Harmony of the Spheres

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This is an old poem of mine – my one and only attempt at a sonnet. The subject is the medieval idea of the harmony of the spheres, a timeless universe centred on the Earth, with incorruptible heavenly bodies contrasted with death and decay among us and heavenly music.

HARMONY OF THE SPHERES

They thought the stars shone from a sphere

Where nothing changed, death was unknown,

Eternal calm looked down on fear,

Lust, greed and rotting flesh and bone.

The stars were strung like diamond beads

On heavenly secrets’ velvet drape

But we below could only dream

Through pictures, words and creeds

How music gave the world its shape

And reeled in time’s chaotic stream.

Now this old picture is a wreck

And astronauts have not picked up

Music on a computer check

Or God’s blood in a plastic cup,

Now that we’ve learnt that change is good

And life is long, and pleasure stays,

We do not need the crystal spheres.

Correctly understood

A yearning for that world betrays

A fear of life, a life of fears.

We know they lived in fear and pain.

Who would not swap the Holy Grail

For wiping out a smallpox strain?

Heaven’s a light along a trail

And not a warlord’s massive tower.

Our flesh is not a shameful thing.

But when we let the old boat go

And slip from place and hour,

Perhaps the stars will seem to sing,

Perhaps the stars will seem to grow.

A wire coat hanger is for hanging wire coats

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Imagine an alien language – no, not French or Mandarin, something un-human, from another solar system. Would it incorporate all the ambiguities of human languages, or reproduce mathematical precision? I’ve not come across a Science Fiction story which mentions such ambiguities and sometimes it’s clear that the alien languages are more like algebra.

English is one of the most ambiguous of languages because of its grammatical simplicity. The word-endings that in Latin or German tell you how word A is related to word B are almost entirely lacking. Yet English is the nearest thing we humans have to a world language. So we have a wire coat hanger for hanging wire coats, signs advertising HAND CAR WASH to draw in people who want their hand cars washed and car boot sales at which you may expect to buy a car boot (trunk to Americans). To make things even more interestingly confusing, where writing something in full would make the meaning clear, we abbreviate, and so get the famous telegram exchange (which would be an exchange of texts today):

HOW OLD CARY GRANT?

– OLD CARY GRANT FINE. HOW YOU?

It’s probably clear I have a strange sense of humour and you may have guessed I like puns. Childish? Creativity is often a matter of bringing together things that people haven’t thought of as connected and of looking at things in a different way. Chance collisions can make something new, just as mutations can create new life forms and far quicker evolutionary change than could happen through Darwin’s gradual, fractional adjustments.

The best academic lecturers from time to time say something that surprises their students and makes them think. How often has a poem made you think, “I’ve never looked at X in that way”?

And what kind of person would wear a wire coat? Chicken or barbed, anyway? Electrified?

Book Reviews: The Flood, David Maine; The Land of Decoration, Grace McCleen

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These are books I picked up in my local public library. By an odd coincidence, they raise some of the same questions, questions quite unusual for a small English public library.

David Maine’s book is a retelling of the biblical story of Noah and the Flood. It follows the biblical account loyally, but of course, embellishes. You could interpret it as an exercise of “If this was literally true and these were real people, what would it have been like?” Some people will see it as irreverent. At times Noah’s sons see their stubborn father, not the best of communicators, as an old fool. There’s a lot of sex – but there is in the Bible (remember all those “begat”s?

It took a while for me to get into this novel, but the time came. The characters came to life. Of course, there are difficulties about a literal telling of the Flood story. The ark wouldn’t be big enough. How, if the flood was over the whole world, did they get the Australian and American animals? This version does mention armadillos, but I’m inclined to think the American author had forgotten these are purely animals of the Americas. We also learn of peoples who were apparently totally wiped out in the Flood, but we know mysteriously reappeared, such as Phoenicians.

It was interesting, but not enthralling. Throughout it asks, but does not answer, questions about a God with unlimited power, a God who cares and creates but punishes ruthlessly. The role of people, it seems, is to obey or rebel.

Grace McCleen’s book had me hooked from the start and its impact on me was far greater. A ten-year-old girl in a small town (it seems to be in South Wales) is being brought up by her deeply and stiffly religious father: her mother is dead. They belong to some strict sect: it sounds very much like the Jehovah’s Witnesses. The girl is bullied at school. She seeks escape in a fantasy world she constructs in her bedroom, a model of things in the real world. She wishes it would snow so she could avoid school and the bully she fears will kill her. She makes mock snow with cotton-wool in her model world. It snows in the real world and school is cancelled. God is speaking to her and telling her she has great power. She tries something else – to bring back a neighbour’s missing cat. The cat returns. She brings snow again. A series of events follow which, if they were true, would seriously interest an open-minded scientist. What she does in the Land of Decoration does seem to be reproduced outside.

But things go wrong. She tries to talk to her father about it but he won’t listen. The boy bully blames her for the trouble he faces from a new teacher and he and his friends begin to cause trouble and damage outside her house , a campaign of harassment. She could – she believes – strike at him, but she doesn’t want to. God is unhelpful and says she’s caused what is happening.

In the end – well, I’d better not say. We learn how her mother died and why her father, a decent man, seems stiff and haunted. Her father and God had assured her that decent, loving people like her neighbour with the cat will be destroyed if they don’t hear the word, but the ending seems to reject this. Finally the link between events in the World of Decoration and our world is broken.

I was totally engaged. I’m unsure, though, what the author is wanting us to believe. The series of events goes well beyond credible coincidence, but the God speaking to the girl is cold and in the end, wrong. The dust cover tells us Grace McCleen grew up in South Wales in just such a religious community. I would be curious about what she believes now.

November Town

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NOVEMBER, TOWN

All grey, the autumn sky over

Yellowing-green leaves on branches

Stripping slowly. Starlings whirl

And settle, chattering. Dusk waits.

Silence in the street. The light

Seeps out.

Now there’s a nice short poem. OK, kids – now the first question. When do you think this poem was written – what time of year? WELL DONE! Now any idea what part of the world?

OK, just like the poem, or not.