Treks

Last time I said a bit about long-distance trail walking, having just come back from doing the West and East Highland Ways. I set myself the aim of relating posts like that to poetry.

Well now, one thing at a time…

Here’s a brief Q and A on long-distance trail walking, bearing in mind that more poets than hill-walkers will be reading this.

Q: What’s long distance?

A: I wouldn’t call anything under 70 miles a long-distance trail. Even in Britain trails extend up to 630 miles (The South-west Coastal). In bigger countries it can be much more, like the 2,200 miles of the U.S.’s Appalachian Trail.

Q: What can you do in a day?

A: It varies person to person – and according to the nature of the country. My view is that pushing yourself to extremes like 40 miles in a day must mean you can hardly enjoy the sensations on the way. The most I’ve done on a trail in mildly hilly country is 27 and 30 in flattish country, but 20 in hill country is a good session. Take into account, as far as you can, not only the ascents, but the nature of the paths. You can make much quicker progress on a broad cart-track up a hill than on a narrow path going up and down between rocks, strewn with tree roots and rocks at all angles.

Q: They’re all in hill country, right?

A: A lot are, both because the scenery is impressive and because you encounter fewer areas you can’t walk through, fewer roads and fewer towns (navigating a trail through a built-up area of any size is really complicated). But most of the hill trails have lowland stretches and Britain has several coastal trails.

Q: Is it right you can have sherpas carrying your bags?

A: It’s not illegal, but in Britain sherpas of the sort that assisted Himalayan mountaineers it would cost the earth. The “sherpa” services contract to carry your pack from one day’s walking destination to the next by van, relying on the fact that many people will be walking the same stages and staying in the same places. This leads to fun walking, but to me it’s cheating. If you say you’ve walked the Pennine Way, you should mean you’ve done it carrying everything you needed on your back. As a Dutch businessman said to me at the end of the Coast to Coast, “It’s good to know that everything you really need in life you can carry on your back.” Deciding how you can cut the weight you carry, deciding what’s too important to leave out, is part of the challenge. And keeping the weight low is VITAL!

Q: Where do you stay overnight?

A: Some people camp (mainly “wild camping”, a term that’s quite new in Britain, though the reality isn’t). That gives you lots of flexibility and a nearness to nature, but it means you have to carry more food plus the tent. Crucially, it also means that if you finish the day with wet boots, they’ll be wet next morning (and this leads to foot problems). I prefer to stay in bed and breakfast, guest houses, inns or reasonably-priced hotels. Inns are my first choice and on many routes they’re quite numerous.

Q: What do you take with you?

A: NOTHING you don’t need – so I recommend no reading material other than maps and a guide book. I wouldn’t take a kindle either unless you can enter the guide book and maps on it, the display is really clear, which it wouldn’t be in black and white, and it doesn’t mind getting wet. On any walk of more than five days, count on washing some clothes and re-using them, but properly-washed socks are important. Even pared to the minimum, the list is too long here, but take insect repellent, sun screen and disinfectant (in the smallest, lightest versions possible) and two hats. Hats are useful against sun and rain, but they’re easily lost and it could be four or five days before you come to a place where you can buy a replacement.

Q: I’m pretty fit and can walk 25 miles in a day. Am I ready to take on a trail like the West Highland Way?

A: Probably not. You need to know what you can do over several days. If you count on repeating day after day for a week with a full pack what you know you can do for a day with a half-full pack, you’ll come unstuck. I always fit in a bit of practice before taking on a serious long-distance trail, ideally one or two weeks before. That might mean four days’ tough walking in similar country with a similar weight and the same boots.

Q: Are you a masochist?

A: Not quite. On every trail I’ve done (except the West Highland this time – the low point came when I took on the East Highland straight on from that) I’ve paused for sweaty breath on a gruelling climb or retraced my footsteps having gone wrong on a particularly long stretch, or pulled myself upright from a glutinous fall in a bog, or forced myself forward into driving rain, and said to myself, “You don’t have to do this – so why ARE you doing it?”. But the answer always came in a day or two at most. The scenery is fantastic, the sense of moving from one kind of country to another by the power of your own legs is marvellous, reaching the end of the day’s stage with a soft bed to snooze on, a bar to have a beer in and the prospect of a good meal is wonderful, the sense of achievement on reaching the end is unrivalled – and there’s something more than that, particularly on the longer trails. You’ve become a nomad. Your home is not in Birmingham or Bremen, but in your pack and in your head. You move on each day. It begins to seem like a way of life.

The quiet, the beauty and the lack of much else to do at the end of the day can help produce poetry too!

Next time I’ll look at a couple of my poems and see how long-distance walking might have influenced them. Then maybe I’ll find a relevant poem or two by other people (Wordsworth?). Any suggestions for that?

Death, imagination, magic, money, reality, human nature and a few other things

Time to repost a few more poems with more discussion. I dothis because I dislike serving up a poem complete with instructions on how to interpret it, but some time later I might make tentative suggestions.

 

INSTRUCTIONS

 

I bought this thing quite a long time ago

But never needed it, so never assembled

The impressive confusing parts

But now I’ve started to read the instructions

And as always, I suppose,

They don’t quite make sense.

“Stand on the bank of the river

Summon the ferryman and give him silver

And he will carry you over.” That makes sense.

But then apparently the other side

Is somewhere underneath us. Then again

It says, “Flow into the distant stars

Towards a light that is not quite a star.”

You can’t go down, across and up at the same time!

Though in the depths of this black silent pool

Which shimmers with the lights of star and moon

Maybe I’ve seen the answer after all.

 

This is a wry poem about thinking about death. It uses a sustained metaphor (quite unusual for me) of someone trying to understand the instructions booklet for some newly-bought gadget. So I quote several myths and ideas about death. The ferryman of course is Charon in Greek mythology ferrying the dead over the river Styx.  That seems to be a journey across, but it’s to the Underworld (in several mythologies), so presumably the Underworld is under this one. So what about myths of the released soul travelling amongst the stars and the idea that Heaven is above us? Well, really these are images, metaphors themselves, but I’m assuming the persona of a literal-minded person struggling to understand the myths literally. In the last three lines, though, I reconcile all three versions: in black water (the Styx) if you look down (Underworld) you see the stars reflected.

 

Maybe I’m suggesting a reconciling of light and dark.

 

ALCHEMY

 

Wandering the world, the witch brings cold

Where there is light she snuffs it out

Her wings obscure the distant stars

Her breath fills palaces with gold

 

The kings and courtiers count and plan

The heavy castles rise and spread

They dance a new and heady tune,

The merchant and the artisan.

 

The witch has taken to the night

Again, and cupped her smothering wings

The starving people try to eat

The blocks that seemed so strong and bright

 

The robes and sceptres rot or twist

The castles’ windows are all dark

When the witch lands, the stars are born

And with the dawn comes gentle mist.

 

An internet friend interested in magic commented, “This is a new kind of witch”. Well, the figure of the witch has long carried implications of evil and of healing, but this witch is rather special. What does she do? She obscures the light and chills the land, but she fills palaces with gold. She brings economic development and prosperity which cannot last. I’m not going to seek a political or religious moral here beyond what I think I was thinking, but this is a very material and materialist kind of witch. But she cannot control the world indefinitely and light comes back.

 

On a technical level, this is a regular poem with four-line verses of the same number of syllables and a rhyming plan of the first and fourth lines rhyming but the second and third not rhyming. I’m not sure I’ve used this system elsewhere.

 

I THINK BECAUSE I AM NOT

 

“I think because I am not,” the wise man said,

“If I were fully in the material world,

The tease of rain, the anger of a rock,

The taste of apples and of fertile woman

Would leave no room for a philosophy

And doubt would be a slipping on the scree.”

 

“I think, therefore I am,” the lecturer said.

“This itch of questioning and of making patterns

Says who I am, and if I plant it here

And simply give it water and tough skin

To give the grazing deer a nasty bruise,

There is no way the human spirit can lose.”

 

I think because I cross a borderland

Where shadows may be real and real things vanish

As thought and dream and shivering in my scalp

Circle and blend like warriors or mating cats

And somehow show a way I should not tread

According to the mighty and the dead.

 

Obviously this draws on Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am”. Descartes is simply drawing a conclusion: because I know I think, I must exist. But his words could be taken to mean “the raison d’etre of my existence is to think” and in fact his formulation leads illogically but predictably to a view of human nature which stresses intellect and reason. I’m playing here in quasi-philosophical mode with other formulations.

In the first version, thought itself is a product of (or a cause of?) our separation from direct experience, being at one remove from the animal. In the second, Descartes’ statement is extended (maybe twisted, though Descartes was a rationalist who probably wouldn’t have minded this development) so that human thought is presented as the highest, most advanced thing in the world. The third expresses more of my perception: I think on the borderland between reason and feeling, spirit and measurement, and the more I venture into the dark and the misted, the more I think and the more I am alive.

 

It’s worth noting that the first and third poems here use humour to approach very serious subjects. Very English.

 

Copyright Simon Banks 2012

Grey breaks the sea

GREY BREAKS THE SEA

 

Grey breaks the sea on the long land

Soft is the rain and cool

Blurred is the distant southern shore

And lost the sunken pool.

 

Harsh breaks the sea on the long land

My eyes turn to the west

They say there’s rocks and the wrong winds

So let us know the rest.

 

 

Evidently not written with my own location in mind because from here, West is the only direction that would take you inland without traversing any sea.

 

Copyright Simon Banks 2012

Journeyman

JOURNEYMAN

 

Some day the rain shall tell me I should leave

Or the shortening days set off a bell

Quiet at first, insidious in the blood

So I will pack

Searching the sky for clues

The distant shimmer and blur that might be rain

Glance at the house

And set out by a route that gradually

Creates itself but will not turn on itself

Though I don’t know the city at the end.

 

I am a journeyman, I learn my trade

From hints and shallow inscriptions on low stones

And from the linking of the bones.

 

I am used to wandering

I travel light, I know the signs

The questioning cat, the blackened oak

The broken bridge, the river in spate

The posts turned round, the embered fire

Light in the sky and razor wire.

 

And so the stages wait, or maybe indifferent

I mark them with my feet for a few minutes

But swimming with a river in the mind

I grope and stumble, being alive and blind.

 

 

A journeyman was an apprentice craftsman who travelled from place to place working with established craftsmen.

 

copyright Simon Banks 2012

Selected Poems of Simon Banks

(Well, about half my poems don’t make it on to the word file. They may survive in a handwritten notebook, or they may have been scrawled on a piece of paper and then I don’t rate them. From the word file a selection gets posted here – and from that, some which most seem to need explanation, background or discussion, get reposted here.)

So now for the next batch.

THE KEMP OWAIN SEQUENCE

METAMORPHOSIS

Seeking a great prize not identified

The lost prince pads wet-footed from the sea

Having heard rumours of a weird thing

A ravenous monster with a hint of speech

An evil dragon crying for a mate:

Circling of gulls shows him the way to climb

They take the scraps of bloodied flesh around

The female devil growing from the tree.

The warrior has a sword well-blessed and forged

A gap in sliding clouds can now unleash

Light from the imprisoned sun to make the sword

Glint like a fire in Prince Owain’s hand.

A sign of Gods to trust the sword and strike

But though a warrior he does not strike

But stands before the long-haired nightmare thing

And hears it speak: come here, kiss me and win

The prize you cannot even know exists.

He kisses her through tangling hair and stink

Of death or sickness and the sun goes in

As if a shadow is falling. As he stares,

“Kiss me again,” she says. He is still human,

His hands not wizened or hairy, even the scar

From that old fight still itches on his chin,

But for the thing he kissed, cavernous eyes

Have filled and narrowed and the maddening breath

Smells not of death but only dangerous night.

He kisses her. The withered breasts grow young

The claws recede. “Again,” she beckons him,

But the dull day has turned to starless night.

He hesitates, gropes for his darkened sword,

Then throws it down and kisses her again.

She feels soft, the smell is sweet. “Turn round,

Pick up your sword and throw it in the sea.”

He turns and throws the holy sword away

Night becomes day, the lady’s live and lithe

Twining her hair with his beneath blue skies.

SALMON

I will be good to you for half the year

For half the year I’ll need you: we will love

For half the year, but for the rest I’m gone

You cannot send a message or a gift

I will not speak, I’ll have forgotten you

Till I return in spring.

I range the seas and have no sense of land

I jump the rapids with a single aim

If I escape the bears and fishermen

I will remember land and feet and thought

And come to you again.

CANDIDATE

So Owen Kemp arrived at the Reception

Where they conducted him to a conference room

Milling with others aiming to achieve

The same great prize. Then from the highest place

A woman’s voice spoke soft and rich and clear:

“Welcome. We’re glad you could attend today.

We have devised a battery of tests,

We hope you’ll find them fun as well as right.

So Owen answered all the riddles set

Like whether he felt nervous in a crowd,

He linked the dots to make a cockatrice

Devised a way to escape the universe

After a coffee break, beat all the rest

At memory games and four-dimensional chess

He tricked the lion from its hoped-for kills

And then the wise ones called him in alone:

“Thankyou, but we were really looking for

A team-player with good networking skills.”

DIVISION

The man talks on his mobile phone

(A rodent hanging from his face)

He has a message to receive

An awkward meeting’s going well

But needs his word to clinch the deal

A momentary annoying thing

Speaks of the hidden and unreal

But what concern is salmon or seal?

The sea is calm, more like a lake,

And never broken by a dive

Of wandering man, has never held

A salmon that had breathed and run

All time’s cut up in hours and dates

The sea and land each know their place

Sandcastles are the only gates

The long-haired woman wails and waits.

Kemp Owain(e) is a mythical hero featured in some ballads and early poems. The name itself is very interesting because while Kemp is Germanic (kampfen, to fight – hence Kemp, a warrior). Owain is Celtic Owen, native to Wales, Ireland and parts of Scotland. It may also be the same as Gawain in the Arthurian legends. So Kemp Owain appears to be a figure emerging from the “Dark Ages” when a Celtic British identity, having been abandoned by (old version) or having thrown off (new version) Roman authority was overlain by a Germanic, Saxon culture coming across the North Sea. While the extent to which the creation of a Saxon English identity was violent ethnic cleansing, and the extent to which it was a kind of cultural imperialism (you lot are all going to speak English now) is still uncertain, interpretations have shifted somewhat from the former to the latter. A mythical figure with Celtic roots taken up very early by Saxons would fit this.

The first part of the poem is a rewriting of a real surviving fragment, in which Kemp Owain meets a repulsive being who turns bit by bit into a beautiful woman.Is it too melodramatic? I have some reservations.

The myth of a sea-creature which turned into human form, made love to a human woman and left, appears in several songs, though it’s usually a seal not a salmon. The focus is often on the fate of the offspring. The salmon appeals to me because it’s seasonal and it inhabits two worlds (sea and river) depending on the season. I suppose this section expresses the way we may always just know part of some people.

The third section is a satirical account of a modern appointment process. Kemp Owain has turned into a candidate being put through hoops, but the hoops still suggest a weird and supernatural element. Perhaps that disqualifies him?

The last part shows the messages of myth and unconscious being ignored. The busy businessman has a momentary strange perception but dismisses it. Why are sandcastles the only gates? I’m not sure, but it seems right. Perhaps the sense of something beyond ourselves, which we have lost, is recoverable through childhood and the two-world nature of the shore.

I think the last two lines are as good as anything I’ve written. The vision of the first part is still waiting.

WESTERN

Wild Bill Hickok with failing sight

Grips the cards held in his hand

Ghostly faces gather round

The door behind him opens wide.

 

Panicking cavalrymen, unhorsed,

Scramble towards a grassy ditch

The condemned Indians make the kill.

 

A straight hard highway stems the land

Flat fields of wheat that wave and brush

The memories down to subsoil worms.

This poem describes two famous moments in the history of the American Wild West. Wild Bill Hickok, brave and maverick lawman, is shot dead while playing cards with his back to the door, something he always avoided and tried to on that occasion. His sight was failing fast at the time.

General Custer’s detachment is wiped out by Sioux Indians/ Native Americans whom he had attacked believing their number to be small. Recent archaeological study has confirmed an Indian account that at the end the surviving soldiers broke and ran down a slight gully where they were killed. But in the long run the outcome was irrelevant: the Indians were in turn slaughtered and lost their land.

I suggest in the last verse that the blandness of the modern Mid-west hides something important in the memories. By the way – I haven’t been to the Mid-west, but I suggest that sort of thing about many different societies!

BUNKER

The murderer sits down in his chair

A job is neatly done, the splintered steel

And brains are out of sight

Signs of power round the walls

Remind him of name and cause

But he is not there

He is cast off in flow of light

Sound of a language lost and found

Touch of a cool calm lake

Scent of the forest pines, footfall

A violin, a gentle drum

 

He killed the drummer long ago

But the drumming sound goes on.

Usually I resist identifying unidentified figures in my poems with any specific real person, but this poem is mainly about Hitler, who loved classical music (not just Wagner) and whose extensive collection of records, fortunately looted by a Red Army Jewish captain and brought to the public by his son, included works featuring Jewish composers and performers. The signs of power are Nazi insignia. The Russian captain apparently could not understand the contrast between the mass murderer and approver of the “Final Solution” and the music lover who could appreciate the work of Jewish musicians.

Erm… I think I really meant…

So I’m carrying on commenting on some of my own poems already posted. These were written at a time when I was coming out of a period of great stress occasioned by a family illness. Writing such poems was part of the emergence from that period and they carry a certain bleakness as well as hope.

 

THE ROADS TO ROME

 

I don’t say it’s a long way home

Because I don’t know home exists.

Wandering in forests, confused by mists,

I’ve heard that all roads lead to Rome:

 

Maybe that legend is a lie

And all roads lead to a silent shore;

But memories of a light, a door

Suggest there was a home, but why

 

The road to it will always twist

And turn away and run instead

Towards the city of powerful dead

I cannot say, but having missed

 

No pointing tree or flying crow,

No sudden cold or smear of blood,

No reddening sunset, opening bud,

Maybe I’ve found the home I know.

 

But carving on a rotten log

Tells of an easy way to rest

While still the broken branch points west

Over the river blurred in fog.

 

Technically, this was I think my first experiment with the ABBA (forget Swedes) rhyming plan. No matter how many verses you read, that third line rhyme still comes as a bit of a surprise and helps create a feeling of things moving on; but a huge stress is thrown on to the last line, which must be strong enough to bear it.

 

The poem plays with the familiar saying “All roads lead to Rome”. In the poem, the wandering person is confused by a vague sense of three possible destinations – Rome, “a silent shore” and a barely-known home. I think by Rome I meant a centre of unchanging, earthly, material power (“the city of powerful dead”). I draw on both Imperial Rome and Papal Rome for this, but it’s really a state of mind. The silent shore, I think, is absolute death. The home, maybe, is a sense of survival and return, Heaven possibly. When I re-read the poem, I find the choice or struggle between these destinations is not very clearly expressed in the first two or three verses, but I can defend that by saying the person who speaks is confused and in a situation where one thing may appear to be another and then change.

 

In the last but one verse a new thought emerges – that maybe the journey IS the destination and Heaven is purely here and now. That was how my first draft ended, but I felt that was to neat and did not really represent what I thought, so as with “Spirit Mountain”, I added another verse: the wanderer was about to settle down in the forest, but now moves on, still searching.

 

CALLANISH: WINTER SOLSTICE

 

The stones do not speak, they do not move

They are intense, apart

They will say nothing to the darkening sea

The wandering visitors in bright cagoules

The impoverished and water-sodden soil

 

They spoke once

In a moment’s flutter of day

In the Northern winter’s night

Moment when time stood still

New birth at winter’s turn

 

Cold-handed celebrants

Gathered around

Welcomed the sun, its covenant; renewed

The hard-won order of stony fields

 

That welcome is long gone

Grown cold, as women whose shattered skulls

Bore witness to the dark side of the sun

 

Neither the magical smith nor carver

Of mythical fish on soft stones

Will answer a call

 

What happened to

That wonderful inventiveness?

 

Carousel of light and song

Iridescent fly picked apart

Whispering forest butchered

For the giant’s unreal hoard

Under clawing black roots

 

Soft words to a chasm

 

The human time

May be nearly over and then

The embossed golden shield with lost words

Foretelling the end and beginning

A glorious tragedy ending

Will tumble and shatter

 

Or will there be new words spoken

Round Callanish ring still unbroken?

 

Callanish Ring is a stone circle on Lewis in the Outer Hebrides in extreme North-west Scotland. It overlooks the sea. The picture on my home page is Callanish Ring. The area is bleakly beautiful and lowly-populated, mainly treeless moorland.

 

I’d been thinking for some time about writing a poem on early humans, their courage and inventiveness, and what those traits had turned into. This was what came. There are things in this poem I cannot explain, but seem right.

 

It starts with a picture of Callanish as it is now – the ancient stones visited by tourists. It moves to a description of the site when it was in use: the theory at that time was that it marked the Winter Solstice, the point in the hard winter when days began to get longer – a big issue so far north when midwinter night is so long. I drew on what I knew of various periods and cultures, not intending to draw a picture that was necessarily closely accurate for Callanish. Early cultures included wonderful inventiveness and creativity – the worker with stones and the smith (I love the sound of “carver/ Of mythical fish on soft stones”) but also violence such as human sacrifice. It then asks what has developed from these cultures. The verse starting “carousel of light and song” answers that – beauty and creativeness, but also destructive analysis, contempt for other life-forms and destruction of habitats out of greed (“the giant’s unreal horde”).

 

I sense that humans might soon destroy themselves – “a glorious tragedy ending”. I’m not sure what the “embossed golden shield with lost words” symbolises – a unity (of humanity? of all life?); perhaps also a record of our culture. What seems to be a bleak ending is then turned round by a statement of hope.

 

KIRKCARRION

 

Nothing unusual then

Sheep rub the wall

Wind waves the narrow pines

Up on Kirkcarrion.

 

Clouds set a shadow down

Over the hilltop

Birdsong is faltering

Dark on Kirkcarrion.

 

Something has touched the rocks

Turning them colder.

Empty of word or plan

Wait on Kirkcarrion.

 

Kirkcarrion is a hill in south-west County Durham in far north-east England. It stands overlooking the Pennine Way long-distance footpath. There are vague mmyths and rumours that it was some kind of a pre-Christian religious site and of human sacrifice. The name may refer to this: “kirk” is the north of England and Scottish word for church and carrion is, presumably, carrion. It’s known that some Celtic Iron-age peoples used to as it were hang out bodies to dry, sometimes the bodies of enemies killed in war, in a prominent place.

 

The baggage of history and myth affects how you see Kirkcarrion, but it is a bleak place, a few pines enclosed by a stone wall on top of an isolated grassy hill in open hill country. The poem is bleak and I can’t easily interpret it – wait for your fate, maybe? But it was written when my state of mind was becoming less bleak.

 

Pilgrim

PILGRIM

Only one journey

Fading light

Grey stones where the book says white

Feet stub and stumble

Faring alone

Avoid cold weather

Camp not on wildmoor heather

But in this meadow

Drink not

From that cold beck

Subtle minds splinter and wreck

There in the rapids

Listen to this

Reassuring chatter

Troubled dreams break and scatter

This wine is better

Only one journey

Fading light

Grey stones where the book says white

Feet stub and stumble