This is a poem I wrote back in 1998-99 about the coming end of the millennium. People often say it is my best poem, and it did in fact come second (runner-up) in the Scottish International Open Poetry Competition (Long Poems) that year, 1999.
FIN DE MILLENNIUM
(to W.B. Yeats, author of Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen
and of Politics; and to W.H. Davies, Supertramp)
He didn’t thumb,
the old man,
just stepped out onto the road,
willing to be crucified.
Us, we swerved
and swept on by
like time, car full, but
waving, waving as we passed,
music blaring …
into the future.
THE OLD MAN SPEAKS
You take the high road,
you take the low road,
you take the bloody motorway:
but I was in Scotland ‘afore ye …
And in Ireland. And England. Roads were narrow then,
the high with low stone walls, the low with hedges,
blossom, finches, trains were grimy,
dog-end-filled and stopped at every village station,
bells ringing, whistles blowing, steam and
hats and skirts all blowing; time:
the whistles and the bells fell silent, cigarettes
were antisocial, steam and stations uncommercial,
girls wore jeans, wore strings, wore …
Then was another world. You’d be an alien there.
In Andalusia I sat down and wept;
in Casablanca I remembered then, remembered
cold, grey seas and grassy dunes, the grey-green marshes
and the silence of the north
(a far-off bird, a summer insect,
breaking waves upon a distant beach: a lamb calling).
Catch a plane! Go home! they said. A plane?
I’d need a time machine.
There was a New Age in Olde Sasunn once,
England’s spring, when all the world was green. Now
there is no place for Robin Hoods,
not in the woods at least;
all is private now, by land and sea,
but then, the coast, the marshes, creeks and inlets,
the forest then, the downs, the country towns,
Ludlow, Thetford, Frome – and Glastonbury,
the heart and home of the New Age –
the land was full of tracks and horses, full
of movement, full of saints and healers, players,
singers, travellers passing to and fro, to
Walsingham, to York, St Edmundsbury or to
Nottingham. For all there was a welcome everywhere.
Or if there was not – well, the woods were wide
and tracks between the trees and a welcome sure for a
free man there among free men –
and free deer. Justice
was harder still perhaps to come by, yes,
but then a man could go, could disappear
and live as a man should live, in freedom and privacy …
Where can a man go now? Where can I?
Not just the streets but all the land is chartered,
not just the land but the sea, the sea bed,
the sky, the moon – the invisible stars are numbered.
There was a new age in the Highlands too
(not a New Age, but an age of change)
an age when men and sheep were weighed
and men found wanting, condemned and harried off
the lands their families had farmed in their innocence,
in trust and love, and sacrifice, for generations.
He’ll look after his own. His own? Who’s he selling
his great empty tracts of land to now?
Where will he spend the night? On the burnt-off moors?
Among the fenced-off lined-up trees? Or with
the outcasts of the inner city? – not just down
on their luck these days, but down on their knees …
THAT GIRL STANDING THERE
How can I,
that girl standing there
wax political …? One to stand and stare am I,
to gawp from behind a bush or bin
and let the world go by
if go it will.
But when the world stands too,
and waits for me? Waits
like a lovely wood,
like a track between the trees when there is
sudden silence. The world has waited for me
and I have gone with her
and I have seen of her
a little more
than those who never quit
their native shore
save for a few days’ rest
or brief State Visit: and I can tell you all
that the American Dream is very much alive and well
throughout the states of Europe.
Is it the soaps, the films?
The California Girls? The Texas Food?
Las Vegas? Mafia Violence? Is it Sex?
Is it Execution?
They won a war, a war of money, of words,
a media war, a battle of the mike:
but it wasn’t communism, oh no,
it was competition that they didn’t like.
It seems to me
that the USA has dreams of empire,
that the third millennium is likely to transpire
beneath the stars and stripes.
Refugees go down as they always have, desperately,
into Egypt or some other God-forsaken,
country in the Middle East,
the mother on a donkey still, perhaps,
or on a cart with pots and pans and blankets
fleeing from the lies –
and in her arms, at her breast, amidst the flies,
a bairn, a little mite, poor little
scrap of ethnic garbage. Can
the European dream,
the social dream, survive?
Can that come true?
Or are we all now to believe once more
in blood and money – for blood read race, for money the right
not to have beggars stinking and festering at one’s door.
Or dying, disgustingly. Or dead … That being said –
(an old man rambling: not so old as not to notice, though,
THAT GIRL STANDING THERE) Oh, if I were young again
and had HER in my bed!
WHAT BED? –
when there is nowhere for a son of man to hide,
nowhere for a father of men to lay his head;
when daughters of men have nowhere to go
but Skid Row
and those who in
this Age of No Job No Room
refuse to beg
just go, anyway, go, travel – seek,
and finding no love
no cave, no wood
in all the land, end up, maybe
with the future of man in their arms
in a roadside ditch;
while within the electronic fence the rich
prepare to celebrate the Fin de Millennium.
The end of the dream of the good.
FIN DE MILLENNIUM
It was fast,
but I knew it was him when I saw him catch the eye
of some bedraggled traveller with a brat on her back –
or was it a cry he had heard? –
as I say, it was fast
but he stopped to lend her a hand –
which was naturally all he had …
Us, we swept on by, nineteen hundred and ninety-nine
dopplering into the past.
© James Munro