The Flower Maiden

 

The flower maiden dances high

She dances through the silent wood

With yellow flowers in her hair.

 

She dances fast: the wood’s in song

The spluttering of a breaking bud

The rustling in a wildcat’s lair.

 

The flower maiden dances low

So all around is green and gay

With nightingales and flowers fair.

 

 

Copyright Simon Banks 2012

(and that’s the last time I’ll write that! Happy New Year! Happy Old Year for backwards time travellers.)

 

 

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I research some literary agents

Looking through my Writers’ and Artists’ Handbook, an invaluable source of information and advice for any writer UK or Ireland based or interested in those markets, I pick out some possible literary agents, since both my poetry and my humorous fantasy novel have reached the point where I want to have a go. I eliminate the ones whose summary information indicates they’re unlikely to be the right choice, for example those of whom it’s said “No poetry, no fantasy” or “no unsolicited submissions” (yes, you might expect that of publishers, but there are agents like that. Soon there will be literary agent reaching agents whose job, for a fee, is to find you a  literary agent).

Then, bit by bit, I trawl through the ones left whose websites are listed in the book, which is about 60-65%. Do the others not have websites? Not a good sign in that case.

I find an interesting diversity. I’m looking for quite specific information – which authors do they represent (gives an idea of where their strengths and interests are)? Do they state any special areas of expertise or areas they don’t handle? Are books just a sideline for an agency mainly dealing in film or play scripts? What can we learn about the owners and agents which might suggest a good or a bad fit with me? Are they currently interested in new authors? Do they charge a reading fee?

Some websites make finding this information easy. Some make it hard. Several were obviously devised to look clever and pretty. Pictures of book covers with the author’s name and book title appeared and disappeared in a way that would have impressed me if I was looking for a work of art, but did not give me enough time to note the details, even mentally. The home page of one site consisted of a couple of lines of dark print, not very large, at the top and a huge blank white space undeneath. This may have been very symbolic and artistic, but it didn’t tell me anything useful and it took me a while to realise some of the words at the top were clickable.  Others were simple, accessible and informative. Some even made their people sound fun as well as sensible.

On the basis of the specific information I was seeking, but also the impression of the organisation’s character I got from the website, I now have a shortlist and a longlist.  If people taking a cut to represent me don’t know how to represent themselves, it isn’t a good sign. Well, next stage soon.

Storm Sea

Another very short poem:

 

STORM SEA

 

Not a blue, glittering sea but yellow-brown–grey

Hammers at the wall and draws the grains away

A twisted gull skirmishes with the air

The old watchtower hunches for a flare.

 

 

Copyright Simon Banks 2012

Christmas Message

There are serious ones and joyful ones, but here’s one from Panama:

 

I wish you a merry isthmus

I wish you a merry isthmus

I wish you a merry isthmus

And a crappy new year!

Frost

The first frost of the season came

It iced the grass and mud

Dogshit became sculpture

Winter in the blood.

Written just over a year ago. At present the dogshit round here is becoming treacle, not sculpture.

 

Copyright Simon Banks 2012

Right and Wrong

Keats criticised poetry that had a “palpable design” on us. Poets debate at length to what extent poetry today should carry a political or moral message and whether it changes anything anyway. For re-posting and discussion, I’ve selected three poems written roughly around the same time that all raise moral issues, that is, issues of right and wrong.

I’m not afraid to talk of right and wrong. I’m what philosophers call a “soft relativist”, which sounds like an insult, but actually means the position which I suspect most people in the Western world take if they think about such things – that there are very few if any absolute statements of right or wrong actions (that it is never right to lie, to kill, to eat pork, to accept blood transfusion and so on) but this does not mean that anything goes and different actions in different circumstances may be said to be right or wrong by a standard that is not purely related to my own benefit or comfort or the survival of my genes.

I think, though, that poetry ought commonly to confront moral issues by asking questions or drawing attention powerfully to consequences rather than by laying down right answers.

So here’s the first poem and the most politically and morally engaged:

THE HERALD OF FREE ENTERPRISE

On 6 March 1987 the car ferry “Herald of Free Enterprise”, owned by Townsend Thoresen (later P&O) capsized outside the Belgian port of Zeebrugge, causing 193 deaths. A number of safety measures that would have prevented the disaster had not been taken because they were seen as low priority or would have reduced profits.

 

In December 2009 the Copenhagen climate change talks ended without countries’ leaders agreeing to Carbon emissions limits, after aggressive campaigns by commercial interests attacked the whole idea that humans were causing global warming.

 

The Herald of Free Enterprise

Proclaimed a message of hope and joy

In words that could be painted gold

And deep vermilion in a book.

He blew a long note on his horn.

When from the sea there came a scream

From trapped and drowning passengers

And from the writhing, poisoned earth,

The herald turned the speakers off.

In looking back at this I see immediately that the gloss or introduction makes political points much more directly than the poem, but this is because poetic language uses images rather than syllogisms or platform bullet-points.

The poem is very political and moral, though. It charges the profit motive and unchecked capitalism with 193 deaths and with untold suffering and extinctions through global warming. As it happens I am not a socialist and believe attempts to do without private enterprise are pointless. I don’t see it as the role of a poem, though, to suggest and debate the political action that could be taken (some of it is pretty obvious in these two cases).

I use the name of the ship to develop an image of heraldry and hence bright colours and impressive ceremony – and then suddenly introduce reality and, in poetic form, the way powerful interests control information.

Here, by contrast, is the next poem.

THE LAST PROBLEM

The great detective, pantherlike,

Prowls round the web of traps and mirrors

Constructed by the lord of crime

The lord waits sentient inside

He does not need to move to strike.

The great detective makes his maps

His diagrams and brilliant plans

Each trap is tested by the lord

And nothing’s what it first appears

Even the great detective’s word.

The great constructor sits inside

The marvellous complexity

Of art and thought and warm routine,

Watches the prowling of the wolf

And studies the compelling lie.

The wolf has broken through the web

The city of light alarms and screams

The great detective meets the lord

And who should live and who should die

Lies in your hand and lies in mine.

The character of the Great Detective is a recurring one in my poems. He’s dedicated, determined, rational, intelligent and narrowly-focused – in deliberate reference to Sherlock Holmes.  The poem starts by presenting such a detective locked in battle with a Moriarty figure, the lord of crime. No moral ambiguity here. But as it progresses we find the perception shifts. Now we’re seeing the organisation of the lord of crime as a beautiful city threatened by a destructive force, a wolf that is also the Great Detective.

The prowling nemesis breaks in and comes face to face with the lord. Now, says the poem, you choose who should win. This represents the fact that we can influence the outcome of social struggles, but which side we should take is often unclear and there are different perceptions. But the poem is unforgiving: the difficulty does not absolve us of responsibility for taking a decision and acting.

Here’s the third poem.

NEW THINGS

It will not be all new when we meet again

The blood will still be on the old stone steps

The man at the corner will still be glancing after

The drunken girl who retches beyond the railings.

We recognise the smears, you and I

We know the use of bleach on the grimy standard

Will wreck it beyond loving, and the raising

Of a pure standard is a call to killing.

But where the stray cat wolfs the fallen burger,

Where up the bloodstained steps you come by night

There is the cancer that will grow and scatter

The knowing of the dark, the love of light.

You could say this poem lies between the other two. It suggests an attitude but leaves a lot unclear. The world is dirty, messy, often unpleasant and damaged. But to react with a wish to reject the world for something pure and perfect is dangerous: that way lie fanaticism and mass murder. Robespierre, the Inquisition, the Fascists and Al Qaida were all obsessed with purity. So accept that the world is imperfect – but don’t walk off indifferent.  Know the dark and love light.

Copyright Simon Banks 2012

 

Book Review: David Nobbs, It Had To Be You

David Nobbs is an English writer known for comic writing, most famously “Reginald Perrin”. He is a master of dialogue and of the kind of comedy when something quite credibly goes wrong, that causes something else to go wrong and a kind of domino effect leads to utter chaos.

 

But I’ve always considered he had it in him to be a very good serious novelist. His brilliance with dialogue is based on a wise and extremely perceptive understanding of how people misunderstand one another and how people say one thing but mean something subtly different. His characters have ambitions and intentions which are undermined in a way which the ancient Greeks would consider characteristic of tragedy.

 

“It had to be you” is not a comedy. It’s a very, very good novel. I hover on the edge of calling it “great”. All Nobbs’ strengths are deployed, even the domino effect, which here is bittersweet rather than comic. The book starts with the talented middle-aged wife of a fairly successful businessman dying in a car crash. The rest of the novel takes us through the next few days in the man’s life as he struggles to cope and adjust.

 

Almost from the start we know that the man was having a long-term affair, but still loved his wife (in his private life but not his work avatar, he seems to be someone who is rather passive and lets things happen rather than making clear decisions). His wife died on the way to an assignation with a man in a white suit – and as Nobbs returns from time to time to this man (the only real comedy as he is pursued by the consequences of having taken off his wedding ring and left it behind in the hotel after giving a fictional name and address) I soon realised his identity was being concealed, and this being a novel and not real life, he must surely be a character we were meeting in another guise. So he was.

 

The main character drinks heavily, makes a remarkably good job of a very sensitive work meeting (it’s displacement activity for him) and makes arrangements for the funeral. Along the way he learns what his wife was doing and various other unexpected things about his friends, his relatives and himself, culminating in shattering (but actually not shattering, for at the end he’s still standing) revelations about why his estranged daughter cut all contact with him.

 

More than that I cannot say without giving away too much. It’s a highly sensitive, compassionate, observant book with a well-constructed plot and some descriptive writing that is absolutely outstanding. I strongly recommend it.

 

 

Lost

 

What we have lost cannot be found

By reading in a book

The stopped songs will not ring out

Nor the lost thoughts, not fallen flowers

That the dry wind took.

 

Stick in the current twists and bobs

Riding the river down

Until it snags and shallows drag

And the trip is done

Though the side currents swing around.

 

That short escape can’t happen twice

As fast the water travels

But it will rain and the river strain

Till all its banks unravel

 

But here the songs and here the ripples

Are almost in our sight

So we will climb and we will dive

Into the dark and light.

 

Copyright Simon Banks 2012

Book Review: Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale

Well now, a lot of people will have read this one and many of those who haven’t will have heard of it. Some will be pretending to have read it. It’s a book with that kind of fame.

Margaret Atwood is a very, very good writer. There are passages of description that are truly poetic (thank God stripped down writing didn’t get to them). The story concerns a totalitarian dystopia created in the USA and Atwood is clever and subtle in describing how the system works and what it does to people. It’s a male-dominated system in which women are reduced to child-bearers and the organisers of child-bearing (although she has very little to say about what then happens to the children, so it’s not clear to me whether some of them have a wider mothering role). It’s been categorised, like Atwood, as feminist, and so it is, but only by a broad and liberal interpretation of the term. Men are victims of the system too.

One problem for me was that I found the opening passages incredibly depressing and there wasn’t much to relieve the gloom. As the story unfolded, the main character’s partial rebellion and the view of how the reality of the system differed from its public face made me less depressed, but don’t look for a happy ending. In fact the ending is extremely close to that of that other description of an almost powerless cog in a totalitarian system rebelling, George Orwell’s “1984”. That made me think back and realise the plot and organisation of the book also resemble 1984. I wonder if Atwood acknowledged any influence. She’s a much better fiction writer than Orwell, though, whose writing is often awkward.

 

Another useful comparison is with Suzy McKee Chalmas’ “Holdfast” series, another feminist science fiction creation of a masculine repressive dystopia in the USA. Her society is much more extreme in its degradation of women, so that it only works because the action is set very distant from our present time. She doesn’t have to say much about how people fell from A to B, though what she says is credible. Atwood’s creation, though, is young. The main character is in her early thirties and was a young adult when the change happened. That sets the author a much harder task of making things credible and I don’t think she entirely succeeds. For example, the U.S. system of government we know was functioning much as we know it (she mentions an environmental disaster involving nuclear power stations and the San Andreas Fault, but if that happened before the change, it doesn’t seem to have led to chaos or much change in the young woman’s life). Then the President is assassinated and the entire Congress killed, purportedly by Muslim terrorists. the army then takes over, or some kind of secret movement with a lot of support in the army.

I can’t buy this. The sudden removal of the entire Federal tier of U.S. government would leave a whole lot of functioning state governments with their own paramilitary resources and some of them would be perfectly capable of operating as independent countries. In a country as diverse and disorderly as the U.S., I don’t believe the coup could be that easy. Not all the armed forces would go along with it, for a start. Something like this would need a lot of preparation which could not all be in secret, a growth of sympathetic political movements and media comment for example. Admittedly the main character doesn’t seem to have been at all politically aware before the change, but surely even she would spot some trends. It would be more credible if set well in the future – when the society we know would have changed more – but the technology Atwood describes is pretty much that of when she wrote the story, so it’s current society that is overthrown.

OK, that’s the reaction of someone politically active and with a History degree. Once the monstrous regime is in place, though, its awful effectiveness is very convincingly described.

Well worth reading – but read something happier next!

 

 

 

Neanderthal Lute

A second poem that reflects my fascination with Neanderthals – this time thinking about the discovery of a piece of worked bone of Neanderthal origin that had a number of regularly-spaced holes in it, so it’s hard to imagine it wasn’t a musical instrument like a lute.

 

NEANDERTHAL LUTE

 

So they had music.

What tunes have we lost, what songs,

What thoughts? What did they think of us,

Who dreamed ourselves explorers

And, with the deadly weather, doomed them?

What is left in us, those few well-hidden genes

In which they notionally survive?

 

The figure lurking by the tree is a dead stump

The waves clap in the empty cave.

 

Two notes on this: the current view on the extinction of Homo neanderthalis is that a sudden change in the weather which destroyed large areas of forest in Europe and Western Asia had a devastating effect on them as they were well-adapted for forest hunting. As for the impact of Homo sapiens, there are still lots of debates, but we will certainly have competed for resources which will have been scarce at the crucial time, so the Neanderthals may have reached the tipping point through a combination of rivalry from sapiens and environmental changes, when neither alone would have done it. Since our own species frequently fights its own over scarce resources and non-human predators often make efforts to take out rivals, it would be very surprising if our species didn’t fight and kill Neanderthals some of the time. How much contact there was between the two species is uncertain: maybe we traded as well as fought, and in Iraq there is evidence of sapiens and neanderthalis living side by side for hundreds of years, but the interbreeding seems to have happened almost entirely very soon after the two species first met. That’s the second note – that it is now established modern Homo sapiens carries two to four per cent Neanderthal genes – except for pure sub-Saharan Africans, who have none. Oh, and some of the last neanderthalis populations lived in sea caves in what today is Spain and Portugal.

 

Copyright Simon Banks 2012