They were matter-of-fact and mercantile,
their deities stockpiled in lumber rooms,
containers, or the air-conditioned acres
of a state-of-the-art clockwork hangar.
Too good to clear away, they laid them up,
just in case, alongside incense and charms,
the stacks of cheap libationary bowls.
It didn’t take that much – distant thunder,
a tremor, or the rumours of a quarrel
brewing somewhere – for the market to spike
again. They could ship them out and lug them
quietly to all of the listed shrines.
An accurate grasp of divination
based on observable facts seemed the way
to go. Pinning their faith on punditry,
they put seismologists on the payroll;
and twigged they’d make it ahead of the curve
when an ideas man whose needle was stuck
in a crackpot theory of everything
changed his tune and predicted eclipses.
Keeping one step in front of the weather,
options and futures became a gamble
the best informed would always win until,
beneath their own noses, the agora
filled with blood and the usual speeches,
when some chancers made a killing on wheat.
Athena smiles off stage. Neat equations
crumble. The beastly entrails never lie.
Swooping in from east or west, random flocks
scribble secrets across a vellum sky.
A down-at-heel port the Portuguese
and Hollywood wrapped up in a memorable name,
Casa Branca, ‘The white house’, is either
plain Casa or else Ed-Dar el-Biḍa –
and though the vernacular changes,
the meaning’s the same.
The privateers have sailed on
and Rick’s Café – always a sham –
is now a whitewashed photo stop
pulling in hard currency,
when Sam could only play it again
on a creaking screen.
Beneath damp sky, a dockside worker
pushes mud along the quay
beyond which, in rank profusion,
satellite dishes sprout
whose denizens plunder skips.
Praying hard for clearances,
they have placed their hopes in a monarch
whose image, suave and westernized,
acknowledges their needs.
Meanwhile he has built a mosque
that like a miracle
spans both earth and sea.
Paid for by paupers’ mites
and the pious pledges of those
who squint through the eyes of needles
its wide-open spaces
– cedar-panelled and marble-tiled –
teach that all are equal
beneath the featureless
gaze of God.
THE VICTORIA LINES.
Vague tracings on the map
of a small strategic island
were a puzzle that drew us out
into the scrubby hinterland
of chained dogs and old timers
beyond the wine co-operative
as, ever steeper, the road
ascended to a chapel
on the edge of a scarp,
its anchor the tutelary virgin
whose gaze absorbed
oneiric distances –
the time slip of Gozo;
and here it was we found them,
outfacing an eventless frontier,
at first indistinguishable
from the natural fault
they followed, until
through growth we reached
more substantial remains
of an imperial high-wire act,
moving on to scry
the weathered cuneiform
left by ramblers like ourselves,
or red-coated squaddies –
trying now to understand
their myth of demarcation.
David Cooke won a Gregory Award in 1977. Since then his work has appeared in many journals in the UK, Ireland and beyond: Agenda, Ambit, The Cortland Review, The Interpreter’s House, The Irish Times, The London Magazine, Magma, The Manhattan Review, The Morning Star, The North, Poetry Ireland Review, Poetry Salzburg Review and Stand. After Hours, his fifth collection, was published in 2017 by Cultured Llama Press. He is the founder and co-editor of The High Window.