Poems are full of ambiguity and mystery. Sometimes this is deliberately created, using words that could mean one thing or another, either to suggest both things or to seem clever by mystifying the reader. Sometimes the mystery, the uncertainty, the blur occurs because the poet isn’t sure of what (s)he’s saying. In an instruction manual for a machine this would be disastrous. But poets like religious visionaries are talking all the time about things they suspect they partly understand.
I’ve picked out here three of my poems where uncertainty is an important factor.
So when the distant soldiers came around midday
To the curious building in the foreign fields
Planted with unfamiliar crops they saw a sign
And casually debated what the thing might mean.
But rain encouraged them to shelter inside the place,
Chapel or school, and the sign was just another strangeness
Among many, and so in time they marched away
To the slaughter next day on the watching ridge
And then artillery and fire destroyed the shrine
The words were not spoken and the slug river moved on.
The poem is about missed opportunities, a sign that could have changed the world but didn’t. Unless we believe that everything is predetermined, the thought of how different the world might have been if the Buddha or Mohammed or Luther, or for that matter Lenin or Hitler, had died before making an impact, is disturbing and intriguing. For the soldiers, though, the crops in the fields, the building and the sign are all things outside their experience: they wonder a bit and move on, having a job to do, a job that will kill them. The soldiers don’t understand the sign, but we aren’t told what the sign is, or how to recognise a sign from noise.
I recognise them, the rainwashed places,
The shallow lakes across the demolition site
The passing vehicle’s short-lived water rising
Water-spots on the window, rainbright grass
On the playing-field fringed by uneven brickwork
That will be there another night
When the rain has not fallen, the dust rises and falls
On crumbling walls the fern and buddleia shrivel
And the window is smeared, and cannot be cleared by a fix
And the clouds in the distance, over the barren hills
Could be the coming of rain or could be the end of the trick.
This poem ends with uncertainty: are the rains coming to end the drought, or is it “the end of the trick”? And is the trick a false promise of rain or something more fundamental, an unreal world? The description of the environment during and after much rain seems to lead on to drought through an assumption that drought will follow rain, but is this a natural cycle of seasons or an irreversible change?
In the dark tower at the top
A single light, dull glowing red
The tower is darker than the night
The lower buildings round the edge
Cluster in shadow from the red
The hunting waver of an owl
Behind the avenue of dead trees
Wakens a movement in the sedge
And slithering through the hidden ditch.
The moths have gathered round the light
And something old is not yet dead.
Time, our young friend and enemy
Writing we cannot erase
Though written on tablets that may crumble
And in a metre we find strange
The ship is down, we cling to you
The waves around, the water cold
And we were young, and we are old.
If I should meet what I have feared
Lit by the red light from the tower,
If opening the hidden case
I should not find another hour
But something strange I knew before
Recalling marks on that dull door
I shall be ready for time and space.
A golden clock stands on a marble shelf
The intricate workings move at even speed
If I should throw it far in a great arc
Into the waters of the silent lake
What would I think I was, what would I be?
Lianas interlink the blossoming trees
Inside the green confusion all birds sing
And shivering trills with low, slow warbles mix
And touch and mingle, wing to leaf to wing.
This one deals with themes of time and death, but it contains images and lines I don’t really understand myself. You tell me what the significance is of the dull light in the old tower, for I’m not sure myself. I might guess that the tower is a body – or the world. The light may be life and consciousness – or it may be a principle of life, a spiritual reality. So why is the tower darker than the night around? That time is friend and enemy is not a surprising thought, but why “young friend”? Maybe because time is the here and now as well as the distant? Or am I imagining myself outside time, so time itself might seem a blip?
Copyright Simon Banks 2013