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.

 

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6 Comments

  1. It’s such a surprise to find another poem on a Lewisian theme – my latest is about the statue of one of the Lewis Chessmen that stands near the beach at Uig. And I’m kicking myself for not recognising the Callanish stones in your photo. Incidentally the photo in my header is of Eoropie beach, also on Lewis.

    Needless to say – but I’ll say it anyway – I really enjoyed your Callanish poem. It brought back memories of being there with friends just last summer.

    Reply
    • Yes, I tried to comment on your Lewis poem but Firefox was taking an age so I flagged it to return later. I was going to point out my poem “Callanish”, forgetting that it would be next up on the commentary thread.

      I really liked your Uig poem. Something about the language conveyed a sense of the Hebrides.

      Reply
  2. It would be wonderful if you could post pictures of the geography that stirs those poems out of you….just a thought. The Roads to Rome is a poem that I love…home has so many definition, where is it? Thank you Simon….

    Reply
    • Thanks, neel. I must try to master the bits of blogging technology currently beyond me – but the picture at the top of my home page is of Callanish Ring.

      Reply
  3. I absolutely loved The Roads to Rome. What a wonderful question to ask…where is home really?
    Thanks for stirring so many thoughts that had settled under the pressures of life.

    Reply

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