While poetry can be a subject, as in the academic study of poetry, it’s really a mode of communication that can be about anything. In the 18th century the opinion grew in Western Europe that there were subjects and words unsuitable for poetry, which should be genteel and uplifting. Uplifting maybe – via the depths – but poetry need not be genteel. Its immediate or apparent subkect-matter can be anything, even wheelchairs, quarries, Halloween masks, knights in armour, wheelbarrows or rainstorms.
TIME AND MOTION
The wheel of the wheelchair, slewed a little sideways
Looks like a spinning wheel, a wheel of fortune
A union of things, a reconciling;
But it has moved, the scene is shifting.
“A wheelchair user” – could be to bring home shopping
Or charge at inconsiderate cyclists yelling
The wheel is latticed by strong light and by shadows.
The aircraft rests, the wing is a fine sculpture
Voluptuous, a curve and line creation
The aircraft flies, at height in the blue sky the wing, though glittering
Vanishes in the implacable mark of movement.
The sharp white rose has grown to these red berries
That look like spots of blood or scattered jewels
Though they will fall and rot, the rule of briars
Spreads over the abandoned ironwork of the quarry.
This is one of those poems where I’d struggle to give a coherent, rational account of what it said. A spark for it was sitting in a Quaker meeting, opening my eyes and finding them fixed on the wheel of the wheelchair opposite me, which had been struck by rays of light. It seemed beautiful – but it might seem very different to the man using it or those close to him. That led me on to an aircraft that also looks beautiful in a way that seems to have little to do with its function, to carry people long distances. The aircraft at rest is an object, but high in flight our eyes are caught by a movement rather than by the object moving: the aircraft seems to lose its identity. The once ugly quarry becomes wild rose-bushes whose fruit becomes mush becomes more rose-bushes and the quarry is transformed.
So I suppose it’s about things seeming different from different anges, about change and about beauty and perception.
The poem contains rhymes and half-rhymes as well as alliteration, but not in any fixed pattern. It’s a good example of what I think can be achieved by long lines which invite you to speak them and not just look at them.
The thing has great cold staring eyes
Teeth small, sharp, regular, too regular;
Garish in burning red, shut cupboard black,
Rowing-boat green, it holds your eyes
Like headlights looming down the road
Just for a moment – it’s a mask.
If those small hands took off the cold-eyed face
A child’s eyes would be behind,
I think, and our experience shows.
But if as an unusual trick
The easy shedding of the mask
Revealed another staring mask
What streams would then begin to run?
The body with the broken belt
Dug up with a few strands of hair
Still clinging to the skull will watch,
With that same cold expression, swirls
In the dark water of the pond
Where something old begins to stir;
The broken house with marks of flame
Through the square windows holds their eyes
Who clamber to the town they knew.
We have made all things fresh, and now
Through the unmasking of the dark
Nothing will be the same.
Halloween is an ancient pagan institution, seen as a time when the parallel spirit world could invade the familiar human world. The idea survived alongside Christianity into the 17th century in Britain, whence it spread to America; but modern Americans have made a big thing of Halloween in a way foreign to Britain. Recent growth of “trick or treat” in mild forms in Britain is an American import and already seems to be dropping off.
I refer to a child in a scary Halloween mask. Science Fiction programmes like Doctor Who make full use of the real scariness of a mask, which is that we don’t know what is behind it. What if behind the mask were not a child’s face? What if the fear and horror were real? I then move to a scenario influenced by events in the Balkans, particularly Bosnia – communities torn apart by the sudden revival of ancient hatreds, mass murder and the destruction of towns. Evil has been unmasked – but the fact that the executed man’s body is being exhumed and that people who knew the destroyed town are visiting it with compassion suggests that we can fight the evil.
“THE STRANGER IS A FRIEND YOU HAVE NOT MET”
The armoured knights of 15th-century war
Were pretty well protected against arrows
Swords, pikes and lances, slingshots, dangerous dogs
Heavy hailstones and wandering wheelbarrows.
Unhorsed, they could be in a spot of bother
Being unable to get up again; moreover
While in their specialist gear, unlike the rank
And file, if moved, they could not get a legover,
Preserving thus the chastity of the knight.
This specialisation seemed extremely wise
Until the musket and the cannon came.
Today we’re trained to think of clear blue skies;
Sometimes the distant skies are yellow-brown
Or purplish-black: on blue we shouldn’t bet;
While welcoming the strange, remember this:
The strangler is a fiend you have not met.
This is a wry commentary on the slogan (added by a work colleague to her e-mails) of “the stranger is a friend you have not met”, which so easily becomes the entirely rational and sensible observation “the strangler is a fiend you have not met” (or you’d be dead). The excellent armour of the late medieval knight would stop anything likely to be projected at him, but if he fell off his horse or the horse fell, he was in big trouble – and when projectiles arrived with a bigger punch, the best armour was a death-trap. Business consultants, motivational speakers and jargon-drunk managers talk of “blue sky thinking”, which is necessary, but so is envisaging the worst things possible (storm skies).
copyright Simon Banks 2012