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!

 

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.

Harmony of the Spheres

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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.

HARMONY OF THE SPHERES

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.

Book Reviews: The Flood, David Maine; The Land of Decoration, Grace McCleen

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These are books I picked up in my local public library. By an odd coincidence, they raise some of the same questions, questions quite unusual for a small English public library.

David Maine’s book is a retelling of the biblical story of Noah and the Flood. It follows the biblical account loyally, but of course, embellishes. You could interpret it as an exercise of “If this was literally true and these were real people, what would it have been like?” Some people will see it as irreverent. At times Noah’s sons see their stubborn father, not the best of communicators, as an old fool. There’s a lot of sex – but there is in the Bible (remember all those “begat”s?

It took a while for me to get into this novel, but the time came. The characters came to life. Of course, there are difficulties about a literal telling of the Flood story. The ark wouldn’t be big enough. How, if the flood was over the whole world, did they get the Australian and American animals? This version does mention armadillos, but I’m inclined to think the American author had forgotten these are purely animals of the Americas. We also learn of peoples who were apparently totally wiped out in the Flood, but we know mysteriously reappeared, such as Phoenicians.

It was interesting, but not enthralling. Throughout it asks, but does not answer, questions about a God with unlimited power, a God who cares and creates but punishes ruthlessly. The role of people, it seems, is to obey or rebel.

Grace McCleen’s book had me hooked from the start and its impact on me was far greater. A ten-year-old girl in a small town (it seems to be in South Wales) is being brought up by her deeply and stiffly religious father: her mother is dead. They belong to some strict sect: it sounds very much like the Jehovah’s Witnesses. The girl is bullied at school. She seeks escape in a fantasy world she constructs in her bedroom, a model of things in the real world. She wishes it would snow so she could avoid school and the bully she fears will kill her. She makes mock snow with cotton-wool in her model world. It snows in the real world and school is cancelled. God is speaking to her and telling her she has great power. She tries something else – to bring back a neighbour’s missing cat. The cat returns. She brings snow again. A series of events follow which, if they were true, would seriously interest an open-minded scientist. What she does in the Land of Decoration does seem to be reproduced outside.

But things go wrong. She tries to talk to her father about it but he won’t listen. The boy bully blames her for the trouble he faces from a new teacher and he and his friends begin to cause trouble and damage outside her house , a campaign of harassment. She could – she believes – strike at him, but she doesn’t want to. God is unhelpful and says she’s caused what is happening.

In the end – well, I’d better not say. We learn how her mother died and why her father, a decent man, seems stiff and haunted. Her father and God had assured her that decent, loving people like her neighbour with the cat will be destroyed if they don’t hear the word, but the ending seems to reject this. Finally the link between events in the World of Decoration and our world is broken.

I was totally engaged. I’m unsure, though, what the author is wanting us to believe. The series of events goes well beyond credible coincidence, but the God speaking to the girl is cold and in the end, wrong. The dust cover tells us Grace McCleen grew up in South Wales in just such a religious community. I would be curious about what she believes now.

An unseasonal poem

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Well, the whole New Year mythology pretty much leaves me cold: 1st January 2014 is the day after 31st December 2013 and the next day is 2nd January 2014. By the way, most computers seem to try very hard to impose the American date system, which is bafflingly illogical: a date consisting of day, month, year is a combination of three measurements of which the day is the most specific and the year the most general, so there are two logical ways of presenting it – day, month, year or year, month, day. We Brits do it the first way. Americans set it out as month, day, year – a bit like an address going Bristol Road, 97, Gloucester.

That rant over – on to the next one. Supermarkets have many advantages, but the busy crowds and the noise (including tinny music too loud) make me want to get out of most of them as soon as possible. Over the Christmas period the music is dominated by a few Christmas songs we’ve been hearing dozens of times in a few days and in the rare event the song seemed good to start with, it sounds horribly trite the twelfth time. It’s interrupted by an announcement that starts by wishing shoppers a happy/merry Christmas before immediately suggesting they buy a lot of stuff on special offer. I suspect I’m not the only one to mouth something not very polite – not because I lack a positive attitude towards Jesus Christ, pagan midwinter festivals, wine, whisky and Christmas pudding (this ignorant spellcheck objects to WHISKY, which is the only correct spelling for the Scottish or Welsh stuff, and wants to change it to whiskey, fine if I was talking about the Irish drink) but because I sniff an intention of equating happiness and goodwill with buying their products, specifically the ones they’d hoped to shift days earlier.

So – am I a Scrooge? Judge for yourself (but the final decision is mine: after all, I take full responsibility for myself).

MERRY CHRISTMAS

Merry Christmas, shoppers!

As usual there are brilliant special offers

Why not try…

Why not cry

The tinny music’s loud enough to drown, don’t fear,

An inconvenient noise amid Christmas cheer.

I hope most of you had a happy Christmas

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I’m not particularly joining in the Bah Humbug message (my search for Christmas Gloom images did not turn up a wide selection), though visiting the supermarket today to find tinny music blaring out a message of Christmas good cheer equates taking advantage of all those special offers did make me a bit humbuggish. I suppose the abstract noun is humbuggery.

What I wanted to point out, being rather honest and world-battered, is that a wish that everyone in a group of ten or more has a happy Christmas is unrealistic and I’ve always believed in making wishes and objectives practical if only just. So I recommend, to a group of ten people, “I hope nine of you have a happy Christmas.”

Now for a poem. This is a recent one of mine and I think I’ll leave it to you to see any common theme in the three parts.

THREE

ETERNAL CITY

He mentioned the eternal city, but the timetable is out of date,

Some of the stops have been washed away or closed;

The internet gives me pictures of it, but they’re disputed

Someone claims the mysterious hand is his

And has the ring to prove it. I have heard the music,

But perhaps it’s coming from next door’s TV;

The undeciphered symbols wrenched from the desert

May be accounts or a maker’s production numbers

Or simply random scribbles we’ve invested

With our own need for pattern. Going outside

I see the stars, step back and shut the door,

I read a pamphlet, get a cup of coffee

And grasp only in my sleep for a hidden city.

GOLDEN EGG

Up this tall, beautiful tree is a great bird’s nest

The bird is black, its talons crush skulls like paper

And in the nest, a single golden egg

Which you say contains all the wisdom ever thought

And I say would make me a lord if melted down.

We would both climb for it

But the trunk is too high, the branches insubstantial,

Buckling even under the weight of a squirrel

(So the old woman says) and we dare not do it and die

But you fear what the hatching from the egg would bring

That’s why you climbed and cried and fell and died.

SEA VOICES

Some say the drowned sailors are calling in the sea-wind,

And some, lost children, chattering in the foam;

Some hear the butchered whales’ song, but I

Just hear the wind, the beating of the waves,

Rasping of pebbles rounded over the years.

They say the lost creatures, whatever they are, will lead you out

Beckoning, alluring, to a death by drowning

But I see none of that, and so I follow.

Copyright Simon Banks 2013

And now for the Magicians

Anyone spot the non-deliberate mistake in my last post? No? Hello? Anyone there?

It was called “Travellers and Magicians”. The poems certainly dealt with travellers, but not particularly magicians. That was because when I entered the title, I expected to be discussing four poems, two about travellers and two about magicians. I found the discussion as getting long enough so I stopped at the first two poems, but failed to change the title.

So now for the magicians. This post, by the way, is another in the series of re-blogging poems of mine with some discussion or explanation.

 

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.

 

I posted this recently on a poetry discussion group and instantly someone asked if it was a ballad. Well done, that woman. I’d hesitate to call it a ballad because that for me implies something about its environment, but it does deliberately mimic ballad style, especially after the first verse. Signs are the large amount of repetition (but sometimes with slight changes), the strong rhythm, definite and simple rhyming plan, lack of detailed description, reliance on a few powerful, often archetypal, images and that it is in some way narrative. If you’re not into ballads, especially if you’re British, think “Sir Patrick Spens”, very much a ballad. Many American Country and Western songs are essentially ballads, for example “Long Black Veil”.

It’s probably fairly obvious that this poem is about coming to terms with death, which is personified as often in folk art. Who are the other two characters, though? There is a Magician (old and dying) and a narrator who is a friend of the magician. Is it actually the magician himself? Maybe. Maybe the narrator is me, but maybe I’m the magician – in my imagination and predictions. Maybe the narrator is God. Maybe (a radical suggestion) he or she is a friend. The Magician is a creative individual who has difficulty reconciling himself to death, but accepting he’s afraid is a long step to accepting death while still loving life (the bread of death and the bread of life).

I wouldn’t want to set out meanings for the key images as if this was a phrase book, so I won’t comment on the roses or the wine. I will comment on “the shell is empty on the shelf/ Through the woken night”. Old people often have difficulty sleeping, so “the woken night” is obvious enough, though the Magician’s fears may contribute to his sleeplessness. But “woken night” could also suggest dark or frightening forces waking up in the night – his fears, maybe.  “The shell is empty on the shelf” is interesting because of the sounds involved (shell/shelf). But why a shell? A shell is empty when the creature that lived in it has died. People often collect shells and may put them on a shelf for decoration. Despite snails, we think of shells as coming from the sea, which has receded from the Magician: it’s a reminder of his failing powers or his loss of spiritual contact (because of his fears?).

In the end the Magician comes to terms with death.

Now another poem written soon afterwards. I actually wrote four poems featuring magicians in quick succession. This happens sometimes with me: an image rises from the unconscious and I can’t make full use of it or exorcise it in one go. the magicians are typically wounded or dying.

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THE SHADOWED WAY

 

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.

 

 There we are – the magician appears now as a less central character, dying in the second verse. This poem also imitates ballads, though perhaps less obviously. Again, someone is struggling to come to terms with fears, but here, the bringer of fears has arrived on the doorstep.

The characters seem to exist across time or for a longer timespan than humans (“felt the ageing of the tree”. The visitor seems to predict annihilation (“The snow will cover all your songs/ The dark will kill the flower”) but immediately predicts rebirth, which is not always comfortable (“an unquiet hour”). The final message is that light comes out of dark (so accept the dark).

I think that makes sense…

Copyright Simon Banks 2013

The Tower

What if someone has the opportunity to live his or her dreams? What happens to that person – and to the dreams?

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.

 

Copyright Simon Banks 2013

Thomas the Rymer

 

If you would ride into the borderlands alone

Or following a queen or an indistinct light

If you would be separated from the sun

Remember the sound of the waves and, Thomas, ride on.

 

If you would be free, then follow

If you would live, then die.

 

If, Thomas, you wish to feel the rough texture of bread

Rasping your hands, the tang and sweetness of wine,

Wind in the leaves, hair in your face, stroking fingers, soft rain,

Ride on.

Remember, and sing the song.

 

Thomas the Rymer is a figure based on a historical medieval Scottish bard rumoured to have magical powers. One ballad describes how he meets the Queen of Elfland/ Queen of the Fairies/ Queen of Heaven who takes him on a journey out of the known world through darkness where he hears the sea.

 

I wrote this poem during a rush of uncontrolled creativity along with “Borderlands” and (to come) “Estuary Shore”.

 

Copyright Simon Banks 2013

Book review: Robert Holdstock, Mythago Wood

I had not been aware of the English fantasy writer Robert Holdstock until he died and I read his obituary. I thought from what that said, his work sounded just my sort of thing, but I didn’t get round to reading it for some time until I happened to be killing time near a large library while waiting for my car to be ready. He had also been featured shortly before in Ashsilverlock’s blog. I’m glad I took the opportunity.

 

“Mythago Wood” is the first book in a series. It is very different from the sort of fantasy you find in Tolkien or Peake, where you are immediately in a strange but compelling world and you either accept it or you don’t. This starts with our world, the English county of Herefordshire and a time just after the end of the Second World War. The narrator is a young man returning from war wounds to the house where his remote and strange father had died not long before, and which is now occupied by his elder brother, also returned from the war.

 

The house is lonely and on the edge of a mysterious wood. Anyone trying to walk into it finds himself blocked, diverted and coming out again. I don’t want to give much of the plot away, but the central idea is that in this wood, archetypes or mythical figures we’ve long forgotten can take on flesh and mind and a real existence. These are called mythagos. If a present-day human spends enough time in and penetrates deep enough into the wood, creatures are created in the image of his own unknown dreams. Once created, they seem to have short lives but are entirely corporeal, needing to eat and capable of killing.

 

But is this just the reality of the outer parts of the wood?

 

Because of the realistic start, it took me a while to feel taken up by the story, in contrast to Tolkien or Peake. It’s well-written but I’m not quite drawn in as completely as by some other first-class fantasy. It is very, very well done, though. The touches of myth are credible in their own traditions and Holdstock is very good at taking some real event and turning it into mythic expression. There are a few points about the this-word elements which aren’t quite credible: for example, a character, a serving air force officer, gets a spear in his shoulder from a mythago and is “patched up” at his base. But didn’t his comrades, in late nineteen-forties ordered England, insist on knowing what had happened and call the police?

 

The image of the wood invading the house is very powerful, as is the stream that goes into the wood and grows inside it to a river, but is a stream again when it exits.

 

I’m fascinated to find things in this book I didn’t know about but which correspond closely to what I’ve written. For example, my long poem “Six Strands” contains a section “Forest” which sounds in part very like Holdstock’s wood.

 

The next volume is “Lavondyss”. Like the narrator, I will go there…