City

Image

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

CITY

I

At night

A pattern of lights

In ordered ranks and spangled liberty

And some are gliding silently

By day the veil’s off

Cars screech and jerk

A jumble of people bubbles out of doors

And eddies round the litter bins and beggars

In cavernous hall

Hypnotised army listens,

Watches a magician

Whose golden fingers weaving manycoloured

Threads of the painful sounds of boundless joy

Pull them to silence.

A couple find the world again,

Make coffee and even conversation.

Somewhere in one great block behind another

A window breaks and someone dies

And someone sends them off with hate

A man sits at a shimmering screen

On polished wood from a forest’s death

People come to him one by one

Young old proud lonely and holding hands

Then out the door in rows they troop

At even distance with even gait

Their mouths and eyes are all the same.

The good are gathered beneath a dome

To celebrate that they are loved

Outside a boy whistles and stops

A mad girl sings to a shower of rain

Dogs snarl, fight and the loser whines.

II

The day before the storm

Was one of scurrying

To finish jobs or pack the car

Voices spoke calm

But e-mails, like migrating birds,

Fell in their thousands on hard ground

And neighbours wandered round

The garden or the shopping mall.

III

The city walls of law and work

The bounds of land and logic break

And floating past the City Hall

Wash up in the Police HQ

Though government is standing tall

Water that is the base of life

Crushes a paper hat

That was a school, and then a house

Floats gently off like some child’s boat

To meet a bus and dance with it

Down a great busy thoroughfare

With bodies, billboards, toys and boats

With random inquisitive force

It breaks down doors or lets them stand

And pulls the love from lover’s hand

You want a sign?

Here’s one that says:

City Museum.

There is no law, the lines are down

To leaders of religion

A life’s exchanged for a loaf of bread

And starving dogs receive the dead.

IV

Progress is a long rambling walk

In billowing mist from crumbling edge

Of desperate crag to gentler land

And after stumbles, stops for drinks

Arguments and a song or two

The mist clears and we find we stand

On ground that, as we watch it, cracks

From stinking heap of rubbish and lives

A jittery banjo edges out

Beginnings of a newborn tune.

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

To see a world in a grain of sand

And Heaven in a wild flower

Hold infinity in the palm of your hand

And eternity in an hour.”

CLUE: Innocent? Or Experienced?

History seeps into poetry

Last time I blogged about writing poetry about historical events. I admitted to having a History degree and a continuing fascination with the subject. It’s fairly obvious to anyone who knows that Marston Moor was a battle in the English Civil War, that a poem titled “Marston Moor” is historical. I wrote another poem called “Marie Antoinette”, and that’s a bit of a giveaway too.

But there are more subtle influences, ways in which historical awareness affects what I write just as awareness of landscape does even if the poem is not about landscape.

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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?

That’s from the poem “Explorers”. The explorers go through great dangers to find they know not what. They find wonderful things, destroy them over time and move on. I can’t see that I could have written that without awareness of European exploration of other continents – and of the influence of the American West and the impact of the West (in the sense of a borderland of promise and danger for the settlers) ending.

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STONE STEPS

 

They found some stone around this place:

The pale steps worn by constant feet

Are buried in the wiry grass

And no-one knows who walked on them.

 

One end is by the river bank;

No sign of other end is left.

Perhaps this curious find is best

Donated to the town museum,

 

But somehow it seems better still

To leave them where they worked and wore.

Maybe they’re still a bridge of sorts,

Though what to what no-one can guess.

Well, this is a mysterious poem and no doubt not really about what it appears to be about, but the starting point is the historian’s or archaeologist’s curiosity about some remnant or ruin.

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CITY

 

Something started here

For a reason: the river was fordable

The tracks of cattle drovers drew together

The lie of the land and the weather were right for spinning

A governor found the distance from his palace

Just right for horses. Growth has a beginning.

 

Those origins are hidden, bulldozed, built on

Reinterpreted in guide-book and in myth

Slums and fine houses grow and are destroyed

The stonework of the bridge lies underwater

The factory’s become a heritage centre

From crumpled streets the tanners and the whores

Have gone but left their memories for a while

In street-names till some government

Dedicated to the pure and nice renamed them after

Generals, or trees that once were said to grow there.

Old stinking alleys strangled for office blocks

Ghostly survive in sections of quiet close

Or shopping trolley dumps round parking lots.

 

The city forgets; flexes; reinterprets.

People are born and die, the language changes

Suburbs seep out. Some time the city will end

Inventiveness, sweat, tears, frescos swallowed up

Slipping into decline, houses left empty,

Grass in the streets, but here and there a core

Churning more slowly and uncertainly;

Or suddenly in a fire that by scorched shadows

Commemorates the impertinence of daily life.

Unpeopled, not quite dead, the city will still be seen

In humps and ditches against the flow of land

By rumour, legend and a blackened buckle.

That’s from “Six Strands”, my longest poem: I used another bit of the same poem to illustrate how being a long-distance walker had influenced my poetry. The strand here on the city is pretty much all history: an awareness of processes by which cities grow up, change and die, but leave remains that can be interpreted even if all memory of the city has been lost. The picture of decline, for example, owes something to what I know of the last years of the Roman empire in Britain.

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Dust in marble halls, dust of marble halls

Ground jewels, rose roots strike

Lustre withers, slow-burning amethyst escapes

A lost note cries in the dark and I cannot find it

 

Out of the deathborn mud, worms rise

That’s from “Estuary Shore” and the point here is the intense sense of time, time over such a long period that marble halls are turned to dust, but a sense of renewal and rebirth as well.

I might add some comments next time about History and why I think Ford was wrong (“History is bunk”) about this as well as most other things except how to make money from making cars. But that’ll do for now. Oh, and if that dratted (or mysterious, intriguing) formatting has appeared again – sorry. The controls that should remove it do not work. It appeared one day and will not leave.

Now that is an idea – a poem pretending to be a load of formatting instructions.

 

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

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

Borderlands

BORDERLANDS

When you ride into the lawless borderlands

Remember the stones and the streams, for direction is easily lost

And the cross on the hill may not be the one you remember

And the bones on the slope may be your own

Do not travel in December

For January kills. Do not wear a crown or a smile

For the robbers will find you. If you keep a ring or an emblem

Be prepared to lose it, but not to the visible robbers

If you make a song or a fire, rake over the embers.

Just here two shining hosts attempted to clash in battle

And failed: the bones of one are secreted by the glacier

The others are covered by the wandering high sand dunes.

Leave signs and messages by all means

They are many: some were never read, some may be your own.

The bogs enfold the banners, leather, lace.

Do not be surprised if the fire flickers into a form

Or the gully-clutched wind wails like a mourning woman

Or the face in the bog-pool is another person’s

Be prepared for the sense of something at your shoulder

And do not be shocked if your shadow wavers for another

Do not ride by the rock-face faintly carven.

What is this place we have come to between the mountains

The shallow hollow just enough for a tent?

You may find a buckle or a tooth and the grey shades cluster

To answer them death, to ride away from them death,

Or maybe you dreamt them as the ravens rose in triumph

As the sun fell and the moon rose and the stars’ fire

Beckoned the wolves’ wail, quietened the hare’s breath.

Why have you come to this place where people have died

In a stream over stones? What have you put in the bag you carry?

Ride slowly, ride on, be wary

For the borders shift, the dark cave grows, the river runs faster

And the broken sword in the soil where once lay a lake

Shifts and unites, for the time of the borders is coming.

This was a poem written in a kind of fever and followed the same day by two others which I’ll post soon. I’d had the idea of borderlands knocking around for weeks until a poem coalesced around it like a pearl around grit.

Copyright Simon Banks 2013

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

The Flower Maiden

 

The flower maiden dances high

She dances through the silent wood

With yellow flowers in her hair.

 

She dances fast: the wood’s in song

The spluttering of a breaking bud

The rustling in a wildcat’s lair.

 

The flower maiden dances low

So all around is green and gay

With nightingales and flowers fair.

 

 

Copyright Simon Banks 2012

(and that’s the last time I’ll write that! Happy New Year! Happy Old Year for backwards time travellers.)

 

 

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

 

An Imperious Poem

No, I don’t usually self-promote quite so blatantly. I’m punning as usual – or not quite punning, because the word “imperious” comes from the words for empire and emperor. An imperious voice is the kind of voice you’d expect an authoritative emperor to have.

This is a re-posting of just one poem because it’s a long one – called

EMPIRE

1

The empire’s heavy with scented blooms

A thousand scents, a thousand shapes

Umbellifer and ornate lily

The darkest iris, palest rose

The old Recorder of the Flowers

Each month in leather and brass bound book

Records the new varieties

The rich museums have many rooms.

The empire sings a thousand songs

Each city sang a different tune

Last year, each temple has its own.

The imperial gardens’ vibrant birds

Cannot outsing ten thousand choirs

The Emperor hears each song that flowers

Remembers one his mother sang:

Though blurred with power and wine, he longs.

The book of all the empire’s guards,

The armies, fortresses and fleets,

Defeats the sourest minister

Who’d number them and set their place

The sun on ranks of helmets shines

And blinds the eyes of tired bards.

The queen is in her carven tower

With silver and ebony interwoven

With jumping deer and dolphins’ play

With measured mark of rose and clover

And all the screens that ring her bower

Show everything that grows and dies,

The struggle of a sandy farm,

A somnolent priest’s ingenious lies,

Regiments changing hour by hour.

2

A restless baby cries as though

It never cried before, the cock

That rules a servant’s smallholding

Triumphant marks the dawn’s return.

The bells sound out from tower to tower

Seas in the dawn may seem to burn

To those without the power to know.

The clocks grind slow, sand on the wind

Has clogged them, the astronomer

Has lost the stars in clouds of dust

The birds sing less, the attentive guards

Along the watchtowers of the walls

In sandstorms see the ghosts of men

In dust devils the shaking heads

Of trampling horses of the dead

And nothing when the blur has thinned.

The famished horsemen, lifeless shacks,

The starving women, rag-held bones,

The baglike carcases of goats

The drying up of ancient wells

In the uncounted and unflowered lands

Reported by the empire’s spies

And clients set moving old replies

The walls grow thicker, more patrols

Search for the early warning cracks.

The warning sirens came too late

The mechanisms were at fault.

The gates did not shut as they should

In just one section of the line.

The desperate barbarians swarm

Through corridors rising rivers of blood.

And through the crumbling walls of thought

The tangling of all intricate forms

Of gold and music crushed, a roar

Rises: the unformed world’s in spate.

3

The gardens are all overgrown

The bells are silent; silent cage

Abandoned where the bird once sang

Is crushed with buckle, bugle, crown

And all that rose up high is down.

The children play with sceptre and skull

A rose ascends the temple wall

The smallholding is burnt, and burnt

The servant of the emperor’s will

This wonderful lady’s smile is fixed

Her sparkling brooch is grown dull.

The queen still sits in living tower

The images of deer and dance

Still play on all the watchful screens

Comforting the wondering queen

With aching song and shimmering flower,

But nothing outside the tower survives

That she would dare to recognise

And nothing is seen but dust and death

By all its hundred thousand eyes.

4

The wandering girl has found a thing

Untwisted, goes around her wrist

And polished, sparkles in the light;

The wandering girl begins to dance

And as the tower crumbles down

The wandering girl begins to sing.

This paints a picture of a rich empire full of marvellous art. It’s at peace, it’s governed in an orderly fashion and its inhabitants seem to be quite prosperous. This isn’t a history or sociology book, of course: any rich civilisation has its poor and its power-struggles. So you could say this is not a real empire.

The empire is protected by great walls and many soldiers. Outside the walls are poorer, less fertile lands and barbarian tribes who present a threat to the empire, though if the walls hold the threat is minimal. The empire does not appear to exploit the barbarians, but it does not help or benefit them.

Something changes – apparently the weather, perhaps a failure of rains, so the lands of the empire are clogged with dust. Outside its walls the effect is much worse and people starve. The imperial authorities predict that this will lead to invasion attempts and strengthen the defences. Something in the defences doesn’t work and the empire is overthrown in a bloodbath. All its culture is destroyed.

At the end in the figure of the wandering girl who finds an old bracelet and who dances, we find the beginnings of new culture.

A central figure is the queen. I realise she should be the empress, but maybe they had queens too! She is a mysterious figure, unlike the realistic emperor. She lives in an enchanted (or hight-tech) tower where she sees everything that is happening, but with a bias towards beauty. When the empire collapses and its people die, she does not see that at all and the outdated pleasant images continue, though perhaps she is suspicious. When the wandering girl dances, the tower collapses. I don’t want to interpret this too much, but the collapse of the tower, the old beauty, marks the beginning of the new beauty.

Technically the poem is an experiment. With slight variations, each line is of eight syllables, with a stressed syllable following an unstressed one – a traditional metre good for telling a story. However, although the stanzas (or whatever you call them) are of varying length, the opening and closing lines rhyme in every case.

I’ve played with the sound of some quite long and uncommon words here – umbellifer, ornate, imperial, somnolent – which I think expresses the complex culture of the empire.

Of course the collapse of the empire could be other things – the death of an artist, the fall of a tree, a surge of unconscious urges into an ordered, rational world (suggested by “the unformed world’s in spate”).

As someone politically fairly left, instinctively sympathising with the dispossessed, I guess this is about the most favourable portrait of an empire I’ve done. I do show its fall as a tragedy, but not a tragedy without a hopeful ending, and I think the poem makes the point that the empire is collectively selfish. I think I’ve been influenced by Yeats’ idea of and portrayal of Byzantium.

This is, I think, my second longest poem and my own view is that it shows a long poem can keep up intensity.

 

Copyright Simon Banks 2012

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