Palinurus

 

Unum pro multis dabitur caput

 

I have been the pilot,
I have been the helmsman,
I have been Jesus Christ
(though I think William the Breton went too far there)
and yet after all these centuries
my storied bones lie unburied all the same
despite what they think, up at the Cape
that bears my name.

Some have said that I usurped
the heroic power of Ulysses; but the helmsman
is never the captain - no, he is too valuable for the risk of loss
amid the gushing seas, under the swinging boom,
the stink of sea-wrack. God,
how I could curse these arrogant nonentities
who know no more of the sea
than I of wedding-feasts, celebrities.

Let me put it plain;
I was a simple man, born to the sea
though with a divine instinct
which served me well so many miles from shore;
but my words were rough,
my speech untutored – they made me fit
like a machine, like yonder capstan,
to be spun for mirth and benefit.

How does it go, the old shanty
(though new of course since my time) –
‘Fifteen men on a dead man’s chest’ –
well, the search for treasure
was never my priority,
but to bring the gentlefolks safe home to tea
From the deadly, the all-encircling,
wine-dark sea.

I have spoken with Charon,
you know, two old seamen
with jobs to do; never mind the rank
of those who come our way –
the best passengers, he said,
are those who never rail
and accept their fate -
real seafolk never quail.

And yet I cannot rest.
They say I am ‘ex-communicate’,
but they know nothing
of signals, code, of all the signs
whereby the dead return to shore,
weed-dripping, foliated, sorely dressed
between the covers of a book
not yet written, dire, distressed.

‘The Unquiet Grave’;
yes, I know of that slur,
but what it is to me? I continue
at the helm, dragging the dead
across their fabled seas
and if they ask me after
what good has been done, well,
I dissolve. In laughter.

At least they never lashed me to the helm;
that I would have found
undignified. Every man has his price
(Charon told me that)
but also his reward.
Forty-foot breakers, bone-shaking slaps,
skies like thunder,
I guide you all. The great seas collapse.

You dare not see my face,
for it is scoured by the winds,
etched on the fo’c’stle, I am the ship itself,
mahogany, cedar, oak,
And yet I could tell you
where you are, so very far from home,
with only me and the deadly sea
to sing you through the foam.

Dead I am now, no revenant,
so they tell me, and now
There is no helmsman and you
are all lost on the swelling seas
as the continents dissolve and bad men
fight for power; and I am glad
to have done what I could do;
to be with you now would make me mad.

 

 

 

Michael Scott, the Magician

Michael Scott, the Magician, practised divination at the court of Frederick II,
and dedicated to him a book on natural history, which I have seen, and in which
among other things he treats of Astrology, then deemed infallible … It is said,
moreover, that he foresaw his own death, but could not escape it.
He had prognosticated that he should be killed by the falling of a small stone
upon his head, and always wore an iron skull-cap under his hood, to prevent this disaster. But entering a church on the festival of Corpus Domini, he lowered his hood in sign of veneration, not of Christ, in whom he did not believe, but to deceive the common people,
and a small stone fell from aloft on his bare head.

 

                        I

in whom he did not believe

there is escape under this small stone
escape under this iron hood
escape with the skull of the
         (body of the Lord)
escape from the Lord
in whose court
in whose skull
you have foreseen escape
from the cycle of prognostication
which is the iron circle of escape
under which
          (hooded)
is the lowered body of the Lord

 

                        II

divination by the falling stone
veneration by the fallen stone
         at this deceived festival
                     to which
circles the stone, divining
and conveying divinity (though not
                        to the deceived) -
         veneration of the
Corpus Astrologicum, then deemed falling but
infallible, killing by bringing to life
          a lowered divinity

 

                        III

always in the cap is bare
divined to be bare
dedicated to the cap which is
under bare
           not to believe
one must fall from aloft
      and circle under
               to foresee the cap
                        (then deemed
infallible) to fall
            between
the bare cap and the skull is
the festival and the raising up of
that which is to be venerated
 (if it is not to deceive) to prevent
           this disaster
                    entering a church
                           fell
          by deception

 

                        IV

Benvenuto da Imola at the court of
Frederick II at the court of
Michael Scott, the Magician, one could have
been foreseen/fallen, and then
would come the circle
(come the circle) come among other things
           he treats of
                   (yet is fallen)
and he, lowered under the eighth stone would seek
            to prevent
to prevent (himself, his self)
from dedication to a natural history
(of practised festivals)
in whom he did not
                    believe

 

                        V

                                        dedication
                            by prevention from?
                         veneration by/words/by
             the practice of prevention. Deceived
     (among other things) by the circle of belief which
             cannot fall
                       but is a small stone dropped
              through the pitch abyss like
              one’s own death falling
              (one’s own deathly falling) and
               prevention by crawling
               under the eighth
               small stone
                       the fall of death
               which is deemed infallible
               foreseen = prevented?

 

                        VI

Not death is prevented death
                   nor can be
except by practised divination of the book
which is prevented/which is not, but
on the festival of Corpus Domini
Michael Scott, the Magician
          chose/was chosen
                    fall when
he could have lowered/or not
                   his bare
                            head

 

 

 

 

[David Punter is a poet and academic. He has published six poetry pamphlets: China and Glass, Lost in the Supermarket, Asleep at the Wheel, Foreign Ministry, Selected Short Stories and Bristol: 21 Poems. He has had poems published in a wide variety of magazines in the UK and abroad, including PN Review, Encounter, Thames Poetry and The Puckerbrush Review. He has taught literature in England, Scotland, China and Hong Kong; his most recent post was as Professor of Poetry at the University of Bristol. He regularly performs with a group of poets and jazz musicians called Echoes and Edges.}

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