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.

Two short poems about water

Or are they?

 

DEAD WATER

When the Sahara was green this was a river.
The statues of wonderful Alexandria
Stare in salt water.
Under the Black Sea are valleys,
Flooded settlements.
I have seen the lost rivers of live Mars.
Humans will end, and the Earth that made them.
I sense the rise of new rivers.

 

BEACH AT HIGH TIDE
The dogs on the narrow beach race or pad
The dog-walkers have their dogs to take them for walks
I wear binoculars round my neck
That also is a justification.

The new sun glints on wave-crests and shallow still water
The sound of the waves is old.

 

I think I’ll leave those for now without comment or explanation and come back to talk a bit about them.

Lands End

Neanderthal Lute

A second poem that reflects my fascination with Neanderthals – this time thinking about the discovery of a piece of worked bone of Neanderthal origin that had a number of regularly-spaced holes in it, so it’s hard to imagine it wasn’t a musical instrument like a lute.

 

NEANDERTHAL LUTE

 

So they had music.

What tunes have we lost, what songs,

What thoughts? What did they think of us,

Who dreamed ourselves explorers

And, with the deadly weather, doomed them?

What is left in us, those few well-hidden genes

In which they notionally survive?

 

The figure lurking by the tree is a dead stump

The waves clap in the empty cave.

 

Two notes on this: the current view on the extinction of Homo neanderthalis is that a sudden change in the weather which destroyed large areas of forest in Europe and Western Asia had a devastating effect on them as they were well-adapted for forest hunting. As for the impact of Homo sapiens, there are still lots of debates, but we will certainly have competed for resources which will have been scarce at the crucial time, so the Neanderthals may have reached the tipping point through a combination of rivalry from sapiens and environmental changes, when neither alone would have done it. Since our own species frequently fights its own over scarce resources and non-human predators often make efforts to take out rivals, it would be very surprising if our species didn’t fight and kill Neanderthals some of the time. How much contact there was between the two species is uncertain: maybe we traded as well as fought, and in Iraq there is evidence of sapiens and neanderthalis living side by side for hundreds of years, but the interbreeding seems to have happened almost entirely very soon after the two species first met. That’s the second note – that it is now established modern Homo sapiens carries two to four per cent Neanderthal genes – except for pure sub-Saharan Africans, who have none. Oh, and some of the last neanderthalis populations lived in sea caves in what today is Spain and Portugal.

 

Copyright Simon Banks 2012

The Dull Valley

On to another poem I wrote a while back, reflecting on time and consciousness.

 

THE DULL VALLEY

 

Intellect wanders restlessly in the dark

Directing a great electric torch:

What is seen is, the rest is not;

The torch moves on, the dark settles.

Intellect dreams of day:

Light colonises road and fell;

Street-fighting, breaks into the wood’s recesses

And the arrays of the angular library.

 

Between the blocks of a drystone wall,

Behind the books, in the bole of an ash,

Between the child’s clothes folded in the drawer,

The live dark pulses, waiting to ooze out

Or spring like fountain. Perhaps the time will come,

Maybe on a gripped planet, ours being done,

When day and dark will die in unison,

But not in this moment ever.

 

I have found a stone of time:

That is why it is heavy, it holds

Giant sloth, therapsid, dinosaur,

Beginning of life and of the universe

And maybe other universe before.

It strains my hands; I lay it down.

The open fell remembers forest and tide

And will remember the farm and my footfall

(Which I forget).

Under the rough grass, stone.

 

“Are you happy?” the inspector said

At the toll before waving me through.

I showed my passport and my driving licence

And he was satisfied.

Happiness fluttered like paper in the air

And was scattered in wind but the word stood;

Fountains of dark glinted in their flow,

The light whirled in the wind, the paper patterned:

Down the dull valley

I saw the outline of an ancient road.

 

 

Copyright Simon Banks 2012

Apparently anything can be poetry, so it seems safe to say this is

So it’s important and you ought to look at it seriously. OK, I’m being ironic: putting something boring, uninspired, mannered or prancingly self-indulgent in short lines in a nice shape and calling it poetry and art doesn’t make it any more worthy of attention than anything else anyone writes or says.

 

Still, you might find these interesting – more re-posted poems with discussion. Do join in!

 

SPRING MIGRANTS

 

When the pack ice cracks

When hostile green shoots break through the hard earth

Snow whisks off like a white sheet to reveal

Grassy mound, ruin, bare rock or field

The wanderers’ ship will come

Taking soundings slowly

They will unload their cattle, cloth and pulleys

Build their stony church and wooden houses

When the short days are lit by pallid snowfall

Only the white beasts roam the land again.

 

The strangeness of this poem is that it talks as if the changes of the seasons take place over many years. I suppose one influence was the Science Fiction series by Brian Aldiss (I think – I haven’t read it but have seen it referred to) on Helliconia, where each season lasts hundreds of years. Thus states and cultures could be adapted to a particular season and could die when the weather changed and people and other life-forms would carry out migrations not unlike those that happened when an ice age was beginning or ending. Another was a TV programme on the Norse settlement of Greenland, that flourished for a while but died out when the weather became long-term colder. Cattle, cloth, stone churches and wooden houses would fit the Norse culture of the time very well.

 

When the snow vanishes it reveals mounds and ruins, suggestive of earlier vanished settlements. When the snow and ice return, so do the “white beasts” (polar bears?).

 

LINKS

 

Sometimes if you stand in just this corner of the car-park

Soft fronds will caress your face from the yew-tree forest

That grew on the flattened hillside here; your hand stretching out will encounter

Twisted, hair-cracked and creviced roughened tree-trunks.

Sometimes a plastic bag will waft across like a ghost

Through the enchanted long-dead forest and out again.

 

 

Here where the stabilised ferry hums through grey-green waters

Under that crazy-angled floating box

The mastodon fell and was butchered, the people rested from hunting

Wolverine waited and watched and the warning snowflakes

Silently fell on the skins and the lichens and lips.

 

 

The exiled unbroken woman drops a stone in the glade

That she found on the shore where the boat bumped in and grounded

Her feet make a pattern like a broken necklace

Through the green grass and unfolding ferns and last year’s leaves.

Perhaps she returned to the marks she left or even

Perhaps she will return when the old leaves grow green

And the order of things that we knew is thrown up in the branches

And falls in a different pattern we knew all along.

 

 

The poem describes two worlds existing in one place, with communication between the two possible. This idea is at the root of many myths from shamanistic beliefs to the European belief in “elfland”. Here, though, in the first verse it seems that one – the yew-tree forest – existed in the past. Since then the forest has been felled, the hill has been levelled and now there is a car-park, but the forest can still be reached.

 

The second verse describes a similar situation: where the ferry now ploughs through the sea (North Sea?) was once land where humans, mastodons and wolverines existed. I may be unhistorical here as I gather European mastodons died out before they encountered humans, unlike American ones. The “warning snowflakes” may warn of a snowstorm or of a new advance of ice.

 

The third verse is less clear. There is no longer a distinction between the past and the present of a location. An exiled woman has landed, has left marks and may return. The woman seems to be some kind of messenger or to have magic powers (but maybe that’s a way of seeing all of us).  There is again something strange happening with time because the old leaves will grow green, as though time is reversing (but this could also mean when the rotted old leaves turn into green new ones in spring). At the end is the suggestion that the way we understand things, the pattern, will be fundamentally altered into a new pattern that we somehow already suspected.

 

This poem uses a lot of alliteration (sometimes, stand, soft; wolverine, waited, watched, warning) and achieves effect by the sound of the words: contrast the soft sounds of the first two lines with the harsh sounds of the fourth, conveying the roughness of yew bark – or the way “bumped in and grounded” suggests the thump and grind of a small boat grounding.

 

copyright Simon Banks 2012

 

SEA MIST WITH RAIN

 

The sky in infinite shades of grey

Wraps the weather-quiet town

Cool-silenced Sunday afternoon.

Ships blur

To ominous, mysterious castles.

Over towards the point the mist is thicker.

 

As the blue side of a great ship, stacked high

With giant boxes coagulates from the mist

A veil of rain drives in.

 

And now a nice simple one! Everyday sights in a port become mysterious in the mist. It describes familiar sights for someone living as I do in the Harwich area, seeing ships coming in to Felixstowe and Parkeston from the North Sea. Again I’ve used alliteration (all the Ss and Ws in the first verse) and soft sounds to convey blurry mist and soft rain. The word “coagulates” for a large shape appearing from the mist is unusual, but I think apt.

 

And now I fancy a mug of tea. Back in a day or two.

 

 

 

Gloomy. Obscure. Negative. Vague. This sounds good…

I’m carrying on commenting on some poems I’ve already posted. They aren’t necessarily the best in my opinion, as some poems seem to me to be fairly obvious in their meaning and technique, and they could just possibly be good. The first one here, though, seems to me to be one of my best.

UNDERWATER

When you slip under

The long lying line of waves

Strange shapes will come

Silently propelled by waft of flipper

Or sinuous pulsing of a streamlined torso

And some maybe you knew and had forgotten

Dirt shovelled over the well has been removed

Remember the time before you broke the surface

Gasped, fumbled, burrowed

And survived by stratagem?

Now you return to them

Learning to be like a fish

Wander and linger

Here where the pearly nautilus waves unchanging

Here with the ammonite and plesiosaur

And where squat fish that never see the sunlight

Thread through great feathery banks of frond

Of hidden sting and jaw

Do you rise up towards the scattered sunlight

The crushing waves, the inconsistent wind,

The seabird that will fly to a rocky island

Drawing life from the depths, their crowded night?

When you are playing with the waves

Will you remember

Here on the fine-grained shore (maybe imagine)

Beneath the corals and the painted fish

Down with the vents, the eyeless creatures

Some heavy hidden box

That had an answer,

Where you will return?

Will you return?

The obvious meaning of the poem is a description of diving deep in a sea full of life. Some things here fit in with a literal interpretation – for example, at the deep sea bed they may indeed be vents and eyeless creatures, and seabirds do indeed draw sustenance from the teeming life in the sea. But the tone is dreamlike and it may not be a big surprise to encounter long-extinct ammonites and plesiosaurs, creatures a human would have to time travel to meet. This sea is not only full of life and variety – it’s timeless.

The sea can be a metaphor and activating image for death, eternity and the unconscious. This sea has something of all these.

What about lines 6-10? We seem to have come out of the sea. But the image of dirt shovelled over a well being removed is one of rediscovering something deliberately hidden – and the well can convey the past, the unconscious or a dissolution of familiar identity.  Lines 8-10 refer to sea-life first adapting to survive on land – something in our deep past. So here as elsewhere in the poem we’re travelling back in time, as if before the eyes of a dying person flashed not only their life, but their line’s life.

In the third verse we return from the Underworld, knowing that our life outside it is fed by it. We’re like the seabird that lives on cliffs or an island (a projection of land) but could not live without the depths.

In the last verse we’re on the shore. We may return to the depths for something valuable.

This is a poem where the sound of the words matters a lot and where I use alliteration frequently.

THREE

Three sisters dancing hand in hand

They turn and whirl each in her world

At different speeds disturb the leaves

Which dancing from the forest floor

Reject the empire of the wind

Three sisters dancing hands apart

They look at nothing but the leaves

If one begins to glow with fire

If one begins to freeze with ice

They will not know, they will not meet

Three sisters dancing on the heath

Long after forest decayed and died

The one is like a flaming torch

The other cold and deadly dry

The third alive and stepping high.

The number three seems to touch something deep in us. It appears over and over again in myth, in ballad and in religion (the Trinity). Three sisters could be Shakespeare’s “three weird sisters” (“weird” meaning of pre-Christian religion), in other words, witches. My inspiration for this, though, was reading about the early history, as we now understand it, of Earth, Mars and Venus, which may once have been quite similar, but Mars went one way (lost its atmosphere and froze) and Venus the other (was smothered by its atmosphere and became far too hot for life) while Earth became suitable for life.

FOUNDER

I have set my foot in the wet sand

And seen the alien trees, the dangerous berries

Of a new land

It cannot speak before I name it

It is asleep before I claim it

I give a name to this unwary bird

Before I kill it and I tread a track

So as to become a road that traders travel;

Where I have hacked a space inside the thicket

Will be a city, I can hear the talk

Like pebbles clashing in the shifting stream

Not song nor scream

What I have not named, in the lurking forests

Will die until its bones are resurrected

Leaving its shadow over fruitful fields

Rotting the yields.

This is a rather dark adaptation of the Australian Aborigine naming myth. The first humans come to virgin land. They exploit it for their survival and begin a process which will leave to profound changes. They believe by finding and naming things they’re bringing them to life – but some things are not discovered and named, but die as a result of the human arrival. Later people will discover their remains and reconstruct their lives, but the destruction hangs over us.

Enough for now…

copyright Simon Banks 2012

Nightingale Remembered

 

“Thou wast not born for death, immortal bird,

No hungry generations tread thee down”

But nightingales are begotten, born and die

Living a lifespan lesser than a dog.

 

I sing back not to the immortal song

But to the bird that might not last the summer.

 

Though fumbling in the enveloping folds of time

I hear what Spartans at Thermopylae

Recalled and what some thornscratched hunter heard

When humans first had wandered across sands

Into a colder, richer, trap-strewn land;

And when I smell salt water or top the ridge

Where treeless, manless, sweeps the unmarked waste

I am not the first, and clustering, unseen eyes

Share, and another mouth remembers taste

And lone and many, the nightingale’s notes rise.

 

The quote, of course, is John Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale”. I remind myself that actual nightingales are birds, beings with individualities and short lives – but join Keats in fining the nightingale’s song a link to other humans who heard it.

If we deconstruct these poems, we can put all the letters in a different order!

OK, I know “deconstruct” doesn’t quite mean that, but it has a chilling, dehumanising sound. I don’t want to dehumanise my poems, though maybe throughhumanise them. Here’s some more with comment.

DIGGING DOWN

I have found an old guilt:

By scrabbling in the dirt with callused hands

Brushing away the low lying deposits

Stories of murderous giant and cackling troll

Caressing away the grime I find the skull

It grins at me as if to say: what I lost

You lost, my killer friend.

This could relate to a number of things and I wouldn’t want to close off those avenues for people reading it. However, what I had in mind was Neanderthals. These close relatives of “homo sapiens” were specialised to survive cold and hostile conditions and lived in Europe and South-west Asia through a period of ice ages and interglacials. After Homo sapiens, having spread out of Africa into the Arabian peninsula, reached the main mass of Asia and Europe, Neanderthals disappeared, though hanging on for some time in Spain and Portugal.

When Neanderthals remains were first identified, they were characterised as brutish “cavemen”. Bit by bit the stereotypes were knocked down. They were not unable to stand straight – that was a careless conclusion from the skeleton of an old man with arthritis! Their hunting methods showed a high level of ingenuity, planning and co-ordination. Their brains were on average slightly larger than ours (but their body mass was somewhat greater, and some think the brain/ body mass ratio is what counts). They had the physical equipment needed for speech, and given the evidence of rapid development of co-ordinated hunting, it is very likely they had speech. About twelve years ago I remember a TV programme confidently asserting that they had no art – but since then two examples have been discovered, of an apparent flute and a worked stone with bone inserted to make a face, that are hard to explain otherwise than as art. Their extinction in the face of competition from sapiens was attributed to a limited diet short on fish and seafood – but for some Neanderthal colonies, even that no longer stands.

What happened between the two species is largely a mystery. They were so close ecologically that they would certainly have competed for limited food and shelter resources. Drastic climate change in Europe around the time they disappeared will have worked against them as they were best at hunting in forest and much of the forest vanished. The two species may have fought: we just don’t know, but it seems likely over scarce resources. It was long disputed whether they might have interbred and it is only in the last few years that DNA analysis has proved they did – but very early in sapiens’ spreading out from Africa, so all humans today except pure Africans carry some small Neanderthal genetic heritage. Maybe some day we’ll find out what it is.

This poem is written on the assumption that our species did play a part in the extinction of our close siblings. The skull is a Neanderthal one. The deposits removed are of low-lying soil but are also low, lying sapiens stories about neanderthalis. I suspect some mythical beastly and threatening human-like creatures may contain representation of other humanoids, in particular neanderthalis, and trolls seem quite a good fit.

We have lost from the loss of an allied species. “No man is an island…therefore do not ask for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for thee.” (John Donne).

EVOLUTION

In random clash of chemicals

Hot flow over new rocks

There are no palisades or names

Tall fires burn

A thinning smoke is lingering;

In the anonymous wash

Something has happened.

Something begins to pulse, divide,

Feed, organise,

Ally.

 

Water is life: the oceans, the one body

Teem with a writhing dissonance of life

Creatures are born and die

In this world are no boundaries or strongholds

No sharp hard barriers but always danger

But here and there dead hardness meaning death

To anything washed up there: barren land.

 

In the half-dead, half-living place

Something survives and changes.

Life finds land.

 

Among the crumbling bones of the giants

That fire struck down in sea and marsh and forest

Under the dark and smothering, strangling sky

Small creatures scurry: one line is broken, but

Another rises for a while.

The giants’ cities hang with tumbling flowers.

Some titles don’t tell you much, being more a first line of the poem than a description of the subject. This is a straightforward title: the poem is about evolution. It starts with chaos before life. Life organises to perpetuate life. Multi-celled organisms are organisations of cells which still resemble unicellular creatures. At first life is only in the seas – a fertile source of food and of predators, living and barrierless. Land means death. But then living organisms find ways of adapting to live on land.

We then jump to a disaster that has destroyed “the giants” but left small creatures as successors. It’s natural to think the giants were the dinosaurs  and the successors were mammals, our ancestors – but did dinosaurs have cities?

The poem is deliberately rough-edged and irregular to help convey that early chaos.

IN THE VALLEY OF THE STONES

This valley is thick with time

It seems to coagulate in my hands

Only to slip through them

The sarson stones lie randomly round an axis

Or clustered in small groups like some

Ambushed patrol. The hillside terracing no longer

Cares for the crops, only sheep manoeuvre

Round the stubborn lines

Who came here when the glacier withdrew

Who farmed here, that is in the time

That laps round these soft hills and asks for questions.

What will be here, I’m deaf, I cannot tell

Is it there somewhere in the swirling

And slowly settling time, or on the wind

There to be caught or dropped and in the balance?

The Valley of the Stones (that’s its name) is in Dorset. I may be wrong in suggesting a glacier reached that far south in England. It’s a remarkable place because big oblong stones called sarsons are scattered across rough grassland. It would be natural to assume that they were man-made and abandoned there, but they’re not. Standing there, I felt a strong sense of time and past, almost palpable. I try to convey that here. So if somehow I can sense the past, what about the future?

all text copyright Simon Banks 2012

Wall

 

When the grey seas beat down on this low wall

Remember us who built it high and died

We knew the fish of the sea, we knew the soaring falcon,

We tasted bread and wine and love and loss.

 

This isn’t any one particular wall, but I’ve encountered many places that would fit.

 

I think this is a record – the shortest poem I’ve posted here and coming just after the second longest.

 

Of course, no-one, not even the “writer”, can “know” what the poem “means”, but still…

…academics can tie themselves in some fascinating knots and, it is even rumoured, disappear up their own theories.

Here’s some more commentary on poems I’ve already posted:

EDEN

The fruit slipped ripe into the hand

The hunting hard, but always good,

The trees made shade to sleep within

That was the Eden we once knew

 

They say. Then a hard awkward seed, hard won

Out of a rasping husk whispered to Eve:

I am a million. You’ll be rich

Your children’s children will be many.

She took the seed and planted it.

 

The trees were felled, the game was killed

The seed told truth, but the new life

Was sweating hard, and then the rains

That always held back, always came

Did not come. Eden’s loss

Could not have been through a grass seed,

And so it was a snake instead.

I’ve long had a theory (which may well be wrong) that the myth of the Garden of Eden, which apparently has similar versions in other traditions than the Jewish, reflects the transition from a hunter-gatherer to an agrarian lifestyle. This first happened, it seems, in present-day Turkey, not at all far from Israel.  Hunter-gatherers existed in very small numbers, but their diet was varied, their tasks and life quite varied too, and in places where food was abundant they had plenty of spare time. Agriculture allowed much bigger and more settled communities to develop, which tended to be more hierarchical and to have a quite limited diet, with a huge amount of time taken up by repetetive tasks such as grinding corn. Moreover, some of the easiest places to farm were vulnerable to over-farming and becoming unsuitable for crops quite quickly, and loss of tree cover to make space for fields and villages may well have contributed to reduction of rainfall. Of course, agriculture was the future and necessary for cililisation, but it will have seemed a hard transition to many and might well be reflected negatively in myth.

In this poem, Eve is the first farmer. She sees the potential of the edible grass-seed. The result is the desertification of the Garden of Eden. The farmers cannot face the truth of what they’ve done, so create a myth of the evil snake leading Eve astray.

ETERNAL CITY

In the eternal city

Brilliantly planned

The pavements stretch forever

Covered, smooth, safe

Here and there the off-white

Changes to mid-grey

Or the palest of yellows

Interesting, bland

 

The planning is now wiser

The people aren’t dwarfed

Turned into clumsy figures

Unruly shape and smell

Now they fit in

Piazzas or plazas

Though someone cries in them

Are welcoming

 

Underneath the pavements

Coursing, unseen,

Suppressed creek and stream

And the bones of sea-monsters

Turning, not quite dead,

Swim into dream.

I suppose this poem is about urban landscapes and town planning, and behind that, our wish to control and belief that we control when we don’t, as well as maybe the fragile victory of the rational, conscious mind over the unconscious and the spiritual. The “eternal city” is not Heaven, but an idea of urban landscapes lasting forever. It’s well-planned, to do it justice, and ought to be comfortable. Dangers have been eliminated (reflected by the soft colour tones). “Piazzas or plazas” – same word in Italian or Spanish, meaning a town square) have been planned in to encourage people to mix and have fun.  But people are left unsatisfied. One who cries may not be comforted. Suppressed undercurrents survive unrecognised, things we thought we’d done away with – and they can emerge.