The Flying Dutchman

A newly-posted poem. I can tell you precisely where I put it together – walking from the youth hostel just outside Minehead in Somerset and the nearest pub. Minehead, by the way, is next door to Porlock, famous for the “gentleman from Porlock” who according to Coleridge interrupted his reverie when he was composing “Kubla Khan” and cuased it to be unfinished.

 

THE FLYING DUTCHMAN

 

You have a kind of faith I cannot share,

Thomas my saint, the doubt of a darkening sky my glory

And in the wonder of the half-heard things

I march on a stumbling track not for the faithful.

The Flying Dutchman is my dream

But in the end to reach another harbour

Insinuated by the alien forms

Brought on the currents from the unknown shore

Which even then I felt I knew before.

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Of course, no-one, not even the “writer”, can “know” what the poem “means”, but still…

…academics can tie themselves in some fascinating knots and, it is even rumoured, disappear up their own theories.

Here’s some more commentary on poems I’ve already posted:

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.

I’ve long had a theory (which may well be wrong) that the myth of the Garden of Eden, which apparently has similar versions in other traditions than the Jewish, reflects the transition from a hunter-gatherer to an agrarian lifestyle. This first happened, it seems, in present-day Turkey, not at all far from Israel.  Hunter-gatherers existed in very small numbers, but their diet was varied, their tasks and life quite varied too, and in places where food was abundant they had plenty of spare time. Agriculture allowed much bigger and more settled communities to develop, which tended to be more hierarchical and to have a quite limited diet, with a huge amount of time taken up by repetetive tasks such as grinding corn. Moreover, some of the easiest places to farm were vulnerable to over-farming and becoming unsuitable for crops quite quickly, and loss of tree cover to make space for fields and villages may well have contributed to reduction of rainfall. Of course, agriculture was the future and necessary for cililisation, but it will have seemed a hard transition to many and might well be reflected negatively in myth.

In this poem, Eve is the first farmer. She sees the potential of the edible grass-seed. The result is the desertification of the Garden of Eden. The farmers cannot face the truth of what they’ve done, so create a myth of the evil snake leading Eve astray.

ETERNAL CITY

In the eternal city

Brilliantly planned

The pavements stretch forever

Covered, smooth, safe

Here and there the off-white

Changes to mid-grey

Or the palest of yellows

Interesting, bland

 

The planning is now wiser

The people aren’t dwarfed

Turned into clumsy figures

Unruly shape and smell

Now they fit in

Piazzas or plazas

Though someone cries in them

Are welcoming

 

Underneath the pavements

Coursing, unseen,

Suppressed creek and stream

And the bones of sea-monsters

Turning, not quite dead,

Swim into dream.

I suppose this poem is about urban landscapes and town planning, and behind that, our wish to control and belief that we control when we don’t, as well as maybe the fragile victory of the rational, conscious mind over the unconscious and the spiritual. The “eternal city” is not Heaven, but an idea of urban landscapes lasting forever. It’s well-planned, to do it justice, and ought to be comfortable. Dangers have been eliminated (reflected by the soft colour tones). “Piazzas or plazas” – same word in Italian or Spanish, meaning a town square) have been planned in to encourage people to mix and have fun.  But people are left unsatisfied. One who cries may not be comforted. Suppressed undercurrents survive unrecognised, things we thought we’d done away with – and they can emerge.

Sleeping

Back today to posting poems I haven’t posted before – so getting gradually nearer the present day. The first two lines of this one came to me as I was driving from Maldon to Colchester by a B road and I fashioned the rest of it while driving, with much mental repetition to try to make sure I didn’t forget it before I could write it down.

SLEEPING

The beast in the mud has gone to sleep

It hasn’t moved for three years now

Only the wind makes shallow waves

Only the workmen shake the ground

 

I don’t think that the beast is dead

It’s slept for several years sometimes

But studies of the warning signs

Have not much helped predict the next

 

The sudden knowledge “this is it”

The change of shape, the sudden crack

The haunting song, the sense of loss

The settling fragments of the map.

Strange poems here. Perhaps the poet really meant…

On with a few more reblogged poems now with added explanation. Hmm… could try a “three poems for the price of two” offer or an extra-long poem for the same price as a short one. No?

 

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?

 

When people become British citizens now, they take part in a ceremony. This seems to be well-received and a happy occasion. Before this, they have to take a test to show they know enough about the country – a test which most British-born people fail, with strange questions and with no internal balancing mechanism so that though the questions are randomly selected from a l;arge pool, it’s perfectly possible for them to be biased towards one subject.

 

They then have to swear allegiance to the queen, which I would have real problems with, not mainly because I’d prefer a republic, but because as a Quaker and from my heart I reject the whole concept of allegiance, of automatic loyalty and subservience to any human power, as opposed to agreeing to observe the laws and accept punishment if conscience brought me to break them, and to be an active citizen, voting, belonging to voluntary organisations and so on

 

For myself, I struggle a bit with the concept “British” unless it’s purely a description of a political unit. I’m 3/4 English and 1/4 Welsh. I don’t feel alien in Ireland, though technically I am: I’m as aware of being English in Scotland as I  am in Ireland, and I recognise a cultural, historical and scenic alliance or bundle of all the nations and places of the North-east Atlantic islands.

 

So – a long discussion for a short poem!

 

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.

 

In my county of origin, Hertfordshire, there’s a village called Nasty. On entering the village, you see a sign about the Women’s Institute, but it isn’t the Nasty Women’s Institute: it’s joint with the next village and takes that village’s name. The village of Ugley in Essex had a similar issue.

 

Here I imagine there is a Nasty Women’s Institute and they really are nasty, along with being the sort of traditional ladies you’d find in Agatha Chrisie’s “Miss Marple” stories. There are two punning double meanings: to make someone stew means to make them wait with a worried mind, but it could be literal; and the Bishop has a see (his area of responsibility), so maybe he’s being givewn a lift to that – or being dropped in the sea.

 

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.

 

This imagines a European explorer in Africa from the point of view of the locals, with some hindsight. The explorer speaks as they imagine he might.

 

The thing he strokes, speaking hard words, could be the Bible – or a notebook of his travels, maybe, or a map. The locals do not understand why he travels up the river and then turns round and goes back again. They do not understand why he shoots animals not for food (he’s collecting them for science). They perceive that he does not care about human life, or at least, their lives. He will bring enormous change they cannot imagine. They have the idea described for the Australian Aborigines that all that will happen in the world is already there but hidden: so this is the time at which this asleep stranger being wakes up and shows himself.

 

Next time I think I’ll post another poem for the first time.

 

all writing on this site is copyright of Simon Banks 2012.

This probably isn’t what I meant, if I meant anything, but you never know

So I’ll go on disinterring old posted poems and suggesting some context and meaning. Soon I’ll go back to new postings.

 

By the way, I have a blog (http://sibathehat.blogspot.com) for everything non-literary, and the leading countries people are visiting the blog from are:

Joint 1: U.K. and U.S.A.

Vying for third place: France, Germany and Russia.

 

My poetry blog, on the other hand, works out like this:

1: India

2: U.S.A.

3: U.K., with India way ahead.

 

On to the poems.

 

THE ANTHROPOLOGIST

 

She travels to some jungle tribe

As an ordeal to prove her worth

And empathising with them, notes

Their rites of fishing, death and birth

 

Her passage into adulthood’s

Expressed by PhD, and then

Co-authorship of articles

Until the monster in its den

 

Grabs out and swallows her entire

To sit inside its belly and write

How mining can be reconciled

With local lore and day is night.

 

This is probably pretty obvious to people with academic connections.  The career of the anthropologist is described as an anthropologist might describe the customs of some little-known tribe. A field study is “an ordeal”. She goes through a ritual acceptance into adulthood called getting a PhD. and then her membership of the tribe and status within it is reinforced not by hunting, fighting, cooking or storytelling, but by co-authoring learned articles. Finally she is used by some commercial interest and paid to demonstrate that their plans to open up an area for mining will not damage local indigenous communities.

 

This poem appealed to one person with an anthropology degree and one considering being an anthropologist.

 

JOE KEENAN

 

Joe Keenan won’t be downing pints no more

The landlord of the George is looking out his Second World War  revolver

Joe Keenan won’t be downing pints no more

The landlord of the Crown and Anchor (don’t think about a rhyme) they found him gibbering on the floor

Joe Keenan won’t be downing pints no more

The hearse is heading down the High Street

To the Cardinal and Ferret Brewery

Where we’ll chuck him in the mash tun

So old Joe will rise in glory

In Old Joe’s Remembrance Bitter

That’ll make them reconsider

Hazy-eyed with taste of Heaven

Turn around and come back from the door.

 

I wrote this in my mind on a walk in the country basically as a song, and it could be sung. It’s a humorous celebration of British real ale with its endless varieties, strange names of beers and breweries and band of enthusiasts (I am myself a Campaign for Real Ale member).  The story is that Joe Keenan has died (making the pub managers who profited by him desperate) and has provided in his will that his body be added to the beer.

Now my longest poem so far:

 

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.

 

I wrote this bit by bit on a walking holiday (the Wye Valley long-distance trail) and finished it on the train coming back. I wanted to test if I could manage something sustained in related sections like Eliot’s “Four Quartets”. I think the imagery of open country, of a walker viewing the lie of the land, is evident in it.

 

What’s it about? Human life and the rise and fall of civilisations, I suppose. All the different stages or conditions are interrelated.

 

MOUNTAIN:  There are two surprising bits here worth highlighting: we don’t often think of humanity as “simple and small”, but up the mountain, it’s not such a strange thought. We are often urged to concentrate on the immediate and things and people near us, but the poem suggests if we lose sight of the distant things, we lose the near things too.

 

FOREST:  I suppose the mythical dark forest here is the unconscious or a dream-world or a world without rational thought or measurement. It’s a condition we should not deny, ignore or avoid, but should move through and come out.

 

VALLEY:  This is fairly straightforward description of how a river valley shapes human settlement and activity. The human activity comes and goes while the river changes little. I think here you might guess the writer was interested in History (I have a History degree) and landscape/geology.

 

CITY: the city is both an actual city which began because it was a convenient resting-point on a trading-route or whatever (I run through several possibilities) and a symbol of human society or a civilisation. It’s always changing and reinterpreting its own past. Some of the changes described are not untypical of what has happened to London or Bristol, say, over a few hundred years. The city/society/civilisation will have an end – a gradual weakening or a sudden disaster (I had Hiroshima and Nagasaki in mind by the “scorched shadows”).

 

SHORE:  The shore is a shifting meeting-place of two interrelating worlds, sea and land (but we are also a shifting meeting-place of two interrelating worlds).

 

SEA:  The sea is “birth, death and rebirth”. The later poem “Underwater” is relevant. What more can I say?

Of course, I don’t really know what I meant…

According to some academics, it’s meaningless to ask what a writer meant, or at least, pointless because we can’t tell. Maybe nothing means anything. This is an attitude that could only exist in academia. People everywhere else are engaged in the risky, uncertain business of guessing what other people mean all the time. A general or a business competitor analyses his or her opponent’s motives, what the opponent is trying to achieve, and, faced by an unexpected move, tries to work out what he or she means by it. A chess-player does the same and even a footballer does, guessing whether a jink one way is the prelude to a dash the other way. Doesn’t someone who thinks himself or herself to be in love ask all the time “What did (s)he mean by that?” and isn’t getting the wrong answer likely to lead to trouble?

 

Nonetheless, when I attempt to explain what I meant in a poem, I’m aware of being on insecure ground and step with caution. For a start, I don’t want to stop others developing their own interpretations, which may in any case reflect something that was an unconscious influence when I wrote. I also write things I don’t feel I fully understand at the time, but they feel right.

 

So these are thoughts about what I wrote, not an authorised translation of it.

 

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.

 

Probably most people get the idea. The title is slyly misleading: in Britain and America at least, “coming out” is what gays and lesbians do when they declare themselves. Here, though, it refers to birth, our first coming out. The first verse describes the experience of the baby in the womb: we know that unborn babies begin to react to signs of the mother’s contentment or stress. The second verse describes the actual birth. It should be clear what the “tunnel of change” is, and the light of the world outside is threatening, “the light of an oncoming train”. there is a common phrase about “the light at the end of the tunnel”, meaning some hope after a long period of struggle or depression, but the joke based on this is also quite common, that the light at the end of the (railway) tunnel may be the light of an oncoming train.

 

The last verse tells us to welcome and partake of life. The metaphor is in danger here, because seen literally, if it’s an oncoming train and you cling on to it, you’ll go back the way you came. Still, maybe in a  sense we do.

 

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.

 

This is a poem that operates on different levels. On the most obvious level, it describes a piece of land tended by a gardener and what happens to it when the gardener is gone (dead?). All his careful neatness is lost but the garden gains a new kind of beauty. But you could see the gardener as God (or a certain conception of God) or as a mortal human, or as humanity in total. Ultimately it expresses faith in an underlying beauty and coherence. The word “confusor” is invented, but I needed a word for “one who confuses” and there didn’t seem to be one.

 

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?

 

An easy one. the message is “don’t trust expert commentators, especially if they keep telling you everything’s all right”.  I think I was particularly aiming at comfortable lies about what we’re doing to the planet and at the weird idea held by the organisation Mensa that if you get people with high I.Q.s together, they could solve the world’s problems.

 

The last verse deals ironically with two common sayings.. The first is the (I think) American rhetorical question, “Is the Pope a Catholic? Do bears shit in the woods?”, which is a way of saying something is obviously true. In turning it round to refer to the Pope’s toilet habits and the religious views of bears, I suggest that what we’re hearing is obviously false. The second is the old English phrase about “money for old rope”, meaning money for something worthless or excessive payment for something that should be cheap. Again, I’ve turned it round.

 

I’ve got slightly out of order here because before this last poem came “Six Strands”, which I’d like to discuss, but that’s a VERY long poem and deserves its own post!

 

Sleep well – that’ s if you’re not driving or doing a test.

 

Erm… I think I really meant…

So I’m carrying on commenting on some of my own poems already posted. These were written at a time when I was coming out of a period of great stress occasioned by a family illness. Writing such poems was part of the emergence from that period and they carry a certain bleakness as well as hope.

 

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.

 

Technically, this was I think my first experiment with the ABBA (forget Swedes) rhyming plan. No matter how many verses you read, that third line rhyme still comes as a bit of a surprise and helps create a feeling of things moving on; but a huge stress is thrown on to the last line, which must be strong enough to bear it.

 

The poem plays with the familiar saying “All roads lead to Rome”. In the poem, the wandering person is confused by a vague sense of three possible destinations – Rome, “a silent shore” and a barely-known home. I think by Rome I meant a centre of unchanging, earthly, material power (“the city of powerful dead”). I draw on both Imperial Rome and Papal Rome for this, but it’s really a state of mind. The silent shore, I think, is absolute death. The home, maybe, is a sense of survival and return, Heaven possibly. When I re-read the poem, I find the choice or struggle between these destinations is not very clearly expressed in the first two or three verses, but I can defend that by saying the person who speaks is confused and in a situation where one thing may appear to be another and then change.

 

In the last but one verse a new thought emerges – that maybe the journey IS the destination and Heaven is purely here and now. That was how my first draft ended, but I felt that was to neat and did not really represent what I thought, so as with “Spirit Mountain”, I added another verse: the wanderer was about to settle down in the forest, but now moves on, still searching.

 

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?

 

Callanish Ring is a stone circle on Lewis in the Outer Hebrides in extreme North-west Scotland. It overlooks the sea. The picture on my home page is Callanish Ring. The area is bleakly beautiful and lowly-populated, mainly treeless moorland.

 

I’d been thinking for some time about writing a poem on early humans, their courage and inventiveness, and what those traits had turned into. This was what came. There are things in this poem I cannot explain, but seem right.

 

It starts with a picture of Callanish as it is now – the ancient stones visited by tourists. It moves to a description of the site when it was in use: the theory at that time was that it marked the Winter Solstice, the point in the hard winter when days began to get longer – a big issue so far north when midwinter night is so long. I drew on what I knew of various periods and cultures, not intending to draw a picture that was necessarily closely accurate for Callanish. Early cultures included wonderful inventiveness and creativity – the worker with stones and the smith (I love the sound of “carver/ Of mythical fish on soft stones”) but also violence such as human sacrifice. It then asks what has developed from these cultures. The verse starting “carousel of light and song” answers that – beauty and creativeness, but also destructive analysis, contempt for other life-forms and destruction of habitats out of greed (“the giant’s unreal horde”).

 

I sense that humans might soon destroy themselves – “a glorious tragedy ending”. I’m not sure what the “embossed golden shield with lost words” symbolises – a unity (of humanity? of all life?); perhaps also a record of our culture. What seems to be a bleak ending is then turned round by a statement of hope.

 

KIRKCARRION

 

Nothing unusual then

Sheep rub the wall

Wind waves the narrow pines

Up on Kirkcarrion.

 

Clouds set a shadow down

Over the hilltop

Birdsong is faltering

Dark on Kirkcarrion.

 

Something has touched the rocks

Turning them colder.

Empty of word or plan

Wait on Kirkcarrion.

 

Kirkcarrion is a hill in south-west County Durham in far north-east England. It stands overlooking the Pennine Way long-distance footpath. There are vague mmyths and rumours that it was some kind of a pre-Christian religious site and of human sacrifice. The name may refer to this: “kirk” is the north of England and Scottish word for church and carrion is, presumably, carrion. It’s known that some Celtic Iron-age peoples used to as it were hang out bodies to dry, sometimes the bodies of enemies killed in war, in a prominent place.

 

The baggage of history and myth affects how you see Kirkcarrion, but it is a bleak place, a few pines enclosed by a stone wall on top of an isolated grassy hill in open hill country. The poem is bleak and I can’t easily interpret it – wait for your fate, maybe? But it was written when my state of mind was becoming less bleak.

 

Still Trying to Explain Myself

which if you go by the Latin origin, means “to lay myself out flat”. So that’s why it’s difficult.

 

By the way, when I re-posted the last batch of poems, they somehow lost the gaps between the verses and also a distinctive layout for one poem (“Wolf”). I’ve now restored these features. For “Wolf” especially, it makes the poem a lot easier to read and understand. If the same problem occurs here (it looks OK from what I can see) I’ll correct it as soon as I can.

 

Some more old posts with more comments here:

 

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.

 

A bit of variety in scansion can be effective: I personally really like that line “For the new champion to wear”.

 

The poem is about the seasons, made myth. The champion is I think a reference to the annual magic king in “The Golden Bough”, someone who is fresh, strong and young in spring but old by autumn. The second and third verses take us to autumn (sloe, blackberry and hip are autumn berries in England, though blackberries may ripen in late summer and sloes and hips can be seen still in midwinter). The autumn is colourful but ominous. The fourth verse represents the height of winter, with life frozen, and the fifth shows life beginning to stir again. Obviously this sequence can be applied to many other things than the actual seasons.

 

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?

 

This is about exploration, both actual discovery of new lands and other kinds of risk-taking and discovery. It’s largely from the explorers’ point of view, but noting how their discovery leads to big (often negativ) changes in the environment.

 

When John Donne wrote, exploration was at the front of many European minds and he uses this figuratively.  The first quote was comparing death to a voyage of discovery, complete with a pun on “straights” (hard circumstances, or a narrow sea-passage). The second might seem to be about North-east Canada, but in the poem he’s addressing his mistress undressing!

 

I struggle to explain the first two verses, though I find the first has a weird power for me. I suppose it’s referring to the risk and excitement of scientific discovery and to a meeting of art and science, while the second is about risky romantic love. Both could be pictures of exploration. The third verse refers to the productiveness of consciousness/day and the creativity of unconsciousness/night: we create if we can link the two (remember the night in the day). I have doubts about the fourth verse and might cut it. Thoughts?

 

The rest of the poem describes a group of explorers surviving various dangers to find the new land. They wonder at so many new and beautiful things. But the excitement does not last and as the land is “opened up” some move on. When there are no new lands to explore, we explore ourselves. The lands we’ve discovered are “broken” and the prospect of new challenges is exciting, but the far hills are “treacherous” – offering danger to us, or doom to themselves?

More explaining what I think I meant

In this post, the respected critic Simon Banks comments on the work of the obscure poet Simon Banks. In the last post I analysed, or at least commented on, Spirit Mountain and Knight at Arms. Now, proceeding from the earliest poems posted here towards the latest and selecting poems I think I’ve got something to say about, here are some more.

MARSTON MOOR

On Marston Moor the rubbish grows

Beside the road, great pile on pile

And those who choked on their own blood

If they could see, would wryly smile,

 

If they could smile, at this New World

Which marks their death with rusty iron,

Snapped plastic, aluminium;

And those who tried to build their Zion

 

Or serve their King, may hear the chant

“Behold, we’re making all things new:

The bloody rout on Marston Moor

Is no concern of me or you”.

 

The Yorkshire soil is doing its job:

Fed deep by Scots and English blood

It brings forth cabbages and beans

Where shattered horses writhed in mud.

 

The moorland’s gone, the muskets too,

But over flat and docile land

A harsh wind blows and voices call

Of hopes we would not understand.

 

Marston Moor was one of the biggest and most important battles of the English Civil War, fought in 1644 just outside York. The city of York was in Royalist hands but a Scottish army supporting the English Parliament had been besieging it with English support. A Royalist army under the loved and feared Prince Rupert, King Charles’ young German relative, marched to relieve the city. More English units had joined the besiegers, but, fearing to be caught between the garrison and Prince Rupert, the besiegers withdrew. Prince Rupert left the garrison in situ and marched after the besiegers to make sure they withdrew entirely. However, the Scots/Parliamentary army turned around and offered battle. What followed was the war’s bloodiest battle. The Royalists nearly won the day but the intervention of a rising Parliamentary commander called Oliver Cromwell was decisive and the Scots/Parliamentary forces won a great if expensive victory.

Some years ago I visited the battle site and was shocked to find it marked only by a 19th century monument, against the fence of which the farmer had stacked bales of hay. Across the small road was a refuse tip of some kind. The poem is about the battle and about the failure to mark it with proper respect – so about modern attitudes.

I studied History at university and particularly the Civil War and Commonwealth period. In the poem I use Civil War period terms:

New World: America was much in people’s thoughts in the 17th century as a New World seen as a new chance, but also many on the Parliamentary side saw what was happening back home as a chance to make a New World – a different, better society.

Zion: The Parliamentary side, including but not comprising only Puritans, used a lot of religious language and to them Zion was not an Israeli state in the Near East but a kingdom of God. This is contrasted with “serve their king” – which is what most Royalists would have said they were doing.

Making all things new: a biblical reference. The more revolutionary of the Parliamentarians used it to characterise the big changes in England and Scotland associated with the downfall of the king. But I turn it round to refer to the incomprehension my contemporaries felt for the Civil War period.

In 1644 the battlefield was a mixture of moorland and farmland. Apart from the tip, it’s now all farmland. The area is flat and fertile.

 

ARRIVAL

We will shortly be arriving

At a quiet dead end

Where the fallen coin on the platform

Has been there for over a year

And the door to the booking office

Swings open when you approach

Where the bench is empty

And always will be so

 

But you may sit down here

To regain your breath

You had some when you started

So you want it back

And a tabby cat will come padding

Down the platform and through the wall

Then a long-dead friend will join you

And turn to a mother you knew

 

On the other side of the wall

Where the cat has gone

A murmur of several voices

It’s not the kids in the yard

But maybe the gates of heaven

Or a shift change on the ward.

 

I used to travel to and from work by train. The Harwich end, where I live, is on a small branch line: my station is the last before the terminus. This poem draws on the reality of a quiet, usually unstaffed station – but after the first verse it’s an attempt to represent the experience of an old, confused person in hospital and near death – the end of the line.

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.

This is both about real wolves and about human fear of wolves and images of wolves. It’s set out to indicate two voices, opening with straightforward description of a wolf’s life and moving to the wolves of human dreams, myths and thoughts before finally returning to an attempt to speak for the wolves. The wolf is “a chalice for our wish to kill” – it represents a side of ourselves we can’t admit – and it’s a dream figure of fear and death, possibly referring back to our humanoid ancestors’ real experience of being hunted by great cats. Wiping out the real wolves, though, does not end evil, which is now sought in “human wolves” and persecution of human by human.

For me, the best verses are the last two and the last one still sends shivers down my spine, though I wrote it. There is of course a reference to William Blake’s “Tyger, tyger, burning bright/ In the forest of the night” – a brilliant poem, but I’m trying to reclaim the real wolf (and tiger) from the mythical images of darkness and power.

For the time being – that’s it, folks.

Gravity

The ship is falling into Jupiter

The planet’s pull’s too strong for all our engines

I cannot impress too strongly upon you

The gravity of the situation.

 

This very short poem (or maybe it’s just comic verse) allows me to do something I’ve been thinking  about for a while – to re-feature some earlier poems I posted with some additional comment. I’m dubious about talking about a poem before people can encounter it for themselves, but these poems have been on the blog for months now and some friendly commenters have encouraged me to talk more about my poems. So I’ll do this with just a selection of poems about which I have a fair amount to say and make a start here with just two – Spirit Mountain and Knight at Arms.

 

SPIRIT MOUNTAIN

 

“Said to be haunted”

“Source of strength and madness”

Alone on the night mountain

I wait, curious.

 

Screeches and groans

Tear the night, only I

Know they’re ravens

Not demons.

 

Harbour lights, town lights, wandering

Headlights shine and

Are gloved into mist

 

Pale flame of sunrise

Seascape afire

Ghosts? Then within us

 

But a trickle of

Welsh blood speaking:

Perhaps in the soil

Out of time, sleeping.

 

This describes a night I spent on the Welsh mountain of Cader Idris (Cadair Idriss). There is an old myth that if you spend the night on Cader Idris, the next day you’re either mad or a poet (bard). It was also, in old Welsh poetry, a place of spirits.

 

I’d wanted for some time to spend a night on a mountain. This one is not too inaccessible or hard to climb and has or had a refuge hut (but no door, beds, windows etc) on top. I was intrigued by the mountain’s reputation and, while not expecting anything supernatural, did not rule it out.

 

Nothing strange happened. Ravens were flying about making their strange cries before dark, but they continued after dark, suggesting what might have led to some of the stories. The sunset was incredibly beautiful over the distant Cardigan Bay. The night started clear but fog came in and rolled in and out so that I could see town lights or the lights of vehicles, but suddenly they’d disappear. Next morning the dawn was as savagely beautiful as the sunset.

 

That pretty much gives a prose description of what I describe in the poem – except that when I first wrote it, it did not have the current last verse. I weighed the poem up in my mind and felt uncomfortable with the ending, which for me too strongly suggested that ghosts and the like were within us only – so I added the doubt-making last verse. The “trickle of Welsh blood” is my own 25% of Welshness.

 

KNIGHT AT ARMS

 

Riding a jet-black steed

In snow-white armour clad

He aims for noble deed

In war of good on bad

 

He seeks the Holy Grail

In purity of thought

No failing on the trail

Will have him lured and caught

 

He’ll sacrifice his life

Or any other’s too

The outcome of the strife

Depends on being true

 

And noticing the stain

From some unlucky beast

Or villager’s loud pain

Would shamefully have creased

 

His shining banner and cause

So quickly he rides on

Ruled by his Order’s laws

But where the light has shone

 

It travels not with him

And all his noble death

It stays on blood and skin

Impure and loving breath

 

I suppose it’s fairly clear this is about the fanaticism of purity. The knight is a genuine idealist who believes in a pure ideal and kills or turns away from suffering without remorse because of that ideal. There were plenty of such people among the knights of Western Christendom, as also in Islam, but  had particularly in mind the Nazis (who were obsessed with purity), since Himmler was fascinated by the Arthurian legends and saw the SS as a recreation of the knights of the round table! He also saw the creation of a higher morality and type of human precisely in the ability of SS concentration camp guards to see and cause incredible suffering and mass death without feeling human sympathy or remorse. Let us say that although in some ways I am an idealist, I find myself on the other side from Himmler’s beliefs.

 

Deliberately, the poem starts out as if praising the knight: the ambush is in the second line of the third verse.