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
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.
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.