Monday, 18 May 2009

A tribute to James Kirkup

There are tributes on a few secularist websites today to the poet James Kirkup, who died recently.
Kirkup is best known as the poet who so upset Mary Whitehouse with “The Love That Dares to Speak its Name” that she brought a blasphemy case against Gay News for printing it.
An issue of The Freethinker a couple of years back celebrated an anniversary of that famous trial and featured a tongue in cheek homage to Kirkup’s poem. "The Centurion’s Story" was by Denys Drower, founder member of Isle of Man Freethinkers and, by a remarkable coincidence, the same age as Kirkup.
I thought it would be a suitable Manx tribute to Kirkup, and Denys once kindly sent it to me to republish to all who might also enjoy it, so here it is.


Massada A.D.73

Gaius Lepidus stood at the foot of the rock.
Before him were the tumbled, twisted bodies;
Israelites, lying where they’d fallen
From that last desperate leap, or driven
O’er the edge by thrusting Roman swords.

Lying near his foot, a skinny grey-haired corpse;
Older than most with weathered, wasted limbs.
He turned it over with his foot and looked,
Then called across to one of his companions:
“Julius, look at this man’s wrists and feet -

“This one has once been crucified, I’m sure.
And now I look, I think I know the man.
His name was Jesus, a wand’ring Nazarene
who preached and maddened the Sanhedrin .
by threatening their pomp and dignity.

Forty years ago it was, the year the moon
obscured the sun in Passover.
They brought the man to trial, whipped up the mob;
Asked the Governor, Pilatus, for his death.
And Pontius reluctantly agreed.

My job it was to oversee his death.
Pilatus sent for me, “Go easy on him, Gaius;
He’s done no wrong that you or I can see;
– The thing’s political - that slimy Caiaphas!”
I chose my squad and set out for the place.

A man I knew was standing at the scene.
A well dressed Arimathean with a band
Of half a dozen servants dressed in white.
We had a chat and came to an agreement;
A tomb nearby was his and could be used.

I said the men were not to smash his legs.
But one young idiot took a spear
And jabbed him in the side, the thrust
Puncturing his bladder. I had the
Fellow flogged for disobeying orders.

By nightfall, it seemed the man was dead.
They took him down and laid him in the vault.
The guards had settled down to watch
With three wine skins presented by my friend.
I left, returning to the palace.

In later years I learned the truth from Joseph;
By midnight all the guards were snoring drunk.
He looked inside the tomb and saw some signs of life.
So took him home to hide him in his house.
He rolled the stone back, left two servants there.

For days the preacher hovered near to death.
Hidden in the rich man’s summer house.
His wounds began to heal with Joseph’s care.
Meanwhile the wildest stories flew,
Some claimed he’d risen from the dead.

The priests demanded that the governor
Should institute a search throughout Judea.
Pilatus, though, conceded no such thing.
“Waste the Legion’s time to look for him?
If he’s survived, then justice has been served,”

Joseph summoned Jesus, sat him down.
“Good fortune, bribes, your constitution,
have this time saved you; but it cannot happen twice.
Go to ground, change your looks, your name,
Cut short your hair; pretend that you are Greek.

“Your disciples, convinced that you were God
Believe you risen from the bed of death.
Let’s leave it so; leave them to preach your word.
I’ve work that you can do to earn your bread
Your brains more help to me than any sword.”

That’s what Joseph told me. Many years ago.
Posted then to Egypt, I lost touch
I later heard he’d died in Antioch.
And Jesus? I wonder why on earth the fool
Joined this futile plot to throw off Roman rule.

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