Here you will find some extracts and poems from Chris.
I spent a week in beautiful Crete last year, for research purposes, obviously - nothing to do with the local food and wine.
It has taken me a while to mine the experiences for literary purposes. This prose poem is based on my impressions of the lovely town of Sitia.
Under the tip of the castle, around about three, ice cubes rattle in tall glasses, sunlight tickles throats and opposite, demure in tight black and a white brimmed hat, she asks for the bill in mime, watches me as if once there was a connection, somewhere behind our primitive eyes, eyes that understand nothing except mistaken strangers, Ariadne, Theseus, the shepherd, the ferry man, places we once saw, Knossos, Zakros, the mitato, those thrones of virtue, dense forest and shingle bays, pearl mountains and listless skies, reflections of shadows we once touched, hands empty.
There are no names between us, only knowledge, absolute behind black blank glasses and rivers of wisdom washing our sins to the uncertain sea. We sit and Komaros sits with us, wine in his hand, ghosts in his quill. His song has no words. The trees have no leaves. Our love has no memory.
© 2019 Christoph John
My very latest. My writer's circle enjoyed it.
I want the darkness to evaporate,
the sweet stillness of the air
to be busied by the rustle of rain.
I want the dawn, I want it.
The claws of brightness hovering
above the maple tree, dripping wet.
I see you coming from the blue.
Your mild smiles and soft shoes.
I want to step lightly and close.
Shadows paint silhouettes on your face.
With you, touching knees,
Van Morrison, Tupelo Honey.
I want the warmth of breathing.
Autumn’s golden redness, beating.
Moments, moments, lost, lost.
© 2018 Christoph John
Reflecting. I had a lovely week, building up nicely to a birthday. The weather is great, the garden is looking good; I even made a special trip up the Shard. This is a poem I've been working on. The picture has nothing to do with it, I'm just rubbing my ego.
November First. Wan colours, putrid brown,
to go through all this again.
Genius should have another name,
one which represents pure folly.
You seem to be in hiding.
The shades of near-winter are unhinged.
The harvest lingers, a fertile yet barren friend.
And you, your reluctant gifts
flung onto shattered pavements,
my season of sorrow well-remembered.
All-Hallows’ Eve departs, all souls, all saints,
malleable now, like people, like me.
© 2018 Christoph John
I've been thinking a lot about my recent holidays to Italy. Beautiful place. This painting by Felicia Forte inspired me to write about Otranto, one of the summer holiday hotspots in Puglia. The painting has nothing to do with Italy. The poem has very little to do with the painting. Strange and wonderful how the mind works...
It is easy to say I love you,
safe words, lies, certainties to possess,
you can sleep in their embrace.
Remote from us, the ocean comes-goes
over hidden shoals,
the sky, the high wind,
the eternal Adriatic marine.
Where the pilgrims lit scented candles
lambent electricity will burn,
light pausing between time and space,
those abstract places.
Outside this vale of spectres
the gutsy night is alive,
I caress your slender hips and love you.
© 2018 Christoph John
Andre Chagall stared into the blue flickering light as if transfixed.
The voice soothed.
The words haunted.
“Now, now, Andre, let me help you.”
His flesh crept along his bones. He felt nauseous. He’d eaten, but he’d thrown it up with the first sting of the knife.
They’d cut across his fingertips. One at a time. They’d used a tiny polished khanjar, the dagger beloved of the Bedouin, its blade as fine as a razor, a single tooth honed on stone and leather, drawn with the delicacy of a surgeon, designed to make him scream.
The tall silent Bedouin had made the incisions. His face revealed no emotion. It was passionless, empty like the desert he came from. In his large powerful hands, the khanjar was as tiny as a scalpel. As he sliced into the skin the Bedouin’s eyes finally blazed.
It had been the young Arab, the one with the gold tooth, who asked all the questions. He’d asked them urgently, losing control a number of times as his excitement took over, losing the words, but not the message. It was understood.
Chagall was a thief. The ceaseless pounding of the truncheons had convinced him to admit it. He wasn’t a fit man. He had boxed in his youth, before women and wine seduced him. Those days had long gone. Now he thought an arm was broken. They hadn’t cared to investigate. He’d held it, protectively like a mother would a child, and they’d torn his baby away and as it flopped, they laughed. Through the barrage of thudding blows, scared for his life, Chagall told the Arab what they wanted to hear: the details of every single piece he’d stolen, who had bought them and for how much money.
He thought that would be enough. He was wrong.
They dragged him to the torture table. His hands were fixed into stocks bolted onto the wooden surface, palms turned upwards. He was bent over. They’d not given him a seat and if he tried to sit, they kicked him until he stood up. And then came the khanjar and the screams and the weeping.
Now having told them what they wanted, having endured the punishment, having come out the other side alive, Chagall felt the breath of the devil in his ear.
The voice was almost a whisper.
It spoke in unfractured French. There was no natural accent, the vocabulary, the pronunciation, the grammar, was perfect, too perfect, impossibly so.
“I can stop the pain.”
The sound drifted down the tubular canal, tickled the membrane of his eardrum, vibrated the ossicles and entered the cochlea, that labyrinthine coil of microscopic nerve fibres, each one reacting to tiny frequencies of sound, each one sending a pulse, an electrical charge, to the thalamus and on to the temporal gyrus where the human brain began to interpret, to process, to perceive what had entered the ear microseconds before.
The conclusion his brain reached was that the voice was a threat. The voice could no longer be trusted. The voice was his enemy.
Yet his brain had also been receiving other signals, from the extremities of the body, from the corpuscles, the nerve endings which register pain, the receptors which had been sliced away from each fingertip that had cried out all at once and made him scream. Now there was only silent agony, only the memory of pain pulsed in the cerebral cortex, only the memory petrified him, only the memory told him what to fear.
And fear is the greatest subjugator. The histories of civilisations are littered with stories of heroes, of men who battled fear, who overcame anxiety and won a private war against their own will. Those warriors, from the Elysian Fields to the mud wretched Somme may have died in triumph, but the victory was won inside their mind, inside their soul. Chagall saw no victory. His mind had already surrendered to fear.
The voice defeated him and even though Chagall was breathing and his heart was beating and his brain was processing, he died at that moment.
“You have been very good to us, Andre,” continued the mesmeric tones. “I would not have wanted our friendship to end in bloodshed. You have sadly made it so. But even now I can help you. You must trust me.”
Chagall jerked his head down once.
The voice hardly murmured.
“Who is Jonathon Drago?”
The occasion had started so well: the ritual washing, the lavish dinner, the light conversation. He was courteous, restrained almost. He was nervous, but he’d been nervous before. This time, like all the other times, he was certain his tracks had been covered; all traces of his deception had been wiped away. And there was nothing in the conversation to assume this wasn’t a routine business meeting, just like all the others which had gone before.
Once the dinner ceased, Chagall had cautiously begun to tell of the new sources he had uncovered during the riots of the Arab Spring: the rich and reviled establishment figures who sought to off-load their treasures quickly and quietly. The information had been well received. The relief came in little victories. Chagall considered he was doing well. It was a consummate performance. An actor could not have done more. Yet it was the bland enquiry about the Egyptian which betrayed him. One nervous cough and the atmosphere in the room changed. The single stumble was enough for the piercing eyes to grow wide.
“What prices did you negotiate for the shipment?” was the sonorous question.
The inquisition went on for two hours. Every antique was discussed in detail. Every item on the inventory had been memorised. They ran out of water. Chagall started to sweat. Hunched over his own lap he became faint, his head lolling as his muscles, cramped into a cross-legged seat, turned numb, dead. He thought, for a moment, that he was sleeping. The air was heavy. He could almost taste it. Lavender, he thought. The inquisitor hardly noticed.
Finally the question came: “And what of the pieces from Nineveh?”
“They are certainly of great value,” he began. “There is a certain exquisiteness and refinement.”
“Like the Hammurabi Death Mask?”
Chagall wanted to use the cash for the annual rent on the penthouse in Monte Carlo. The recession had hit hard. Profits were down. Share prices had fallen. Dividend payments had been suspended. It wasn’t the first time he’d stolen. Pieces went missing from almost every consignment, which was why he stored them in Beirut, waiting to ensure he had enough crates to blame the paperwork if an item should inadvertently go missing. It had never been questioned before. The artefacts were contraband anyway. Someone at some time had stolen them: the Prayer Tablet of Nabu Shuma Ukin, replicas of the dragon headed Sirrush, the winged god Pazuzu, identification stamps and many, many more.
When Chagall answered his voice was flat.
“His reign did deliver some excellent art work.”
“But not delivered to me.”
The heavy air suddenly turned vile, as if hatred was pouring into the room like a waterfall.
The snake-like fingers clicked.
He didn’t know how they heard the order or how they got there so quickly. The guards seemed to surge towards him through the silk curtains, hands and batons outstretched. Something solid hit him on the side of the head.
He woke up in pain. Everything was dark, oppressive, malodourous and the beating hadn’t stopped.
“Who is Jonathon Drago?”
The voice was as soft as a girl’s and he couldn’t help but think of Michelle, her slightly faded looks, her off centre smile which seemed to always read his thoughts and her dark, hushed eyes. Perhaps for the first time he missed her. It wasn’t the kisses he missed or the love making; no, it was her practical nature, the companionship that had demanded nothing from him, simply accepted her position in his life, as he accepted hers. It wasn’t a marriage made by love. But it worked. She allowed him his dalliances. He allowed hers. They shared what mattered: the haulage business, the apartments in Saint Germain, Monaco and Marrakesh, the cars, the horses, the jewelry, their friends, their riches, their inheritance.
“Who is Jonathon Drago?” repeated the voice.
Chagall didn’t register the name. Then slowly as the devil’s breath echoed, it began to form, from the cochlea to the cortex, and as it took shape, the mind began to realise.
Yes. Now he understood. Whatever he said made no difference. His fate had been sealed by a single chance encounter.
Andre Chagall stared at the blue flame flickering in the bronze urn and knew he would never see Michelle again.
There was an excellent exhibition of late Turner paintings at the Tate Britain a couple of years back. he painted some great early impressionistic works there over a number of years. Itw as inspiring to visit and see some of the views he interpreted - or in some cases re-interpreted. below is my homage.
Is this how you envisaged Venice, Mr Turner,
That burst of orange, a bloom to the sky,
The campanile a spectral fracture,
A shadow over what cannot be seen?
Callow smoked his cigar and saw you sketching.
Ashamed, he buried his head as the southern light fell.
Perhaps those ingot tips of Turkish tobacco
Inspired what you see. Perhaps not.
Lovers walk past in flirtatious triple-step,
Hands on iPhones, exchanging positions,
Kisses and selfies. Their waltz sunset
Becomes a free-form nocturnal impression
From the brush to the canvas
To the pixelated digital screen,
The mist of the masquerade.
Is this what you could see?
I sit cross-kneed on the cusp of San Giorgio.
The day falls fast and low and dark.
Grey is an ugly colour.
I shut my eyes to the changing light.
© 2017 Christoph John
I have mined a rich seam of poetic thought since my time in Venice. A few days has inspired a series of poems, some good, some indifferent. This is one I wrote reflecting on a night I spent along the canals of Cannaregio, the fantastic atmosphere and food outside and in the Ostaria Da Rioba. A nice moody photo, rather like the ghosts I mention in the poem.
It is dark in Cannaregio.
Between the sallow stones of buried piazzas
the waters trickle, despondent, slow,
past canalside ostarias
whose inhabitants wallow
in musical jabber,
and there Da Rioba,
candle flames flickering
attracting night flies,
and pausing indolent lives.
Nothing significant is spoken,
for love is words swallowed by wine.
Beside the fondamenta the centuries ebb.
Byron, Casanova, Vivaldi,
ghosts on cobbled stone,
watch in perpetuity.
© 2017 Christoph John
Following my visit to Venice in March, I wrote this poem. Venice is wonderful city and well worth visiting. It is a good place for reflection.
I sit beneath a bleached eternal sun,
Head thrown back to the salt-dappled air.
There are no trees by the Adria Sea;
The people of San Marco are my shade
And every passing face becomes my scenery,
Each beneath my gaze no more than moments.
You can understand many things in seconds,
But you cannot comprehend secrets.
Everyone has a lie to weave, a mask to wear,
Even the statues compose blank-eyed nothingness.
You never see the truth.
If you’ve never loved,
You cannot understand how we behave as we do,
Consumed by indulgence, candour and betrayal.
It is the unashamed stare of Titian’s Venus,
It is the romance of decay, as the fabric
Of life dissolves to its most beautiful, and
It is the beating of a new born heart.
You hear the restless rustle of gondolas,
The lap of the single furrow paddle;
The Venetian waters are singing,
Sunlight is blowing warm through the canal,
Blowing us to the edge of eternity.
© 2017 Christoph John
I have been a little remiss in updating my webpages.
This is a short story I wrote recently entitled 'At Church End Road.' It has a few alterations from the previous version. I think it's fairly good.
He tried so hard not to make his life complicated. He had somewhere to live, a nice little flat, rented. He had a job. Good job. Steady. Paid all right. He had friends, mostly men or men and wives, and he saw them when he could, mostly at weekends or Thursday nights in the pub. Sometimes he went to the cinema. He usually went during the afternoon on a day when he wasn’t at work. He went alone so he could concentrate on the movie. The movie was the thing. He hated all the peripheral stuff. Popcorn. Coca-Cola. Company. Dating a girl and holding her hand through the romantic bits as if it mattered. It didn’t matter. The movie mattered.
Because everything in his life was so ordered he had lots of loose time. He took to reading to fill it. He’d built up a large library of soft backs bought for a pound in charity shops or a penny and postage on-line. Sometimes he spent what might amount to a night in the pub on a rare copy, but not often. He liked the modern classics, like Hemingway and Faulkner, but mostly he liked trash titles from obscure authors from the sixties and seventies, writers whose time had passed and would never come again. Sometimes he wondered if his time had passed. Perhaps it had never come.
He liked to read by the French windows of his flat. They opened inwards to reveal an iron balconette big enough to dry a towel over in the summer. When it was hot he’d sit in the sunlight with the windows wide open. He could see everyone walking past in the street below. The neighbours going to the trash bins. The old ladies still wrapped up as it was winter waiting for the bus. The young men swearing as they ambled by. The young women. He liked the young women best. He liked how in the summer they let their skirts go shorter and their heels go higher. He liked to watch the sway of their hips. He liked the gentle slope of their breasts, the rise and fall, the side to side. Summer clothes for girls were exceptional.
Occasionally he’d remember what it was like to have a girl, a permanent one, like Ginny had been or that lovely blonde girl, Roma, from Latvia. The memories pleased and excited him. Then they made him sad. Vaguely he wanted a girl again but he already had one job and he didn’t want to have to work to get a girl. That would just make things complicated. He didn’t need the intrigue, all that boy-girl stuff, the emotional ups and downs. It was like a complicated game of snakes and ladders and he didn’t like the lies you told to get another step further on. It wasn’t worth it. No girl was.
Besides, he reckoned he didn’t need a girl, not like that. He used to reckon he did. He’d done all the posing, drink in hand and joshing with his mates. He’d pulled birds, ugly ones at the end of the night, or maybe if he was lucky a good one earlier on when neither of them was too drunk, and they both hoped it’d be worth it. Sometimes it lasted. A few weeks would be nice and cosy. Sometimes, like Ginny or Roma, it lasted a few years and that was cosy too. But he didn’t need a girl. He could boast about it, about them, but he didn’t need them. He really needed a friend who listened. That didn’t have to be a girl. He had his friends and the pub for that.
He looked outside the window. He noticed the woman who lived in the ground floor flat. She was coming home from work. She was about his age. She too lived alone and occasionally they talked. He liked talking to her. She was a practical sort of woman, he thought. She was the sort of woman he thought would be good for him. He didn’t really know how to talk to her, so they exchanged pleasantries and discussed the weather and the repairs to the fences or the lawn or any other sort of mundane stuff. Sometimes he told her he was going to the cinema. He never asked her to come with him. He didn’t think she looked interested. She smiled and told him to enjoy it. He told himself she would think him weird if he asked her after all this time of living in the same apartment block and not asking. It would make things complicated. So he looked at the girls in the short summer skirts. He reckoned those bright scanty dresses were a tease. The girls would look one way and act another. He didn’t like the lies so he didn’t bother with the girls in summer clothes.
Instead he found how to meet girls for money. It was easy to do it on-line. They even posted revealing pictures of themselves so he knew what to expect before they stripped. He really would have liked a simple girl, who maybe just talked to him, but this arrangement was so easy and the pictures so tempting it seemed stupid not to go through with the transaction as advertised. He had met many girls this way. Too many to count. They were all younger than him. He realised one or two were even young enough to be his grandchildren, if Ginny had kept that baby.
He found the anticipation of meeting a girl intensely exciting. Often the event did not live up to the expectation. That was why he occasionally cultivated favourites that he saw over and over. So he visited her again on that night once he’d finished dinner. He knew he wanted someone familiar. He called the number on his mobile.
“Are you working tonight, honey?”
“Are you still at Church End Road?”
“Yes, baby. I not see you in a long time.”
“No. It’ll be good.”
“Yes, baby; come.”
When he got there he shrugged off his coat and paid the money in twenties. She smiled and kissed him briefly on the lips. She wasn’t dressed fancy or anything. She didn’t look very pleased to see him. She knew why he was there and that was all. They stripped. There was no preamble. He liked to see her naked. She had a good body. She had good tits. He wished he was fit again. She always said she liked his cock but it might have been a lie. Afterwards, like in the movies, the old black and white ones, she smoked a cigarette. When she offered he took a puff or two because he felt like it, not because he smoked.
“I like you,” he said harmlessly.
“It’s always been you,” he said, more serious.
“What do you think? We should go out. Properly, I mean.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I was just thinking.”
She wasn’t English. She didn’t understand what he was saying.
“You want to fuck again, baby?”
For a moment he felt sad for her. She didn’t look like she wanted to do it, but she was very pretty and had a good smile and she did it anyway and he enjoyed it. After it was done he dressed and left. There was a late night movie on Freeview. One of the old ones. He’d watch it and try not to think about her. He wanted his life to be uncomplicated.
© 2016 Christoph John
My winning entry in the Sutton Poetry Slam:
After ‘Last Post: The Final Word from Our First World War Soldiers’ by Max Arthur
One day at school my granddaughter
Had been learning about the war,
She was telling me all of it,
I said: ‘I know. I was there.’
People teach rubbish about the trenches.
Gruesome things happened there.
Only those who lived it
Can tell how it happened.
We spent the hours in shovel-dug holes
Cut deep in the damp old earth,
The lice enjoyed the feasting,
Plum plump with blood,
Burrowing in our jerkins
Clad in precious French mud,
Our biscuits sour mouthfuls
And the cracking of bullets overhead.
Everything was mud and water and continuous bombardment,
You’d sweat like Jesus,
John Nash painted the bewilderment,
The dead trampled by the living,
A study in fear,
Over the top,
The memories etched in the pastels,
The daubs and the splatters,
I can still smell the ghastly heroism,
Terror gripping gaunt faces,
Your end foretold by memorial flowers,
Dusty billows of white on grey,
The machine gun spores,
One hundred yards away
And not a tree or stick left standing.
They called me up on my birthday,
We were hit by the first cases of flu,
Men keeled over on parade
Like soldiers in the mud,
I had ten days in bed,
My uniform fumigated,
More people died of the flu than the war.
We took playing cards, footballs, keepsakes,
Things to remind us of home,
Tiny sepia photographs;
I used to think of my brother,
Peach Melbas in long glasses,
Lazy days riding ponies by the canal,
I kept a Bible in a Christmas box
Inscribed ‘with love’, read by cannon fire
Until the words were crushed,
Crumpled into God’s bowels
And the days of bloody shelling stopped
And the whistle went up,
Over the top,
No, I’ll stop:
You can’t describe the horror.
My fingers went like putty,
My gloves were wet rags,
Struggling to secure the Lewis gun,
Bipod askew on dangerous ground,
I didn’t need to aim,
I thumbed the trigger,
They ran in a line as if I wasn’t there,
They ran into my bullets,
Eight men dead by my bullets,
They die in screams and whispers,
The world swallows them and me,
One lay on what was left of the earth,
Ripped from shoulder to stomach,
His insides wriggling beside him,
Gnarled lips twist one word:
I rolled a cigarette,
The cracking of bullets overhead,
Well, what was I supposed to do?
It was stinking in there,
Everything was with us,
Rats and shit and the bodies of our boys,
A thrown up carcass,
A thoroughbred stallion,
Pristine bone on snaggled dank flesh,
The horses only lasted a few days,
They went blind with gas,
So we shot them.
I moved left,
Out of the shell hole,
If I moved right
I wouldn’t be talking now,
The shrapnel got me
And the rest of the war was hospital beds,
Nurse’s aprons billowing white
And a belly of regret.
The shell disturbed the mustard gas
Lying dormant with unknown soldiers,
It made me weep, still makes me itch
Like vermin nibbling at groaning flesh.
Those who got identified were deducted a quid
To pay for a corpse blanket
And were shoved one foot deep in the sod
As if it never happened.
I used to think of my brother,
As the bullets broke overhead,
How he held my hand as we walked to school.
It broke my heart when he was killed on the Somme.
I wish I’d died with him,
But it wasn’t to be.
I gave up smoking aged 104,
The doctors said it’d kill me.
© 2014 Christoph John