Choice Agenda

CHOICE AGENDA

Excuse me, vulture

Would you like to select

The expedition leader, the geologist,

One of their camels or the guide?

Please circle appropriately for your choice.

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Winter Day

WINTER DAY

This ice beaten down and silencing

Bitterdead winter’s day

A full hour before the smothering

Dusk when the pallid sun

Would redden and smear its lifeblood

Over the darkening sky

A white owl wafted silently

Down the leat’s long scar

Like a sign of something living

Unbelievably far

From the cramping hands and the fading

Warmth of a failing star

When the cold was merely a reason

To welcome the muscular fire

Flaming the toffee amber

Pint in a waking hand

Ice was at bay but the owlflight

Woven around the spire

Of the sleeping church was speaking

Of when the sky would light

And the armour of ice would be breaking

And death and dark would tire.

Written after waiting at a point in Norfolk in midwinter watching birds of prey coming in to roost as the sun set and seeing a Barn Owl waft close down the ditch just in front of us.

Callanish

When I visited the stone circle at Callanish, on Lewis in the Outer Hebrides in Scotland, I was moved, but didn’t know it’d produce a poem. In fact my idea was to write about the courage and inventiveness of prehistoric humans and what had become of that, but my first thought was to pin that on Stonehenge.

Just as well I changed my mind. Callanish fits. From then on I was almost in a trance as I wrote. Once I’d written a first draft, I went through making the poem a bit less smooth and regular, because I was convinced it must be a rough-edged, spiky poem. Since I was in a trance-like state, I can’t explain some lines better than any thoughtful critic.

CALLANISH: WINTER SOLSTICE

The stones do not speak, they do not move

They are intense, apart

They will say nothing to the darkening sea

The wandering visitors in bright cagoules

The impoverished and water-sodden soil

They spoke once

In a moment’s flutter of day

In the Northern winter’s night

Moment when time stood still

New birth at winter’s turn

Cold-handed celebrants

Gathered around

Welcomed the sun, its covenant; renewed

The hard-won order of stony fields

That welcome is long gone

Grown cold, as women whose shattered skulls

Bore witness to the dark side of the sun

Neither the magical smith nor carver

Of mythical fish on soft stones

Will answer a call

What happened to

That wonderful inventiveness?

Carousel of light and song

Iridescent fly picked apart

Whispering forest butchered

For the giant’s unreal hoard

Under clawing black roots

Soft words to a chasm

The human time

May be nearly over and then

The embossed golden shield with lost words

Foretelling the end and beginning

A glorious tragedy ending

Will tumble and shatter

Or will there be new words spoken

Round Callanish ring still unbroken?

With the warning above, here goes: the poem starts with Callanish as it is now, visited by tourists. Then it leaps back to when it was a site of worship. The worship, and their society, had a dark side, but they made wonderful inventions and art. The inventiveness has led to destruction. If we go on as we are, not only may the environment be devastated in a mass extinction, but we may be one of the species going extinct. But there may be a way to avoid that.

The Roads to Rome

THE ROADS TO ROME

I don’t say it’s a long way home

Because I don’t know home exists.

Wandering in forests, confused by mists,

I’ve heard that all roads lead to Rome:

Maybe that legend is a lie

And all roads lead to a silent shore;

But memories of a light, a door

Suggest there was a home, but why

The road to it will always twist

And turn away and run instead

Towards the city of powerful dead

I cannot say, but having missed

No pointing tree or flying crow,

No sudden cold or smear of blood,

No reddening sunset, opening bud,

Maybe I’ve found the home I know.

But carving on a rotten log

Tells of an easy way to rest

While still the broken branch points west

Over the river blurred in fog.

This poem can be interpreted in different ways, but let me rule out one:  it isn’t about a Catholic conversion! It is about a sense of a meaningful journey and a home to return to, interpreted in different ways, about doubt and death (all roads lead to a silent shore) and about diversions from the way, characterised by a material Rome of wealth and power. I would rate this as one of my four or five favourite poems I’ve written, along with the next one I’m going to post.

The Well

THE WELL

A man with a briefcase came

Showed me an angular plan

“Beneath the site of this house

An underground stream once ran

A record of 1801

Refers to a well right here

Though when the new town was built

Mentions of wells disappear.”

I thanked him and closed the door

And said nothing of the well

Soon after I sold the house

There’s nothing more to tell.

Well…can be taken on two levels. Wells, hidden waters, the unconscious, a spirit world (traditionally associated with water). The narrator hides and denies.

Explorers

EXPLORERS

“That this is my North-West discoverie:

Per fretum febrae, by these straights to die”

 

“Oh, my America, my new found land”

 

–         John Donne

I

Intricate fantastical

Palace is built

From fragile weave

Of dreamt formulae

On the mathematician’s

Flowerdecked grave

With a walk like the waft

Of a branch in the breeze

Comes a woman whose eyes

Are pools in a cave

That a diver might brave

With no light to return

In the day to farm and fashion

In the dark to watch and wonder

At the dawn to remember

Where the sea and the sky blur together

There are havens and reefs for the sailor

What land lies over

Those silent hills?

Wastelands where black bats gibber

Or cradling a silent river,

Valleys of song?

Officials make inventory

Of all the goods the travellers pack

And plans for drought or for attack

Are hammered out while song and story

Buy off the devils along the track

Trapped in the hills and hunted down

By hidden bog and avalanche

By haunting wind and wolf, survivors

Stumble beside a clattering stream

Down to the valley of their dream

Where cupping hands bring out bright gold

Trees offer fruit of no known tang

And vivid song as no bird sang

Wakens the travellers from the cold

They name the valley, import the skills

To mine the gold and lay the roads

Till someone heads for other hills.

When no dark ridge is left, the wise

Explore the forests of the mind

And stare in one another’s eyes

Now out of mist on broken lands

What new and treacherous hills will rise?

Well, this is one of those poems where my attempts to explain sound like a friend of the dead poet suggesting what his words might mean. Certainly physical exploration and conquest come into it. People may explore from wanderlust or for all sorts of reasons, but their discoveries have consequences. At the same time, the excitement of finding something totally new is intense. So where do we explore when there is no more terra incognita?

The opening, I think, sets the scene of the atmosphere before the explorers set out – but I can’t really explain the mathematician’s flowerdecked grave: it just seems right!

The Blue-black Sloes

THE BLUE-BLACK SLOES

The queen has made a laurel wreath

For the new champion to wear

So he will not grow old and weak

The whisper of the brittle leaves

Is of a people falling down

And of a king that cannot breathe

The blue-black sloes have gathered round,

The blackberry and scarlet hip

They twine about the king’s own crown

Inside the castle nothing moves

The guests are frozen to the walls

And spears of ice hang from the roof

The withered wreath has taken root

And pressing through the embroidered cloth

Will resurrect the warmth and doubt.

I don’t want to provide a text-book explanation of this poem, but think the seasons (autumn, winter, spring) of Britain or similar places climatically, Celtic myth and rebirth.

Wolf

WOLF

Cry in the night

A wavering yearning wail

Remembered

The pack all know their part

The smell of sickening deer

Bloods their comradeship

Torn flesh is life

Wolf dreams the voices in the leaves

The running of a long-lost mate

The tumbling play of cubs and then

Midwinter snowlock, icy breath

Fairytale devil

Hiding in homely things

Better to eat you, dear

Ravenous, clever

A chalice for our wish to kill

For rape and for rebellion

To turn the world right upside down,

Of chaos, and the homeland’s milk

Of law and lace for all time spilt

Wolves ride our dreams

In each dark wood

A half-remembered beast

Down each sharp slope

They wait, or wander like the wind

To fall on anywhere they wish;

The fearful grope

Of climber on the alp falls short

Because the wolf waits just beyond

But at his fall the wolf will stand

And soon have sport

A child is missing

Sheep are torn

A travelling brother never comes

Folk knew the wolf must be the cause

So hunted it with dog and gun

Until one lonely wolf was left

Searching for any of its kind

Into a trap and hung to rot

So who had killed the lost child now?

Some human wolves must roam the night

And must be burnt to break the curse

To wolves the random rage of men

Is like a maddened hurricane

That picks this up and sets this down

Safety and death in hands of clown

That wail again: no devils of dream

Unearthly through the forest stream,

But wolfpack hunting in the night

And not a tiger burning bright.

The layout of this poem elsewhere reflects the fact that there are two voices – one describing the wolf,’s experience,  the other representing human fears and images of wolves, the wolf as symbol and devil. Unfortunately wordpress won’t let me indent the verses as they should be! So the human image of the wolf bit is from “fairytale devil” to “break the curse”, and the rest is, as it were, from the wolf’s mouth. The last line reflects and answers Blake (Tyger, tyger).

At the Seafront

AT THE SEAFRONT

What will come over

A shimmering sea

At the stroke of a delicate dawn?

Dark boats sliding silently,

Or a white bird crying

From a cloud one word

As the breakers crumble?

Wait and see

Watch, be humble

The Witch of the River

THE WITCH OF THE RIVER

The witch of the river has long green hair

Her tresses wave in the water’s flow

She dreams the mayflies out to mate

Her blood’s the current running slow

When her long slim fingers flex in sleep

Then the lithe and writhing silent fish

Disturb the surface: if she dreams

A shudder, then the wordless wish

Rouses the drunken river to spate

Till she gently, softly draws it down

She’ll treasure stones a child throws in

A coin, a cup, a sword, a crown

For they are young and she is very old

For they are of the sky and she the mud

She and the river too will die

But now she’ll dance, with running blood