Tribute to Astorga

by Garry Robert McDougall

Pilgrims cross crooked Bridge de Orbigo,
yesterday, today and tomorrow,
imagining knight’s battleground
a million morning's ago,
Suero de Quiñones and his men
barring pilgrim's way,
denying 'three hundred lances' in
camino battles for a damsel's love;
chivalrous clashes over dirt and stone,
love and territory, vast, arid plain unmoved,
bloody and brutal clash for honour and staving boredom,
like Cervantes' Don Quixote, fool and fantasist,
farce and falsehood, taking food from people's mouths
for a 'higher' cause.

Peering down Calle Paso Honroso,
see Orbigo's cleaners, shopkeepers and drivers
torn between history and her story, voices mute,
watching today’s pilgrim parade
in clear air or miracle rain,
grey eyes watching those bound for Astorga,
snowy Cordillera Cantabria over their wintery shoulder.

Reach Astorga, Roman fort of the nothing,
late capital for little kingdoms,
once abandoned and forlorn,
unwanted by Asturians and Galicians,
revived by soldiers of the camino,
reclaimed by La Maragatería peoples,
long memories of Astorian kings fighting
Muslims, Galicians and Leonese;
patrician Rome pressing meaning,
blood here, grapes there, bred here,
all the trapping of their engineering here;
slaves, sewerage and water works,
baths and metal tools,
barbs between rivals, each asking:
What ground do you cede?
Who stands between you and slavery?

Like vellum wiped clean,
Astorga is history rewritten,
recovering dignity as stage of the pilgrimage,
for perigrinos, thieves, farmers, shepherds, wives and soldiers,
eying each other in the wilderness;
homeliness won by persistent affections
overwhelming the mirage,
successive families gathering in your town square,
trading goods, displaying wares, dancing in colorful costumes,
Baroque town hall your finest creation,
honoured in ‘forever’ stone, clock tower of man and woman,
two figures dancing to fixated time,
slow-and-even waltzing;
knowing those who have time, know time has them.

Astorga's people rise at dawn,
sleep-walking to sweet and doughy bakeries,
collecting pan de leche and rustico, tortilla and empanada,
crusty as a mountain or soft as a pillow,
the working woman’s plain exterior
merging with austere skies stretching over the meseta.
Your Roman, Asturian, pilgrim and saintly festivals four
see citizens praying that
they do not evaporate in summer suns,
their rituals, icons and louder bands
conjuring and banishing the nervy past.
Tradition-bound you, illusion-maker,
burning cant and candles, no pleasing your devils,
saying, ‘But we are Astorga, why bother us now,
pregnant with ordinariness?’
even if Napoleon once came to Iberian Astorga,
retreating after a text message from Josephine:
‘Get yourself home Nap. Maybe Paris needs you.’

Happy pilgrims walk your daytime streets,
visiting all the sites of your body,
seeing your crown of Gaudi,
your square and noble market face,
your ignoble cathedral arms,
your worn, torn historical body
fortress walls around your girth,
ample stomach for café and restaurants of
extravagant, meaty meals,
your moist and willing crutch,
people fond of laughter, tailored cuts for manly ways,
bishop and bookkeepers urging formality and modesty,
working people’s clothing worn by day,
intent on tasks as ordinary and mighty as your flanks.

By night, Astorga is naked for delight,
all fun and youthful bodies,
bar stools pressed and warmed, local lights appeasing,
hands kept clean for slow and hard,
caressing eyes and minds that will conspire,
long the night, tall the spire,
Astorga’s crown put aside for royal duties,
sisters, brothers, bishops, aunts and uncles
forgotten with your persistent aching,
your man's chiseled face all passion
and perspiration,
giving yourself to the great unmaking,
a growing belly to another creation.

Morning's restless pilgrim wakes,
dazzled, half-blinded, crazed and
belly-full of wine bar night.
Find your way to the rising plain,
Molinaseca two days hence,
reminding yourself that pilgrim dreams
are won by doing.

Your morning is dark,
and full of muffled whisperings,
crinkling plastic, snores and metal scraping.
Alive to sound, you ease yourself into being,
fingers running along numb walls,
toes cold and alive,
gathering your wits from the echoing light,
clothes drying in one-euro cupboards.
Try walking down stairs, brushing your teeth badly,
shampooing in the shower, and counting money,
saying fond farewells to those still sleeping.
Get value-for-money by drinking three coffees,
roast the toast, do the post, and conspire
in three Latin languages.

Morning chill hits your pilgrim face.
Loading your donkey-self, retire the bill,
full silence and a hug for those awake.
Hand to the door,
departing Astorga's last embrace,
keep your eyes afore,
lest you recall too much of late.
Yellow arrows show the way.
Stride the laneways for
Astorga’s last word on love:
the baker's light outshining the morbid mist,
eyes falling on crusty breads,
churros, sweets and custard tarts.

Bread between your teeth,
map in hand, passion renewed,
no time for chivalrous knights, farce or falsehood,
Astorga's cleaners, teachers, wives
and children of the morning
bidding you fond farewell.
Astorgan memories in your pack,
accepting the clock strikes seven,
your eyes fixed on the road ahead,
your mind sees tomorrow
your weary legs, only today.

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