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.
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.
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.
Cry in the night
A wavering yearning wail
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
Hiding in homely things
Better to eat you, dear
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.