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!

 

Book Review: Joyce Carol Oates, Mudwoman

Hi!

I’m easing back to normal after almost full-time politics for a month. So here’s a book review.

I came across the now aged American Joyce Carol Oates’ writing a long time ago and I found the short stories compelling, sharply-described and often chilling. Later I tried one of her novels and couldn’t get into it for some reason. Then came “Mudwoman”.

The basic story is powerful. A mad mother drowns her two small children in a muddy creek but one of them survives and is adopted. She does very well in life, becomes a well-regarded academic and while still quite young, Principal (or whatever the title was) of a prestigious university. But she’s done this by suppressing her past, which comes back to bite her.

I ought to have been enthralled, but I wasn’t. Oates seemed to me to lay some things on with a trowel, especially the contrast between the top academic’s authority and intelligence and her vulnerability – and her femininity. While the question of how her two worlds would interact had plenty of mystery, some things seemed too obvious, not done enough by suggestion and indirection, and there was a subtext which might legitimately offend feminists. There can be conflict between masculinity and good leadership and administration, too. The descriptive writing was powerful, but I was not carried along.

There was another issue. The girl had been adopted by a Quaker couple and as a Quaker, I read with that mixture of interest and suspicion typical of someone deeply into something who finds it described by a writer less into it. I know people reading from that position can be hyper-critical, but still, it seemed to me Oates didn’t understand Quakers. Of course, there are differences between British and American Quakerism – some American Quakers have paid ministers, which for us is a bit like finding Catholics who refuse to have anything to do with the Pope – but from what I’ve seen and heard, the similarities are enormous.

Yes, I could recognise the vague goodwill of the couple, but not the always-look-on-the-bright-side-of-life attitude. Plenty of Quakers I know can and have felt the depths. Oates refers three or four times to Quakers putting the communal ahead of the individual and that seems to me a misunderstanding. My perception (and I wasn’t brought up a Quaker) is that Quakers are both intensely individual (to the point of magnificent stubbornness sometimes, or eccentricity) and communal – that we don’t see the two as conflicting. I did check online to see what Oates’ religious background was – Catholic upbringing and now atheist.

Now here’s an admission for a reviewer. I didn’t finish the book. It was on loan from a library and someone else wanted it.

Maybe the real reason for my struggling was that the book had so little joy in it?

The End Again

Image

 

I said I’d talk about some more last lines. That’s Land’s End in Cornwall above, by the way.

 

CULTURE SHOCK

The cat is serious
It has its ways
So do I.
It came miaowing to me; under the bed it went
Where it scrabbled and rushed around
I bent down and looked it in the eye
I said,
“Hello, puss-cat – what are you up to?”
In reply, the dextrous cat
Threw a rat in my face.

 

Well, that’s obviously a surprise ending, just as the real event was a surprise to me. Not much more to say except that this is much the same as a surprise twist at the end of a novel or short story.

 

But what about this?

 

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.

 

Here, I’d suggest, I’m imagining a bleak vision of the future, of nothingness. The last but one line might seem to be the punchline. But the last one shows me doing what people tend to do, retreating from something unwelcome into daily life and ordinary, comprehensible concerns. At the same time, I’m seeking protection from my clothes against something not stopped by rainproof clothing.

 

I don’t want to suggest that all good poems end with a final line that’s obviously strong, and there’s another issue about the ending – the conclusion it suggests. Here’s the poem that led to me returning to writing poetry, the first of my new poetic life:

 

SPIRIT MOUNTAIN

“Said to be haunted”
“Source of strength and madness”
Alone on the night mountain
I wait, curious.

Screeches and groans
Tear the night, only I
Know they’re ravens
Not demons.

Harbour lights, town lights, wandering
Headlights shine and
Are gloved into mist

Pale flame of sunrise
Seascape afire
Ghosts? Then within us

But a trickle of
Welsh blood speaking:
Perhaps in the soil
Out of time, sleeping.

 

I wrote this poem about a night out on a Welsh mountain said to be holy and haunted. A couple of hours later, the poem still running through my mind, I added an extra verse. The original ended at “Ghosts? Then within us.” Why did I change the ending? Because I was uneasy and increasingly felt it was too neat and promoted a firm conclusion where I was really unsure. So the last verse rejects a rational certainty for doubt.

 

Happy Easter!

 

Simon

 

 

Two short poems

Image

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

Image

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

City

Image

As I’m now being cautious about posting new poems because it may rule them out for competitions, I’m starting to go back to much earlier stuff I haven’t previously posted. This was an early long poem sparked off by the New Orleans floods. I think it has flaws, but also some very good lines. I suppose the theme was how easily familiar life, order and organisation could crumble.

CITY

I

At night

A pattern of lights

In ordered ranks and spangled liberty

And some are gliding silently

By day the veil’s off

Cars screech and jerk

A jumble of people bubbles out of doors

And eddies round the litter bins and beggars

In cavernous hall

Hypnotised army listens,

Watches a magician

Whose golden fingers weaving manycoloured

Threads of the painful sounds of boundless joy

Pull them to silence.

A couple find the world again,

Make coffee and even conversation.

Somewhere in one great block behind another

A window breaks and someone dies

And someone sends them off with hate

A man sits at a shimmering screen

On polished wood from a forest’s death

People come to him one by one

Young old proud lonely and holding hands

Then out the door in rows they troop

At even distance with even gait

Their mouths and eyes are all the same.

The good are gathered beneath a dome

To celebrate that they are loved

Outside a boy whistles and stops

A mad girl sings to a shower of rain

Dogs snarl, fight and the loser whines.

II

The day before the storm

Was one of scurrying

To finish jobs or pack the car

Voices spoke calm

But e-mails, like migrating birds,

Fell in their thousands on hard ground

And neighbours wandered round

The garden or the shopping mall.

III

The city walls of law and work

The bounds of land and logic break

And floating past the City Hall

Wash up in the Police HQ

Though government is standing tall

Water that is the base of life

Crushes a paper hat

That was a school, and then a house

Floats gently off like some child’s boat

To meet a bus and dance with it

Down a great busy thoroughfare

With bodies, billboards, toys and boats

With random inquisitive force

It breaks down doors or lets them stand

And pulls the love from lover’s hand

You want a sign?

Here’s one that says:

City Museum.

There is no law, the lines are down

To leaders of religion

A life’s exchanged for a loaf of bread

And starving dogs receive the dead.

IV

Progress is a long rambling walk

In billowing mist from crumbling edge

Of desperate crag to gentler land

And after stumbles, stops for drinks

Arguments and a song or two

The mist clears and we find we stand

On ground that, as we watch it, cracks

From stinking heap of rubbish and lives

A jittery banjo edges out

Beginnings of a newborn tune.

Now the mystery quotes. The last one (come on!) was from Ariel’s Song in Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” (“Storm coming? Brandish your weapons!”). Here’s another one that should be easy:

To see a world in a grain of sand

And Heaven in a wild flower

Hold infinity in the palm of your hand

And eternity in an hour.”

CLUE: Innocent? Or Experienced?

Book Review: The Hanging Garden, Ian Rankin

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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.

 

Are You Regular?

I’m not posting many poems now. There are three reasons for this:

* I’m not writing so many now as I did, say, a couple of years back.

* By posting my old poems here bit by bit, I’ve got up almost to the present with the poems I think are best. I could go back and post poems I don’t think so much of, but that doesn’t greatly appeal.

* I want to hold back a few good new ones as possible competition entries (not that I’m a great admirer of poetry competitions).

Instead I want to post more ABOUT my poetry. This has gone down well in the past. Now I’d like to try to be a bit deeper and more systematic. I might post now and then about other poets’ writings too.

For a start, I’d like to look at why I write some poems in regular form, some in irregular (“free verse”) form and some starting irregular but beginning to rhyme as they proceed.

Regular rhyme and rhythm can create a dreamlike state. They probably arose out of rhythmic chants at rituals and before battle. At football matches today you can still hear rhythmic chants aimed at uniting those on one side and intimidating or ridiculing those on the other before and during battle. Although rhyme and rhythm are the most familiar tools for this partial hypnosis, the repeating of images or words can have the same effect. Consider the repeated cries of a Fascist crowd: “DUCE, DUCE!” or “Sieg Heil!”

That example points to the dangers of dream-creation, but rhythmic chanting is also used in the most peaceful religions.

At worse, though, rhymes can be predictable, trite, even a little ridiculous, especially if the rhyme seems forced or – perhaps even worse – as soon as you read the last word on one line, you know what its rhyming partner must be.

So let me look at an example of where I think rhyming and regularity work effectively in my poems:

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DEATH AND THE MAGICIAN

 

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.

 

copyright Simon Banks 2012

 

I wrote this deliberately imitating ballad form and imagery. Ballads use a lot of repetition, but sometimes with slight changes which move the action on.

The second and fourth lines rhyme throughout. This is a familiar structure. The first verse has longer lines than the rest: the first three lines have ten syllables (assuming “magician” is elided or slurred). The fourth line though has only six syllables and this marks a change of mood and increase of intensity. From then on the poem becomes a kind of incantation and I have seen what an effect it can have on people. For the remaining verses the first and third lines have eight syllables, the second six and the fourth six or five. These variations help to avoid monotony.

The first line (after the ranging first verse) ends repeatedly with “he said” and then with “my friend”. The latter appears first ending the third line, but then is repeated at the end of the first and third lines. This is another form of repetition. The first and third lines contain internal rhymes – rhymes that don’t come at the end of the line such as “good” and “understood”.  “And will the starlight shine?” is said twice in succeeding lines of the last verse. The rhythm is regular. Words or images are repeated in the body of the poem – bread, wine and starlight, plus arguably water.

The repetition increases as the poem nears its end, conveying a sense of realisation, or completion.

Don’t try this at home, kids…this kind of method could fall horribly flat. It needs mystery and emotional intensity to work. Very few of my poems are structured anything like as tightly as this one. But then no other has had such dramatic effect every time I’ve read it aloud.

Next time I’ll go on to look at irregular and semi-irregular poems and why that can work too.

 

 

 

Sprouting Wings

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I’ve sprouted wings, I don’t know why,

I’ve risen up and I can fly.

I’m not too pleased if this is death:

I hadn’t finished that last breath.

If it’s a dream, I’d like to wake

And call the whole experience fake.

I haven’t taken something bad,

But if I’ve died, I wish I had.

I see the world is all at peace –

Bad news for journalists and police.

I stand before a golden throne

And moan and moan and moan and moan.

Ceramic angels gather round

My falling form: I hit the ground.

I’m quite alive, though I have bruises.

My smart-phone tells me what the news is.

 

 

Book Review: Patrick McGuinness, The Last Hundred Days

This novel is set in Ceausescu’s Romania just before his violent fall. The author is stated to have been in Romania at this time. I remember the atmosphere of amazement and excitement in Europe at the sudden and revolutionary changes of that period, when the certainties I’d grown up with about the Soviet Union became uncertain and Communist regimes across Eastern and Central Europe crashed (East Germany, Czechoslovakia) or legislated themselves out of existence (Hungary, with Poland and Bulgaria in between) and the dramatic events in Romania, an uprising, the army changing sides, a couple of weeks of confused fighting, the execution of the former dictator.

 

I’m fascinated by authoritarian regimes, how they arise, how they operate, how they fall. Patrick McGuinness’s book seems true to life – a huge proportion of the population spying on others, spies spying on spies, the official propaganda inhabiting a different world to the people, the privileged and powerful enjoying their pleasures but insecure because of purges and mysterious reorganisations. It does read a bit like someone took Kafka as a blueprint for a new society and political system, but with more heavy eating and drinking, poverty and squalidity.

 

So as docu-drama it works, I think. What about as a novel? The narrator is an Englishman arriving as a lecturer at a university, a relatively decent but rather weak man who is easily led. He’s a credible character. There are some oddities: the nature of his work is barely explained and the reasons for his appointment seem mysterious (but he isn’t either a Securitate or a Western agent). I’m not sure this approach works better than a naturalistic one. The other characters are credible, but with the exception of an old Jewish former Communist minister who’s fallen out with Ceausescu and is manoevring to help bring him down and return to power, they don’t have much depth. It reads easily, though, and held my attention right up to the ambiguous ending (some evils end but some flourish in the new setting).

 

A good docu-drama, then, and a middling to quite good novel.