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

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It’s reality, Jim, but not as we know it

Poems are full of ambiguity and mystery. Sometimes this is deliberately created, using words that could mean one thing or another, either to suggest both things or to seem clever by mystifying the reader. Sometimes the mystery, the uncertainty, the blur occurs because the poet isn’t sure of what (s)he’s saying. In an instruction manual for a machine this would be disastrous. But poets like religious visionaries are talking all the time about things they suspect they partly understand.

I’ve picked out here three of my poems where uncertainty is an important factor.

A SIGN

So when the distant soldiers came around midday

To the curious building in the foreign fields

Planted with unfamiliar crops they saw a sign

And casually debated what the thing might mean.

But rain encouraged them to shelter inside the place,

Chapel or school, and the sign was just another strangeness

Among many, and so in time they marched away

To the slaughter next day on the watching ridge

And then artillery and fire destroyed the shrine

The words were not spoken and the slug river moved on.

The poem is about missed opportunities, a sign that could have changed the world but didn’t. Unless we believe that everything is predetermined, the thought of how different the world might have been if the Buddha or Mohammed or Luther, or for that matter Lenin or Hitler, had died before making an impact, is disturbing and intriguing. For the soldiers, though, the crops in the fields, the building and the sign are all things outside their experience: they wonder a bit and move on, having a job to do, a job that will kill them. The soldiers don’t understand the sign, but we aren’t told what the sign is, or how to recognise a sign from noise.

RAINWASHED

I recognise them, the rainwashed places,

The shallow lakes across the demolition site

The passing vehicle’s short-lived water rising

Water-spots on the window, rainbright grass

On the playing-field fringed by uneven brickwork

That will be there another night

When the rain has not fallen, the dust rises and falls

On crumbling walls the fern and buddleia shrivel

And the window is smeared, and cannot be cleared by a fix

And the clouds in the distance, over the barren hills

Could be the coming of rain or could be the end of the trick.

This poem ends with uncertainty: are the rains coming to end the drought, or is it “the end of the trick”? And is the trick a false promise of rain or something more fundamental, an unreal world? The description of the environment during and after much rain seems to lead on to drought through an assumption that drought will follow rain, but is this a natural cycle of seasons or an irreversible change?

TIMER

In the dark tower at the top

A single light, dull glowing red

The tower is darker than the night

The lower buildings round the edge

Cluster in shadow from the red

The hunting waver of an owl

Behind the avenue of dead trees

Wakens a movement in the sedge

And slithering through the hidden ditch.

The moths have gathered round the light

And something old is not yet dead.

Time, our young friend and enemy

Writing we cannot erase

Though written on tablets that may crumble

And in a metre we find strange

The ship is down, we cling to you

The waves around, the water cold

And we were young, and we are old.

If I should meet what I have feared

Lit by the red light from the tower,

If opening the hidden case

I should not find another hour

But something strange I knew before

Recalling marks on that dull door

I shall be ready for time and space.

A golden clock stands on a marble shelf

The intricate workings move at even speed

If I should throw it far in a great arc

Into the waters of the silent lake

What would I think I was, what would I be?

Lianas interlink the blossoming trees

Inside the green confusion all birds sing

And shivering trills with low, slow warbles mix

And touch and mingle, wing to leaf to wing.

This one deals with themes of time and death, but it contains images and lines I don’t really understand myself. You tell me what the significance is of the dull light in the old tower, for I’m not sure myself. I might guess that the tower is a body – or the world. The light may be life and consciousness – or it may be a principle of life, a spiritual reality. So why is the tower darker than the night around? That time is friend and enemy is not a surprising thought, but why “young friend”? Maybe because time is the here and now as well as the distant? Or am I imagining myself outside time, so time itself might seem a blip?

Copyright Simon Banks 2013

Dark Lady

The term “dark lady” is famous because of a mysterious reference in one of Shakespeare’s sonnets. No one knows for sure who the dark lady was, but she clearly meant a lot to Shakespeare. The terms “dark” and even “black” were used very widely in England in the 16th and 17th centuries (the future Charles II, on the run from Cromwell’s men, was described in a sort of wanted poster as a “tall black man” (he had the hair and skin of his French mother).

 

“Dark” of course, much more than “black”, conveys a sense of mystery and ominous threat or frightening secrets. So why is this poem called “Dark Lady”? Good question.

 

DARK LADY

 

VEIL

 

If I came to you in a dark veil, would you think you knew me?

If I came as a dark in light, would you deny me?

Or as a hint of a tune, employ me?

What do you remember of me among the rustling branches?

What are you reaching to in the owl-rich night

Or where the ice is cracking with your blind advances, calling?

I am the voice you forgot after the dream

You have been following, I was unseen

I will throw off the veil when you are falling

And when we leap among the stars, you shall have sight.

 

FOREST

 

When I became a forest in my dream

The impatient squirrels, the flame-feathered birds,

Slow motion green-glossed struggle of the trees

Rose from the soil that was humanity.

 

When I became a forest in my dream

I felt the touch of winter on the leaves

The pain of cold and hunger in many bones

The dying of a generation

Dragonfly glory preparing to take wing.

 

SAND

 

When I became a forest in my dreams

One day the trees were washed away by wind

The fertile soil rose in screaming clouds

And all around was sand

But to that broken land

Came once again the rebirth of the sea.

 

TEMPLE

 

What image might I put on the temple wall

That people might overlook the fall of nations

And feeling the death of beasts they could not see

Look up to a mountain or a dark lady?

Some delicate shimmering beauty risen from the dark,

Eternal dragonfly that only falls

To rise and be.

 

DARK LADY

 

If I came to you now with shimmering wings

If I came to you with the song of birds

High in the green kaleidoscope of the canopy

Would you then know the figure forming in the dark

And touch what somehow never was there to see?

 

 

Maybe the figure of the Dark Lady stands for something frightening that turns out not to be evil. The image of finding light in dark (not a light in the dark) occurs elsewhere in my poems.

 

Copyright Simon Banks 2012

Wandering between worlds

Here’s three more reposted poems with a bit more comment. In one way or another they’re all about travelling between worlds. “The Immigrant” has left his old country for a new one, but although he tries, he cannot leave behind the old country in his mind. “Expedition” is about a scientific exploration, but as the poem progresses, it seems they may be travelling through more than semi-desert. “Fathers” is more or less about the formal settling (rather than foundation) of the Christian religion, but implies a need to be in contact with what could be called two worlds in addition to the material one.

THE IMMIGRANT

The immigrant adjusts his hat

Squints at the unfamiliar words

Tests the new land with his shoe

Some casual abuse

Is partly understood

The hat is wrong but not the shirt.

Wrapped in the now familiar streets and shops

Handling the hard language less well than he thinks

He seems to be at home

A diligent Roman

Following the new-found rules

But then a haunting tune, words said in drink,

Recall a half-remembered clouded place

That maybe never was

It’s hard to say

Easier to drive the thoughts away

Than enter that unbounded space.

I was thinking particularly of a Jewish immigrant to England from Eastern Europe around the beginning of the twentieth century, but this could be almost any immigrant, especially if his clothes and manner, rather than his basic physical appearance, pick him out from the locals and if he faces some dislike and abuse. The poem is quite naturalistic. The immigrant is trying to fit in and quite expects the locals to be hard to please. He makes good progress. But at the end we find he has a yearning for his homeland, though the picture of it he now has in his head may not accurately represent how it was or is.

EXPEDITION

It is a long way home from this last camp

We have found the inland sea we planned to find

Though it is smaller than we always thought

And seems to shrivel in the relentless sun.

We found some creatures that were good to eat

And others that entranced our sand-sore eyes

With the incredible sheen of many feathers.

We did not, though, catch fish in this strange sea;

The water is unpleasant to the tongue

Though in the crumbling rocks up this low hill,

Here on the spiny bushes warted slope,

Our cook found this strange scaly fossil that

Must once have been a fish when the sea was higher.

On this loose stone strewn hilltop overlooking

This sparkling sea, we have seen the stumps of trees

And we have heard the comments of our keen

Geologist: these pebbles are black glass

Incredible heat has forged them out of sand

But there is too much here to understand

We are returning what we’ve missed

We will leave this silent land.

On the way back we have kept these chiselled samples,

Relying on the streams we passed and used

On the way out: but now the streams seem smaller

And here is one that has dried to windblown sand.

These yellow fruits resist the hungry teeth

With a tough skin but a sharp knife will do it:

Inside is watery pulp and teasing sugars.

Finally we straggle to the crest from where

You can see the singing valley we started from

Thunder beats a dry drum

But the trees and houses are gone.

The spark for this was reading about early exploration of the Australian hinterland and the irrational fixed idea the early explorers had that a vast inland sea must lie in the interior. My explorers set off from a settlement through dry and inhospitable land and do indeed find an inland sea, but a dead and declined one. They find evidence that it was once much bigger.

They set off for home again but the land which just about supported them on the outward journey has now changed through a rapid desertification and when they arrive back where they started, there is no sign of the settlement. The implication is that they have travelled through time as well as space. In this poem I use the sound of words a lot to convey extra meaning: seems to shrivel in the relentless sun; spiny bushes warted slope (ie, the slope warted with spiny bushes); must once have been a fish when the sea was higher; these yellow fruits resist the hungry teeth.

FATHERS

A congress of the faithful ruled

That heresy, this solid right

The darkness was defined and named

They drew the boundaries of light

But in the dark a light still shone

And in the land of constant light

The forests shrivelled, streams ran dry

Until the coming of the night.

Christians particularly use the image of light to stand for the positive, loving, “enlightened”, seeing. The implication is that the dark is a dark of ignorance, danger and evil. This is powerful imagery, but awkward for someone who loves actual dark as much as light. The yin/yang symbol comes to mind and also Jungian psychology: the relationship between dark and light is creative and attempts to abolish the dark are disastrous. I recognise that the dark as I envisage it may not be the dark someone like St Paul or George Fox referred to. They may have been using “dark” as a metaphor for something quite different. But in this poem I suggest that defining and abolishing the dark led to aridity until the valuable light was reconnected with the dark.

That’s it, folks

Copyright Simon Banks 2012

Crossing Borders

As I’m less than a week back in England from Hungary, it seems quite timely to resurrect a poem called “Passport”. As I’ve done before, I’m saying a bit more about this poem than I did first time round. If that invades your readerly purity to make what you like of the thing – you had the chance. It was already posted. So there.

This poem is a kind of extended metaphor. The second one is lyrical and philosophical (have I put you off yet?) and the third is very simple, a succession of a few images without explanation (until now). So here goes.

PASSPORT

Half down a long smooth corridor I turned to check

Who I was supposed to be meeting, what I should plead

As the purpose of my visit, length of stay,

And my destination. But there was no-one to ask.

So I just carried on

Hoping someone would tell me, or I’d find a clue

In the codes on my documentation

Or the false heel of a shoe

Anyway, they let me in

Stamping my passport with “indefinite stay”

And then I wandered round the streets making notes

And taking photos to elucidate

What I should do and who I was.

Finally I’ve come to a door

That looks familiar, and the signs on it, though damaged,

Could be a reference to shining shores

Where travellers in the past have managed

To find a boat, to watch the moving oars.

Obviously I’m using the image of a traveller going through passport control, probably at an airport. But it’s unlikely a real traveller, unless (s)he had Alzheimer’s or something similar, would arrive at the border not knowing why (s)he was entering the country or how long the stay might be. I suggest this is actually a person being born and developing self-awareness, asking what (s)he is here for and aware both of some idea of a previous existence and of the destination or gate called death.

I play with familiar images – the information missing might be encoded on a document or (in the worlds of spies and smugglers) hidden in a false bottom.

The person arrives (given an “indefinite stay” as we all are) and wanders round trying to make sense of the world and his or her situation. Finally, he or she arrives at a door which seems decayed and damaged but which may lead to a boat which will take him or her to other shores (an old image for death), as is going through a door.

The sense that I’m here FOR something but I’m not sure what is one very real to me.

Note that the vocabulary I’ve used here is simple and everyday except for official words familiar from immigration and passport control.

DISENCHANTMENT

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.

Like “Wolf”, this is a poem which reproduces a conversation between two voices. I’ve tried to reflect this by layout but don’t know if this will work on thi site. One voice is more critical of rationality and science than the other.

What am I trying to say? I’m not rejecting science or rationality, but saying we need more to be complete. We’ve engineered and analysed out all the myths and fears, only to find them returning in more destructive form (“the sabre-toothed beasts…the giant wings”. We’ve exterminated the dangerous beasts, but we are not safe. Do you find the line “I can tell when a star will disappear” sad? I’m fascinated by astronomical science, but our reaction to stars cannot be encompassed in it. Did Western civilisation lose as well as gain at the Renaissance and Enlightenment?

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.

This last poem contains images suggestive of war and oppression. With my background, it suggests to me the Second World War, prisoner of war camps and concentration camps. An atmosphere of menace is built up by apparently neutral images, the short scream of an owl (or a person?) and the invisibility of the heavy plane overhead. When the light goes out, is that just a switch being pressed, or a death?

Like a lot of poems rich in images and little else, it reads as if it were heavily influenced by the experience of watching TV and films, but it does something these more rushed and immediate media struggle to do – except perhaps there is something of Hitchcock in the poem.

Copyright Simon Banks 2012

Mission

Here’s another poem written in the style of a ballad, with a hint of mystery.

 

 

MISSION

 

So when will we come back, she said,

So when will we stray?

The oaks grow round the shack, she said,

And the night kills day.

 

There may be no return, I said,

But we’ll stray for sure:

Or else the tower will burn, I said,

And the moon will lure.

 

So will we find the stone, my friend?

Will it brightly burn?

Or will we waste to bone, my friend,

Lying in the fern?

 

The stone may not be found, my friend,

Not in shack or sea,

Or in broken ground, my friend.

It may never be.

 

So let us rise and go, she said,

Calling in the night,

For what we do not know, she said,

And a dream of light.

 

 

Copyright Simon Banks 2012

 

 

The Dull Valley

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

 

THE DULL VALLEY

 

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.”

 

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.

 

 

Copyright Simon Banks 2012

 

Death and the Magician

Over a period, I wrote several poems which featured a dying or wounded magician, sometimes as the central character, sometimes mentioned in passing. This one was deliberately constructed to resemble a ballad, especially after the first introductory verse.

 

This is the poem that spellbound a group of 60+ people from the University of the Third Age group in Harwich when I read it at a festival event.  It has been published in “Troubador”.

 

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

 

Still Trying to Explain Myself

which if you go by the Latin origin, means “to lay myself out flat”. So that’s why it’s difficult.

 

By the way, when I re-posted the last batch of poems, they somehow lost the gaps between the verses and also a distinctive layout for one poem (“Wolf”). I’ve now restored these features. For “Wolf” especially, it makes the poem a lot easier to read and understand. If the same problem occurs here (it looks OK from what I can see) I’ll correct it as soon as I can.

 

Some more old posts with more comments here:

 

THE BLUE-BLACK SLOES

 

The queen has made a laurel wreath

For the new champion to wear

So he will not grow old and weak

 

The whisper of the brittle leaves

Is of a people falling down

And of a king that cannot breathe

 

The blue-black sloes have gathered round,

The blackberry and scarlet hip

They twine about the king’s own crown

 

Inside the castle nothing moves

The guests are frozen to the walls

And spears of ice hang from the roof

 

The withered wreath has taken root

And pressing through the embroidered cloth

Will resurrect the warmth and doubt.

 

A bit of variety in scansion can be effective: I personally really like that line “For the new champion to wear”.

 

The poem is about the seasons, made myth. The champion is I think a reference to the annual magic king in “The Golden Bough”, someone who is fresh, strong and young in spring but old by autumn. The second and third verses take us to autumn (sloe, blackberry and hip are autumn berries in England, though blackberries may ripen in late summer and sloes and hips can be seen still in midwinter). The autumn is colourful but ominous. The fourth verse represents the height of winter, with life frozen, and the fifth shows life beginning to stir again. Obviously this sequence can be applied to many other things than the actual seasons.

 

EXPLORERS

 

“That this is my North-West discoverie:

Per fretum febrae, by these straights to die”

 

“Oh, my America, my new found land”

 

–          John Donne

I

Intricate fantastical

Palace is built

From fragile weave

Of dreamt formulae

On the mathematician’s

Flowerdecked grave

 

With a walk like the waft

Of a branch in the breeze

Comes a woman whose eyes

Are pools in a cave

That a diver might brave

With no light to return

 

In the day to farm and fashion

In the dark to watch and wonder

At the dawn to remember

 

Where the sea and the sky blur together

There are havens and reefs for the sailor

 

What land lies over

Those silent hills?

Wastelands where black bats gibber

Or cradling a silent river,

Valleys of song?

 

Officials make inventory

Of all the goods the travellers pack

And plans for drought or for attack

Are hammered out while song and story

Buy off the devils along the track

 

Trapped in the hills and hunted down

By hidden bog and avalanche

By haunting wind and wolf, survivors

Stumble beside a clattering stream

Down to the valley of their dream

 

Where cupping hands bring out bright gold

Trees offer fruit of no known tang

And vivid song as no bird sang

Wakens the travellers from the cold

 

They name the valley, import the skills

To mine the gold and lay the roads

Till someone heads for other hills.

 

When no dark ridge is left, the wise

Explore the forests of the mind

And stare in one another’s eyes

 

Now out of mist on broken lands

What new and treacherous hills will rise?

 

This is about exploration, both actual discovery of new lands and other kinds of risk-taking and discovery. It’s largely from the explorers’ point of view, but noting how their discovery leads to big (often negativ) changes in the environment.

 

When John Donne wrote, exploration was at the front of many European minds and he uses this figuratively.  The first quote was comparing death to a voyage of discovery, complete with a pun on “straights” (hard circumstances, or a narrow sea-passage). The second might seem to be about North-east Canada, but in the poem he’s addressing his mistress undressing!

 

I struggle to explain the first two verses, though I find the first has a weird power for me. I suppose it’s referring to the risk and excitement of scientific discovery and to a meeting of art and science, while the second is about risky romantic love. Both could be pictures of exploration. The third verse refers to the productiveness of consciousness/day and the creativity of unconsciousness/night: we create if we can link the two (remember the night in the day). I have doubts about the fourth verse and might cut it. Thoughts?

 

The rest of the poem describes a group of explorers surviving various dangers to find the new land. They wonder at so many new and beautiful things. But the excitement does not last and as the land is “opened up” some move on. When there are no new lands to explore, we explore ourselves. The lands we’ve discovered are “broken” and the prospect of new challenges is exciting, but the far hills are “treacherous” – offering danger to us, or doom to themselves?