Skip to content

Portrait of an Old Man

i.m. Miron Grindea

Miron Grindea

A sultry afternoon; I identify the house;
walk twice round Emperor’s Gate
not wanting to be early …

A tousled grey head from an upstairs window:
– Who’s that? Are you the plumber?
“I sent some poems; you called me.”
– You haven’t come to mend the sink?
Well, never mind… I step inside the entrance,
have no idea which door to choose.
Querulous, the voice calls out again:
– Wait downstairs! I’m coming …

 

… that’s a portrait of me by Picasso,
and here I am with Jean Cocteau …
there’s a dedication from Chagall …
fifty years of Europe have visited this flat …

My wife’s out playing the piano …
I can’t go on alone, cancer, and too old …
Do you know someone who could help me?…
they all mysteriously disappear …

Have you been published in magazines? –
I mention the names of editors.
– Yes, he’s an alcoholic; as for him …
I try to help them when I can …

 

Next time I’m shown into the upper room
where chaos is revealed:
a round table piled with paper,
a dozen efforts at an editorial,
some previous helper’s notes ignored,
a scribbled card from Iris Murdoch …

– I used to see Eliot from this window,
he lived in the mews with his wife …
I spent half an hour with his corpse in the church …

I’m trying to write my memories … look …
and this one’s on the Jewish question,
Why does anti-Semitism exist?
… that may need more than just one article …

What can we do? I’m so embarrassed …
Can you put it on computer disk?
but what exactly shall we put?…
Edit this, but don’t change anything I say …

The Queen subscribed to ADAM once …
I reminded her when I got my MBE;
she looked vague and non-committal … English … –

You insist we sit together on the bed
to watch John Major make a speech.
You stroke my leg. The heat and hopelessness
make me too inert to move it.
You pour me sherry later;
I feel we’re celebrating
though I don’t know what.

 

Then phone calls:

– Will you take me to the ICA tonight?
You’re doing something else? well, what?
I’d put my hope in you …
– Listen to this letter, is it idiomatic?
Would you say very here or not?
Do you think so?… I prefer my version …

I left my ansaphone switched on,
didn’t return the call immediately …

– I needed you yesterday, it was urgent,
they’re taking me to hospital in half an hour.
Why didn’t you call me back? Another mystery …
Stop all this hypocritical politeness!
We know I won’t get better …

 

©Virginia Rounding, 1996

The Smalpaces

Smalpace heads

Smalpace monument

Percival and Agnes stare from neighbouring frames.
She outlived him thirty years, as her lined face tells.
Stern in starchy Tudor collars, how remote they seem,
as though their eyes would barely recognise our world.

Yet underneath, their naked bodies tell another story
and inform the formal faces with more sympathy,
till hers seems sad, not stern, and his enduring:
seeing them lie dead has made them live.

Supine on a narrow couch, no throne
or wreathes for them, they leave no narrative,
unclothed, they’ve put aside all earthly glory
and rest unmoved by ritual, sermons, hymns.
Exposed through time, they illustrate surrender
of their bodies to the grave, their spirits to eternity.

Fragile, beautiful, such nakedness could be of any age,
including ours. Now we hear the man and woman speak:
Behowlde youre selves by us, sutche once were we as you
And you in tyme shal be even duste as we are now.

 

©Virginia Rounding, 1996

[First published in Awaiting an Epiphany]

THE BURNING TIME Some more from the Introduction: Setting the scene

             

Of the burnings which took place in England between 1529 and 1558 by far the largest number occurred in one small area of London – the area known as (West) Smithfield. Just outside the City walls though still within its bounds, not far from Newgate prison, ten minutes’ walk from both the Guildhall and St Paul’s Cathedral on Ludgate Hill (the old pre-Fire of London cathedral, over 600 feet in length and with a spire rising to some 500 feet), this was a convenient place to take people to die, with space enough to erect viewing stands from which ‘the great and the good’ could watch the spectacle. Smithfield, originally known as ‘Smoothfield’, had been a place of public execution for over 400 years; many witches and heretics had been burnt, roasted or boiled alive there. It was here that the Scottish hero and patriot, Sir William Wallace, was hanged, drawn and quartered in 1315, and where Wat Tyler, the leader of the Peasants’ Revolt, was fatally stabbed by the Lord Mayor in 1381. Many tournaments had also taken place there, royal jousts having begun in Smithfield in the reign of Edward III (1327–77). The other activity for which the area was (and is) famous was the craft of butchery, meat having been traded in Smithfield since the tenth century.

Adjacent to the open space of Smithfield was the great Augustinian Priory of St Bartholomew, one of the City’s most important monasteries. The annual Bartholomew Fair was held on the priory’s land, attracting all manner of people – cloth merchants from all around Europe mingling with jugglers, acrobats, innkeepers and pickpockets. It was also an area which drew the poor and the sick, the monastery’s sister-foundation, St Bartholomew’s Hospital (still world-famous as ‘Barts‘), offering relief for the body while the prior and canons (as the members of an Augustinian community were known) offered prayers for the soul.

Of the 288 people estimated to have been burnt for heresy during the five-year reign of Mary Tudor, forty-eight were burnt in Smithfield. The next-highest numbers were eighteen in Lewes in Sussex, seventeen in Stratford-atte-Bow (now Bow in East London), fourteen in Canterbury and seven in Maidstone (both these latter in the county of Kent). Some seventeen people had suffered the same fate in Smithfield under Henry VIII, as had two ‘Anabaptists‘ (extremists whom even Protestants regarded as heretics) during the brief reign of Edward VI.

However interesting and harrowing, the lives and deaths of individual ‘martyrs’ (and the meanings of that emotive word will be considered in due course), my hope is that this book will be more than a compilation of biographies. During the time I have been working on it, the questions that the stories of the Smithfield martyrs provoke have become ever more pertinent, the need for answers (if any exist) ever more urgent. What is it that makes people kill other people in the name of religion? Why are some people prepared to die – or kill – for their beliefs, while the rest of us are content to muddle along with compromise and uncertainty? What led to this ‘burning time’ in the history of England? Could it have been avoided and how was it overcome? Could it happen again? And, most importantly, is there anything we can learn from this dark period in our history to help bring an end to today’s deathly religious conflicts – or are we doomed to go on repeating the same mistakes, in different parts of the world, until we finally succeed in annihilating humankind altogether? The instances of heroism that emerge from the stories of the martyrs, the occasional glimpses of a different kind of light from that produced by flames, suggest it is worth struggling on …

Read more in The Burning Time.

The Vision of Rahere

Rahere #3

At the shrine of Rahere the cowled monks read
the same pages from Isaiah for eternity;
little heads cluster like buds around the canopy
and a winged creature with bestial but not unfriendly face
recalls the monster who seized Rahere in dream
before Bartholomew appeared to issue his commission.

With our worldview, sophisticated – so we think – by modern medicine
and psychology, we’re likely to dismiss such visions
as malarial delirium, chemical disturbance in the brain,
imagining Rahere through fever and a medieval fear of hell
hallucinated the encounter which guided him to Smithfield,
unconsciously bargaining with God for his salvation.

Whatever really happened, whatever ‘really’ means,
the fruit of Rahere’s vision can never be denied:
here lies King Henry’s jester, first prior of this church,
in the holy place he founded, adjacent to his hospital,
and for the work of healing practised here for centuries
the name Bartholomew is honoured through the world.

 

©Virginia Rounding, 1996

[First published in Awaiting an Epiphany, 1997]

My friend Walter Mildmay

Mildmay

what the dead had no speech for, when living,
They can tell you, being dead …
[T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding]

Mildmay, in the dark you look ornate
but barely comprehensible, and so dead;
the tokens you’ve chosen to be remembered by
far less eloquent than the naked Smalpace bodies.
Your heavy marble out of place amongst the stone:
you intended to impose.

But now you know – if you know anything –
that evidence of the world’s approval
counts for nothing after death.
It is your soul that matters now,
not how many kings and queens you served
or colleges you founded.

And since you know, and cannot even answer back,
your boasts reveal unguessed humility.
I recognise you now: we’re kindred spirits.
Instead of shields, I’d spread my poems round a monument,
listing where they’d all appeared, the prizes won:
I’d never be content.

You meant to brag, show off, belittle me;
but wiser dead than you ever were alive,
we’ve had a conversation. You’ve reminded me
how trivial is the heaping up of honours,
of how success slips through our fingers
like the dust we must become.

 

©Virginia Rounding, 1996.

[First published in Awaiting an Epiphany, 1997]

Creativity, as captured by Lawrence Durrell

The solace of such work as I do with brain and heart lies in this – that only there, in the silences of the painter or the writer can reality be reordered, reworked and made to show its significant side.

 

David Grossman on consumer society

The values and horizons of our world, the atmosphere that prevails in it and the language that dominates it, are dictated to a great extent by what is known as mass media, or mass communication. The term ‘mass media’ was coined in the 1920s, when sociologists began to refer to ‘mass society’. But are we truly aware of the significance of this term today, and of the process it has gone through? Do we consider the fact not only that, to a large extent, the ‘mass media’ today are media designed for the masses, but that in many ways they also turn their consumers into the masses? They do so with the belligerence and the cynicism that emanate from all their manifestations; with their shallow, vulgar language; with the oversimplification and self-righteousness with which they handle complex political and moral problems; with the kitsch in which they douse everything they touch – the kitsch of war and death, the kitsch of love, the kitsch of intimacy.