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Wooden Ruler

by Neal Mason

With this flat stick I ruled my world
of strange shapes and angles
unknown to geometry, lines wavering,
too thick, page corners curled,
my mind, like Nature, rarely straight,
but crenellated, circuitous, whorled.

My straight line graphs, corrugated like iron,
seemed to chart unease,
schoolmates all strangers,
good for a laugh, but not to rely on;
among the staff were women, but no
curved shoulder to cry on.

I began to explore the grounds, learn the angles,
get the measure of my world,
the Head's cane, the bent teachers
breaking bounds. Memory rambles
constantly round the school fields,
snags on looping brambles.

Now I'll type these lines and end the page,
ruling it off freehand.
Shapes and forms appeal, but not
strict confines, latent rage
exploring and testing, though wary of leaving
the bounds of an earlier age


.

Martello Tower

by Neal Mason

On a stormy night
we lie in bed
and listen to the past invade.
The advance guard, Napoleon's
can-opener, howls up the beach, spray
lashing like musket balls,
crashing waves a cannonade.
Six-foot-thick walls tremble
as our revolving gun fires,
a cannonball moon, sulphurous
in smoky cloud, flashing
through windows.
If we had a corner
our dog would cower in it. Instead
of ammunition, our curved cupboards
store baguettes, Ardennes pate,
Camembert among towering
cans of beans, the wine rack's
gun barrels pointing from Burgundy,
Cotes du Rhone, Medoc
and all the sleepy regions
whose soldiers attack tonight.
Around our bookshelves, history leans
on fiction, Paine on Hardy,
Rousseau on Rousseau,
a bust of Wellington defiant
on a French-polished table.

Towards morning
the storm subsides, but the rumbling
persists; deep below us
troops of tourists invade
through the Tunnel, casualties - words,
laws, weights and measures - mounting
as Brussels, near Waterloo,
advances its armies again.

Mendel, Shopping
by Neal Mason

Tins of processed peas,
as though evolved
from Warhol's primal soup,
line the shelves, proclaim
the sweetness of selection.
Repetitious
pop music, foodstuff
of fame, lives its fifteen minutes
again. While lighting
strips each shadow
to the bone, Mendel picks
the peas, alone.

Conspicuous, his habit
evolved as uniform,
seems singular among jeans'
mass-individuality.
Supermarket children's
repetitious
jibes, their tee-shirts'
banality, only remind him
of finality, the lack
of expressive faces,
half grown, troublesome perhaps,
but like his own.

Weighing, in his hand,
a tin, its sameness
guaranteed, he calculates
the probabilities of choice,
consistency a benefit,
repetitious,
for which multitudes of shoppers
rejoice as though one, and in one
voice. Mathematically
he seems at home, Austria
far away, but thoroughness
was different in his day.

Reading the bar-code
as though genetic,
he wonders whether taste
is as uniform as price.
But inflation, imperceptible,
repetitious,
mutates, constructs its own
device, levels every palate
to entice greater custom.
The labels are colourful, attractively
displayed; Mendel ponders
heredity's dubious trade.

After so much choice,
as though his own,
the checkout looms. A divine
girl, who's bored but smiles,
makes the best of a bad job,
repetitious;
for a moment it's not Augustine
who beguiles, his order rewarded
with trials and tribulations,
but a might-have-been
content, a life
enjoyed, not spent.

Mendel turns and leaves
the produce of the time,
its repetitious
rows of laden shelves
like those his work, unread,
will lie on when he's dead.
His humble, hybrid peas
fed and nourished
creative minds that bred
leaps in thought; mental
athletics whose mutant offspring
bear the label 'Genetics'.

The Pied Piper
by Neal Mason

It may be simply a warning
to pay your bills. Or a folk memory
of a plague of rats, awareness dawning
that a lack of hygiene kills. Or maybe
Hamlyn had a high proportion
of get-riddable brats.

But as it was pre-pot,
pre-rave and pre-adolescence
(a recent invention) as likely as not
kids new how to behave, smacking,
not mass-infanticide
still being the convention.

The main madness prevailing
was cleric-led. Little's changed.
Exhorting, oppressing, religious railing
crusading for the brain-dead, Jihads
and Crusades turn a plague of rats
into a comparative blessing.

Probably a children's crusade
to the Holy Land, it truly vanished
under ground - to hell and a grave
when the wind annoyed the sand. And what
fable will Beslan become
when they've stirred the facts around?

Horse Sense
by Neal Mason

The numbers that fell
aren't recorded,
nor are there documents to tell
our names and regiments;
we were all conscripted
by the armed forces, spirits twice broken,
for belligerents have always needed
pacifist horses.

The story's untold,
even haltingly,
of our journey from green fold
to red mud.
What every victory
oration lacks is the simple recognition
that human advances were won
on our backs.

Even at peace
we couldn't rest;
suffering doesn't cease
with a change of harness.
They only listened
to our laboured breath if loaded carts and buses
threatened a non cost-
effective death.

Some plod,
but others prance
artificially, the odd
nature of dressage
like philosophy
compared with banter; one (but which?) seems real,
the other a kind of mental
counter-canter.

And why such pace,
flanks bleeding
as would-be winners race
for gold cups?
The horse goes west,
the sunny owner south, lameness in brains
worse than in legs - and that's straight
from the horse's mouth.

But things pass.
Humanity too
may be put out to grass.
For us it was engines,
for you technology,
ego-spurred; but what will your monument be
when shattered screens record
not a single word?

Bottle of Wine, 1789
by Neal Mason

Still corked
inside this squat shape,
a night that ended early,
or an age.

Unopened,
so much left
unsaid: insult, apology,
declaration of love.
To Voltaire, outspoken
views. To Rousseau,
romantic notions. To us,
cloudy liquid,
bottled words.

Perhaps, politics in ferment,
the grower who tended
silent wit burst in,
part of the mob
trampling the old order
like red grapes.

The rest of the batch,
if it survives, dull
words in diaries, journals,
cloudy letters; yesterday's ordinaire
today's vintage.

Alarm
by Neal Mason

In the fossil gallery, darkness
locked in, ultra-sound guards
against movement. Sharp ears
alert, it waits, patient predator
among moonlit bones.

In Palaeozoic shadows
trilobites, like giant aquatic
woodlice, glide through waves
of sound, drift with the shifting
moon towards the Mesozoic.

Stony creatures elongate,
flex stiff limbs. Shadows stretched
like membranes over bony wings,
pteranadons swoop on maiasaur
eggs, cold for a million years.

In a slow-motion moon, triceratops'
ground-shaking shape advances,
battles with tyrannosaurus rex
to the death. Straining for sound
the alarm listens, hears nothing.

Tomorrow - greatest predator
of all - stalks closer, silver light
fading on bones. Dust on the floor remains
undisturbed by their passing,
extinction by stealth.

On a shelf, a rat-like mammal,
eye sockets absorbing light, seems
to wait, deep in thought, listens
with the developed, electronic ear
the future has pinned to the wall.