One of the wonderful things about studying at a Music Conservatoire – as long ago as the early 1990s – was being among the company of many overseas students. For me, it was a novelty that I suspect many now take for granted at our universities.
Even so, in the petty annexing that right-wing politics seem to favour, our economy has shot itself in the foot regarding the breaking-down of barriers between nations and states. I will return to this anon...
Something I learned, possibly from my Greek or Catalan friends, was that these people enjoyed celebrating their ‘name-day’ as much as their birthday. With my Gaelic/Celtic heritage, it would be hard to find a Saint to pin my name on and a hagiographical calendar to appropriate an extra feast.
(My first name is not – as many maybe think – derived from ‘James,’ so his saint’s day is off-limits.)
In the last year or so, I have come to know (through a close friend) that in Bulgaria, name-days are a Big Thing – possibly more than anywhere else. There is a whole custom centred on these celebrations which borders on folklore.
There are particular traditions, sayings, and greetings which are as familiar to Bulgaria as “many happy returns” is to Britain (or wherever that expression is from.)
Being from the Eastern part of Europe, Bulgaria’s Saints have different feast-days to those of the west. Today, my friend, Елена, celebrates her name-day according to the Eastern Orthodox calendar. In accordance with Bulgarian tradition, I would like to greet my much-loved friend with a salutation from her homeland: “May your name be healthy.”
But life is never that simple. Neither is poetry...
Честит имен ден
Today is your Name-Day – at least
it is so in the East. In your
adopted land you’ll have to wait
until August to celebrate.
While you inspire, enlighten and
illuminate with your warm heart
and bright enquiring mind, today –
of all days – you cannot find your insight.
In honour of your name, I search
for her and soon discover how
Елена and her lover, Samuel,
though slain upon their wedding-day,
both gave their name to an area
in your Homeland, Bulgaria.
It seems, besides your gentle soul,
perceptive eyes and tiny frame, you are
the valleys, rivers, hills and woods
that skirt the Balkan Mountain Range.
Your insight may be lost or hurt,
but ‘may your name be healthy,’ for
it flowers – even in the darker hours.
I will embrace you and your name,
and offer you this gift… Time.
For when the day is done and darkness
falls, look up, Елена. The stars
enlighten with eternal shine.
Three years ago, Елена held a traditional name-day gathering, partly as a wrap-party for her latest film. Although I wasn’t involved with the production, I was invited and, as she introduced all her friends, she explained their role in the film: “This is, X, the DOP, Y, the co-director, A & B the actors, Z the producer...” and then she came to me.
Unsure of how to introduce me to the company, Елена said, “This is Jamie...” then stumbling, said: “He’s just a poet.” It has been a standing joke between us all ever since.
Laughter aside, Елена has been more than just a friend to me over the last few years. She has been an inspiration. I’ve been honoured to be a part of her film-projects, and to be on hand when she’s needed help (often, in panic, when looking for the right word – it seems I’m more than just a poet) or to simply ‘be there’ somewhere in the background.
I’ve had a fair few female friends who have fucked me up over the years. These so-called friends have abused my head, or heart, or some other part of my body; used it for their own ends, screwed me up, broken me, and spat me out.
Two, in particular, masqueraded as lovers, but turned out to be fraudulent and fake as I came – too late – to discover. Елена, thank god, is not like these fraudsters.
Here are three poems on various meanings of ‘gift.’
for ‘The Soprano’
The floodlights of Meadowbank Stadium are still
in the rain-sodden sky, like stuck fireworks.
The weather worse than dreich,
I venture out in the soggy streets
to Sainsbury’s for toilet-roll and gin –
life’s essentials – and imagine the spectators
at the Castle Tattoo; the rhythm of dancers and
as the best of Scottish beats down on both.
If Meadowbank - once host to others games,
given its stay of execution -
had hosted the same military pomp,
would equal crowds have flocked,
or Hogmanay’s Great Display
fallen to the axe for a gust of Dunedin’s wind?
History and tradition keep folk
afloat, even in this diluvian Festival.
Sometimes we long for fireworks.
Now, all I crave as the water soaks my shoes,
is a warm sofa, Bombay Sapphire, and a kiss,
a breath, a touch of your soft, soft face.
Or better, the ecstasy of your voice
igniting the wet, black sky.
long and hard
this weighted gift
sat on my shelf
symbol of a rift
a leathery musk
of what might
have perhaps been
as the bright sun
enlightened its fibres
She called it cute
it was dispensable
‘Keep it if you want
or give it to charity’
she said indifferent.
If only I had seen
a present meant
for further future
One year on
I pick at the scars
where lies began
now truth unwinds
the past unfolds
as poppers snap
on empty contents
each intended for
photos, credit cards
of emails, texts
loyalty cards for
In the top folds
wads of bank-notes
that some call filth
while others revel in
the power of purchase.
Against this love
the Bible warns
yet Society nurtures.
To close the book
reveals yet more
evidence of love
or what was meant
by this past present?
Was this for coins,
loose change, trinkets
trust purloined while
in a pocket zipped,
a secret store
of love abused:
the condom that
she never used.
Finally a zone
left empty, void
of what my daft
for or believed or
dared to think as love.
It wasn’t intended
for money stolen
sold, or tendered
but a metaphor
as sick and empty
as a wallet forged
of unspoken gratitude
- a perverse token
for services rendered.
I’m stuck with it
this leather wallet.
If only it displayed
a little more than
fifty silver pieces
of a love betrayed.
for e, naturally
It’s always the smell that gets me.
Sit on a leather sofa,
and I’m back with that soprano
I attempted to give my heart to.
The ecstasy of her voice is gone,
but the memory lingers on.
Wave a wallet in front of my nose,
and a painful surge emerges.
That photographer who,
unlike her camera, lied and lied
and lied. To her I gave a piece of me:
purchased with that wallet’s mendacity.
And then, a leather-bound booklet
reminds me, whenever I look at it,
of my film-maker-friend and muse.
I hesitated, momentarily, as its pungency
punished my olfactory intrusions.
How could I use this gift?
By filling its soft pages with reciprocated
affection, that saw past pain eradicated.
What did I fill the soft pages with? I wandered between my house and where Елена (then) lived and took pictures of doors. Contemplating the symbolism of doors, and meditating on friendship, the imagination, and truths beyond this journeying, I jotted down ideas in that leather-bound notebook. I then selected 26 pictures and I wrote a sestude on each.
(Regular readers of this blog know what a sestude is...)
Here are three of these 62-word studies, each picking up on the current political situation. I could re-visit the dark subject of last month’s blog by quoting from Tippett’s A Child of Our Time (“Burn down their houses! Beat in their heads! Break them in pieces on the wheel!”) but... today is a celebration of life.
And someone’s special name...
from 26 Doors Between My House and Yours...
52, Rankeillor Street
From your window you
observed this door.
You’d never considered
the artwork before,
adorned with jars,
a lampshade, or
discarded satellite dish.
You watched the
‘drinky people’ come and go,
in and out of taxis,
fearing more that they
would prang themselves
on the dried-out branches
than miss any artistic significance.
It seems whatever I perceive,
you make my eyes see differently.
Fire Door, The Parliament Building
of the Parliamentary
process is laid bare.
Behind a concrete façade
lies a complex charade:
more rooms than
a Father’s Mansion,
where debate, controversy,
conversation and bureaucracy
float about like hot air,
fanned by the fickle whim
of public opinion.
This building isn’t
or political transparency.
It’s about how power
and fear can threaten
our National Security.
The World’s End Pub
It’s not the end of the world
as we know it. It’s an illusion;
a mural on the front of a pub
marking the position of the
Old Town Gate which barred
the exit to the Burghers too
poor to emigrate to James
Craig’s New Town Utopia.
At the real world’s end, all
imaginary doors, borders,
walls will open, lift, or fall.
In life, the personal is always political. So I will end – if the reader of this page lives in a British country that wishes to impose barriers, borders, walls, and doors – with this plea: don’t vote TORY!
But to end on a happier note, to all those people named Елена: Happy name-day.
May your name be healthy.
May your name be healthy.