Gates and Reeds

OK, there’s not much in common between those two words (the letter E, yes, and four other letters each), though it would be a good poets’ competition to find something that linked them. Poets are good at linking one improbable thing with another – one poet with another, for example.

 

Here’s two poems I’ve written recently and I thought I’d share them together even though they don’t have a lot in common (my conscious mind says).

 

THE GATE

 

Mordor

Pearly gates

The high walls steady.
They are topped with clawing black wire.
Around me the ground is featureless
But the dark gate is wide open.
An empty watchtower stares down dully.
That is all except for a dim light inside.

But here comes one who has gone to the entrance
And stopped at a line on the surface, hearing music
And reports that from there the watchtower changes,
A fountain of colour and shapes, red-jewelled, craft-gilded, live.

I stand looking up at the old brutality
Of the bare, angular tower.

I have seen it before, that gate.
It was on the shore as the salt tide came slithering in
It clanged open the moment I fell asleep
And grunted on runners as I, puzzled, woke again.
I saw it where the stream ran from the rocks.
I have thought I’ve seen it in eyes.

Nothing is what it seems to me
But then, neither am I.
If the gate was of gold and silver, of agate, would I go?
The gate stands open.

 

Illustrating poems does risk stressing one interpretation above another, so please consider the words before the pictures.

 

And then, in a different mood:

 

REEDBED

Reedbed

As I lay sick I had a vision of a reedbed
Waving gently in the wind, naked of birdsong now
Only a few sharp calls.
A great heron lumbered into the air
From the edge of the water I could not see, but cherished.

 

By the way – I was sick for a couple of days, now well recovering. Ear infection threw my sense of balance into chaos – frightening till it was diagnosed and extremely limiting and exhausting for another day and a bit. No big deal now, but I thought I’d better explain “as I lay sick” was not complete invention and should not be a cause for worry.

 

I expect I’ll post again before Christmas, but if not, Happy Christmas!

 

What I have left

swirl

 

I’m still going to talk about poems that appear to be about one thing but arguably are actually about something else – extended metaphors, if you like. But here first is something that came to me driving back from a poetry and music evening in Colchester. When I say come to me – it started to come as if of its own accord and then I composed (the form is quite strict) but in a state of excitement from the first inspiration.

 

 

WHAT I HAVE LEFT IS WORDS

What I have left is words
To sing the wind
To wet the sea
To warm the fire
To leaf the tree
What I have left is words

What I have left is muscle
To crest the hill
To cross the stream
To track the path
To fashion dream
What I have left is muscle

What I have left is eyes
To see the wind
To star the dark
To fish the sea
To ground the ark
What I have left is eyes

What I have left is words
To run the river
To shape the fire
To draw the frown
To cut the wire
What I have left is words.

 

 

 

Book Review: R.S. Belcher, The Six-Gun Tarot

Now here’s a book way outside my normal range. I picked it up in exceptional circumstances.

 

Our local public library was closed for a long time for major building work and the next nearest is really small with a very limited stock. Moreover, the limited stock was mainly directed at older women who like romantic traditional stories. I don’t mean people took the books and threw them at old ladies. The old ladies are the main readership and of course the stock reflects that. Fair enough, but I was struggling to find something that interested me. Yes, I know about Amazon and also about on-line ordering of library books, but I have limited space, am lazy and in any case was curious about that library.

 

Then I came on a book that seemed totally out of place. From the cover, a skeletal gunslinger stared back at me. I was intrigued. I borrowed the book.

 

Although occult fantasy is not my thing, I fancy I had seen the author’s name and no doubt he’s famous. But for me it was a totally new experience and so I could go in with open mind and fresh eyes (hmm, fresh eyes sounds like something that might happen in this book).

 

The opening was powerful. A lone teenager on horseback, fleeing from something, was lost and probably dying in a desert somewhere in the American South-west. In fact the book is very well written. Especially in that opening scene and in the apocalyptic ending, there are pieces of vivid, ambitious, skilful descriptive writing. Maybe given how impoverished writing is preached as gospel in the States, you need to be writing about something like undead cowboys to get away with vivid and imaginative prose that could almost be poetry.

 

I was also intrigued that what you could call the theological backdrop, working on Judaeo-Christian and pagan myths, was well-thought-out. I was also surprised that the values and attitudes behind the writing seemed pretty liberal: for example, a closet-gay leading Mormon turns into a reluctant but very real hero and there are assertive women who reject male dominance without rejecting men.

 

I felt it had weaknesses, though. The most effective supernatural thrillers, like some very effective SF stories, present us with an apparently perfectly normal, familiar world and then something mysterious and scary is introduced into it, small enough to start with but growing and subverting the normal. Belcher’s small western town of Golgotha was weird from the start. The weirdness was everywhere. The book does provide an explanation for that (a bit like the reason in the Doctor Who spinoff Torchwood why aliens kept turning up in Cardiff, and I don’t mean the English or the Japanese), but the all-pervasive weirdness makes the book less compelling for me. It was when the amiable, likeable, distinctly normal storekeeper turned out to be keeping his deceased wife semi-alive in a tank that I pulled back. I kept reading, but with less involvement, less suspension of disbelief.

 

It also seemed to me a weakness that the opening character, that haunted teenager, almost completely dropped out of the story (except for occasional flashbacks) until right at the end when, predictably, he played a key role. He was a convincing and interesting character and I’d like to have seen him kept more involved and to have seen more through his eyes. I do understand that it’s an old and good trick to introduce a place or a community through the eyes of a stranger, but that trick interests me in the stranger.

 

The author seemed to have researched some factual matters pretty well, but I was surprised that his small Western settlement around 1869 had several veterans of the war of 1812. It’s physically possible, but they’d be pretty old in a town you wouldn’t expect to have many old people, and that was was fought by quite small numbers.

 

One problem about any story like this is that if the worst outcome is the end of the universe, you don’t really believe it could happen (that is, you don’t think the author will write the end that way). By contrast, a thriller in which the worst outcome is the death of a decent person or wealth or power falling into evil hands, as in John le Carre’s “The Constant Gardener”, you fully believe the author may make it happen.

 

It was a fun read, though. Oh, and given the theological/mythological backdrop, I thought the sheriff’s unusual surname (Highfather) was going to turn out to be highly significant. Maybe Belcher had that idea, but it isn’t spelt out.

 

 

THE END

Image

I looked for an apocalyptic picture of The End, but strangely, they’re hard to find on the net. This is actually the Great Fire of London, but it looks pretty apocalyptic.

Actually, this isn’t about that kind of End, or about this kind.

Image

It’s about the end of a poem.

 

When I started writing poetry again, I felt for a long time that endings were a weak point for me. Just as the Monty Python team found they often didn’t know how to end a sketch (hence those sudden shifts to And Now for Something Completely Different), I was aware that the last line of a poem had huge impact but struggled to find words that were up to the task.

 

Secretly, without realising it, I’ve changed. Last month I took part in an organised poetry reading at the Poetry Cafe in London, set up as a Colchester team against a London team (though actually there was no competition). Thinking about my own selection later, and also some poems I shared in a poets’ group not long after, I realised some of the endings worked particularly well (I think).

 

Here are some examples from the Poetry Cafe event. These are all poems I’ve posted here before.

 

TOMORROW

After a month of night, a reddish moon
Illuminates a new world, smoothes
The slivers of metal, softens the swathes
Of jagged concrete to
A pebble beach. The clumps of bodies become
A silvered sleeping army of dancing elves.
Nothing human moves,
But deep rats scrabble towards the surface
In the wounded rivers
Dragonfly larvae wait, and where the great trees stood
Fern spores survive. There will be
Another turn.
Tomorrow the relentless sun will rise.

WEYMOUTH BAY
The moonlight over the sea in a narrow, shimmering dark-speckled band
Links the horizon with the stony beach
To the left the town lights strung along the esplanade
In yellow and red do not shift
Being precise, defined; round the dark sea are the sounds of a town night
A drunken argument, a covey of old people chattering
Taxis’ irregular engine rumble;
A few late white gulls flap and swivel;
The glittering causeway is untrodden.

NIGHT VISION

Dark shape of a man against the drifts of white
The pale watching lights on concrete walls
The crump of boots in the untrodden snow
The short scream of an owl in the hidden wood.

No lights show in the sky, but the steady throb
Of a heavy heaving plane in the opaque air;
The dogs begin to bark; a light goes out.

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.

 

So what works about these endings? I should say I read some other poems whose endings I didn’t feel were so strong.

 

In the first poem, “Tomorrow, the relentless sun will rise” reminds us of the title “Tomorrow”. It marks the first time the sun will be visible after a month of night. But the key word, I suggest, is “relentless”. The sun is relentless. “Relentless” suggest cruel and ruthless as well as strong and persistent. Most life forms, including humanity, have been destroyed by some cataclysm, but “There will be another turn”. The sole word “relentless” raises the question, “Do we want another turn, when it may be no better?”.

 

In “Weymouth Bay” the last line again relates back to the beginning, this time to the first line instead of the title. It reminds us of the glittering band of light from the moon shining on the dark sea. But whereas the first line describes this fairly straightforwardly, the last line turns the band of light into a causeway people could walk on, but choose not to, setting off the magical against the mundane (a drunken argument, chatter, idling taxi engines, street lights).

 

In “Night Vision”, I think the reader begins to realise what is being described is a prison, a concentration camp or a prisoner of war camp. There is an atmosphere of menace, even in the big bomber or transport plane being hidden in cloud. “The dogs begin to bark” could suggest an escape attempt has been discovered. “A light goes out” could be just another piece of atmosphere – or it could mean the light of a human life has been extinguished. People seem to get this double meaning quite easily.

 

The last line of “The Tower” appears just to introduce more mythical things (we’ve had unicorns before, in the third line, and also dragons and the island of Avalon). But the poem describes the death of a dream. The woman dreams, becomes able to implement her dream, enjoys it briefly, then is shocked by the dream becoming threatening and retreats. But not only does the tower fall into ruin – her dream creatures do not die, but continue on the island searching for her. I think that comes as quite a shock.

 

Next time I’ll look at a few endings from other poems I read recently.

 

Sorry, by the way, for being silent for some time. Usual excuses.

 

Take care.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Harmony of the Spheres

Image

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.

Two short poems

Image

WHO IS THE THING THAT DOES NOT CRY?

Who is the thing that does not cry?

Who marches through without a loss?

Who finds no shadows in the forest,

Lives on a rock where nothing dies?

I made a statue with my hands

To clamp down happiness and peace

But it turned a killing beast

And I was left cold-eyed to stand.

THE FIRST STEP TO PEACE

The first step to my peace is restlessness,

For knowing of something else is reaching out

Reaching out is wondering

Wonder is peace

Not wondering is death

A quiet death

And I would sing.

Now first of all, anyone who recognises the statue – nothing personal. This is not a comment about a particular country and political and religious divide.

Secondly, both these short poems were written during the same activity, same place, same day. I wonder if anyone might guess at it. Precise right answers are very unlikely but wrong ones would be interesting.

See you. Hear you.

Simon

Why do bridges hate?

Bridges are a common and I suppose a rather obvious image in my poems, but here’s a new angle.

Image

WHY DO BRIDGES HATE?

WHY DO BRIDGES HATE?

If we have eyes to see the stars, why burn them out?

If we taste wine, why retch?

If we are rooted in the soil, why tear and wither?

We say the stars are distant; we are not the soil.

Why do bridges hate?

Now a bit more poetry quizzing. The last quote was from Louis MacNeice (“Wipers”); the clue was rather obscure but I’d already used a pun on his name (MacUncle) in a clue on other lines of his.

Now:

Full fathom five thy father lies

Of his bones are coral made

Those are pearls that were his eyes;

Nothing of him that doth fade

But doth suffer a sea-change

Into something rich and strange

CLUE: Stormy weather? Brandish your weapons.

Easy, that one – isn’t it??

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

Travellers and Magicians

From time to time I re-post poems that appeared here some time back but with some discussion or explanation. When I post a poem for the first time I try to keep such added text very short or totally absent in order not to direct people’s reactions. But discussion of poets’ own poems seems to be quite rare on the blogosphere and many people welcome it.

The most recent such posts have chosen a theme such as time or right and wrong and selected three or so poems that illustrated different approaches. That’s hard to keep up if only because it gets very hard to remember which poems I’ve re-posted. Besides, choosing a theme like that can lead to bias or misrepresentation in how I talk about the poem. Imagine if Keats had blogged some of his poems, chosen “birds” as a topic and entered “Ode to a Nightingale” in it.

So here goes with two poems that are vaguely related and were written around the same time.

 

JOURNEYMAN

 

Some day the rain shall tell me I should leave

Or the shortening days set off a bell

Quiet at first, insidious in the blood

So I will pack

Searching the sky for clues

The distant shimmer and blur that might be rain

Glance at the house

And set out by a route that gradually

Creates itself but will not turn on itself

Though I don’t know the city at the end.

 

I am a journeyman, I learn my trade

From hints and shallow inscriptions on low stones

And from the linking of the bones.

 

I am used to wandering

I travel light, I know the signs

The questioning cat, the blackened oak

The broken bridge, the river in spate

The posts turned round, the embered fire

Light in the sky and razor wire.

 

And so the stages wait, or maybe indifferent

I mark them with my feet for a few minutes

But swimming with a river in the mind

I grope and stumble, being alive and blind.

 

 

The first thing is to explain what a journeyman was, especially as the word has come to mean an uninspired plodder. A journeyman was a young craftsman learning his trade by travelling around the country taking on jobs as he went, learning from established people in his craft. A “journeyman piece” of furniture, for example, would be like an apprentice piece – possibly very good, but likely to show mistakes the experienced skilled worker would not make.

So in this poem I (or the person speaking) see myself as a journeyman – of what? Of poetry? Of life? Some of the lines are really quite straightforward: for example, “a route that gradually/ Creates itself but does not turn on itself” = a route that is not pre-set, but emerges gradually as I make my way – and does not lead me back where I came from. The journeyman is not learning from seeing carpentry or ironwork done, but from signs that may seem magical along a route that seems rural. I’m not aware of any special significance to the signs I’ve specified. His journey is partly in his mind “swimming with a river in my mind” and he is “blind” – aware that many things are hidden from him.

 

OUTWARD BOUND

 

Only one vessel, outward bound,

You need not change your course.

The dead gull goes round and round,

Looking for the source.

 

The waves are broken on the wall

The angular land is blind

No salt invades the marbled hall

Nor sails in the mind.

 

The sun is shining as it shone

But the words you talk

Are bronze untaught, of Eden gone

And a broken hawk.

 

Only one vessel, outward bound,

Turning of the tide,

The unknown sea is lost and found,

The rolling sky is wide.

 

 

This one draws on an image from my then recent memory – seeing a dead gull going round and round in an eddy of an estuary. Like “Journeyman” it’s about journeying and leaving. The possibilities, fluidity and uncertainty of the sea are contrasted with the cut-and-dried land, especially in the second verse. Like “Journeyman” the tone is quite optimistic: I expect to go on the journey and find new things. There are lines here I can’t explain: they seemed to make sense when I was composing it! Maybe they do. “Bronze untaught”, for example: I have a feeling that meant something, but search me now! Note the extra syllable in a generally regular poem in “The angular land is blind”: this emphasises the gawky, hard word “angular” and hence what I’m saying about the land.

 

 

 

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