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The Mediterranean of the Mind (I.m. Michael Donaghy)

Mimi Khalvati

 

It's not just the heat and sunlight
I love so much in this landscape
as the whiteness of the ground,

glare of limestone, occasional
shells among stone and rubble,
ground feeling lighter than sky

as though heaven were already
here, and real, and detailed.
White dust rims my toenails.

The peaks of the far mountains
are so thick in mist one can't tell
if they are flat-topped or belled.

Villagers, in their mind's eye, supply
the missing crowns, their true shapes,
and cockerels points of the compass.

Everywhere else, death is an end.
Death comes, and they draw the curtains.
Not in Spain. In Spain they open them.

Many Spaniards live indoors until the day
they die and are taken out into the sunlight.
The duende does not come at all

unless he sees that death is possible.
The duende must know beforehand
that he can serenade death's house

and rock those branches we all wear,
branches that do not have,
will never have, any consolation.

*



Playing at house is divine.
What would one do with handfuls
of lavender picked on the hill?

I like the mixture of frugality
and generosity both of the village
and landscape. Lemons have spilled

to circle their trunks and wild
pomegranates silhouette crags.
Small and profuse, white figs,

ripe when they're splitting their skin,
are there for the reaching and
almonds galore that refuse to crack.

Fresh limes too and persimmons,
green on the tree, with the callow bloom
that will still be on them when they're red

and people ill-informed in the ways
of persimmons will eat them,
thinking they're ripe, and pull a face.

They are vessels for jam and properly
eaten only when the vessel's skin
is thin as glass and as clear.

The local delicacy is turrón,
'a blending of sugar, almonds,
orange blossom, eggwhite and honey

from bees that have dined solely
on rosemary'. Though how they
police the bees I've no idea.

*


As you'd expect, the morning
was quiet as a church, the doors
and windows shuttered, not a dog barked,

cock crowed, nor did the earth-shaking
tractors (usually one man and his dog
sitting on the hood), trundling

up the Carrer de la Mare del Miracle
under my window, pass. Even
the weather knew it was Sunday,

being chilly and overcast. Then,
as though someone had turned on
a radio at full blast but even more

immediate and loud (I thought
it was upstairs in the little apartment),
a brass band burst into full song.

I rushed to the window in time
to see a small group of followers
vanish round a corner and shortly after

they came again, on the other side,
this time preceded by a band of stout
women in turquoise shirts who handed out

leaflets to the women in doorways,
stopping to chat and laugh. Meanwhile
the musicians stayed tantalisingly out of sight.

Later, I saw a thin girl in red Lycra
with her clarinet and clip-on score
going, I assumed, home for lunch.

*



How joyful the sudden music was.
The whole village sprang to life.
Here, on the quiet mountainside,

I feel like a child, dependent on doors
and windows – or in this case, pines -
for a glimpse of shining brass.

Like flying above a hometown,
knowing your own house is somewhere
down there or passing it by train

behind all the familiar landmarks.
Seaside music without the sea.
Seaside music in a small Catholic

mountain village down in the heart
of the valley and the sound
rising to the very mountaintops.

Earlier in the week, I was listening
to the builders just behind the villa.
For every blow of the hammer,

an echo, more sound than echo
so clear it was, answered back
and where the echo struck

behind the sierra, I imagined
an invisible pueblo growing nail
by nail as the hammer fell

and the echoes nailed them flat.
But the fancy is never as inventive
as reality with its brass bands.

*



Tonight, a gecko is silhouetted
inside the glass of a streetlamp,
every small alternate stepping

magnified as he patrols the pane,
the bulb so fierce and close
it's a wonder he doesn't burn

while outside, circling the lamp,
a bat caught in the light. Today
a langosta, camouflaged in greys

on the cane of a lounger, so still
even its antennae were visible,
yet alive. Now crickets are trilling

the seconds, the pulses of night.
Chris talks about Michael
as we sit at the kitchen table.

Michael reciting Ode to Melancholy
and Yeats. Michael and Ruairi
going down to the almond grove,

their voices drifting up from below.
Michael crossing the room, strangely
often, to hug Maddy on the sofa,

how patient he was with Ruairi,
how steeped he was in Lorca.
On the last night, during supper

on the terrace, fetching his flute,
how he played and when everyone
stopped talking, urged them to carry on.

*




Constantly struck by the abundance
of fruit rotten on the branch
or ground: figs trodden underfoot,

kumquats blackened to tar,
whole verges heaped with carob.
The trees themselves sapped of life.

You wouldn't starve here, living
in the wild. But you might die
of thirst, so dry is everything

on the outside but inside, nurturing
juice - thousands of prickly pears
tumbling in swags down hillsides.

You seldom see anyone working
in the fields, save for the little
fearsomely noisy tractors winding

along the terraces. Black lemons,
shrivelled to the size of walnuts,
smell twice as lemony, caramelised.

Occasionally you see a newly planted
rose looking false and out of place
but the fields are covered in a host

of rusted flowerheads and the butterflies
too are rust, orange and brown.
The great burnout happens in June

but in April and May, there's
always the almond blossom
and as early as January, wildflowers.

*

My eyes find it hard to focus –
is it the light? The dramatic rise
and fall of mountains, barranca,

the near and far? And my ears
assailed with buzzings and dronings –
even the trees, with barely a breeze,

rattle their pods. I have umpteen
bites. Bites, sunburn, a surface of
innumerable itches and underneath

a sadness for the land and its people,
many of them old and disabled,
leaning on the arms of daughters

who sing as they crawl, arm in arm,
up and down the one street
every day at the same time.

I move quietly through my rooms,
wash fruit and hardly talk
to anyone. Hola! I say quickly

to everyone I pass, sometimes
so synchronised with their replies
or mine to their greeting, it sounds like

the same voice, without overlap
or counterpoint, just the one
Hola! between two strangers,

I being usually the younger,
though the children too playing
on doorsteps say hello as I pass.

*

I was mentally tracing the path:
follow the wall – a strange
butter-yellow painted balustrade –

to reach Carrer del Calvari
where the wall gives way to a sudden
very steep flight of steps in sandstone,

on one side planted – and drip-fed
through thin black plastic tubing –
with indigenous and imported shrubs.

The Carrer del Calvari is a white
zig-zag path laid along the cut
of terraces, bordered with pines

and, at intervals, wayside shrines.
Inset, on glazed tiles, the soldiers'
faces often obliterated and gouged,

are the XIV stations of the cross.
My 'study', as I call it, lies beyond
this path in the yard of an abandoned

café under the old Arab fortress
where the children's pool is hidden
by ivy, padlocked, and corrugated iron

makes ticking noises in the heat
like rain; where Spanish fir, Aleppo pines
smell sweet and aromatic, cones

on the topmost branches still fierce
and clinging on, even on those trees
whose spurs are blown away and dead.

*

Everything is quickened by knowing
how short my time is here,
how easily I'll forget it, how

different it will be should I return.
I struggle with the names for things
and even were I to learn them,

whatever the language might be,
they wouldn't evoke – except for me
perhaps – themselves. Today

I have a visitor to my 'study',
an old gentleman in shirtsleeves
who asks how it goes and tells me,

in Valenciano and mime, bunching
his fingers and motioning them
in his mouth, it's time for lunch.

Very Cézanne the whole landscape –
you sense the presence of brushstrokes,
round-headed and flat, almost

the palette knife. But I'd place my words
behind the surface, weaving through nouns,
the undifferentiated but various pines,

into a Mediterranean of the mind
where, like the white ermita
culminating in open ground,

some white and holy destination
hoves into view and at the foot of it
one looks, not up, but out.

*

Ermita Sant Albert
is always locked, its tarnished
bell chained and silent.

I look through a small dark pane
like a porthole set in the doors
and cup hands round my eyes

to telescope the dark. A plain,
spartan interior: cloistered arches;
a niche with stucco cherubs, a lace

tablecloth and at Christ’s left foot,
a large bunch of dried flowers
jutting out from the shelf; in front,

a table also with a cloth, a picture
and other devotional paraphernalia.
Nothing else. But the big church

in the village square, forever
clanging its bells – heard in London
if you use the public phone –

is fronted by benches and orange trees
where groups of old men sit and,
on market days, middle-aged women.

The padre has been renamed Juan.
He's a refugee from Rwanda
and much loved by everyone.

The side doors are currently a gruesome
shade of brown. It's the undercoat,
we overhear him say at Pepe's.

*


Sitting in the last strip of sun
setting behind the Moorish ruin
I am, having spent all day at the pool,

glad of the breeze and shade.
This is the time I normally leave.
Now, I come to take my leave

of my 'study', the sun, this week
outside my life and the last heat
before the dreaded winter.

Smoke's rising from a bonfire
and through it, the olive terraces
look charred, trunks black and leafless.

The surface I'm beginning to penetrate
seems prickly and sour, despite
a generator's hum, jasmine at the gate,

the old tragic pines with young ones
at their feet, newly planted in rows
with rather unpromising oleanders.

Sounds are isolated in the quiet
much as the trees are in barren soil.
It's not they that grow naturally

out of the soil but the ochre
houses, tile-roofed, earth colour.
I could weep for the flies and the dog

who seems to be barking at his own
bewilderment. But to weep
is to own, is an act of presumption.

*


I do not think any great artist
works in a fever. One returns
from inspiration as from a foreign country.

Every artist climbs each step
in the tower of his perfection
by fighting his duende, not his angel

nor his muse. This distinction
is fundamental. The angel dazzles,
but he flies high over a man's head.

The muse dictates and sometimes
prompts. The muse and angel
come from without; the angel

gives lights, and the muse gives forms.
But one must awaken the duende
in the remotest mansions of the blood.

I'd like to be here in the dark
and look down on the lights of Relleu
rather than up at the floodlit chapel.

Even the stars last night were suspect.
Stars where no stars are, and lightless.
But the moon was bright and legitimate.

I'd like to write with my eyes closed,
blurred as they are with oil.
Behind my lids today at the pool,

I saw the sun as one green light
like a green persimmon. Angel fruit.
A green sun like a green apple.


Almàssera Vella, September 2004


Mimi Khalvati


Note:
Michael Donaghy’s last
professional engagement, and his last reading,
took place at Almàssera Vella
where Christopher and Marisa
North offer poetry courses in
Spain. My course started the
day that Michael and his family
left and, only a week later, we
heard of his death. During the
days that followed, on a writing retreat,
I wrote for him this poem of place,
a place so infused with his presence.

Quotations are from Federico
García Lorca’s lecture, 'Play and Theory of the Duende'.

 

Acknowledgements:

'The Mediterranean of the Mind ' is from Mimi Khalvati's Carcanet collection 'The Meanest Flower' - a poetry Book Society Recommendation launched on July 17th 2007 in London. It was shortlisted for the TS Eliot prize in 2008. Her most recent collection, 'Child: New and Selected Poems' (Carcanet) is a PBS Special Recommendation. Mimi returns to tutor at the Almassera Vella in September 2012.

 

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