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


An Imperious Poem

No, I don’t usually self-promote quite so blatantly. I’m punning as usual – or not quite punning, because the word “imperious” comes from the words for empire and emperor. An imperious voice is the kind of voice you’d expect an authoritative emperor to have.

This is a re-posting of just one poem because it’s a long one – called



The empire’s heavy with scented blooms

A thousand scents, a thousand shapes

Umbellifer and ornate lily

The darkest iris, palest rose

The old Recorder of the Flowers

Each month in leather and brass bound book

Records the new varieties

The rich museums have many rooms.

The empire sings a thousand songs

Each city sang a different tune

Last year, each temple has its own.

The imperial gardens’ vibrant birds

Cannot outsing ten thousand choirs

The Emperor hears each song that flowers

Remembers one his mother sang:

Though blurred with power and wine, he longs.

The book of all the empire’s guards,

The armies, fortresses and fleets,

Defeats the sourest minister

Who’d number them and set their place

The sun on ranks of helmets shines

And blinds the eyes of tired bards.

The queen is in her carven tower

With silver and ebony interwoven

With jumping deer and dolphins’ play

With measured mark of rose and clover

And all the screens that ring her bower

Show everything that grows and dies,

The struggle of a sandy farm,

A somnolent priest’s ingenious lies,

Regiments changing hour by hour.


A restless baby cries as though

It never cried before, the cock

That rules a servant’s smallholding

Triumphant marks the dawn’s return.

The bells sound out from tower to tower

Seas in the dawn may seem to burn

To those without the power to know.

The clocks grind slow, sand on the wind

Has clogged them, the astronomer

Has lost the stars in clouds of dust

The birds sing less, the attentive guards

Along the watchtowers of the walls

In sandstorms see the ghosts of men

In dust devils the shaking heads

Of trampling horses of the dead

And nothing when the blur has thinned.

The famished horsemen, lifeless shacks,

The starving women, rag-held bones,

The baglike carcases of goats

The drying up of ancient wells

In the uncounted and unflowered lands

Reported by the empire’s spies

And clients set moving old replies

The walls grow thicker, more patrols

Search for the early warning cracks.

The warning sirens came too late

The mechanisms were at fault.

The gates did not shut as they should

In just one section of the line.

The desperate barbarians swarm

Through corridors rising rivers of blood.

And through the crumbling walls of thought

The tangling of all intricate forms

Of gold and music crushed, a roar

Rises: the unformed world’s in spate.


The gardens are all overgrown

The bells are silent; silent cage

Abandoned where the bird once sang

Is crushed with buckle, bugle, crown

And all that rose up high is down.

The children play with sceptre and skull

A rose ascends the temple wall

The smallholding is burnt, and burnt

The servant of the emperor’s will

This wonderful lady’s smile is fixed

Her sparkling brooch is grown dull.

The queen still sits in living tower

The images of deer and dance

Still play on all the watchful screens

Comforting the wondering queen

With aching song and shimmering flower,

But nothing outside the tower survives

That she would dare to recognise

And nothing is seen but dust and death

By all its hundred thousand eyes.


The wandering girl has found a thing

Untwisted, goes around her wrist

And polished, sparkles in the light;

The wandering girl begins to dance

And as the tower crumbles down

The wandering girl begins to sing.

This paints a picture of a rich empire full of marvellous art. It’s at peace, it’s governed in an orderly fashion and its inhabitants seem to be quite prosperous. This isn’t a history or sociology book, of course: any rich civilisation has its poor and its power-struggles. So you could say this is not a real empire.

The empire is protected by great walls and many soldiers. Outside the walls are poorer, less fertile lands and barbarian tribes who present a threat to the empire, though if the walls hold the threat is minimal. The empire does not appear to exploit the barbarians, but it does not help or benefit them.

Something changes – apparently the weather, perhaps a failure of rains, so the lands of the empire are clogged with dust. Outside its walls the effect is much worse and people starve. The imperial authorities predict that this will lead to invasion attempts and strengthen the defences. Something in the defences doesn’t work and the empire is overthrown in a bloodbath. All its culture is destroyed.

At the end in the figure of the wandering girl who finds an old bracelet and who dances, we find the beginnings of new culture.

A central figure is the queen. I realise she should be the empress, but maybe they had queens too! She is a mysterious figure, unlike the realistic emperor. She lives in an enchanted (or hight-tech) tower where she sees everything that is happening, but with a bias towards beauty. When the empire collapses and its people die, she does not see that at all and the outdated pleasant images continue, though perhaps she is suspicious. When the wandering girl dances, the tower collapses. I don’t want to interpret this too much, but the collapse of the tower, the old beauty, marks the beginning of the new beauty.

Technically the poem is an experiment. With slight variations, each line is of eight syllables, with a stressed syllable following an unstressed one – a traditional metre good for telling a story. However, although the stanzas (or whatever you call them) are of varying length, the opening and closing lines rhyme in every case.

I’ve played with the sound of some quite long and uncommon words here – umbellifer, ornate, imperial, somnolent – which I think expresses the complex culture of the empire.

Of course the collapse of the empire could be other things – the death of an artist, the fall of a tree, a surge of unconscious urges into an ordered, rational world (suggested by “the unformed world’s in spate”).

As someone politically fairly left, instinctively sympathising with the dispossessed, I guess this is about the most favourable portrait of an empire I’ve done. I do show its fall as a tragedy, but not a tragedy without a hopeful ending, and I think the poem makes the point that the empire is collectively selfish. I think I’ve been influenced by Yeats’ idea of and portrayal of Byzantium.

This is, I think, my second longest poem and my own view is that it shows a long poem can keep up intensity.


Copyright Simon Banks 2012

The Dull Valley

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




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

The Shadowed Way

I think this one goes best with little introduction. It’s a bit ballad-like again and mystical, dark but ending with hope, and the dying magician figure appears again. The singer coming with seven ships and gold suggests the supernatural ballad “The Demon Lover”, quoted from memory here:


“Seven ships were on the sea

The eighth brought me to land

With gold and silver in great store

And music on every hand


She first set foot upon the deck

No mariners could behold

The sails were of the shining silk

The masts of beaten gold.”




I’ve been away ten thousand nights

But now, you see, I’m back.

You lived with a thousand fears

I carry in my sack.


You saw the wise magician fall

Emptied out by worm

And the turning of the tides

Come to a full term.


You heard the knocking in the night

No shadows cast by moon;

Waited for the morning light

To copy out the rune.


You saw the singer come by sea

With seven ships and gold

Felt the ageing of the tree

And the hand grown old.


The snows will cover all your songs

The dark will kill the flower

The bud will break, with new-born wrongs

And an unquiet hour.


Over the snow the song is sung

And dark gives birth to day;

Remember how the light is sprung

From the shadowed way.



Copyright Simon Banks 2012


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.


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 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.


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

In the Wind

In the dawn a strange ship in the bay

Bearing no flag. The rain came earlier this year

The old brook flowed for the first time anyone remembers

Except the old widow who died on the way to see it.

I did not mention to you the dream

I had last night for fear it might disturb you

And anyway, you seem rather distracted

And the child has that cough again.

Last night the sky was deep dark blue and amber

When the calls of the geese migrating made me stand still

Today we have painted the sign on the grey of the wall

And row to the ship that waits without action or call.

Copyright Simon Banks 2012

Just to say here: this is a story told in the first person singular, but the “I” is not me.


If some great cataclysm happened, created by humans or less likely not, what would survive and what would be our feelings in contemplating such an end and beginning? This poem depicts the ending of a period of constant night after such a cataclysm which has wiped out humans but not all life.




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.


At the Seafront


What will come over

A shimmering sea

At the stroke of a delicate dawn?

Dark boats sliding silently,

Or a white bird crying

From a cloud one word

As the breakers crumble?

Wait and see

Watch, be humble