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.
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.
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