Glass

Well, first of all – Happy New Year! And that’s an order! Apparently, though, the devious Australians have already started the new year and the Japanese followed. This is intolerable – some people are in 2011 and others are in 2012! Now the poem that follows has nothing to do with a new year, so that’s all right.

 

GLASS

 

The glass creation on the shelf

In the early morning light refracts, transmutes

The arriving light into changing colours and links

That fade and reform with the slightest of gentle shifts.

 

If you try to see through it the waving winter trees

The dirty yellow brick of the disused hospital

Or the unseasonal swallow swooping, veering,

You will not see them as they know themselves

Or as you saw them when you came to the room.

 

But the glass is not what it would be in the dark

Or the pale consistent glow of the strip lighting

And if you shut your eyes to be blind and handle it

Like a dying sculptor in clay discovering shape

You will see a different thing and the swallow will be in the dark

And the light will be working in ways you do not sense.

 

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Founder

The first humans come to an unknown land and those early days are remembered in myth…

 

FOUNDER

 

I have set my foot in the wet sand

And seen the alien trees, the dangerous berries

Of a new land

 

It cannot speak before I name it

It is asleep before I claim it

 

I give a name to this unwary bird

Before I kill it and I tread a track

So as to become a road that traders travel;

Where I have hacked a space inside the thicket

Will be a city, I can hear the talk

Like pebbles clashing in the shifting stream

Not song nor scream

 

What I have not named, in the lurking forests

Will die until its bones are resurrected

Leaving its shadow over fruitful fields

Rotting the yields.

Babel

Words unite people because they can communicate. But they also divide people. The Biblical myth of the tower of Babel was that God thwarted the builders by making them speak different languages so they couldn’t understand one another and co-ordinate action; but sometimes speaking the same language divides, or the communication it can bring is seen as dangerous and needing to be suppressed. Words carry power, so powerful people try to control them, as shown by George Orwell in “1984” and “Animal Farm”. In Douglas Adams’ “The Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”, there is a thing called the Babel Fish, which provides instant translations from any language in the galaxy to any other. The book says that when this was introduced, it caused innumerable wars.

BABEL

Once upon a time

The God took up a bag to a high place

And threw down all the words to ever exist.

They made a pretty pattern on the grass

But people picked them up and traded them

Or fought over possession of a “so”

Until the different patterns hid in forts

And when a wandering “if” came on the wind

And tried to attach to a sentence in a case

A termination was decided on

And doctors came to cut it cleanly out.

Three

THREE

 

Three sisters dancing hand in hand

They turn and whirl each in her world

At different speeds disturb the leaves

Which dancing from the forest floor

Reject the empire of the wind

 

Three sisters dancing hands apart

They look at nothing but the leaves

If one begins to glow with fire

If one begins to freeze with ice

They will not know, they will not meet

 

Three sisters dancing on the heath

Long after forest decayed and died

The one is like a flaming torch

The other cold and deadly dry

The third alive and stepping high.

 

Now you may, if you disobey certain academic orthodoxies, wonder what on earth this poem is about. My usual advice is not to get hung up on meaning but to read the poem, accept the images and wait to see if it makes sense. The sense you find may not be the one uppermost in my mind.

Sometimes I have explained something of the poem’s meaning and origins. This time I fancy leaving it as it is, as a sort of puzzle, for the time being, and saying: there is a predominant meaning. I’d be curious to see if someone gets it.

Underwater

Happy Christmas, everyone. I don’t have any Christmas poems (I just keyed Christmad – Freudian?) and I haven’t mastered the trick of adding pictures to the blog, so here’s a poem instead and be content with it. It could be gruel. If you have any shiny paper left you could wrap the poem in it, or alternatively insert it in a chocolate, although WARNING: it may be nuts.

 

UNDERWATER

 

When you slip under

The long lying line of waves

Strange shapes will come

Silently propelled by waft of flipper

Or sinuous pulsing of a streamlined torso

And some maybe you knew and had forgotten

Dirt shovelled over the well has been removed

Remember the time before you broke the surface

Gasped, fumbled, burrowed

And survived by stratagem?

 

Now you return to them

Learning to be like a fish

Wander and linger

Here where the pearly nautilus waves unchanging

Here with the ammonite and plesiosaur

And where squat fish that never see the sunlight

Thread through great feathery banks of frond

Of hidden sting and jaw

 

Do you rise up towards the scattered sunlight

The crushing waves, the inconsistent wind,

The seabird that will fly to a rocky island

Drawing life from the depths, their crowded night?

 

When you are playing with the waves

Will you remember

Here on the fine-grained shore (maybe imagine)

Beneath the corals and the painted fish

Down with the vents, the eyeless creatures

Some heavy hidden box

That had an answer,

Where you will return?

Will you return?

 

Anyway, Happy Christmas. And if you’re reading this in June, Happy Christmas to you too. Just imagine it’s much colder (or much hotter if you’re an antipode).

Town Dusk

TOWN DUSK

 

The darkening sky is almost mauve

Down towards the horizon smudge-mark greyish beige

In the distance maybe mists are gathering

The lights of buses and of fast-food shops

Offer a choice of bright and simple colours

The signs are a good deal more complicated

The forms within them seem to be repeated

It’s easier to focus on the lights.

 

Let’s say I understand the urban picture

Letters form meanings like “kebab” and “sale”

But in the unlit figures of the dark

In with the changing skies

The overarching darkening mysteries

There still may be some messages I miss.

 

I roughed out this poem in my mind standing on the platform at Chelmsford railway station coming home from work on a winter’s night, looking over the lights of the town centre.

 

Rest In Peace Millie

Millie the cat died today. This is not a poem, or even prose fiction, but although I said my other blogspot blog was for everything else, I find blogs develop a character. Emotion comes easier on this one.

Millie was 9. She had been unwell for a while, and proved to have a tumour. This morning she was put to sleep and died peacefully and quickly.

She was an amazing character. When young (she adopted us) she was a great table tennis player, sitting at the top of the stairs and batting the ball back in mid-air. She moved deliberately outside and had good traffic sense (if she heard a car coming she’d wait until she could see it pass), but inside, transit from one room to another was always by mad cavalry charge.

Despite her slim build and athleticism, she was no hunter. Once while she was sitting in the garden a young starling landed quite close and picked up some food items. Instead of jumping for it, Millie watched it with curiosity, and when it flew off, sniffed the ground where it had been. She was not very sociable with other cats: she had no real enemies but no close friends, though she tolerated and even welcomed one or two favoured ones, especially if she could get in a high place and stare down at them. However, she loved people – and dogs. I once saw her sitting in the middle of the alley when a dense crowd of schoolgirls approached. She just sat without moving until she was engulfed by them and they were stroking her. Very big dogs she treated with some caution, but anything less than five times her size she would approach. The dogs either shied away, bewildered by this unprecedented behaviour (I once saw a greyhound on a lead pulling away from her), or responded to friendly overtures. She hated going to the vets, but the plus side was that she got to see dogs.

Her interest in anything humans were doing around her was so great and frequent that I suggested she might be an alien spy. If you talked to her, she responded: of course she didn’t understand the words, but she knew some kind of communication was happening, and I suspect she tried to imitate it: certainly her range of vocalisations was remarkable and included a number of quite uncatlike sounds. She showed affection readily and favoured humans would get their noses licked. She was punctilious, not to say neurotic, about cleaning herself and sometimes she decided my beard needed the same treatment.

I feel calm about her going, because she had lived her life and had already withdrawn from much of it – but I will miss her.

 

 

 

 

In Memoriam Isaac Rosenberg

I wanted to remember, and to draw attention to, Isaac Rosenberg, a British soldier of the First World War and a visual artist, but chiefly remembered for his war poems. Chiefly remembered, but too much forgotten. Most of the poets who wrote from the trenches about the horror of the First World War were young men from public schools (that is, private, fee-paying schools!) or established writers gone to war. They mostly knew one another – and they were officers. Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Edmund Blunden, Robert Graves and many others (most of whom did not survive) fit this broad description. Rosenberg was from a quite poor Jewish immigrant family (his parents had come from Russia) and he was a private.

It’s possible to exaggerate the extent to which he was an outsider. He caught the attention of influential figures in the art world, both as an engraver and as a poet. But some collections of the war poets exclude him and I’ve read articles about the British war poets that don’t mention him. Between his death in 1918 at the age of 27 and the late 1960s his work was relatively little known, though his war cemetery plaque says “artist and poet”.  Yet to me he stands with Owen and Sassoon to make up a trinity of the best of the war poets.

Even the details of his death vary from account to account. 1 April 1918 was the date, in the early stages of the last great German offensive on the Western Front, the desperate and nearly successful effort which exhausted the Germans and led to their defeat in the autumn. But I have read in accounts that should be authoritative: that he and two other soldiers were killed by a shell and their remains could not be disentangled; that he was killed on night patrol; that he was killed just after a night patrol, possibly by a sniper; that his body was identified and disinterred from a mass grave; that his body was not at first found, but in 1926 the remains of eleven soldiers of his regiment were found together and it was clear that he was one of them but his remains could not be separated. All I can say from what I know of practice in that war, is that if he was killed by a sniper, unless the position was then rapidly overrun, then the confusion about the whereabouts of his body is surprising.

His poetry displays a natural lyricism together with a willingness to experiment and abandon conventional forms. He hates the war, hates death and destruction, but describes them with less discretion and reserve than many of his fellow poets: for example, he describes a cart running over the face of a dying soldier. But he displays also a wry humour, as here:

Break of Day in the Trenches by Isaac Rosenberg

The darkness crumbles away
It is the same old druid Time as ever,
Only a live thing leaps my hand,
A queer sardonic rat,
As I pull the parapet’s poppy
To stick behind my ear.
Droll rat, they would shoot you if they knew
Your cosmopolitan sympathies…

He was acutely aware of being Jewish (others wouldn’t let him forget it) and in his self-portrait, his Jewish features seem exaggerated to the point of caricature compared to photos of him. I’m sure in writing of the rat, he was well aware that “cosmopolitan sympathies” were quoted by people who did not trust the Jews as supposedly not being fully committed to any country. I cannot forget that within a few years of his death, Nazi propagandists were using swarms of rats to symbolise the “Jewish menace”.

Now I am posting a poem, but out of order. I’ve been posting a selection of poems in the order I wrote them, but here I’m jumping to a very recent one. I originally subtitled it “In Menory of Isaac Rosenberg”, but I deleted that because although I had the death of a First World War soldier in mind, the circumstances I describe do not fit those of Rosenberg’s death. I would like to dedicate it to him all the same.

THE DEAD SOLDIER

Green grows the grass where died my friend,

Darkly shade the trees

Over the hill you sought, my friend,

Where you’d have seen the seas.

Among the rest you lie, my friend,

With language, love and shape;

They’re buried when you die, my friend,

And bitter grows the grape.

The trees have tumbled down, my friend,

The blood runs down the hill.

They’ve fought another fight, my friend,

The triumph of the Will.

The breeze comes off the sea, my friend,

The trees will rise and spread.

The air will make us free, my friend.

Shall it raise the dead?

 

Vivat Isaac Rosenberg.

The Stranger is a Friend you Have not Met

or…

“THE STRANGER IS A FRIEND YOU HAVE NOT MET”

 

The armoured knights of 15th-century war

Were pretty well protected against arrows

Swords, pikes and lances, slingshots, dangerous dogs

Heavy hailstones and wandering wheelbarrows.

 

Unhorsed, they could be in a spot of bother

Being unable to get up again; moreover

While in their specialist gear, unlike the rank

And file, if moved, they could not get a legover,

 

Preserving thus the chastity of the knight.

This specialisation seemed extremely wise

Until the musket and the cannon came.

Today we’re trained to think of clear blue skies;

 

Sometimes the distant skies are yellow-brown

Or purplish-black: on blue we shouldn’t bet;

While welcoming the strange, remember this:

The strangler is a fiend you have not met.

 

I’m told the noticeboard of the Society of Friends (Quakers) in Cambridge used to be regularly amended by unknown hand to read: Society of Fiends.

 

The Snake

THE SNAKE

 

Last night as I was coming out of the pub

I saw a funny thing – don’t laugh –

I saw a snake devouring the whole world

And the snake wore my old school scarf.

 

This morning roadworks buggered up my journey

I missed the early train

I opened the paper for the football news

And I saw the snake again.

 

This is beginning to worry me just a bit

Perhaps I should see a doctor

I told my wife all about the snake and the scarf

And I think I shocked her.

 

“For you to see a snake coming out of the pub – ”

“No, I was coming out of the pub, not the snake – ”

“ – Is hardly a surprise, but for it to wear such a scarf –

There must be some mistake.”