Martin Burke – The St Mathew Passion

Digital StillCameraMartin Burke was born in Limerick. Burke is a long term resident of Flanders where he is active as poet and playwright (and sometimes actor) and from where he has published sixteen books of his work in the USA, UK, Ireland, and Belgium -the latest work being BLAKE/LONDON/BLAKE published by the Feral Press, New York.

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THE ST MATHEW PASSION

I
The god-man is made man
and morning shines beautifully
like the branches of an almond tree
taking possession of the heart
and bringing many gifts
(all of them sublime).
Oh sweet bread of the sky that cannot be rescinded
you are undying flame
and we feel the urge of love,
an earthly flash
(also bread from the sky)
for which an endless gratitude is given
by the strings of our mouths
between A and O
between which we voyage in tremors and shudders of joy.
II
Master
why must the crooked road and stony batter
be taken
the high wall faced
and climbed
to stand on that shoreline
like accused and condemned ones
bound for life’s termination?
See –the galley’s are waiting with white sails
each inscribed
with a double hawk and axe –
symbols which alarm me
as if a second condemnation waits
like a wind to blow the dope of the sails to the full.
Master –you could choose to answer
but choose not to
and silence we must learn to unwind
like flax on a wheel to wool
is spun like the flecked cloths
brought back from foreign cities.
Already our history grows strange to us
our currency is these unfamiliar coins
why are they so marked?
why are they weighty in our hands?
and what value do they calculate?
Master –you could answer but choose not to
and we
like hanged men in a taro pack
argued over like the cloth we throw dice for.
Master –what is this turbulence?
Why are the rainbows reversed?
Why is the ground opening and closing beneath us?
Now we flinch at every flick of the sky.
Now we bury our face in our cloaks and hide from the sky.
Now all roads are crooked before us.
III
The road leads to the gate that must be entered.
The hanged man waits.
The river has ceased in its flowing.
The stone crumbles under the weight of its gravity.
The sky amasses its clouds.
The spider weaves an ever more subtle web.
The bell is muffled.
The clock ticks but the hands do not move forward.
The child stifles its cry.
The mother moans.
The air compounds mirage after mirage.
The song of the musician cannot be sung and so he is silent.
The tree shakes in a wind gust.
The pen refuses its pledge to the page.
The water is sour in the well.
IV
Traveller
you on a rock
what are you writing?

I am writing the low moan of the wind
I am writing a sad psalm
I am writing the torrents of clouds.

Who gave you this permission?
Who gave you leave
to question wind and rain?

The sky bequeathed this office
the clouds have taken hold of my mind
and I fear some terrible outcome.

Then write the fearful testimony
and be true to your calling –
history will be your legacy.

Half moon sky
you are dark
half moon sky
your shadow is upon us.
Shadows lead lives
independent of the forms that cast them
and dance upon the walls of caves.
Half moon sky
what do you tell
and what withhold?
Are we not disciples of meanings?
are we not needful?
are we not, as many insist
children of caves?
You do not sing
and there is no singing
you do not dance
and there are only spasms of flesh.
Like strangers in a strange land
we do not know what language to speak
and even if we did
what would we say?
Would we speak kindly of Yew and Willow?
would we welcome the cattle into the milking pen
and the bushels to the barn?
would we distribute apples from the orchard?
We would do these things unto our soul’s satisfaction
but do nothing,
are fearful and immobile
(yet it is true our shadows dance)
we seek the darkest shadows to hide in
we seek that silence which allows no words
so traveller
you on a rock
what are you writing?

I am writing the endurance of sadness
I am writing shadow-held words.
I am writing with ink which refuses to flow

Then write that time has orphaned us
who inherit no goodly word
that the city does not hold us with comfort
or calm
that we would be other than what we are
but cannot be.
The figs are unripe
and it is we who fall
onto crooked path and stony batter.
V
The cunning wood connives with time
and is patient
the hammer connives with time
to kiss the perfect moment of death
death arrogantly swaggers through every waiting moment
while the innocent pledge their kiss to rapture
with fear.
*
Away from grief I turned to grief again –
The joyless beach, the starless air,
Spilling my soul to tears.
All is foreknown so look and pass on,
A second death, a friendless waste
You cannot plumb the bottom of:
I saw the dark but saw nothing in it
And turned away from grief to grief again.
*
Separate the green leaf from the dead leaf
wash the streams of impurity
free the finch from its cage
(it will sing in greenwood and ghetto)
unlock the bolted door and shut window
relight the headland fire and open the harbour
tighten the rope-bridge that it not sag
for we would be upheld.
*
Master
who among the wise is wise
and how can we know the echo from the bell?
Voices are many
but what endures the winter of the world
outlives the frost
and sings an enduring spring?
Master
we question the wisdom and the waste
are fretful of the things we ask
as we are of possible answers.
We tremble at the fire which we desire.
*
Whose displeasure is this storm?
The wind that batters our houses batters our hearts
and we are afraid.
Must we bend like willow and alder
or fall like hollow husks,
be supple before its twisting ways
or must we resist?
We fear its beating heart and aftermath.
Voices moan when the wind moans hard
the wind moans long and hard.
VI
Night
it is night
pit of dark
and the sharpening wind
and shadows
slinking among other shadows
as if
already
Hades was claiming us
reluctant inhabitants
for deep pit and dark
we have no lamps that shine there
among that absence of stars
what light may we see by?
prophesied against us.
Night-pit
in mole-dark we scuttle
dull gong and dirge
yet we would sing
hollow bell
as we fear to be
and muffled voice
for this is what we are
alas, alas
(this has been sung)
not even a wind to take us.

The stone falls into the pool
it is we who are falling
but there is no ripple
the water is dense as dark
the shore receives nothing
yet we are shuddering
the reeds no not move
nor is there a reed for music
the water-hen is not disturbed
yet it is we who are shuddering
the water holds itself to itself.

What can comfort us
for we need comforting
now that the clouds are darkly gathered
see them above us
now that it rains
but it does not freshen us
now that there is no moon
we sway in the gathered dark
now that the choirs are silent
and we are silent also
now that the flute is silent?
only the curlew’s cry.
only the terrors of dark
we sway in the smothering dark.
VII
If water trembles
what am I to do
and if a crack runs through the threshold
how will I cross?
If the world is meshed in sorrow
what mouth will nourish me
and if there is silence
what spirit lavish me with joy?
Wakeful, I will stay wakeful
and watch zero approach
where nothing else approaches
to the clock’s last stroke
to the last stroke of death.

The white sails have changed to black
and all currency is useless.
The symbols are empty of meaning
or glow with a terrible radiance
like fire dancing up and down our hands and arms.
All gravity’s reversed
and I cannot calm my mind’s bewilderment
when the horseshoe cooled in water
does not fit
and barn-crops are moldy,
the sky empty of lightning
(to strike the root of time)
and the stone curving in on itself
to kill its cry.
Do the bones of dead men jangle?
does the city quiver at its centre
(which is off-centre)?
are the walls aching?
Has the pure stream stopped in its flowing?
are infants in their cots left unattended?
The few birds who fly are a calligraphic omen
I cannot read
and the wise refuse an explanation.
I am troubled by what I see and by what I do not
a bad day has come upon the world
the weather shunts my heart
but I can commit to nothing.
Cloud, air, and wind work against me
nor show me course nor passage,
my feet have no path to follow.

If the hangman would stop
or soften at the sight of horror
then –perhaps –oh astonishment….
But his heart is like a whipping post
harder than a whipping post
and laughs and says
what’s reversed must be endured
that the fire is black flame in our hands
but the wood’s not fit for burning.
The hangman’s laughter shrivels time
and sends the clock-hands reeling.

VIII
The dice rolls to zero.
In the dark afternoon
the cloth is torn
and darkness assembles.
The land is troubled
is uneasy in the dark afternoon
and darkness assembles.
What is it death brings
that we might salvage
from where the darkness assembles?

In the dark afternoon
in the dark afternoon
the darkness assembles
and breaks.

© Martin Burke 2014

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