The Infected Soldier

 

The infected soldier holds his post

He knows the feel of the parapet

The stone made smooth by other arms

The sound and smell of field and marsh

The flow of river and of tide.

 

He knows as well the ache inside

The thigh or throat becoming numb

The singing lark he has not heard

The laces he cannot re-tie

But he will hold until he dies.

 

If in the enemy’s cunning lies

There once was strange and alien truth

If in the cause that smoothed the stone

A shattered body lay untold

He will not know until he dies.

 

This is one of a few poems I’ve written which feature a soldier who does not know what he’s fighting for. There’s also a suggestion of another figure that reappears in my poems, a guard or watcher who does his duty and waits while nothing happens, waiting for something that may happen.

 

Copyright Simon Banks 2012

 

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Book Review: The Constant Gardener by John le Carre

Now this is one a lot of people will have heard of. John le Carre is a huge name in spy fiction and his fame has been spread by successful films of “The Spy who Came in from the Cold” and especially “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy”. He had been less in the limelight for a while and I suspect many observers thought he was going into gradual literary decline. Then “The Constant Gardener” hit the world like a bomb blast.

The picture painted of the world is profoundly depressing. A young female lawyer married to a British diplomat discovers secrets about a drug being aggressively promoted on the African market by a British-owned company close to a particularly corrupt African government (which incidentally has since fallen). She and an aid worker friend are brutally murdered. The British diplomats want to avoid awkward fuss but two British police officers sent to look into the matter become suspicious of a high-level cover-up involving the drug company and the two governments. They are abruptly called home.

The diplomat husband, inheriting a lot of money from his wife, suspects the truth, goes underground and investigates, taking on a war in which he is hopelessly outgunned. It’s difficult to review the book without giving away the ending, but the honest and brave are killed or disgraced, the cynical and venal are uplifted, the drug continues to kill and there is just a hint of another ending (1984 style, where the narrator/commentator is clearly speaking from a future time when the totalitarian regime has ended) in mention of continuing campaigns and awkward questions asked in Parliament.

In another sense it’s hopeful. The wife and the husband are good people as are many others who help them. Evil can kill but not entirely crush good or truth. There is social decay but individual redemption (with just a hint of Graham Greene’s leftish Catholicism). Many books written with anger work as politics but not as novels. This works as both.

The diplomatic context, the politics, media and business manoevring are very credibly depicted. I soon cared a lot about the characters, particularly unlucky but noble Justin, the husband. The writing is sharp, compelling and sensitive: le Carre has an excellent ear for nuance, half-truth and dissonance between individuals.

I am just optimistic enough to think the plot lets the cover-up happen a little too easily. There are newspapers which would suspect the worse and have the resources and independence to pursue the truth. It’s hard to believe the last death described wouldn’t set a lot of alarm bells ringing.

It’s a brilliant, painful book nonetheless.

Something of Rain

 

“Something of rain in the air,” the old man said

As I walked towards the station

Swifts screaming lower

Something darkening.

 

“Some kind of change in the air,” the old man said

As the smoky sky became solid,

Something of change, yes,

But I can’t define it.

 

Something of wariness

Something of waiting

What will the rain bring

Down to the parching?

 

Copyright Simon Banks 2012

 

Death, imagination, magic, money, reality, human nature and a few other things

Time to repost a few more poems with more discussion. I dothis because I dislike serving up a poem complete with instructions on how to interpret it, but some time later I might make tentative suggestions.

 

INSTRUCTIONS

 

I bought this thing quite a long time ago

But never needed it, so never assembled

The impressive confusing parts

But now I’ve started to read the instructions

And as always, I suppose,

They don’t quite make sense.

“Stand on the bank of the river

Summon the ferryman and give him silver

And he will carry you over.” That makes sense.

But then apparently the other side

Is somewhere underneath us. Then again

It says, “Flow into the distant stars

Towards a light that is not quite a star.”

You can’t go down, across and up at the same time!

Though in the depths of this black silent pool

Which shimmers with the lights of star and moon

Maybe I’ve seen the answer after all.

 

This is a wry poem about thinking about death. It uses a sustained metaphor (quite unusual for me) of someone trying to understand the instructions booklet for some newly-bought gadget. So I quote several myths and ideas about death. The ferryman of course is Charon in Greek mythology ferrying the dead over the river Styx.  That seems to be a journey across, but it’s to the Underworld (in several mythologies), so presumably the Underworld is under this one. So what about myths of the released soul travelling amongst the stars and the idea that Heaven is above us? Well, really these are images, metaphors themselves, but I’m assuming the persona of a literal-minded person struggling to understand the myths literally. In the last three lines, though, I reconcile all three versions: in black water (the Styx) if you look down (Underworld) you see the stars reflected.

 

Maybe I’m suggesting a reconciling of light and dark.

 

ALCHEMY

 

Wandering the world, the witch brings cold

Where there is light she snuffs it out

Her wings obscure the distant stars

Her breath fills palaces with gold

 

The kings and courtiers count and plan

The heavy castles rise and spread

They dance a new and heady tune,

The merchant and the artisan.

 

The witch has taken to the night

Again, and cupped her smothering wings

The starving people try to eat

The blocks that seemed so strong and bright

 

The robes and sceptres rot or twist

The castles’ windows are all dark

When the witch lands, the stars are born

And with the dawn comes gentle mist.

 

An internet friend interested in magic commented, “This is a new kind of witch”. Well, the figure of the witch has long carried implications of evil and of healing, but this witch is rather special. What does she do? She obscures the light and chills the land, but she fills palaces with gold. She brings economic development and prosperity which cannot last. I’m not going to seek a political or religious moral here beyond what I think I was thinking, but this is a very material and materialist kind of witch. But she cannot control the world indefinitely and light comes back.

 

On a technical level, this is a regular poem with four-line verses of the same number of syllables and a rhyming plan of the first and fourth lines rhyming but the second and third not rhyming. I’m not sure I’ve used this system elsewhere.

 

I THINK BECAUSE I AM NOT

 

“I think because I am not,” the wise man said,

“If I were fully in the material world,

The tease of rain, the anger of a rock,

The taste of apples and of fertile woman

Would leave no room for a philosophy

And doubt would be a slipping on the scree.”

 

“I think, therefore I am,” the lecturer said.

“This itch of questioning and of making patterns

Says who I am, and if I plant it here

And simply give it water and tough skin

To give the grazing deer a nasty bruise,

There is no way the human spirit can lose.”

 

I think because I cross a borderland

Where shadows may be real and real things vanish

As thought and dream and shivering in my scalp

Circle and blend like warriors or mating cats

And somehow show a way I should not tread

According to the mighty and the dead.

 

Obviously this draws on Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am”. Descartes is simply drawing a conclusion: because I know I think, I must exist. But his words could be taken to mean “the raison d’etre of my existence is to think” and in fact his formulation leads illogically but predictably to a view of human nature which stresses intellect and reason. I’m playing here in quasi-philosophical mode with other formulations.

In the first version, thought itself is a product of (or a cause of?) our separation from direct experience, being at one remove from the animal. In the second, Descartes’ statement is extended (maybe twisted, though Descartes was a rationalist who probably wouldn’t have minded this development) so that human thought is presented as the highest, most advanced thing in the world. The third expresses more of my perception: I think on the borderland between reason and feeling, spirit and measurement, and the more I venture into the dark and the misted, the more I think and the more I am alive.

 

It’s worth noting that the first and third poems here use humour to approach very serious subjects. Very English.

 

Copyright Simon Banks 2012

The Green Dragon

THE GREEN DRAGON

 

When the cavortings of the green dragon die down,

When the arabesques of its dervish dance unwind

To an even line

They will go home who waited in the rain

Unseeing, till the circus comes again.

 

Who has not heard that the green dragon is abroad

Or that it is a myth or a potent of the epidemic

Which since the old king died has daily been expected?

But the management presents

In flier and poster altogether cosier images

 

So the nursery rhymes, badges, stickers may sell well,

The audiences will not fear to view the dragon;

No formulation of the orthodox religion

Will trap it in a cage or fall before it

As the wind rises in the hidden woods –

Which for the management is all to the good;

But who last claimed to see it lies.

 

But the dragon has been seen in clouds at midnight,

Its tracery discerned in a huddle of bushes,

And though it was called to stand,

A shimmering scale melted in a child’s hand;

And though there was no sound,

The darkening storm was woven round with light.

 

 

 

Poetry Aloud

(So there’s no ban on it)

 

Having just taken part last night in an Open Mik event and read some of my poems quite recently in two other different settings, I’ve been thinking a bit about what works and why.

 

There are technical things – having a clear voice and one that carries well (these are points on which I score well without trying much); knowing when to ignore an interruption and when to stop until it’s finished; not reading too fast or too slowly, in too melodramatic or too mundane a fashion (but this varies a lot depending on the nature of the poem) and knowing where to pause. A lot of this is helped by the same thing that’s crucial with public speakers – understanding how your audience will experience what you’re doing and being alert to signs of how they’re reacting while you’re talking/performing. Do they look a bit puzzled? Perhaps you should slow down a bit. Do they look entranced? You’re getting it just right: just keep the spell going.

 

Make the most of the sounds in the words you’ve used. That’s an important part of my own poetry, which helps.

 

But I always find selecting poems for public reading difficult. Outdoor venues with more distractions may mean a rather deep and obscure poem will miss the mark whereas indoor with 10-30 people it might have great impact. Humour is always difficult especially if you’re mixing it with very serious stuff. I tend to mix the more complex and murky poems (but not the MOST complex and murky) with comparatively simple and forceful stuff that might go down well at that noise-invaded outdoor venue.

 

Knowing something about your audience is important (including likely numbers – the atmosphere in a room of eight people is profoundly different to one with eighty, and if you expected one but got the other, that may throw you). However, I wonder if it isn’t AS important with poetry readings as with, say, political speeches. I’ve made tentative assumptions about audiences and then found them to be wrong: that many people there are fond of rather simple, upbeat popular poetry does not mean they won’t be able to handle something rather darker and less obvious; people who like rap may also like something slower and more contemplative and an audience of old people may react enthusiastically to a poem about coming to terms with death.

 

Finally, if you were moved to the difficult and sometimes painful act of producing your poetry, if the poetry means a lot to you, you should be able to speak it with PASSION. So do.

The Clouded Door

THE CLOUDED DOOR

 

The soldier, standing at the clouded door,

Leaves behind war;

The cloaked accumulator lies

And sleeps, and will not rise,

So all the jumble of coins, crowns, rings

By sparkling springs

Flood bay and channel till all the bay is gold

And golden fish with glittering wings

Beat the cold air and it remains untold,

Except by the soldier who dies,

That life’s no more

But glittering water through the door.

 

 

Copyright Simon Banks 2012

Wandering between worlds

Here’s three more reposted poems with a bit more comment. In one way or another they’re all about travelling between worlds. “The Immigrant” has left his old country for a new one, but although he tries, he cannot leave behind the old country in his mind. “Expedition” is about a scientific exploration, but as the poem progresses, it seems they may be travelling through more than semi-desert. “Fathers” is more or less about the formal settling (rather than foundation) of the Christian religion, but implies a need to be in contact with what could be called two worlds in addition to the material one.

THE IMMIGRANT

The immigrant adjusts his hat

Squints at the unfamiliar words

Tests the new land with his shoe

Some casual abuse

Is partly understood

The hat is wrong but not the shirt.

Wrapped in the now familiar streets and shops

Handling the hard language less well than he thinks

He seems to be at home

A diligent Roman

Following the new-found rules

But then a haunting tune, words said in drink,

Recall a half-remembered clouded place

That maybe never was

It’s hard to say

Easier to drive the thoughts away

Than enter that unbounded space.

I was thinking particularly of a Jewish immigrant to England from Eastern Europe around the beginning of the twentieth century, but this could be almost any immigrant, especially if his clothes and manner, rather than his basic physical appearance, pick him out from the locals and if he faces some dislike and abuse. The poem is quite naturalistic. The immigrant is trying to fit in and quite expects the locals to be hard to please. He makes good progress. But at the end we find he has a yearning for his homeland, though the picture of it he now has in his head may not accurately represent how it was or is.

EXPEDITION

It is a long way home from this last camp

We have found the inland sea we planned to find

Though it is smaller than we always thought

And seems to shrivel in the relentless sun.

We found some creatures that were good to eat

And others that entranced our sand-sore eyes

With the incredible sheen of many feathers.

We did not, though, catch fish in this strange sea;

The water is unpleasant to the tongue

Though in the crumbling rocks up this low hill,

Here on the spiny bushes warted slope,

Our cook found this strange scaly fossil that

Must once have been a fish when the sea was higher.

On this loose stone strewn hilltop overlooking

This sparkling sea, we have seen the stumps of trees

And we have heard the comments of our keen

Geologist: these pebbles are black glass

Incredible heat has forged them out of sand

But there is too much here to understand

We are returning what we’ve missed

We will leave this silent land.

On the way back we have kept these chiselled samples,

Relying on the streams we passed and used

On the way out: but now the streams seem smaller

And here is one that has dried to windblown sand.

These yellow fruits resist the hungry teeth

With a tough skin but a sharp knife will do it:

Inside is watery pulp and teasing sugars.

Finally we straggle to the crest from where

You can see the singing valley we started from

Thunder beats a dry drum

But the trees and houses are gone.

The spark for this was reading about early exploration of the Australian hinterland and the irrational fixed idea the early explorers had that a vast inland sea must lie in the interior. My explorers set off from a settlement through dry and inhospitable land and do indeed find an inland sea, but a dead and declined one. They find evidence that it was once much bigger.

They set off for home again but the land which just about supported them on the outward journey has now changed through a rapid desertification and when they arrive back where they started, there is no sign of the settlement. The implication is that they have travelled through time as well as space. In this poem I use the sound of words a lot to convey extra meaning: seems to shrivel in the relentless sun; spiny bushes warted slope (ie, the slope warted with spiny bushes); must once have been a fish when the sea was higher; these yellow fruits resist the hungry teeth.

FATHERS

A congress of the faithful ruled

That heresy, this solid right

The darkness was defined and named

They drew the boundaries of light

But in the dark a light still shone

And in the land of constant light

The forests shrivelled, streams ran dry

Until the coming of the night.

Christians particularly use the image of light to stand for the positive, loving, “enlightened”, seeing. The implication is that the dark is a dark of ignorance, danger and evil. This is powerful imagery, but awkward for someone who loves actual dark as much as light. The yin/yang symbol comes to mind and also Jungian psychology: the relationship between dark and light is creative and attempts to abolish the dark are disastrous. I recognise that the dark as I envisage it may not be the dark someone like St Paul or George Fox referred to. They may have been using “dark” as a metaphor for something quite different. But in this poem I suggest that defining and abolishing the dark led to aridity until the valuable light was reconnected with the dark.

That’s it, folks

Copyright Simon Banks 2012