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.

Two short poems about water

Or are they?

 

DEAD WATER

When the Sahara was green this was a river.
The statues of wonderful Alexandria
Stare in salt water.
Under the Black Sea are valleys,
Flooded settlements.
I have seen the lost rivers of live Mars.
Humans will end, and the Earth that made them.
I sense the rise of new rivers.

 

BEACH AT HIGH TIDE
The dogs on the narrow beach race or pad
The dog-walkers have their dogs to take them for walks
I wear binoculars round my neck
That also is a justification.

The new sun glints on wave-crests and shallow still water
The sound of the waves is old.

 

I think I’ll leave those for now without comment or explanation and come back to talk a bit about them.

Lands End

Neanderthal Lute

A second poem that reflects my fascination with Neanderthals – this time thinking about the discovery of a piece of worked bone of Neanderthal origin that had a number of regularly-spaced holes in it, so it’s hard to imagine it wasn’t a musical instrument like a lute.

 

NEANDERTHAL LUTE

 

So they had music.

What tunes have we lost, what songs,

What thoughts? What did they think of us,

Who dreamed ourselves explorers

And, with the deadly weather, doomed them?

What is left in us, those few well-hidden genes

In which they notionally survive?

 

The figure lurking by the tree is a dead stump

The waves clap in the empty cave.

 

Two notes on this: the current view on the extinction of Homo neanderthalis is that a sudden change in the weather which destroyed large areas of forest in Europe and Western Asia had a devastating effect on them as they were well-adapted for forest hunting. As for the impact of Homo sapiens, there are still lots of debates, but we will certainly have competed for resources which will have been scarce at the crucial time, so the Neanderthals may have reached the tipping point through a combination of rivalry from sapiens and environmental changes, when neither alone would have done it. Since our own species frequently fights its own over scarce resources and non-human predators often make efforts to take out rivals, it would be very surprising if our species didn’t fight and kill Neanderthals some of the time. How much contact there was between the two species is uncertain: maybe we traded as well as fought, and in Iraq there is evidence of sapiens and neanderthalis living side by side for hundreds of years, but the interbreeding seems to have happened almost entirely very soon after the two species first met. That’s the second note – that it is now established modern Homo sapiens carries two to four per cent Neanderthal genes – except for pure sub-Saharan Africans, who have none. Oh, and some of the last neanderthalis populations lived in sea caves in what today is Spain and Portugal.

 

Copyright Simon Banks 2012

Please, what is time?

This is supposed to be what a Japanese tourist at a main London railway station said to an elderly, studious-looking Englishman. The reply he received, of course, was,

“Sir, you have asked a most profound question.”

I don’t really try to answer that question, though I did read Stephen Hawking’s “A Brief History of Time”, but I am fascinated by time and it shows both in my study of History and in my poetry. Here are three poems (already posted on this blog) in all of which time is an important element.

 

WALL

 

When the grey seas beat down on this low wall

Remember us who built it high and died

We knew the fish of the sea, we knew the soaring falcon,

We tasted bread and wine and love and loss.

 

 

BY THE GATE

 

The cloaked man waiting by the gate

Shivers in the warming day

The planned arrival’s running late

West wind drives the clouds away

 

The cloaked man taps his booted feet

Fumbles out a stained small case,

Stares at a photo; fingers beat

On holster; silence in his face

 

A movement down the uneven road

Pulls him to a straighter stance

The guards decant the expected load

Through the gate the groups advance

 

The gate is shut. He has to wait,

Hears a skylark in the sky.

The man’s gone through another gate

And like the load, begins to die.

 

 

NIGHTINGALE REMEMBERED

 

“Thou wast not born for death, immortal bird,

No hungry generations tread thee down”

But nightingales are begotten, born and die

Living a lifespan lesser than a dog.

 

I sing back not to the immortal song

But to the bird that might not last the summer.

 

Though fumbling in the enveloping folds of time

I hear what Spartans at Thermopylae

Recalled and what some thornscratched hunter heard

When humans first had wandered across sands

Into a colder, richer, trap-strewn land;

And when I smell salt water or top the ridge

Where treeless, manless, sweeps the unmarked waste

I am not the first, and clustering, unseen eyes

Share, and another mouth remembers taste

And lone and many, the nightingale’s notes rise.

 

The first, short poem is my reaction to an old wall. For sure the people who built it are long dead. Even its purpose is now unclear. But I wonder about those people and am aware that I share things with them.

 

The second is less about time. It’s about death, duty and conscience. The soldier or paramilitary policeman is not a bad man. He wants to do his duty and see his family again. But he’s supporting a mass murder, a group of unarmed people being executed. I was thinking about the Second World War and I imagined the guard as a German or Nazi ally, but even within the span of the technology described (a gun, a presumably motorised vehicle) this scene could be in many places and times: it’s a recurring tragedy.

I use simple language and understatement to convey both horror and the deadening of senses. The guard is surviving by desensitising himself to suffering: but there is a cost.

 

The third is very much about time. The opening quote is Keats, of course, from his “Ode to a Nightingale”. Keats saw the Nightingale as immortal in contrast to his own short, doomed life. I remind myself that real Nightingales are individuals which live a lot shorter lives than Keats. But then with Keats I realise that even though the Nightingales are different, the same song was heard by humans in very different times and situations. I quote just two examples – the Spartan warriors at Thermopylae and the first Homo sapiens (or humans of any sort) to reach Europe. This brings me to remember other experiences that unite me with people long-dead (smelling salt water, reaching the top of a ridge and seeing a vast wilderness stretching out) and I have a sense of their continuing presence.

When I wrote this poem I’d been reading a lot of Tennyson and I suspect the line “Where treeless, manless, sweeps the unmarked waste” is one I wouldn’t have written otherwise. The sense of it is very me but the inversion and sweep of the thing is more Tennyson. In the last line, the nightingale’s notes are “Lone and many”, recalling that this may be one bird, but it sings as others have sung.

 

Copyright Simon Banks 2012

 

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…

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

Gloomy. Obscure. Negative. Vague. This sounds good…

I’m carrying on commenting on some poems I’ve already posted. They aren’t necessarily the best in my opinion, as some poems seem to me to be fairly obvious in their meaning and technique, and they could just possibly be good. The first one here, though, seems to me to be one of my best.

UNDERWATER

When you slip under

The long lying line of waves

Strange shapes will come

Silently propelled by waft of flipper

Or sinuous pulsing of a streamlined torso

And some maybe you knew and had forgotten

Dirt shovelled over the well has been removed

Remember the time before you broke the surface

Gasped, fumbled, burrowed

And survived by stratagem?

Now you return to them

Learning to be like a fish

Wander and linger

Here where the pearly nautilus waves unchanging

Here with the ammonite and plesiosaur

And where squat fish that never see the sunlight

Thread through great feathery banks of frond

Of hidden sting and jaw

Do you rise up towards the scattered sunlight

The crushing waves, the inconsistent wind,

The seabird that will fly to a rocky island

Drawing life from the depths, their crowded night?

When you are playing with the waves

Will you remember

Here on the fine-grained shore (maybe imagine)

Beneath the corals and the painted fish

Down with the vents, the eyeless creatures

Some heavy hidden box

That had an answer,

Where you will return?

Will you return?

The obvious meaning of the poem is a description of diving deep in a sea full of life. Some things here fit in with a literal interpretation – for example, at the deep sea bed they may indeed be vents and eyeless creatures, and seabirds do indeed draw sustenance from the teeming life in the sea. But the tone is dreamlike and it may not be a big surprise to encounter long-extinct ammonites and plesiosaurs, creatures a human would have to time travel to meet. This sea is not only full of life and variety – it’s timeless.

The sea can be a metaphor and activating image for death, eternity and the unconscious. This sea has something of all these.

What about lines 6-10? We seem to have come out of the sea. But the image of dirt shovelled over a well being removed is one of rediscovering something deliberately hidden – and the well can convey the past, the unconscious or a dissolution of familiar identity.  Lines 8-10 refer to sea-life first adapting to survive on land – something in our deep past. So here as elsewhere in the poem we’re travelling back in time, as if before the eyes of a dying person flashed not only their life, but their line’s life.

In the third verse we return from the Underworld, knowing that our life outside it is fed by it. We’re like the seabird that lives on cliffs or an island (a projection of land) but could not live without the depths.

In the last verse we’re on the shore. We may return to the depths for something valuable.

This is a poem where the sound of the words matters a lot and where I use alliteration frequently.

THREE

Three sisters dancing hand in hand

They turn and whirl each in her world

At different speeds disturb the leaves

Which dancing from the forest floor

Reject the empire of the wind

Three sisters dancing hands apart

They look at nothing but the leaves

If one begins to glow with fire

If one begins to freeze with ice

They will not know, they will not meet

Three sisters dancing on the heath

Long after forest decayed and died

The one is like a flaming torch

The other cold and deadly dry

The third alive and stepping high.

The number three seems to touch something deep in us. It appears over and over again in myth, in ballad and in religion (the Trinity). Three sisters could be Shakespeare’s “three weird sisters” (“weird” meaning of pre-Christian religion), in other words, witches. My inspiration for this, though, was reading about the early history, as we now understand it, of Earth, Mars and Venus, which may once have been quite similar, but Mars went one way (lost its atmosphere and froze) and Venus the other (was smothered by its atmosphere and became far too hot for life) while Earth became suitable for life.

FOUNDER

I have set my foot in the wet sand

And seen the alien trees, the dangerous berries

Of a new land

It cannot speak before I name it

It is asleep before I claim it

I give a name to this unwary bird

Before I kill it and I tread a track

So as to become a road that traders travel;

Where I have hacked a space inside the thicket

Will be a city, I can hear the talk

Like pebbles clashing in the shifting stream

Not song nor scream

What I have not named, in the lurking forests

Will die until its bones are resurrected

Leaving its shadow over fruitful fields

Rotting the yields.

This is a rather dark adaptation of the Australian Aborigine naming myth. The first humans come to virgin land. They exploit it for their survival and begin a process which will leave to profound changes. They believe by finding and naming things they’re bringing them to life – but some things are not discovered and named, but die as a result of the human arrival. Later people will discover their remains and reconstruct their lives, but the destruction hangs over us.

Enough for now…

copyright Simon Banks 2012

Nightingale Remembered

 

“Thou wast not born for death, immortal bird,

No hungry generations tread thee down”

But nightingales are begotten, born and die

Living a lifespan lesser than a dog.

 

I sing back not to the immortal song

But to the bird that might not last the summer.

 

Though fumbling in the enveloping folds of time

I hear what Spartans at Thermopylae

Recalled and what some thornscratched hunter heard

When humans first had wandered across sands

Into a colder, richer, trap-strewn land;

And when I smell salt water or top the ridge

Where treeless, manless, sweeps the unmarked waste

I am not the first, and clustering, unseen eyes

Share, and another mouth remembers taste

And lone and many, the nightingale’s notes rise.

 

The quote, of course, is John Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale”. I remind myself that actual nightingales are birds, beings with individualities and short lives – but join Keats in fining the nightingale’s song a link to other humans who heard it.

If we deconstruct these poems, we can put all the letters in a different order!

OK, I know “deconstruct” doesn’t quite mean that, but it has a chilling, dehumanising sound. I don’t want to dehumanise my poems, though maybe throughhumanise them. Here’s some more with comment.

DIGGING DOWN

I have found an old guilt:

By scrabbling in the dirt with callused hands

Brushing away the low lying deposits

Stories of murderous giant and cackling troll

Caressing away the grime I find the skull

It grins at me as if to say: what I lost

You lost, my killer friend.

This could relate to a number of things and I wouldn’t want to close off those avenues for people reading it. However, what I had in mind was Neanderthals. These close relatives of “homo sapiens” were specialised to survive cold and hostile conditions and lived in Europe and South-west Asia through a period of ice ages and interglacials. After Homo sapiens, having spread out of Africa into the Arabian peninsula, reached the main mass of Asia and Europe, Neanderthals disappeared, though hanging on for some time in Spain and Portugal.

When Neanderthals remains were first identified, they were characterised as brutish “cavemen”. Bit by bit the stereotypes were knocked down. They were not unable to stand straight – that was a careless conclusion from the skeleton of an old man with arthritis! Their hunting methods showed a high level of ingenuity, planning and co-ordination. Their brains were on average slightly larger than ours (but their body mass was somewhat greater, and some think the brain/ body mass ratio is what counts). They had the physical equipment needed for speech, and given the evidence of rapid development of co-ordinated hunting, it is very likely they had speech. About twelve years ago I remember a TV programme confidently asserting that they had no art – but since then two examples have been discovered, of an apparent flute and a worked stone with bone inserted to make a face, that are hard to explain otherwise than as art. Their extinction in the face of competition from sapiens was attributed to a limited diet short on fish and seafood – but for some Neanderthal colonies, even that no longer stands.

What happened between the two species is largely a mystery. They were so close ecologically that they would certainly have competed for limited food and shelter resources. Drastic climate change in Europe around the time they disappeared will have worked against them as they were best at hunting in forest and much of the forest vanished. The two species may have fought: we just don’t know, but it seems likely over scarce resources. It was long disputed whether they might have interbred and it is only in the last few years that DNA analysis has proved they did – but very early in sapiens’ spreading out from Africa, so all humans today except pure Africans carry some small Neanderthal genetic heritage. Maybe some day we’ll find out what it is.

This poem is written on the assumption that our species did play a part in the extinction of our close siblings. The skull is a Neanderthal one. The deposits removed are of low-lying soil but are also low, lying sapiens stories about neanderthalis. I suspect some mythical beastly and threatening human-like creatures may contain representation of other humanoids, in particular neanderthalis, and trolls seem quite a good fit.

We have lost from the loss of an allied species. “No man is an island…therefore do not ask for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for thee.” (John Donne).

EVOLUTION

In random clash of chemicals

Hot flow over new rocks

There are no palisades or names

Tall fires burn

A thinning smoke is lingering;

In the anonymous wash

Something has happened.

Something begins to pulse, divide,

Feed, organise,

Ally.

 

Water is life: the oceans, the one body

Teem with a writhing dissonance of life

Creatures are born and die

In this world are no boundaries or strongholds

No sharp hard barriers but always danger

But here and there dead hardness meaning death

To anything washed up there: barren land.

 

In the half-dead, half-living place

Something survives and changes.

Life finds land.

 

Among the crumbling bones of the giants

That fire struck down in sea and marsh and forest

Under the dark and smothering, strangling sky

Small creatures scurry: one line is broken, but

Another rises for a while.

The giants’ cities hang with tumbling flowers.

Some titles don’t tell you much, being more a first line of the poem than a description of the subject. This is a straightforward title: the poem is about evolution. It starts with chaos before life. Life organises to perpetuate life. Multi-celled organisms are organisations of cells which still resemble unicellular creatures. At first life is only in the seas – a fertile source of food and of predators, living and barrierless. Land means death. But then living organisms find ways of adapting to live on land.

We then jump to a disaster that has destroyed “the giants” but left small creatures as successors. It’s natural to think the giants were the dinosaurs  and the successors were mammals, our ancestors – but did dinosaurs have cities?

The poem is deliberately rough-edged and irregular to help convey that early chaos.

IN THE VALLEY OF THE STONES

This valley is thick with time

It seems to coagulate in my hands

Only to slip through them

The sarson stones lie randomly round an axis

Or clustered in small groups like some

Ambushed patrol. The hillside terracing no longer

Cares for the crops, only sheep manoeuvre

Round the stubborn lines

Who came here when the glacier withdrew

Who farmed here, that is in the time

That laps round these soft hills and asks for questions.

What will be here, I’m deaf, I cannot tell

Is it there somewhere in the swirling

And slowly settling time, or on the wind

There to be caught or dropped and in the balance?

The Valley of the Stones (that’s its name) is in Dorset. I may be wrong in suggesting a glacier reached that far south in England. It’s a remarkable place because big oblong stones called sarsons are scattered across rough grassland. It would be natural to assume that they were man-made and abandoned there, but they’re not. Standing there, I felt a strong sense of time and past, almost palpable. I try to convey that here. So if somehow I can sense the past, what about the future?

all text copyright Simon Banks 2012

Wall

 

When the grey seas beat down on this low wall

Remember us who built it high and died

We knew the fish of the sea, we knew the soaring falcon,

We tasted bread and wine and love and loss.

 

This isn’t any one particular wall, but I’ve encountered many places that would fit.

 

I think this is a record – the shortest poem I’ve posted here and coming just after the second longest.