New Poetry

A New Poem

Clive James

On Reading Hakluyt at High Altitude

High in the stratosphere, I speed toward
Australia’s share of history’s cruelty,
Reading of caravels with priests aboard
Who landed on Ormuz to hack a tree
Into the deadly stakes that served the sword
Of Christ the Merciful, his soldiery,
And captured Christians died, though, truth to tell,
Our Great Queen likewise would have marked for hell

All sailors who were not True Protestants
Had they been less intent to spread her name
World wide, in script light-footed as a dance
To us, but back in those days smoke and flame
Wreathed every letter. Be it high romance
Or merest greed, unless they’re both the same, 
That drove the ships of old, they crashed and burned
Or fed the fishes when they overturned,

The Portuguese, the Spaniards and the Dutch,
And all the times the English almost made
A landfall on our land-mass — it’s too much
Drowning to think about, a sad parade
That leaves you with a throat too dry to clutch,
Sensing the flesh dissolved, and bone decayed —
But really we should shift our starting date
To further in the past. It’s far too late

The way it is, and serves the fond idea
The cloudland of our gentle indigenes
Was wrecked when we decided to come here
To exercise our new-found ways and means:
Just name the day and Lo! We would appear
Out of the surf like Hollywood Marines
Sprinting ashore in roughly half the time
It takes to find a rhyme or plan a crime.

But it took centuries for men to find
The means of even failing on the waves;
It took the murderous patterns in the mind
That made a mockery of Jesus Saves;
Above all it took industry, the kind
That limes the sea lanes with a million graves.
The quick did not usurp the slow, the quick
Had just grown slightly slower to get sick.

Visit the flight deck? Asked, I always do
Not just because the toy trains never die
As thrill-providers, but because it’s true 
That how we sailed is still there when we fly,
In the controls. All that Magellan knew
Is in those panels, carried eight miles high
By turbo-fans whose climb to power began
With just the wind, and just the mind of man. 

How unimaginable the past seems.
When read about in detail! All that pain
With little gained or even less, the schemes
To get rich quick turned rotten by the rain —
Or ruined by the lack of it. All dreams:
Except the few that worked gave us this plane
We fly in now, our voyage just begun —
To catch the giant sling swung by the sun.

Underrated: Abroad

The ravenous longing for the infinite possibilities of “otherwhere”

The king of cakes

"Yuletide revels were designed to see you through the dark days — and how dark they seem today"