No. 4 & 5


Christopher Southgate  

Foreign Mission

‘In the years 1818 and 1819, about 5000 of the Cherokee Indians removed from their residence east of the Mississippi to a fine tract of country on the north bank of Arkansas River, between long 16 and 17 west. At their desire the American Board of Foreign Mission, have lately sent a mission family to teach them the arts of civilised life, and to instruct them in Christianity.’ From Stephen H. Lang’s A Complete Historical and Geographical American Atlas, Being a Guide to the History of North and South America, and the West Indies (Philadelphia: Carey and Lea, 1822)

With what extraordinary civility the Cherokee,
Finding their previous residence 
Rendered uncongenial
By ethnic cleansing,
Deemed it convenient to settle
On the north bank of the Arkansas –
A sought-after plot, presently laid to forest,
And not more than eight hundred miles
From their home.

Their attitude, as recorded by the Commissioners,
Was in every way appropriate
Theologically as well as practically.
They expressed a wish for a thing called
Civilisation, having previously
Had only settlement, agriculture and writing.

They asked for Christianity –
Difficult to grasp, this –
But somehow they seemed to know
That in the face of all the falsity of Federal words
They would need the story of a mocked god,
A scourged silence
Before an unseeing Pilate.


There is only ever our own fear, our own desire
Warring in our heavens, wherever we
Try to escape ourselves, wherever the fire
Of sunrise meets us. Thus runs the theory.
So even John, on wind-weary Patmos,
Caught in the cosmic symphony of his vision,
Argued bitterly with his Ephesus
Self, and fretted at his former friends’ derision.

We may feel along the cavern floor for John’s
Finger-holds, or sing our praises on the beach,
Or haunt some ouzo place, flaunting our tans.
It does not change the silver of which each
Is made. But we can be woven by such a place,
Or spun, or twisted, in this brief time of grace.

(first published in Third Way magazine)

In Memoriam R.S.Thomas

Your verse, a house of potent viruses -
Calvary, Kierkegaard, Prytherch –

Infected us, not with faith,
But with acceptance of a space of in-between,

A mountain-land where faith and doubt
Inhabit each other’s shadow.

Your death leaves us still on the lower slopes,
Bereft of a good guide.

The Fall

They’d been there for years, of course,
Hugging trees, logging the animals by name,
Taking afternoon tea with the Lord God -
Occasionally He would stay for spritzers. 

They were pretty cool, those gatherings
In the cool of the day,
But well, you know, things happen..

One day when Adam was classifying arachnids
Eve began to coil her imagination around a certain serpent -
Virtual, of course, but so green
It made the green mamba look pale,

So sinuous it made her screen blur before her eyes
And you can guess the rest.

She went ahead and clicked on a new icon -
It was the one on which God had said
She shouldst on no account click.

At once she was offered
A free holiday. She called Adam over
And they interfaced as never before.

Then they looked at each other, and knew
That what they’d been doing till then
Was not just living, as they’d thought.
It had been a lifestyle choice.

All too short a step from there
To making bad ones.

(published in Beyond the Bitter Wind: Poems 1982-2000 by Christopher Southgate (Shoestring Press, 2000) and reproduced by permission)

The ‘unknown God’


A star
becomes a star
becomes a leaf
eaten by a worm
which becomes a being
who can cast eyes heavenward
and say
There is no God.


I am not this or that
Rather I am pure other.

I do not desire the blood of bulls
I weep no tears over that pap.

Purity of heart interests me

When there is darkness over the land
You see and do not see me.



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