken, irretrievable,
unsettling --
was there to be no end then
to my restless wandering,
no denouement, no illumination --
down the eons chained
a victim of my early fame,
my mortal life the grist
of sick imaginations --

accused behind my back of incest,
seen by some a Satanist,
male chauvinist, egoist,
sensualist -- a ridiculous
collection of damnations
and irrefutable in my condition.
Right there I decided
to leave my prior life behind
and concentrate on this one --
it isn't worth my time,
thought I, to pine
for what is gone.
I've centuries ahead of me,
people to meet, places to see.

For starters I will wander
back to Newstead Abbey.
Not because I need
appease my feathered augury
but I'll return because
it pleases me aesthetically
to dream beside the lake
as lilac shadows lengthen
into twilight.

"And for that reason",
croaked the raven
clutching to the chandelier,
(where had he come from?)
"we have decided that you needn't go.
It's all we meant for you to do --
declare a truce with your wretched past
and enjoy what you have now."
Well, be that as it may, thought I,
I'll catch the morning train --
and having come to that decision
meant to bid the bird good-bye,
but, busy beast of omen,
duty done he'd flown.

I lingered a week in Nottingham.
And I've been back since then --
once to plant an oak upon the Abbey lawn,
replacing one I planted in the nineteenth century
(now a dead stump buried under ivy).
For I've learned that for a pilgrim of eternity
the goal and purpose of this life is the journey.
And from all I've seen and all I've been
I know the Byron Tour's nowhere near it's end.

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