Winged Thoughts in the Age of Air

Month: November, 2012


I began this post last week:

‘The last thing anyone wants right now is a reminder of just how bad things are in the Middle East, which makes telling you about my brand-new verse-novel Unholyland difficult.

Guess what, I never sent it…

But now I can begin my post again, celebrating – this great day – the turning of the tide of international opinion in favour of the Palestinian people and their right to a state of their own.

Before starting tho’ I want to make one thing clear. I am as sad when a Jewish child is hit by a rocket from Gaza as I am when a Palestinian child is hit. And of course it is true that one cannot quantify death. The pain of one innocent civilian’s death is equal to the pain of a thousand deaths. Yet everyone knows that Israel’s response to ‘terrorist’ aggression is disproportionate. And, as the world also knows very well, when the sources of grievance are removed, as the Brits have discovered in Northern Ireland, the ‘terror’ stops.

So what do I want to tell you about my verse-novel Unholyland, now that I don’t have to promote my work while the torrents of blood are flowing through the streets of embattled Gaza? Well, I’d like to tell you a little about how the work began…

Two years ago I saw a documentary about a Palestinian girl-rapper living in a refugee-camp near Damascus. I learned that she faced serious criticisms from her ‘elders and betters’ for following her path into ‘Slingshot Hiphop’, a new genre of rap which is sweeping the Middle East, a genre which adopts as it’s motto: ‘Puttin down the gun and pickin up the mic.’ This young girl’s story really got me, I mean I found it electrifying.

As a poet I have always believed that there is no rational exit from war. I believe that the only path out of the mentality of conflict is an emotional one, a path mediated by the arts and grounded in nonviolence. William Blake believed the same thing and spoke of the ideology of ‘mental fight’ as opposed to ‘corporeal war’. Plato wrote that the Golden Age is brought into the world by music. He proposed that the power of music could harmonize human souls and make laws and legal systems obsolete, no longer required to artificially  keep people in check.

As I began to probe the background of Slingshot Hiphop a very strange fact emerged. Slingshot Hiphop is generally considered decadent, Western-influenced, soul-rotting poison in countried like Syria, even in more-liberal Lebanon and Jordan. Yet Slingshot Hiphop rappers from Gaza and the West Bank rule in Israel! Clubs in Tel Aviv get rammed with Israeli kids when a Slingshot Hiphop act hits town. Jewish teenagers fill the venues and chant the Arabic lyrics of Arabic rappers telling the facts about the Nakba of ’48, telling the truth about the feelings of young Palestinians facing a barren, meaningless life under occupation and settlement.

When I learned this ironic, crazy, beautiful truth Unholyland began to be born. It was only a short stop from here to the thought: ‘What would happen if a modern-day Israeli dj fell in love with a Palestinian girl-rapper.’ And that real and likely, supremely possible eventuality, peeps, is exactly what I explore in Unholyland.

A blessing on both their houses!

McCool predicted the Arab Spring and the Syrian Revolution. Now, right at the crux of our times, I’m looking hard at the situation on the ground in Galilee, in Nazareth, where my verse-novel begins. But I’m not really looking through the lens of politics, I’m taking the view of the heart into the maelstrom of the Middle East, knowing that the head must bow to the heart every time, knowing that with love and music everything is possible.

In Unholyland I’m not promising happy endings to love-affairs between ‘enemies’ but I am saying…

A blessing on both their houses!

Unholyland has hit the streets, a dark romance of The Shift. Check it out peeps, it’s in your Waterstones – and, as you know, the way of water conquers all obstructions, finds the gentle way through every conflict.

Our Lady of the Traffic


Black summer tarmac
bubbles in the microclimate,
conspiracies foam and mumble.

A skeleton appears
racing into a yellow box:
rubber burns with a scream.

The bone-woman runs out
through blue thoroughfares,
thin skull opening, shrieking:

‘Help! Help! A house fire,
Grandmother’s in hospital,
Hayley’s sick.’ Verbal props.

A Rolls Royce front-grill
modelled on a Greek temple
silhouettes the fallen goddess

Down on one knee
in front of the radiator
Our Lady of the Traffic,

Something once, arresting still,
scarecrow with scarlet panties
riding up her crack, who whimpers:

‘Help! Help! Fifty pence!
The place burned down last night,
please imagine the flames.’

The Magdalen whispers
through rolled down glass:
‘Grandma’s in so much pain!’

Now tears on hot tar
steam invisibly as silver
slips through a sweaty bra.

She too weeps for a world
gridlocked in bitter smoke
which no one sees.


An Abandoned Guitar

Walking through the backstreets of a large city you come across an abandoned guitar lying in a drift of leaves. Summer’s music is over, the winter’s coming; somehow you see a child lying naked in a cradle of gold. You walk on as a poem begins to form…


A big drift of fallen leaves.
An old yellow Spanish guitar
lying in powerful autumn sunlight
in a wide silent backstreet, broken
strings’ coiled spirals like withered
tendrils, seems this afternoon floated down
from some tree whose fruits are instruments:
pear-shaped lutes and round clay drums.

There’s a poem of Gustavo Becquer
my mother once stirred me by reading.
A dusty instrument comes to life;
genius comes out of its own shadow.
A man begins again. Destroyed,
reclining in a gutter of the street,
he stands up and sings, opens his lips,
walks to a rhythm in his head.

Wood which has sung, soon to rot,
wood of the harmonious waves, lost,
only the nightwind rolling over you
makes tremble and somehow arpeggiates
these six girders of song, your doomed
bridge in midair above the soundboard,
as though suspending cables had snapped
when a storm came riding down the coast.

Tonight, most likely, the refuse-truck
will eat the straight grain of this table,
crunch headstock, heel and neck, one
last grotesque crescendo of destruction.
Unless, mysteriously, a child of the ghetto,
passing this fallen angel in golden rubbish
should notice and stop, bend down, some
future god of music guiding his hand.


ins 1

Dead of night
alone, the distant
murmur of an engine
lends emphasis
to a drop of water
which becomes
a neighbour’s hammer
on the wall.

Serotonin drips
down your spine
the mind is open
to every doubt
your worst enemy
is on the prowl:
the cat-burglar
of night thoughts.

Sleeplessness is
an ancient maze
in it you lose
the way to yourself
mind spins searching
for a centre
truth is a far-off
fountain singing.

Dead of night
the stars crackle
the streets hum
with void music
sirens spin through
a vast town
you alone hear
all are sleeping.

Image: Yasmine Chatila


The late-renaissance Italian nobleman Carlo Gesualdo, composer of some of the most angular and contorted music ever written, murdered his unfaithful wife in a premeditated orgy of violence, then had her lovechild slain in slow-motion as his melancholy choral compositions were performed at great length in a large courtyard below the nursery. Stravinsky was a great admirer of the music of the Prince of Venosa (pregnant name!).

Jealously driven into evil
can you tell what crimes were done,
Prince of Venosa, cursed one still,
say how love condemned the sun?
Silently you changed the locks;
afterwards destroyed the clocks.
Cut down forests wearing horns;
dreamed new slayings in red dawns:
slew innocence in a three day spree
while madrigals exalting death
stole the lovechild’s laboured breath
as massed choirs in dark ecstasy
sang ‘Moro, lasso,’ demonic hymn,
eerie music, exquisitely grim.