Selected Poems of Simon Banks

(Well, about half my poems don’t make it on to the word file. They may survive in a handwritten notebook, or they may have been scrawled on a piece of paper and then I don’t rate them. From the word file a selection gets posted here – and from that, some which most seem to need explanation, background or discussion, get reposted here.)

So now for the next batch.

THE KEMP OWAIN SEQUENCE

METAMORPHOSIS

Seeking a great prize not identified

The lost prince pads wet-footed from the sea

Having heard rumours of a weird thing

A ravenous monster with a hint of speech

An evil dragon crying for a mate:

Circling of gulls shows him the way to climb

They take the scraps of bloodied flesh around

The female devil growing from the tree.

The warrior has a sword well-blessed and forged

A gap in sliding clouds can now unleash

Light from the imprisoned sun to make the sword

Glint like a fire in Prince Owain’s hand.

A sign of Gods to trust the sword and strike

But though a warrior he does not strike

But stands before the long-haired nightmare thing

And hears it speak: come here, kiss me and win

The prize you cannot even know exists.

He kisses her through tangling hair and stink

Of death or sickness and the sun goes in

As if a shadow is falling. As he stares,

“Kiss me again,” she says. He is still human,

His hands not wizened or hairy, even the scar

From that old fight still itches on his chin,

But for the thing he kissed, cavernous eyes

Have filled and narrowed and the maddening breath

Smells not of death but only dangerous night.

He kisses her. The withered breasts grow young

The claws recede. “Again,” she beckons him,

But the dull day has turned to starless night.

He hesitates, gropes for his darkened sword,

Then throws it down and kisses her again.

She feels soft, the smell is sweet. “Turn round,

Pick up your sword and throw it in the sea.”

He turns and throws the holy sword away

Night becomes day, the lady’s live and lithe

Twining her hair with his beneath blue skies.

SALMON

I will be good to you for half the year

For half the year I’ll need you: we will love

For half the year, but for the rest I’m gone

You cannot send a message or a gift

I will not speak, I’ll have forgotten you

Till I return in spring.

I range the seas and have no sense of land

I jump the rapids with a single aim

If I escape the bears and fishermen

I will remember land and feet and thought

And come to you again.

CANDIDATE

So Owen Kemp arrived at the Reception

Where they conducted him to a conference room

Milling with others aiming to achieve

The same great prize. Then from the highest place

A woman’s voice spoke soft and rich and clear:

“Welcome. We’re glad you could attend today.

We have devised a battery of tests,

We hope you’ll find them fun as well as right.

So Owen answered all the riddles set

Like whether he felt nervous in a crowd,

He linked the dots to make a cockatrice

Devised a way to escape the universe

After a coffee break, beat all the rest

At memory games and four-dimensional chess

He tricked the lion from its hoped-for kills

And then the wise ones called him in alone:

“Thankyou, but we were really looking for

A team-player with good networking skills.”

DIVISION

The man talks on his mobile phone

(A rodent hanging from his face)

He has a message to receive

An awkward meeting’s going well

But needs his word to clinch the deal

A momentary annoying thing

Speaks of the hidden and unreal

But what concern is salmon or seal?

The sea is calm, more like a lake,

And never broken by a dive

Of wandering man, has never held

A salmon that had breathed and run

All time’s cut up in hours and dates

The sea and land each know their place

Sandcastles are the only gates

The long-haired woman wails and waits.

Kemp Owain(e) is a mythical hero featured in some ballads and early poems. The name itself is very interesting because while Kemp is Germanic (kampfen, to fight – hence Kemp, a warrior). Owain is Celtic Owen, native to Wales, Ireland and parts of Scotland. It may also be the same as Gawain in the Arthurian legends. So Kemp Owain appears to be a figure emerging from the “Dark Ages” when a Celtic British identity, having been abandoned by (old version) or having thrown off (new version) Roman authority was overlain by a Germanic, Saxon culture coming across the North Sea. While the extent to which the creation of a Saxon English identity was violent ethnic cleansing, and the extent to which it was a kind of cultural imperialism (you lot are all going to speak English now) is still uncertain, interpretations have shifted somewhat from the former to the latter. A mythical figure with Celtic roots taken up very early by Saxons would fit this.

The first part of the poem is a rewriting of a real surviving fragment, in which Kemp Owain meets a repulsive being who turns bit by bit into a beautiful woman.Is it too melodramatic? I have some reservations.

The myth of a sea-creature which turned into human form, made love to a human woman and left, appears in several songs, though it’s usually a seal not a salmon. The focus is often on the fate of the offspring. The salmon appeals to me because it’s seasonal and it inhabits two worlds (sea and river) depending on the season. I suppose this section expresses the way we may always just know part of some people.

The third section is a satirical account of a modern appointment process. Kemp Owain has turned into a candidate being put through hoops, but the hoops still suggest a weird and supernatural element. Perhaps that disqualifies him?

The last part shows the messages of myth and unconscious being ignored. The busy businessman has a momentary strange perception but dismisses it. Why are sandcastles the only gates? I’m not sure, but it seems right. Perhaps the sense of something beyond ourselves, which we have lost, is recoverable through childhood and the two-world nature of the shore.

I think the last two lines are as good as anything I’ve written. The vision of the first part is still waiting.

WESTERN

Wild Bill Hickok with failing sight

Grips the cards held in his hand

Ghostly faces gather round

The door behind him opens wide.

 

Panicking cavalrymen, unhorsed,

Scramble towards a grassy ditch

The condemned Indians make the kill.

 

A straight hard highway stems the land

Flat fields of wheat that wave and brush

The memories down to subsoil worms.

This poem describes two famous moments in the history of the American Wild West. Wild Bill Hickok, brave and maverick lawman, is shot dead while playing cards with his back to the door, something he always avoided and tried to on that occasion. His sight was failing fast at the time.

General Custer’s detachment is wiped out by Sioux Indians/ Native Americans whom he had attacked believing their number to be small. Recent archaeological study has confirmed an Indian account that at the end the surviving soldiers broke and ran down a slight gully where they were killed. But in the long run the outcome was irrelevant: the Indians were in turn slaughtered and lost their land.

I suggest in the last verse that the blandness of the modern Mid-west hides something important in the memories. By the way – I haven’t been to the Mid-west, but I suggest that sort of thing about many different societies!

BUNKER

The murderer sits down in his chair

A job is neatly done, the splintered steel

And brains are out of sight

Signs of power round the walls

Remind him of name and cause

But he is not there

He is cast off in flow of light

Sound of a language lost and found

Touch of a cool calm lake

Scent of the forest pines, footfall

A violin, a gentle drum

 

He killed the drummer long ago

But the drumming sound goes on.

Usually I resist identifying unidentified figures in my poems with any specific real person, but this poem is mainly about Hitler, who loved classical music (not just Wagner) and whose extensive collection of records, fortunately looted by a Red Army Jewish captain and brought to the public by his son, included works featuring Jewish composers and performers. The signs of power are Nazi insignia. The Russian captain apparently could not understand the contrast between the mass murderer and approver of the “Final Solution” and the music lover who could appreciate the work of Jewish musicians.

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