Featured Poet Winter 2020: Ken Head

massacre 2

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The High Window is proud to make available the following previously unpublished poem by Ken Head,  a  distinguished and greatly undervalued poet. The editor would like to thank Margaret Head for her assistance in providing this text, which she found amongst Ken’s unhpublished work. Ken  dated his final draft  of ‘One Foot In Charon’s Boat’  11th December, 2012. It was inspired by Pieter Bruegel the Elder’sMassacre of the Innocents‘, which was itself inspired by contemporary acts of repression in The Spanish Netherlands.

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Ken Head: One Foot In Charon’s Boat
after Pieter Bruegel the Elder

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1:
He’d sooner torch whole villages than miss a chance
to flush out heretics, that’s what their king
told the world, why he sent Black Alba,
his witchfinder, to hunt down renegade priests.
A dangerous time to seem out of step, safer
to lie doggo, take no risks, trust nobody,
not even your own shadow. Looking suspicious,
giving anyone half a chance to whisper
you were with the resistance was the kiss of death,
so he watched his back, put everything
into his paintings, that Massacre of the Innocents
and The Conversion of Saul, for instance.
Living in hope of some dandy officer with cash
fancying his work enough to pay for it wasn’t easy,
but how else to keep the wolf from the door,
stop himself wanting to bite the hand that fed them?

2:
Where the carcass is, there fly the crows.

So much for solidarity, he thinks, taking in the words
pokerworked on a length of junk timber.
As ever, some bright spark’s chanced his arm
and nailed the old proverb to the gallows.
Last night, probably, after the guards were stood down.
No witnesses. Spot on for the time of year, too,
with even the birds looking half-starved,
although you’d think the number of executions
there’ve been since the occupation started
would’ve killed the joke stone dead.
He casts around among the crowd for a giveaway grin.
It might’ve been any of the dough-faced lads
who’ve come to gawp. Clowns, the lot of them,
too pea-brained to catch cold, let alone help
free the country. He gobs on the snow, depressed
by how venomous he feels, by the sour taste
in his mouth, and decides he’ll do well
to slip quietly away. Out of sight of the mob,
out of its mind, if he’s lucky. Not that, to look at,
he isn’t the spitting image of them, stick-thin,
dirt-poor, winter-haggard. A greybeard ahead of time.
Next in line for the drop, too, if he doesn’t watch
himself, toe the party line, and in the bowels
of a bad winter being smart makes a lot less sense
than having some nous. You can die of ideals
in no time flat, but they won’t keep your family alive.
Even the murder of crows blackening the trees
round the clearing knows that. Sharp-beaked
and hard-eyed they are, focused, single-minded,
dead-set on survival and patient as the day
is long. He can sense their will, the fixity of it.
Indifferent to humans, a few are already perched
in pride of place on the crosstree, no better
vantage point for watching hanged men swing.
It’s easy for them. They’re ignoring the dancers
gallumphing half-arsed round the scaffold
because they recognize a mob when they see one
and know it takes more than noisy bravado
to fend off fear or fill a belly. All their attention’s
on food. He looks again at the line of bodies,
people he knew, then turns his thoughts
away, to wife and children, a warm house, firelight.

There are better uses for rope than hanging fools.

Black dog, black dog, always dragging along behind.

Feeling heavy as lead, his bones aching with cold,
he forces himself to think. No good comes
of self-pity when others who’ve been left helpless
have worse to cope with. What he came to see,
to witness, is engraved forever on his heart;
his task now is to put the misery he shares
with so many others to good use, turn angry grief
into something that will speak for people,
for their suffering, that will outlast the tyranny
they’re struggling to survive. With daylight fading,
he needs to push on. There’ll be no moon
tonight to guide him through the miles of forest,
it’ll be a long, dark slog with only memories
of barbarity and fear to keep him company.
He wishes he were braver, less a painter,
more a fighter, less himself, more someone else,
the shadowy other he only meets in dreams
and in his work. He checks his snowshoes, hefts
his pack and starts walking. Far down in the valley,
his village, a prison under curfew, huddles inside
a cloak of ice that won’t surrender to the sun for months.
Nobody notices him leave. They’re too busy shouting
the odds, hooting and hollering about death
to traitors, how loyal they are to the new regime
and drinking themselves senseless to keep out
the cold. A babel of decent people turned into thugs
by tyranny and fear, bullies, some of them women,
jeering at their neighbours’ corpses. What will
happen after dark on the hill, another Golgotha now,
a place of skulls forever, he dreads to think,
for his sanity’s sake won’t let himself imagine.
Without his brushes, paints and canvases
to bring them to some kind of life, set him free
from their grip the same way he escapes bad dreams
by lighting a lamp, he’s no match for gurning monsters,
those sub-human creatures his fancy dredges
out of the blackness he fights to keep at arm’s length,
refuses to submit to, a shadow running through
his world like a river of despair. So, he keeps going,
as he must, moving, one stride at a time, further
from the silent echoes of his friends’ last cries,
keeping carrion images at bay with thoughts of home.

Charon’s obol. Comfort of a kind against the dark.

3:
Body exposed: bitter wind pierces the mind.

It’s epiphany again, another Three Kings’ Festival.
A frigid day, too, frore, as white as death
despite the bonfires blazing around the village.
More snow biding its time down the valley
and the sky black as thunder. Nature spelling out
who’s really in charge. Nothing to celebrate,
but it does help keep the military off the streets.
A small mercy. He’s thankful. Spotting Arne
the hunter trudging by with his sons,
he calls, hoping they’ll have had some luck.
But even before the thumbs down,
he can see they’re bone-weary, the dogs
sore-footed and that all Kees, the youngest lad,
has slung over his shoulder is a skinny fox.
It looks like being a vicious winter, a battle
some won’t survive. He watches
a line of blind beggars struggling to navigate
across the village, sees how they slip
and slide on ice, stumble against obstacles,
sidestep a midden more by luck than judgement,
mimic their leader like disjointed marionettes.
Nobody offers to help them. Why would they?
Unhoused and hungry, it’ll need a miracle
if they’re to make it through to spring
and God isn’t likely to dole out one of those.
He recites what he remembers from Matthew,
not about mercenaries eating looted food,
but the blind leading the blind and both ending in a ditch.
It’s no wonder people dance under the gallows
like kids playing games, risk being grassed
for the chance to cock a snook at power.
Stupid, though, because it makes them targets,
blacklists their names and gives the military
the excuse it needs to leave more bodies
in the hills for magpies and crows to feed on.
He stares at the straggle of beggars, hears them
calling to each other. Closer to him now,
they’re making the best of their way, like drunks
with the staggers, he’d say, if he didn’t know
better, towards the church. Hoping to get warm,
probably, but more likely to find charity
thin on the ground and the parson gone missing.

Where to seek God, if He isn’t already with us?

Made in His image or so much trodden dust?

They’re strangers to him, these five, newcomers
who’ve happened on the village God alone
knows how. One’s wall-eyed, one’s amaurotic,
the leader’s staring through empty sockets
sniffing and feeling his way like some nocturnal
animal marooned in sunlight, eyeballs gone,
removed by a quack, gouged out as punishment,
for seeing too much, maybe, or refusing to see
what he was told to, that truth is flexible,
that two and two sometimes have to make five.
Wasn’t blindness enough? Had he pleaded
innocence, a mistake he could explain?
And if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out
and cast it from thee, or somebody else will.
More than anything, his work has to tell the truth
about these things. He tries to be pragmatic,
because he wants to keep his freedom
and his life, but if his paintings don’t explain
what he thinks and feels, they’re pointless
and since his night-walk home from Golgotha
these thoughts have nagged him like a toothache.
If it was summer, what’s happening around him
might be easier to bear. Or seem so
if he was as much of a fool as he wishes
he could be. On long, sunny days, the world’s
idiocy loses some of its bite. Even thinking
of it helps him imagine cheerfulness, lives lived
outdoors, well-tended fields, a fertile valley.
Peace and plenty, life before. Wedding dances
in the open air, people busy celebrating,
laughing at the piper too drunk to play in tune,
enjoying their bit of the world as they must
surely be meant to, forgiving their neighbours
and themselves whatever little peccadilloes
the whey-faced clerics keep telling them are sins.
If only. He smiles at the foolishness of wishful
thinking. He’d do better to keep reality
in check and concentrate, because self-delusion’s
no better than telling lies, which go,
so the proverb says, like cripples on crutches,
and there’s enough hypocrisy about
already without him adding his own sixpennorth.

Wiser not to walk barefoot along a thorny path.

4:
In stillness, where deciphering begins.

All his days, he’s lived within it, known it
like the back of his hand,
but now the land’s been silenced
it’s hard to trust what used to be second nature.
Cottages huddled by a nameless river,
the castle on its plateau
brooding, a massive stone hammer
measuring out its power blow by blow.
No Cockaigne, no land of plenty. Peasants
working fields they’ll never own,
lives like fallen leaves swept up for burning
when the time’s right, that closing
moment deepening suddenly to darkness.
Putting down the brush, his hands too cold
to grip, he listens to the house.
In the kitchen, his wife is cooking,
children are laughing, pleading for a taste.
So why waste time painting? He looks back
at the day’s work, at his archangel
in golden armour, Michael, relentless,
purging Heaven of Satan and his henchmen.
He’s used dead Haege’s face for Michael,
a holy name, and given him plenty
of sword-power as well, angels
in billowing white driving out the fallen.
The unholy crew he sees as fantasticks,
ugly beyond comedy or nightmare,
naked and as foul as any of the bugaboos
that’ve dogged his steps since Golgotha.
If only the world were as easy to sort out.
On canvas, he’s the master of right
and wrong, but in the everyday his friends
are killed and all he can find to do
is to give a sort of painted life to images
of devils fools and angels. Evert, Gerlach,
Lieve, Joost, even poor, crazy Griet,
as daft as the day is long, people said,
or else bewitched, a daughter of perdition,
all crowbait now and soon it’ll be the end
for him, too. No more fret and worry,
he’ll vanish like smoke in wind, candlelight
in shadow and the land will watch him go.

Daylight colours finally done away with.

Big fish eat little fish: the way of the world.

In this mood, though, what he struggles with
isn’t dying, that final giving up
of the effort to breathe he’s seen others
go through, so much as his shame
about the poverty he’ll be abandoning
his wife and children to struggle against alone.
There won’t be a lot left behind to show
for his life. A bit of cash squirreled
away, a penny here and there that Mayken
made sure he didn’t know about, a stack
of canvases, some he won’t finish
and that she’ll never manage to finagle
the local buyers into taking anyway
unless there’s something in it for them,
a sweetener to prise their wallets open.
He racks his brains for what’s likely to fetch
the best price. His Tower of Babel, maybe,
it’s panoramic, the detail took forever,
nearly blinded him, but it’s good enough,
he can feel it in his bones, to tempt
some flashy merchant whose ship’s come in.
Being generous to a respectable widow
won’t seem extravagant to a man
so flush with money it’s burning a hole
in his pocket. The best kind of buyer
and the worst. He should talk to Mayken
about these things while there’s still time.
His work hasn’t always gone down well,
after all. Not everybody approves
of the way he paints cripples, drunks
with bulging codpieces, fat-bellied
burghers eating and drinking themselves
to death. Too much truth is painful,
spoils people’s notion that they’re made
in God’s image, points a dirty finger
at what they become. He’s no Michelangelo.
So he takes big risks, he knows he does,
paints life the way he sees it. Bread,
porridge and soup are plain fare,
a youngster licking a bowl is coarse,
guests whooping it up are drunk,
but they’re honest and show what’s real.

Two ears of corn, a rake: harvesting’s hard work.

5:

Among travellers, feeling lost is nothing new.

The last of the light is overwhelmed by shadow.
Irritably, he puts down his brush.
That’s it for the day. It’s impossible to paint
with candles playing tricks on his eyes.
He looks again at what he’s been working on,
wonders what people will think
if he manages to finish it. A storm at sea,
sailors struggling to calm the ocean,
pouring barrels of oil from their cargo
over the side. Will anyone see, he wonders,
what he really wants to show, nature
doing what it’s best at, putting human beings
in their place, not so much master
as victim? He imagines it in a gilded frame
that’ll have cost the buyer he needs
an arm and a leg, more than any work
of his has ever fetched. One of the top brass,
maybe, a wealthy officer, a politician,
the kind money sticks to, who’s made a packet
abusing people’s trust and doesn’t give a damn.
Which is the nub of the problem. However much
he gnaws at it, he’s in a cleft stick, forced
to touch his forelock to the great and the good
because he needs to make a living
from his work and they’re the only ones
with money. So he sells to people
he despises who use his work to decorate lives
they wouldn’t share with him in a month
of Sundays. The truth is it’s shaming
and varnishing over the shame with anguish
about a nation’s struggle for freedom,
trying to persuade himself he’s managed
to build comment into his pictures,
doesn’t amount to a ha’porth of beans,
especially now the new baby’s here
and there are bills to pay. Integrity has a price,
same as bread and sausage, like everything.
And even now, while he’s havering in the dark
like the dodderer he knows he’s turning into,
the Council of Troubles is signing death warrants.

How to find the way? It’s a long journey with no compass.

In an insane world, stay calm, stick close to your task.

That he should feel so downcast and helpless
when he has new projects in mind
troubles him. Despite a productive year
with half a dozen canvases finished,
he can’t convince himself, beyond knowing
they’re well painted, about any of them.
Instead, he keeps harking back to old work,
Icarus from ten years ago, a boy falling
out of the sky, high-diving into the ocean
and into legend, his Triumph of Death,
with its army of skeletons murdering
the living with scythes, the earth dying,
hellfires blazing and God’s mercy nowhere
in sight. There’s to be no resurrection.
It’s final, it’s the endtime. He remembers
the detail, a courtier drawing his sword
to ward off the inevitable, cards and gold
on a table, a lover serenading his girl,
a line of charnel wagons piled with skulls,
a gallows landscape hung with corpses.
He shivers, as he always does, at the horror of it.
Can his mind create a worse bane than reality?
There was a time he’d have said not,
but the news is worsening. More hangings,
people goaded past endurance.
If things don’t improve, if there’s no end
to the arrests, suspects snatched off the street
and spirited away to some secret prison
where they’re disappeared, the taxes
people can’t pay, the food shortages,
the closed churches and murdered priests,
there’ll be open rebellion soon, the country
weltering in blood. What the army wants.
An excuse. It’s no time to be an artist, a painter
of pictures that make nothing happen,
especially one whose health is going.
Even his sight’s not up to much any more.
In a battle he’d be a liability. What’s needed
now are resistance fighters, young men
with nothing to lose but their lives. By firelight,
he looks over his Storm At Sea. Useless,
contrived. Might just as well make it his last.

Prisoners of ourselves, we learn the art of struggle.

6:
Did he guess he only had a year or so left
when he painted his Misanthrope,
that scholarly-looking, white-bearded gent
absorbed in prayer or meditation,
a pilgrim walking the path to Heaven,
or just a grumpy Methuselah out for a stroll?
However you read it, the old man’s taken his eye
off the ball – the metal caltrop a step away
with spikes in that’ll cripple his feet
if he treads on them, the shark-faced boyo
busy liberating his purse with a chiv – details
of the here-and-now it’d pay him not to miss.
They’re an oddball pair, this thief and his mark,
one seeming not to twig what’s going on,
as if he’s resigned himself to being a victim,
the other happy as larry, too cocksure to worry
about being nabbed, having his collar felt,
certain he can half-inch the cash and do a runner
if he has to. Straitjacketed, both of them, lifers
in a gulag all their own, the inscription
at the foot of the canvas a last twist of the knife:

As the world is so perfidious, I am going into mourning.

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