Joe Cullen: An Encounter Near Clapton Pond

At midnight as the bars spilled out their guts,
and comets strafed the slumbering sky beyond,
I met an apparition, steering south,
past shapeless vessels beached by Clapton Pond.

His head, a viperous nest of dreads, turned round
as if to find a compass point to grasp.
His hand − a claw of withered thorn – reached out
and seized my shrinking arm ‒ an iron clasp.

I felt his bony fingers grip and grind.
He pulled me to him in a dance of death,
embraced me, pressed his flesh against my flesh,
and torched my eyes with overpowering breath

“A man not knowing of his past”, he said,
“is like a tree that is without its roots.”
His silvered words betrayed the tattered coat,
his rhetoric denounced the shabby boots.

A furrowed palm reared up to quell my mouth,
a yellowed talon brushed across my cheek.
“Relax, my friend”, he said, and arched a smile,
“the answer to a riddle’s all I seek”.

“Which kingdom towers high above the rest?
Which sceptred isle alone stands firm and tall?
In all Elysium, which is the best?
Which nation is the greatest one of all?”

“I’ll meet this chancer’s challenge”, I resolved,
and churned out all the countries in my head,
but every single answer that I tried
met with a silent stare from Natty Dread.

At last I stopped, grown weary of the game,
and faced his gaze in meek anticipation.
His sapphire eyes bit deep as he replied,
‘The greatest nation of them is – Donation.”

A thunderclap of laughter left his throat.
It shook the roofs of Highgate and beyond.
He palmed and pocketed the proffered coin,
then turned and skipped away past Clapton Pond.