His Dark Refreshments

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Here’s another old poem I haven’t posted before. This one is not very serious and it’s based on the experience of half-hearing an indistinct announcement on the public address system at a train station. Most of the announcements are rather indistinct and it’s easy to mishear. The language of these announcements is very stereotyped and stilted: for example, for example, passengers always “alight”, not “get off”. If you’ve got an imagination like mine, even if you guess it correctly, you toy with things you could have misheard it as. That’s what happens in this poem. There are references to Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials”.

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HIS DARK REFRESHMENTS

 

The next train to arrive on platform three

Will be the 9:07 to Liverpool Street

Cold snacks and light refreshments there will be

Available on this train

 

The next train to arrive on platform three

Will be the 9.07 to Liverpool Street

Hot slacks and slight refreshments there will be

Available on this train

 

The next train to arrive on platform three

Will be the seventh to a Liverpool tree

Hot snacks and dark refreshments there will be

Available down the drain

 

Provided by our dedicated staff

Of maddened macho bears, with great aplomb

And custard. In First Class there are installed

Facilities for gods to start a war

 

Or video conference while eating lunch.

The dragon next appearing on platform three

Will carry your liver up a poplar tree

Gold sacks and snide detachment there will be

Available in the rain. 

Now on the mystery lines: the last one was by William Blake and the clue “Innocent? Or experienced?” related to his “Songs of Innocence and Experience”.

Next one:

She dreams a little, and she feels the dark

Encroachment of that old catastrophe,

As a calm darkens among water-lights.

CLUE: Braveheart writing in the woods.

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Book Review: Will Self, “The Butt”

No, this is not pornography or a learned American treatise on the gluteus maximus. The butt is a cigarette butt. The book is a kind of dark if sometimes funny fantasy, but with the realistic elements stronger than in much fantasy. Apparently it’s won a humorous writing prize. I didn’t laugh a lot, but it is very well written.

The story starts with Tom, a middle-aged tourist in an imaginary country, deciding to give up smoking and throwing the butt of his last cigarette from his hotel balcony. Unfortunately it lands on the head of an old bald man below and medical complications follow. It turns out that the old man, though an “Anglo”, had by marriage become a member of a tribe whose traditional law was based on the idea that nothing happens by chance – so whatever ill the old man suffers, Tom is fully responsible.

Will Self is a British columnist on a British paper, so I initially assumed Tom was British, but a few things such as a mention of a “cell phone” in his conversation with his country’s honorary consul made me think he was American. After a while that didn’t seem to quite fit either. Tom is from an English-speaking rich country with a Western culture, but we’re never told which. We’re never told his job either, just some of his family relationships, which include a marriage which seems to be struggling and a withdrawn, computer-game-obsessed son.

The country they’re in is a strange mixture. “Anglos” are one ethnic group among many. The law of the land incorporates various traditional tribal laws. It’s fervently anti-smoking except that some tribes in the hinterland allow smoking. There is an insurgency going on in the hinterland but most people seem to ignore it or take it for granted. It isn’t a realistic land, but if you suppress disbelief in the original premises, things follow quite credibly.

The case against Tom goes on and on. The rest of his family go home. Tom finds himself having to journey into the interior, into the area of the insurgency, to pay reparations, guided by messages from his local lawyer and the honorary consul (neither of whom he trusts), a fellow offender called Prentice and a wordy anthropological tome by a German father and son duo.

Some of the physical description – of scenery, of illness, of squalour – is altogether brilliant. Self also handles descriptions of violent death in a way which emphasises the pointlessness and gracelessness of it. Various strange things happen which make Tom – and the reader – wonder if things are really as they seem. As with a detective story, we start to look for clues to some hidden motif. There is indeed one, and it’s clever and nasty.

I have to stay vague to avoid giving too much away, but the thinking behind the book is strong on philosophy. The politics is totally incredible – some things just wouldn’t work – but I said you needed to suspend disbelief.

The blurb said the book would grip me. It didn’t, though I was interested. I think the reason why I stayed detached was that I couldn’t quite believe either in Tom or in the country he was stuck in. The fantasy fell somewhere between the total fantasy of, say, Gormenghast and a realistic if unlikely thriller. But the bigger problem was Tom. He was a credible character – a little self-centred, mainly well-intentioned, decidedly passive – but I’d have liked to have a real nationality for him, a home, a profession. After all, he has to stay ages in the country and he’s worried about money yet we’re never told if his absence means he’s lost his job. He could have been more grounded and realistic and then his stepping into nightmare would have meant more.

The Tower

What if someone has the opportunity to live his or her dreams? What happens to that person – and to the dreams?

THE TOWER

Looking out over the silent sea

Knowing of another hidden country

She dreamt of unicorns and fiery dragons

(The island in the bay was Avalon)

And when the sailors laughed, cursed them to be blind.

Older, more cautious, richer, more powerful,

She bought the island, poisoned all the rats

And built a tower like one that might have stood

To watch for pirates in the China seas

And spent some few nights there watching whales and slow-burning

Stars that spread eerie magic over the black waves.

But when a dying dragon came to her in a dream

Dragging smeared scales over the revengeful rocks

She left the island and the tower fell slowly into ruin

Peopled by spiders and by mad-voiced seabirds

Haunted by silent, searching unicorns.

 

Copyright Simon Banks 2013

Borderlands

BORDERLANDS

When you ride into the lawless borderlands

Remember the stones and the streams, for direction is easily lost

And the cross on the hill may not be the one you remember

And the bones on the slope may be your own

Do not travel in December

For January kills. Do not wear a crown or a smile

For the robbers will find you. If you keep a ring or an emblem

Be prepared to lose it, but not to the visible robbers

If you make a song or a fire, rake over the embers.

Just here two shining hosts attempted to clash in battle

And failed: the bones of one are secreted by the glacier

The others are covered by the wandering high sand dunes.

Leave signs and messages by all means

They are many: some were never read, some may be your own.

The bogs enfold the banners, leather, lace.

Do not be surprised if the fire flickers into a form

Or the gully-clutched wind wails like a mourning woman

Or the face in the bog-pool is another person’s

Be prepared for the sense of something at your shoulder

And do not be shocked if your shadow wavers for another

Do not ride by the rock-face faintly carven.

What is this place we have come to between the mountains

The shallow hollow just enough for a tent?

You may find a buckle or a tooth and the grey shades cluster

To answer them death, to ride away from them death,

Or maybe you dreamt them as the ravens rose in triumph

As the sun fell and the moon rose and the stars’ fire

Beckoned the wolves’ wail, quietened the hare’s breath.

Why have you come to this place where people have died

In a stream over stones? What have you put in the bag you carry?

Ride slowly, ride on, be wary

For the borders shift, the dark cave grows, the river runs faster

And the broken sword in the soil where once lay a lake

Shifts and unites, for the time of the borders is coming.

This was a poem written in a kind of fever and followed the same day by two others which I’ll post soon. I’d had the idea of borderlands knocking around for weeks until a poem coalesced around it like a pearl around grit.

Copyright Simon Banks 2013

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.

Death, imagination, magic, money, reality, human nature and a few other things

Time to repost a few more poems with more discussion. I dothis because I dislike serving up a poem complete with instructions on how to interpret it, but some time later I might make tentative suggestions.

 

INSTRUCTIONS

 

I bought this thing quite a long time ago

But never needed it, so never assembled

The impressive confusing parts

But now I’ve started to read the instructions

And as always, I suppose,

They don’t quite make sense.

“Stand on the bank of the river

Summon the ferryman and give him silver

And he will carry you over.” That makes sense.

But then apparently the other side

Is somewhere underneath us. Then again

It says, “Flow into the distant stars

Towards a light that is not quite a star.”

You can’t go down, across and up at the same time!

Though in the depths of this black silent pool

Which shimmers with the lights of star and moon

Maybe I’ve seen the answer after all.

 

This is a wry poem about thinking about death. It uses a sustained metaphor (quite unusual for me) of someone trying to understand the instructions booklet for some newly-bought gadget. So I quote several myths and ideas about death. The ferryman of course is Charon in Greek mythology ferrying the dead over the river Styx.  That seems to be a journey across, but it’s to the Underworld (in several mythologies), so presumably the Underworld is under this one. So what about myths of the released soul travelling amongst the stars and the idea that Heaven is above us? Well, really these are images, metaphors themselves, but I’m assuming the persona of a literal-minded person struggling to understand the myths literally. In the last three lines, though, I reconcile all three versions: in black water (the Styx) if you look down (Underworld) you see the stars reflected.

 

Maybe I’m suggesting a reconciling of light and dark.

 

ALCHEMY

 

Wandering the world, the witch brings cold

Where there is light she snuffs it out

Her wings obscure the distant stars

Her breath fills palaces with gold

 

The kings and courtiers count and plan

The heavy castles rise and spread

They dance a new and heady tune,

The merchant and the artisan.

 

The witch has taken to the night

Again, and cupped her smothering wings

The starving people try to eat

The blocks that seemed so strong and bright

 

The robes and sceptres rot or twist

The castles’ windows are all dark

When the witch lands, the stars are born

And with the dawn comes gentle mist.

 

An internet friend interested in magic commented, “This is a new kind of witch”. Well, the figure of the witch has long carried implications of evil and of healing, but this witch is rather special. What does she do? She obscures the light and chills the land, but she fills palaces with gold. She brings economic development and prosperity which cannot last. I’m not going to seek a political or religious moral here beyond what I think I was thinking, but this is a very material and materialist kind of witch. But she cannot control the world indefinitely and light comes back.

 

On a technical level, this is a regular poem with four-line verses of the same number of syllables and a rhyming plan of the first and fourth lines rhyming but the second and third not rhyming. I’m not sure I’ve used this system elsewhere.

 

I THINK BECAUSE I AM NOT

 

“I think because I am not,” the wise man said,

“If I were fully in the material world,

The tease of rain, the anger of a rock,

The taste of apples and of fertile woman

Would leave no room for a philosophy

And doubt would be a slipping on the scree.”

 

“I think, therefore I am,” the lecturer said.

“This itch of questioning and of making patterns

Says who I am, and if I plant it here

And simply give it water and tough skin

To give the grazing deer a nasty bruise,

There is no way the human spirit can lose.”

 

I think because I cross a borderland

Where shadows may be real and real things vanish

As thought and dream and shivering in my scalp

Circle and blend like warriors or mating cats

And somehow show a way I should not tread

According to the mighty and the dead.

 

Obviously this draws on Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am”. Descartes is simply drawing a conclusion: because I know I think, I must exist. But his words could be taken to mean “the raison d’etre of my existence is to think” and in fact his formulation leads illogically but predictably to a view of human nature which stresses intellect and reason. I’m playing here in quasi-philosophical mode with other formulations.

In the first version, thought itself is a product of (or a cause of?) our separation from direct experience, being at one remove from the animal. In the second, Descartes’ statement is extended (maybe twisted, though Descartes was a rationalist who probably wouldn’t have minded this development) so that human thought is presented as the highest, most advanced thing in the world. The third expresses more of my perception: I think on the borderland between reason and feeling, spirit and measurement, and the more I venture into the dark and the misted, the more I think and the more I am alive.

 

It’s worth noting that the first and third poems here use humour to approach very serious subjects. Very English.

 

Copyright Simon Banks 2012

The Green Dragon

THE GREEN DRAGON

 

When the cavortings of the green dragon die down,

When the arabesques of its dervish dance unwind

To an even line

They will go home who waited in the rain

Unseeing, till the circus comes again.

 

Who has not heard that the green dragon is abroad

Or that it is a myth or a potent of the epidemic

Which since the old king died has daily been expected?

But the management presents

In flier and poster altogether cosier images

 

So the nursery rhymes, badges, stickers may sell well,

The audiences will not fear to view the dragon;

No formulation of the orthodox religion

Will trap it in a cage or fall before it

As the wind rises in the hidden woods –

Which for the management is all to the good;

But who last claimed to see it lies.

 

But the dragon has been seen in clouds at midnight,

Its tracery discerned in a huddle of bushes,

And though it was called to stand,

A shimmering scale melted in a child’s hand;

And though there was no sound,

The darkening storm was woven round with light.

 

 

 

Four Stations

A long poem now, with a few familiar images, in four parts which I feel to be linked but can’t quite explain how.

 

FOUR STATIONS

 

THE WANDERER

To be a wanderer is to have bad feet

And to know the signs of rain.

The abandoned home keeps leaving messages.

But though there’s a routine of moving on,

Of saying goodbye or not, of setting out,

And the hills and the valley-hugging villages

May seem almost the same, they are different.

To be a wanderer is to not return.

 

Sometimes the villagers fear you’ve brought the plague,

Heresy or the unwelcome news of shortages:

You should watch out for a sameness of the eyes

And a roughness of the rope. Sometimes you are a magus,

Which can be dangerous too, but sometimes merely welcome.

You carry a store of rivers, skies and crows,

Of flat rocks where you ate the last long valley’s

Rye bread and cheese, and even carry faces,

Though they may cluster and threaten on the breeze.

Sometimes the villagers fear you’re marked by madness.

 

To be a wanderer is to intervene,

To complicate, to save for another falling

And then the wandering, wandering, wandering.

 

THE CONTROLLER

 

The controller is known by every local, surely,

And to a stranger by a sure solidity

An evenness of gaze, the dull glow of gold,

The heaviness of the crown or the bag of helmets.

You are the point the world revolves around

Adhesion gives you family and friends

But ties you to a ship you thought a castle

So when it sails again

Your heavy crown and titles clatter and spin

In the whirlpools of the turns without a centre

And you are not who you were built to be

And who the locals did not know by touching

But as the controller who was stepping surely.

 

THE PLAYER

 

You have heard her many times but named her never

She was on the tip of your tongue and the edge of sunlight

As the drowning orange-red ball turning brick

Descended behind the vitrified sea and shut out dance,

The conversations of the busy merchants

Even the robed priests’ chants

You have seen her many times and touched her never.

 

She is the absent jewel in the crown,

The last and uncertain ray of light,

The song you almost manage to remember,

The whistling of the wind, the arabesque of ember,

The flickering of the fire in the rick.

You have heard her many times but answered never

But what you said was shot with alien fire.

 

THE KEEPER

 

You can see here if you try the paler grasses

Which grow on the stone of the road which used to run here

This angle of wall had another forgotten purpose.

Here where the sheep sheltered till the last hard winter

The kingdom of a stoat, the throne of a raven,

Were windows like eyes, and walls, a hearth and singing

So I have kept it under the dead lord’s orders

Here is the sealed letter and the sword

The old map marked with a word

The old lord thought one day might be deciphered

And though the dragon has not come nor the knight

I have seen ten thousand dawns and the patterned clouds

Shadow the paler grass with a thousand meanings

Until the traveller comes up the road that ran here.

 

 

Copyright Simon Banks 2012

 

 

This isn’t the first time I’ve written of a wanderer, a mysterious female figure just ahead or someone who has the duty of waiting for a momentous event he can’t define precisely and which may never happen – or the first time I’ve pointed out in a poem that being different can get you killed or that gold and power weight you down but provide only limited security.

 

As often, the background seems to be northern hill-country.

Mission

Here’s another poem written in the style of a ballad, with a hint of mystery.

 

 

MISSION

 

So when will we come back, she said,

So when will we stray?

The oaks grow round the shack, she said,

And the night kills day.

 

There may be no return, I said,

But we’ll stray for sure:

Or else the tower will burn, I said,

And the moon will lure.

 

So will we find the stone, my friend?

Will it brightly burn?

Or will we waste to bone, my friend,

Lying in the fern?

 

The stone may not be found, my friend,

Not in shack or sea,

Or in broken ground, my friend.

It may never be.

 

So let us rise and go, she said,

Calling in the night,

For what we do not know, she said,

And a dream of light.

 

 

Copyright Simon Banks 2012

 

 

If poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world, maybe that’s why you keep on finding the same old things recycled over and over again

Right…

For a while I was reposting some poems already on this blog with a bit more discussion or explanation. Then, because I was posting two or more often three of these poems at once, I found myself catching up with the first posts of poems. So I stopped the reposting. Now the gap has widened enough and I’m going back to it. Here’s three old poems.

CONSUMER BOOM

If you are short of a principle

Or two or three or more

Principles for Men will fit you out

They won’t be demanding

You won’t have to shout

Or break the law

If you’re inclined to change your mind

If the conclusions it has come to

Aren’t for you

Go to the MIND shop, it’s no bind,

Address the crew

And say “I want to change my mind.”

If your account is in the red

The creditors in ambush wait

To Body Shop repair

Say “Out of stock – or am I wrong?”

In the van over there

I’ve got six bodies for a song!”

If something seems a little flat

A little empty

Don’t worry. Tesco’s is at hand

Seek out computer games and shoes

Join the happy band

There used to be just booze.

This is a wry look at “consumerism” – maybe it should be called “producerism”, or better, “vendorism”, always pelting us with messages to buy something. It’s also playing with words. PRINCIPLES is a clothing store for women and the male-oriented version is PRINCIPLES FOR MEN. But that sounds as if the shop is selling principles, presumably tailored to fit individual consumers: “here’s three principles just right for you sir – sound good and not too demanding.”

MIND is the U.K.’s biggest national mental health charity, so a GOOD THING, but one way they raise funds is through second-hand shops called MIND shops. I can never pass one without thinking that should mean they sell minds – and presumably you could go in there and change your mind.

Body Shop is a leading ethical business that sells skincare and other body care products. It does not, as far as I know, sell bodies, but that’s what the name suggests.

Tesco’s is the U.K.’s biggest supermarket chain, known for its aggressive approach to local councils which decline to approve planning permission for a new Tesco’s superstore.

There’s nothing very deep here, but you may deduce some resistance from me to marketing messages. If you are an advertising worker – try harder – or give up.

SHADOWLANDS

CROFT

Here between the tumbled stones was the door:

Tired men passed seeking warmth, hot broth or a spade

Woman with a sickly baby in hope

The occasional visitor for a dram and stories.

Now the tourist wanders inside

The wet wind flails without a whimper.

SOLDIERS

They eat a little slowly, staring a short way ahead

To the battle they will lose tomorrow.

Each man prepares to do his job

The hidden guest at the meal is hungry.

GUARD

The Beast was last here eighty years ago

That is the print of its foot in the crushed house

It has returned a hundred times, they say;

Your office is to be prepared and wait.

These drawings ought to help:

This one is by the man who saw it last

This reproduction of a temple frieze

Is thought to be the oldest: all the others

Are in between. I’m sure you’ll notice

Nothing is common to them but the size

And a certain presence. Maybe you’ll spend your life

Waiting for an enemy that never comes

And maybe for an enemy that comes.

SHE

I saw her turn a corner from the alley

At that old inn she left a note on the board

I thought I heard her when the rainstorm rattled

The window sashes and the wood outside

Chattered and sang to the rhythm of the rain.

ENTRY

The man I think you know took us into the room

I happened to pass a mirror, turned and looked

And saw an old man with a bloodstained baby

But when I wanted to show it to someone else

Instead a woman was singing very quietly.

The doors when opened led to other doors

The drawers pulled out to infinite other drawers

You sought an explanation but the man had gone

And then we couldn’t agree his height, his age,

If he was bald, the colour of his jacket

And if he ever was there at all

And then you did not know me any more

And I did not know you except as a light

I had seen seeping under a door on a dark night.

THREAD

I am alive in the stone field

We are the rising of the moss

On fallen stones that lie like the last army;

Hint of salt in the wind over sandpaper desert

Light in the dark, dark in the light will nestle

Something in the fallen leaves rustle

Though they begin to rot; in the black lake

Stars are revealed; the star-warm sky

Rises to meet us, to repair the break.

A very different poem here – serious and mystical. Crofts are the traditional small dwellings of Scottish Highland farmers. I start by wondering about the people who lived in the now ruined croft (nearly all of them are ruined now). Then I move to a scene of soldiers eating the night before a battle, a bit quietly because they know this may be their last full day. The hidden guest at the meal is Death. The next scene – GUARD – introduces a figure I’ve used several times, a mysterious destructive beast that appears periodically. The guard is trained to be ready for it, but the information about the beast is very vague and he knows he may well never meet the thing. For me this recalls among other things the end of Camus’ “La Peste” (The Plague) where he says the bacillus never dies and we always have to be ready for it. SHE introduces another recurring image, of the female figure always just ahead, leading on. The speaker is led. ENTRY describes a disintegration of understanding, of intellect maybe, of everyday certainty. It sounds a bit like “The Matrix” or “The Prisoner”, but also like confused old age. THREAD is the most lyrical stanza (or whatever these bits are). There is a series of images of decay, death, lack of life – a fallen army, stones, desert, dead leaves – but at every point life is reasserted and the tone is set by the first line – “I am alive in the stone field”. At the end a break is repaired.

Now the big question – what if anything unites these mini-poems? Sorry, I’m not sure, but they seem to hang together. They’re about life, death, duty, incomplete perception and rebirth.

GLITTERING

The leaning tower pisser is abroad

So is not here. The bugs are all in bed

Recording everything the Inspector said

The bet had strings, but we have one accord

If I can pirouette around the fire

My foil-flash clothes may glint like real gold

Though I am spotted, I am not yet old

Perhaps the fiddle is the ultimate lyre

But if the clothes reflect the dying light

And if the flames have fallen into charred

Parodic branches, there is one more card:

The glow is in the dark, the dark is bright.

And finally another humorous one with a serious message (but don’t let that put you off: the serious message is detachable and you can add another of your choice). The poem works through a series of puns and double entendres: the Leaning Tower of Pisa/ someone pissing from a leaning tower; something is abroad (it’s got out, it’s around)/ it’s abroad, so not in this country; bugs as insects/ bugs as recording devices; the bugs are in bed (they’re not asleep – they’re bed bugs); the bet had strings = conditions, qualifications, commitments attached/ strings in the literal sense, punning with cord in accord; I am spotted (= I am seen)/ I am spotted in my skin as a sign of age; fiddle as musical intrument/ fiddle as fraud or deceit; lyre as musical instrument/ liar. But there’s something frenetic about the desperate joking: I want my foil-flash clothes to be gold, but they aren’t. I’m trying to postpone the inevitable. But while the fire that makes my clothes glint is dying, new light is emerging in the darkness.

That’s it, folks… for three days or so.

All posts copyright Simon Banks.