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.
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.
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?
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