A common man marvels at uncommon things. A wise man marvels at the commonplace. CONFUCIUS

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Vía de la Plata

That day, as I remember,
there was rain, yes, skyfulls of it,
streams becoming rivers
and all the bridges swept away.

And between each deluge
a thousand birds sang in a thousand holm oaks.
Never had birdsong sounded sweeter
than all those finches, larks and linnets
chorusing an early spring.

And the cranes, what about the cranes?
Hidden at first, then lifting from a field,
cross-shaped, gliding with scarcely a wingbeat,
their clattering calls fainter and fainter.

I followed a full moon to Cañaveral
by a lonely path on a high plateau,
lurching down a gully through the dark,
the batteries of my headtorch failing.

Loud martial music blared —
I don’t know why, or where it came from —
across the town, and then stopped suddenly.
A ghostly silence in the long main street.
Then clamour of voices in Hostal Málaga.

Opening doors, I walked from one
acutely etched experience to
another. The bedroom cold and narrow
as a coffin, the radiator not working
as usual, the cramped bed suited
to some ascetic saint, the dusty curtains
rough and stiff as a hairshirt.

Escaping to the comfort of a bar,
delighting as ever in the role
of the mysterious stranger,
I gazed hawk-like, fooling myself
I saw the meaning behind the meaning
of the bread, the wine, the pork steak
and the fried potatoes, the kind stares
of the drunks on their stools
who never seemed to get drunk
but gawked over their San Miguels
with curiosity and, I felt —
after I’d gulped one or two
large vinos — with love.

Later that night, in my cold
and miserable room, I put my arms
around myself, as if I were
holding a woman, then drifted into dreams
of rain, empty roads, and stepping stones
submerged in rivers and swollen streams.

(The Vía de la Plata is one of the Spanish pilgrimage routes to Santiago de Compostela.)


Ruth said...

Robert, what a beautifully satisfying walk, even if the room was cold, and there was no woman. I love every beat of this poem, but I especially rejoiced in those words in love which came as a surprise, but not really! It felt so right. Then leading into the final stanza, I found myself sympathizing with this lonely stranger, who in end finds solace in himself. This is rich and delightful.

The Solitary Walker said...

I'm glad you liked this one, Ruth. As so often with my poems, I awoke in the middle of the night with an idea and a few lines, got up to scribble down furiously the bare bones of it, then edited and pared down and juggled around with it for a few hours in the morning. I wanted it conversational, to flow right, but without any rigid structure. I think that organic looseness suits the questing nature of the walk, the pilgrimage — as if new and unexpected discoveries lie in wait round every corner, round every stanza. I tried to get a simplicity and directness of observation, but threw in words and pointers ("cross-like", "ascetic saint", "hair shirt" etc.) to intimate a deeper reality. The "with love" bit surprised me too, and I felt, like you, it was unexpected yet not unexpected. Originally I wanted to end the poem with those words, but I changed my mind, and ended on less of a climax and more of a dying fall, which I think is better.

Anonymous said...

Yes, this is good - for me, Robert, one of my favourite of your poems. As someone who has walked similar paths, I can feel quite a bit of the experience you are relating. I really like how you've hit upon 'from one acutely etched experience to another' - that is so true for those long solo pilgrimages. Thank you for putting this into words. I am about to go on a small pilgrimage - I shall take this with me,


The Weaver of Grass said...

Oh we know all about swollen streams up here at present Robert. Nice poem though.

Ruth said...

Oh yes, those well chosen "ways of the cross" words subtly lean the reader into an inner pathway.

For some reason this excellent poem (one of my favorites of yours too) reminds me of the narrator in Zorba the Greek.

Goat said...

Great poem, SW! You captured the sensory kaleidoscope of a long walk and the conflicted reactions to spells spent among off-trail humankind.

And why do those batteries always fail when we most need them? That reminded me of a long descent in the Green Mtns of Vermont when both my companion's and my headlamps were dead and we had to climb over boulders by the feeble flicker of a keychain light I'd found a week or two earlier on the roadside...

As for accommodation here, it has strengthened my resolve to pack a tarp and a sleeping bag when I do one of the Caminos...

The Solitary Walker said...

Thanks, Andy, and I'm really pleased the poem meant something to you. Have a good trek.

Pat, yes, I've been following your Yorkshire flooding stories with interest and concern.

Great comment, Goat! Every detail of my poem was literally true, which is, of course, not always the case with poems. Well, perhaps there weren't exactly a thousand birds — but you know what I mean. (Needless to say, it does't matter at all if poems are literally true or not, as long as they have emotional/spiritual/inner truth.)

I'd been intending to spend the night in an isolated albergue which I discovered, on arrival, had closed down for the winter. So I had to do an unforeseen extra 10-12 km through the dusk/dark on the remotest plateau you've ever seen. Luckily there was a full moon, and the path was good,so I didn't need my torch for most of the way. I could see the lights of Cañaveral in the distance, beckoning me on like a will-o'-the'wisp. The stony gully from the plateau down into town was in darkness, and proved, should we say, interesting. But I made it in one piece, despite the fading headlamp.

The Solitary Walker said...

PS Normally the accommodation is good on the Caminos, Goat — or adequate, at least.