Book Review:The Third Testament, Christopher Galt

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Sorry for a long delay since I last posted. There’s no overwhelming excuse like death or complete demotivation. I’ve stopped posting poetry for publishing reasons, I mean to post and then don’t, I have no desire to share every seemingly significant moment with an almost random pond-dip of the world… and when I tried to post a while back, I got in a tangle with positioning an image in relation to the text.

Still, here I am.

An advantage of just picking up books at a library or bookstall, as opposed to a ruthless and systematic electronic hunt, is that you occasionally find things you never suspected.This book is one. The cover says it’s by Craig Russell writing as Christopher Galt, which is unusual for a start. If authors want to use a pen-name they usually don’t put their real name alongside. Some real identities are genuinely meant to be secret and others are not really meant to be secret, more a matter of marking out A1 type writing from A2 type, but the Russell/Galt thing intrigued me. Turns out Craig Russell is a well-known Scottish crime writer and Galt is his SF/thriller alias.

I was also a bit puzzled when, after reading the book, I started to research it online and found reference to an apparently different book, “Biblical”, by the same writer with apparently the same plot. Puzzlement ended: it is the same book, but re-issued and re-titled. “Biblical” was the old title.

OK: American Psychiatrist John Macbeth is working in Copenhagen on a project to create a super-computer that mimics the human mind. The idea is that once it’s up and running, scientists can generate psychological problems and test treatments, finding out a huge amount about how the mind works. One worry is that the computer will be self-aware and no-one quite knows how it will react. That introduces one big question and tension.

The next is apparently quite separate and more urgent. People all over the world start doing strange things. A party of employees of a cutting-edge computer games company jump off the Golden Gate bridge in San Francisco. Macbeth witnesses a student jumping from a roof, taking with him the priest who had been trying to talk him down. People have hallucinations. They suddenly stop in the street as if frozen, seeing things no-one else can see. A plane crashes trying to avoid a vast volcano that did exist in that place millions of years ago. John Macbeth, on a visit to Boston, shares with the whole population an experience of an earthquake that seems very real, that causes deaths through car crashes and so on, but that leaves no evidence of structural damage at all. The US President, someone with a dangerous psychological make-up, is seeing visions. Macbeth is put under pressure to join a US group working to understand what is happening, but refuses to leave the Copenhagen project.

Now I think for the benefit of those who haven’t read the book, I’ll stop just here and come back next time with my thoughts on the book and just a little more on how the story develops.

 

 

 

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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.

THE END

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I looked for an apocalyptic picture of The End, but strangely, they’re hard to find on the net. This is actually the Great Fire of London, but it looks pretty apocalyptic.

Actually, this isn’t about that kind of End, or about this kind.

Image

It’s about the end of a poem.

 

When I started writing poetry again, I felt for a long time that endings were a weak point for me. Just as the Monty Python team found they often didn’t know how to end a sketch (hence those sudden shifts to And Now for Something Completely Different), I was aware that the last line of a poem had huge impact but struggled to find words that were up to the task.

 

Secretly, without realising it, I’ve changed. Last month I took part in an organised poetry reading at the Poetry Cafe in London, set up as a Colchester team against a London team (though actually there was no competition). Thinking about my own selection later, and also some poems I shared in a poets’ group not long after, I realised some of the endings worked particularly well (I think).

 

Here are some examples from the Poetry Cafe event. These are all poems I’ve posted here before.

 

TOMORROW

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.

WEYMOUTH BAY
The moonlight over the sea in a narrow, shimmering dark-speckled band
Links the horizon with the stony beach
To the left the town lights strung along the esplanade
In yellow and red do not shift
Being precise, defined; round the dark sea are the sounds of a town night
A drunken argument, a covey of old people chattering
Taxis’ irregular engine rumble;
A few late white gulls flap and swivel;
The glittering causeway is untrodden.

NIGHT VISION

Dark shape of a man against the drifts of white
The pale watching lights on concrete walls
The crump of boots in the untrodden snow
The short scream of an owl in the hidden wood.

No lights show in the sky, but the steady throb
Of a heavy heaving plane in the opaque air;
The dogs begin to bark; a light goes out.

THE TOWER

Looking out over the silent sea
Knowing of another hidden country
She dreamt of unicorns and fiery dragons
(The island in the bay was Avalon)
And when the sailors laughed, cursed them to be blind.

Older, more cautious, richer, more powerful,
She bought the island, poisoned all the rats
And built a tower like one that might have stood
To watch for pirates in the China seas
And spent some few nights there watching whales and slow-burning
Stars that spread eerie magic over the black waves.

But when a dying dragon came to her in a dream
Dragging smeared scales over the revengeful rocks
She left the island and the tower fell slowly into ruin
Peopled by spiders and by mad-voiced seabirds
Haunted by silent, searching unicorns.

 

So what works about these endings? I should say I read some other poems whose endings I didn’t feel were so strong.

 

In the first poem, “Tomorrow, the relentless sun will rise” reminds us of the title “Tomorrow”. It marks the first time the sun will be visible after a month of night. But the key word, I suggest, is “relentless”. The sun is relentless. “Relentless” suggest cruel and ruthless as well as strong and persistent. Most life forms, including humanity, have been destroyed by some cataclysm, but “There will be another turn”. The sole word “relentless” raises the question, “Do we want another turn, when it may be no better?”.

 

In “Weymouth Bay” the last line again relates back to the beginning, this time to the first line instead of the title. It reminds us of the glittering band of light from the moon shining on the dark sea. But whereas the first line describes this fairly straightforwardly, the last line turns the band of light into a causeway people could walk on, but choose not to, setting off the magical against the mundane (a drunken argument, chatter, idling taxi engines, street lights).

 

In “Night Vision”, I think the reader begins to realise what is being described is a prison, a concentration camp or a prisoner of war camp. There is an atmosphere of menace, even in the big bomber or transport plane being hidden in cloud. “The dogs begin to bark” could suggest an escape attempt has been discovered. “A light goes out” could be just another piece of atmosphere – or it could mean the light of a human life has been extinguished. People seem to get this double meaning quite easily.

 

The last line of “The Tower” appears just to introduce more mythical things (we’ve had unicorns before, in the third line, and also dragons and the island of Avalon). But the poem describes the death of a dream. The woman dreams, becomes able to implement her dream, enjoys it briefly, then is shocked by the dream becoming threatening and retreats. But not only does the tower fall into ruin – her dream creatures do not die, but continue on the island searching for her. I think that comes as quite a shock.

 

Next time I’ll look at a few endings from other poems I read recently.

 

Sorry, by the way, for being silent for some time. Usual excuses.

 

Take care.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Approach

APPROACH

 

As I came through the automatic door

And found that it was raining

As I paused to deal with that

This shabby man caught me.

“Do you want to see

The future? It’s amazing, genuinely squire,

Believe me, every customer is

Satisfied. Only five quid,

I’m ruining myself.”

I handed him the money

Went round the side and looked.

And he was right:

All customers were satisfied.

No argument!

No play of light and dark, no life.

Against the rain I pulled my collar up.

Entropy

For the scientists, maybe:

 

ENTROPY

 

The law of entropy is that

Organisation crumbles down

To chaos. Life, by this approach,

Is swimming against a winning tide.

 

But tides are not supposed to turn

Because of living things’ excess

Life is a weird anomaly

And inconvenient to its heart

The awkward smudges on the sphere

Creep out towards an alien law.

 

Dialogue

DIALOGUE

A great crack appeared in the square

Engulfing Mrs Titmus and that dog

From No 47.

Flashes of light, crashing thunder

But no rain at all

“That’s very odd”

Said Jenny to Louise

Over the backs of the towers

Of the Wordsworth Estate

And the Norwich Union building

Rose great fires

And the stars dripped and melted one by one

“I’ve never seen that”

Said Louise to Jenny

Then out of the sky an arm

And a pointing finger stretched down

And purple and red little men

Popped out of the crack with sharp forks

Pushing both the ladies along

And Louise to Jenny said,

“It’s not the end of the world”.

A poem sparked by hearing someone say that phrase so common in Britain, “It’s not the end of the world!”, and making a humorous take on the question, “But what if it WAS the end of the world?” I think I’m also a bit influenced by the way people react to Death in Monty Python’s “The Meaning of Life” and in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels.