Fear

A poem about group fear and what it brings.

 

FEAR

 

Fear came into the town an hour before the dawn

He padded round and from his bag

He drew the paint, he drew the bloodshot rag

He painted signs and spoke to sleep

And raised the ancient flag.

 

The people of the town awoke

Before their windows hammered boards

They checked their locks and fixed the masks

They’d kept under their summer wear

And all streamed out in heavy coats

To the old market square

 

They broke the tables of the foe

Who brought the infection of strange love

They cracked the trestles, hanged the one

And drove the rest to a cherished cave

And we were calm again

But in the wood a mad girl

Began to rave of snow and sun.

 

Copyright Simon Banks 2012

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If poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world, maybe that’s why you keep on finding the same old things recycled over and over again

Right…

For a while I was reposting some poems already on this blog with a bit more discussion or explanation. Then, because I was posting two or more often three of these poems at once, I found myself catching up with the first posts of poems. So I stopped the reposting. Now the gap has widened enough and I’m going back to it. Here’s three old poems.

CONSUMER BOOM

If you are short of a principle

Or two or three or more

Principles for Men will fit you out

They won’t be demanding

You won’t have to shout

Or break the law

If you’re inclined to change your mind

If the conclusions it has come to

Aren’t for you

Go to the MIND shop, it’s no bind,

Address the crew

And say “I want to change my mind.”

If your account is in the red

The creditors in ambush wait

To Body Shop repair

Say “Out of stock – or am I wrong?”

In the van over there

I’ve got six bodies for a song!”

If something seems a little flat

A little empty

Don’t worry. Tesco’s is at hand

Seek out computer games and shoes

Join the happy band

There used to be just booze.

This is a wry look at “consumerism” – maybe it should be called “producerism”, or better, “vendorism”, always pelting us with messages to buy something. It’s also playing with words. PRINCIPLES is a clothing store for women and the male-oriented version is PRINCIPLES FOR MEN. But that sounds as if the shop is selling principles, presumably tailored to fit individual consumers: “here’s three principles just right for you sir – sound good and not too demanding.”

MIND is the U.K.’s biggest national mental health charity, so a GOOD THING, but one way they raise funds is through second-hand shops called MIND shops. I can never pass one without thinking that should mean they sell minds – and presumably you could go in there and change your mind.

Body Shop is a leading ethical business that sells skincare and other body care products. It does not, as far as I know, sell bodies, but that’s what the name suggests.

Tesco’s is the U.K.’s biggest supermarket chain, known for its aggressive approach to local councils which decline to approve planning permission for a new Tesco’s superstore.

There’s nothing very deep here, but you may deduce some resistance from me to marketing messages. If you are an advertising worker – try harder – or give up.

SHADOWLANDS

CROFT

Here between the tumbled stones was the door:

Tired men passed seeking warmth, hot broth or a spade

Woman with a sickly baby in hope

The occasional visitor for a dram and stories.

Now the tourist wanders inside

The wet wind flails without a whimper.

SOLDIERS

They eat a little slowly, staring a short way ahead

To the battle they will lose tomorrow.

Each man prepares to do his job

The hidden guest at the meal is hungry.

GUARD

The Beast was last here eighty years ago

That is the print of its foot in the crushed house

It has returned a hundred times, they say;

Your office is to be prepared and wait.

These drawings ought to help:

This one is by the man who saw it last

This reproduction of a temple frieze

Is thought to be the oldest: all the others

Are in between. I’m sure you’ll notice

Nothing is common to them but the size

And a certain presence. Maybe you’ll spend your life

Waiting for an enemy that never comes

And maybe for an enemy that comes.

SHE

I saw her turn a corner from the alley

At that old inn she left a note on the board

I thought I heard her when the rainstorm rattled

The window sashes and the wood outside

Chattered and sang to the rhythm of the rain.

ENTRY

The man I think you know took us into the room

I happened to pass a mirror, turned and looked

And saw an old man with a bloodstained baby

But when I wanted to show it to someone else

Instead a woman was singing very quietly.

The doors when opened led to other doors

The drawers pulled out to infinite other drawers

You sought an explanation but the man had gone

And then we couldn’t agree his height, his age,

If he was bald, the colour of his jacket

And if he ever was there at all

And then you did not know me any more

And I did not know you except as a light

I had seen seeping under a door on a dark night.

THREAD

I am alive in the stone field

We are the rising of the moss

On fallen stones that lie like the last army;

Hint of salt in the wind over sandpaper desert

Light in the dark, dark in the light will nestle

Something in the fallen leaves rustle

Though they begin to rot; in the black lake

Stars are revealed; the star-warm sky

Rises to meet us, to repair the break.

A very different poem here – serious and mystical. Crofts are the traditional small dwellings of Scottish Highland farmers. I start by wondering about the people who lived in the now ruined croft (nearly all of them are ruined now). Then I move to a scene of soldiers eating the night before a battle, a bit quietly because they know this may be their last full day. The hidden guest at the meal is Death. The next scene – GUARD – introduces a figure I’ve used several times, a mysterious destructive beast that appears periodically. The guard is trained to be ready for it, but the information about the beast is very vague and he knows he may well never meet the thing. For me this recalls among other things the end of Camus’ “La Peste” (The Plague) where he says the bacillus never dies and we always have to be ready for it. SHE introduces another recurring image, of the female figure always just ahead, leading on. The speaker is led. ENTRY describes a disintegration of understanding, of intellect maybe, of everyday certainty. It sounds a bit like “The Matrix” or “The Prisoner”, but also like confused old age. THREAD is the most lyrical stanza (or whatever these bits are). There is a series of images of decay, death, lack of life – a fallen army, stones, desert, dead leaves – but at every point life is reasserted and the tone is set by the first line – “I am alive in the stone field”. At the end a break is repaired.

Now the big question – what if anything unites these mini-poems? Sorry, I’m not sure, but they seem to hang together. They’re about life, death, duty, incomplete perception and rebirth.

GLITTERING

The leaning tower pisser is abroad

So is not here. The bugs are all in bed

Recording everything the Inspector said

The bet had strings, but we have one accord

If I can pirouette around the fire

My foil-flash clothes may glint like real gold

Though I am spotted, I am not yet old

Perhaps the fiddle is the ultimate lyre

But if the clothes reflect the dying light

And if the flames have fallen into charred

Parodic branches, there is one more card:

The glow is in the dark, the dark is bright.

And finally another humorous one with a serious message (but don’t let that put you off: the serious message is detachable and you can add another of your choice). The poem works through a series of puns and double entendres: the Leaning Tower of Pisa/ someone pissing from a leaning tower; something is abroad (it’s got out, it’s around)/ it’s abroad, so not in this country; bugs as insects/ bugs as recording devices; the bugs are in bed (they’re not asleep – they’re bed bugs); the bet had strings = conditions, qualifications, commitments attached/ strings in the literal sense, punning with cord in accord; I am spotted (= I am seen)/ I am spotted in my skin as a sign of age; fiddle as musical intrument/ fiddle as fraud or deceit; lyre as musical instrument/ liar. But there’s something frenetic about the desperate joking: I want my foil-flash clothes to be gold, but they aren’t. I’m trying to postpone the inevitable. But while the fire that makes my clothes glint is dying, new light is emerging in the darkness.

That’s it, folks… for three days or so.

All posts copyright Simon Banks.

Pursuit

One of the things that sparked this poem was a Father Brown detective story by G.K. Chesterton in which a private detective, summoned to meet a millionaire being pursued by a vengeful minor actor, is trapped in a building looking out of a window while two figures each armed with pistols walk round, one apparently pursuing the other. The first, a well-dressed man of commanding appearance, he assumes to be his new employer and the second, a shabby mess of a man looking nervously around him, to be the stalker. In fact it’s the other way round. These two, though, could be Sherlock Holmes and a Joker-style magician.

 

PURSUIT

 

One follows the other endlessly

The great detective and the magus

But who stalks whom cannot be said

As they revolve through bar and byre

Nor can the innkeeper discern

Who speaks the truth, who is the liar.

 

With glass and chemicals and thought

The theorem of a mystery solved

The great detective plots his course

The jigsaw pieces click in place

With mathematics spins a web

And Occam’s razor shaves his face.

 

The magus makes the pieces fly

With spell and ballad turns the eyes

Of those who would observe his course

He makes the sea to roll and roar

He tricks the clerk and paints the sky

Until the lamps invade his store.

 

But he is flown in one disguise

The stark pursuer would not know

And round with drawn revolvers pace

The broken brothers of the night

And should they meet and should they touch

What wrong would rule, what reborn right?

 

 

Here maybe the great detective is our rational self and the magus, irrational and creative. Maybe.

 

 

Copyright Simon Banks 2012

 

Grey breaks the sea

GREY BREAKS THE SEA

 

Grey breaks the sea on the long land

Soft is the rain and cool

Blurred is the distant southern shore

And lost the sunken pool.

 

Harsh breaks the sea on the long land

My eyes turn to the west

They say there’s rocks and the wrong winds

So let us know the rest.

 

 

Evidently not written with my own location in mind because from here, West is the only direction that would take you inland without traversing any sea.

 

Copyright Simon Banks 2012

The Shadowed Way

I think this one goes best with little introduction. It’s a bit ballad-like again and mystical, dark but ending with hope, and the dying magician figure appears again. The singer coming with seven ships and gold suggests the supernatural ballad “The Demon Lover”, quoted from memory here:

 

“Seven ships were on the sea

The eighth brought me to land

With gold and silver in great store

And music on every hand

 

She first set foot upon the deck

No mariners could behold

The sails were of the shining silk

The masts of beaten gold.”

 

THE SHADOWED WAY

 

I’ve been away ten thousand nights

But now, you see, I’m back.

You lived with a thousand fears

I carry in my sack.

 

You saw the wise magician fall

Emptied out by worm

And the turning of the tides

Come to a full term.

 

You heard the knocking in the night

No shadows cast by moon;

Waited for the morning light

To copy out the rune.

 

You saw the singer come by sea

With seven ships and gold

Felt the ageing of the tree

And the hand grown old.

 

The snows will cover all your songs

The dark will kill the flower

The bud will break, with new-born wrongs

And an unquiet hour.

 

Over the snow the song is sung

And dark gives birth to day;

Remember how the light is sprung

From the shadowed way.

 

 

Copyright Simon Banks 2012

 

To Rhyme or not to Rhyme

To rhyme or not to rhyme, that is the question:

Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer,

Seeking a rhyme for rhythm or for orange

Or to throw rhymes into the sea untroubled

And write free verse forever. Rhymes are for sheep.

No, but the poem without rhyme may drift

And if we seek to give the thing some shape,

Half-rhyme, alliteration, ordered feet,

Internal rhymes, those clever diamond shapes

May drive us mad. To rhyme is not too hard

But maybe trite and most unfashionable

But what’s unfashionable now may shortly be

The very latest thing – so I don’t know.

 

The question of whether to rhyme or not keeps coming up on LinkedIn poets’ groups and opinion seems fairly evenly divided. Most poets who have a clear answer for themselves don’t try to force it down the throats of other poets, but some do, believing unrhymed poetry is an abomination or that rhyme went out, out, out, at some unspecified point in the fairly recent past.

 

Both these ideological positions are rubbish. Some excellent poems continue to be written with rhyme and others without. In the U.S. particularly there seems to be a belief held by a significant minority that rhyme is outmoded, but good modern poets like Roger McGough and Benjamin Zephaniah continue to use it at least some of the time.

 

I guess I use regular rhyme in about one third of my poems. In some of the others, there is no rhyming scheme, but as the poem gathers force and coherence, rhymes begin to appear.

 

I do believe that a poem should be held together as an entity by some kind of pattern or glue, but that need not be a pattern found in any formula. I find that when I do not use a regular rhyming scheme I generally tie the poem together with internal rhymes (rhymes within the lines rather than ending them), half-rhymes, alliteration and other means. This I do unconsciously and naturally as I compose.

 

Not all cultures have used rhyme regularly. Anglo-saxon poetry, for example, relies on alliteration and scansion. But if those had continued to be the main organising principles, people would now be glorying in abandoning them.

 

Many bad poets produce bad rhymes. Many people who dabble in poetry have no understanding of rhythm (scansion) but believe a poem should rhyme, and produce forced rhymes which sound faintly ridiculous. This is probably one reason why rhyming poetry may suffer a slight disadvantage. But I’ve found my rhyming poems have had about the same level of success (getting published) as the unrhymed ones.

 

Apart from giving a poem an obvious structure, then, why may it be a good idea to rhyme? Rhyme is brilliant for irony, the neatness of the rhyme contrasting with the controlled anger of the poet. Some rhyming shemes, like ABBA, throw a lot of emphasis on to the last line – and if you can write last lines that stand the stress, the rhymes make them stand out more like the last line of an orator’s speech spoken much louder to stick in memories. The danger, of course, is that a weak line then sounds horribly bathetic. The neat predictability of the structure can be used to highlight by contrast something very different, chaos, anguish, injustice. Rhyme plus rhythm in a ballad-like form can achieve a kind of mesmerising force like an incantation.

 

But not rhyming not only avoids those mind-wringing halts searching for a rhyme, but can bring out natural shapes and patterns as your organising mind searches for other organising principles. My advice is – let both come.

 

Death and the Magician

Over a period, I wrote several poems which featured a dying or wounded magician, sometimes as the central character, sometimes mentioned in passing. This one was deliberately constructed to resemble a ballad, especially after the first introductory verse.

 

This is the poem that spellbound a group of 60+ people from the University of the Third Age group in Harwich when I read it at a festival event.  It has been published in “Troubador”.

 

DEATH AND THE MAGICIAN

 

One day the magician came to me and said,

The fish are leaping in the yellow stream

The oak has turned into an acorn small

And I saw Death in dream.

 

And I saw Death in dream, he said,

And Death was very kind

He showed me where the roses grow

Though I’m old and blind.

 

I’m old and blind and lame, he said,

The sea is out of sight

The shell is empty on the shelf

Through the woken night.

 

The night is all around, he said,

It closes hour by hour

The voices make me fear, my friend,

Should a proud man cower?

 

But should a proud man cower, my friend,

I think perhaps he should

The wine is turning sour, my friend,

But the bread is good.

 

The bread of death is good, my friend,

The bread of life is fine

And now I’ve understood, my friend,

Will the starlight shine?

 

And will the starlight shine, my friend,

And will the starlight shine?

Now let us touch the vine, my friend,

And we will drink the wine.

 

 

copyright Simon Banks 2012

 

Outward Bound

A bit of a mystical poem now, but sparked to some extent by Harwich quay and by seeing a dead gull floating in the estuary not far from there.

 

OUTWARD BOUND

 

Only one vessel, outward bound,

You need not change your course.

The dead gull goes round and round,

Looking for the source.

 

The waves are broken on the wall

The angular land is blind

No salt invades the marbled hall

Nor sails in the mind.

 

The sun is shining as it shone

But the words you talk

Are bronze untaught, of Eden gone

And a broken hawk.

 

Only one vessel, outward bound,

Turning of the tide,

The unknown sea is lost and found,

The rolling sky is wide.

 

 

Copyright Simon Banks 2012

Book review: The Dark River by John Twelve Hawks

This must have happened to you: you pick up a book and find it’s the second or third in a series. With some, for example David Brin’s “Uplift” SF series, it doesn’t matter hugely because the characters and environments are different and the basic concepts of uplift, the progenitors and humanity’s orphan or parvenu status are quite easily conveyed. It would matter hugely with Tolkien or Mervyn Peake, though.

 

This one is in between. I hadn’t read or heard of the opening book, “The Traveller”, and found “The Dark River” referring back repeatedly. The author (I assume “Twelve Hawks” is a pen-name or an assumed day-name) explains the underlying imagined rules of his world at some length, so I do get to understand them. In fact if I’d read the first book I might have found this explanation a bit tedious.

 

So what’s it about and what kind of book is it? Ah. Good questions. The premises are that for ages two special kinds of humans have existed – Travellers, able to travel into other parallel realms, and Harlequins, dedicated to fighting to protect Travellers from their persecutors. Why Harlequins should do this isn’t really explained.  The other realms are depicted as real, physical worlds where machines work if a power source is provided and people need to eat and can get hurt or die. Returning Travellers bring new ideas which create diversity and change in our society in an unpredictable way. There have alsways been organisations which saw this as bad and tried to suppress it.

 

In Twelve Hawks’ world, which is the present or very near future, one such secret organisation (“The Tabula”) has come very near to success, hunting down Travellers and Harlequins alike. It works within government and business as a kind of shadow international government, but without Bond story type melodrama, entering and taking over useful organisations. The author is very good on how close we are to this through systems that can track our every step on the internet, for example. He acutely identifies the British philosopher Jeremy Bentham, with his proposal of the panopticon (where authorities could see everything prisoners did) and his subtly dangerous elevation of the principle of “the greatest happiness of the greatest number” (so to make a lot of people a bit more happy, it’s OK to deceive them or to persecute a minority) as a kind of prophet of scientific authoritarianism. He knows his computers and understands his worlds of public affairs and business.  It’s easy to pick out present or recent politicians like America’s Dick Cheney or Britain’s Tony Blair who would enthusiastically embrace the Tabula’s programme. I like his implied politics.

 

So the politics is well-thought-out and credible. I’m not sure whether the scene is the present or, say, ten years in the future, but it can’t be much further because all the technology and culture referred to exists now. If you consider how fast the internet or mobile phones arose, that must mean it’s set very near indeed to now. That being the case, I think the book overstates the power of control, not in what it can do (for example a computer worm which invades and lies in most computers waiting for certain words or phrases to be used and then passes on the material to its masters) but in what people can and will do to challenge oppression. For example, the book opens with a peaceful religious community in the U.S. being massacred with guns the Tabula’s control of the internet has enabled it to falsely register to the members of that community, who were in fact unarmed. In reality, in a country where information is as open and professionals are as well-equipped as the U.S., this would be a hard one to carry off. The premise is that most police and civil servants don’t know what’s happening. Well, I suspect police would want to identify which individuals fired the shots. Lawyers for families of some of the victims would push them, arguing their relative couldn’t have been a killer. None of the bodies would reveal the tell-tale signs of having handled and fired weapons. Neighbours would be quoted in the media saying they found these folks reasonable and peaceable. In a country so fond of conspiracy theories, questions would snowball. There are similar difficulties with a party of mercenaries invading an Irish island nature reserve. On a different level, I don’t believe a clutch of current rising military and police officers from democratic countries would be at ease with a speaker complimenting them on rejecting the false ideal of freedom. She’d have explained that freedom needed to be redefined and properly understood (so it wasn’t freedom any more).

 

But these are relatively small points and I can imagine the world in ten years’ time fitting the book’s picture more closely, though I don’t believe there’s a real Tabula (yet).

 

Mixing this with the new age mysticism leaves me dubious. I can’t quite buy into these very physical, almost mundane, other worlds, or into the Harlequins, who seem sometimes to employ the psychology of the SS to protect freedom and diversity. I wonder if the books would have worked with more believable, mystical mystics and protectors less like a secret knightly order still upsetting the applecart.

 

It took a long time before I cared what happened to the perpetually threatened main characters. It does detract a bit from one’s excitement if you don’t really care if someone in dire danger dies or not. Maybe if I’d read the first book first I’d care more, but I think JTH is not good at bringing his characters to life.

 

He writes well, though. Initially his writing seemed close to the sterile orthodoxy of American “stripped down” writing, but the initial description of a Traveller’s waking in the realm of death is powerful stuff. He could do more of this.

 

The action sequences are quite credible. One big strength of the book is that JTH seems at home in the U.S. and Britain (so many writers just don’t quite get the language or the street-scene right and fall victim to stereotypes or to writing without any local colour) and his scenes in Ireland, Italy and Ethiopia seem credible too (though I haven’t been to Ethiopia, I have been elsewhere in East Africa), though the German scenes are less so. The sense of belonging to Britain and America equally does lead to some strange linguistic mixes, for example when a character is on the sidewalk (U.K. – pavement) using his mobile phone (U.S. – cell phone).  His information on the London docks seems out of date (maybe he’s an American who lived for a while in London?) and there is one gross factual mistake when a flock of pelicans are seen without remark off the West coast of Ireland. Even one wild pelican would bring Irish birders (= birdwatchers) from all corners. The nearest breeding or wintering ones are in the Balkans or in West Africa and five minutes checking on the internet would have told him this (but maybe he feared the Tabula would catch him).

 

Will I go back and read “The Traveller”? I’m not exactly hooked – but probably.

 

The Forest

I was saying a bit about various environments or scenes that helped me think up poetry and which appeared in my poems. I’ve had my say about the sea, the shore, estuaries, rivers, skies and hills. There isn’t an endless list of such things, but I felt there was one more worth mentioning – forests or woods.

 

Living in lowland England, I walk in woods far more often than on the hills. In Britain the higher hills are generally covered in grass or heather and not trees, though many such areas were once forested. The open hills, like the sea and the sky, convey a sense of great, perhaps limitless, space. This makes some people scared, but for me it signals liberation and “the oceanic feeling” of linking with something bigger.

 

Among the trees, though, vistas are rare. You feel encompassed in the forest as you might feel underwater. In reality, after a while you’ll find a view of fields or moors or even houses, but it’s quite easy to forget this and imagine an endless or inescapable forest (I mean one that, once you enter it, allows no exit). Forests are full of life, both plant and animal, but they are dark (small woods are often less dark both because of light entering at the margins and because they’re often managed to provide spaces). We know that much of our land was forest, that once forest stretched from the English Channel to the southern Highlands of Scotland without break. In England there is no primeval forest left, and in Scotland only small, straggly fragments of the great Caledonian pine forest, but we remember and imagine the primeval forest and perhaps imagine the ghosts of those who inhabited it as elves and the rest.  Real primeval forest, for example the Bielowieza Forest in Poland, is immensely powerful, living, rotting, foetid, pulsing with birdsong, peopled with wolf, beaver, lynx and bison and, in imagination, with extinct animals such as the aurochs and our own Neanderthal Man.

 

Forest appears in my poems less than the sea or the open hills, but it appears as a place of strange life and suprises, of whispers and shadows. This is the forest of fairy story where children may get lost and find strange things.