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!

 

November Town

Image

NOVEMBER, TOWN

All grey, the autumn sky over

Yellowing-green leaves on branches

Stripping slowly. Starlings whirl

And settle, chattering. Dusk waits.

Silence in the street. The light

Seeps out.

Now there’s a nice short poem. OK, kids – now the first question. When do you think this poem was written – what time of year? WELL DONE! Now any idea what part of the world?

OK, just like the poem, or not.

Over Rannoch Moor

Image

Rannoch Moor in the Western Highlands of Scotland is a wild and bleak place, bleakly beautiful on a day like this above, but a killer in bad weather.

But is this just about the Moor?

OVER RANNOCH MOOR

I wandered over Rannoch Moor in my mind

By an old track where dragonflies veered and hovered

Round the boggy margins of a lochan

Past the last stones of a long-fallen shieling

And there was nothing to do, nothing to fear

The wide and shifting sky was blue and grey

Only a single unseen skylark singing.

Lochan: a small loch or lake.

Shieling: a summer shelter for herdsmen and maybe animals; a small farm building in upland Scotland and Northern England.

I hope most of you had a happy Christmas

Image

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

Robin song

I’m a birdwatcher. You can tell that because I make it one word. Anyone who writes “bird watcher” isn’t one.

In a temperate country like Britain, there are huge movements of birds in spring and autumn. People are most aware of the summer visitors (arriving in the spring after spending the winter in Africa), but we have winter visitors too – birds that come from the Arctic or at least much further north, anywhere between Greenland and western Russia, to spend the winter in milder Britain. In a northern country like Finland, almost everything moves out in autumn. In an equatorial country like Kenya, you notice kinds of birds appearing that aren’t there all year: these have come from further north where winter is approaching. I’ve lived in both those countries.

Events like the first cuckoo call in spring or the arrival of flocks of winter thrushes on the East coast in October/November are conspicuous and quite well-known. But there are less well-known seasonal variations.

Robins (the European Robin, not the much bigger thrush called “Robin” in North America) stop singing for a while after the breeding season ends. But they’re highly territorial birds, the song tells other Robins the territory is taken (and is beautiful to our ears) and they start singing again in autumn. For some weeks Robins had been very hard to find round where I live. Then suddenly, yesterday, they were singing.

Now this is a poetry blog. For someone so interested in wildlife, I don’t directly write about birds, mammals and so on as much as, say, Ted Hughes did, but they do appear.

Here they play a part in a story (Spirit Mountain):

(but here, I fear, formatting will insist on appearing: though I’ve followed the instructions of my internet friend Neelima and also done the obvious thing of selecting “remove formatting”, it keeps jumping up on the Preview. This may be because of how I’m copying text from a word file. Well, I’m going to post this now and will try to fix the problem next time!

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Screeches and groans

Tear the night, only I

Know they’re ravens

Not demons.

In this poem I’m spending a night on a supposedly haunted/holy mountain, as I did, and realising that the strange noises come from those big crows, Ravens.

Here’s the start of “Breaking Time”:

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TREASURE ISLAND

The pirate sails through swivelling seas

And gains his goal through knife and trick

He lands at dawn with craftsman’s skill

The island’s multicoloured birds

The heavy scent of hanging flowers

Hold his attention for a while

It comes naturally to me in imagining a tropical island, to think of the birds!

Maybe because I know a lot about birds as birds, I don’t use them much as images suggesting something else, but here I do:

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LOST ISLAND

I don’t know whether the man at the gate has blundered,

But when I arrived I thought I was going to

An island no-one else remembered

But here the flesh has covered up the sand

And made a picture postcard of the sea.

I don’t know whether the island I remember,

The gap-topped tower you could climb to watch the sea,

Exists; the ferry timetables no longer mention it

But maybe the envelope I left on the floor

Contained an invitation or a feather

From that white bird that soared above the tower.

I’m not a “nature poet”, but I do write a few things of that type:

MERLIN

Mud slurries, sparkles in blue sky’s snatches

Wormholes wither and dry

Salt sea recedes, Grey Plover stalks

The tide is out.

Suddenly a shape, dark in the sun

Sharp-winged, intense over the swivelling saltmarsh:

Merlin!

A Merlin is a very small, fast falcon. Grey Plover is a wading bird that breeds in the high Arctic and arrives with us from August.

I did find one mention of Robins in a poem about autumn. Their mellow, sad-sounding song seems appropriate to the season. But the biggest influence of birdwatching on me as a poet is that it’s taken me to moors, estuaries, islands, forests…

Finally an apology. An internet friend (step forward, Neelima) pointed out that the formatting was showing on my recent posts. She gave me advice on sorting it. Let’s see…


		

Storm Sea

Another very short poem:

 

STORM SEA

 

Not a blue, glittering sea but yellow-brown–grey

Hammers at the wall and draws the grains away

A twisted gull skirmishes with the air

The old watchtower hunches for a flare.

 

 

Copyright Simon Banks 2012

Please, what is time?

This is supposed to be what a Japanese tourist at a main London railway station said to an elderly, studious-looking Englishman. The reply he received, of course, was,

“Sir, you have asked a most profound question.”

I don’t really try to answer that question, though I did read Stephen Hawking’s “A Brief History of Time”, but I am fascinated by time and it shows both in my study of History and in my poetry. Here are three poems (already posted on this blog) in all of which time is an important element.

 

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.

 

 

BY THE GATE

 

The cloaked man waiting by the gate

Shivers in the warming day

The planned arrival’s running late

West wind drives the clouds away

 

The cloaked man taps his booted feet

Fumbles out a stained small case,

Stares at a photo; fingers beat

On holster; silence in his face

 

A movement down the uneven road

Pulls him to a straighter stance

The guards decant the expected load

Through the gate the groups advance

 

The gate is shut. He has to wait,

Hears a skylark in the sky.

The man’s gone through another gate

And like the load, begins to die.

 

 

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 first, short poem is my reaction to an old wall. For sure the people who built it are long dead. Even its purpose is now unclear. But I wonder about those people and am aware that I share things with them.

 

The second is less about time. It’s about death, duty and conscience. The soldier or paramilitary policeman is not a bad man. He wants to do his duty and see his family again. But he’s supporting a mass murder, a group of unarmed people being executed. I was thinking about the Second World War and I imagined the guard as a German or Nazi ally, but even within the span of the technology described (a gun, a presumably motorised vehicle) this scene could be in many places and times: it’s a recurring tragedy.

I use simple language and understatement to convey both horror and the deadening of senses. The guard is surviving by desensitising himself to suffering: but there is a cost.

 

The third is very much about time. The opening quote is Keats, of course, from his “Ode to a Nightingale”. Keats saw the Nightingale as immortal in contrast to his own short, doomed life. I remind myself that real Nightingales are individuals which live a lot shorter lives than Keats. But then with Keats I realise that even though the Nightingales are different, the same song was heard by humans in very different times and situations. I quote just two examples – the Spartan warriors at Thermopylae and the first Homo sapiens (or humans of any sort) to reach Europe. This brings me to remember other experiences that unite me with people long-dead (smelling salt water, reaching the top of a ridge and seeing a vast wilderness stretching out) and I have a sense of their continuing presence.

When I wrote this poem I’d been reading a lot of Tennyson and I suspect the line “Where treeless, manless, sweeps the unmarked waste” is one I wouldn’t have written otherwise. The sense of it is very me but the inversion and sweep of the thing is more Tennyson. In the last line, the nightingale’s notes are “Lone and many”, recalling that this may be one bird, but it sings as others have sung.

 

Copyright Simon Banks 2012

 

Autumn

Written in this season last year. Read last week in our local Harwich poetry group as the theme was Autumn. The first three contributions read, mine included, all mentioned roads.

 

This poem came together in Chest Wood near Colchester.

 

AUTUMN

 

At the completeness of the year

Yellow, scarlet, claret, orange flare

One dissolves in the other, unique colour,

Beech, dogwood, spindle, aspen, elm

Blazing dead fronds of bracken. Robins still sing.

Last swallow lingers.

Soft damp, a hint of fertile rotting

Cold, sharp, a sense of winter’s hardening

Tumult of migrants misted in the air.

 

Past the long changing wood

The road runs fast, cars jockey,

Schedules are met, business done

And the computers speak

Of golden beaches in the sun.

 

copyright Simon Banks 2012

Something of Rain

 

“Something of rain in the air,” the old man said

As I walked towards the station

Swifts screaming lower

Something darkening.

 

“Some kind of change in the air,” the old man said

As the smoky sky became solid,

Something of change, yes,

But I can’t define it.

 

Something of wariness

Something of waiting

What will the rain bring

Down to the parching?

 

Copyright Simon Banks 2012

 

Outward Bound

A bit of a mystical poem now, but sparked to some extent by Harwich quay and by seeing a dead gull floating in the estuary not far from there.

 

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.

 

 

Copyright Simon Banks 2012