Two Poems


Stars’ embers on almost endless delay, reach us,
Their light caught in these faded folds of the hills,
Where old oceans rolled, then rivers wound, palimpsests tracing,
Old houseplaces now under ground set round by heavy limbed
Oaks, settling. The waters move on to the living sea.
The stars flame out in the infinite distance.
Somewhere a kettle boils, steam clouds shimmer by the kitchen window
In someone’s eyes for the last time before they will close in death.

Lines for Epiphany

The voice of the Lord is over the waters
And the water’s voice also speaks
Of the hidden mystery of all things in their suchness.
Out of the veil of the six dusts, swirling about the Feet
The Baptizer was not worthy to unshod.
Out of the blood spilled by a brother on the thirsty
Ground, dried, eternally heavy.
His voice rises, warm and steady.
Not with water, but with Fire…


Late August, given heavy rain and sun
For a full week, the blackberries would ripen.
At first, just one, a glossy purple clot
Among others, red, green, hard as a knot.
You are the first one and its flesh was sweet
Like thickened wine: summer’s blood was in it
Leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for
Picking. Then red ones inked up and that hunger
Sent us out with milk-cans, pea-tins, jam-pots
Where briars scratched and wet grass bleached our boots.
Round hayfields, cornfields and potato-drills
We trekked and picked until the cans were full,
Until the tinkling bottom had been covered
With green ones, and on top big dark blobs burned
Like a plate of eyes. Our hands were peppered
With thorn pricks, our palms sticky as Bluebeard’s.

We hoarded the fresh berries in the byre.
But when the bath was filled we found a fur,
A ray-grey fungus, glutting in our cache.
The juice was stinking too. Once off the bush
The fruit fermented, the sweet flesh would turn sour.
I always felt like crying. It wasn’t fair
That all the lovely canfuls smelled of rot.
Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not.

Seamus Heaney, ‘Blackberry-Picking,’ in Death of a Naturalist (1966)

Death in the Mihrab

As I’ve written before, medieval fatwas often contain quite surprising material, dealing as they do with all the contingencies- possible and otherwise- of medieval life. Below is my translation of a short question and answer dealing with what I don’t imagine was an every-day occurrence, or at least something one would hope wasn’t a normal occurrence… The selection is from a compilation of fatwas isssued by muftis in al-Andalus, and hence reflects the prevailing Maliki school of jurisprudence. Though note that in this case our mufti does not support his opinion with citations or scripture: rather, he is working from a probably shared assumption that even if the imam drops over dead, the canonical prayer must go on…


Mahmud ibn Umar ibn Libaba asked about a man who was a prayer-leader (imam) of the people, was praying with the people the second raka’a, then suddenly died in the mihrab– what is to be done with him? And how are they to finish their canonical prayers?

Answer: If there is a section of the mihrab fenced-off in some way from the people, place him in this section. Otherwise, let the people in the first row remove him to the people of the second row, and the people of the second to the third, passing him along backwards via the people of each row. [In this way] they will not turn their faces from the qibla.