Eden

What historical truth lies behind the Garden of Eden myth? I’m sure it was reinforced by several experiences of fertile, pleasant places being ruined in the Middle East, sometimes very likely by over-farming soils of limited capacity or misuse of irrigation systems. But one idea I have is that it reflects the change from a hunter-gatherer life to farming, like this:

EDEN

The fruit slipped ripe into the hand

The hunting hard, but always good,

The trees made shade to sleep within

That was the Eden we once knew

They say. Then a hard awkward seed, hard won

Out of a rasping husk whispered to Eve:

I am a million. You’ll be rich

Your children’s children will be many.

She took the seed and planted it.

The trees were felled, the game was killed

The seed told truth, but the new life

Was sweating hard, and then the rains

That always held back, always came

Did not come. Eden’s loss

Could not have been through a grass seed,

And so it was a snake instead.

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Breaking Time

BREAKING TIME

TREASURE ISLAND

The pirate sails through swivelling seas

And gains his goal through knife and trick

He lands at dawn with craftsman’s skill

The island’s multicoloured birds

The heavy scent of hanging flowers

Hold his attention for a while

He slashes to a rounded hill

Whose summit shows signs of long-gone harm

He paces out the map’s demands

The spade hits dead on oaken chest

Whose iron clasps are rusted shut

He levers up the stubborn lid

The chest is deep, but nothing’s there

The insistent birds, the smothering flowers

The slithering waves unrecognised,

The crafted ship that goes nowhere.

ABBEY

The monks have prayed, the lay brothers

And hired hands have hammered and dug

The building, rising from the mind

Of all the faithful has grown strong

Ready for cooks and evensong

The kitchen’s fire’s grown out of rule

The books and bodies light and burn

The towers crumble, the great bell

Hits paving stone with one last clang

The brothers’ prayers, the brothers’ work

Dissolve in earth from which they sprang.

RAINFOREST

The forest’s broken, churning earth

Covers the stumps, the bones of deer

The bodies of those who lived in it

And those who tried to stop the roads

The straightened river swirls with mud

With oil and dying fish and with

A boat that carries one woman away

Who fought the fight and did not fall

Because she hid, and now her eyes

Are hidden from the things that die.

WHEEL

The wheel circles, at every turn

Defeat, and if the wheel’s hub

Is empty, as it may be, nothing

Will last of those who loved and lost

The hub glows with reflected light

Or rather with a smouldering fire.

Visitor

VISITOR

 

Come to me: I am strange.

My skin is like a drowned man’s, but my hair

Like some wild animal’s from the hills.

I wear a hat.

I am important: other carry

My food, my bed, my tools, the thing I watch

Speaking hard words and stroking it

Come to me: I am strange.

 

Come to me, for I threaten:

I climbed the river to this point

To turn and go right back again

I kill the birds but do not eat them

I kill the men, forget and leave them

Come to me, for I threaten.

 

Come to me, I am rich.

In bags my men have colours and shapes

You never saw, but will see more

I was asleep, you saw me wake

Come to me, I am rich and strange.

 

I had in mind a European explorer in Africa seen from the Africans’ point of view plus hindsight.

 

By the way: if you’re interested in humour, satire or serious discussion, my other blog (http://www.sibathehat.blogspot.com) has postings on Blogging in the Dark, the Great Bastard Reintroduction Programme (based on the reintroduction of the bird the Great Bustard to England), why being customer-centred is a bad idea and a satirical series, the Odanglesex Chronicles.

 

Nasty Women

In Hertfordshire, my county of origin, there is avillage called Nasty. On the edge of the village there used to be a notice about the Women’s Institute, but it wasn’t the Nasty Women’s Institute, as it was combined with a neighbouring village and had taken the name of that village. In Essex the village of Ugley used to have an Ugley Women’s Institute but it changed its name. This poem is a fantasy rather in the manner of a Miss Marple parody about the Nasty Women’s Institute.

 

NASTY WOMEN

 

The Nasty Women’s Institute

Meets in the Church Hall vestibule,

Discusses who to garrotte or shoot,

Collects for violins for school,

 

Embroiders rumours, cushions too,

Poisons the constable with tea,

Arranges flowers, makes curates stew

And drops the Bishop in the sea.

 

The works of God are wondrous strange;

The Nasty women are strange as well.

They spread the mildew and the mange

And pull the bellrope on the bell.

The Next Stop

THE NEXT STOP

 

The man has a face like a frog

Squashed by a falling log

He has stubble halfway to a beard

He’s really rather weird

 

His trousers rise too high

Over his bulging belly

And yet he tugs them up

I think he might be smelly

 

He stares with a frowning look

A grump on the edge of complaint

He staggers a bit getting off

His jacket’s smeared with old paint

 

Kids probably shout things at him

He probably struggles with soap

What was he like, that young man

Who started with health and with hope?

British Nationality

Where I worked until recently, I used to see people collected for a ceremony to become British citizens. They came with children in “Sunday best” and left with the children carrying flags. The idea of a ceremony seems a good one and one these people liked. But when I looked at the oath people had to swear to become a British citizen, I felt revulsion. You have to swear allegiance to the Queen. Now I’ve nothing against her personally, and it isn’t even that instinctively I am a republican (Americans please note – this is not the American meaning of that word). It’s the allegiance. This concept is essentially unconditional. I’m happy with the idea of a kind of contract, to obey the laws of the land (or if I break them, perhaps on a matter of conscience, to take the punishment) and be an active and useful citizen, in return for the protection of the state; but allegiance overrides conscience. To me, allegiance should only be to God and then agreements are with the state.

The whole business also crystallised for me my mixed feelings about being British. I am English, Anglo-Welsh, British, a person from and of the North-East Atlantic Islands (including Ireland) and a European. And a human too, of course.

Still, if I had family who could be thrown into poverty or even murdered by agents of the country we came from if I didn’t swear this oath of allegiance, would I swear it? Yes, I would. So I’m grateful I was born to the thing and didn’t have to make that choice.

BRITISH NATIONALITY

 

Nobody gave me a choice

Of where I’d like to be born

Nobody set me a test

Nor asked me to swear allegiance

To a fixed smile in a dress

 

I feel as Irish as Scottish

I’m English and Welsh in the blood

How could they accept me as British

Who’d trade in the crown for the mud?

On the Mall

ON THE MALL

On the mall

The man with the latest mobile phone

Said do not groan

The world’s not wounded.

All across

The world by internet technology

The clever, you see,

Unite and know the answers.

Nothing’s lost.

The vase you dropped can be replaced

To a more modern taste

Sign on this line.

So are bears

Good Catholics, does the Pope

Shit in the woods, and is old rope

The thing to invest in?

For anyone not familiar with the turn of phrase, a common (possibly American) way of saying that something is really obvious, that something is a stupid question because of course the answer is yes, is to say: “Do bears shit in the woods? Is the Pope a Catholic?”. By reversing this, I’m saying “Don’t believe it!” Then, “money for old rope” is a traditional English way of saying “money wasted, an excessive price”.

Six Strands

Could I write a long poem? I wasn’t at all sure. The example in my mind was Eliot’s “Four Quartets” – not one very long poem like Tennyson’s “In Memoriam” or some of his Arthurian stuff, but a connected sequence. A walking holiday (the Wye Valley Walk, Welsh Borders to Mid-Wales) and in particular the long train journey back gave me the opportunity. Without that, I think I’d have struggled to retain the necessary mood and mindset. MY tentative answer to the question I posed myself is, “I can”.

 

SIX STRANDS

 

MOUNTAIN

 

Little grows here. A scratch of stunted grass

And one surprising flower almost hidden

Simple and small like man, one shrill small bird

Breaks from a tumble of rocks and disappears.

 

Everything starts from here. A drop of rain

Will find its way to a river, a grain of grit

Will join a field or a burial ground.

 

Standing alone here on a better day

You can see steeple, orchard, river, inn

A sharp blue lake with bare scree shores,

But touching nothing, all’s another land.

Now the false friend of cloud is sidling in

Whispering to forget the distant things

But if you do, you’ll lose the near things too

It’s time to go.

 

FOREST

 

From a distance you can see the tracks, well beaten

Or largely abandoned, curving to the edge

And disappearing in the forest cover.

Outside, it’s possible to plan ahead

Plot an approach, but from within

As damp leaves slip along your face

Tracks subdivide and vanish, trees close in

Woodpeckers screech from this tree, maybe that,

Strategies dissolve. Acclimatise, accept,

And you will see the tracks made not by feet

But by a trail of scent, or snaking high

From bough to bough, or those continuing

Favoured by fabled beasts now long extinct.

 

To escape the forest take no guidebook in

Follow the tracks you find and think of light.

 

VALLEY

 

The curve and cleft of the land speaks of the river

Before you see it. Straggles of bush and tree

Mark out the living and the long-dead streams

That struggle towards the river. Rich men’s houses

And ruined forts overlook it. Roads patrol it

Alongside; where they turn and cross it

Like sudden strike of knife, men cluster

And buildings grow. From stately homes

Lawns slowly slope to quirky boathouses

Now often shabbily ruined; coils of brickwork

Show where squat barges took on coal or corn.

Fishermen are drawn here, dragging themselves away

At last to dinner or to death.

 

Everything in the valley, house or meadow, stands still

Then dies or changes, living by rebirth.

The river moves incessantly forever.

 

CITY

 

Something started here

For a reason: the river was fordable

The tracks of cattle drovers drew together

The lie of the land and the weather were right for spinning

A governor found the distance from his palace

Just right for horses. Growth has a beginning.

 

Those origins are hidden, bulldozed, built on

Reinterpreted in guide-book and in myth

Slums and fine houses grow and are destroyed

The stonework of the bridge lies underwater

The factory’s become a heritage centre

From crumpled streets the tanners and the whores

Have gone but left their memories for a while

In street-names till some government

Dedicated to the pure and nice renamed them after

Generals, or trees that once were said to grow there.

Old stinking alleys strangled for office blocks

Ghostly survive in sections of quiet close

Or shopping trolley dumps round parking lots.

 

The city forgets; flexes; reinterprets.

People are born and die, the language changes

Suburbs seep out. Some time the city will end

Inventiveness, sweat, tears, frescos swallowed up

Slipping into decline, houses left empty,

Grass in the streets, but here and there a core

Churning more slowly and uncertainly;

Or suddenly in a fire that by scorched shadows

Commemorates the impertinence of daily life.

Unpeopled, not quite dead, the city will still be seen

In humps and ditches against the flow of land

By rumour, legend and a blackened buckle.

 

SHORE

 

What brought you to the meeting place of worlds

Will not take you away. The residue of waves

Vanishes in the tideline, packed sand dries.

Intricate shells settle and feet crunch on them

Starfish and bulbous salty seaweed stranded

Mix with resilient plastic bottles for all needs

Canister, shoe and anchor. When the waves come

As they will, some sea-gifts will be taken back

Along with flag and key brought from the land.

But many things the sea takes and returns

Come back smoothed, curved, transformed

Or crusted round with jewels

Studded with limpets, fronded over with barnacles;

While what the land takes and does not return

Crumbles and joins the melting-pot of soil.

 

We living on the shore, in port or hut, find swirling

Around us a confusion of languages

Uniforms, trades – together they

Mingle and change like rain.

 

The shore itself may shift: heavy engineering

May turn a sea-view to an expanse of green

Or battlements of holiday hotels; a silting river

Strangles a rich port slowly; while a night

Of sudden storm can wash away sea-walls,

Spinney lagoon and village, settling down

The shifting zone beyond their memories.

Still there’s a shore.

 

SEA

 

Sometimes there’s nothing left to say

But to listen, to learn the rhythm

Of wave and current, and the life unseen

Now seen. Featureless we call it

Really a mass of colours, feathery forms

Birth death and rebirth. At its border storms

Drive ships, a starlit night reflects off silent breakers

At dawn above them stands a distant mountain.

 

The Gardener

THE GARDENER

 

An intricate garden grows around

A careful gardener with soiled hands;

Plants crystallise from secret soil

And all the weeds are broken down

Withered and brown

 

Patterns of colour, of stroke smooth slabs

Of burning red and drowning blue

Spread like a puzzle to understand

Or copy almost true

 

Scent swarms the leaves

The bees are drawn

And no-one hears the fall of trees

 

Reason has died, the gardener’s gone

And vigorous weeds invade the beds

While purple and yellow snowflake shapes

Tangle and clash across the ground

And bindweed grows around

The rake forgotten where it stood

 

No pattern now but riot of green

Orange and mauve confusors’ dance

That somehow rhythms to a word

The gardener had never heard.

 

Coming out

To avoid confusion: the title is something of a joke. This is not a poem about being gay. What is it about? Well, let’s see…

COMING OUT

 

A gentle soup is around you

You belong to a circle and beat

At an alarm you struggle

In time of peace you sleep

 

Now the world is warped by a warlike

Beat from a tunnel of change

And the light at the end of the tunnel

Is the light of an oncoming train

 

But if you can grab a handrail

Hold on to the train if you can

For the scenery’s into this world, and

You won’t get a ticket again.

 

OK – you probably got it. A poem about being born. In fact this is really quite unusual among my poems because I can say quite clearly: THIS IS WHAT IT’S ABOUT!