STAGES (© Words by Paul F. Cowlan)


Southern France. Over 10,000 years ago.

always sleeps now
hungry in dull light
The Mother’s bright eye
steal from spark to spark
trembling on dark skin
shifting brands
small scatterings flare up
Sky’s secret hidden
Old Ones shake embers out
burn burn
The Mother’s white eye dims
walks beyond
sides cold
night bird calls from spirits
ah! The Mother paces forest tops
moves swiftly
drifts in leaves
like smoke
clasp stomach
call out
not meat
not slippery innards snatched up by chiefs
not soft marrow sucked out by hunters
not streaked fat not burnt haunch not bone with gristle
wake now
breasts warm
Goddess steps into forest
nuzzle still body
scent like old kill
mouth stiff scoured hide
breathe into empty face
others wake

one approaches
stoops close
catches with strange eye
hands trailing
lifts face
wise ones murmuring

on sunward hill
scraped out


chin to knees
necklace of claws
painted aurochs’ hide
scatter flowers
red earth
Horned One
re-fleshes slain bison
will not wake
all sleeping here
all covered
none wakes
stretched skins
tallow with pounded fruit

river in belly
cold meltwater
sob and shiver

Struck-by-She-Bear gathers pine brands
hunters in dwelling’s throat
all follow
down into pressing darkness
red ore
all invoke beasts
make them
beg them
Bison Ibex Horses

Power in this

close among dark flames
thrusting spear-heads
sharp bone


Babylon. 3,500 years ago

To Shirum say
thus says Elmeshum.
"May Shamash and Marduk,
for my sake, give you long life."

"In the matter of the abarahhu cane
you have misunderstood me.
Friendship alone made me covetous.

From your hand ‘sister’,
for so I may still call you,
a common shepherd’s staff
would have been equally delightful.

We sat together in the window,
with dates and wine and sweet cakes.
The sun fell in through the carved screen
and thrushes sang by the pool.

Only with you can I laugh as we laughed then,
remembering the temple festival of Ninsûna
when a calf got loose among the booths
and ran, trailing fine cloth and skillet-chains,
the full length of the market.

You, flirting with the young perfume-seller
who st-t-tammered so.

All this;
and your face, and the songs we sang.
You cannot begrudge me this reminder.

I have set myself to find its equal.
Two full cubits of burnished cedar,
silver and lapis-lazuli.
If not I will have it made.

Thus the delay.
I promise you.

Meanwhile you demand:
one hundred grasshoppers
and food to the value of one sixth of a shekel of silver.

This comes at an awkward moment.
We are preparing Raman’s festival,
and I have hopes of a son.
All-Powerful Adad.
My husband’s god,
his father’s god.
You understand the difficulty.

I must store up millet and barley-flour,
palm-sugar and honey.
There is butter to make, and rose-water.
Ewes to milk, sesame-oil to buy.
I must keep a close account,
supervise everything.

Believe me,
I will send you whole meadows of grasshoppers,
a full silver shekel’s worth of sweetmeats;
but this must take precedence.

Already it is Simánu, the third month.
In the city workmen are busy with brick-moulds;
soon they will be laying foundations.

And I thought there was time for everything,
time even for a second visit,
but it is difficult enough to finish this letter."


Han China. 66 C.E.

Tigers descend
from the mountains.
The season of
The Phoenix ends.
Tigers descend
from the mountains.
The White Tiger
brings early Rain.
Tigers still roar
in the foothills,
but the Year of
The Tiger wanes.
In the autumn chill I dreamed
of songs from your patterned lute.
The moon on The East Terrace
is twining his scarlet thread.
Dipping my brush in silver
I bow to the Immortals.
Though Heaven’s Net is spread
White Tigers live a thousand years.
The bright Wolf is glowing but
none shall steal this jade, these pearls.
From his cold cloud-swing Monkey
chatters at misfortune, and
Seven Industrious Sisters
weave you an indigo veil.
My candle burns late tonight.
First one verse, then another.
Detained at Yundu time hangs heavily.
I listen to gossip and strange tales.
Two men from Yanxian are lost on Tiantai Mountain.
Thirteen days ago they went to gather husks
and still have not returned.

My servants are ignorant and superstitious,
alternately garrulous or dumb,
everything they serve me tastes of mud;
carp, rice, chicken, water-chestnuts.
Just thinking of Bao’s dough-cakes saddens me.
There’s nothing like that here.

After the examinations.
Such hope. Such anxiety. Such pride.

I cannot see how I serve His Majesty by remaining.
These people need a plague, not a magistrate!
I watch the cranes whooping their way south
and can only think of you, of my parents,
of our garden;
its Ink-paeonies and peach trees.

How much longer?
Has time forgotten me?
If you were here even the muddy carp
would melt in my mouth like nectar.

Write to me again. Write often.
Your letters are scented wings
swooping in from impossible distances.

Tell my mother I am in good health. Tell her I eat well.
Inform my father that I have dined with His Excellency The Governor,
exchanging poems on the sound of autumn flutes.

As for yourself.
You already know my thoughts.

Pray for my success.
Pray for my patience.
Pray for my instant return;
rich in virtues and promises of future greatness.


Paris 1155 C.E.

"First you pass through its trinity of portals
into the glow of that great solar window;
sapphire, ruby and gold,
as maybe the angels or blesséd souls
perceive the ascendant sun.
And there you pause for breath,
feeling the molten fires at your back,
scarcely daring to look up again.
      "Ahead of you the nave advances,
immaculate as Eden’s woods,
and everywhere is brightness;
from the sanctuary’s seven-fold crown
to the quire’s empyrean.
A flood of brilliance.
Light! Pure light!
Woven and laced with plainsong traceries.
      "Pythagoras displayed. Plato perfected.
All Saint Augustine’s music,
the proportionate ratios of Scotus,
and Saint Denis himself.
I never saw the like.
Not even at Canterbury.
The very harmonies of Heaven in glass and stone."

Thus Ratherius, in a worn cloak,
shoes mired by the streets of Paris,
drinking in the pot-house of The Two Swords
with the Bavarian Guéric of Landesburg.

"Ah, true enough!" says Guéric,
"Not to mention Boethius and his sinful rectangles,
Mystagogical Maximus, the late, lamented Abelard,
dear, dotty Opinicus, or Great King Solomon himself.
But in truth you should have been there for the consecration.
That was a Lendit!
The next best spectacle will be the Dies Iræ.
Such a rout of prelates was never seen,
unless it be in whoremongering or the distribution of fat benefices.
Only His Popeful Holiness was absent.

In any case he would have been outsainted by the King."

Ratherius breaks up a ha’penny bun,
nudging some fragments across the table.

"Although," continues Guéric,
"and I’ll tell you this for nothing,

it wasn’t all posturing and secret flatulence.
Divinity Herself was there,
in person. (crossing himself)
Dan Aristotle’s most unlikely possibility,
and you may well believe
she put the whole damned concourse in the shade;
jewelled panoply, gilt trimmings, mange and gout.
And I don’t speak metaphorically."

Ratherius worries at a morsel,
lodged in a pugging cavity,
ceasing to chew as he envisages
chaste Philosophia,
broad belly like a rebec,
breasts small and neat as quinces.

"Eleanor." Guéric enunciates.
Leaving the ambiguously proffered frustula
in favour of the name itself.

"Divine Queen Eleanor. At that time wedded to a saint,
but now the Chünigen von Engellant."

He seems about to quote something,
a poem perhaps,
but marking Ratherius’ blank expression,
contents himself with,

      "Stettit puella, bi einem boume,
      "Scripsit amorem an eime loube."

There is a long pause,
during which he shuffles the empty flagon back and forth.

"Do you write verse Ratherius?" he asks at last,
fingers kneading his flaccid purse.

"Well yes. I do in fact."

Ratherius has swept the crumbs together
and tossed them into his mouth,
chewing methodically.

"I once wrote a ‘Sanctus for the Blesséd Virgin.’"



Forbidden! Forbidden!
There is, of course, no festival.

Ten years ago the city fell.
The sword and cross brought death among us, and now, already, we forget.
Forget the gods, forget the laughter,
forget the songs of the poets.
Perhaps we do not dare remember.

These days it's only hate that keeps me sane.
The rest is looted or destroyed.
I hold it close and cold against my heart;
a stone blade angled at the sky.
There at least I'd leave no footprints,
following the god.
Ah, it would be so simple,
were it not for those I love.

Love! Ah, yes!
And what of Don Hernando?
That fine gentleman; in his blood-dark velvet,
and steel corselet, his jet hair oiled,
perfume in his moustaches.
We met again this morning on the plaza,
and later at the market.

He sweeps his cape aside,
swings back his long sword
in its sheath of silver and black leather,
and bows to me.
"Yo no naci lino para quereros."

Perhaps he thinks I'm a dog,
thus to be won by his scraps of rhyme and gesturing.
He's losing patience though,
and what he can't achieve with words,
he'll try to gain some other way.
Ignore him. Pass on. Hold your tongue.

"He honours you." My father says.
"Forget your pride Ilillin.
Our people are dispersed.
We have no history."

Ah! My father.
You who dream of Huexotzinco,
of bandying verses with Tecayehuatzin.
You, with your hidden codices, your tales of Azt-lan,
of Old Woman and White Cloud Serpent.
Why should you care for this Don Hernando?
He snuffs after buried treasure.
He would rack you for a golden fish-hook.
One whisper of those painted pages
and the priests will swarm like flies,
like the foul smoke of burning corpses.

We do not dare remember.

Amaxac. The cold night rain,
the hunger,
the stench of death.

The green jade spiral, the fan of quetzal feathers;
the ravaged gardens and waterways of Anahuac.
The plumed maize, the copal incense,
the yucca and fragrant vanilla flowers.
The white heron quills, the sunburst zacuan feathers.

With my earrings of red obsidian,
my hair darker than mist,
my jade skirt hung with stars.
I'll be no Donna Maria,
no milk-and-water wife.
I am a fiery quechol bird,
swooping above the slain;
winging into darkness.
I am a scarlet macaw.
I am a carmine flower,
a white flower full of fragrance.
I'd rather marry a humble farmer,
a man of my own people,
than Don Hernando
with his weasel eyes and specious courtesies.

Every day my parents argue.
Then father drinks.
This evening, after supper,
my mother waits in silence,
a wounded deer driven to the precipice.
She lowers her head and signs to me, leaving the room.
I follow.

"Ilillin. Your father is no longer rational.
He encourages this odious Spaniard.

Sees him as a refuge.
Nothing I say makes an impression.
He will have you marry him, or live with him,
gain some hold over him,
to salvage something from the evil of these times.
And that much I could understand, bitter though the taste is.
But he's oblivious of danger, like a child.

He drinks, and boasts; hints at arcane secrets.
`So my books say!'
My books! Is he crazy?!
`The Place of Seven caves.'
`A strange star.'
`Sky Gods.'
So say his books.
The priests will hear of it Ilillin.
The soldiers will come.
It's only a matter of time."

I put out the lamp, and listen for rain,
but the night is dumb.
Somewhere in town the christians shout and sing,
reeling through the dark in search of violence.

Tamoanchan, oh, Tamoanchan.
The Rain God's Paradise.
Before long I will find you.
Breathe the warm haze in your green forests,
where the beloved spirits whisper
and the Tree of Life puts out its flowers.

More singing. Shouts of laughter.

Surely, this need not last. There is no reason.
I must burn these writings.


Ireland and England. c.1822 C.E.

      There’s nothing for me here
      So I might as well be there.
      Not a penny in my pocket,
      Nor a blesséd soul to care.
      But the devil I’ll be lonely,
      If they’ll leave a man alone
      to sit and whistle jigs to a milestone.

It’s 1822.
A man sets out from Cork.
The date’s not absolutely certain,
but the walk of well above a hundred miles to Dublin
must have taken five or six days steady slog,
or just a bit less if we assume he didn’t linger.

He’s barely twenty, light of step,
a good singer and flute-player,
but ‘on his beam-ends’ as they say.

We meet him in a roadside pub
not a great way from Port Laoighise.
His songs have earned him bread and beer,
and now he’s by the peat fire
trying to warm his weary muscles in it’s grudging heat.

      "So what’s the news?"

      "From Cork d’ye mean? Why, none at all.
I wouldn’t choose to wander up and down
if I could earn a crust at home. But thus it is.
Fever and famine, dust and dearth
oblige me now to stretch my legs abroad.
With all I’ve put by
I can just about afford a one-way trip to England,
Manchester perhaps.
Although I’d hardly call them musical
those chaps across the water raise a deal of dust,
and I can tune as fine a flute as any man.
I’ll try my luck at carving instruments.
It’s not too rough a passage;
and maybe I’ll earn myself enough to make away down south to London.
That’s the place where fortunes can be found, if you can stand the pace."

      "Devil take England, and it’s King!
The country’s head’s no better than its arse!"

"Well and good,
but I’m fed up to my back teeth with being dirt poor always.
So wish me well. I might look in one of these days
with sovereigns in my pocket, to buy drinks all round!"

Some twenty years go by.

At last he comes to ground at Rose Court, Elephant and Castle,
with his wife, and son of eight years old.
He soon tired of the life up north and took the road again,
travelling through The Dales to Derby, Leicester, Northampton,
and due south-east along the Roman road to London,
where he hung his walking-stick up underneath the staircase,
and became a family man; not rich, not poor.

One morning there’s a knocking at his workshop door.
Old Mrs. Blessington who lives across the court,
all of a fluster.

      "Mr. C. I’m quite distraught.
There’s someone upstairs in my house. Clapping about
as sprightly as a gelding. I’ve hullooed, called out.
‘Who’s up there now ?’ I shouted.
Not a single word. Nothing.
Just carried on as if they never heard.
I wonder if you’d be so good......."

He takes his stick and climbs the narrow stair.
The sharp staccato click of halting feet
skitters and skips across the floor-boards.

      "Do be careful Mr. C!"

Nudging the door ajar he finds the widow’s cat
with walnut shells glued to its feet, clog-dancing wildly.
Then he smells something that brings a wry smile to his face.

That glue is his!
The window’s open to the low roof.

Two and two make four.
He turns.

      "Be easy now my dear.
The cat’s out of the bag. The mystery’s as clear as day,
and I’ve a call to pay upon a certain gentleman."

      "Oh, it’s a childish trick. Don’t hurt
the boy." begs the old woman.

      "Hurt him? Well I won’t
make marks on him for life, but I’ll ensure he don’t
repeat such mischief."

Lurking by the high, grey wall of Spurgeon’s Tabernacle,
dreading Judgement’s call,
Did my great-grandpa ever once suspect
that he had just assured himself of immortality?


A contemporary supermarket.

Christmas Eve me and Ron got pissed
and done a spray-can work-out on the old bag’s wall.
The one that just moved in, three houses down.
Had a good laugh.
Said we’d wait until she cleaned it off,
then do it over. Keep on like that.

But she made a pattern of it;
filled it in with red and yellow, green, gold, all sorts!
So there weren’t no point.

Then the local shite-sheet got onto it
and done a feature with a mug-shot.
‘Pensioner makes mural from graffiti.’
"Look!" My mum says, "That’s the lady down at number twelve.
She’s quite a character by all accounts. You boys lay off her now. You hear?"
I drew a pair of specs on, and a Hitler ‘tache, and binned it.

But, and this is weird,
down at the supermarket
who should come in but the old bag,
and followed me round
wearing a plastic nose and glasses with a black moustache.
"What’s your game then?" I told her, caught on the hop like,
"You nuts or what?"
"I am the ghost of Christmas Past." she says,
and dodges behind the washing powders.
God knows where she went.
I couldn’t find her nowhere, even when I searched!
"Where’s she gone then?" I says to the little skirt packing shelves.
"How should I know?" she says.
Daft bitch!
Give me the creeps. I never told no-one.

Ron was for putting a half-ender through her window.
"See what she does with that!" he says.
"No." I says, "Half her tiles is loose.
Perhaps she’ll throw a wobbly. Best steer clear mate.
Don’t trust her sort. Forget it.
Stupid cow!"


Meanwhile Mary finds herself in Moscow,
walking through the Kremlin in the snow,
alone across Red Square.

(Beats packing shelves!
They’ve all got peri-something now,
which means it’s safe to go.)

She’s taller by an inch or two,
face muffled in luxurious furs,
and there’s a guy like Johnny Depp
behind her, running.
"Nadja! Come back. Nadja, please!"
His hair’s all ruffled,
he’s forgotten to put on a coat
but still he keeps right after her.

Reaching the centre of the square he stops,
throws his head back, spreads out his hands,
the way Madonna does, and ......


Above the twisty onion domes the cry goes spiralling
without an echo,
muffled by the snow.

She looks back once,
and keeps on walking
as the camera pans away.


Then her slim hands are dancing on a console,
summoning graphs and coloured symbols up onto the screen.
Hugh Grant is next to her.

"We’ve got to stop them Tara! You know what failure means!"

Svelte and elegant,
her hair a cloud of fragrant curls,
even at such a time he cannot help but notice.
God! How beautiful she is!

The minutes tick away.
Small beads of sweat stand on her lip.
Her make-up is immaculate.

Then, just as the second-hand moves to the hour
she stabs a button. "There it is!"
A knot of formulas that only she can understand.

Without a pause she taps a virus in and saves the world.

"Tara!" gasps Hugh.


Mrs. Briggs the supervisor is approaching.
Perhaps she saw that spotty bloke,
and the old woman who nipped out through the delivery yard.
Couple of nutters both of them.

"Hello Mary." says Mrs. Briggs. "How are you getting on?
I’d like these shelves all to be packed before we close, if possible.
Do you think you’ll manage that?"

"Yes Mrs Briggs." she says.



I: Southern France. Over 10,000 years ago.

II: Babylon. Approximately 3,500 years ago.
These two women actually existed, as evidenced by an Akkadian clay tablet containing a letter from Sirum to her childhood friend Elmeshum, demanding the promised replacement for her abarahhu cane. Simánu, the third month. Shamash, Marduk, Ninsûna and Raman (also called Adad) are all deities.

III Han China. Approximately 60 A.D.
The Season of the Phoenix is summer. The White Tiger symbolizes Autumn, and the western quadrant of the sky. The Tiger gives its name to one of the twelve years which make up a complete Chinese Astrological cycle. The last year of the tiger was 1998. The moon: The God of Marriage, associated with the moon, was said to link those destined to marry with an invisible red thread.

IV Paris 1155 A.D.
The church described is that of the Abbey of Saint Denis, dedicated by its builder Abbot Suger in the mid 1140’s. Lendit: An important fair usually associated with a Cathedral. One was held at Saint Denis only three days after its consecration. Queen Eleanor: Eleanor of Aquitaine. A celebrated beauty, and the greatest heiress in France. She was married to Louis VII at the time of the consecration, and was present at the ceremony, but in 1152 she married the English King Henry II. There’s a poem in the Carmina Burana, in mediæval German, in which the anonymous writer longs to have the ‘Chünigen von Engellant’ (The Queen of England) lying in his arms. Stettit puella etc: This macaronic Latin/German couplet is also found in the Carmina Burana, and means: A girl stood by the branch of a tree, And wrote her love upon a leaf.

V: Mexico in the 1530s, following the fall of Tenochtitlan in 1520.
Yo no naci sino para quereros ( I was born only to love you.): A quotation from the Spanish poet Garcilaso de la Vega. Huexotzinco: A city in the Puebla Valley which hosted a ‘Dialogue of poets.’ It was traditionally hostile to the Aztecs; but perhaps the poets themselves were neutral! Tacayehuatzin: The King of Huexotzinco, and host to the ‘Dialogue of Poets.’ Azt-lan, Old Woman, White Cloud Serpent: From the Aztec Creation Myth. Amaxac. City to which many Aztecs retreated after the fall of the capital Tenochtitlan. Anahuac: (Surrounded by water) The name refers both to Tenochtitlan itself, and the Aztec Mexican realm in general.

VI: Nineteenth Century Ireland and England.
King George IV visited Ireland in 1821. In the same year there was a failure of the potato crop. In 1822 fever followed on the heels of famine, in western Ireland. According to family tradition my great-great grandfather (on my father’s side) came from Cork. We don’t know names or dates, but he’s supposed to have walked from Manchester to London, using a stick still in my father’s possession. He did indeed live in Rose Court, Elephant and Castle, under the shadow of Spurgeon’s tabernacle, working as an instrument-maker; and it was there that my great-grandfather played the prank involving the cat. The subsequent punishment was inflicted, not for the trick itself, because the cat was easily restored to normal pussyfooting; nor for alarming the old lady, because this was seen as excusable boyishness; but for stealing his father’s glue, which was too precious a commodity to be lightly filched. The tale was handed down, father to son, and this is all we know of that side of the family. Rose Court and environs no longer exist.

VII: A contemporary supermarket.