And Merriment Tonight

by Garry Robert McDougall

Pont St Espirit's bridge
of seven centuries standing,
broad and bent across the Rhone,
arching over jade shallows and turbulent waters,
crossroad for trade, people and goods
long road, icy waters,
the Rhone's long-distance cargo
from the Isere and Lyon,
downstream, rapids ahead,
vessel in swift waters,
high, low,
deep and wild.
This is what you’re paid for sailor boys!

Position your vessel,
batten down goods,
high-wiring Dead Man’s Drop,
lashing waves,
time freezing,
every lurch and lunge
hardpressed to wood,
forehead of nails,
groaning timbers,
straining ropes,
vessel sliding,
captain demanding,
everyone cursing,
vessel and crew
ride stirring green waters,
by mammoth rocks and wicked walls,
upturned goat bashing hull,
sunlight on salty cheeks-
a giant hurrah,
every man looking to town,
no need for funerals or blessings,
only the inn’s frothy drink,
tankard hard against your lips,
and merriment tonight.


Reaching Pont St Espirit,
a town married to a bridge,
fortified, stained and grimy steps
men hang from barbarous walls
clutching the drowning,
hauled over lichen black,
their pitiless passage to high street's
barter shops and crooked inns,
front row seats to box-and-die,
spectators to flooding waters,
bishops, knights and gentry lording
wide waters of peasantry.

All around town,
the Rhone soils of-the-Gods,
wheat lush amongst your fields
when merchants found you dear ville,
the Piolenc family planted here,
backs to the river, counting money
in the Maison des Chevaliers,
a Romanesque facade gifting Rue St Jacques,
lent to the King’s men, dispensing justice,
accumulating wealth over time,
your bridge, harvester of money
for bishops, lords and king.


Step forward centuries,
your war against Hitler would always trade lives,
bridge, railway and yards,
target practice for Allied sky-raiders.
So you laugh that kind of laugh,
reading Air Squadron diary, August-Eight, 1943:
'...bombed Pont S. Esprit railroad bridge once again,
this time achieving a bombing accuracy
of 82 per cent- a decided improvement.'

Chew bread, days and nights without light,
mouths taut and numb,
until stiff resistance wins through,
the SS retreating from the advancing Marques,
citizens under arching bridge watching
Nazis truck's grim-scape to oblivion.
A great 'Hurrah',
men and women looking to town,
no need for funerals and blessings,
only the inn’s frothy drink,
tankard hard against lips,
and merriment tonight.


In peace, you harvest wheat again,
chew bread until fifty-one, when it poisons you:
'Mass Poisoning in Pont St Espirit.'
Postman Leon Armunier falls from his bike,
feels himself shrinking,
suffers stomach pain and nausea,
fire and serpents coiling around him.
Others attacked in hands, anus and feet-
severe fainting.
Shrinking. Shrinking.
Fifty Espiripontains hallucinating
flames and beastly animals, macabre and mystical,
the possessed jumping from windows,
straight jackets on.
Seven dead.
Ergot or St Anthony’s Fire, they said,
pain maudin or Mal des Ardents,
viruses, fungi, LSD, psychosis and hocus-pocus,
death the result,
to some, madness and conspiracy,
fertile grounds for Telegraph and USA Today.


Years follow,
you grow cautious and tough ma ville,
ten-thousand people perfect,
plane trees standing guard to
nuclear power station upstream,
your two musee urbane, roundabout so civil,
cafes ragged and rustic for rhyme.
Some call you typical, unremarkable,
small– J’ami.
Bypassed by highway, airport and rail,
you age gracefully, languid border guard
of the forgotten roads between the Gard,
Ardeche and Vaucluse, Languedoc in your veins,
your region survives on maps, folk music and hotel de ville.
You comfort yourself with Bouvier oils,
Ardeche waters so pure,
Orange and Avignon, big sisters by time.

You sleep well by night, by day
daughter Jackie becoming a Kennedy,
royalty of sorts, in legendary America,
made for knights and shining amour.
Cities matter now.
Few desire you, the river whispering
that you are free and irrelevant,
that people holiday in your nether regions,
ride bicycles around your eyes,
canoe the small of your back,
buy jams for the tongue,
conjure recipes for olives and marron,
travelers nestling in anonymous hotels,
chamber-with-a-view, both pink and grey.

You are too proud to market your pain maudin,
your Lochness monster, galloping conspiracies,
wild equine without meaning.
You purse your lips, not parrying windmills
like Don Quixote,
feeding tourists croissant, langoustine and
chunky dates:
Pont de Saint Esprit bridge (1265-1309),
Priory of St. Pierre (12th-18th centuries),
Church of St. Saturnin (15th century).
Upstream, crocodiles pick their teeth
in the afternoon sun.

Visitor respect and affection
afford you ma ville; after their day
in Aiguese and St Martin,
they visit Maison des Chevaliers,
review Chez Paul Raymond’s musee,
relax in languid bars and cafes
in mild sunlight, no need for funerals or blessings,
enjoying the inn’s frothy drink,
tankard hard against their lips,
and merriment tonight.

Garry Robert McDougall's picture

A Sydney poet and novelist, Garry gives Spanish Pilgrimage presentations, writes novels and occasional opinion pieces, teaches poetry and exhibits paintings and photographs. He is a member of the DiVerse poetry group and the South Coast Writers Centre executive. In 2013 To San Domingo de la Calzada won Second Prize, Glen Phillips Poetry Prize. In 2012, Beating Time won Highly Commended in the Peter Cowan National Short Story Prize. In 2015, he won First Prize in the Peter Cowan Short Story Prize. His early walks guidebooks, Great North Walk and New South Walks Heritage Walks, were both published with Kangaroo Press. His two novels, Belonging and Trust, are Australian stories based on historical events around 1900 and 1988 respectively. His third novel, Knowing Simone, is set in Victor Hugo's France. He won artist/author in residence with Arteles in Finland, combined with long distance walking journeys in Spain and Portugal, soon to be published as Damn! His novel's common thread is respect for people caught in hostile historical circumstances, dramatising their negotiation of powerful social and historical forces. His poetry might rhyme, be experimental, lyrical, visual or sparse, but time, word, place and the human spirit are paramount.

Last updated July 07, 2016