Book review: Stephen Done, “The Last Train”

I’ve been posting very rarely for a while. Partly that’s because I’m not writing much poetry at present and have gone through all the old poems I wanted to post, but partly it’s because of the U.K. general election – I’m a political activist – and that may also help to explain the shortage of poetry. It’s not a matter of time but of mental space to get into the right mood.

I think in my next post I might talk about different aspects of people that may seem to be separate and may surprise other people, and quote a few points about me that might get other people doing the same. But for now here’s a book review.

I’d not come across Stephen Done before, but the blurb told me this was one of a series of British detective novels and that it involved a ghost appearing. The fictional detective works in an equally fictional Railway Detective Department a few years after the Second World War. I imagine Done’s core audience combines detective story enthusiasts with railway buffs: at least, there are trains and railway lines even where the story doesn’t seem to need them, described in loving detail.

The story involves a disappearance during the war, the ghost (apparently) of a young woman who looks and sounds like a live human but is just not there when someone stumbles into her, the discovery of body parts and an Indian jewel that apparently brings disaster to anyone who has it. This probably sounds like melodramatic pap. It’s actually done with skill. The reader is given information that pretty well rules out the ghost not actually being a ghost and it’s quite rapidly clear who the villain is, so in that sense it’s an odd detective story, but there is plenty of room for speculation about what exactly happened.

There is surprisingly vivid and poetic descriptive writing. I’m not entirely sure that this kind of fast-paced detective story is the best place for it, but I admire the author not only for his skill but also for his readiness to break away from bald, pared-down prose. The characters are entirely credible, but the dialogue, while it cleverly reflects  people’s preoccupations, character and misunderstandings, is sometimes rather stilted. The police detectives talk among themselves as if they were writing official reports.

I enjoyed it.


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).





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:




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!


Both one thing and another?

One of the things about poetry that most puzzles literal-minded people is that one set of words can mean two or more things. A description of snow falling can be a description of death or of sleep or, just possibly, a  description of snow falling.




Going to the Snape Poetry Festival earlier this month got me thinking about this a good deal, particularly because of listening to an American poet, Paula Bohince, reading, interpreting and explaining what she liked about the poem “Sandpiper” by another female American poet, Elizabeth Bishop.


I found myself interested but uneasy. Here’s the poem:




The roaring alongside he takes for granted,
and that every so often the world is bound to shake.
He runs, he runs to the south, finical, awkward,
in a state of controlled panic, a student of Blake.

The beach hisses like fat. On his left, a sheet
of interrupting water comes and goes
and glazes over his dark and brittle feet.
He runs, he runs straight through it, watching his toes.

– Watching, rather, the spaces of sand between them
where (no detail too small) the Atlantic drains
rapidly backwards and downwards. As he runs,
he stares at the dragging grains.

The world is a mist. And then the world is
minute and vast and clear. The tide
is higher or lower. He couldn’t tell you which.
His beak is focussed; he is preoccupied,

looking for something, something, something.
Poor bird, he is obsessed!
The millions of grains are black, white, tan, and gray
mixed with quartz grains, rose and amethyst.


Western Sandpiper, Cattle Point, Uplands, Near Victoria, British Columbia


Now clearly this is a very good poem, with vivid and accurate language, well-organised and thought-provoking, if only to find me American support for spelling FOCUSSED, which my American-dominated spellcheck thinks is wrong. There are lines here which are memorable for the beauty of the image and/or the words like the last two lines or “he stares at the dragging grains”, which is not only vivid but reproduces the sound of a spent wave hissing back over coarse sand.


In reading it before Paula Bohince expounded, I suspected there was a half-hidden agenda to it but didn’t know what. I was seriously bothered by the words “a student of Blake”, which interrupted clear and vivid description with what seemed to be a crossword-puzzle-maker’s clue. Paula Bohince especially liked those words, explaining they referred to Blake’s “To see a world in a grain of sand”, which makes plenty of sense; but I still think this is an awkward break and a too clever insert which will distract most readers from the picture that’s been building up.


By the way, as a European birdwatcher, I was also slightly bothered that the sandpipers I knew rarely fed on sandy shores, but judging by online photos of American sandpipers, some of their sandpiper species do.


Paula Bohince talked about Elizabeth Bishop’s approach to writing poetry and interpreted the poem from start to finish as the poet describing herself writing poetry. That does make sense: in particular, it would be downright silly to describe a bird as being “obsessed” (“Poor bird, he is obsessed!”) in his or her pursuit of a successful feeding strategy without which (s)he would die. It leaves me uneasy, though, because at the end of Paula Bohince’s talk there seemed to be nothing left of the sandpiper. It was a kind of disrespect.


Maybe what leaves me uneasy is more in Paula Bohince’s mind than the poem, though I am unhappy about that line “Poor bird, he is obsessed”.


Now let me try putting in this light two of my own poems that seem to be attempting something similar – “Watershed” and “Underwater”.



Did you see, there where the cloud broke
Between the high grey ridges an angled cleft
Roughly in line with the uneven river
Which might be a pass? A great bird soared over it
Now nothing shows but cloud and the warning of rain.

The broken impatient river carved the way
We leave the many-angled rocks behind
And the last twisted tree, the last glimpse of a roof;
And the hidden ravens call in the grey mist.
With cunning and husbanded strength
We drag from the circle of sweat to the circle of icy wind
Recovering from a slip is hard
Recovering from the task impossible.

There is never a point where you can say “that’s it”
No throne or light or monument
Only the slope is inconsistent
The shattered smoothing rocks lie in no order
There is no river
These barren pools are the only water

And then the ghost of a trickle
A few thin fingers feeling
Trying to come together, the hiss and sparkle:
We have passed the watershed
We have seen the birth
Of a new river.
Somewhere there is a new land
But it is hidden and the mist rolls in.

There is no warning
No sign, no new music
Just the realisation and the standing still
The dropping, blocking hills
The unknown, long suspected
Alien valley ahead
But half-familiar, like a dream
The hidden end
You feel you ought to remember.

The descent from the murderous heights
To the soft valley is always more dangerous
Than the struggling up:
The sight of meadows and bushes can lead like a mirage
To the eggshell-crushing fall
And the way to the low glittering lake
May be many miles round.

But at least the first task of the explorer
Seems to have been fulfilled
To show what he wanted to explore
Was there at all.
America is found
Mars glows dully but more clear
In the dark waters, something moves after all
Down the strange valley our suspected
Alive waters fall.


I don’t want to analyse this poem in the round here or this would be an impossibly long post, but there is an obvious extended metaphor. The poem is a realistic description of a climber or hill-walker ascending a pass to reach the watershed and it actually draws extensively on two real climbs, one in Torridon in the Western Scottish Highlands and the other in the English Lake District (Black Sail Pass). But it’s also about any adventure, any risk-taking, any exploration. There’s plenty of detailed description of rocks, rivulets and so on, but to reinforce the exploration theme I’ve made the climber unaware of what’s beyond the watershed, so (s)he obviously wasn’t carrying a decent map!


Nonetheless, the whole thing could be a poetic description of a climb and nothing else until that last verse (from “At least the first task of the explorer”), about which I have reservations though a poetry magazine must have been happy because it was selected for an anthology. In that last verse I talk not of mountains and fells but of America and Mars. The analogy becomes clear. Was that a mistake? At least by this final shift I avoid the weakness of “Poor bird, he is obsessed” – the point at which what the poet wants to say about herself (if Bohince is right) clashes with what can truthfully be said of the bird.



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?


This is more complicated because there are at least three associated half-hidden meanings. The sea can stand for death, time or the unconscious. The poem is much less realistic than “Watershed” and it would be difficult for someone to read it and think it was just about underwater exploration, though there are bits that describe underwater habitats pretty accurately –

And where squat fish that never see the sunlight
Thread through great feathery banks of frond
Of hidden sting and jaw

(which could certainly be a deep-sea, ocean-bed habitat) or

Here on the fine-grained shore (maybe imagine)
Beneath the corals and the painted fish
Down with the vents, the eyeless creatures

(which describes a sandy shore, shallow tropical waters and the ocean bed). But this ocean contains long-extinct creatures side by side with surviving ones, suggesting something either dreamlike or timeless. There is a kind of subtext which says, “Beneath the water surface you change into something else and time as you have known it vanishes. In the deepest places there are dangers but also something valuable. The life of things above the surface depends on life beneath the surface (the fish-eating seabird). Humans travel between the different levels, rather as we evolved to leave the sea and live on land (the last five lines of the first verse).


It seems to me to work and one reason is that I didn’t pretend to be talking about real seas. If I’d done that, some things I wanted to say would have disrupted the metaphor.


There’s a lot more to think about here…





A day by the reedbed

On Saturday I was at the Snape Poetry Festival, England’s number one festival. I live about an hour and twenty minutes’ drive away, so I could go up just for the day, the main day of the three. Last year I stayed bed and breakfast and sampled the whole experience from Friday to Sunday, but this time I thought one day was enough (and saved money).


It’s a pretty intensive experience. Why “a day by the reedbed”? Snape Maltings, the arts (mainly music) centre where it’s now held, is by an estuarine reedbed on the Suffolk coast. It’s a beautiful place. Last year but one, my first attendance, an aged Korean poet guesting there referred to the beauty of the reedbed and then said the Maltings was full of poetry – “maybe more poetry when it was industrial”. That wry comment hit a button for many people: there is no such thing as a cathedral of the arts.


There are many things I could write about, but I want to choose two. The main one is about comparisons and extended metaphors – whole poems that seem to be about one thing but are also (or instead) about something else. I think I’ll leave that till next time and do it properly, talking about Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “Sandpiper”, Paula Bohince’s talk about the poem, which left me with reservations, and by way of comparison, a couple of my poems that try something similar.


So I’m just going to say I was struck like lightning by the last event. Two young female poets read some of their work. One, an American, left me cold with a kind of word-association exercise that might have appealed to me if I’d been into crosswords. The other

karen mccarthy woolf


was Karen McCarthy Woolf. A poem about dead animals by the roadside on Dartmoor. A poem about a stillbirth. Immediate, vivid, precise, painful, exciting. Superb poetry: I’m not quite going to place it with the best of Keats or Hopkins or Yeats, but I’ve never heard anything read aloud with so much impact – which obviously implies that she reads well.


Tell me poetry is dead.

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?



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

In my Beginning is my End



OK – I wrote about poems’ endings. How about the beginnings? Can I find any lessons from my own opening lines?


I’ve reversed Eliot’s well-known line here, but his was deliberately contrary. All beginnings imply some kind of end and the characteristics of a beginning – whether it’s a poem, a revolution, a product launched or a child conceived, carry information which can determine how it will end.




One day the magician came to me and said,
The fish are leaping in the yellow stream
The oak has turned into an acorn small
And I saw Death in dream.

And I saw Death in dream, he said,
And Death was very kind
He showed me where the roses grow
Though I’m old and blind.

I’m old and blind and lame, he said,
The sea is out of sight
The shell is empty on the shelf
Through the woken night.

The night is all around, he said,
It closes hour by hour
The voices make me fear, my friend,
Should a proud man cower?

But should a proud man cower, my friend,
I think perhaps he should
The wine is turning sour, my friend,
But the bread is good.

The bread of death is good, my friend,
The bread of life is fine
And now I’ve understood, my friend,
Will the starlight shine?

And will the starlight shine, my friend,
And will the starlight shine?
Now let us touch the vine, my friend,
And we will drink the wine.


How does this beginning work? Well, in fact you could say the beginning is actually the title, which tells you death will feature and suggests something rather archetypal. Then the first line is in ordinary language and chatty, quite misleading really for a poem that becomes ballad-like and rather distant from everyday speech. But that’s a way of as it were luring the reader in. Compare with a Hitchcock thriller. It normally starts with things seeming ordinary.



Here are the shoes and here the photographs,
The shaven heads, expressionless eyes or defiant.
These are the notices: washroom, joy, be honest.
Joy was the brothel. Here the camp commandant’s children played,
Getting used to the occasional screams.
We are done now. Ten minutes’ rest break: the toilets are over there,
Hot drinks and snacks in that corner. The coach is ready.
Thankyou for listening, thankyou for coming here.

The people are quiet in the coach until a phone rings.
The old Jew answers it. “Yes, we’re fine. No, you’re joking.
It’s raining here, just like Manchester.”


Once you’ve realised this poem is about a concentration camp, the first line is very specific and plummets you right in. These are shoes piled up from people who were gassed. The title is ambiguous: is it about the visitors to the modern exhibition, to present-day Auschwitz, or does it describe the murdered people as visitors, perhaps because they didn’t stay long? The first line is straightforward and there is no twist from first line to second, just progression.


Here there is a twist though:



The world is disenchanted
We have walked in the dark places
And found no ghosts or elves
No dragons roam the forests
The real fearsome beasts
Of the forest we have shot
And made a diagram of their bodily systems.

But now the sabre-toothed beasts from the forest myths
The giant wings, the parallel cunning people
With their invisible cities and hidden spells
Are coursing through the streets of the flooded city.

Come with me to the sea.
We know the source of its power, waves and tides
There’s not a grain of sand disturbed
By the last thrash of the wave
I cannot analyse;
I can tell when a star will disappear.

Hunting elusive messengers in your mind
You may find useful this neat chart
We can identify
The electromagnetic impulses for love or hate
We’ve come a long way, you and I
Perhaps it is too late
To search back for some thing we have forgotten.


The title and the first line introduce the words DISENCHANTED and DISENCHANTMENT, which normally mean serious disappointment (“He became disenchanted with his leader,”), but immediately you wonder how the WORLD can be disenchanted. Gradually you realise the word is being used perversely if logically to be the opposite of ENCHANTED. We’ve lost enchantment.To me too the very sound of DISENCHANTED is right: it has a kind of mournful music.


I don’t mean this as self-praise – just picking out some openings I believe work quite well. Maybe I’ll do this for poems by better-known poets – but that’s harder work as I have my own poems all on one word file!


See you.








Harmony of the Spheres


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.


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.

Two short poems



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 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.


Patient Pathway


The patient pathway now for Mr Edwards

Is on to a trolley down that long corridor

And into the morgue. With improved direction management

Attainment of his aspirational journey goal

Is 98.6%. After that there is a handover

And, being task-oriented, we move on

As, indeed, Mr Edwards does.

It used to be thought, by the way,

That he would be taken to the banks of a river

Or triaged for his final destination,

But we don’t think that way now.

Off he goes.


copyright Simon Banks 2014

Book Review: The Hanging Garden, Ian Rankin


Ian Rankin

Ian Rankin has become one of my favourite authors for his dark, intelligent Edinburgh crime novels featuring the tough, conflicted, driven police detective Inspector Rebus. The earlier books are a little mannered, with the names chosen for characters (like Rebus, for example) forming a pattern, for example references to the Sherlock Holmes stories. The later ones are more naturalistic and perhaps emotionally deeper. “The Hanging Garden” is one of these. Two gangsters are fighting a war for territory, but each firmly denies starting it. Police see an opportunity to take one of them out of the game, but is someone else ready to step in? An apparently gentle old man may be an SS war criminal. Rebus’ daughter is seriously injured by a hit-and-run driver. The narrative weaves these themes together as Rebus struggles to find out the truth. Just a very good read if you don’t mind description of pain, worry and waste.

Now on poetry. My mystery lines last post but one were by Christina Rossetti (“Remember”). The clue (“Close to Arkhangelsk?”) was fairly obscure: Christina Rossetti’s brother, also a poet, was Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Gabriel was of course an archangel.

Here’s the next puzzle – another example where I couldn’t really quote just two or three lines because the whole is greater than the parts:




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But what to say of the road?

The monotony of its hardly

Visible camber, the mystery

Of its far invisible margins,

Will these be always with us,

The night being broken only

By lights that pass or meet us

From others in moving boxes?

Clue: His bagpipes were irredeemably heterosexual.