There comes a point in a male’s life when he sheds the dappled skin of innocence. If he’s fortunate, it happens in adulthood when he has the resilience to deal with it but, if he’s unlucky, he can have the skin torn off him in childhood - by abuse, or neglect, or the betrayal of one he looks up to, loves and admires.
I wrote this poem many years ago after spending some time with the great, archetypal psychologist James Hillman. He was talking about betrayal as a vital part of a man’s life – a bridge between the ‘animal faith’ of naïve innocence and the suffered experience of the soulful male. I found it hard to get my head around his multi-layered thinking, but that night a poem came to me that reflected his talk that day. It was – like so much poetry – grown from the compost of my slow understanding, snatches of other men’s stories, and my own experience…
Counting the Marigolds
The fist came out of nowhere.
He was nine years old and running up the garden path,
excited as only a boy can be
when he sees his father coming home.
Daddy, Daddy. I scored a goal!
It caught him right on the button.
Something split and he could taste the metal in his blood
before he hit the ground.
He was staring at a bed of marigolds,
concentrating, counting leaves and petals,
when his father picked him up and looked him in the eye.
I must have told you a dozen times, he slurred.
Never leave yourself open.
Whenever I’ve read this poem at a men’s event, it’s been met with a profound silence. Sometimes you can feel a kind of shudder ripple round the room – as men of all backgrounds take it in – entering what the poet John Keats used to call “the vale of soul making”.
It took me a long time to fully understand what James Hillman was talking about. But having entered into the work we call sometimes call ‘soul work’ – having re-visited my innocence and felt its loss – I was able to come to a place of acceptance, and not have it rule my life. Shorn of my innocence and slowly reconciled to the fact of my betrayal, I found I was free as never before.
Poem © William Ayot From “The Inheritance” - P.S. Avalon, Glastonbury.