Four Stations

A long poem now, with a few familiar images, in four parts which I feel to be linked but can’t quite explain how.

 

FOUR STATIONS

 

THE WANDERER

To be a wanderer is to have bad feet

And to know the signs of rain.

The abandoned home keeps leaving messages.

But though there’s a routine of moving on,

Of saying goodbye or not, of setting out,

And the hills and the valley-hugging villages

May seem almost the same, they are different.

To be a wanderer is to not return.

 

Sometimes the villagers fear you’ve brought the plague,

Heresy or the unwelcome news of shortages:

You should watch out for a sameness of the eyes

And a roughness of the rope. Sometimes you are a magus,

Which can be dangerous too, but sometimes merely welcome.

You carry a store of rivers, skies and crows,

Of flat rocks where you ate the last long valley’s

Rye bread and cheese, and even carry faces,

Though they may cluster and threaten on the breeze.

Sometimes the villagers fear you’re marked by madness.

 

To be a wanderer is to intervene,

To complicate, to save for another falling

And then the wandering, wandering, wandering.

 

THE CONTROLLER

 

The controller is known by every local, surely,

And to a stranger by a sure solidity

An evenness of gaze, the dull glow of gold,

The heaviness of the crown or the bag of helmets.

You are the point the world revolves around

Adhesion gives you family and friends

But ties you to a ship you thought a castle

So when it sails again

Your heavy crown and titles clatter and spin

In the whirlpools of the turns without a centre

And you are not who you were built to be

And who the locals did not know by touching

But as the controller who was stepping surely.

 

THE PLAYER

 

You have heard her many times but named her never

She was on the tip of your tongue and the edge of sunlight

As the drowning orange-red ball turning brick

Descended behind the vitrified sea and shut out dance,

The conversations of the busy merchants

Even the robed priests’ chants

You have seen her many times and touched her never.

 

She is the absent jewel in the crown,

The last and uncertain ray of light,

The song you almost manage to remember,

The whistling of the wind, the arabesque of ember,

The flickering of the fire in the rick.

You have heard her many times but answered never

But what you said was shot with alien fire.

 

THE KEEPER

 

You can see here if you try the paler grasses

Which grow on the stone of the road which used to run here

This angle of wall had another forgotten purpose.

Here where the sheep sheltered till the last hard winter

The kingdom of a stoat, the throne of a raven,

Were windows like eyes, and walls, a hearth and singing

So I have kept it under the dead lord’s orders

Here is the sealed letter and the sword

The old map marked with a word

The old lord thought one day might be deciphered

And though the dragon has not come nor the knight

I have seen ten thousand dawns and the patterned clouds

Shadow the paler grass with a thousand meanings

Until the traveller comes up the road that ran here.

 

 

Copyright Simon Banks 2012

 

 

This isn’t the first time I’ve written of a wanderer, a mysterious female figure just ahead or someone who has the duty of waiting for a momentous event he can’t define precisely and which may never happen – or the first time I’ve pointed out in a poem that being different can get you killed or that gold and power weight you down but provide only limited security.

 

As often, the background seems to be northern hill-country.

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Images and Symbols

I want to think and talk a bit about images and symbols. I’m posting this on my poetry blog and not on sibathehat on blogspot, so I see this as leading hopefully to some perceptions about images in poetry, but I’m going to start by looking at some images outside the literary world in the hope this will shed some light.

 

In Britain there are three major or fairly major political parties operating across Britain (Northern Ireland mostly has its own local parties). They all have badges or logos which are extensively publicised.

 

Symbols or badges in politics are nothing new. The first in England, as far as I know, were the sea-green ribbons worn by Levellers during the Civil War and early Cromwellian period and revived by the Whigs of Charles II’s reign (in other words, mid to late 17th century). As far as I know, no-one else wore ribbons then as a mark of political allegiance, so you could argue that the ribbon AND its colour stood for the political movement; but by the 18th century rosettes (descended from the ribbons) were in wide use and the message was conveyed by the colour. In the early 19th century, for example, Byron wrote in a poem “I still keep my buff and blue”, meaning he was a Whig at a time when the Tories (using red) were in the ascendent. By the late 19th century Liberals (mainly descended from the Whigs) mainly used yellow, and Conservatives (Tories) blue. The Labour Party, when it rose in the early 20th century, used red, which had socialist and revolutionary connotations.

 

So here’s one point of interest: a colour itself can have a figurative meaning. Red = action, strength, warmth, but also danger and conflict; blue = safety and coolness (even though in the U.S. the POLITICAL meaning of these colours is reversed); green (as in the Green Party) = nature, restfulness (it’s the most restful background colour) and life. So mention of a colour in a poem might not be a straightforward description, but might indicate a mood, or danger, renewed life, or whatever. Also some of these meanings may be hard-wired into all humans, but others are culturally determined: red among Chinese suggests good fortune and prosperity, while white in south-east Asia generally is the colour of death (as black is among Westerners) and is not, I think, associated with purity.

 

The Labour Party used to have a torch (enlightenment, education, leading people somewhere, but a bit dangerous) but now has a red rose. The red appeals to Labour traditions, but a red rose is a powerful and common image in literature and painting. It can mean sexual experience as opposed to the virginal and pure white rose (not, I think, what Labour had in mind) but it is also a traditional image of England with any number of references to the English rose: an “English rose” is usually an attractive English girl, but English rugby players have red roses on their shirts and Rupert Brooke wrote, comparing England and Germany, “There roses grow as they are told/ Unkept about these hedges blows/ An English unofficial rose”. The rose suggests attractiveness and tradition, but is not a very dynamic image (roses, after all, stay still unless they’ve been cut). There was also another problem for Labour: the rose being a traditional ENGLISH image, it annoyed Welsh people and even more, Scots.

 

So use an image in poetry, as in politics, and you can find others reading things into it you may not want. Tough.

 

The Liberal Democrats (descended from the Liberals mainly) made do without an image for a long time, though their striking orange and black posters were widely recognised (dynamic, distinctive, but if it was an insect it would have a sting), but more recently adopted a stylised bird known as “the bird of Liberty”. The image is a bit complicated (perhaps not instantly recognisable as a bird and also a bit like the Barclay’s Bank symbol) but it does look dynamic – the bird appears to be in motion and birds can mostly fly. As a symbol of liberty, change and independence it’s quite effective. It could have been a more naturalistic bird, but then it might have been unhelpfully associated with particular kinds of bird (pigeon or crow, not always popular, duck or sparrow, slightly ridiculous; hawk – definitely not). So here’s another link to poetry: make your image vague and it may confuse people; make it very specific and it may carry associations too specific for your meaning. If there’s an unfortunate subliminal message, it’s that the bird looks just a bit disorganised and more than a bit like it’s just been blasted with a shotgun.

 

At one time both Labour and the Conservatives were using torches as symbols. The red Labour one was tilted at a dynamic but possibly unsafe angle and the blue Conservative one stood safely, uprightly but slightly boringly upright. The Conservatives ditched that in favour of an oak tree. At this time their new leader, one David Cameron, was trying to present them as an environmentally-friendly party, and they are strong in rural areas and the “leafy suburbs”, so choosing a native British plant (shown in summer with a green, leafy top) made sense. So it suggested nature. The oak, like the rose, is a very old English symbol associated with the Royal Navy, but it doesn’t have quite the English nationalist tinge the red rose has and Wales has famous and extensive oakwoods (the Scots have a few oaks too, though they cut most of them down). So the symbol suggests traditions, as Labour’s does and the Liberal Denocrat one doesn’t. Oaks are solid, safe (relatively) and long-lived. Like the Liberal Democrat one (but not Labour’s) it’s stylised and might puzzle people for a moment. Probably the biggest unintended message is that Conservatives are thick, immobile and rather boring. That may not matter much except that a party symbol suggesting immobility (more strongly than Labour’s) may be a minus.

 

Used in a poem other than straightforwardly to describe the wildlife of an oakwood, mention of an oak by an English poet might suggest national pride (“hearts of oak”), age, tradition or solidity, but modern urban, computer-attached Britons don’t mostly think much about trees, less than they think about birds or flowers. So – another thing for the poet to consider. Is your chosen image widely understood and does it hit a gong, a bell or something much les noisy? There, I was using images and ran into a problem because I couldn’t think of something insignificant you could hit to produce a very slight noise. Well, I can, any number, but U.K. libel law is notoriously friendly to the supposedly libelled.

 

More perhaps on images some other time.

 

 

The Dead Soldier

This poem was inspired by British First World War poet Isaac Rosenberg, killed in action in 1918. I originally put “To Isaac Rosenberg” under the title, but removed it because it would suggest the dead soldier WAS Isaac Rosenberg, and the circumstances of the soldier’s death in this poem do not match Rosenberg’s.

 

THE DEAD SOLDIER

 

Green grows the grass where died my friend,

Darkly shade the trees

Over the hill you sought, my friend,

Where you’d have seen the seas.

 

Among the rest you lie, my friend,

With language, love and shape;

They’re buried when you die, my friend,

And bitter grows the grape.

 

The trees have tumbled down, my friend,

The blood runs down the hill.

They’ve fought another fight, my friend,

The triumph of the Will.

 

The breeze comes off the sea, my friend,

The trees will rise and spread.

The air will make us free, my friend.

Shall it raise the dead?

 

Copyright Simon Banks 2012

 

Incident

It’s not uncommon for trains on the main railway line along which I used to commute to be delayed “because of a fatality on the line”. This is usually a suicide. Mondays often seem to spark this off (presumably for people going to work or school after the weekend). Usually I’ve just been a badly delayed passenger, cursing inwardly at delays of maybe three hours in hot weather (another sparking factor, I think). Then I’ve known there was a personal tragedy behind it, a lost life and damaged lives, but couldn’t relate to something so distant and unknown.

 

About a year ago I was on a train that struck someone, a young woman I was told. It must have been a suicide because it was nowhere near any kind of crossing and the line at that point ran through fields with a road and a few buildings about a mile away. I felt no impact, but saw police and other emergency people coming down the side of the train peering under it.

 

A railway worker who was travelling on the train said this was the second time it had happened to that driver.

 

This poem builds on what I experienced and wondered about.

 

INCIDENT

 

She trudged a mile to the track

And waited for the stopping train

The passengers felt no impact

The paramedics came again.

 

Decanted, passengers wandered round

The platforms of a loveless stop

No music and no shroud

Heavy bags began to drop.

 

Returning to from whence we came

Normality solidified from air

The lost time was a shame

Gentleman marks the crossword square.

 

 

Copyright Simon Banks 2012

Crossing Borders

As I’m less than a week back in England from Hungary, it seems quite timely to resurrect a poem called “Passport”. As I’ve done before, I’m saying a bit more about this poem than I did first time round. If that invades your readerly purity to make what you like of the thing – you had the chance. It was already posted. So there.

This poem is a kind of extended metaphor. The second one is lyrical and philosophical (have I put you off yet?) and the third is very simple, a succession of a few images without explanation (until now). So here goes.

PASSPORT

Half down a long smooth corridor I turned to check

Who I was supposed to be meeting, what I should plead

As the purpose of my visit, length of stay,

And my destination. But there was no-one to ask.

So I just carried on

Hoping someone would tell me, or I’d find a clue

In the codes on my documentation

Or the false heel of a shoe

Anyway, they let me in

Stamping my passport with “indefinite stay”

And then I wandered round the streets making notes

And taking photos to elucidate

What I should do and who I was.

Finally I’ve come to a door

That looks familiar, and the signs on it, though damaged,

Could be a reference to shining shores

Where travellers in the past have managed

To find a boat, to watch the moving oars.

Obviously I’m using the image of a traveller going through passport control, probably at an airport. But it’s unlikely a real traveller, unless (s)he had Alzheimer’s or something similar, would arrive at the border not knowing why (s)he was entering the country or how long the stay might be. I suggest this is actually a person being born and developing self-awareness, asking what (s)he is here for and aware both of some idea of a previous existence and of the destination or gate called death.

I play with familiar images – the information missing might be encoded on a document or (in the worlds of spies and smugglers) hidden in a false bottom.

The person arrives (given an “indefinite stay” as we all are) and wanders round trying to make sense of the world and his or her situation. Finally, he or she arrives at a door which seems decayed and damaged but which may lead to a boat which will take him or her to other shores (an old image for death), as is going through a door.

The sense that I’m here FOR something but I’m not sure what is one very real to me.

Note that the vocabulary I’ve used here is simple and everyday except for official words familiar from immigration and passport control.

DISENCHANTMENT

The world is disenchanted

We have walked in the dark places

And found no ghosts or elves

No dragons roam the forests

The real fearsome beasts

Of the forest we have shot

And made a diagram of their bodily systems.

But now the sabre-toothed beasts from the forest myths

The giant wings, the parallel cunning people

With their invisible cities and hidden spells

Are coursing through the streets of the flooded city.

Come with me to the sea.

We know the source of its power, waves and tides

There’s not a grain of sand disturbed

By the last thrash of the wave

I cannot analyse;

I can tell when a star will disappear.

Hunting elusive messengers in your mind

You may find useful this neat chart

We can identify

The electromagnetic impulses for love or hate

We’ve come a long way, you and I

Perhaps it is too late

To search back for some thing we have forgotten.

Like “Wolf”, this is a poem which reproduces a conversation between two voices. I’ve tried to reflect this by layout but don’t know if this will work on thi site. One voice is more critical of rationality and science than the other.

What am I trying to say? I’m not rejecting science or rationality, but saying we need more to be complete. We’ve engineered and analysed out all the myths and fears, only to find them returning in more destructive form (“the sabre-toothed beasts…the giant wings”. We’ve exterminated the dangerous beasts, but we are not safe. Do you find the line “I can tell when a star will disappear” sad? I’m fascinated by astronomical science, but our reaction to stars cannot be encompassed in it. Did Western civilisation lose as well as gain at the Renaissance and Enlightenment?

NIGHT VISION

Dark shape of a man against the drifts of white

The pale watching lights on concrete walls

The crump of boots in the untrodden snow

The short scream of an owl in the hidden wood.

No lights show in the sky, but the steady throb

Of a heavy heaving plane in the opaque air;

The dogs begin to bark; a light goes out.

This last poem contains images suggestive of war and oppression. With my background, it suggests to me the Second World War, prisoner of war camps and concentration camps. An atmosphere of menace is built up by apparently neutral images, the short scream of an owl (or a person?) and the invisibility of the heavy plane overhead. When the light goes out, is that just a switch being pressed, or a death?

Like a lot of poems rich in images and little else, it reads as if it were heavily influenced by the experience of watching TV and films, but it does something these more rushed and immediate media struggle to do – except perhaps there is something of Hitchcock in the poem.

Copyright Simon Banks 2012

Mission

Here’s another poem written in the style of a ballad, with a hint of mystery.

 

 

MISSION

 

So when will we come back, she said,

So when will we stray?

The oaks grow round the shack, she said,

And the night kills day.

 

There may be no return, I said,

But we’ll stray for sure:

Or else the tower will burn, I said,

And the moon will lure.

 

So will we find the stone, my friend?

Will it brightly burn?

Or will we waste to bone, my friend,

Lying in the fern?

 

The stone may not be found, my friend,

Not in shack or sea,

Or in broken ground, my friend.

It may never be.

 

So let us rise and go, she said,

Calling in the night,

For what we do not know, she said,

And a dream of light.

 

 

Copyright Simon Banks 2012

 

 

Living Lightly

LIVING LIGHTLY

 

They lived lightly on the land

The sun, the stars, the wild wind,

The shifting reveries of the sand.

 

Unknown music in the night

So many voices, many hands,

The loss of sound, the loss of sight.

 

Rippling of a silvered sea

The channel of a waxy moon

And being speaks, and not to be.

 

 

Copyright Simon Banks 2012

 

The Meaning of Life is 43

It was 42, but we’ve improved it.

As for the meaning of these poems, well, this is as likely as anything.

I’m continuing to reblog some poems with a bit more discussion.

FORLORN HOPE

Stand firm behind the Good Old Cause

The King is subject to the Laws

The People are the true sovereign

Though they were robbed, to great lords’ gain

The fight is won, the Norman yoke

Is in the dust, the crown is broke

But now the new lords stand on high

For what, then, did we fight and die?

The Cause is down, the free are sheep

The Spirit does not die but sleep

Those who are blind will one day see

And those in chains will soon be free.

This refers to the English Civil War. Actually there were conflicts within and between all of England, Scotland and Ireland in the 1640s and 1650s, but the voice of this poem is an English one.

A “forlorn hope” was a term for a small unit of cavalry, but of course in the poem it has two meanings.  The “Good Old Cause” was a name used for their cause by supporters of Parliament, continuing long after the Civil War: “That Good Old Cause, in which I was from my youth brought up…” (speech on the scaffold by Sidney of the Rye House Plot against Charles II).  The first verse contains the mainstream Parliamentary idea that the King was subject to the laws, not standing above them, but also the more readical idea that spread during the war among the Parliamentary soldiers and others, that the People were sovereign. This was often associated with the idea that the English people had been conquered in 1066 by foreign oppressors and the kings and great lords since then were the descendants, spiritual if not necessarily genetic, of those foreign conquerors – so the Civil War was a war of national liberation – hence the “Norman yoke” at the start of the second verse.

Levellers and other radicals felt they had won the war but then been betrayed by the senior officers and MPs, though they, of course, mostly had less radical ideas all along. Cromwell and others weer christened “the Grandees”.

The third verse refers to the Restoration of the monarchy. It seemed to many that all they had fought for had been lost, or at least postponed. Many of the radical ideas, though, were not lost: for example, the American Declaration of Independence and the American constitution have many echoes of Leveller beliefs and their draft constitution for England, “The Agreement of the People”.

 

WATERSHED

 

Did you see, there where the cloud broke

Between the high grey ridges an angled cleft

Roughly in line with the uneven river

Which might be a pass? A great bird soared over it

Now nothing shows but cloud and the warning of rain.

 

The broken impatient river carved the way

We leave the many-angled rocks behind

And the last twisted tree, the last glimpse of a roof;

And the hidden ravens call in the grey mist.

With cunning and husbanded strength

We drag from the circle of sweat to the circle of icy wind

Recovering from a slip is hard

Recovering from the task impossible.

 

There is never a point where you can say “that’s it”

No throne or light or monument

Only the slope is inconsistent

The shattered smoothing rocks lie in no order

There is no river

These barren pools are the only water

 

And then the ghost of a trickle

A few thin fingers feeling

Trying to come together, the hiss and sparkle:

We have passed the watershed

We have seen the birth

Of a new river.

Somewhere there is a new land

But it is hidden and the mist rolls in.

 

There is no warning

No sign, no new music

Just the realisation and the standing still

The dropping, blocking hills

The unknown, long suspected

Alien valley ahead

But half-familiar, like a dream

The hidden end

You feel you ought to remember.

 

The descent from the murderous heights

To the soft valley is always more dangerous

Than the struggling up:

The sight of meadows and bushes can lead like a mirage

To the eggshell-crushing fall

And the way to the low glittering lake

May be many miles round.

 

But at least the first task of the explorer

Seems to have been fulfilled

To show what he wanted to explore

Was there at all.

America is found

Mars glows dully but more clear

In the dark waters, something moves after all

Down the strange valley our suspected

Alive waters fall.

 

This poem describes climbing a small, steep valley in the hills to a watershed and seeing lower land beyond. It can be taken quite literally and was heavily influenced by two actual places, Black Sail Pass in the Lake District and a route over a watershed in Torridon in the North-west Scottish Highlands. However, it can be taken to describe any exploration, any effort to discover or achieve something new.

 

The climber thought there must be a valley on the far side of the heights. The mystic thought there must be another world. The valley on the far side could even be another human being.

 

This is a poem where I’ve made a lot of use of the sound of the words: the broken impatient river, the shattered smoothing rocks, the hiss and sparkle, the low glittering lake. I stretch the bounds of scansion and use near-rhymes (monument/inconsistent; trickle/sparkle; still/hills).

 

Copyright Simon Banks 2012

The Dull Valley

On to another poem I wrote a while back, reflecting on time and consciousness.

 

THE DULL VALLEY

 

Intellect wanders restlessly in the dark

Directing a great electric torch:

What is seen is, the rest is not;

The torch moves on, the dark settles.

Intellect dreams of day:

Light colonises road and fell;

Street-fighting, breaks into the wood’s recesses

And the arrays of the angular library.

 

Between the blocks of a drystone wall,

Behind the books, in the bole of an ash,

Between the child’s clothes folded in the drawer,

The live dark pulses, waiting to ooze out

Or spring like fountain. Perhaps the time will come,

Maybe on a gripped planet, ours being done,

When day and dark will die in unison,

But not in this moment ever.

 

I have found a stone of time:

That is why it is heavy, it holds

Giant sloth, therapsid, dinosaur,

Beginning of life and of the universe

And maybe other universe before.

It strains my hands; I lay it down.

The open fell remembers forest and tide

And will remember the farm and my footfall

(Which I forget).

Under the rough grass, stone.

 

“Are you happy?” the inspector said

At the toll before waving me through.

I showed my passport and my driving licence

And he was satisfied.

Happiness fluttered like paper in the air

And was scattered in wind but the word stood;

Fountains of dark glinted in their flow,

The light whirled in the wind, the paper patterned:

Down the dull valley

I saw the outline of an ancient road.

 

 

Copyright Simon Banks 2012