Here is the 25th poem in my 52-poem sequence (one a week) for 2013, followed by some illumination and reflection:
PORTUGUESE HILL TOWN
Last night in the ancient courtyard
as darkness fell we marvelled
at the endless chains of ants
criss-crossing the decaying walls
ferrying who knows what
from one crack in the white stucco
to another. Tiny heads briefly touching
antennae exchanging information
between those who have been
and those who are yet to reach
who knows where.
The old Ducal summer palace
is a “residencial” now.
From its open windows
I gaze out into the landscape
menhirs, dolmens are sprinkled
across the dry yellow Alentejo plains.
Roman forts, aqueducts, temples
are built into the walls
of medieval houses, cathedrals,
Moorish labyrinthine streets.
And over all this history
fissured, ill-tended, nearly lost
the dead straight black ribbons
now unwind in every direction
Europe’s veins and arteries.
Our turn this time say the tiny carriages
glittering, hard yet brittle shells
moving slowly to and fro
under the endless sun.
beneath the unclouded stars
the lights of distant cars
seem to wink
through the leaves of cork trees
whose bark grows more patiently than human ambition
stripped 12 times in 200 years
ancient rural skills expertly allowing
the trees and the people to support each other
withstanding the blows
dealt by the sharpened axe of progress
an uneasy partnership, lasting
for how much longer?
-Ēvora, August 1996.
Ēvora is a fascinating little town in the centre of the dry and dusty Alentejo region of Portugal, where a lot of the cork for your wine bottles comes from. It’s a peaceful place, but steeped in history, some of it violent. Some of my photos from the time survive in reasonable condition, but these two were taken by my partner Rona MacDonald. In the picture of the Roman Temple, you can see me sitting enjoying my first ice cream and cold ‘Super Bock’ beer, fresh off the bus from Lisbon. It was very hot all the time we were there, even in the evenings. The second photo is how the Alentejo plains look from Ēvora itself. Being towards the end of the summer, the landscape was particularly burned out.
This is a simple poem I suppose, comparing human history to the progress of ants and expressing doubt as to whether the balance between man and nature in such places will be able to withstand the 21st century. We saw shocking poverty from time to time in Portugal, even in beautiful places like this. The current economic crises in Europe will be doing little to ease these pressures.
But the spectacle of houses built inside the arches of Roman viaducts in places like this, remind us of how recent the entire project of human civilisation is, how sophisticated our ancestors were, and how much we could still achieve if we can just maintain a sober overview of what we are capable of as a species. Time itself seems to grind to a halt and grow thin under the Portuguese sun at midday, affording us the ‘alta vista’ of how we got here.