A Song of the Cliffs

This is an ambitious, unwieldy fragment from 1993, then 1997, then 2001, then 2005. Interestingly, I still haven’t given up on it! I decided to publish it here on my blog so it will live somewhere, until it gets into my story collection. The one person who enjoyed “A Song of the Cliffs” was my dear friend poet Ann Vaughan-Williams, who lives in London and is just a train-ride away from the cliffs at Beachy Head. Partly as a result of her encouraging words, I decided this torso should find a home online. If you’d like to make your own suggestions on how to rework/improve the suicide-note story, you’re welcome to leave a comment below…or perhaps you’ll be inspired to write your own story/suite of poems…

Beachy Head

Beachy Head, England
December, 2199

I am going to put myself to sleep now for a bit longer than usual.
—Jerzy Kosinski

 

A female soldier from the Third Persian War     4 Dec. 2199

The hills stop abruptly as if sliced by a colossal carving knife. The fields drop, gape down to sea and rock. All those who jumped before stand with me, as if to give me courage, as we look out at a lighthouse that hasn’t beaconed in decades.

 

A teacher

All I wanted was a dog, a little one. That would have made the difference. I can’t keep up. Moths are spontaneously generating out of old bags of tea in unclean cupboards. The loo stinks and the whole place stinks of loo, no matter how much cleaner I pour in. All day I’m demolishing moths, bills appear on my screen, journals appear on my screen that I no longer read, my toenails are out of control, the phone hasn’t rung in weeks, I never ever hear from Father Paul. But I keep your hair in a jar, it’s holy and soft. Thank goodness you let me trim your young hair the last time you came by!
I couldn’t fight for myself. I always believed there would’ve been hope for me back in the twentieth century, people were kinder then.

 

A man

Dear Keyon,

I thought I was getting better. I hardly have anyone to turn to. I couldn’t even get excited about a voyage to Europa and Callisto.  I can’t stand this anymore. When i think i hit bottom it just gets worse. There was someone in my life for such a long time, and she keeps trying to reconnect, even though she found someone else. No one gets how bad this loss has been.  I’ve tried everything to feel better and nothing is working. Everyone just goes about their business. And I’m expected to show up for work. I know you have your own load. Tonight for the first time I realized I can’t go on. This is the only way. I’ve walked for hours to these cliffs. I hope they are high enough. I am anxious to see the other side.

 

A bedlamite with a tin plate on his arm 13 Dec. 2199

ABOUT PHYSICAL TORTURE: I’ve had acid put on my feet while I slept, and mosquitoes on my back. I’ve had a rope put around my neck and was choked till I had rope burns. I have endured beatings, some severe. I’ve been dropped on my head onto concrete. My neck was gouged by two different people. My education was sabotaged. I was molested by a neighbor when I was seven years old. First time I was gassed with poison I was 17. Knowing I would be looking for a way out, and not telling me what it would do to me they hooked me on t.c.o. When I tried to quit they poisoned me severely. Now that I’m at the Cliffs I know I can escape. I was terrorized into a nervous breakdown. Then I was raped. I’ve been framed. I’ve been robbed. I’ve had three m.r.n’s sabotaged and systematically destroyed. I’ve been unlawfully sued. I’ve been turned into a freak. I’ve been blackmailed with manufactured evidence. I’ve been a victim of mass psychological oppression. I’ve been made to nearly freeze to death without a blanket 70 nights in a row. I’ve been cheated out of all the basic Fundamental Human Rights you take for granted, I swear on all that I hold as good and true that what is written is 100% the truth.

 

A man, 56

Friends:
I walked in my sleep again. The same bad dreams of swans on fire and Mother’s inflated feet. In the emergency room everyone was sleepwalking. “You have a deep bruise,” said the sleeping doctor. “Rest,” he said, and wandered off.
Lesions on the mid-face and trunk. A proliferation of bacteria. Drooping eyelid and other complications. Unilateral pain. Tingling. Burning. The infection of the brain by parasites spreading dementia and quick decline.
Paleness. Confusion. Bone pain. Worsening of the lesions. Crackles in the lung, unease, numbness. The malignancy. A pernicious hoarseness and drooling. The beginning of disfigurements. Blindness.
Dear friends, they say people always change their minds as they fall, but I don’t know. I would have gone to the Golden Gate Bridge in America if it was still intact, but this will have to do.
Bodhi

 

A mother and her mongoloid daughter 13-12-2199

A magpie flew into the house the day my little girl was born, so we brushed her face with a rabbit’s foot to keep away the Evil One. For good luck we stole a bone and set it on a windowsill.
It’s no use going on, for with the new M.E.R.C.Y. laws sooner or later they’ll find out about her and take her to one of the Dignity Camps. I’d rather we end peacefully, by the old lighthouse.
I’ll leave this note on the edge, tidy in a shoe.
Look! An orange balloon! When I was wee I thought that all the stars were balloons that had floated up to the sky.

 

A young lady

Dear Vihaan,
Congratulations on your marriage. I hope you and Lathan find happiness.
By the time you get this you will probably have heard. Maybe you’ll get the news in the middle of one of your parties. I have come to the Devil’s Chimney.  I see your face, Vihann, I see only you.
I love you,
Aleydis

 

 

An old-fashioned poet

The decimation of Tashkent
did not stir up much deep lament—
don’t folks in turbans count for less
than Nicky, Peter, Ted or Bess?
The loss of Rome from Fire and Quake
was harder to assimilate.
But in our compound all went well
far from city, bomb and Hell.
You flew to work, you flew back home,
pollution lurked outside a Dome.
You had a child with flaxen hair
by filling out a questionnaire.
Everyone was smart, magnetic
fast at math and so athletic.
If bombs went off up on the Moon
the pundits would be feuding soon
in smooth and cultivated tones
while you went on with tea and scones. . .

Well, such was my life until Doc said
“Son, you’re one of the Infected.”
They handcuffed, stripped and branded me,
there was no time to plan or flee.
They forced me into quarantine,
I felt like that sad Florentine
who went down deep into the Earth
a thousand years before my birth.
But at least he had a friendly guide,
I had no one on my side.
A sports arena and a cot—
this was my home, this my lot.
I hardly slept for all the noise,
families, kids, infernal toys
that bleeped and blipped the whole night long
and then at six that horrid gong!
But worse than all the idle chatter,
they never gave us reading matter.
So I began to lose my mind—
a thing, once lost, you rarely find.
They did more blood work, all agreed:
no harm in letting me go free,
but “freedom” meant a rooming-house
with bedbug, roach and sickly mouse.
I looked for work, clerks shook their heads—
some days I lived on milk and bread.
Since Eastern wars lurked in the dawn,
I thought the army’d need some pawns,
but at the Ministry of Discord
I was courteously ignored.
I sat in pubs for the Infected
where I never once connected.
The coup d’etat of ninety-three
at last got rid of Royalty—
now Good King Hal astutely rules
a large estate in lush Peru.
But funding’s gone for those in need,
it makes no odds how much you plead.
Flop-house days were never sweet
but they were sweeter than the street.
Then I thought of this white cliff
renowned in pop song and in riff,
I got to thinking of Release—
that “time” when everything will cease.
Preludes to the Afterlife
are played all thru our routine strife.
A taste of Death’s when you despond,
Death is watching others bond.
A hint of Death’s in notes you get
from Committees That Regret:
The Panel has decided
your petition is misguided. . .
I knew a priest once, Father Paul—
three years since he’s returned a call.
“I’m here to listen anytime”
he’d tell me while he drank his wine.
Very moody, very odd,
hardly ever mentioned God.
He loved to say “You’re not alone”
then loudly yawned into the phone.
Nature? Clouds? Where do we flit to
when a body’s work is through?
Is Death a general anesthetic
or wild and whistling and electric?
But light a flame, watch till it’s spent. . .
no one wonders where it “went.”

All we wish for, all we shun
from cradle to crematorium
is no match for that great Space
we always crave but can’t embrace
not in waking, not in dreaming
not till we fall to riptides screaming. . .

 

The acclaimed artist Steve “Trystan” Sweezey

Viveca, my love,
When you succumbed to plague, and our son with you, long ago, I grieved in a frenzy of self-pity but now I know it was better that you didn’t live to see this war and what has become of me.
It is most curious that my pushing of one button should be the cause of misery to so many millions.
I tailed the Uzbek jet. It was a passenger plane. Four hundred twenty-one people. I can’t write this properly, Viveca. I received the order to fire. I had to obey, I had no choice, otherwise it would have meant a court martial, do you see? I pressed the button. The airliner was hit, mortally, it took seven minutes until it slammed into a mountainside. And the thought of those seven minutes has occupied my life.
In a sanatorium after my breakdown, they encouraged me to draw. And so I took up painting, imagine, Viveca! And for years painting was to be my obsession. The war went on in Central Asia, but I was out of it forever. After my release I stayed in Mama’s little flat, in a room all to myself. I painted. I, the cause of all  this war, sat in a quiet room painting. I painted everything I had done. I painted panic, screams, above all screams, tried to get voices on canvas. Over and over. Giant canvases of screams, terrified eyes, blood, bedlam. The room filled up with these things, overflowed with them, soon I had to move out, to a bigger space in the suburbs. I painted like a madman, worked twenty hours a day, it poured out of me, I never abandoned my cabinful of sufferers, never. How much time passed like this? I do not know. But one day by chance my work was seen by someone. And then by another. And then by another. This third one owned a gallery, and bought six of my paintings. I was grateful for the money because I was running out of paint. He later offered me a show, and I accepted but all I wanted was to paint. The show led to other shows, I still had to get more horror out of me. Soon there were many shows, and many distractions, people began to disturb me. I got a cottage far out but even there they kept trying to see me. I needed to focus on my obsession. So I came to Sussex where they didn’t know me. I worked and worked until I collapsed.
I was institutionalized again. When I left the mental home, I had no more painting in me. And still I felt trapped in a cabin with all the innocents I had slaughtered. I could not paint away my guilt.
So I have come here to fall now. Fall as they did. This is my answer. What awaits me? Have I done penance enough for my crime? Wind blows mightily, all I need to do is stand on the edge and the wind will help me over. Viveca, my beloved!    –Steve

 

Interlude: A Closer Look at the Wreckage

Earlier
much earlier
rivers
bathed people quick ice-cold
above glaciers summer high
and miles   miles of wings     wide     long
where butterflies—

Correct: Man extracts the fang and tooth of nature
Incorrect: Cattle know no pain

Heat    rioting    rotting

Correct: The rain remembers green and coveted slopes
Correct: Valleys shape voices that shape valleys

The damage to light itself

Woods are pulled to desert
Words tremble on the verge

Correct: Ferries are waiting for evacuees to take them to the other side
Not Selected: Feral parrots flutter in the ruins of St. Paul’s

 

A young man with a suitcase contemplating the foam below

Dayesi,
With my Father—and at his expense, of course—I have traveled. How do I look? I’m filming this for you: so you will see the work you’ve done.
In Paris the boys are wearing Mars boots and flaunts and riding about on little jeepneys, just like you. In Cairo, a city of thirty million, a mess of mosques reaches up to a dirty sun: I left my father dozing in the Holiday Inn and wandered through reeking shantytowns for hours until I found a youth who would help me forget you for half a crown. Afterwards he asked for my watch and I told him to fudge off. In Delhi one of my father’s business friends took me to a bowling alley. All I could do was think of you and remember how graceful you are at anything athletic, so I tried to imitate you. All the Indians laughed at the English ladybug. We spent a week in the Cantonese countryside. While my father talked business in the icy lobby of the Hyatt I toured with a group by landrover. We came upon a massive fish market teeming with strong brown youths like you, but it wasn’t they who excited me, no, no, it was the smell: the whole place smelled powerfully of you. Life is for the young.
Dayesi, I was never good enough. When I started exercising, when I added hair, when I changed my name to be more hip for you—it didn’t matter, there was nothing I could do, there was nothing.
Lately a mother went over the edge with her deformed daughter in her arms. The innkeeper at the White Horse told me tourists were taking pictures of the dead child’s expressive face staring up as it was being devoured by crabs and insects and whatnot. Bodies stay down there for days. Scooping them up is no priority with all that’s gone wrong.
In Bangkok, after an interminable meal, I wandered thru the gardens of the Imperial. A cat began to follow me. I told it: “Don’t! I’m nothing, why are you following me? Dayesi longs for others.” So this mustn’t be called suicide, since you have already succeeded in demolishing what was left of me. But still that cat followed me. “Why are you following me?” I repeated. “I’m nothing. So I thank you, Dayesi, for helping me to know my place. I will leave this camera on the edge. Will it pick up the body break-up, do you think? This is for you, so enjoy. I’m going to dive. See me dive. Athletic!

 

A young seer

Beachy Head Dec. 21, 2199

Dear Mohammed,
When you went to your cave in the mountains, did you ever get lonely? My name is Alicja and I am thirteen, and all my life I have been your servant. At first when my Gift was discovered it was a blessing for my family, with my father and brothers on the dole, that was six years ago, when they found out that everything I said would come to pass really did come to pass. I was put on Channel One, and this caused people to be excited, and overnight all my family could live with enough good things. Only they stole my childhood. I told the world three years ago about Mt. Etna, I described the beings on Triton long before the astronomers found them, I predicted the fires of Teheran and Tashkent. But no one has listened to me when I greeted, no one has thought about what has been taken from me. The Wonder of Humankind is a quill who’s got no friends, who’s never had dolls or sat in a treehouse or sucked on popingel. So I often think of you when you went to your cave to pray and when God called you to be his prophet. Was it ever lonely? I have had one last vision, and this one I can’t bear.
I saw the earth overgrown with plants, I saw butterflies and dragonflies, deer and rabbits and toads. I saw Sun and great big clouds, I something of the world my great-great-great Grandpa remembers. But I saw no grownups or boys and girls. I saw the Houses of Parliament spread over a field covered in ferns and moss, a world of serpents and turtles and crawling things. The dogs, free of their masters, explored the crumbling theaters and empty stations. Sheep without shepherds wandered, wounded. Ornamental birds and ravens became the cities’ lords. The only human speech still uttered was what the oldest parrots could recall: Hello world! I’m Merlin! Wow! Hello world! Wow!
Twenty billion people are asking Where is Alicja? I think I don’t know where Alicja is, or where she will go. But I’ll leave this note on the edge.
I want you, who sit next to God and talk to Him, to ask Him to forgive me for what I’m about to do, perhaps He will understand and bring me to Him to console him if He mourns and greets and help Him turn His eyes to other Worlds.
Alicja

 

Father Paul on Christmas Eve, to his counselor

Dear Seraphina—

I know how hard you worked to help me heal.
If it hadn’t been for you I’d long ago have quit.
When you hear about me, don’t give up, please.
It’s just that even when I cover my ears
the news gets worse: in Asia a million corpses left to rot,
and Rome destroyed, while in Britain one man

wallows in years of couch introspection—one man
comes twice a week at five hundred crowns an hour to heal
a hurt inflicted long ago, clean out the rot
that spreads inside the mind and never quits,
even in sleep: ten years of insights that go in one ear
out the other. . . no, I won’t stay on just to please.

Perhaps you’ll miss the turmoil of my case, but—please—
(now it’s me who’s counseling you): I’m just one man,
there are more out there who need an ear,
who need a way to heal and can be healed
and, unlike me, they will not quit,
they will not waste your time by talking rot.

We built a Byzantine basilica with all my rot:
rich mosaics of dream, spires of lapsus linguae, pleasing
to the mind of an intellectual kind of man
who seeks a couch and shelter from the world, quits
the fray in search of understanding if not healing,
a soothing female voice and well-trained ears.

Did I progress or did we go in circles?—How my ears
freeze in this wind! An old-time lighthouse rots
among the rocks ahead: too late for it to heal,
they ought to knock it down, it’s no sight to please
the eye of any wholesome or morbid man
bent on falling off the edge of England. . . “Quitter!”,

I never felt a true Calling, now all I know to do is quit.
Two steps more and these ears
will hear just my own voice crying out to no man,
no Son of God—that’s all a myth, let’s face it, dead and rotten.
I’ll just drop into empty expanse—please,
let that be the long-sought healing.

I trust you won’t judge me for quitting this place, rotting
with war and pestilence—inside me I hear only pleas
to stop the pain, a pain no Son of Man can heal.

 

An aged gentleman

Dear Samaritan:
Indeed you were there when I needed you. Near the precipice your number stood out on the lone phone box with the message WE’RE ALWAYS THERE, NIGHT OR DAY. I phoned you, but my arguments were better than yours. Samaritan, you have not studied your history or your biology.
I am not going to recycle any of my arguments here. This world no longer seems like home to a civilized man who remembers the way it was. I am one hundred forty-one years old. I have lived enough. I cannot imagine what Earth will be like in a century from now for billions of the unborn.
Please do not condemn me. The work you do is worthwhile; you must get results with some. Your voice sounded so young. The voice of a generation I am out of touch with. I hope you will accept the enclosed donation and trust that it will do something to help save the lives that are meant to be saved.

 

Age and gender unknown

I’ve got no dreams left.
My brother made it, I failed.
I want death so much.

 

Another Interlude: At Sunset

We’re looking forward to a journey, crushed liver
twenty-seven broken ribs,
a journey
to that undiscovered country, bring us to the brim,
the fishermen like mice below and a lighthouse dead for decades.
Need someone to talk to? Day or night,
we’re always there, so choose LIFE and CALL US,
poor Tom shall lead thee,
within a foot of the extreme . . .

lungs collapsed, damaged spleen

We’re looking forward to a cliff
whose high and bending head looks fearfully, electrodes on the body showed
it suffered . . .
as day mulls into night
as hills and waters rock the gulls
to undreamed-of serenity,
a pair of running shoes points out to sea,
It’s only the edge of England
but it looks like the edge of the world

and there’s a note:
“I feel certain I’m going mad again.”

Neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain

Keep the porch light lit for those expected late,
wait for them by the window fingering curtains,
wait alone for the constable’s call
(Family often have an inkling says the coroner)

Light candles, buy carnations and take them to the edge.

“I feel I can’t go through another of those terrible times and I shan’t recover.
I know that I am spoiling your life.”

Carefully choose a friend, a rabbi, a priest, someone who is likely to listen.

We’d like you to call someone, now. You are not alone.
Crushed spleen, twenty-seven broken ribs.
“If anyone could have saved me it would have been you.
I don’t think two people could have been happier.”

Act your old age. This won’t hurt.

 

A woman 25 Dec 2199

I was just bored with everything & eight years of treatment did not ease my addiction in fact it got worse & I had to get away had no one left in London so I went off to France with the money I came into after Mum died & I opened a creperie in St. Malo I don’t know what I expected I thirsted for something but from the first day on first it was the movers imagine I’d moved into a quaint walk-up in the old quarter & I offered the two sweat-soaked Young Men refreshments when their work was finished one was Algerian the other Nigerian & I plopped down between the two & giggled and they grinned worked their hands under my skirt & I threw rubbers at them & they laughed and tossed them out & the Nigerian took me from behind the Algerian from the front & we did it there in the sitting room ah moments of insane wedlock & one of them said “This is the closest two men can get and not be ladybugs!” & when it was over I made them Turkish coffee oh that was my first day in St. Malo & I’d thought things would be different why didn’t the treatment cure me France is dark now with Arabian and African machos my first August I binged on eleven in one weekend an army corporal on leave from the Central Asian Wars a goateed tea importer from Brest a diver with the whitest teeth he was sixty but looked thirty-nine after just one procedure and there were more I can’t remember them all why didn’t the treatment work I couldn’t stand the emptiness I couldn’t but I won’t go on & on because listen whoever reads this listen it happened in the train one night he was wearing a Jo-burg Olympics T-shirt & shorts & sandals he had a criminal sort of face the other passengers were sleeping & he grabbed my hand & pulled down his pants “We’ll go to the loo” I whispered but he shook his head & we did it there among the sleepers it was degrading it was beautiful males have never loved me even though I’ve been with 2,000 or more I was no more than a release for them not all males are that way just the ones I want & that night I got home I couldn’t bear the solitude of my flat the relentless stillness & that night I got a message from the only person I still correspond with & she wrote that a priest we have both known for years Father Paul has leapt from the cliffs in Sussex I was stunned he would give such solid advice such a comfort she mentioned drink and possibly he’d tested positive but he was a well-liked man & seemed so sane I can’t understand what the world is going through & he wasn’t the first there was Bodhi Malone the media personality of course & so many others no one ever gave me a good reason to go on perhaps it was foolish of me to expect that from the treatment but what I want to tell you who are reading this and don’t give a damn is that the Cliffs began to call me as well I can’t put into words how I felt or words would make it small & so I got on the next train to Sussex I hurried because I heard they want to close off those Cliffs to the public forever too much death but I thought I’d try & the old barman in the pub looked at me perhaps he could sense something & we began to talk he even asked me my name & I thought how new really novel in this world a barman asking your name & I told him I lived in Brittany & he said lovely country there’s nothing like it left over here but I didn’t feel much like chatting yet I was moved by his humanity & he didn’t look at me the way most Males do & I almost forgot to feel alone but once again I heard the wind out there & I walked out of the pub without a word I ran towards the Cliffs & the grey sea was heaving & the rocks were waiting & what I heard as I stood out there was like a faint choir of all the jumpers before me & all the jumpers to come & I’m looking over the edge & the water & the dead lighthouse where the lights must’ve gone out half a century ago & I know I need to do it now now otherwise I won’t I can’t delay it I have always been courageous the rocks down there look miles away & suddenly I hear the voice of the barman from the pub it’s his aged voice like thunder he’s calling my name I don’t know why but at last someone is calling my name “Aviana! Aviana!” he’s shouting & running towards me at last I am hearing the sound of my name & it’s something more than a caress or a fondling it’s something more than a moment of insight in treatment or even the lights of meditation for in the end all that is solitary and pointless but this man is calling my name and it is a beautiful sound as I hover on the edge between the known world & the depths—

 

3 thoughts on “A Song of the Cliffs

  1. I included this piece in “the whole marie”. Now here it is with a little more explanation…it seems appropriate in the light of the wars around the world.

    There was my Uncle Jack who was burned so badly in WWII that my father who went to the military hospital for a visit didn’t recognize him, walked right by.
    His wife didn’t wait for him so he became a divorced Catholic.
    His brother was in Rome to be ordained and couldn’t get anywhere with the Monsignors about his brother’s divorce.
    Jack married a lovely woman finally, but she died before him and they didn’t find his body until almost a week after his death.
    It was my mother who read about his death in the local newspaper.
    The family arranged a memorial Mass in his honor.
    He was my godfather. I was there.

    From the whole marie, page 49

    AFTER JACK PASSING

    these are the poems after Jack’s passing
    hill and gully rider
    hill and
    gully
    these are the ones no one sows
    under hill the real skinny gully
    if to know some thin only
    again ’twas July 02 he died

    jeepers creepers where’d he get those scars
    but the story when and if
    it’s not joe ours
    it is just too thin
    the girl’s not Jane or Jill or home
    in the end
    I can’t even answer even blubbering
    imbibering
    an Irish taint it
    hiding a bottle as a divorce in a stereo oh oh

    like a skeleton in the closet
    ‘n on our front door
    yearly the day of dead victuals
    draping dem bones so’s
    the battle for potatoes
    a soup with
    no cream that drives men and more so
    to the big really scary
    trip peregrinations

    so back to Jack
    his passing that’s a fact I’m sorry for
    jack when whatever’s
    the opposite of eyelids sag
    you can’t help but feel sorry
    for the days Jack had
    so what’s the story
    the singe no the scar

    of fire
    dimple ‘n dappled
    skin shadow skin
    and how do you get left with
    only three fingers by the by

    keeping it all to ‘emselves
    the fire them’s fighters
    where’s a finger go in fire
    letting not knowing sink in
    where’s the finger
    a body in loam sinks and mud
    and muddy war
    what
    pride of Jack
    and World Old War II

    • Hi Barbara I love what you wrote! I saw it in a Word document in its “proper” format. It’s amazing that you just wrote it, and I am pleased I had something to do with it. You’ve enriched and deepened the Spartan original poem. By the way, I recall C.D. Wright was the poet who chose your book. That was a terrible loss, her passing.

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