Water, water

Drop Falling into Water

 

I sort of promised to come back and talk a bit about those two poems about water, or maybe I should say “with water”.

 

So I’ll sort of do that.

 

The first one, “Dead Water”, runs through a number of changes involving water. The Sahara was once not a desert, but grassland, so had much more water than today. Rising water levels and subsidence led to much of the great ancient city of Alexandria on the Egyptian coast disappearing into the sea. The area now occupied by the Black Sea was once fertile, low-lying land which was inundated quite quickly when the Mediterranean broke in, perhaps sparking the widespread legends about a great flood in the Middle East. Mars once had both standing and running water. But as I go, I’m becoming less descriptive and more visionary.

 

All these changes lead me to the thought a lot of people push away – that the human race itself, and its planet, are mortal. But I end with imagining rebirth.

 

Water has an obvious and literal presence in this poem, but it’s also probably an image standing for life.

 

“Beach at High Tide” is more straightforward and literal. It’s about a beach at high tide – the one near my home, mainly. Most of the people I meet there have dogs. The dogs lead the people – or they give the people an excuse to walk by the waves without seeming odd. My “justification” is not a dog, but a pair of binoculars.

 

Then I turn from the people and their nervousness to the sea itself. There is change – “the new sun”, suggesting it’s early in the morning – but also changelessness. The sound of the waves is old.

 

Now here’s one more water poem. I fear I am becoming epigrammatic. An epigrammarian? Epigrammatician?

 

WATERCARRIER

I carry water: my body is mostly
Made of it.
Squeeze me to remember
The sea.

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

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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.

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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

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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.

An unseasonal poem

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Well, the whole New Year mythology pretty much leaves me cold: 1st January 2014 is the day after 31st December 2013 and the next day is 2nd January 2014. By the way, most computers seem to try very hard to impose the American date system, which is bafflingly illogical: a date consisting of day, month, year is a combination of three measurements of which the day is the most specific and the year the most general, so there are two logical ways of presenting it – day, month, year or year, month, day. We Brits do it the first way. Americans set it out as month, day, year – a bit like an address going Bristol Road, 97, Gloucester.

That rant over – on to the next one. Supermarkets have many advantages, but the busy crowds and the noise (including tinny music too loud) make me want to get out of most of them as soon as possible. Over the Christmas period the music is dominated by a few Christmas songs we’ve been hearing dozens of times in a few days and in the rare event the song seemed good to start with, it sounds horribly trite the twelfth time. It’s interrupted by an announcement that starts by wishing shoppers a happy/merry Christmas before immediately suggesting they buy a lot of stuff on special offer. I suspect I’m not the only one to mouth something not very polite – not because I lack a positive attitude towards Jesus Christ, pagan midwinter festivals, wine, whisky and Christmas pudding (this ignorant spellcheck objects to WHISKY, which is the only correct spelling for the Scottish or Welsh stuff, and wants to change it to whiskey, fine if I was talking about the Irish drink) but because I sniff an intention of equating happiness and goodwill with buying their products, specifically the ones they’d hoped to shift days earlier.

So – am I a Scrooge? Judge for yourself (but the final decision is mine: after all, I take full responsibility for myself).

MERRY CHRISTMAS

Merry Christmas, shoppers!

As usual there are brilliant special offers

Why not try…

Why not cry

The tinny music’s loud enough to drown, don’t fear,

An inconvenient noise amid Christmas cheer.

I hope most of you had a happy Christmas

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I’m not particularly joining in the Bah Humbug message (my search for Christmas Gloom images did not turn up a wide selection), though visiting the supermarket today to find tinny music blaring out a message of Christmas good cheer equates taking advantage of all those special offers did make me a bit humbuggish. I suppose the abstract noun is humbuggery.

What I wanted to point out, being rather honest and world-battered, is that a wish that everyone in a group of ten or more has a happy Christmas is unrealistic and I’ve always believed in making wishes and objectives practical if only just. So I recommend, to a group of ten people, “I hope nine of you have a happy Christmas.”

Now for a poem. This is a recent one of mine and I think I’ll leave it to you to see any common theme in the three parts.

THREE

ETERNAL CITY

He mentioned the eternal city, but the timetable is out of date,

Some of the stops have been washed away or closed;

The internet gives me pictures of it, but they’re disputed

Someone claims the mysterious hand is his

And has the ring to prove it. I have heard the music,

But perhaps it’s coming from next door’s TV;

The undeciphered symbols wrenched from the desert

May be accounts or a maker’s production numbers

Or simply random scribbles we’ve invested

With our own need for pattern. Going outside

I see the stars, step back and shut the door,

I read a pamphlet, get a cup of coffee

And grasp only in my sleep for a hidden city.

GOLDEN EGG

Up this tall, beautiful tree is a great bird’s nest

The bird is black, its talons crush skulls like paper

And in the nest, a single golden egg

Which you say contains all the wisdom ever thought

And I say would make me a lord if melted down.

We would both climb for it

But the trunk is too high, the branches insubstantial,

Buckling even under the weight of a squirrel

(So the old woman says) and we dare not do it and die

But you fear what the hatching from the egg would bring

That’s why you climbed and cried and fell and died.

SEA VOICES

Some say the drowned sailors are calling in the sea-wind,

And some, lost children, chattering in the foam;

Some hear the butchered whales’ song, but I

Just hear the wind, the beating of the waves,

Rasping of pebbles rounded over the years.

They say the lost creatures, whatever they are, will lead you out

Beckoning, alluring, to a death by drowning

But I see none of that, and so I follow.

Copyright Simon Banks 2013

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

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

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

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…