Beauty therapy

This was sparked by coming across the term “beauty therapy” in some advert or other and thinking it might mean therapy to overcome or recover from beauty. The term “therapy”, though prostituted by words like “retail therapy” (spending money shopping, which apparently makes you happy: it makes the supermarkets and stores happy) implies something was sick or damaged, whereas “beauty therapy” often seems to mean a bit of tweaking and smoothing to make someone who appeared fine already look better (or believe they look better).

 

Apart from that, it’s a strange poem and I can’t easily explain it. Does it lose its way? What do you think?

 

BEAUTY THERAPY

 

I

 

Have you met beauty? Never mind.

Did it disturb you, shake you out of your chair?

Are you left with a memory of long, black hair?

Would it be easier to be blind?

 

Did a sequence of notes distress you and won’t leave your head?

Did the sea catch you, or the sly stars?

Has it returned among the screens and cars?

Would it be more straightforward to be dead?

 

Stop worrying. Our therapy will do the job.

All inconvenient memories we’ll erase.

We’ll smooth things down and round up all the strays

Until you’re happy, having nothing left to rob.

 

II

 

Whose is the shadow you are running from,

The fountain and the skull you can’t encompass?

Is the slow dawn too long?

What might not draw you to a foreign land

Or through a crack between the random rocks

To find deep down the ambiguous smile of man

And what you knew you were not?

 

What seas will the ship of beauty carry you under

What might the drowning man remember?

 

III

 

The word is written high on the cliffs

The word is No, too high was the risk

And though I turn away and look again

Scrabble and strain

The word’s the same

Unchanged the wish

That broke on that scar-jagged cliff.

 

IV

 

But what was there may still be here

And what is here may shatter yet

And when the seas have risen high

All artifice will fall away

The cliff shall fall and so shall fear.

 

Copyright Simon Banks 2012

Book Review: Victor Sebestyen: Revolution 1989

Now I’m old enough to read about history I lived through! Iwas in relatively free, politically-stable Britain during the East and central European revolutions of 1989, but I well remember the sense of excitement, almost disbelief. The old certainties (well, they seemed old to someone who wasn’t even born till the Second World War had ended) had collapsed. The “Iron curtain” had broken like a rusty sheet of corrugated iron. Being a History graduate, the analogy with the revolutions of 1848 seemed compelling to me – when the old order crumbled in one place, it promptly came under intolerable pressure somewhere else – but the 1848 revolutions were for the most part no more successful than the “Prague Spring”.

I subscribed to “Marxism Today” in those days. I’m not a Marxist, but the magazine’s last flowering was radically revisionist and it fascinated me to get used to political thought from such different roots to mine. In “Marxism Today” the collapse of the old Communist order was covered sympathetically and knowledgeably by wise and skilled writers such as Neil Ascherson. But I was busy in those years and it was often two or three months before I got round to reading the magazine. By then I could often tell if their predictions about the changes in the East were right or not, events moved so fast.

I knew there would be a downside and that some new democracies would struggle or fail, but I also knew how thoroughly people had been repressed.

Victor Sebestyen’s book, then, brings back memories. He conveys the contagious rush of events well and has clearly done his research. The book is well-written with humour as well as drama – instance his description of the East German Stasi files: “Most of the information was mind-numbingly boring…(he quotes from a report from an agent):

“Rathenow then crossed the street and ordered a sausage  at a stand. The following conversation took place.

RATHENOW: A sausage, please.

VENDOR: With or without a roll?

RATHENOW: With, please.

VENDOR: And mustard?

RATHENOW: Yes, please.

Further exchanges did not take place.”

Sebestyan is a journalist, albeit an East European expert and of Hungarian origin. A historian writing the same book might have included a bit more analysis alongside the narrative, a discussion of the role of TV, of what contacts existed between Czech, Polish and Hungarian dissidents, of the role of universities in both propping up and undermining the regimes, of the social origins of dissidents and of security employees and so on. I would have been interested in that too.

It’s a good read, though. I can’t say I couldn’t put it down, but I kept on wanting to pick it up again, despite knowing the ending.

Autumn

Written in this season last year. Read last week in our local Harwich poetry group as the theme was Autumn. The first three contributions read, mine included, all mentioned roads.

 

This poem came together in Chest Wood near Colchester.

 

AUTUMN

 

At the completeness of the year

Yellow, scarlet, claret, orange flare

One dissolves in the other, unique colour,

Beech, dogwood, spindle, aspen, elm

Blazing dead fronds of bracken. Robins still sing.

Last swallow lingers.

Soft damp, a hint of fertile rotting

Cold, sharp, a sense of winter’s hardening

Tumult of migrants misted in the air.

 

Past the long changing wood

The road runs fast, cars jockey,

Schedules are met, business done

And the computers speak

Of golden beaches in the sun.

 

copyright Simon Banks 2012

Book Review: Ian Rankin, Watchman

Ian Rankin is well-known, in the UK at least, for his Inspector Rebus crime detection series. I’d heard of it but not read any. “Watchman” was his one foray into spy stories, written early in his career. Like many successful books by then little-known authors, it had a slow start but then took off big-time. It’s been widely praised.

The Watchman is a low-level British domestic intelligence operative, Miles Flint. His generally routine surveillance job goes spectacularly wrong and he suspects someone  on the inside is responsible. His suspicions make him a target.

This is the world of the 1980s, with IRA terrorist bomb-explosions in Britain and an increasingly dirty undercover war in Ireland.

So far, so good. It’s cleverly-planned and increasingly fast-paced. But I had a problem: while Flint was in danger from very early on, I was halfway through the book before I cared what happened to him. He’s certainly not a cardboard-cut-out figure – a university graduate happy to stagnate in a junior position, a good father whose marriage is fading away, a Scot in London, an enthusiastic student of beetles. But the people I know who are so completely and uncomplainingly without ambition live life to the full and are full of enjoyment of a wide range of things including pleasures and personal relationships. The Miles Flint we’re introduced to doesn’t seem to enjoy life more than mildly and his only really close relationship is with his often absent student son. I can’t quite work out what makes him tick. He’s said to have been short-tempered and occasionally violent as a student, but hasn’t been like that for many years (till danger makes violence seem necessary). Where did that violence come from and where has it gone to? For me it doesn’t quite add up.

I begin to care when Flint’s danger becomes much greater and he is forced into an uneasy alliance with an IRA man, Collins, after someone sets them both up to be killed. I find the haunted Collins’ moods very credible, but he’s supposed to have been a Protestant paramilitary who switched sides without a bribe, without blackmail and without having been a double agent. I can’t quite believe that, either for the character Rankin draws or for Ireland at the time: I may be wrong, but I doubt if the IRA would ever have trusted him enough to use him regularly and the reaction of his “Loyalist” former comrades would have been to hunt him down, something that clearly hasn’t happened and that doesn’t seem to worry him.

That said, it’s exciting, the action is credible and the writing is more than competent.

The Fourth Man

THE FOURTH MAN

 

The fourth man in the room has gone

He’s ours. Don’t ask an awkward question

For any grain of truth in the answer

Will be intricately spun

The operation is on course

Forget there was another one.

 

And yet something about the body language

A trick of stride, an understated gesture

(Don’t you agree, Chris?)

Suggest the officer we dropped last year

(Or so they say). At any rate, the message is:

The operation is on course.

 

And yet when we lost Sarah in the spring

She’d just been saying that she’d seen a pattern

Which no-one else had seen. It’s dark outside again

It may be going to rain. On reflection,

I don’t think that there was another one.

 

But now the short storm clatters the window pane

I think I’ll stay for a while.

Remember that day in the rain

In Vilnius? It’s good to be alive, I think.

The raindrops rolling down the glass

The insistent dripping from the drain

(Have you noticed, Chris?)

Are just like blood.

 

The fourth man’s sitting in the silver car

Pretending to read a book about

The end of the world. Distract him, Chris,

I’m going out the back. Chris?

The operation is on course

There never was another one.

 

This evokes the world of espionage where people’s motives and identity cannot be taken for granted. I think it has a bit of Le Carre about it. This poem began to come to me when I was nearing the end of a birdwatching trip on the Essex coast and headxing back towards Goldhanger.

Danger: Loose Poems

Not loose in the sense of dissolute, but in the sense of a “loose cannon” (which is not a churchman of dubious morals).

 

From time to time I repost some poems with more explanation or discussion. Here goes.

 

SLEEPING

 

The beast in the mud has gone to sleep

It hasn’t moved for three years now

Only the wind makes shallow waves

Only the workmen shake the ground

 

I don’t think that the beast is dead

It’s slept for several years sometimes

But studies of the warning signs

Have not much helped predict the next

 

The sudden knowledge “this is it”

The change of shape, the sudden crack

The haunting song, the sense of loss

The settling fragments of the map.

 

I remember very well the circumstances of composing this poem: it began to come to me as I was driving back from Maldon to Harwich along a B road, quite twisty in places. Obviously I couldn’t stop to write it down, so I made up a few lines, repeated them to myself several times and then went on to invent more. By the time I got home I’d revised the poem as if I needed it for an exam.

 

The Beast reappears in similar forms in other poems, but here it’s clear that while destructive and frightening, it isn’t entirely negative. After its interventions the old order has been destroyed and a new one is forming. So what is the Beast? Chaos, the collapse of civilisations, death, mental breakdown or a mythical beast probably based on our ancestors’ experience of African predators? Maybe.

 

In this poem I use particularly everyday language to express something strange.

 

THE FLYING DUTCHMAN

 

You have a kind of faith I cannot share,

Thomas my saint, the doubt of a darkening sky my glory

And in the wonder of the half-heard things

I march on a stumbling track not for the faithful.

The Flying Dutchman is my dream

But in the end to reach another harbour

Insinuated by the alien forms

Brought on the currents from the unknown shore

Which even then I felt I knew before.

 

I suppose the subject of this is fairly obvious – religious faith and the possibility of life after death. Thomas was Jesus’ disciple who doubted his resurrection until he’d put his fingers into the nail-holes in the “stranger’s” arms. What I’m trying to express here is not just a kind of religious agnosticism, but a sense of things half-known and suspected.

The Flying Dutchman was the ship (and captain) condemned to range the seas forever after (I think) the captain cursed God. I’m not suggesting that I’ve cursed God, but that I sense a constant wandering – though then I suggest a finding and a coming to shore. I think the last three lines refer to the arrival on European shores of strange flotsam from the Americas, suggesting that a different land existed.

The words “the doubt of a darkening sky my glory” resonate especially for me and the whole line is one of my favourites.

 

I’ll stop there because the next poem in sequence I want to talk about is “Empire”, which is LONG.

Black Bishop

Not Bishops Muzorewa or Sentamu! This is the black bishop in chess, but is the conflict really on a chess-board? Towards the end I evoke legends of Arthurian kingship and conflict. Like many of my characters, the Black Bishop feels a sense of duty and the reality of a role, but cannot define either. He (she?) is at once priestly and mystified. I recently posted on “My very own archetypes” and the Black Bishop seems to me to draw on three of them – the Wounded Magician, the Ignorant Soldier and the Watcher – perhaps even the Rider.

 

BLACK BISHOP

 

I am the black bishop, charged to strike

With marvellous speed along diagonals

Unable to go up or down, condemned

To follow one colour only until I fall

Or sleep. I am the lord of sidelong charges.

 

I am engaged in a cause we do not know

I am a soldier in a war we did not start,

And what we fight is like a mirror image

Of what we think we are. There have been wars, I think,

On this terrain before, and those dead struggles

Direct our own: the strings are pulled from far.

I am the priest of all the unknown altars.

 

I am a dream that I have long become

I am a comrade of the warring ghosts

Whose squares and files advance, collapse, reform

Into the mists that grizzle the warm night

My extreme unction’s carried like a mortar

My dying will be by a seep of water

I would not know from blood: I am the wandering order.

 

Here is the blade she gave me by the boardway

Across the marshes that are dried and ploughed

Here is the word I could not speak when grasping

The grooved hilt. For what did I take the sword?

I’ve written in my living will and dying

It should be taken to the fence-fanged pond

Survivor of the marshes, where a lady

Unknown, unseen, may take it in her hand

And that is all, though I apply the book and wand,

That I, blind soldier, fight to understand.

My very own archetypes

Which if you’re a Jungian (Carl Gustav Jung invented the term “archetype”) is contradictory because archetypes aren’t just personal: they’re images or types that recur through different people and indeed different cultures.

 

Maybe these are Jungian archetypes. Anyway, I’ve noticed certain characters crop up repeatedly in my poems, not as identical, but as recognisably closely similar. So I thought I’d have a go at making a guide for them.

 

THE BEAST: A threatening absence (and occasionally presence), something powerful and frightening that visits only at long intervals. Generally its interventions are seen as destructive, but the destruction can lead to new life.

 

THE DETECTIVE: A rational, dedicated figure, an analyst and pursuer, perhaps for justice, perhaps for destruction.

 

THE EXPLORER: Often in a group of explorers, he/she is fired by a wish to discover new things, sometimes to the extent of being insensitive to what his/her interventions result in. The Explorer is restless and takes risks.

 

THE IGNORANT SOLDIER: A soldier who is trying to do his duty but has no clear idea of what he’s fighting for or who the enemy is. There’s an overlap with the Watcher (see below).

 

THE RIDER: Not any rider, but a mysterious figure, sometimes a messenger, coming and going. Sometimes he/she is hooded and sometimes carries a bag with mysterious contents. The hooded messenger could sound like Death – and the Rider can be Death, but that’s only one possible guise. The Rider brings change.

 

THE WATCHER (or Guard): Someone who has the duty of waiting and watching for someone to come or something to happen. Sometimes he (it tends to be a man) is guarding something, but has no idea of if or when it may be threatened. What the watcher waits for may never come, but he has to watch for it.

 

THE WOMAN AHEAD: A female figure, possibly not human, who is always just out of sight, always leading, always sensed but not found. She inspires but remains elusive.

 

THE WOUNDED MAGICIAN: A magician (an exceptional, creative person) who is ill, dying, wounded or hunted. The magician creates, but can be destroyed.

 

I may think of more and if so, will post them.

 

Copyright Simon Banks 2012