Happy Christmas

HAPPY CHRISTMAS
HOPPY CHRISTMAS

Pints-of-beer

In the words of a Panamanian Carol, who was a well-known gangster in Arkansas, 1925-6:
We wish you a Merry Isthmus
We wish you a Merry Isthmus
We wish you a Merry Isthmus
And a ****** *** ****.

panama

Another way of saying this is “Compliments of the Season!” – which is odd. For a quarter of the year you say, “FROSTED SHOOTS!” . For the next quarter you say “SUNBURN!” For the next, it’s “SNUFFLES!” and finally,

iced beard

WINTER!

Happy Christmas, all!

Gates and Reeds

OK, there’s not much in common between those two words (the letter E, yes, and four other letters each), though it would be a good poets’ competition to find something that linked them. Poets are good at linking one improbable thing with another – one poet with another, for example.

 

Here’s two poems I’ve written recently and I thought I’d share them together even though they don’t have a lot in common (my conscious mind says).

 

THE GATE

 

Mordor

Pearly gates

The high walls steady.
They are topped with clawing black wire.
Around me the ground is featureless
But the dark gate is wide open.
An empty watchtower stares down dully.
That is all except for a dim light inside.

But here comes one who has gone to the entrance
And stopped at a line on the surface, hearing music
And reports that from there the watchtower changes,
A fountain of colour and shapes, red-jewelled, craft-gilded, live.

I stand looking up at the old brutality
Of the bare, angular tower.

I have seen it before, that gate.
It was on the shore as the salt tide came slithering in
It clanged open the moment I fell asleep
And grunted on runners as I, puzzled, woke again.
I saw it where the stream ran from the rocks.
I have thought I’ve seen it in eyes.

Nothing is what it seems to me
But then, neither am I.
If the gate was of gold and silver, of agate, would I go?
The gate stands open.

 

Illustrating poems does risk stressing one interpretation above another, so please consider the words before the pictures.

 

And then, in a different mood:

 

REEDBED

Reedbed

As I lay sick I had a vision of a reedbed
Waving gently in the wind, naked of birdsong now
Only a few sharp calls.
A great heron lumbered into the air
From the edge of the water I could not see, but cherished.

 

By the way – I was sick for a couple of days, now well recovering. Ear infection threw my sense of balance into chaos – frightening till it was diagnosed and extremely limiting and exhausting for another day and a bit. No big deal now, but I thought I’d better explain “as I lay sick” was not complete invention and should not be a cause for worry.

 

I expect I’ll post again before Christmas, but if not, Happy Christmas!

 

An unseasonal poem

Image

Well, the whole New Year mythology pretty much leaves me cold: 1st January 2014 is the day after 31st December 2013 and the next day is 2nd January 2014. By the way, most computers seem to try very hard to impose the American date system, which is bafflingly illogical: a date consisting of day, month, year is a combination of three measurements of which the day is the most specific and the year the most general, so there are two logical ways of presenting it – day, month, year or year, month, day. We Brits do it the first way. Americans set it out as month, day, year – a bit like an address going Bristol Road, 97, Gloucester.

That rant over – on to the next one. Supermarkets have many advantages, but the busy crowds and the noise (including tinny music too loud) make me want to get out of most of them as soon as possible. Over the Christmas period the music is dominated by a few Christmas songs we’ve been hearing dozens of times in a few days and in the rare event the song seemed good to start with, it sounds horribly trite the twelfth time. It’s interrupted by an announcement that starts by wishing shoppers a happy/merry Christmas before immediately suggesting they buy a lot of stuff on special offer. I suspect I’m not the only one to mouth something not very polite – not because I lack a positive attitude towards Jesus Christ, pagan midwinter festivals, wine, whisky and Christmas pudding (this ignorant spellcheck objects to WHISKY, which is the only correct spelling for the Scottish or Welsh stuff, and wants to change it to whiskey, fine if I was talking about the Irish drink) but because I sniff an intention of equating happiness and goodwill with buying their products, specifically the ones they’d hoped to shift days earlier.

So – am I a Scrooge? Judge for yourself (but the final decision is mine: after all, I take full responsibility for myself).

MERRY CHRISTMAS

Merry Christmas, shoppers!

As usual there are brilliant special offers

Why not try…

Why not cry

The tinny music’s loud enough to drown, don’t fear,

An inconvenient noise amid Christmas cheer.

HAPPY CHRISTMAS

Happy Christmas!

This had better be a purely unaligned post in a religious sense (maybe it’s about time I created a new non-poetry blog to argue about politics, religion and the English language and to make fun of trendy bureaucracy as an ex-insider, to replace the one dead of blogspot’s failure to help me when the old one ran off the rails).

So anyway, Happy Christmas.

Image

and for a slightly more poetic and much more abstract rendition:

Image

While for those who think it’s all a load of

Image

Now for something completely different.

Image

Have a good time. Love.

Simon

Robin song

I’m a birdwatcher. You can tell that because I make it one word. Anyone who writes “bird watcher” isn’t one.

In a temperate country like Britain, there are huge movements of birds in spring and autumn. People are most aware of the summer visitors (arriving in the spring after spending the winter in Africa), but we have winter visitors too – birds that come from the Arctic or at least much further north, anywhere between Greenland and western Russia, to spend the winter in milder Britain. In a northern country like Finland, almost everything moves out in autumn. In an equatorial country like Kenya, you notice kinds of birds appearing that aren’t there all year: these have come from further north where winter is approaching. I’ve lived in both those countries.

Events like the first cuckoo call in spring or the arrival of flocks of winter thrushes on the East coast in October/November are conspicuous and quite well-known. But there are less well-known seasonal variations.

Robins (the European Robin, not the much bigger thrush called “Robin” in North America) stop singing for a while after the breeding season ends. But they’re highly territorial birds, the song tells other Robins the territory is taken (and is beautiful to our ears) and they start singing again in autumn. For some weeks Robins had been very hard to find round where I live. Then suddenly, yesterday, they were singing.

Now this is a poetry blog. For someone so interested in wildlife, I don’t directly write about birds, mammals and so on as much as, say, Ted Hughes did, but they do appear.

Here they play a part in a story (Spirit Mountain):

(but here, I fear, formatting will insist on appearing: though I’ve followed the instructions of my internet friend Neelima and also done the obvious thing of selecting “remove formatting”, it keeps jumping up on the Preview. This may be because of how I’m copying text from a word file. Well, I’m going to post this now and will try to fix the problem next time!

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Screeches and groans

Tear the night, only I

Know they’re ravens

Not demons.

In this poem I’m spending a night on a supposedly haunted/holy mountain, as I did, and realising that the strange noises come from those big crows, Ravens.

Here’s the start of “Breaking Time”:

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TREASURE ISLAND

The pirate sails through swivelling seas

And gains his goal through knife and trick

He lands at dawn with craftsman’s skill

The island’s multicoloured birds

The heavy scent of hanging flowers

Hold his attention for a while

It comes naturally to me in imagining a tropical island, to think of the birds!

Maybe because I know a lot about birds as birds, I don’t use them much as images suggesting something else, but here I do:

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LOST ISLAND

I don’t know whether the man at the gate has blundered,

But when I arrived I thought I was going to

An island no-one else remembered

But here the flesh has covered up the sand

And made a picture postcard of the sea.

I don’t know whether the island I remember,

The gap-topped tower you could climb to watch the sea,

Exists; the ferry timetables no longer mention it

But maybe the envelope I left on the floor

Contained an invitation or a feather

From that white bird that soared above the tower.

I’m not a “nature poet”, but I do write a few things of that type:

MERLIN

Mud slurries, sparkles in blue sky’s snatches

Wormholes wither and dry

Salt sea recedes, Grey Plover stalks

The tide is out.

Suddenly a shape, dark in the sun

Sharp-winged, intense over the swivelling saltmarsh:

Merlin!

A Merlin is a very small, fast falcon. Grey Plover is a wading bird that breeds in the high Arctic and arrives with us from August.

I did find one mention of Robins in a poem about autumn. Their mellow, sad-sounding song seems appropriate to the season. But the biggest influence of birdwatching on me as a poet is that it’s taken me to moors, estuaries, islands, forests…

Finally an apology. An internet friend (step forward, Neelima) pointed out that the formatting was showing on my recent posts. She gave me advice on sorting it. Let’s see…


		

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

Frost

The first frost of the season came

It iced the grass and mud

Dogshit became sculpture

Winter in the blood.

Written just over a year ago. At present the dogshit round here is becoming treacle, not sculpture.

 

Copyright Simon Banks 2012

Crossing Borders

As I’m less than a week back in England from Hungary, it seems quite timely to resurrect a poem called “Passport”. As I’ve done before, I’m saying a bit more about this poem than I did first time round. If that invades your readerly purity to make what you like of the thing – you had the chance. It was already posted. So there.

This poem is a kind of extended metaphor. The second one is lyrical and philosophical (have I put you off yet?) and the third is very simple, a succession of a few images without explanation (until now). So here goes.

PASSPORT

Half down a long smooth corridor I turned to check

Who I was supposed to be meeting, what I should plead

As the purpose of my visit, length of stay,

And my destination. But there was no-one to ask.

So I just carried on

Hoping someone would tell me, or I’d find a clue

In the codes on my documentation

Or the false heel of a shoe

Anyway, they let me in

Stamping my passport with “indefinite stay”

And then I wandered round the streets making notes

And taking photos to elucidate

What I should do and who I was.

Finally I’ve come to a door

That looks familiar, and the signs on it, though damaged,

Could be a reference to shining shores

Where travellers in the past have managed

To find a boat, to watch the moving oars.

Obviously I’m using the image of a traveller going through passport control, probably at an airport. But it’s unlikely a real traveller, unless (s)he had Alzheimer’s or something similar, would arrive at the border not knowing why (s)he was entering the country or how long the stay might be. I suggest this is actually a person being born and developing self-awareness, asking what (s)he is here for and aware both of some idea of a previous existence and of the destination or gate called death.

I play with familiar images – the information missing might be encoded on a document or (in the worlds of spies and smugglers) hidden in a false bottom.

The person arrives (given an “indefinite stay” as we all are) and wanders round trying to make sense of the world and his or her situation. Finally, he or she arrives at a door which seems decayed and damaged but which may lead to a boat which will take him or her to other shores (an old image for death), as is going through a door.

The sense that I’m here FOR something but I’m not sure what is one very real to me.

Note that the vocabulary I’ve used here is simple and everyday except for official words familiar from immigration and passport control.

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.

Like “Wolf”, this is a poem which reproduces a conversation between two voices. I’ve tried to reflect this by layout but don’t know if this will work on thi site. One voice is more critical of rationality and science than the other.

What am I trying to say? I’m not rejecting science or rationality, but saying we need more to be complete. We’ve engineered and analysed out all the myths and fears, only to find them returning in more destructive form (“the sabre-toothed beasts…the giant wings”. We’ve exterminated the dangerous beasts, but we are not safe. Do you find the line “I can tell when a star will disappear” sad? I’m fascinated by astronomical science, but our reaction to stars cannot be encompassed in it. Did Western civilisation lose as well as gain at the Renaissance and Enlightenment?

NIGHT VISION

Dark shape of a man against the drifts of white

The pale watching lights on concrete walls

The crump of boots in the untrodden snow

The short scream of an owl in the hidden wood.

No lights show in the sky, but the steady throb

Of a heavy heaving plane in the opaque air;

The dogs begin to bark; a light goes out.

This last poem contains images suggestive of war and oppression. With my background, it suggests to me the Second World War, prisoner of war camps and concentration camps. An atmosphere of menace is built up by apparently neutral images, the short scream of an owl (or a person?) and the invisibility of the heavy plane overhead. When the light goes out, is that just a switch being pressed, or a death?

Like a lot of poems rich in images and little else, it reads as if it were heavily influenced by the experience of watching TV and films, but it does something these more rushed and immediate media struggle to do – except perhaps there is something of Hitchcock in the poem.

Copyright Simon Banks 2012

The Shadowed Way

I think this one goes best with little introduction. It’s a bit ballad-like again and mystical, dark but ending with hope, and the dying magician figure appears again. The singer coming with seven ships and gold suggests the supernatural ballad “The Demon Lover”, quoted from memory here:

 

“Seven ships were on the sea

The eighth brought me to land

With gold and silver in great store

And music on every hand

 

She first set foot upon the deck

No mariners could behold

The sails were of the shining silk

The masts of beaten gold.”

 

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.

 

 

Copyright Simon Banks 2012

 

Apparently anything can be poetry, so it seems safe to say this is

So it’s important and you ought to look at it seriously. OK, I’m being ironic: putting something boring, uninspired, mannered or prancingly self-indulgent in short lines in a nice shape and calling it poetry and art doesn’t make it any more worthy of attention than anything else anyone writes or says.

 

Still, you might find these interesting – more re-posted poems with discussion. Do join in!

 

SPRING MIGRANTS

 

When the pack ice cracks

When hostile green shoots break through the hard earth

Snow whisks off like a white sheet to reveal

Grassy mound, ruin, bare rock or field

The wanderers’ ship will come

Taking soundings slowly

They will unload their cattle, cloth and pulleys

Build their stony church and wooden houses

When the short days are lit by pallid snowfall

Only the white beasts roam the land again.

 

The strangeness of this poem is that it talks as if the changes of the seasons take place over many years. I suppose one influence was the Science Fiction series by Brian Aldiss (I think – I haven’t read it but have seen it referred to) on Helliconia, where each season lasts hundreds of years. Thus states and cultures could be adapted to a particular season and could die when the weather changed and people and other life-forms would carry out migrations not unlike those that happened when an ice age was beginning or ending. Another was a TV programme on the Norse settlement of Greenland, that flourished for a while but died out when the weather became long-term colder. Cattle, cloth, stone churches and wooden houses would fit the Norse culture of the time very well.

 

When the snow vanishes it reveals mounds and ruins, suggestive of earlier vanished settlements. When the snow and ice return, so do the “white beasts” (polar bears?).

 

LINKS

 

Sometimes if you stand in just this corner of the car-park

Soft fronds will caress your face from the yew-tree forest

That grew on the flattened hillside here; your hand stretching out will encounter

Twisted, hair-cracked and creviced roughened tree-trunks.

Sometimes a plastic bag will waft across like a ghost

Through the enchanted long-dead forest and out again.

 

 

Here where the stabilised ferry hums through grey-green waters

Under that crazy-angled floating box

The mastodon fell and was butchered, the people rested from hunting

Wolverine waited and watched and the warning snowflakes

Silently fell on the skins and the lichens and lips.

 

 

The exiled unbroken woman drops a stone in the glade

That she found on the shore where the boat bumped in and grounded

Her feet make a pattern like a broken necklace

Through the green grass and unfolding ferns and last year’s leaves.

Perhaps she returned to the marks she left or even

Perhaps she will return when the old leaves grow green

And the order of things that we knew is thrown up in the branches

And falls in a different pattern we knew all along.

 

 

The poem describes two worlds existing in one place, with communication between the two possible. This idea is at the root of many myths from shamanistic beliefs to the European belief in “elfland”. Here, though, in the first verse it seems that one – the yew-tree forest – existed in the past. Since then the forest has been felled, the hill has been levelled and now there is a car-park, but the forest can still be reached.

 

The second verse describes a similar situation: where the ferry now ploughs through the sea (North Sea?) was once land where humans, mastodons and wolverines existed. I may be unhistorical here as I gather European mastodons died out before they encountered humans, unlike American ones. The “warning snowflakes” may warn of a snowstorm or of a new advance of ice.

 

The third verse is less clear. There is no longer a distinction between the past and the present of a location. An exiled woman has landed, has left marks and may return. The woman seems to be some kind of messenger or to have magic powers (but maybe that’s a way of seeing all of us).  There is again something strange happening with time because the old leaves will grow green, as though time is reversing (but this could also mean when the rotted old leaves turn into green new ones in spring). At the end is the suggestion that the way we understand things, the pattern, will be fundamentally altered into a new pattern that we somehow already suspected.

 

This poem uses a lot of alliteration (sometimes, stand, soft; wolverine, waited, watched, warning) and achieves effect by the sound of the words: contrast the soft sounds of the first two lines with the harsh sounds of the fourth, conveying the roughness of yew bark – or the way “bumped in and grounded” suggests the thump and grind of a small boat grounding.

 

copyright Simon Banks 2012

 

SEA MIST WITH RAIN

 

The sky in infinite shades of grey

Wraps the weather-quiet town

Cool-silenced Sunday afternoon.

Ships blur

To ominous, mysterious castles.

Over towards the point the mist is thicker.

 

As the blue side of a great ship, stacked high

With giant boxes coagulates from the mist

A veil of rain drives in.

 

And now a nice simple one! Everyday sights in a port become mysterious in the mist. It describes familiar sights for someone living as I do in the Harwich area, seeing ships coming in to Felixstowe and Parkeston from the North Sea. Again I’ve used alliteration (all the Ss and Ws in the first verse) and soft sounds to convey blurry mist and soft rain. The word “coagulates” for a large shape appearing from the mist is unusual, but I think apt.

 

And now I fancy a mug of tea. Back in a day or two.