Silence!

Apologies to those who follow this blog and actually look forward to the posts (yes, I know who you are and where you live).

 

Let me reassure any who were worried about my silence. I am alive. Well, I made a “friend” of a guy on one of the social media sites once, someone I knew and actually did not get on with very well, and soon after he died. I went on getting prompts to endorse him for things for ages after. It seemed eery.

 

I’m alive but very busy with an election (the Clacton parliamentary and Brightlingsea county council by-elections). This doesn’t take up all my time but does make it hard to concentrate on meaningful blog posts.

 

You didn’t know I was a political activist? Good. I mean it would worry me if people could deduce a complete picture of me from my involvement in one thing (poetry). Mind you, scientists can do that with dinosaur bones.

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Two short poems

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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

Servants

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Another old poem from my collection – this time about fundamentalists. My apologies to the guy in the picture: I spent a long time looking for pictures to illustrate religious fundamentalism, but who’d have guessed it – all the pictures showed people who were identifiably Muslim! Now my contact with evangelising fundamentalists has mostly been with Christian ones because of my background.

They’re not all bad and my poem is about what is probably a particular sub-set, those who are determined to convert people and prepared to be dishonest and deceitful to do so (some undoubtedly wouldn’t do this) and who also are absolutely determined to appear to be happy because to cry or show depression would be to deny God’s power. The poem is an argument against this. In case it’s misunderstood, it absolutely is not an argument against Christianity or religion. I count myself religious and a Christian.

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SERVANTS

 

With fervent voice they praise the Lord;

The fundamentals of their choice

Wrenched from the Bible they enforce

And with a smile apply the sword.

 

They weave a web for passers-by

Of friendly chat and neighbour’s aid

Until the friendship is betrayed

And spider sucks another fly.

 

Into a gap they’ll pour such glue

No wind or wave will shift the wall;

Determined that they’ve heard the call

They’ll say they’re certain what is true.

 

They smile and sing and never cry;

Their outside dark has inside spread.

Who cannot laugh and cry is dead:

Knowing no deep, reach nothing high.  

Copyright Simon Banks 2014

The Smiling Fox

How full of smiley faces our world is.

Advertisements sometimes amaze me.

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Some are clever and amusing. We come across so many in the U.K. advertising no-win, no-fee lawyers for personal injury cases, that I had to laugh when football and acting hardman Vinnie Jones introduced an advert with “Had a work-related accident recently? Be more careful.” Mind you, I have no recollection of what the advert really was for.

A well-known beer is advertised with figures of smiling foxes dressed in human clothes. The beer is excellent, by the way. But this kind of representation of animals is very common, and not just for children. We show animals smiling and speaking when we’re selling their meat. Foxes are hunted. I’ve seen several representations of foxes as huntsmen. This is not a post against meat-eating or even hunting, but there is something in the psychology of showing a victim smiling that makes me curious. Here’s a poem about this.

THE SMILING FOX

The figure is of a standing fox,

Smiling, in huntsman’s jacket and cap.

The bloody hunt is turned to laughter.

The fox can ride, the fox can talk,

The pink pig smiles above the pork,

The smiling baby needs a nappy,

We should all buy, and will be happy.

The guards on the computer screen

Were much too slow, and they have been.

We zap the losers, keep a score,

The country’s power’s the country’s law.

The fox can ride, the fox can talk,

The pink pig smiles above the pork,

The smiling baby needs a nappy,

We should all buy, and will be happy.

The soil is falling from the rocks,

the wood is crumbling from the sap,

And what was now, and what is after?

The fox can ride, the fox can talk,

The pink pig smiles above the pork.

The smiling baby needs a nappy.

We should all buy, and will be happy.

 

Copyright Simon Banks 2013

The Master of the Atmosphere

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You may recognise some phrases in this poem that are shared with “We have Changed War”. I suppose it’s taking the ominous irony of that poem a bit further to imagine (or how far is it real?) a power that pretends to the reach and rectitude of God. Is that power external, or do we participate in it? Is it the limitless power of Man (humankind) and should Man’s power be unlimited?

Some phrases are borrowed from religious, especially biblical, sources – for example, “there will be no more sea”.

THE MASTER OF THE ATMOSPHERE

 

I am the master of the atmosphere

Here in a glass case

Is the stuffed falcon that rivalled me.

I plan the growing of the trees.

 

I can tell you what you will want to buy

I can enslave the free and tell them why they’re happy

I am the ever-watching beacon.

 

When I have tidied up the awkward interface

Between the land and sea, an inconvenient place

There will be no more sea but what I make to flow

Truth is what I make it. I make history.

 

If out beyond the reaches of the last gaseous particles

Another law, another pattern rules, another right

We’ll soon change that. This is the longest day

But after day comes night.

Copyright Simon Banks 2013

 

Beauty therapy

This was sparked by coming across the term “beauty therapy” in some advert or other and thinking it might mean therapy to overcome or recover from beauty. The term “therapy”, though prostituted by words like “retail therapy” (spending money shopping, which apparently makes you happy: it makes the supermarkets and stores happy) implies something was sick or damaged, whereas “beauty therapy” often seems to mean a bit of tweaking and smoothing to make someone who appeared fine already look better (or believe they look better).

 

Apart from that, it’s a strange poem and I can’t easily explain it. Does it lose its way? What do you think?

 

BEAUTY THERAPY

 

I

 

Have you met beauty? Never mind.

Did it disturb you, shake you out of your chair?

Are you left with a memory of long, black hair?

Would it be easier to be blind?

 

Did a sequence of notes distress you and won’t leave your head?

Did the sea catch you, or the sly stars?

Has it returned among the screens and cars?

Would it be more straightforward to be dead?

 

Stop worrying. Our therapy will do the job.

All inconvenient memories we’ll erase.

We’ll smooth things down and round up all the strays

Until you’re happy, having nothing left to rob.

 

II

 

Whose is the shadow you are running from,

The fountain and the skull you can’t encompass?

Is the slow dawn too long?

What might not draw you to a foreign land

Or through a crack between the random rocks

To find deep down the ambiguous smile of man

And what you knew you were not?

 

What seas will the ship of beauty carry you under

What might the drowning man remember?

 

III

 

The word is written high on the cliffs

The word is No, too high was the risk

And though I turn away and look again

Scrabble and strain

The word’s the same

Unchanged the wish

That broke on that scar-jagged cliff.

 

IV

 

But what was there may still be here

And what is here may shatter yet

And when the seas have risen high

All artifice will fall away

The cliff shall fall and so shall fear.

 

Copyright Simon Banks 2012

Wandering between worlds

Here’s three more reposted poems with a bit more comment. In one way or another they’re all about travelling between worlds. “The Immigrant” has left his old country for a new one, but although he tries, he cannot leave behind the old country in his mind. “Expedition” is about a scientific exploration, but as the poem progresses, it seems they may be travelling through more than semi-desert. “Fathers” is more or less about the formal settling (rather than foundation) of the Christian religion, but implies a need to be in contact with what could be called two worlds in addition to the material one.

THE IMMIGRANT

The immigrant adjusts his hat

Squints at the unfamiliar words

Tests the new land with his shoe

Some casual abuse

Is partly understood

The hat is wrong but not the shirt.

Wrapped in the now familiar streets and shops

Handling the hard language less well than he thinks

He seems to be at home

A diligent Roman

Following the new-found rules

But then a haunting tune, words said in drink,

Recall a half-remembered clouded place

That maybe never was

It’s hard to say

Easier to drive the thoughts away

Than enter that unbounded space.

I was thinking particularly of a Jewish immigrant to England from Eastern Europe around the beginning of the twentieth century, but this could be almost any immigrant, especially if his clothes and manner, rather than his basic physical appearance, pick him out from the locals and if he faces some dislike and abuse. The poem is quite naturalistic. The immigrant is trying to fit in and quite expects the locals to be hard to please. He makes good progress. But at the end we find he has a yearning for his homeland, though the picture of it he now has in his head may not accurately represent how it was or is.

EXPEDITION

It is a long way home from this last camp

We have found the inland sea we planned to find

Though it is smaller than we always thought

And seems to shrivel in the relentless sun.

We found some creatures that were good to eat

And others that entranced our sand-sore eyes

With the incredible sheen of many feathers.

We did not, though, catch fish in this strange sea;

The water is unpleasant to the tongue

Though in the crumbling rocks up this low hill,

Here on the spiny bushes warted slope,

Our cook found this strange scaly fossil that

Must once have been a fish when the sea was higher.

On this loose stone strewn hilltop overlooking

This sparkling sea, we have seen the stumps of trees

And we have heard the comments of our keen

Geologist: these pebbles are black glass

Incredible heat has forged them out of sand

But there is too much here to understand

We are returning what we’ve missed

We will leave this silent land.

On the way back we have kept these chiselled samples,

Relying on the streams we passed and used

On the way out: but now the streams seem smaller

And here is one that has dried to windblown sand.

These yellow fruits resist the hungry teeth

With a tough skin but a sharp knife will do it:

Inside is watery pulp and teasing sugars.

Finally we straggle to the crest from where

You can see the singing valley we started from

Thunder beats a dry drum

But the trees and houses are gone.

The spark for this was reading about early exploration of the Australian hinterland and the irrational fixed idea the early explorers had that a vast inland sea must lie in the interior. My explorers set off from a settlement through dry and inhospitable land and do indeed find an inland sea, but a dead and declined one. They find evidence that it was once much bigger.

They set off for home again but the land which just about supported them on the outward journey has now changed through a rapid desertification and when they arrive back where they started, there is no sign of the settlement. The implication is that they have travelled through time as well as space. In this poem I use the sound of words a lot to convey extra meaning: seems to shrivel in the relentless sun; spiny bushes warted slope (ie, the slope warted with spiny bushes); must once have been a fish when the sea was higher; these yellow fruits resist the hungry teeth.

FATHERS

A congress of the faithful ruled

That heresy, this solid right

The darkness was defined and named

They drew the boundaries of light

But in the dark a light still shone

And in the land of constant light

The forests shrivelled, streams ran dry

Until the coming of the night.

Christians particularly use the image of light to stand for the positive, loving, “enlightened”, seeing. The implication is that the dark is a dark of ignorance, danger and evil. This is powerful imagery, but awkward for someone who loves actual dark as much as light. The yin/yang symbol comes to mind and also Jungian psychology: the relationship between dark and light is creative and attempts to abolish the dark are disastrous. I recognise that the dark as I envisage it may not be the dark someone like St Paul or George Fox referred to. They may have been using “dark” as a metaphor for something quite different. But in this poem I suggest that defining and abolishing the dark led to aridity until the valuable light was reconnected with the dark.

That’s it, folks

Copyright Simon Banks 2012

Book review: The Dark River by John Twelve Hawks

This must have happened to you: you pick up a book and find it’s the second or third in a series. With some, for example David Brin’s “Uplift” SF series, it doesn’t matter hugely because the characters and environments are different and the basic concepts of uplift, the progenitors and humanity’s orphan or parvenu status are quite easily conveyed. It would matter hugely with Tolkien or Mervyn Peake, though.

 

This one is in between. I hadn’t read or heard of the opening book, “The Traveller”, and found “The Dark River” referring back repeatedly. The author (I assume “Twelve Hawks” is a pen-name or an assumed day-name) explains the underlying imagined rules of his world at some length, so I do get to understand them. In fact if I’d read the first book I might have found this explanation a bit tedious.

 

So what’s it about and what kind of book is it? Ah. Good questions. The premises are that for ages two special kinds of humans have existed – Travellers, able to travel into other parallel realms, and Harlequins, dedicated to fighting to protect Travellers from their persecutors. Why Harlequins should do this isn’t really explained.  The other realms are depicted as real, physical worlds where machines work if a power source is provided and people need to eat and can get hurt or die. Returning Travellers bring new ideas which create diversity and change in our society in an unpredictable way. There have alsways been organisations which saw this as bad and tried to suppress it.

 

In Twelve Hawks’ world, which is the present or very near future, one such secret organisation (“The Tabula”) has come very near to success, hunting down Travellers and Harlequins alike. It works within government and business as a kind of shadow international government, but without Bond story type melodrama, entering and taking over useful organisations. The author is very good on how close we are to this through systems that can track our every step on the internet, for example. He acutely identifies the British philosopher Jeremy Bentham, with his proposal of the panopticon (where authorities could see everything prisoners did) and his subtly dangerous elevation of the principle of “the greatest happiness of the greatest number” (so to make a lot of people a bit more happy, it’s OK to deceive them or to persecute a minority) as a kind of prophet of scientific authoritarianism. He knows his computers and understands his worlds of public affairs and business.  It’s easy to pick out present or recent politicians like America’s Dick Cheney or Britain’s Tony Blair who would enthusiastically embrace the Tabula’s programme. I like his implied politics.

 

So the politics is well-thought-out and credible. I’m not sure whether the scene is the present or, say, ten years in the future, but it can’t be much further because all the technology and culture referred to exists now. If you consider how fast the internet or mobile phones arose, that must mean it’s set very near indeed to now. That being the case, I think the book overstates the power of control, not in what it can do (for example a computer worm which invades and lies in most computers waiting for certain words or phrases to be used and then passes on the material to its masters) but in what people can and will do to challenge oppression. For example, the book opens with a peaceful religious community in the U.S. being massacred with guns the Tabula’s control of the internet has enabled it to falsely register to the members of that community, who were in fact unarmed. In reality, in a country where information is as open and professionals are as well-equipped as the U.S., this would be a hard one to carry off. The premise is that most police and civil servants don’t know what’s happening. Well, I suspect police would want to identify which individuals fired the shots. Lawyers for families of some of the victims would push them, arguing their relative couldn’t have been a killer. None of the bodies would reveal the tell-tale signs of having handled and fired weapons. Neighbours would be quoted in the media saying they found these folks reasonable and peaceable. In a country so fond of conspiracy theories, questions would snowball. There are similar difficulties with a party of mercenaries invading an Irish island nature reserve. On a different level, I don’t believe a clutch of current rising military and police officers from democratic countries would be at ease with a speaker complimenting them on rejecting the false ideal of freedom. She’d have explained that freedom needed to be redefined and properly understood (so it wasn’t freedom any more).

 

But these are relatively small points and I can imagine the world in ten years’ time fitting the book’s picture more closely, though I don’t believe there’s a real Tabula (yet).

 

Mixing this with the new age mysticism leaves me dubious. I can’t quite buy into these very physical, almost mundane, other worlds, or into the Harlequins, who seem sometimes to employ the psychology of the SS to protect freedom and diversity. I wonder if the books would have worked with more believable, mystical mystics and protectors less like a secret knightly order still upsetting the applecart.

 

It took a long time before I cared what happened to the perpetually threatened main characters. It does detract a bit from one’s excitement if you don’t really care if someone in dire danger dies or not. Maybe if I’d read the first book first I’d care more, but I think JTH is not good at bringing his characters to life.

 

He writes well, though. Initially his writing seemed close to the sterile orthodoxy of American “stripped down” writing, but the initial description of a Traveller’s waking in the realm of death is powerful stuff. He could do more of this.

 

The action sequences are quite credible. One big strength of the book is that JTH seems at home in the U.S. and Britain (so many writers just don’t quite get the language or the street-scene right and fall victim to stereotypes or to writing without any local colour) and his scenes in Ireland, Italy and Ethiopia seem credible too (though I haven’t been to Ethiopia, I have been elsewhere in East Africa), though the German scenes are less so. The sense of belonging to Britain and America equally does lead to some strange linguistic mixes, for example when a character is on the sidewalk (U.K. – pavement) using his mobile phone (U.S. – cell phone).  His information on the London docks seems out of date (maybe he’s an American who lived for a while in London?) and there is one gross factual mistake when a flock of pelicans are seen without remark off the West coast of Ireland. Even one wild pelican would bring Irish birders (= birdwatchers) from all corners. The nearest breeding or wintering ones are in the Balkans or in West Africa and five minutes checking on the internet would have told him this (but maybe he feared the Tabula would catch him).

 

Will I go back and read “The Traveller”? I’m not exactly hooked – but probably.

 

By the Gate

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.

 

My primary thought about this is that this is a German soldier standing guard when a group of civilians (Jews? Partisans? Villagers dying because a soldier was shot nearby?) are taken to their deaths. However, he could be a soldier or policeman of many other nationalities and causes, and only a few relatively inconsequential details (photo, holster, the implication that the “load” has been “decanted” from a lorry) prevent it being a picture of something happening in some ancient empire. It could be happening in Syria now.

The soldier, like many, cherishes reminders of family, home and loved ones. He has walled off his mind from the suffering of the condemned people. The poem suggests that this means a kind of progressive death – of mind and spirit.

Copyright Simon Banks 2012

The definitive, authoritative, comprehensive commentary on the poetic works of Simon Banks

will not be written. However, here are some thoughts on a few more poems.

 

ESTUARY

 

The church is early 12th century. Some two miles from here

The Romans crossed the estuary by a ford

Now long impassable

The shades settle

 

I am confused by their weight, my questions muffled

By their insistent conversation

As though wings beat in dissonance, we struggle

 

Before they leave for the drowned land, the sky darkening,

One with a hidden face leaves me a thing

Carefully carved from wood, now pocked by seaworms living

 

I put it to my mouth, it makes a sound

And at the calling, all the shades turn round.

 

I actually gave a fair amount of information on this one first time round. It came to me while I was walking along the side of the Deben estuary in Suffolk with Ramsholt Church on the ridge to my right – hence the reference to the church. As often, the start of the poem came to me straight out of the unconscious and my consciousness then teased out the rest. The estuary is no single real estuary: the lazily beautiful Deben certainly influenced it, but the reference to the Roman ford probably comes from the Colne estuary in Essex.

 

The poem draws on a sense I often have of time past (at least) being present but hidden. For some reason estuaries are particularly liable to get me thinking like this. I wrote about that more directly in “In the Valley of the Stones”.  I begin quite rationally describing the estuary and its surrounds, stressing the history of the place. Then, quite suddenly, I slip into a waking dream in which “shades” try to communicate with me, and I try to respond, but we are on different wavelengths: “As though wings beat in dissonance”. That was an image which came to me ready-made and it took time for my conscious mind to analyse it and find meaning in it. The shades begin to withdraw to “the drowned land” but one hands me a thing from the past and through it we communicate – with what result, the poem does not say.

 

The second and fourth verses are full of soft sounds.

 

I was surprised when this poem was accepted by an established poetry magazine as I thought it likely to confuse by its obscurity!

 

FAIRY STORY

 

Out of the chocolate box pretty

Marzipan plastered cottage comes a sound

A little like a trumpet lesson going badly,

Then settling down

To a low insistant moan.

Outside, the roses and the primroses

Look pleasant and secure. A cat stalks past

Most things are as they were before.

The wolf has not been seen

In this neck of the woods for sixty years

The newspapers passed round

Established that the dragon was a myth

Even the brutal landlord’s growing somnolent.

The semihuman sound’s continuing.

 

A doctor’s called. He makes his measurements

Orders the site closed off behind high walls

Where local schoolkids under gentle supervision

Paint colourful murals full of smiley faces.

There has been no forgotten cottage

These walls are of the natural order

Behind them, we are happy to confirm

There is no gate, no foreign border.

 

Here I use the familiar imagery of fairy stories (wolf, dragon, the pretty village in the woods, lurking danger) mixed with the image of the idyllic English (or German) village (cottages, flowers, a cat). Such settings are of course often used in modern times for murder and horror stories, partly because of the dramatic contrast. So we have something apparently settled and idyllic but which contains horror.

 

The nature of the horror is not specified, but it could well be someone with mental illness: that would allow a quite literal interpretation of the strange sound. The reaction of the neighbours is the nub of the poem: instead of trying to help or investigate, they deny the problem, wall it off, pretend that everything is lovely and deny that the cottage (the source of the problem) ever existed. Were you to go past this wall, they say, you would find nothing frightening or unusual (“no gate, no foreign border”).

 

I don’t make a lot of use of irony, but this irony is almost savage: “Where local schoolkids under gentle supervision/ Paint colourful murals full of smiley faces.”

 

Perhaps the horror implicit in fairy stories is rightly raised there and tackled, and suppressing it leads to more horror or an inability to cope sensitively with fear and strangeness.