New Things

A lot of my poetry reflects my love of nature, of the hills and of the sea. Mythical beasts appear, ominous or welcoming. This poem draws on a very different environment, urban and wretched, but maybe the themes aren’t that different.

NEW THINGS

It will not be all new when we meet again

The blood will still be on the old stone steps

The man at the corner will still be glancing after

The drunken girl who retches beyond the railings.

 

We recognise the smears, you and I

We know the use of bleach on the grimy standard

Will wreck it beyond loving, and the raising

Of a pure standard is a call to killing.

 

But where the stray cat wolfs the fallen burger,

Where up the bloodstained steps you come by night

There is the cancer that will grow and scatter

The knowing of the dark, the love of light.

 

Copyright Simon Banks 2012

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Book review: Boris Akunin, “She Lover of Death”

Another Boris Akunin crime mystery, set in Imperial Russia, this time with the year given – 1900. Erast Fandorin investigates a series of suicides linked to a society of death-lovers, but all is not, of course, as it seems and the suicides are being helped on their way by anything from suggestion to murder – but by whom?

Commenting on my first experience of the Fandorin series, I said the chief character was oddly elusive. That was written in the third person but from the points of view of just two people, Fandorin and his revolutionary adversary. Interestingly, in this book where the story is told largely by another character, I find out more about Fandorin. Why? I need to think more about that.

The book is well-written and fast-paced, both weird and credible, with surprises at the end: it’s a genuine mystery in that it sets out a puzzle with clues. The translation must have been a tough job, given that poetry plays a large role, people puzzle over the hidden significance of words and Fandorin’s Japanese servant is quoted extensively struggling with Russian pronunciation.

The setting just fourteen years from the outbreak of the First World War and seventeen from the revolution, makes one easily slip into believing the characters are real and wondering what happened to them. It makes them seem like figures on some newsreel or security film, going about their business oblivious (unlike us) of the dramatic and bloody events about to happen.

We will not meet again, my love

Sometimes I like to write in ballad style. This is one such.

WE WILL NOT MEET AGAIN, MY LOVE

We will not meet again, my love,

Till all the seas run dry

You will not be alone, my love

If only you should cry.

The woods have grown high, my love,

I cannot see the hill

Where you and I did part, my love

To find an unknown ill.

The forests have all fallen, love,

The seas have come to death,

But I have grown hard, my love,

And cannot feel your breath.

 

copyright Simon Banks 2012

Apparently anything can be poetry, so it seems safe to say this is

So it’s important and you ought to look at it seriously. OK, I’m being ironic: putting something boring, uninspired, mannered or prancingly self-indulgent in short lines in a nice shape and calling it poetry and art doesn’t make it any more worthy of attention than anything else anyone writes or says.

 

Still, you might find these interesting – more re-posted poems with discussion. Do join in!

 

SPRING MIGRANTS

 

When the pack ice cracks

When hostile green shoots break through the hard earth

Snow whisks off like a white sheet to reveal

Grassy mound, ruin, bare rock or field

The wanderers’ ship will come

Taking soundings slowly

They will unload their cattle, cloth and pulleys

Build their stony church and wooden houses

When the short days are lit by pallid snowfall

Only the white beasts roam the land again.

 

The strangeness of this poem is that it talks as if the changes of the seasons take place over many years. I suppose one influence was the Science Fiction series by Brian Aldiss (I think – I haven’t read it but have seen it referred to) on Helliconia, where each season lasts hundreds of years. Thus states and cultures could be adapted to a particular season and could die when the weather changed and people and other life-forms would carry out migrations not unlike those that happened when an ice age was beginning or ending. Another was a TV programme on the Norse settlement of Greenland, that flourished for a while but died out when the weather became long-term colder. Cattle, cloth, stone churches and wooden houses would fit the Norse culture of the time very well.

 

When the snow vanishes it reveals mounds and ruins, suggestive of earlier vanished settlements. When the snow and ice return, so do the “white beasts” (polar bears?).

 

LINKS

 

Sometimes if you stand in just this corner of the car-park

Soft fronds will caress your face from the yew-tree forest

That grew on the flattened hillside here; your hand stretching out will encounter

Twisted, hair-cracked and creviced roughened tree-trunks.

Sometimes a plastic bag will waft across like a ghost

Through the enchanted long-dead forest and out again.

 

 

Here where the stabilised ferry hums through grey-green waters

Under that crazy-angled floating box

The mastodon fell and was butchered, the people rested from hunting

Wolverine waited and watched and the warning snowflakes

Silently fell on the skins and the lichens and lips.

 

 

The exiled unbroken woman drops a stone in the glade

That she found on the shore where the boat bumped in and grounded

Her feet make a pattern like a broken necklace

Through the green grass and unfolding ferns and last year’s leaves.

Perhaps she returned to the marks she left or even

Perhaps she will return when the old leaves grow green

And the order of things that we knew is thrown up in the branches

And falls in a different pattern we knew all along.

 

 

The poem describes two worlds existing in one place, with communication between the two possible. This idea is at the root of many myths from shamanistic beliefs to the European belief in “elfland”. Here, though, in the first verse it seems that one – the yew-tree forest – existed in the past. Since then the forest has been felled, the hill has been levelled and now there is a car-park, but the forest can still be reached.

 

The second verse describes a similar situation: where the ferry now ploughs through the sea (North Sea?) was once land where humans, mastodons and wolverines existed. I may be unhistorical here as I gather European mastodons died out before they encountered humans, unlike American ones. The “warning snowflakes” may warn of a snowstorm or of a new advance of ice.

 

The third verse is less clear. There is no longer a distinction between the past and the present of a location. An exiled woman has landed, has left marks and may return. The woman seems to be some kind of messenger or to have magic powers (but maybe that’s a way of seeing all of us).  There is again something strange happening with time because the old leaves will grow green, as though time is reversing (but this could also mean when the rotted old leaves turn into green new ones in spring). At the end is the suggestion that the way we understand things, the pattern, will be fundamentally altered into a new pattern that we somehow already suspected.

 

This poem uses a lot of alliteration (sometimes, stand, soft; wolverine, waited, watched, warning) and achieves effect by the sound of the words: contrast the soft sounds of the first two lines with the harsh sounds of the fourth, conveying the roughness of yew bark – or the way “bumped in and grounded” suggests the thump and grind of a small boat grounding.

 

copyright Simon Banks 2012

 

SEA MIST WITH RAIN

 

The sky in infinite shades of grey

Wraps the weather-quiet town

Cool-silenced Sunday afternoon.

Ships blur

To ominous, mysterious castles.

Over towards the point the mist is thicker.

 

As the blue side of a great ship, stacked high

With giant boxes coagulates from the mist

A veil of rain drives in.

 

And now a nice simple one! Everyday sights in a port become mysterious in the mist. It describes familiar sights for someone living as I do in the Harwich area, seeing ships coming in to Felixstowe and Parkeston from the North Sea. Again I’ve used alliteration (all the Ss and Ws in the first verse) and soft sounds to convey blurry mist and soft rain. The word “coagulates” for a large shape appearing from the mist is unusual, but I think apt.

 

And now I fancy a mug of tea. Back in a day or two.

 

 

 

Timer

In the dark tower at the top

A single light, dull glowing red

The tower is darker than the night

The lower buildings round the edge

Cluster in shadow from the red

The hunting waver of an owl

Behind the avenue of dead trees

Wakens a movement in the sedge

And slithering through the hidden ditch.

The moths have gathered round the light

And something old is not yet dead.

Time, our young friend and enemy

Writing we cannot erase

Though written on tablets that may crumble

And in a metre we find strange

The ship is down, we cling to you

The waves around, the water cold

And we were young, and we are old.

If I should meet what I have feared

Lit by the red light from the tower,

If opening the hidden case

I should not find another hour

But something strange I knew before

Recalling marks on that dull door

I shall be ready for time and space.

A golden clock stands on a marble shelf

The intricate workings move at even speed

If I should throw it far in a great arc

Into the waters of the silent lake

What would I think I was, what would I be?

Lianas interlink the blossoming trees

Inside the green confusion all birds sing

And shivering trills with low, slow warbles mix

And touch and mingle, wing to leaf to wing.

 

copyright Simon Banks 2012

I think these things are poems, though there’s a bit of damage and they’re of no great age. Start me at £20, anyone?

On to re-posting more poems with comments and expolanations of a sort. Here goes:

GLASS

The glass creation on the shelf

In the early morning light refracts, transmutes

The arriving light into changing colours and links

That fade and reform with the slightest of gentle shifts.

If you try to see through it the waving winter trees

The dirty yellow brick of the disused hospital

Or the unseasonal swallow swooping, veering,

You will not see them as they know themselves

Or as you saw them when you came to the room.

But the glass is not what it would be in the dark

Or the pale consistent glow of the strip lighting

And if you shut your eyes to be blind and handle it

Like a dying sculptor in clay discovering shape

You will see a different thing and the swallow will be in the dark

And the light will be working in ways you do not sense.

Hmm… I’m not at all sure myself what this means. It’s about appearances, things having many appearances. Glass, of course, is famous for showing things but also distorting them. The glass may let through light or change it. Apearances change with time and with perception and angle. The glass itself has an appearance which depends on the light and it seems a very different thing if you approach it by feel and not sight. Behind the things you sense are other things you do not sense.

The poem has for me a sense of wonder but also a slightly mournful, “Il Penseroso” reflective (glass and light!) feel. It seems to depict a room and the view from the window, and a swallow suggests motion, lightness and beauty as well as things being seasonal and changing, but I don’t know why I chose to talk of a disused hospital. It seemed right in the flow of the poem. There are a lot of soft sounds and some alliteration (“the unSeasonal Swallow Swooping). The most mysterious line for me is “Like a dying sculptor in clay discovering shape”: the image is of someone exploring shape better without sight, something I’ve experienced working with clay, but why is the sculptor dying?

THE PROMISED LAND

I will lead you from the desert of the estates

From the occasional burnt-out car

And from the regular huddles in dark corners

To a land of antique shops and delicatessens

Flowering with exhibitions by local artists

Flowing with organic milk and local vegan honey

There you will not fear what you left behind you

But only something older, starker, simpler.

People in Britain (and the U.S. ) move from the rough and sometimes dangerous inner city areas to suburbs and small towns in the country. I had in mind Manningtree in Essex on the Suffolk border, just such a land of antique shops, delicatessens, artists and environmentally responsible produce. It’s really a nice place, though actually it has had trouble – some cars being burnt out. But when people who can afford it leave the obvious and concrete fears of the inner city behind for such places, what fears do they retain, and have they completely left dark for light?

MARIE ANTOINETTE

Remembering the beautiful woods, from wildness tidied

The invention of a quiet life in fine weather

Escaping courtiers’ whispers about this and that

Some fellow worrying about the state finances

She made herself a shepherdess, and even her heavy husband

Consented to be a shepherd for a day or two.

Meanwhile the grimy vacant-eyed peasants stumbled against starvation

And a little lawyer beyond bribes dreamt of a pure Republic

The wilderness banished from the woods woke up

And all the intricate customs of Vienna and Versailles

Shrivelled in a new dawn over green French hills

That looked for a moment like a troubled channel.

I remember where I was when I composed this bit by bit, walking alongsidethe Suffolk estuary of the Orwell (from which Eric Blair took his pen-name) from the Woolverstone area towards Shotley Gate. Why it came to me then I have no idea. Although I have a history degre I write little historical poetry and Marie Antoinette is not the sort of character that usually interests me.

Eighteenth-century culture often seemed to be seeking a controlled, rational environment, tidy gardens, rational politics, unemotional literature. Of course there were many contradictory currents, a worship of the “noble savage” and so on, but I paint Marie Antoinette as liking an appearance of nature and simplicity without engaging with the roughness of country life or the wildness of nature. She was from the Austrian royal family and would have known the beautiful but much-managed Vienna woods well. She did like to spend time with her courtiers pretending to be a shepherdess, without awkward sheep of course! There is something ridiculous but pathetic about her fantasies.

Meanwhile, of course, the French state was stumbling into deep debt and a political crisis, and the frills and customs of the upper classes depended on a mass of poverty. Ironically, the financial crisis was occasioned by military support for the American Revolution (one in the eye for France’s old enemies the British). Ironically too, but perhaps predictably, the French Revolution started with worship of reason and led to a great outpouring of hope but also fear, hatred and persecution.

The little lawyer was a term used by the British historian Carlyle for the Jacobin leader Maximilien Robespierre, who was a coutry lawyer famous for his honesty before becoming a pathfinder for totalitarian rule and ideology. The Revolution led to France’s longest was with Britain in which the English Channel was a battleground and a dividing line as significant as the later “Iron Curtain”.

The poem suggests that it is unwise to aim purely at light, tidiness, predictability and rationality.

The Herald of Free Enterprise

THE HERALD OF FREE ENTERPRISE

On 6 March 1987 the car ferry “Herald of Free Enterprise”, owned by Townsend Thoresen (later P&O) capsized outside the Belgian port of Zeebrugge, causing 193 deaths. A number of safety measures that would have prevented the disaster had not been taken because they were seen as low priority or would have reduced profits.

 

In December 2009 the Copenhagen climate change talks ended without countries’ leaders agreeing to Carbon emissions limits, after aggressive campaigns by commercial interests attacked the whole idea that humans were causing global warming.

 

The Herald of Free Enterprise

Proclaimed a message of hope and joy

In words that could be painted gold

And deep vermilion in a book.

He blew a long note on his horn.

When from the sea there came a scream

From trapped and drowning passengers

And from the writhing, poisoned earth,

The herald turned the speakers off.

Book Review: Brian Aldiss, “Greybeard”

Brian Aldiss is of course an eminent name in Science Fiction and this is one of his most admired books – but it left me vaguely dissatisfied.

The premise is an original and interesting one. Many SF stories start with the premise that humanity has been nearly wiped out (bit difficult to make a book of them being completely wiped out, though I do remember a brilliant short story in which the only evidence of the nature of our species and civilisation available to alien space travellers much later was a bit of Donald Duck cartoon film).  These stories focus on the recreation of some kind of society and the struggle to survive. But the premise of “Greybeard” is that a military nuclear accident has apparently rendered all humans infertile. The race will die, but it will take a long time dying as no new children are born – but the casualty rate from the accident was quite low, so the population declines gradually.

Initially government, law and the rest hold up, but bit by bit they collapse, not only from the physical pressures, but from the loss of hope. Society and government depend on people being willing to make sacrifices and plans for their children and future generations. Now, of course, we have a crude geneticist explanation for this, but actually people often do not act in the interests of “the selfish gene” and this is not a “mistake” but a choice. They do, though, look to the future. If the only future is one without humans, they live merely for the present and that is not enough.

In fact it turns out that some few relatively healthy children have been born, but are living separate from the ageing adults and building their own basic society. We gain no insight, though, into the nature of this society.

That all sounds fascinating to me, but despite the excellence of the description, I feel Aldiss (or someone) could have written a deeper book on the same theme.

The central characters are Greybeard, an ageing English scientist, and his wife. Everything is seen through Greybeard’s eyes, though the narration is in the third person. the danger in this method is that the use of the third person lulls us into forgetting that we’re receiving only one person’s perception. The characters apart from these two are seen fairly superficially depicted and the two religious characters – one quack prophet and one decent if gloomy friend of Greybeard – are seen entirely from the outside. I felt Aldiss saw religion purely as a set of rules and explanations and did not understand spirituality. One could say that’s Greybeard’s perception only, but exploring how someone with a deep faith would have reacted to these circumstances is an interesting challenge not met here.

Greybeard is driven by an illogical wish to reach the mouth of the river (Thames) from his shabby and declining community near Oxford, but the book ends before he reaches it with the discovery of healthy children. Maybe the journey to the mouth of the river is a metaphor for life and death, but if so, more could be made of it. A bit more is made of the fact that Greybeard had been recruited for a project to record the decline of society, giving him a raison d’etre (if a strange one) beyond survival and love, but again I feel the idea is so fascinating, more could be made of it.

The action set in the present is brilliantly thought out, but some of the flashback seems a bit perfunctory. In particular I don’t understand the point of an episode where the young Greybeard and his girlfriend travel to the U.S.A. when most governments are still functioning, for the recording project and she is kidnapped by someone who wants to enjoy dominating her, but does not rape her. Nothing flows from this and it seems like an episode out of another book.

It’s a thought-provoking and well-written book, though…