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Strangeness and Familiarity


A few thoughts about strangeness and familiarity... and imagination, brought on by discovering that this was the time when a familiar but strange man, endowed with a huge imagination, met his abrupt end.

It may have been nearly five hundred years ago, but that day in early July probably felt much the same as today – so, familiar: a warm English high summer's day, probably with a few screaming swifts darting over the Thames and a blackbird alarm call or two, responding to an unusual gathering of people. 

The central character, nature lover as he was, perhaps would have noticed those familiar birds; their life and freedom – their physical freedom, as well as their freedom from imagination.

It is strange trying to imagine how it would feel, having been imprisoned, to step out into the open air, to climb a slightly rickety scaffold (he made a joke about it) and then observe a few formalities, knowing that in a moment one's neck was about to be sliced through.

The evidence suggests that More approached all this with equanimity.  It's said that he carefully tucked his beard forward to clear it from the axe, stating that as it had committed no crime, it should receive no punishment. We might consider that strange.

For my poem, I've turned the clock back and visited him in his cell in the Tower of London.

I think of him recalling his Utopia – an imagined (and definitely strange) place, on reflection, a bit like heaven itself.  I imagine this strange man making jokes – puns, fantasies, curious plays on words – even as he considers such momentous matters.

He ponders on places and people – where he is, where he's going, the act of travelling, and strangers. Particularly the stranger Raphael (an interesting name, but then More was interested in names) who plays a vital role in the book, a frame narrative, itself a strange yet familiar form of story telling,

Trying to imagine More is difficult: it's hard to know what to make of him, with his well-documented life and work allowing so many different interpretations – a strange business.

Still, perhaps we're all strange; whether or not we can all become – maybe already are – strangers, the stranger (like Raphael) can become familiar, with the familiar (those swifts) becoming strange...

Here's my poem.


Thomas More recalls a stranger


And when the stranger came to tell me

where it was, someone coughed

so I would never know.


Old Raphael with his sun-burnt face,

careless cloak and long white beard –

that stranger travelled on. I think

the country which he spoke about

is no more, no more than no place.


I rest in this place, now familiar –

real and good enough. I chose

to be enclosed for now. I am

content that I be straitened here

before my room gets narrower yet.

From here the journey takes no longer

than from the house we call our own.


Soon enough I shall set sail

like Raphael, to another place.

I shall be the stranger there

for a little while. I’ll speak

of other lands where all is changed,

different. I’ll become myself –

the familiar, strange. The stranger then

no longer strange, but like Raphael

known and named.


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