Ken Smith (1938 - 2003)
The Shadow of God
in the marshlands, still in the pouring rain,
August 29th, 1526, where those summoned
and hastily gathered died in thousands
in the space of a moment the chronicler
scribbles, in the safety of distance,
cruel panthers in a moment to hell's pit.
That day the guns chained wheel to wheel,
smoke and the cries of men and horses,
the knights shot from their saddles, armour
dragging them into the mire, the hooves
stamping them in, the infantry butchered,
in the space of a moment the swift
routine of retreat, slaughter and rout,
the space of a moment. No prisoners,
the wails of the wounded, the dying, becks
brimmed with blood, and the young king
thrown from his horse, drowned in his breastplate.
Thereafter Suleyman recalls he sat on the field
in the pouring rain on his glittering throne
to the long applause of his army: I am
Sultan Suleyman Han, son of Sultan Selim Han,
son of Sultan Bayezid Han. The shadow of God.
And they butcher the captives, dig the pits,
to bury their own brave dead, horses and men,
30 thousand whose last rainy day was this,
and the other dead lie in the rain, or scatter
their bones in the wetlands and the reedgrass.
Whatever birds pecked out their eyes
their names are no matter nor the stream
they drowned in nor the name of the planet
whose soft brown body they shovelled in after.
Thereafter the land burns and the churches,
thereafter women and slaves and silver.
And thereafter, pronounces the historian,
his quill's tip brushing his cheek, his point
squeaking over the page, the lamp's glint
on his inkhorn: the long Turkish night,
the tomb of the nation, dug in the rain.
In the space of a moment, in the centuries
moments pile into, leaf over leaf,
season by season as the winters pass
and the wars roll over and the borders shift
it is ploughland, old bones surfacing
at the hoe's edge and the plough's iron,
scapulae and vertebrae rising in a flat
wide fenced country laid open to the wind,
prowled by the tractors of the collectives
and the same wandering birds, black earth
through white snow, wind beaten scarecrow
and the white silence of another winter.
It is a museum of bones in the thick boney
stew of each other, where some bird sings
in the evergreens and a boy rings a bell
in the long white silence that follows.
It is a field of poles upright at a pit's rim,
carved into cruel faces, chiselled in grimaces,
spiked, helmeted, horned, a ragged line of posts
that are totems of men straggling off into trees,
some aslant, the long necks of horses
rearing from snow. They are flail and bludgeon
and battleaxe, calvaries of yokes and the bows
of the swift horsemen, the trailed arms
of the willow tree. They are the crescent moon
and the star, the cross, the crown, the turban
and the tarboosh, gnarled glances of soldiers,
the figures of dead men rising from the earth,
Suleyman with a basket of heads at his pommel
and the dead king Lajos in his blue bonnet.
Overhead the high jets in the clear blue
corridor of cloudless sky above Serbia,
flying the line of the great rivers
whose names are the same though the names
of the empires and the nations shift
on the maps. South of here, not far,
in the debateable lands of the warring states
the bones are again rising in the mud.
Very fast very slow the music
a lament from the villages
a music come down from the mountains
called across rivers across plains:
ah no joking and no joking
a gift for the kolo, bridegroom
the thieves they are singing
dance my love dance faster
faster till we fall down.
The reedgrass that will be thatch
first snowy fields turned in the plough.
A line of trucks in a white field
waiting for grain not yet sown:
end of the winter quarter
end of the season of craving
the river's ice drifting south
snow collapsing from the buildings:
the days of the death of King Winter.
Time to take to the streets
wearing the skins of beasts
masks years in the making offspring
of the old whisperers in the hearth
kin to the devotees of trees
and certain stones and all rivers
lord of the vines and beasts
our lady of the wild things the old gods
who never made it into heaven.
They step out of the unwritten
the unremembered out of Illyria
out of the south the dark the flight
and the distant remembrance of panic
the horned hoof footed hard drinking
god of the shepherds. They step out
through the winter streets in masks
horns in sheepskins and bandoliers
with their bells and their rattles.
With their antlers tall in the skins
of beasts belled shaggy moustache men
huge with their clubs and horns
wild in their tall wooden masks
coming on from the distance
all the years they have travelled
out of the unwritten the agrapha
the history of the forgotten
the long shadows of the lost gods.
At noon they have crossed the river
they have taken the streets
filled with organized riot
the ruckus of men in the male dance
the clatter and rattle of flails
the interminable clanging of bells
rain clanking into buckets
in mockery taking their ways
through the orders of anarchy.
Fierce and yet not fierce
joking and yet not joking
this is the management of chaos:
the war of the great ratchets
the battle of the bells upright animals
striding through the streets
through the cold falling sunlight
in a wild skirling music
bearing the skulls of animals.
Others come as veiled hooded women
a brown friar another the devil
a joker in a Russian tank mask
a Groucho Marx an Austrian helmet.
And these others ghosts in dirty sheets
rags sackcloth and ashes and stocking masks
bunched in knots of impudent silence
young men scattering the girls
the dead risen from the dead.
Centuries ago the traveller
Evliya Çelebi warned his far flung
wandering countrymen of the masked
madmen of Mohács in the marshland
in their shaggy jackets and bells
and their faceless faces:
they are devils devils
in the place of devils
no-one should go there.
In their own legend of themselves
they chased the Turks out of town
in terror. In the ill-disciplined
shaggy masked half-drunk ranks
among pitchforks and whirling clubs
the carved severed head on a stick
of a janissary, moustache top knot skull
goes round and round in the racket
and the gathering fire and the dusk.
How years ago they were fearless
in the place of defeat and rose again
how years ago a pig's blood painted
a cross in the town square and how
the masks stained in animal blood
and the wild cries and the kolo
was their resistance. How once
they were one with the beasts
one with men one with the gods.
Rutting and butting as beasts
sticks for pricks bells balls
and under the mask is another
and another they are Busós
three days of the year Busós
parading their ragged squads
to the square where the cannon
from that year of the rain
thunders mud and rags and smoke.
Come nightfall on the third day
of marching and mayhem and music
that is Shrovetide the fire's lit
in the square. King Winter is dead
carted off in a coffin and burned.
On the coffin in flowery
Hungarian script: it's sold,
our country, it's sold, we have
nothing left but our fathers' pricks.
Where does this music come from,
an old woman asks. From all round her
from everywhere from earth
from the wind from the long turned
furrows of defeat the old sorrow
the old joy the songs
of the long gone into the dark.
It's sold, our country,
and all the thieves are laughing.
Time to march one last time
on the town and burn winter
with bells and cannon and fire
round and around the tottering square
masked men and horses the music
round and round the kolo
the dancing of the hairy men
and winter goes up in the flames
the tall smoke climbing the sky.
The sliver of moon the first star
on the pale blue flag of the sky
as the sparks flare and die. At the edge
of the embers of memory the borders
of hearing: bells laughter a child
a cough girls singing the swift music
in the ashes of the evening
whisps of voices at a distance
in that far off language.
Comments about this poem (The Shadow of God by Ken Smith )
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