Book review: Stephen Done, “The Last Train”

I’ve been posting very rarely for a while. Partly that’s because I’m not writing much poetry at present and have gone through all the old poems I wanted to post, but partly it’s because of the U.K. general election – I’m a political activist – and that may also help to explain the shortage of poetry. It’s not a matter of time but of mental space to get into the right mood.

I think in my next post I might talk about different aspects of people that may seem to be separate and may surprise other people, and quote a few points about me that might get other people doing the same. But for now here’s a book review.

I’d not come across Stephen Done before, but the blurb told me this was one of a series of British detective novels and that it involved a ghost appearing. The fictional detective works in an equally fictional Railway Detective Department a few years after the Second World War. I imagine Done’s core audience combines detective story enthusiasts with railway buffs: at least, there are trains and railway lines even where the story doesn’t seem to need them, described in loving detail.

The story involves a disappearance during the war, the ghost (apparently) of a young woman who looks and sounds like a live human but is just not there when someone stumbles into her, the discovery of body parts and an Indian jewel that apparently brings disaster to anyone who has it. This probably sounds like melodramatic pap. It’s actually done with skill. The reader is given information that pretty well rules out the ghost not actually being a ghost and it’s quite rapidly clear who the villain is, so in that sense it’s an odd detective story, but there is plenty of room for speculation about what exactly happened.

There is surprisingly vivid and poetic descriptive writing. I’m not entirely sure that this kind of fast-paced detective story is the best place for it, but I admire the author not only for his skill but also for his readiness to break away from bald, pared-down prose. The characters are entirely credible, but the dialogue, while it cleverly reflects  people’s preoccupations, character and misunderstandings, is sometimes rather stilted. The police detectives talk among themselves as if they were writing official reports.

I enjoyed it.

In my Beginning is my End

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OK – I wrote about poems’ endings. How about the beginnings? Can I find any lessons from my own opening lines?

 

I’ve reversed Eliot’s well-known line here, but his was deliberately contrary. All beginnings imply some kind of end and the characteristics of a beginning – whether it’s a poem, a revolution, a product launched or a child conceived, carry information which can determine how it will end.

 

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.

 

How does this beginning work? Well, in fact you could say the beginning is actually the title, which tells you death will feature and suggests something rather archetypal. Then the first line is in ordinary language and chatty, quite misleading really for a poem that becomes ballad-like and rather distant from everyday speech. But that’s a way of as it were luring the reader in. Compare with a Hitchcock thriller. It normally starts with things seeming ordinary.

 

VISITORS

Here are the shoes and here the photographs,
The shaven heads, expressionless eyes or defiant.
These are the notices: washroom, joy, be honest.
Joy was the brothel. Here the camp commandant’s children played,
Getting used to the occasional screams.
We are done now. Ten minutes’ rest break: the toilets are over there,
Hot drinks and snacks in that corner. The coach is ready.
Thankyou for listening, thankyou for coming here.

The people are quiet in the coach until a phone rings.
The old Jew answers it. “Yes, we’re fine. No, you’re joking.
It’s raining here, just like Manchester.”

 

Once you’ve realised this poem is about a concentration camp, the first line is very specific and plummets you right in. These are shoes piled up from people who were gassed. The title is ambiguous: is it about the visitors to the modern exhibition, to present-day Auschwitz, or does it describe the murdered people as visitors, perhaps because they didn’t stay long? The first line is straightforward and there is no twist from first line to second, just progression.

 

Here there is a twist though:

 

DISENCHANTMENT

The world is disenchanted
We have walked in the dark places
And found no ghosts or elves
No dragons roam the forests
The real fearsome beasts
Of the forest we have shot
And made a diagram of their bodily systems.

But now the sabre-toothed beasts from the forest myths
The giant wings, the parallel cunning people
With their invisible cities and hidden spells
Are coursing through the streets of the flooded city.

Come with me to the sea.
We know the source of its power, waves and tides
There’s not a grain of sand disturbed
By the last thrash of the wave
I cannot analyse;
I can tell when a star will disappear.

Hunting elusive messengers in your mind
You may find useful this neat chart
We can identify
The electromagnetic impulses for love or hate
We’ve come a long way, you and I
Perhaps it is too late
To search back for some thing we have forgotten.

 

The title and the first line introduce the words DISENCHANTED and DISENCHANTMENT, which normally mean serious disappointment (“He became disenchanted with his leader,”), but immediately you wonder how the WORLD can be disenchanted. Gradually you realise the word is being used perversely if logically to be the opposite of ENCHANTED. We’ve lost enchantment.To me too the very sound of DISENCHANTED is right: it has a kind of mournful music.

 

I don’t mean this as self-praise – just picking out some openings I believe work quite well. Maybe I’ll do this for poems by better-known poets – but that’s harder work as I have my own poems all on one word file!

 

See you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The End Again

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I said I’d talk about some more last lines. That’s Land’s End in Cornwall above, by the way.

 

CULTURE SHOCK

The cat is serious
It has its ways
So do I.
It came miaowing to me; under the bed it went
Where it scrabbled and rushed around
I bent down and looked it in the eye
I said,
“Hello, puss-cat – what are you up to?”
In reply, the dextrous cat
Threw a rat in my face.

 

Well, that’s obviously a surprise ending, just as the real event was a surprise to me. Not much more to say except that this is much the same as a surprise twist at the end of a novel or short story.

 

But what about this?

 

APPROACH

As I came through the automatic door
And found that it was raining
As I paused to deal with that
This shabby man caught me.
“Do you want to see
The future? It’s amazing, genuinely squire,
Believe me, every customer is
Satisfied. Only five quid,
I’m ruining myself.”
I handed him the money
Went round the side and looked.
And he was right:
All customers were satisfied.
No argument!
No play of light and dark, no life.
Against the rain I pulled my collar up.

 

Here, I’d suggest, I’m imagining a bleak vision of the future, of nothingness. The last but one line might seem to be the punchline. But the last one shows me doing what people tend to do, retreating from something unwelcome into daily life and ordinary, comprehensible concerns. At the same time, I’m seeking protection from my clothes against something not stopped by rainproof clothing.

 

I don’t want to suggest that all good poems end with a final line that’s obviously strong, and there’s another issue about the ending – the conclusion it suggests. Here’s the poem that led to me returning to writing poetry, the first of my new poetic life:

 

SPIRIT MOUNTAIN

“Said to be haunted”
“Source of strength and madness”
Alone on the night mountain
I wait, curious.

Screeches and groans
Tear the night, only I
Know they’re ravens
Not demons.

Harbour lights, town lights, wandering
Headlights shine and
Are gloved into mist

Pale flame of sunrise
Seascape afire
Ghosts? Then within us

But a trickle of
Welsh blood speaking:
Perhaps in the soil
Out of time, sleeping.

 

I wrote this poem about a night out on a Welsh mountain said to be holy and haunted. A couple of hours later, the poem still running through my mind, I added an extra verse. The original ended at “Ghosts? Then within us.” Why did I change the ending? Because I was uneasy and increasingly felt it was too neat and promoted a firm conclusion where I was really unsure. So the last verse rejects a rational certainty for doubt.

 

Happy Easter!

 

Simon

 

 

Harmony of the Spheres

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This is an old poem of mine – my one and only attempt at a sonnet. The subject is the medieval idea of the harmony of the spheres, a timeless universe centred on the Earth, with incorruptible heavenly bodies contrasted with death and decay among us and heavenly music.

HARMONY OF THE SPHERES

They thought the stars shone from a sphere

Where nothing changed, death was unknown,

Eternal calm looked down on fear,

Lust, greed and rotting flesh and bone.

The stars were strung like diamond beads

On heavenly secrets’ velvet drape

But we below could only dream

Through pictures, words and creeds

How music gave the world its shape

And reeled in time’s chaotic stream.

Now this old picture is a wreck

And astronauts have not picked up

Music on a computer check

Or God’s blood in a plastic cup,

Now that we’ve learnt that change is good

And life is long, and pleasure stays,

We do not need the crystal spheres.

Correctly understood

A yearning for that world betrays

A fear of life, a life of fears.

We know they lived in fear and pain.

Who would not swap the Holy Grail

For wiping out a smallpox strain?

Heaven’s a light along a trail

And not a warlord’s massive tower.

Our flesh is not a shameful thing.

But when we let the old boat go

And slip from place and hour,

Perhaps the stars will seem to sing,

Perhaps the stars will seem to grow.

Book Reviews: The Flood, David Maine; The Land of Decoration, Grace McCleen

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These are books I picked up in my local public library. By an odd coincidence, they raise some of the same questions, questions quite unusual for a small English public library.

David Maine’s book is a retelling of the biblical story of Noah and the Flood. It follows the biblical account loyally, but of course, embellishes. You could interpret it as an exercise of “If this was literally true and these were real people, what would it have been like?” Some people will see it as irreverent. At times Noah’s sons see their stubborn father, not the best of communicators, as an old fool. There’s a lot of sex – but there is in the Bible (remember all those “begat”s?

It took a while for me to get into this novel, but the time came. The characters came to life. Of course, there are difficulties about a literal telling of the Flood story. The ark wouldn’t be big enough. How, if the flood was over the whole world, did they get the Australian and American animals? This version does mention armadillos, but I’m inclined to think the American author had forgotten these are purely animals of the Americas. We also learn of peoples who were apparently totally wiped out in the Flood, but we know mysteriously reappeared, such as Phoenicians.

It was interesting, but not enthralling. Throughout it asks, but does not answer, questions about a God with unlimited power, a God who cares and creates but punishes ruthlessly. The role of people, it seems, is to obey or rebel.

Grace McCleen’s book had me hooked from the start and its impact on me was far greater. A ten-year-old girl in a small town (it seems to be in South Wales) is being brought up by her deeply and stiffly religious father: her mother is dead. They belong to some strict sect: it sounds very much like the Jehovah’s Witnesses. The girl is bullied at school. She seeks escape in a fantasy world she constructs in her bedroom, a model of things in the real world. She wishes it would snow so she could avoid school and the bully she fears will kill her. She makes mock snow with cotton-wool in her model world. It snows in the real world and school is cancelled. God is speaking to her and telling her she has great power. She tries something else – to bring back a neighbour’s missing cat. The cat returns. She brings snow again. A series of events follow which, if they were true, would seriously interest an open-minded scientist. What she does in the Land of Decoration does seem to be reproduced outside.

But things go wrong. She tries to talk to her father about it but he won’t listen. The boy bully blames her for the trouble he faces from a new teacher and he and his friends begin to cause trouble and damage outside her house , a campaign of harassment. She could – she believes – strike at him, but she doesn’t want to. God is unhelpful and says she’s caused what is happening.

In the end – well, I’d better not say. We learn how her mother died and why her father, a decent man, seems stiff and haunted. Her father and God had assured her that decent, loving people like her neighbour with the cat will be destroyed if they don’t hear the word, but the ending seems to reject this. Finally the link between events in the World of Decoration and our world is broken.

I was totally engaged. I’m unsure, though, what the author is wanting us to believe. The series of events goes well beyond credible coincidence, but the God speaking to the girl is cold and in the end, wrong. The dust cover tells us Grace McCleen grew up in South Wales in just such a religious community. I would be curious about what she believes now.

His Dark Refreshments

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Here’s another old poem I haven’t posted before. This one is not very serious and it’s based on the experience of half-hearing an indistinct announcement on the public address system at a train station. Most of the announcements are rather indistinct and it’s easy to mishear. The language of these announcements is very stereotyped and stilted: for example, for example, passengers always “alight”, not “get off”. If you’ve got an imagination like mine, even if you guess it correctly, you toy with things you could have misheard it as. That’s what happens in this poem. There are references to Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials”.

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HIS DARK REFRESHMENTS

 

The next train to arrive on platform three

Will be the 9:07 to Liverpool Street

Cold snacks and light refreshments there will be

Available on this train

 

The next train to arrive on platform three

Will be the 9.07 to Liverpool Street

Hot slacks and slight refreshments there will be

Available on this train

 

The next train to arrive on platform three

Will be the seventh to a Liverpool tree

Hot snacks and dark refreshments there will be

Available down the drain

 

Provided by our dedicated staff

Of maddened macho bears, with great aplomb

And custard. In First Class there are installed

Facilities for gods to start a war

 

Or video conference while eating lunch.

The dragon next appearing on platform three

Will carry your liver up a poplar tree

Gold sacks and snide detachment there will be

Available in the rain. 

Now on the mystery lines: the last one was by William Blake and the clue “Innocent? Or experienced?” related to his “Songs of Innocence and Experience”.

Next one:

She dreams a little, and she feels the dark

Encroachment of that old catastrophe,

As a calm darkens among water-lights.

CLUE: Braveheart writing in the woods.

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

Led

 

You have assumed a number of forms, he said,

A great bird landing on the wall at night

A half-familiar voice in the swirling wind

Footfalls around the corner in the broken fort

Even the waves of the salt sea

But now you come to me

As a slim girl in dark blue clad with yellow hair

With flowers in your hair and eyes ringed gold

And beckoning because you cannot speak

And drawing on like music in the dark

Out of the scree-strewn lands to the carven ark.

 

Now when the ark has grunted down from the beach

Slithering and grating over shingle and mud

And slipped into the sea, you will run before

So it will follow you to another shore

And you will speak.

 

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

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…