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.

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And now for the Magicians

Anyone spot the non-deliberate mistake in my last post? No? Hello? Anyone there?

It was called “Travellers and Magicians”. The poems certainly dealt with travellers, but not particularly magicians. That was because when I entered the title, I expected to be discussing four poems, two about travellers and two about magicians. I found the discussion as getting long enough so I stopped at the first two poems, but failed to change the title.

So now for the magicians. This post, by the way, is another in the series of re-blogging poems of mine with some discussion or explanation.

 

DEATH AND THE MAGICIAN

 

One day the magician came to me and said,

The fish are leaping in the yellow stream

The oak has turned into an acorn small

And I saw Death in dream.

 

And I saw Death in dream, he said,

And Death was very kind

He showed me where the roses grow

Though I’m old and blind.

 

I’m old and blind and lame, he said,

The sea is out of sight

The shell is empty on the shelf

Through the woken night.

 

The night is all around, he said,

It closes hour by hour

The voices make me fear, my friend,

Should a proud man cower?

 

But should a proud man cower, my friend,

I think perhaps he should

The wine is turning sour, my friend,

But the bread is good.

 

The bread of death is good, my friend,

The bread of life is fine

And now I’ve understood, my friend,

Will the starlight shine?

 

And will the starlight shine, my friend,

And will the starlight shine?

Now let us touch the vine, my friend,

And we will drink the wine.

 

I posted this recently on a poetry discussion group and instantly someone asked if it was a ballad. Well done, that woman. I’d hesitate to call it a ballad because that for me implies something about its environment, but it does deliberately mimic ballad style, especially after the first verse. Signs are the large amount of repetition (but sometimes with slight changes), the strong rhythm, definite and simple rhyming plan, lack of detailed description, reliance on a few powerful, often archetypal, images and that it is in some way narrative. If you’re not into ballads, especially if you’re British, think “Sir Patrick Spens”, very much a ballad. Many American Country and Western songs are essentially ballads, for example “Long Black Veil”.

It’s probably fairly obvious that this poem is about coming to terms with death, which is personified as often in folk art. Who are the other two characters, though? There is a Magician (old and dying) and a narrator who is a friend of the magician. Is it actually the magician himself? Maybe. Maybe the narrator is me, but maybe I’m the magician – in my imagination and predictions. Maybe the narrator is God. Maybe (a radical suggestion) he or she is a friend. The Magician is a creative individual who has difficulty reconciling himself to death, but accepting he’s afraid is a long step to accepting death while still loving life (the bread of death and the bread of life).

I wouldn’t want to set out meanings for the key images as if this was a phrase book, so I won’t comment on the roses or the wine. I will comment on “the shell is empty on the shelf/ Through the woken night”. Old people often have difficulty sleeping, so “the woken night” is obvious enough, though the Magician’s fears may contribute to his sleeplessness. But “woken night” could also suggest dark or frightening forces waking up in the night – his fears, maybe.  “The shell is empty on the shelf” is interesting because of the sounds involved (shell/shelf). But why a shell? A shell is empty when the creature that lived in it has died. People often collect shells and may put them on a shelf for decoration. Despite snails, we think of shells as coming from the sea, which has receded from the Magician: it’s a reminder of his failing powers or his loss of spiritual contact (because of his fears?).

In the end the Magician comes to terms with death.

Now another poem written soon afterwards. I actually wrote four poems featuring magicians in quick succession. This happens sometimes with me: an image rises from the unconscious and I can’t make full use of it or exorcise it in one go. the magicians are typically wounded or dying.

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THE SHADOWED WAY

 

I’ve been away ten thousand nights

But now, you see, I’m back.

You lived with a thousand fears

I carry in my sack.

 

You saw the wise magician fall

Emptied out by worm

And the turning of the tides

Come to a full term.

 

You heard the knocking in the night

No shadows cast by moon;

Waited for the morning light

To copy out the rune.

 

You saw the singer come by sea

With seven ships and gold

Felt the ageing of the tree

And the hand grown old.

 

The snows will cover all your songs

The dark will kill the flower

The bud will break, with new-born wrongs

And an unquiet hour.

 

Over the snow the song is sung

And dark gives birth to day;

Remember how the light is sprung

From the shadowed way.

 

 There we are – the magician appears now as a less central character, dying in the second verse. This poem also imitates ballads, though perhaps less obviously. Again, someone is struggling to come to terms with fears, but here, the bringer of fears has arrived on the doorstep.

The characters seem to exist across time or for a longer timespan than humans (“felt the ageing of the tree”. The visitor seems to predict annihilation (“The snow will cover all your songs/ The dark will kill the flower”) but immediately predicts rebirth, which is not always comfortable (“an unquiet hour”). The final message is that light comes out of dark (so accept the dark).

I think that makes sense…

Copyright Simon Banks 2013

Thomas the Rymer

 

If you would ride into the borderlands alone

Or following a queen or an indistinct light

If you would be separated from the sun

Remember the sound of the waves and, Thomas, ride on.

 

If you would be free, then follow

If you would live, then die.

 

If, Thomas, you wish to feel the rough texture of bread

Rasping your hands, the tang and sweetness of wine,

Wind in the leaves, hair in your face, stroking fingers, soft rain,

Ride on.

Remember, and sing the song.

 

Thomas the Rymer is a figure based on a historical medieval Scottish bard rumoured to have magical powers. One ballad describes how he meets the Queen of Elfland/ Queen of the Fairies/ Queen of Heaven who takes him on a journey out of the known world through darkness where he hears the sea.

 

I wrote this poem during a rush of uncontrolled creativity along with “Borderlands” and (to come) “Estuary Shore”.

 

Copyright Simon Banks 2013

Book review: Robert Holdstock, Mythago Wood

I had not been aware of the English fantasy writer Robert Holdstock until he died and I read his obituary. I thought from what that said, his work sounded just my sort of thing, but I didn’t get round to reading it for some time until I happened to be killing time near a large library while waiting for my car to be ready. He had also been featured shortly before in Ashsilverlock’s blog. I’m glad I took the opportunity.

 

“Mythago Wood” is the first book in a series. It is very different from the sort of fantasy you find in Tolkien or Peake, where you are immediately in a strange but compelling world and you either accept it or you don’t. This starts with our world, the English county of Herefordshire and a time just after the end of the Second World War. The narrator is a young man returning from war wounds to the house where his remote and strange father had died not long before, and which is now occupied by his elder brother, also returned from the war.

 

The house is lonely and on the edge of a mysterious wood. Anyone trying to walk into it finds himself blocked, diverted and coming out again. I don’t want to give much of the plot away, but the central idea is that in this wood, archetypes or mythical figures we’ve long forgotten can take on flesh and mind and a real existence. These are called mythagos. If a present-day human spends enough time in and penetrates deep enough into the wood, creatures are created in the image of his own unknown dreams. Once created, they seem to have short lives but are entirely corporeal, needing to eat and capable of killing.

 

But is this just the reality of the outer parts of the wood?

 

Because of the realistic start, it took me a while to feel taken up by the story, in contrast to Tolkien or Peake. It’s well-written but I’m not quite drawn in as completely as by some other first-class fantasy. It is very, very well done, though. The touches of myth are credible in their own traditions and Holdstock is very good at taking some real event and turning it into mythic expression. There are a few points about the this-word elements which aren’t quite credible: for example, a character, a serving air force officer, gets a spear in his shoulder from a mythago and is “patched up” at his base. But didn’t his comrades, in late nineteen-forties ordered England, insist on knowing what had happened and call the police?

 

The image of the wood invading the house is very powerful, as is the stream that goes into the wood and grows inside it to a river, but is a stream again when it exits.

 

I’m fascinated to find things in this book I didn’t know about but which correspond closely to what I’ve written. For example, my long poem “Six Strands” contains a section “Forest” which sounds in part very like Holdstock’s wood.

 

The next volume is “Lavondyss”. Like the narrator, I will go there…

Dark Lady

The term “dark lady” is famous because of a mysterious reference in one of Shakespeare’s sonnets. No one knows for sure who the dark lady was, but she clearly meant a lot to Shakespeare. The terms “dark” and even “black” were used very widely in England in the 16th and 17th centuries (the future Charles II, on the run from Cromwell’s men, was described in a sort of wanted poster as a “tall black man” (he had the hair and skin of his French mother).

 

“Dark” of course, much more than “black”, conveys a sense of mystery and ominous threat or frightening secrets. So why is this poem called “Dark Lady”? Good question.

 

DARK LADY

 

VEIL

 

If I came to you in a dark veil, would you think you knew me?

If I came as a dark in light, would you deny me?

Or as a hint of a tune, employ me?

What do you remember of me among the rustling branches?

What are you reaching to in the owl-rich night

Or where the ice is cracking with your blind advances, calling?

I am the voice you forgot after the dream

You have been following, I was unseen

I will throw off the veil when you are falling

And when we leap among the stars, you shall have sight.

 

FOREST

 

When I became a forest in my dream

The impatient squirrels, the flame-feathered birds,

Slow motion green-glossed struggle of the trees

Rose from the soil that was humanity.

 

When I became a forest in my dream

I felt the touch of winter on the leaves

The pain of cold and hunger in many bones

The dying of a generation

Dragonfly glory preparing to take wing.

 

SAND

 

When I became a forest in my dreams

One day the trees were washed away by wind

The fertile soil rose in screaming clouds

And all around was sand

But to that broken land

Came once again the rebirth of the sea.

 

TEMPLE

 

What image might I put on the temple wall

That people might overlook the fall of nations

And feeling the death of beasts they could not see

Look up to a mountain or a dark lady?

Some delicate shimmering beauty risen from the dark,

Eternal dragonfly that only falls

To rise and be.

 

DARK LADY

 

If I came to you now with shimmering wings

If I came to you with the song of birds

High in the green kaleidoscope of the canopy

Would you then know the figure forming in the dark

And touch what somehow never was there to see?

 

 

Maybe the figure of the Dark Lady stands for something frightening that turns out not to be evil. The image of finding light in dark (not a light in the dark) occurs elsewhere in my poems.

 

Copyright Simon Banks 2012

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