Death, imagination, magic, money, reality, human nature and a few other things

Time to repost a few more poems with more discussion. I dothis because I dislike serving up a poem complete with instructions on how to interpret it, but some time later I might make tentative suggestions.

 

INSTRUCTIONS

 

I bought this thing quite a long time ago

But never needed it, so never assembled

The impressive confusing parts

But now I’ve started to read the instructions

And as always, I suppose,

They don’t quite make sense.

“Stand on the bank of the river

Summon the ferryman and give him silver

And he will carry you over.” That makes sense.

But then apparently the other side

Is somewhere underneath us. Then again

It says, “Flow into the distant stars

Towards a light that is not quite a star.”

You can’t go down, across and up at the same time!

Though in the depths of this black silent pool

Which shimmers with the lights of star and moon

Maybe I’ve seen the answer after all.

 

This is a wry poem about thinking about death. It uses a sustained metaphor (quite unusual for me) of someone trying to understand the instructions booklet for some newly-bought gadget. So I quote several myths and ideas about death. The ferryman of course is Charon in Greek mythology ferrying the dead over the river Styx.  That seems to be a journey across, but it’s to the Underworld (in several mythologies), so presumably the Underworld is under this one. So what about myths of the released soul travelling amongst the stars and the idea that Heaven is above us? Well, really these are images, metaphors themselves, but I’m assuming the persona of a literal-minded person struggling to understand the myths literally. In the last three lines, though, I reconcile all three versions: in black water (the Styx) if you look down (Underworld) you see the stars reflected.

 

Maybe I’m suggesting a reconciling of light and dark.

 

ALCHEMY

 

Wandering the world, the witch brings cold

Where there is light she snuffs it out

Her wings obscure the distant stars

Her breath fills palaces with gold

 

The kings and courtiers count and plan

The heavy castles rise and spread

They dance a new and heady tune,

The merchant and the artisan.

 

The witch has taken to the night

Again, and cupped her smothering wings

The starving people try to eat

The blocks that seemed so strong and bright

 

The robes and sceptres rot or twist

The castles’ windows are all dark

When the witch lands, the stars are born

And with the dawn comes gentle mist.

 

An internet friend interested in magic commented, “This is a new kind of witch”. Well, the figure of the witch has long carried implications of evil and of healing, but this witch is rather special. What does she do? She obscures the light and chills the land, but she fills palaces with gold. She brings economic development and prosperity which cannot last. I’m not going to seek a political or religious moral here beyond what I think I was thinking, but this is a very material and materialist kind of witch. But she cannot control the world indefinitely and light comes back.

 

On a technical level, this is a regular poem with four-line verses of the same number of syllables and a rhyming plan of the first and fourth lines rhyming but the second and third not rhyming. I’m not sure I’ve used this system elsewhere.

 

I THINK BECAUSE I AM NOT

 

“I think because I am not,” the wise man said,

“If I were fully in the material world,

The tease of rain, the anger of a rock,

The taste of apples and of fertile woman

Would leave no room for a philosophy

And doubt would be a slipping on the scree.”

 

“I think, therefore I am,” the lecturer said.

“This itch of questioning and of making patterns

Says who I am, and if I plant it here

And simply give it water and tough skin

To give the grazing deer a nasty bruise,

There is no way the human spirit can lose.”

 

I think because I cross a borderland

Where shadows may be real and real things vanish

As thought and dream and shivering in my scalp

Circle and blend like warriors or mating cats

And somehow show a way I should not tread

According to the mighty and the dead.

 

Obviously this draws on Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am”. Descartes is simply drawing a conclusion: because I know I think, I must exist. But his words could be taken to mean “the raison d’etre of my existence is to think” and in fact his formulation leads illogically but predictably to a view of human nature which stresses intellect and reason. I’m playing here in quasi-philosophical mode with other formulations.

In the first version, thought itself is a product of (or a cause of?) our separation from direct experience, being at one remove from the animal. In the second, Descartes’ statement is extended (maybe twisted, though Descartes was a rationalist who probably wouldn’t have minded this development) so that human thought is presented as the highest, most advanced thing in the world. The third expresses more of my perception: I think on the borderland between reason and feeling, spirit and measurement, and the more I venture into the dark and the misted, the more I think and the more I am alive.

 

It’s worth noting that the first and third poems here use humour to approach very serious subjects. Very English.

 

Copyright Simon Banks 2012

Gloomy. Obscure. Negative. Vague. This sounds good…

I’m carrying on commenting on some poems I’ve already posted. They aren’t necessarily the best in my opinion, as some poems seem to me to be fairly obvious in their meaning and technique, and they could just possibly be good. The first one here, though, seems to me to be one of my best.

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?

The obvious meaning of the poem is a description of diving deep in a sea full of life. Some things here fit in with a literal interpretation – for example, at the deep sea bed they may indeed be vents and eyeless creatures, and seabirds do indeed draw sustenance from the teeming life in the sea. But the tone is dreamlike and it may not be a big surprise to encounter long-extinct ammonites and plesiosaurs, creatures a human would have to time travel to meet. This sea is not only full of life and variety – it’s timeless.

The sea can be a metaphor and activating image for death, eternity and the unconscious. This sea has something of all these.

What about lines 6-10? We seem to have come out of the sea. But the image of dirt shovelled over a well being removed is one of rediscovering something deliberately hidden – and the well can convey the past, the unconscious or a dissolution of familiar identity.  Lines 8-10 refer to sea-life first adapting to survive on land – something in our deep past. So here as elsewhere in the poem we’re travelling back in time, as if before the eyes of a dying person flashed not only their life, but their line’s life.

In the third verse we return from the Underworld, knowing that our life outside it is fed by it. We’re like the seabird that lives on cliffs or an island (a projection of land) but could not live without the depths.

In the last verse we’re on the shore. We may return to the depths for something valuable.

This is a poem where the sound of the words matters a lot and where I use alliteration frequently.

THREE

Three sisters dancing hand in hand

They turn and whirl each in her world

At different speeds disturb the leaves

Which dancing from the forest floor

Reject the empire of the wind

Three sisters dancing hands apart

They look at nothing but the leaves

If one begins to glow with fire

If one begins to freeze with ice

They will not know, they will not meet

Three sisters dancing on the heath

Long after forest decayed and died

The one is like a flaming torch

The other cold and deadly dry

The third alive and stepping high.

The number three seems to touch something deep in us. It appears over and over again in myth, in ballad and in religion (the Trinity). Three sisters could be Shakespeare’s “three weird sisters” (“weird” meaning of pre-Christian religion), in other words, witches. My inspiration for this, though, was reading about the early history, as we now understand it, of Earth, Mars and Venus, which may once have been quite similar, but Mars went one way (lost its atmosphere and froze) and Venus the other (was smothered by its atmosphere and became far too hot for life) while Earth became suitable for life.

FOUNDER

I have set my foot in the wet sand

And seen the alien trees, the dangerous berries

Of a new land

It cannot speak before I name it

It is asleep before I claim it

I give a name to this unwary bird

Before I kill it and I tread a track

So as to become a road that traders travel;

Where I have hacked a space inside the thicket

Will be a city, I can hear the talk

Like pebbles clashing in the shifting stream

Not song nor scream

What I have not named, in the lurking forests

Will die until its bones are resurrected

Leaving its shadow over fruitful fields

Rotting the yields.

This is a rather dark adaptation of the Australian Aborigine naming myth. The first humans come to virgin land. They exploit it for their survival and begin a process which will leave to profound changes. They believe by finding and naming things they’re bringing them to life – but some things are not discovered and named, but die as a result of the human arrival. Later people will discover their remains and reconstruct their lives, but the destruction hangs over us.

Enough for now…

copyright Simon Banks 2012

Alchemy

 

Wandering the world, the witch brings cold

Where there is light she snuffs it out

Her wings obscure the distant stars

Her breath fills palaces with gold

 

The kings and courtiers count and plan

The heavy castles rise and spread

They dance a new and heady tune,

The merchant and the artisan.

 

The witch has taken to the night

Again, and cupped her smothering wings

The starving people try to eat

The blocks that seemed so strong and bright

 

The robes and sceptres rot or twist

The castles’ windows are all dark

When the witch lands, the stars are born

And with the dawn comes gentle mist.

The Witch of the River

THE WITCH OF THE RIVER

The witch of the river has long green hair

Her tresses wave in the water’s flow

She dreams the mayflies out to mate

Her blood’s the current running slow

When her long slim fingers flex in sleep

Then the lithe and writhing silent fish

Disturb the surface: if she dreams

A shudder, then the wordless wish

Rouses the drunken river to spate

Till she gently, softly draws it down

She’ll treasure stones a child throws in

A coin, a cup, a sword, a crown

For they are young and she is very old

For they are of the sky and she the mud

She and the river too will die

But now she’ll dance, with running blood