Andrew Waterman

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The Captain’s Swallow

Cover image by Leon Morrocco Here are a few poems from my latest collection The Captain’s Swallow (Caarcanet, 2007). I have since 2001 spent several weeks each year in Sicily’s volcanic Aeolian Islands, where these poems are all located. While the poems are diverse in theme and mode, thrugh their shared setting they gather to give the collection overall unity as a book.

To go direct to my Author Page on the Carcanet website and buy The Captain’s Swallow and other of my books now click here.

As I Walked Over

As I walked over the pass
between the twin peaks of Salina
the sun went out, the sky bruised across.

Sweetly at Leni the campanile chimed
the hour, four answering chinks
drifting faintly up from Rinella.

The downpour began.
Twenty hairpin bends and I reeled
into the little port,

the island purified to its primeval
self, rain lashing the shut pizzeria,
two cars like discarded trinkets.

No!’ croaked the crone in the ticket-office,
Tempo brutto! Mare forte!
No hydrofoils will depart!’

I look back up: through infernal chiaroscuro
that shape detaching from
the vapours, wallowing down

as in clumsy flight, might be Dante’s Geryon,
the scaly monster with clawed feet
and swingeing scorpion tail.

On a table a left-out glass of red wine
overbrims bleeding paler
and paler to the gutter.

Mr Carnival Bounces Back

Now they are at it in broad daylight:
with pastepot and brush where an alley dips to the Corso
the beaming features of Burro, Doddo, Pino,
Carnevale, Cincotta, Marmora, Nano,
are effaced by the smile and slogan of Bartolo Ziino.
The activists nod at their work, scamper off.
Candidate Carnevale will bounce back.

It is the election for the Provincial Council
of Messina, whereunder fall the Aeolian Islands.
And there are so many parties, their posters plastered
in Lipari town on all possible walls,
around the island, at Lami, at Quattropani,
and the other islands. On churches, on wayside waste-bins.
The conflict seesaws: up or down
each morning are Doddo, Nano, Burro, Ziino,
Chiara Georgianni (the only woman) and Pino.
Avvocato Carnevale always bounces back.

Another night’s work, again his thick lips
in a clean sweep: three rows of twelve of him
at via Roma, via Franza, Marina Corta.
Vulnerable, true, to his rivals’ pastepot hirelings •
but can they pay for so many posters?
Marmora, Pino, Cincotta, Burro, Ziino,
have bit-parts merely in these mural medleys.

There are business interests. ‘No, not mafia,
not exactly,’ Marisa tells me, ‘men with influence.’
At the south tip of the island, from the wall
of the Observatory (a converted watchtower)
Mr Carnival (times a hundred) scans the cosmos.

He was a young avvocato when, in the ’sixties,
tourists first came, to save the islands’ economy.
The grateful liparoti decided to feast them.
‘Do not,’ counselled Carnevale, ‘ply them with octopus,
swordfish, squid. Offer them something exotic.
Gateau!’ He had to explain:
‘No, not gatto,’ cat, ‘but a rich French torta.’
So they bought many kilos of potatoes
in order to make more gateau, and more cheaply,
rigged up a hall with bunting and coloured streamers,
and invited the tourists. Who, when at last
the potato-gateau was cooked, got scarcely a morsel:
Mr Carnival was wolfing the lot.
So the local youth, to rebuke his discourtesy,
took down the paper streamers, stuffed them under
his chair, and ignited them: whoosh!
But Mr Carnival bounced back.

‘His family,’ Guy tells me, ‘had a car
when most of us still rode donkeys. They would remove
each year for the three hottest months,
as the smart set did, #to the heights of Pianoconte,
six kilometres above the town. .
Then he inherited land in Calabria.
He came back on the nave with a battered suitcase
crammed with 500,000-lire notes.
A strange way for a lawyer to transfer a fortune.’

Carnevale’s party, Alleanza Nazionale,
are alla destra, but no, they are not fascists •
fascist parties are not legal in Italy.
Gli eoliani votano un eoliano
reads his poster-slogan. ‘That is,’ says Guy,
‘“Donkeys vote for a donkey.”’

Now Mr Carnival plans a further party.
Vi invito, a poster in shops (including Guy’s:
‘I am a democrat, it is free speech’),
I invite you to Piazza San Cristofero
at Canneto for an evening of music, dancing,
and refreshments. Avv. Carnevale

A sweep round the bay from Marina Lunga, the tunnel
cut through the great lava promontory, a twirl
of road, and here is the lungomare
of Canneto, under a gibbous moon.
And such scoffing and quaffing! Yes, I partake,
and a girl in jeans cartwheels around the piazza,
while another, backed by guitars, sings Il ballo twist:
Let’s-a tweest again like-a we deed last summer,
Let’s-a tweest again like-a we deed last-a year

Mr Carnival rises to speak,
wearing a suit and tie, flashing his teeth…
But God, perhaps, is not an Aeolian
or, if he is, votes Doddo or Nano or Pino.
The heavens open: a downpour, thunder, lightning.
We are all put to flight.

Mr Carnival bounces back. Vi invito etc.,
to Marina Corta, takes over the Café du Port.
And when, after feasting and music and dancing,
he rises to speak, it seems God has relented,
we listen beneath a tranquil night sky.
‘I promise you nothing’ (orotund tones, florid gestures)
‘that I will not deliver. For the young,
campi sportivi…And, for the old’ – this and that.
‘For our fishermen • seas full of fish.’ Next, Education.
Aeolians must be graduates!. For Canneto
a university… For Acquacalda
an airport, And for the donkeys of Alicudi,
autostrade…’ I look up,
and the Man in the Moon winks back.

Carnevale is elected.
‘We liparoti,’ Guy’s arms fling out,
return to roost on his brow, ‘are idioti!
What were we doing when the rest of Italy
had the Renaissance, da Vinci, Raffaello,
Tiziano, Michaelangelo?
I will tell you – being beaen-up by the Turks
and dragged away in their ships into slavery!’
He glances across the Corso: ‘Avvocato!
Avvocato Carnevale, venga qua!
The politician bobs across
from the thronging passegiata, clad now in shorts
and vivid open-neck shirt, is bronzed from the sun.
Guy introduces me in rapid Italian
as ‘your greatest admirer, at all your meetings,
who only laments that his vote is confined to England…’
Mr Carnival flashes his teeth, pumps my arm •
and before I get back a word rejoins his companions,
bouncing away like a beachball along the Corso.

Broom in May

Again and again along switchback bends of coast road
I am hit with dizzying waves of the scent of broom
that draws me into itself, its great yellow blazons
on rock-face, sprawlings down drops to the sea,
it is like food, it assuages deep hunger. For what?

Creation puts forth its essence in scent and gold spillage,
and my mind climbs rungs to its attic lumber for apt
theologies, superstructures. None worth dusting-off:
they’re at once excessive and insufficient.
The broom tells me nothing. Nothing I need not know.

The Captain’s Swallow

Janet, she tells me, is painting swallows.
As I pocket my mobile Guy comes round from his counter:
L’artista americana, so what of her mermaid,
her story she tells us for years that she works on?’
‘I think it’s not yet got its tail wet.’
                                                   ‘But excuse me,’
il Capitano perks up on his stool, ‘your word “swallow”?’ –
he tilts his head, gulping ferociously. ‘Yes, but also
the bird, la rondine.’ Pino, who owns a volcano
in the south of the island, is watching us silently.
‘Now in autumn,’ says Guy, ‘our swallows are all departed,
flown over Sicily to Africa, finding their way
right down to South Africa.’
                                          ‘But excuse me,’
eyes glinting, ‘not all our rondini are departed.
One lives in my staircase.’ He watches our faces,
white-haired Pino, who knows no English, stares mutely.
‘It got lost and flew in. Would you like to see it?’

Guy is detained selling phone-cards as Pino and I
follow the Captain out, he unlocks his street-door.
Half-way up stone stairs on a thread of wire
on the wall, glossy black with a great forked tail… ,
‘This rondine,,’ I declare, ‘è morta.’
‘No no,’ insists il Capitano, ‘it sleeps.’
There isn’t a flutter left in it. ‘It’s seen its last summer.’
Pino ducks his head to it, cocks an ear,
and pronounces: ‘Respira.’
He and the Captain nod to each other. ‘Don’t touch it!’
the Captain cries to me, ‘you will frighten it!’
The pair shake hands. And I am no longer sure.
Here in the islands things are not what they seem;
except the volcanoes.

Two nights later the Captain again leads me up
his stairs, and points beaming: ‘Look!’ It is gone.
‘It has flown off to join its friends in South Africa.’
He watches me cross the Corso, framed in his doorway,
burnished gold by stairlight…
                                               Along the coast
where cliff and sand are blanched from the pumice workings,
on the ramshackle jetty that staggers out into sea
under stars a mermaid sits combing her tresses.

Meeting Point

Like great stone quoits
lobbed onto this headland they
rest, weathered remnants
of a Bronze Age settlement.

A white sail in the cove,
the man on deck, cellphone
to ear, is talking
to Rome or Turin.

Could he, glancing up,
catch against sky that other
clutching spear or sling,
what meeting, beyond eyes?

Even in birth, sex, death
estranging etiquettes.
Need for small warmths, shared;
knowledge none lasts long.

As If There Were No Shadows

Merrily, suddenly merrily bells burst out ringing,
startling me to look up from my beer and along
over the throng, beyond San Bartolomeo
perched on his plinth, to the far end of the Marina:
the church cascading a tumult of melodies.

Easing limbs tired from so many switchback tracks
high in the island and never passing a soul,
I am slow to take in the drift, and to what
it gathers. But empty my glass, am drawn in.

By the ceramics shop stands a white vintage car
with two dark-suited attendants, red-carpeting runs
up the long stepped ascent to Chiesa San Giuseppe,
from the rails balloons ripple over the sea.
The pealing stops Organ music. The service has started.

And people in shorts, in beachwear, are wandering in,
to stand at the back for a bit. As I do.
Now the priest is intoning, chill and crepuscular
as if from far intergalactic spaces.
Children beside me carry on eating ice-creams,
bounce balls, but out of respect refrain from their favourite game
of pushing each other about, or over.
At the front stand the couple, she is wearing a trailing white dress.
I go out, into sun so high there are no shadows.

At last all the casual wellwishers are ushered out,
and the congregation files forth, in their finery,
mingling among us, greeting relatives, friends.
And suddenly, there at the top, bride and groom.

She smiles and waves. There is an explosion
of shouts, released balloons, flowers thrown, confetti
flying like sea-spray, cameras clicking.
As they process down she swerves responding
to acclamations of ‘Ahi, Bartola!’
The bell-tower bursts out in fresh rejoicing.
They walk straight past the white car
and ascend the humpy bridge that spans a slipway.
She makes a speech. More cheering. Dark-suited beside her
her husband shuffles, hangdog. They step down,
and turn among a bar-restaurant’s tables.

Surely, after such ceremony, bells still pealling,
they’re not just settling for a beer and sandwich?

‘No no,’ I’m told, ‘her family own this café.’
Yes, tables are pulled together to one long table
heaped with food and wines; and how the families,
aunts, uncles, cousins, nephews, nieces, siblings,
some divorced, or barely standing each other,
and most having been unfaithful,
want all this for the pair on the threshold of adulthood
who’ve yet to meet most people it will bring them.
I think of the sadness of marriages.

She speaks again, thanks all, her black eyes flashing.
Now scissors flash, poor Bartolo’s tie is cut off!
The white car sidles up. They both get in,
it glides 80 metres to the jetty,
a boat to the mainland, the airport, their honeymoon…

Hulked apart in the café, an old man,
swarthy, with silvered mane, a grandfather,
hunches into himself, contemplative,
like a chess grandmaster, or a gorilla.

While a tiny girl in a pink dress, clutching a yellow balloon,
twirls and twirls in purest happiness.

The light brilliant still. As if there were no shadows.

At the Grand Cratere, Vulcano

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