Najera: Between Cliffs

by Garry Robert McDougall

Spanish Najera is 'town between the cliffs',
frontier for conflict and ideas, caught
between the hard rocks of rival kingdoms-
Pamplona, Navarre, Burgos, Castille and Asturias,
history drawn with blood names.

From Mont de la Demande in the south,
Rio Najerrilla flows in your veins,
from 1032 village honored by grand church,
monastery and crypt, becoming last home
for thirty querulous kings and queens,
begging proximity to the Black Virgin’s shrine,
desolate cave enclosed by cathedral,
her black face appearing before King Don Garcia–
you deceiver and rogue,
thinking he had cemented authority
by miracles and piety of appearance.
No luck, no charm,
he is soon at war with his brother,
winner takes all at calamitous Battle of Altapuerca.

Disavowed, disemboweled, waters flowing,
Najera spared ignominy and abandonment
nearby monasteries, first keepers of Spanish language,
traditions of identity, staunch and bloody barrier
to Saracens and revolting peasants,
fortress church as line-in-the-sand,
never to be crossed.

In 1142, Peter the Venerable favors you,
meeting his translators here,
first commission of Qur'an written
in a European language, Rodrigo Borgia,
pope for tomorrow, funds reconstruction,
your new tunic of honor and prestige.

The One-Hundred Year War crashes into town,
waters flowing, sixty-thousand Franco-Castilians
battle twenty-four thousand Anglo-Gascons
at Naverette, English longbows prevailing-
arrows over Najera. And even when
your enemies are vanquished,
time is the only winner.

In Spain’s debt-ridden Nineteenth Century,
you are no refuge, vacillating Queen Isabella
brings disaster and decolonization,
your monastery befouled, confiscated and sold,
warring parties kept in abbey and cloister,
desperate prisoner inscribes ‘INOCENT’ on your door,
courage becoming Spain's greatest value,
outrage its passion, disappointments taken out on bulls.

Welcome streets see peace again,
innocent pilgrims forever needy,
trudging by crowded homes and empty shops,
footpaths disappear, parkland fade to
parking slots and waiting-square,
sometimes-busy markets, dowdy corner nooks
to a shopping quarter with a Chinese chow-min.
Butcher and baker stand outside
awaiting customers, thirsty pilgrims take refuge
in old-town pensions and alberges
under denuded cliffs, in crumbling lanes,
behind artless gates.
In cafes and bars, shell-bearers
seek soft cakes and fair exchange,
barred from your hermit caves,
archaeologists posting signs saying
'Geography tells no lies', as if only they
see ancestors laugh and weep.

Innocent of irony walkers depart next day
for Azofra and St Domingo, no time for monastery,
museum or curiosity; they rediscover
their pilgrimage to speed.
Yet one pilgrim seized by moon madness,
sneaks into church and monastery, by night
searching for your soul. Crazed for time,
she circles Cloister of the Caballeros,
built for inner reflection, cross-paths open to sky.
Her stark self sees stars where people found calendars
for agriculture, guidebooks for navigation,
tales of antiquity and the loneliness of Man,
Romanesque columns, stone floors and paths
underlining the taunting heavens.

Passing stone carvings of the guilty pleasures:
music, flesh and fighting, denied to monks and nuns
(or so it is said)
she serves at the dining table where
nuns pick at their chastity, fondle their poverty
and wrestle with words;
priests wrestle with chastity, pick at poverty
and fondle their words.

Inside darkness's cavernous church,
handsome touch of a thousand carvings
sculpted to excess, Adam and Eve
naked to gold and silver,
Riojan grapes blood adornment,
reconciling nuns and monks to themselves,
they are landlords, and friends of the mighty.
Outside, the peasants were starving.

Her scorching eyes and handsome brow
see choir chairs enchanting, comic and fantastic
designs of intertwined 'F' and 'I'
for Ferdinand and Isabella, King and Queen of first Spain,
carved heart of a kind, a drop of blood spilt,
symbol of the broken hearts of ninety-two,
twin towers of Jewish expulsion and
Columbus discovering India.

When night is morning, she tunnels
to the mausoleum of pale stones,
omens, angels and devils once grand ideas,
hairy column and tonsure arch to
Black Madonna, enshrined where the candles burn,
whispering that Nature is lost in this womb of time.

Pilgrim flight between her cliff and cleft
heartbeat rocks to the babbling Najerrilla,
where voice's ice nocturnes among the grasses,
white van passes over the viola bridge,
bakers work in morning tempo,
the stars hitch to companion time.

It's coffee for Our Lady the shaken traveler,
ever bewitched by Najeran ways,
while locals dream pilgrims flow like water,
alberges fill and empty,
shell-travelers minding their business
after all.

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