In the Dark Wood

Dark_Forest

IN THE DARK WOOD

Cross over the steep-sided stream in the dark woods
Where three thick branches offer a dry passage;
There’s little understory and the trees’ green leaves
Are high. The chaffinch’s jangle is distant. Follow the track.
Climb. The shadowed pond will be on your right. Then left
Past the almost-dead great oak and where the hollies grow
Find it: a broken square of smoothed brick, an odd hump.
Here when the hornbeam and cherry were young
You lived.

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…

 

 

 

 

Wonderful History

One more post on History before I get back to the poetry!

Last time I set out some common arguments against spending time on History:

History is boring.
Whenever someone says something is “boring”, they’re merely saying “this doesn’t interest ME”. So “I’m not interested in History because it’s boring” is not a powerful argument. However, it’s a shame many people have come away from school thinking History is boring. I’m not going to blame the teachers, though a few may lack passion for the subject. I’ll just point to how many well-watched TV programmes are about historical events (such as Hitler’s rise to power) or rework and fictionalise historical events (such as the Jack the Ripper murders) or use and convey historical understanding (such as family history programmes like the BBC’s “Who do you think you are?”).

That’s the past. It’s over now. I want to know about the future!

So how are you going to predict the future if you have no idea how things change over time?

Who needs/wants to know about a lot of dead kings/dead white males?

Apart from the point that people are not uninteresting because they’re dead (or white, or male, or royal even), History isn’t just about a long list of kings, queens or presidents. History basically is the study of whatever in the past we think is important – so take your pick. The history of the impact of the printing press or of the Black Death is not mainly about rulers.

It won’t help you get a job.

Unfortunately there’s some truth in this, more in some countries than others. But a good degree from a highly-rated university isn’t worthless because it’s in an unpopular subject – it’s just less saleable than some. What’s clear to me is that History can help you DO many jobs, and not just History Teacher.

Consider: History teaches you a huge amount about human motivation and the impact people’s actions have over time. It teaches you how major changes can occur almost unnoticed. It teaches you to ask of someone’s account or presentation not only “Is this factually true?” but “What is this person’s angle? What does he or she want others to believe?”. It teaches you how different other people, other societies, can be. Where historical facts are vastly numerous, as with most 20th century History, it teaches you how to select and marshal facts in a coherent argument. Where factual information is sparse, as with the 5th to 8th centuries AD in Western Europe, it teaches you how to read between the lines.

It’s propaganda.

Anything open to argument can be propaganda and it’s true that in totalitarian societies, history is written to support the rulers. Deeply patriotic or nationalistic historians write history that glosses over cruelties and injustices made by their beloved country and unduly stress its positive characteristics. A Catholic historian (to take just one example from the field of religion) is unlikely to argue that the papal claim to succession from St Peter is bogus even if he or she has come on evidence that might point that wayand an anticlerical atheist is quite likely to underestimate the church’s role in, shall we say, limiting the oppression of conquered peoples. But history is international and it gets harder and harder to wall out the voices undermining the propaganda. History teaches us to question propaganda.

It’s unfashionable/ not cool.

This is a bit like “it’s boring”. There’s no answer because it’s not really saying anything. If you thought History was important or interesting, but saw it was unfashionable, what should you do? If you always think unfashionable things are uninteresting or unimportant, what does that say about you?

In any case, while History in schools and at university has declined, there’s more and more History on TV.

It’s all very well, but it mustn’t crowd out Maths/English/foreign languages/computer skills/sport from the syllabus.

Well, yes, you can make a case for all subjects, but isn’t your main language advanced by using it to read and write about History, and isn’t the use of statistics to illustrate points in History practical Maths teaching? The same sort of argument applies to computers, though not to sport unless you count vigorous disputes between academics who don’t like one another.

History is bunk (Henry Ford).

If it weren’t for History, we’d have forgotten who Ford was. History is full of examples of the sort of hubris Ford displayed as soon as his attention shifted from making cars. History analyses what the effects of Ford’s business success and production methods were.

 

So the arguments FOR? I listed a few popular ones.

 

We should understand how our nation arose, the main events in its history and how its values developed and were demonstrated.

Well, yes, except nation, country and state are not the same. It makes sense for all citizens, whether born there or not, to know something of the origins of the place and society they live in. BUT with this sort of history there are two big risks – that the course of events that could have gone very differently is made to seem inevitable; and that the story of the nation or state is sanitised so the best is stressed and the worst is ignored or belittled. I’d also argue that British history for Britons (or American for Americans or Indian for Indians) is not enough: we should come to understand something about the history of a different place and people.

History helps create a sense of nationhood.

“Patriotic” history can do this, and understanding the roots of a national culture and identity is important. But if the AIM of history teaching is to promote a national identity, it becomes propaganda and inevitably lies if only by omission. For example, the “myth” of Dunkirk (not actually a myth, as it actually happened) is important to at least some people’s sense of Britishness – but how many people know the evacuation would have been far less successful without a French army fighting to hold off the Germans while the British evacuated? It wasn’t for nothing that Churchill sent back the Navy for one more night to get the French off too.

History repeats itself.

Up to a point it does. It is useful to be able to recognise in a situation something that has happened before. But as with any patterning and classification by our minds, we often get it wrong. It isn’t only generals who are always fighting the last war.  But maybe that’s a good example of how history does repeat itself. Over and over again we apply the lessons from the last big mistake too literally.

History demonstrates great trends which are eventually unavoidable.

Marxists think this and so do many religious people. Certainly you can see great trends in history, but are they really unavoidable?

History is value-free and non-ideological.

Nowadays historians generally hold back from passing moral judgements, but this is relatively new. Ideologies clearly do affect how historians write history, both in influencing judgements on the effectiveness or benefits of something and in influencing what we think is important. As History is the study of WHAT WE THINK IS IMPORTANT in the past, your values and structure of belief clearly must influence what you think noteworthy and what you stress. But falsify the facts and you’ll be rightly challenged.

Now what is missing from these arguments?

Well, understanding the complexity and variety of human motivation and mindsets. Understanding just how DIFFERENT humans can be from our own society (which is why the history of your own country is not enough). A sympathetic understanding: ultimately statistics and ruins can take you so far, but you need to apply your own human experience and get into the mind of someone very different in order to understand actions and cultures that seem very strange to us.

And that’s close to literature, even to poetry. History is a sort of science fiction, but based on truth.

 

Unpoetic History

Well, it can be poetry in a sense. But I thought having posted about historical subjects in my poems and subtler influences on my poems of having a History degree, I’d say a bit for History as a subject to study.

The arguments against it mostly go like this:

History is boring.

That’s the past. It’s over now. I want to know about the future!

Who needs/wants to know about a lot of dead kings/dead white males?

It won’t help you get a job.

It’s propaganda.

It’s unfashionable/ not cool.

It’s all very well, but it mustn’t crowd out Maths/English/foreign languages/computer skills/sport from the syllabus.

History is bunk (Henry Ford).

Now you may have noticed that some of these arguments are contradictory: for example, propaganda that’s boring is highly incompetent propaganda. It might also occur to you that since the future hasn’t happened yet, there is a major question about how to predict it or prepare for it (and if you can’t predict it, you’re at some disadvantage in preparing for it).

If it weren’t for History, broadly understood, we wouldn’t now know who Henry Ford was or that he said it was bunk.

Now here are SOME arguments used FOR History:

We should understand how our nation arose, the main events in its history and how its values developed and were demonstrated.

History helps create a sense of nationhood.

History repeats itself.

History demonstrates great trends which are eventually unavoidable.

History is value-free and non-ideological.

Now again you might notice some contradictions: the first two arguments, for example, make assumptions about values to be promoted, which runs against the last argument. The third and fourth points also appear to contradict one another, or at least to concentrate on different aspects.

I’m going to stop there and come back to this. In the meantime, you might want to comment on some of those points, for or against.

Normal poetic service will be resumed as soon as possible.

CLUE: I’ve actually NOT stated any of the arguments that are to me the most powerful in favour of History.

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

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

Please, what is time?

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

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

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

 

WALL

 

When the grey seas beat down on this low wall

Remember us who built it high and died

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

We tasted bread and wine and love and loss.

 

 

BY THE GATE

 

The cloaked man waiting by the gate

Shivers in the warming day

The planned arrival’s running late

West wind drives the clouds away

 

The cloaked man taps his booted feet

Fumbles out a stained small case,

Stares at a photo; fingers beat

On holster; silence in his face

 

A movement down the uneven road

Pulls him to a straighter stance

The guards decant the expected load

Through the gate the groups advance

 

The gate is shut. He has to wait,

Hears a skylark in the sky.

The man’s gone through another gate

And like the load, begins to die.

 

 

NIGHTINGALE REMEMBERED

 

“Thou wast not born for death, immortal bird,

No hungry generations tread thee down”

But nightingales are begotten, born and die

Living a lifespan lesser than a dog.

 

I sing back not to the immortal song

But to the bird that might not last the summer.

 

Though fumbling in the enveloping folds of time

I hear what Spartans at Thermopylae

Recalled and what some thornscratched hunter heard

When humans first had wandered across sands

Into a colder, richer, trap-strewn land;

And when I smell salt water or top the ridge

Where treeless, manless, sweeps the unmarked waste

I am not the first, and clustering, unseen eyes

Share, and another mouth remembers taste

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

Copyright Simon Banks 2012

 

Book review: Robert Holdstock, Mythago Wood

I had not been aware of the English fantasy writer Robert Holdstock until he died and I read his obituary. I thought from what that said, his work sounded just my sort of thing, but I didn’t get round to reading it for some time until I happened to be killing time near a large library while waiting for my car to be ready. He had also been featured shortly before in Ashsilverlock’s blog. I’m glad I took the opportunity.

 

“Mythago Wood” is the first book in a series. It is very different from the sort of fantasy you find in Tolkien or Peake, where you are immediately in a strange but compelling world and you either accept it or you don’t. This starts with our world, the English county of Herefordshire and a time just after the end of the Second World War. The narrator is a young man returning from war wounds to the house where his remote and strange father had died not long before, and which is now occupied by his elder brother, also returned from the war.

 

The house is lonely and on the edge of a mysterious wood. Anyone trying to walk into it finds himself blocked, diverted and coming out again. I don’t want to give much of the plot away, but the central idea is that in this wood, archetypes or mythical figures we’ve long forgotten can take on flesh and mind and a real existence. These are called mythagos. If a present-day human spends enough time in and penetrates deep enough into the wood, creatures are created in the image of his own unknown dreams. Once created, they seem to have short lives but are entirely corporeal, needing to eat and capable of killing.

 

But is this just the reality of the outer parts of the wood?

 

Because of the realistic start, it took me a while to feel taken up by the story, in contrast to Tolkien or Peake. It’s well-written but I’m not quite drawn in as completely as by some other first-class fantasy. It is very, very well done, though. The touches of myth are credible in their own traditions and Holdstock is very good at taking some real event and turning it into mythic expression. There are a few points about the this-word elements which aren’t quite credible: for example, a character, a serving air force officer, gets a spear in his shoulder from a mythago and is “patched up” at his base. But didn’t his comrades, in late nineteen-forties ordered England, insist on knowing what had happened and call the police?

 

The image of the wood invading the house is very powerful, as is the stream that goes into the wood and grows inside it to a river, but is a stream again when it exits.

 

I’m fascinated to find things in this book I didn’t know about but which correspond closely to what I’ve written. For example, my long poem “Six Strands” contains a section “Forest” which sounds in part very like Holdstock’s wood.

 

The next volume is “Lavondyss”. Like the narrator, I will go there…

Captain

 

When I was young, the captain said,

I climbed the twisted cherry tree

And clutching branches, I was free

Until the tree was dry and dead.

 

When I was older and was strong

Three broken bridges under stars

Were blocked by giants thick with scars

And it was mine to right the wrong.

 

When I was old, the captain said,

I sat beside the whispering waves

And heard their talk of opened graves

And wandered back to sleep in bed.

 

Now I have seen the tree in flower

And crossed the bridges that were banned

And felt a breath, and felt a hand

It is the place, it is the hour.

 

Copyright Simon Banks 2012