WordPress Poetry Course 201 — Assignment 6–Heroes

Some years ago now, I started writing a series of longish poems on the gods and heroes of ancient Greece and Rome, and occasionally those of other cultures with which I am less familiar. The only rules I set myself were that the name of the god, goddess, hero or heroine should appear only in the title and that the poem should tell a (usually tragic) story of a contemporary human individual using a very contemporary ‘unpoetic’ vernacular discourse broadly in keeping with the kind of spoken language that the character portrayed might themselves use; referring only obliquely to the ancient mythological source.

Since then, I have produced many such poems. They are usually triggered in a flurry of inspiration by a situation I observe on the street or experience in my personal and social life that dovetails somehow with something I remember from my classical education.

I should warn readers that these poems, in so far as they tend to be written from the point of view and in the voice of imaginary characters, some of whom are imagined to be highly disturbed, deal with subject matter that some may find upsetting and are replete with profanities and inappropriate language and opinions that are not my own. They are an attempt to give voice to a discomfiting excluded undercurrent of modern society that is often drowned out—only fuelling its rage—by a stifling anxiousness, on the part of those of us who are more articulate and fortunate, to please others and be inoffensive, well-spoken and polite.

Having said that, the poem I post here is a fairly tame take on the Oedipus story, written in the voice of a chorus of gossiping neighbors.

Ode to Oedipus

Kid with a gammy foot he was,

picked up off the street by those nice people.

Well what can you expect?

Well-meant and all that; but the gutter

always eggs them back in the end,

when the old man in them comes a-calling

as they come of age.

*

That business at the traffic lights.

Off his head, if you ask me.

Screwed up and packing heat; away from home.

*

Clever fucker though.

Top marks on the IQ.

Personality not so hot.

Good-looking, but the kind who don’t know

what to do with it.

*

Heard he ended up with a mum of a wife;

a big chip on the shoulder.

Constantly down the Registrar of Births and Deaths

& Social Services

with his arguments and tattooed fists,

having it out.

*

When it all came out she went off

quietly and quickly on the end of a rope

and he limped off out of town –

just another bum

with a meth problem, oblivious to the world,

that gammy leg,

kids in tow.

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Writing 201-Poetry Assignment 5: School through Fog

This, finally, is a brand new poem, inspired by Writing 201 encouraging us to write about fog.

School through Fog

Early morning treks to school

down the once hawthorn-lined lanes

trimmed now into neat suburban roads,

flanked by spanking-new government-funded semis and bungalows,

and on into the little town center

with its grand neo-Gothic town-hall

and off down the road to the old schoolhouse,

are swathed in choking smog

and swaddled in stiff sternly monitored uniforms

in various scratchy shades of grey.

The collective soot of last night’s warming fires

hangs like fall-out over the freezing dawn,

a paranoia in the lungs;

a lingering nightmare left by last night’s TV.

The fog at times is darker than the blackest pea in the pod.

We pick our way through it by memory alone.

Senses numbed by thick coats and gloves.

School sucks, but at least it is warm and comforting

and makes us march, sing, dance and pray.

Milk is free but made rancid by unrefrigerated crates.

Still we have to drink it down.

The back-rooms are a dark museum to a long-defunct cotton industry,

Full of ghosts of workers and slaves;

a place to comfort and flirt with fearful girls.

The world is full of interesting doubt and imagination

and the cold certainties of science, discipline and the C of E

are dull as the water of an undredged ditch

to any normal child’s lively mind.

Perverts and the privileged are encouraged to thrive.

Everyone is itching to get back home

to scratch chill-blained feet free of daps

toasting them against the wires of a coal fire,

eat poached eggs on thickly buttered toast

and glue eyes to a ghostly greenish black-and-white television screen,

seep in the homely holy smell of Dad’s cigarettes,

gas leaking from paraffin lamps, as miners strike

and the government rations the electricity supply.

Playing old parlor games by candlelight.

The fug of Churchill’s funeral;

Kennedy shot;

Dad’s Army on TV;

home fires snoring and burning

—the fat of victory;

The comfort of a thick blanket

And a hot water bottle filled from a kettle;

the fog of old wars

choking and rocking us to sleep.

The gleaming glass aluminum

NHS neonatal and family planning clinic,

winking like a light-house through fog:

hope at the end of the road.

Writing 201 Poetry Assignment 4–Animals. Honey: an essay on animal poetry and an ongoing effort to produce a bee poem

Honey

Although I love animals, have long been an advocate of their rights and am lucky enough to share my life with two cats, whose wild and radically non-anthropomorphic antics have been amusing me for nine years now, I have never been that inspired to write animal poetry. That does not mean of course that I do not greatly admire others who do. Ted Hughes’s extensive body of animal poetry is a remarkable achievement, and two of my favorite French prose poets—Francis Ponge and Jules Renard—who regularly drew on zoological themes, were a great influence on my earliest work.

On the one hand, this is merely a lack of wit or perceptiveness on my part, on the other a certain conscious wish to avoid anthropomorphism. It is insulting to animals to suggest that they are in any way like us—nine years watching cats and letting them fight (they don’t use bombs, guns or knives and know instinctively when to cede or stand their ground, so that no-one is ever seriously hurt) has taught me that they live in their own, very different (and in many ways better) perceptual and social world. It is insulting to human beings to suggest that we are like animals. We have access to a world of language and spirituality, imagination and emotional attachment, which has brought us great joy and great suffering in equal measure—a complex dynamic of pleasures, consciousness (especially of mortality), sin and redemption, and fights to the death, of which most animals, fortunately for them, are blissfully unaware.

I make an exception, however, for insects and micro-organisms. Despite the vast taxonomic gulf that divides us from such creatures, we are alike in so many ways. Bees, in particular, have enjoyed a long history in poetry and political science, as models of human society. From Book IV of Virgil’s Georgics to Bernard Mandeville’s The Fable of the Bees to Sylvia Plath’s haunting beekeeper poems, the beehive has been seen as an analogue, for good or ill, of challenges that beset human social life. The pastoral herding, fleeing and bonding instincts of cows, sheep, goats and dogs are uninteresting when compared to the complex urban behavior and division of labor of the social insects that more closely resemble ours.

As the title of this blog shows, my main interests in life are writing and reading poetry, teaching and learning languages, reflecting on linguistic diversity, doing politics as best I can and being a political animal. I am especially interested in the points where these themes converge. The beehive is certainly one of them.

Bees not only have a social complexity and division of labor to rival our own; they also, like us, have a collective linguistic ability to convey knowledge over vast distances in time and space. A cat, by contrast, paws and sniffs, seemingly surprised, at the re-appearance of a toy or its own tail.

This bee poem started out a long time ago and is still very flawed and incomplete and, as I secretly believe all work should be, very much ‘under construction’. The original idea came in 1991. My father had recently got a precarious job as a beekeeper, which involved attending lectures and reading books. As he wasn’t really up to that kind of intellectual activity, I had decided to do it for him and was reading a lot of books about the behavior of bees. At the same time, I was watching the First Gulf War unfold on cable TV. There seemed to me to be some similarities between the warlike behavior of competing hives and that of modern human nation states; between the allure of nectar and that of fossil fuels.

My initial hopelessly ambitious youthful project was to write a poem about bees using only phrases culled verbatim and cut and pasted Tristan Tzara-style from news reports of the war against Saddam Hussein.

At about the same time a book was published—a book I should add that I have never in fact been able to get my hands on—of touching letters written to their loved-ones by US soldiers serving in Vietnam. I must have seen some of these in newspapers or on TV—we had no Internet then—and was impressed by the fact that so many of them began or ended with the word ‘Honey’ used as an affectionate diminutive term of address.

Wanting now to combine content from this new corpus with my notebooks filled with the language of Gulf War journalism to produce my bee poem, the project became hopelessly unmanageable and was abandoned for the better part of the next decade and the first draft eventually lost.

I first went back to it in 1999, when I was involved in an NGO that used the image of the beehive as its logo. I suggested exploring new meanings of the parallels between bees and human beings in contemporary views of collective action and sexual identity. Not surprisingly, this didn’t go down that well among more pragmatically-minded people wanting to build homes for the poor. At the same time, I had a personal reason for returning to the theme. One of the comparisons I had wanted to dwell on in the original poem was that between a fighter pilot shot down over enemy territory and a drone falling from exhaustion from the air because he has failed in his only mission to service his queen. [‘Drone’, I should add, was a purely zoological term at the time (referring to a male bee), having none of the technological connotations it has today]. As an exile struggling with flagging sexual relationships, I now identified with this figure of the drone/POW, whom I had formerly aspired to portray only in an objective imaginative fashion.

The result—two years later—was this first, admittedly rough edged and fragmentary—bee poem for the 21st century.

Like many of the old poems I have been looking back over as part of this online learning and blogging project, Honey at first struck me as something stillborn; the chassis of a crashed aircraft rusting in a jungle.

However, one of the most interesting and rewarding things about looking back at work produced long ago with a view to publishing it afresh and maybe for the first time online is the extent to which one’s own perception has changed over the years and the—often surprising—potential the work has accrued to take on a different meaning for generations of younger people who did not even exist at the time it was ‘originally’ written.

Honey was written as a flawed attempt to outdo and update Virgil—a 2000 year-old Latin poet, whom I doubt many school kids study today—to play Dadaistically, in the manner of the early Modernists, with media coverage of the First Gulf War, to look back plangently to Vietnam and the long sad history of young men lost in action, and finally to bear some ironic witness to contemporary politics, personal experience and social change.

Reading back over it, it doesn’t seem that out of place in a younger world of crueler-than-ever capitalism, crowd-sourcing, ecological degradation and disappearing bees, a division of labor that ranges from zero contracts to high-paid snipers to ISIS fighters and back again, fluid sexual, ethnic and cultural identities, and a generation enslaved by student grants and online games and obsessed with the imaginary Medievalist political intrigue of Game of Thrones.

I am fully aware that this longish poem still requires an enormous amount of work and welcome any comments, criticisms and suggestions.

Honey

 

I Birth

As a thought is born in us

when we slip a sweet spoon of honey

between our lips

and ancient smells

incite instinct and reflection

in equal measure

and inspire us to grow in words and thought;

so the young queen

is nourished by her chemical laborers

and awakes half-drunk

on the rich jelly and affection

that has been pumped into her.

Proud, she’s stirred by fragile destiny;

stings to death her unborn sisters

and with a pregnant pause

injects the same venom

into her flagging mother;

and with this act of euthanasia

inaugurates her own ascension.

Ageing workers laud and coddle her.

Enthused, celebrate with scents

this new infant; and the queen

relaxes unthinkingly

into this luxury of destined power-

like baby burbling in cradle.

II       Work

If bees could think, the old maids

would remember the dear murdered queen,

in the babyish ointments exuded

by the new; but, for nostalgia’s sake,

they rush off to mine from flowers’ mouths

the nectar that feeds her

that they might taste again

that flavour that made them well

and whole; and in their last days

that are numbered, if they knew it,

spare no effort to provide

the queen’s needs and, thereby, their own.

Being mortal, drop dead on the wing

of work. High on queen-sweat feel

saved as they faint in death; keep

at it till the queen is ready to leave her

sweet perfumed nest for a while. She

yawns and shakes pollen from her wings

and sets out on her brief single Odyssey.

 

III     War

But if a bee that has a different smell

strays into their air-space; the patient wet-

nurses transform themselves into squadrons

and sally forth to repel what –

if they could think – they would see

as the aggressor. Blessed by nature

with a gun embedded in their bodies;

but doomed to die if ever they have to use it;

they circle round the aggressor;

and, if need be, sacrifice their intestines,

for the sake of a decisive strike.

And the wounded, reduced to mere individuals,

are left to die in the no-man’s-land –

the desert beyond the home.

And when some return to celebrate

their victory, their joy is tempered

by the knowledge that one day they

too may stray and suffer a similar

fate. And, if they were human,

they would sing of the fatal sorrow

of being lost in a foreign land and

praise the joys of home; bunched

around their warm dear familiar queen.

 

IV     Death and Sex

If bees had instruments and flags,

the horns would be blasted and the bunting

raised, the day the queen stirs herself

from the passive luxury of her survival

to survey – for one time only –

the real outside world. Flanked by

loyal body-guards, she launches

her buxom self into the air

and flirts with the cultivated drones,

who flock about her – desperate for sex.

Trained to love one only, they

have spent the spring of their lives

shunning the plain workers.

The queen is the only true beautiful thing

they have seen in their whole slight lives;

and they flock around her, like scientists

around a new truth. Eager to lap the sweet

forbidden juices from her back; and sink

themselves to the hilt into her deathly body.

Half knowing, if they could entertain a thought,

that this first pleasure will be their last

and, more excited for that, thrust their seed

more vigorously into her; drawing half their bellies

out with it. And fall back in a unique ecstasm

to drown – wriggling and exquisitely –

in the two dimensions of the putrid earth.

And those who fail, even in this only duty,

are left alienated in the three dimensions

of the air to harp out their famished lust

serenading the meaninglessness of death.

 

V       Winter

Winter is drawing in and the workers

stream back to the hive to warm

their queen with a slow flapping of wings.

 

VI     Culture and Nature

Though spring must come for the bees

and a new queen settle into the confines

of her prison-cell; and new workers awake

from non-being to work themselves sterile

and sick for the drug the queen exudes

and they crave; and a new crop of drones

arise to preen and prepare themselves for

the triple festival of jubilee, wedding-feast

and funeral; and, though, there is no escape

from the cycle, unless the bee could pause rapt

for a while before the beauty of a flower

on a brief holiday from economic production;

yet, we, who keep and watch them,

by producing honey, knowledge and art,

can extract from their tragic annual lives

a quintessence that we take from them;

but does not cease to be theirs;

a magic melting together of subject and object,

complete, when we recognise that as they

are trapped in their cycle of nectar and reproduction;

sex and drugs; so we, tread our own special mill

of reason and language. They provide sweetness and example for us;

in return, we confer meaning upon them.

Writing 201–Poetry Third Assignment–Trust

I post this poem as my third assignment for the Writing 201 Poetry course. It is a poem I wrote nearly ten years ago. It is not really about trust, but rather the lack or loss of it and the way we are easily distracted from being trusting or trustworthy by irrational fear or enthusiasm.

Hallowe’en

A little scared of you,

this Hallowe’en.

Scared as by something

there’s no reason

to be scared of:

twigs bristling against the moon,

moths, butterflies’ wings,

the sound of objects creaking

in the dark,

the dark itself,

& things too beautiful to ever be true.

*

Love is a little terror

playing with a loaded gun.

Bullets of lead and gold let rip

and ricochet around.

We rush for cover

in a new embrace

to overcome our fear

of closeness

& ordinary things.

Writing 201 Poetry Assignment 2

For the second Writing 201 Poetry assignment, I submit another slightly reworked poem from 20 years ago, shortly after I moved to Brazil. This comes from a period when I was not only grappling with nostalgia but also transitioning from prose poetry to free verse.

Nostalgia

Most things I have loved and learnt must now be left behind. The smell of rain on cut spring grass. The sun ghosted by mist. The black silhouettes of trees temporarily dead. The cold prehistoric sea. Vowels damp as clumps of rotting leaves in Autumn woods. Final consonants like snaps of wind or ice. The melancholy of the present perfect.

Learnt without work. Loved without guilt or duress.

*

Now the sky is almost always blue. Vowels clear and cardinal. The warm sea more womb than stone. Plants more flags than things. Flags planted like trees. Time without season; days without mood. Learning everything anew without the anchorage of first being small and close to the earth and inching year by year further from it. Beginning with the insignificant detail; rising to the overview.

Here everything was first seen from the air: the dim low-voltage street-lights; the mud colored shanties; tower blocks like broken teeth. Elevation gives way to declension.

*

Now in this carnival of sudden novelty I must bid farewell to the meat of things. Feast myself on confetti, confections, icing, bunting; mere vocabulary.

Writing 201 — Poetry— Water

I post this little poem as my first contribution to the WordPress Writing 201 poetry course.

Dona Cecília wants an iphone

Dona Cecília wants an iphone

to capture this souvenir of water

and show it off to the drought-stricken folks back home.

Rain falls regularly here

and washing clothes swirl in a machine.

The powerful jet of a showerhead

cleanses the naked body.

The bird’s eye view of a dirtied river,

boxed in by rising housing,

empties into a distant sea.

Syriza and the SNP

Greece’s Syriza is a genuinely new phenomenon—a multifaceted party of the left, run by the young, supported by the old, driven by dissatisfaction and frustration with regard to the prevailing global capitalist system, media-savvy, but not bogged down in age-old leftist internecine feuds; prepared to be pragmatic and open to alliances even with emerging voices of discontent that veer to the right. This is coalition as Gramsci would have wished it. It is a joy to behold.

The wave is already spreading to other European countries wracked by an austerity that ordinary people did nothing to bring upon themselves. The neonate Podemos party looks poised to take power in Spain in the fall. The regrouping of the Italian PSI, now styled Democratic Party, is becoming the major force in that perennially fractious peninsula.

In Britain, another country lashed by austerity, albeit to a lesser degree and with much greater resources to fall back on (or squander), no such movement seems to have emerged, except in the far North. The British Labour Party trundles on much as it has done in the past: not rocking the boat too much, hoping that one last push of a well-meaning, if uninspiring, mixture of good-will and good sense will finally win the day.

One of the surprising revelations of the last few years, is the extent to which the United Kingdom is far from united. Relations between its ethnically, constitutionally and regionally disparate parts have never been more strained. The divisiveness and inequality engendered by Thatcherism in the 1980s and entrenched now by Cameron has produced a large body of disaffected elderly and youth, who veer to the fringes of UKIP or the Greens, or—probably for the most part—choose not to vote at all, thereby creating a situation where no traditional party can reasonably expect to be entitled to a firm majority. The fair-weather party in the middle that aimed to hold the balance of power has been reduced to a rump.

Britain’s Syriza is the Scottish Nationalist Party—a party that only fields candidates in one relatively small but symbolically and economically important part of the country—and recently narrowly lost a referendum on secession of this region from the UK.

I can’t vote in Britain—since I don’t live there—or anywhere else for that matter, since I am still technically a British citizen. But, if I did still live in England, I would feel equally disenfranchised, as my party of choice—even as an Englishman—would be the SNP.

Scotland and England are wedded together by geography, but it has been a rocky marriage, to say the least. There have been times in the past when Scotland clearly held the high moral ground—its stern yet ultimately flexible commitment to the Reformation against the brief Marian interlude of Catholic terror in its more powerful neighbor; its firm support of the Enlightenment, while Anglican England wobbled about on a new-fangled mixture of prejudice, pragmatism, extremism and superstition.

In the early 21st century, Scotland has regained this high moral ground, advocating social justice, tolerance, and the fair distribution of wealth against a UK government clearly tepid, if not outright inimical, with regard to these obviously desirable goals.

Who wouldn’t want to vote SNP?

The Scottish Nationalist Party looks set to sweep the board in the upcoming UK general election, despite—or perhaps (by some cunning of history) because—they failed to garner a majority vote for secession in the fall of last year. I have argued elsewhere that I never really felt that the SNP were really committed to full secession; their preference was always for maximal devolution within a continuing United Kingdom. The scale of support for independence and the panic on the part of the mainstream UK-wide parties and the monarchy (let us not forget that unelected focus of power) led the UK government to promise to grant unprecedented powers to the Scottish parliament to pursue a more socially progressive local polity, increasingly at odds with that of the UK as a whole.

Syriza is the European Union’s Scottish Nationalist Party; Scotland is the Greece of the United Kingdom. A much more ancient ‘European Union’ writ small, let us not forget, which squandered much of Scotland’s new-found oil wealth in the 1980s on tax-cuts for the rich, privatizations, and increasingly miserly benefits for a growing disenfranchised under-class; rather than investing in new government-funded industries, creating jobs, and redistributing wealth.

If we want something like Syriza in the UK—a left-wing government seriously committed to resolving the economic crises of late capitalism, without further exacerbating inequality—the best we can hope for on May the 7th is a Labour government heavily dependent on the SNP. Not just some sort of agreement not to vote against government bills, but a true coalition. SNP MPs holding important positions in government, just as opportunistic Liberal Democrats do now. This kind of participation at the national level of government for this vital ethnically and politically distinct part of our diverse union is clearly deserved and surely long overdue.