James Sale Poetry

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It had to be – that long descent began:

About me images, one century

That started, stuttered, showed how poor is man


In all things except his savagery.

My grandfather’s face, first in that stale line,

Who missed the trenches through admin’s mystery;


Instead was sent to fight in Palestine,

While friends he’d known all died in No-Man’s-Land.

How lucky, then, for him; for me a sign:


Despite the misery, unintended, unplanned

That characterised the fools who sought to build

A better world – progress – to make a stand,


As it were; as if politics could field

A force sufficient to overcome gods

Whose power, agencies were not like to yield


To mortal die, its throes and sadder odds.

Or, as if science, too, could weight outcomes –

Build Babels better far than Nimrod did.


Yet for all that building, they built one tomb

Called planet Earth – polluted, warmed and dying,

Neglecting the while to study, exhume


The corpse of what the century was frying.

That long descent began. I saw myself as heir;

I saw myself because poetry is scrying –


Calliope come to me now, be there,

For I must tell how I came to that wild place

Where death is our doctrine, and twin despair.


For all this, know – each human hides that face

Divine, which is our task, within our will,

Finally, to reveal, if so by God’s grace,


That Love that Dante saw created hell,

And by His goodness covered Earth with stars,

So many, no mind could count, cosmos fill


And yet there they hang, like near us, but far;

Our destiny, one day, perhaps, to cross

Over to where mortality can’t mar,


Cast shadows, prolonging, deepening loss.

Calliope, then, come now, epic queen,

Without inspiration writing is dross;


Enable me to see what’s not been seen

Before, but rise heroic to this quest

And find the Grail: what does this century mean?


And, in doing so, find also true rest –

The ninth heaven where Dante found himself,

Surprised and speechless, all light and all blest,


All one, yet being not somebody else:

Himself full-on, as could be one snowflake

In dawn’s deep drift, unique whilst still engulfed.


Calliope, Apollo’s daughter, make

Me prophesy, you know what’s to be,

You know the golden god and how he breaks


The proud. I came myself near history,

Though summer had supposedly broken out,

Collapsing in the car in mystery.


Something medics came to see in my gut,

Something small, some shadow, should not be there,

But they’d remove – a snip – at most a cut


And I’d be well; there my life would be clear.

I waited hospitalised without sun,

No moon either, all that’s natural, dear


Gone without trace, as I went down, down, down:

One held my hand as anaesthetics did

Their graft, and what was to do would soon be done;


And that malignancy within, well hid,

That choked, snake-like, intestinal flesh,

Would be revealed at last and I’d be rid


Of cancer and its dark sarcoma’s wish:

Destruction absolute, assured, aligned –

Refusing life, wanting in death to mesh


With me, an apt image of evil’s mind,

Small gains to build one vaulting emptiness,

At last undo what so much love designed.


So much love designed? And too was blessed?

Such sacredness I scarce can speak of – how

Before God now I tremble, quake, am less –


His glory. I saw it, as dying, slow,

Gutted of guts, and lying on the bed,

Out of my body, sight soared to space, so


Effortlessly, and there I saw, ahead,

One giant finger turning candyfloss.

Wondering what -? I willed myself and sped


To see. There, close-up, I saw not chaos,

Exactly opposite: not sugar wound

About a finger, or some child’s sweet dross,


But star formed in deep space, there without sound,

No fanfare, relaxed; and the index bent,

One flick, it revelled forward on its round.


How could such power be – the whole cosmos rent

Into parts and each part on its own work,

And better still, each atom purposeful, sent


Whilst far below on a bed, injured, hurt,

Powerless to do evil, much less good,

I lay helpless, fit soon to be but dirt?


I choked, for knowing there’s nothing I could

Do, racked on my bed of pity, undone,

Undoable. ‘Lord, God!’ My tears a flood,


Nothing conscious I might intend, put on:

Only a baby in the night in pain

Hopes somehow something or someone must come


Because existence exists and – come again? –

Not only did He make the living ones,

He’s Life itself, which means … He is the plan.


I cried, ‘Lord God, help me!’ – and just the once –

Just as the finger turned, leisurely, out

Towards the void where all other stars shone,


And it seemed that He – the He that no doubt

Disturbs or interrupts – that that One might

Leave me forever stuck in my dark rut


Despairing, with those who mock without right,

Just then, before my thought caught my words’ sense,

He turned, un-flexed, had me direct in sight


Before I could bring just one thought more hence

To mind, discern my spirit from my soul,

Before I knew even my existence,


So fast, so instant, light itself seemed slow:

There, at the point the surgeon scratched his cut,

At that point exactly I felt God’s blow


In me – so in me that nothing could stop

Its force, its flow and in one instant all changed,

As if mortality’s self now were shut


Off, and for it something brand new exchanged:

I mean that pain, in body, mind, instantly ceased,

As from suffering I was wholly estranged,


And paradise abounded, total peace,

And more: His face I could not see, but rather

His presence inside working, me released.


But that was it – free – yet in me, together

And I aware of some awful purity:

A whiteness of light, which recalling ever


I quake within, tremble before to Be,

Before such beauty as I cannot stand

Before. So weeping, weeping endlessly,


Not tears as lost souls weep, you understand,

But joy at such happiness – profound, deep,

So deep nothing could undo, countermand,


Erase. At last myself was in His keep –

And so He rocked me like a babe in arms,

An only time in three months I found sleep.


Nothing to interrupt that restorative calm:

No artificial light, blood tests, chit-chat

Or worse, the dying cries lacking love’s balm


In that hell of hospital I was at

Broke that deep sleep that God induced in me;

Till morning, sunlight at the window’s slat,


Waking to find, or know for certainty,

I was not bound now to die, but to live,

For He had called me back, through His mercy,


All grace, unbounded, simply His to give.

The world strange, that not long before was not:

Altered; before, the busy, bustling hive


Of bees circling till, exhausted and shot,

They died in beds of blank indifference;

After, honey and overflow, the lot –


Time slowed to tripartite significance,

Future ahead, and present, a new past

In which what was random had his Presence,


Vital, pervading all moments, all mass,

Nothing beyond reaching beyond His reach,

That reach, and His hand, the net He had cast.


That net into which He too had been pitched.

No, not some distant god who lived remote,

Pulling the levers and strings, laughing as each


Man fell to common and singular notes

Of folly: no, not such a god as that,

Or some such Zeus on full sensual bloat,


Careless how the swan’s neck proves Troy’s mishap;

Instead, another God, and just the One,

Whose Word upholds all things, all changing shapes,


Till changing He Himself in flesh was done;

And now before me changes what’s ahead

Beckons, a door, fiery to burn upon


As if hanging, and hanging there my bed –

Out to deeper depths than this sick ward holds

And sinking at last the human cancer shed


If seeing my own horror’s trail and toll

Might let light intrude, penetrate my soul.