Both one thing and another?

One of the things about poetry that most puzzles literal-minded people is that one set of words can mean two or more things. A description of snow falling can be a description of death or of sleep or, just possibly, a  description of snow falling.

 

faceoff

 

Going to the Snape Poetry Festival earlier this month got me thinking about this a good deal, particularly because of listening to an American poet, Paula Bohince, reading, interpreting and explaining what she liked about the poem “Sandpiper” by another female American poet, Elizabeth Bishop.

 

I found myself interested but uneasy. Here’s the poem:

 

SANDPIPER

 

The roaring alongside he takes for granted,
and that every so often the world is bound to shake.
He runs, he runs to the south, finical, awkward,
in a state of controlled panic, a student of Blake.

The beach hisses like fat. On his left, a sheet
of interrupting water comes and goes
and glazes over his dark and brittle feet.
He runs, he runs straight through it, watching his toes.

– Watching, rather, the spaces of sand between them
where (no detail too small) the Atlantic drains
rapidly backwards and downwards. As he runs,
he stares at the dragging grains.

The world is a mist. And then the world is
minute and vast and clear. The tide
is higher or lower. He couldn’t tell you which.
His beak is focussed; he is preoccupied,

looking for something, something, something.
Poor bird, he is obsessed!
The millions of grains are black, white, tan, and gray
mixed with quartz grains, rose and amethyst.

 

Western Sandpiper, Cattle Point, Uplands, Near Victoria, British Columbia

 

Now clearly this is a very good poem, with vivid and accurate language, well-organised and thought-provoking, if only to find me American support for spelling FOCUSSED, which my American-dominated spellcheck thinks is wrong. There are lines here which are memorable for the beauty of the image and/or the words like the last two lines or “he stares at the dragging grains”, which is not only vivid but reproduces the sound of a spent wave hissing back over coarse sand.

 

In reading it before Paula Bohince expounded, I suspected there was a half-hidden agenda to it but didn’t know what. I was seriously bothered by the words “a student of Blake”, which interrupted clear and vivid description with what seemed to be a crossword-puzzle-maker’s clue. Paula Bohince especially liked those words, explaining they referred to Blake’s “To see a world in a grain of sand”, which makes plenty of sense; but I still think this is an awkward break and a too clever insert which will distract most readers from the picture that’s been building up.

 

By the way, as a European birdwatcher, I was also slightly bothered that the sandpipers I knew rarely fed on sandy shores, but judging by online photos of American sandpipers, some of their sandpiper species do.

 

Paula Bohince talked about Elizabeth Bishop’s approach to writing poetry and interpreted the poem from start to finish as the poet describing herself writing poetry. That does make sense: in particular, it would be downright silly to describe a bird as being “obsessed” (“Poor bird, he is obsessed!”) in his or her pursuit of a successful feeding strategy without which (s)he would die. It leaves me uneasy, though, because at the end of Paula Bohince’s talk there seemed to be nothing left of the sandpiper. It was a kind of disrespect.

 

Maybe what leaves me uneasy is more in Paula Bohince’s mind than the poem, though I am unhappy about that line “Poor bird, he is obsessed”.

 

Now let me try putting in this light two of my own poems that seem to be attempting something similar – “Watershed” and “Underwater”.

 

WATERSHED

Did you see, there where the cloud broke
Between the high grey ridges an angled cleft
Roughly in line with the uneven river
Which might be a pass? A great bird soared over it
Now nothing shows but cloud and the warning of rain.

The broken impatient river carved the way
We leave the many-angled rocks behind
And the last twisted tree, the last glimpse of a roof;
And the hidden ravens call in the grey mist.
With cunning and husbanded strength
We drag from the circle of sweat to the circle of icy wind
Recovering from a slip is hard
Recovering from the task impossible.

There is never a point where you can say “that’s it”
No throne or light or monument
Only the slope is inconsistent
The shattered smoothing rocks lie in no order
There is no river
These barren pools are the only water

And then the ghost of a trickle
A few thin fingers feeling
Trying to come together, the hiss and sparkle:
We have passed the watershed
We have seen the birth
Of a new river.
Somewhere there is a new land
But it is hidden and the mist rolls in.

There is no warning
No sign, no new music
Just the realisation and the standing still
The dropping, blocking hills
The unknown, long suspected
Alien valley ahead
But half-familiar, like a dream
The hidden end
You feel you ought to remember.

The descent from the murderous heights
To the soft valley is always more dangerous
Than the struggling up:
The sight of meadows and bushes can lead like a mirage
To the eggshell-crushing fall
And the way to the low glittering lake
May be many miles round.

But at least the first task of the explorer
Seems to have been fulfilled
To show what he wanted to explore
Was there at all.
America is found
Mars glows dully but more clear
In the dark waters, something moves after all
Down the strange valley our suspected
Alive waters fall.

 

I don’t want to analyse this poem in the round here or this would be an impossibly long post, but there is an obvious extended metaphor. The poem is a realistic description of a climber or hill-walker ascending a pass to reach the watershed and it actually draws extensively on two real climbs, one in Torridon in the Western Scottish Highlands and the other in the English Lake District (Black Sail Pass). But it’s also about any adventure, any risk-taking, any exploration. There’s plenty of detailed description of rocks, rivulets and so on, but to reinforce the exploration theme I’ve made the climber unaware of what’s beyond the watershed, so (s)he obviously wasn’t carrying a decent map!

 

Nonetheless, the whole thing could be a poetic description of a climb and nothing else until that last verse (from “At least the first task of the explorer”), about which I have reservations though a poetry magazine must have been happy because it was selected for an anthology. In that last verse I talk not of mountains and fells but of America and Mars. The analogy becomes clear. Was that a mistake? At least by this final shift I avoid the weakness of “Poor bird, he is obsessed” – the point at which what the poet wants to say about herself (if Bohince is right) clashes with what can truthfully be said of the bird.

 

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?

 

This is more complicated because there are at least three associated half-hidden meanings. The sea can stand for death, time or the unconscious. The poem is much less realistic than “Watershed” and it would be difficult for someone to read it and think it was just about underwater exploration, though there are bits that describe underwater habitats pretty accurately –

And where squat fish that never see the sunlight
Thread through great feathery banks of frond
Of hidden sting and jaw

(which could certainly be a deep-sea, ocean-bed habitat) or

Here on the fine-grained shore (maybe imagine)
Beneath the corals and the painted fish
Down with the vents, the eyeless creatures

(which describes a sandy shore, shallow tropical waters and the ocean bed). But this ocean contains long-extinct creatures side by side with surviving ones, suggesting something either dreamlike or timeless. There is a kind of subtext which says, “Beneath the water surface you change into something else and time as you have known it vanishes. In the deepest places there are dangers but also something valuable. The life of things above the surface depends on life beneath the surface (the fish-eating seabird). Humans travel between the different levels, rather as we evolved to leave the sea and live on land (the last five lines of the first verse).

 

It seems to me to work and one reason is that I didn’t pretend to be talking about real seas. If I’d done that, some things I wanted to say would have disrupted the metaphor.

 

There’s a lot more to think about here…

 

 

 

 

What I have left

swirl

 

I’m still going to talk about poems that appear to be about one thing but arguably are actually about something else – extended metaphors, if you like. But here first is something that came to me driving back from a poetry and music evening in Colchester. When I say come to me – it started to come as if of its own accord and then I composed (the form is quite strict) but in a state of excitement from the first inspiration.

 

 

WHAT I HAVE LEFT IS WORDS

What I have left is words
To sing the wind
To wet the sea
To warm the fire
To leaf the tree
What I have left is words

What I have left is muscle
To crest the hill
To cross the stream
To track the path
To fashion dream
What I have left is muscle

What I have left is eyes
To see the wind
To star the dark
To fish the sea
To ground the ark
What I have left is eyes

What I have left is words
To run the river
To shape the fire
To draw the frown
To cut the wire
What I have left is words.

 

 

 

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.

Estuary Shore

ESTUARY SHORE

Where river suspects salt, land shakes the sea

Revealed expanses lie

Out of the lifeborn mud, worms rise

Ribbon weed aligns, rigid heron stalks

Woman cries, crews die

Remember the dragonflies in the winter

After the last bright body, shimmering wing dies

Under the dark water, waiting, rise

Man gathering shells, sharp stab in the chest

Like a bugle-call, clock struck

Is that the hour?

Turmoil of voices

When shall we hear, where shall we hear,

Now, here?

Rain slants, seeds rebel, green grows

The earth of shells and friends is covered in flowers

Under the pale moon, what cries?

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

Boat bumps against the jetty with the waves.

Copyright Simon Banks 2013

I’m just going to leave this one for you to make of it what you will.

Lost

 

What we have lost cannot be found

By reading in a book

The stopped songs will not ring out

Nor the lost thoughts, not fallen flowers

That the dry wind took.

 

Stick in the current twists and bobs

Riding the river down

Until it snags and shallows drag

And the trip is done

Though the side currents swing around.

 

That short escape can’t happen twice

As fast the water travels

But it will rain and the river strain

Till all its banks unravel

 

But here the songs and here the ripples

Are almost in our sight

So we will climb and we will dive

Into the dark and light.

 

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…

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

The hills

I live in a county that’s famously one of the flattest in England (not the flattest: that must be Cambridgeshire). I grew up in Hertfordshire, not known for its ruggedness. When I was about 16 we had a family holiday in the Lake District. I still remember my amazed joy at seeing waterfalls running down sheer cliffs. I was hooked.

 

I do a lot of hill-walking on holiday, including long-distance trails: every day you move on and every day you get up on the tops.

 

Coleridge said of Wordsworth that even if you read his poetry with no knowledge of where he lived or was raised, you could imagine bleak, open hill country from it. I don’t suppose my poetry is more of the hills than the valleys in nature, but images of hill country occur all the time. My poem “Watershed” describes the experience of struggling up a high pass on to the hilltops, crossing a watershed and discovering a valley on the other side. It’s partly a metaphor for other kinds of discovery, of course, but the specific description would ring bells for anyone who’d crossed a high watershed, as I have. When I don’t write about a type of scenery, but need a setting for the poem, I find it’s often moorland and mountainsides with small, fast-flowing rivers.

 

There is less distraction, less detail, in such scenery. It bears the marks of history clearly – a ruined watchtower, an ancient stone cross marking a track, signs of a cart-track leading to a farm that no longer exists. These things are built over or hidden faster in the lowlands. So up in the hills it’s easy to have a sense of history and of past inhabitants and visitors. I often write about that.

 

It’s also easier to see a long way and to perceive how the land is organised – hills, streams joining a river, the valley, the point at which a road or track can cross the river. I think my long poem “Six Strands” contains a number of examples of this kind of thinking.

 

The hills are harsh. They can kill by fall, by snow, by exposure. Often they’ve been disputed borderlands racked by raids. Life exists by impertinence.

 

Up in the hills, you’re more aware of the sky.

 

 

Book Review: Brian Aldiss, “Greybeard”

Brian Aldiss is of course an eminent name in Science Fiction and this is one of his most admired books – but it left me vaguely dissatisfied.

The premise is an original and interesting one. Many SF stories start with the premise that humanity has been nearly wiped out (bit difficult to make a book of them being completely wiped out, though I do remember a brilliant short story in which the only evidence of the nature of our species and civilisation available to alien space travellers much later was a bit of Donald Duck cartoon film).  These stories focus on the recreation of some kind of society and the struggle to survive. But the premise of “Greybeard” is that a military nuclear accident has apparently rendered all humans infertile. The race will die, but it will take a long time dying as no new children are born – but the casualty rate from the accident was quite low, so the population declines gradually.

Initially government, law and the rest hold up, but bit by bit they collapse, not only from the physical pressures, but from the loss of hope. Society and government depend on people being willing to make sacrifices and plans for their children and future generations. Now, of course, we have a crude geneticist explanation for this, but actually people often do not act in the interests of “the selfish gene” and this is not a “mistake” but a choice. They do, though, look to the future. If the only future is one without humans, they live merely for the present and that is not enough.

In fact it turns out that some few relatively healthy children have been born, but are living separate from the ageing adults and building their own basic society. We gain no insight, though, into the nature of this society.

That all sounds fascinating to me, but despite the excellence of the description, I feel Aldiss (or someone) could have written a deeper book on the same theme.

The central characters are Greybeard, an ageing English scientist, and his wife. Everything is seen through Greybeard’s eyes, though the narration is in the third person. the danger in this method is that the use of the third person lulls us into forgetting that we’re receiving only one person’s perception. The characters apart from these two are seen fairly superficially depicted and the two religious characters – one quack prophet and one decent if gloomy friend of Greybeard – are seen entirely from the outside. I felt Aldiss saw religion purely as a set of rules and explanations and did not understand spirituality. One could say that’s Greybeard’s perception only, but exploring how someone with a deep faith would have reacted to these circumstances is an interesting challenge not met here.

Greybeard is driven by an illogical wish to reach the mouth of the river (Thames) from his shabby and declining community near Oxford, but the book ends before he reaches it with the discovery of healthy children. Maybe the journey to the mouth of the river is a metaphor for life and death, but if so, more could be made of it. A bit more is made of the fact that Greybeard had been recruited for a project to record the decline of society, giving him a raison d’etre (if a strange one) beyond survival and love, but again I feel the idea is so fascinating, more could be made of it.

The action set in the present is brilliantly thought out, but some of the flashback seems a bit perfunctory. In particular I don’t understand the point of an episode where the young Greybeard and his girlfriend travel to the U.S.A. when most governments are still functioning, for the recording project and she is kidnapped by someone who wants to enjoy dominating her, but does not rape her. Nothing flows from this and it seems like an episode out of another book.

It’s a thought-provoking and well-written book, though…

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.