The Time Bottle

"Athens was crushed by Sparta with no great effect on its art..."
- Malraux

Clouded afternoon and the late summer blossoms

sweet breathing roses of life

(that tiny thing!)

when the rain-felt soil yields to God

and the respired calm of Nature,

gifted clockwork:

August 20th Century

with history yet unended.

I, the poet John Cornford, now commit to words

these extraordinary deeds beyond Sierra Morena.


Caress me, Time, filled by vague familiarity!

Silent memory, flashing moments,

gunshots and falling men-airplanes…

Remember chaos?

Give me tobacco, Senor Gero--false Catalan!

…and now, a drink:

I toast glorious men and fine women.

It was near fragrant trees

sometime after dawn, my birthday,

ringing through the leaves, bullet and death.


Gaudier-Breszka, dead sculptor and ex-artillery man,

mentioned art and Rodin's great hands

whilst the Universe reeled inward

and upon a table rested the decanter

adorned by a Napoleonic horizon,

the wilderness of civilization

and that vast plain of forgotten lives.

There were van Gogh and R.M. Nixon

"whom acclaim took care of"

the broad faces and flailing nostrils of Man.


Thus I took a swig:

an eager reach to grasp tight the neck,

rising through the air, menacing thirst,

its bleeding lips to mine

and the cold fire across my tongue

until that wine-heavy H2O2 incensed my throat

to fateful gurglings, verses,

down deep from my guts

where I'm slashed by intoxication

and the godawful passage of Truth.


I never met the honest soldier

who drove me, urgent Red outflowing, to Earth,

and that strong drinker never met me…

also his dreams, unlike, bound up with him.

That jug took my soul posthaste

To somewhere else, relinquishing nightmares.

My chair skidded, table melting

so I stood without meaning

and all which follows came,

missle swiftly retreating and unripped flesh waking.



Winter Below Capricorn


From some mighty slumber enforced by the gods

whence traveled I, reversed Chronos,

to lost Utopia, instant of magnitude

dimmed and skipped by cosmic procession:

the Comet touching the orbit of Venus

and the febrile thoughts of hieroglyphical brains.

To twice blessed and, shall I recount,

thrice cursed Atlantis did I

upon samsaric imagination, bardo luck,

voyage so distant of 1936.


Doomed imbalance of Fortune

unrenamed by Villon before the Hangman

repaid that Pythagorean debt long ere it,

or a wager of the same sort, was made again!

Here a bend of the Tao and I collided,

my extended hand taken by Apollonius the Stargazer

from the salty sand where I lay

washed from the carnivorous sea

of death and primordial circumstance

set even now to devour you.


The Stargazer thanked his deities for my life

almost as would a Christian (but without overt gesture)

and gave me to his giant slave,

barely visible in the darkness of my eyes and this nightfall,

for delivery to comfort, some nourishing abode.

Huge and gentle Nubian!

Apollonius saw I possessed an envelope of white flesh,

breath still filling and flushing my chest,

and asked first, resonant and fittest voice,

what I believed in.


"That relativistic turn of destiny's bricks

which admits me to the carnival of rebirth."

My wounds, all healed and ungaping,

recalled only the lessening tide

brought by the Last Moon of Summer

in our vaulting heavens:

selfsame Moon seen by Christ through his tears

in Gethsemene, the crowing already heard,

on a day more unconscious of the Ocean

than today, or tomorrow and its tomorrow.


Communist, ugly, like all men of talent,

he bade me enter with him their single City--

a roof of many banners like a blown field of grass

layered upon a bloody stone neighborhood

of damn fools and philosopher-kings.

Without spit, I hold my tongue to palate

and boldly stride through these gates,

strolling into a Babel of Gargoyles,

each and every one practicing a fashion

to elicit only my disgust.


Said Appollonius to my astonishment,

"All treasures must have guards!"

"From whom, gentle Cerebus?" I asked without regard.

"From wayfarers," was I told likewise,

"such as yourself."

Thus we passed into his City,

the confident grin of a conqueror

never far from The Stargazer's gaze.

He was like his own very good Servant,

not knowing to die was to find Himself.


Here then was the first blessing,

now buried in mud by this first curse--

these men thought themselves as immortal

as the drifting song of the Locust.

Death here was a stranger,

the analemma yet to change,

and the custom was to die content.

The embrace of the Fourth Ice Age lay upon the Horizon,

this sea bright with groaning icy miasmas,

this world floating upon a chilling ether.


Second, they did not kill one another!

Splendid blessing followed by hardest curse:

they killed nothing, and were starving.

They feared their White Sea

And found no favor with everlasting Winter.

Religiously, bellies swollen, eyes souless wells,

they knew constellations but not good sense.

And as I looked I saw the germinating madnesses

nourished by brackish bread and infected wine

passing twixt Mars and the Full Moon of Autumn.


These were ill fortune incarnate,

knowing no history, dead spirits, lying prayers,

baddest luck of the world:

I saw again a premonition of Hades,

for among the epicyclic stars a goddess approached…

winged veil of holocaust, wraith of war,

drawing her entourage of servantile horrors!

You inhaled it, and it grew dark.

The sky, the very blueness above us,

wavered, assaulted, boomed, and vanished.


Unhappy witness I, somehow alive,

to the city crumbling in the distance

wrought by this cataclysm from the heavens…

now the Water rising to bathe this panorama!

Apollonius, remembering only the Future, drowned.

The new sea surging through all my body's orifices,

cleansing me of hope, dissolving all promises taken and given,

I floated through those millennial seconds.

An infernal day, strange taste on my tongue,

In that Pyrrhan realm…





More comely equinox, gardens of March,

she stands for most of eternity

on the terrace, in the breeze, peering East.


This girl who knew the comet kissed me

softly in the warm evening.


Touching, whispering, searching, finding

delight here in our arms--

how men abandon what is good!


This moment stands forever unaware

that all men suffer defeat.



Our Grand Chorus


The sun rises,

unfettered incandescent eye

watching ideals founder in the human maelstrom.

Foolish grimace

of twisted Faustian faces

ignorant of Peace.


In the afternoon

thunderheads climb the mountains,

ominous lightning along their vanguard.

Olympus inhales,

time stirs,

men die.


Swirling histories:

heroes and kings,

philosophical runts and faded beauties,

liars and sages, poised queens and fearless warriors,

our grand chorus sings

the chronograph of all soldiers.



On the Guadalquivir


As this gathering song rose from cosmic balconies

the road which followed the stream clattered with gunfire

and I felt the breeze from the empty olive groves.

The knees of my companion Leonidas buckled and he fell,

forehead gone and a bullet shattering the mechanism

of the last Lewis gun in our battalion.

Satan, right hand to the Generalissimo, Fascist,

and the Archangel, much aggrieved by the death of Garcia Lorca,

once appeared in the mind of John at the river and later,

when Phantoms and sikkim danced above the Red Sea.


Shots cracked across the cold stream,

ice splitting from the brown grassy banks

and automatic fire raped the bark and branches

of dormant trees, the last leaves shuddering,

rafting down the Guadalquivir.

Blue smoke stole their scent.

There is no end to this thrashing sound!

From the frosty bank I fired my rifle,

killing with the cartridges in my pocket,

that unstill water chilled by distant Valhalla.


The quiet of the cathedral,

dark surrounded by glass,

came over the little valley of hate and murder:

the godliness of courage and fear!

We will not run now,

out of respect for our comrades,

or the certainty of a compatriot's bullet,

we will stand "against the wind"

and remain to fall,

facing ourselves and the nothingness.


Upward I gaze through the highest naked limbs

to the gray flat skies veined by them,

and a slim break in the shroud

gives me a sight of the waxing moon,

home of future conquerors, men like…

"I do not feel defeat!"

Near me the earth erupts,

the hard ground torn into ugly slugs,

showering black clods and blood,

hushing screams.


It came back to me then, the bottle,

I drank and I tasted over my dry lips

a future--

what is awakened…living:

the remote masses and the bending starlight,

evolution of lowly beasts and high emotions,

saber-tooth tigers and interplanetary flight,

bone club trajectory of Man,

my revolver falling from my hand, the

transfiguration of the poet Cornford to the dead.

Peter Ahrens
1972 revised 2001

About John Cornford

"Premature Anti-Fascist" - Bernard Knox, a friend of Cornford's, in the Spanish Civil War

The papers of Rupert John Cornford at Trinity College

Imperial War Museum, "The Spanish Civil War, Dreams and Nightmares"

Nexial Quest

(c) Pete Ahrens 2001-2011