OK, I know “deconstruct” doesn’t quite mean that, but it has a chilling, dehumanising sound. I don’t want to dehumanise my poems, though maybe throughhumanise them. Here’s some more with comment.
I have found an old guilt:
By scrabbling in the dirt with callused hands
Brushing away the low lying deposits
Stories of murderous giant and cackling troll
Caressing away the grime I find the skull
It grins at me as if to say: what I lost
You lost, my killer friend.
This could relate to a number of things and I wouldn’t want to close off those avenues for people reading it. However, what I had in mind was Neanderthals. These close relatives of “homo sapiens” were specialised to survive cold and hostile conditions and lived in Europe and South-west Asia through a period of ice ages and interglacials. After Homo sapiens, having spread out of Africa into the Arabian peninsula, reached the main mass of Asia and Europe, Neanderthals disappeared, though hanging on for some time in Spain and Portugal.
When Neanderthals remains were first identified, they were characterised as brutish “cavemen”. Bit by bit the stereotypes were knocked down. They were not unable to stand straight – that was a careless conclusion from the skeleton of an old man with arthritis! Their hunting methods showed a high level of ingenuity, planning and co-ordination. Their brains were on average slightly larger than ours (but their body mass was somewhat greater, and some think the brain/ body mass ratio is what counts). They had the physical equipment needed for speech, and given the evidence of rapid development of co-ordinated hunting, it is very likely they had speech. About twelve years ago I remember a TV programme confidently asserting that they had no art – but since then two examples have been discovered, of an apparent flute and a worked stone with bone inserted to make a face, that are hard to explain otherwise than as art. Their extinction in the face of competition from sapiens was attributed to a limited diet short on fish and seafood – but for some Neanderthal colonies, even that no longer stands.
What happened between the two species is largely a mystery. They were so close ecologically that they would certainly have competed for limited food and shelter resources. Drastic climate change in Europe around the time they disappeared will have worked against them as they were best at hunting in forest and much of the forest vanished. The two species may have fought: we just don’t know, but it seems likely over scarce resources. It was long disputed whether they might have interbred and it is only in the last few years that DNA analysis has proved they did – but very early in sapiens’ spreading out from Africa, so all humans today except pure Africans carry some small Neanderthal genetic heritage. Maybe some day we’ll find out what it is.
This poem is written on the assumption that our species did play a part in the extinction of our close siblings. The skull is a Neanderthal one. The deposits removed are of low-lying soil but are also low, lying sapiens stories about neanderthalis. I suspect some mythical beastly and threatening human-like creatures may contain representation of other humanoids, in particular neanderthalis, and trolls seem quite a good fit.
We have lost from the loss of an allied species. “No man is an island…therefore do not ask for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for thee.” (John Donne).
In random clash of chemicals
Hot flow over new rocks
There are no palisades or names
Tall fires burn
A thinning smoke is lingering;
In the anonymous wash
Something has happened.
Something begins to pulse, divide,
Water is life: the oceans, the one body
Teem with a writhing dissonance of life
Creatures are born and die
In this world are no boundaries or strongholds
No sharp hard barriers but always danger
But here and there dead hardness meaning death
To anything washed up there: barren land.
In the half-dead, half-living place
Something survives and changes.
Life finds land.
Among the crumbling bones of the giants
That fire struck down in sea and marsh and forest
Under the dark and smothering, strangling sky
Small creatures scurry: one line is broken, but
Another rises for a while.
The giants’ cities hang with tumbling flowers.
Some titles don’t tell you much, being more a first line of the poem than a description of the subject. This is a straightforward title: the poem is about evolution. It starts with chaos before life. Life organises to perpetuate life. Multi-celled organisms are organisations of cells which still resemble unicellular creatures. At first life is only in the seas – a fertile source of food and of predators, living and barrierless. Land means death. But then living organisms find ways of adapting to live on land.
We then jump to a disaster that has destroyed “the giants” but left small creatures as successors. It’s natural to think the giants were the dinosaurs and the successors were mammals, our ancestors – but did dinosaurs have cities?
The poem is deliberately rough-edged and irregular to help convey that early chaos.
IN THE VALLEY OF THE STONES
This valley is thick with time
It seems to coagulate in my hands
Only to slip through them
The sarson stones lie randomly round an axis
Or clustered in small groups like some
Ambushed patrol. The hillside terracing no longer
Cares for the crops, only sheep manoeuvre
Round the stubborn lines
Who came here when the glacier withdrew
Who farmed here, that is in the time
That laps round these soft hills and asks for questions.
What will be here, I’m deaf, I cannot tell
Is it there somewhere in the swirling
And slowly settling time, or on the wind
There to be caught or dropped and in the balance?
The Valley of the Stones (that’s its name) is in Dorset. I may be wrong in suggesting a glacier reached that far south in England. It’s a remarkable place because big oblong stones called sarsons are scattered across rough grassland. It would be natural to assume that they were man-made and abandoned there, but they’re not. Standing there, I felt a strong sense of time and past, almost palpable. I try to convey that here. So if somehow I can sense the past, what about the future?
all text copyright Simon Banks 2012