A Poem Or Two While Away

I am not posting regularly for a few days while on a trip to take a look at where some of our Scots-Irish people lived before crossing the Atlantic three centuries ago.

So, dear readers, today a kind of infomercial or free sample. Here are a couple pieces from the book of poems pictured on this page, “Sweeping the Ruins,” available from Amazon as a Kindle book.

I mostly write prose, but occasionally a poem comes to call. Both of these seem connected to my absence. One, Family History, needs no explanation. The other, the title poem of the book, describes a real place, Vaison-la-Romaine in the Haut Vaucluse.

As the poem implies, it is one of those European places where the layers of the past seem to be stacked one atop the other. Roman ruins. A very old Romanesque church, parts of which date back to the Merovingian era ending in the 700s. A castle on a hill from the High Middle Ages.

And among them, the contemporary world goes on. Tourists pass by, the young have moved away, unemployment is high and a substantial immigrant presence is apparent. Not for the first time, in a place with Roman and Frankish remains. That seemed worth a poem.

Family History

Surprisingly little evidence survives
Even for recent generations —
The well-thumbed, black-bound family Bible,
Rocking chair, pocket watch, wedding ring,
Tattered ribbons and tarnished metal
Of military decorations.
Not much to show for all those lives.

No trace of what they thought or were feeling;
Nothing at all of house and land
Except for the tiny, final plot,
The incised stones above their heads.
Longer ago, the graves are rarely sought —
Near shuttered mills, in undergrowth or stand
On hills near fields they spent years plowing.

Another century further back, the dead
Are fewer, stones more weathered, smoothed by time.
They lie on the edge of a new continent,
The places where they first reached port —
Virginia, Maryland, New England, New France.
Before them? Britons, Normans, Palatines,
A long stormy voyage from where they were bred.

Yet even of them we can find reports
Dusty in town halls and churches, library stacks —
Who married whom, who bought whose farm,
A list of belongings filed with the court,
Who inherited plow and firearms.
Sometimes a signature, often just their mark.
So distant from where they made their start.

Eventually, even the paper peters out.
Before that, not even names, dates or places.
But still a connection remains intact.
What they used to call blood, we call DNA.
In sepia photos you are taken aback
To recognize German or Scotch-Irish faces.

What you knew in your head, you now feel in your heart.
In some allusive, mysterious way,
Those antique people are not strange to us,
Bone of our bone, flesh of our flesh.
We look in the mirror and they look back.

Sweeping the Ruins

The slim French woman who dispensed my billet
Is sweeping the floor of Apollo’s villa,
Clears autumn leaves from mosaic tiles.
I stroll stone streets that Romans plied.
They thought the empire immune to this.
Craftsmen, consuls, soldiers, priests
Going about another day, till everything changed.

A narrow lane that runs past tall cypress
Leads to Notre-Dame-de-Nazareth,
The austere church with bishop’s seat
Like Charlemagne’s in the Dark Age apse,
A marble altar, the curve of stone benches
Where cowled monks continually chanted
Thinking their holy church eternal.
Another world. Faded away.

The medieval haut ville above the Ouveze
Under the sway of the Counts of Toulouse,
Twisting streets where bustling vassals
Shod their horses, forged their armor,
Baked their bread loaves, paid their taxes
Owed to proud lords in their high castle,
Wrung from the bounty of the plain —
Vineyards, orchards, game and grain.
Another season, one after another.

Redundant workers at sidewalk tables
Number the hours with coffee spoons.
Tourists load their market day baubles,
Cote de Rhone bottles in rental car trunks.
At twilight pensioners play pétanque.
An odd affluence, less paid for than borrowed.
In the street, veiled faces, familiar, strange,
Recalling the past, presaging the morrow.
In the ancient ruins, a woman sweeps stones.
Another day waning, awaiting a change.

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