Poetry Rehab Assignment — Driving

This poem, submitted in response to Andy Townend’s Poetry Rehab Driving prompt https://wordpress.com/read/post/feed/31982590/806802358  is the most recent in an ongoing series of ‘Trip’ poems, based on journeys of varying lengths I have taken in various directions of the compass in relation to the Greenwich observatory in London, which is still, in this supposedly post-imperial age, taken longitudinally to be the center of the globe.

It is loosely based on Guillaume Apollinaire’s La Petite Auto—a World War I poem with which I have a long-standing relationship of trying to translate in many different ways. This version takes the form of a sort of diptych that draws on memories of two specific car journeys in 1990 and 1984 respectively.

Since I have never been able to drive myself, nor much wanted to, long journeys by car have always been a source of a somewhat exotic and faintly erotic experience for me; replete with gasoline-scented masochistic overtones of being driven against my will. This is an innocence that is itself exotic in a world where everyone seems to drive and the word motorist is becoming increasingly synonymous with citizen or human being.

I thus tend to remember the few car trips I have been a part of in great detail and focus obsessively on the significance and specificity of moments that regular motorists/human beings would probably regard as banal. I attempt to combine this sensation in these ‘trip’ poems (the allusion to the effect of hallucinatory drugs is far from coincidental) with a broader sense of how we are all driven by a history not of our own making.

We live in an overpopulated world in which many developing countries depend on petroleum extraction and most developed countries on the production of cars. Is this really the kind of world in which we want to live? Who is driving whom?

 

The Trip West

(after Guillaume Apollinaire’s La Petite Auto)

We got a smooth ride west on the A44 out of England

and said goodbye to the 80s;

hello to smart missiles, CNN and Saddam Hussein,

scuds, poisons, torture, dirty bombs.

And everyone ringing in on the radio had something to say,

excited by Armageddon and death…

A fish-shop selling grinning shark-soup

*

The dogs of Wales still chase English butt;

gamekeepers carry guns in forests

and speak their own language in local shops.

Toy trains trundle around castles and mountains,

lubed by the blood of ancient ghosts….

Bloated monsters washed up from the Irish Sea

are always ready to explode…

on the fog-bound mountains and hills,

man fighting man,

till star explodes in sky and all bow down in peace.

Chapels empty but always open,

as the faithful drunk-drive themselves

to church, home from bars.

Our hearts beat deftly to the beat of an alien motor.

We hotrod a new universe into being:

one of supermarkets & department stores.

Dumb masses of souls

drive past beggars & barking dogs

on the way to malls.

*

I will never forget that night drive:

that sad farewell to home,

bathed by the light of postwar stars;

sister tucked up in an embroidered blanket

hogging the back seat;

little villages with their carefully-tended war-memorial crosses

passing by; black as witchery against the moonlight;

insomnia; watching the stars circle round the Dog Star

between dusk and dawn in a car

parked illegally up some farmer’s lane;

cows lowing and moaning in a shadowed field;

dashboard lights dimmed;

coffee in plastic orange mugs;

jacking the old car up and changing a tire

in the pixie mist of a crisp farmland dawn.

Mid-day saw us in Oxford.

The Sun had declared war on striking miners.

We arrived tired in a flashy new world already jaded and old.

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For the Love of Prepositions Part 5: to be or not to be?

“To be or not to be…” is probably the most famous quotation in the English language. Few note, however, that this phrase is not really ‘good’ English, either by modern or more antique standards. A more natural Present-Day English ‘translation’ might be “Should I be or should I not?” by analogy, for example, with the title of the Clash song “Should I stay or should I go?” which, in turn, would surely sound ridiculous rendered today as ‘to stay or to go?” “Being or not being” might be another more authentic-sounding, if somewhat over-existentialistic, contemporary rendition. Some interesting more modern-sounding paraphrase some street rapper came up with would more likely be even more appealing.

There is in fact, no good reason whatsoever why the preposition to should be attached to the idea of infinitives in English, as it invariably is, even in modern grammar books.

The tendency to use a preposition with an infinitive stemmed from an Anglo-Saxon dative use (indicating purpose or intention) and spread rampantly in Middle English, even to cases where no clear idea of purpose or intention was meant.

Nevertheless, the use of to+infinitive is still by no means universal in modern English and still tends to be employed primarily where some kind of intention is involved. Consider, for example, the difference between “I like to eat fruit” (i.e. “I think it is a good idea and make an effort to do so”) and “I like eating fruit” (“I enjoy it out of sheer self-gratification”). Or the newspaper headline use of to with no preceding finite verb to indicate intention or (by extension) mere futurity, as in “PM to open new talks with US.” Or more colloquial uses in popular culture such as Star Trek’s famous ‘to boldly go where no man has gone before; to seek out new worlds…’

In fact, to is not and never has been an integral part of the ‘infinitive’ in English. It is merely an appurtenance that has tended to attach to it as a matter of habit but has never quite attained the status of standardized convention. It is thus absurd to the point of churlishness to suggest that to should never be parted from its accompanying verb. To rewrite Star Trek’s ‘to boldly go’ as ‘to go boldly’ would be to exsanguinate the preposition of all its invigorating sense of thrusting out into worlds unknown, merely for the sake of obeisance to the supposed rhetorical diktats of a long-since dead language.

Arguably, there is no such thing as an infinitive in English. It makes no sense, therefore, to use the so-called infinitive-with-to to transform a verb into a subjective or objective noun, especially when we have a nominal –ing form of the verb that is specifically fit for this purpose.

The reason, of course, why people once did this and why it still persists, is the ghost of Latin, which, for such a long period of the history of the English language, was a constant devil on its shoulder, whispering unhelpful criticisms in its ear and undermining its self-confidence as a major world language in its own right.

Latin and neo-Latin languages use infinitives as substantive forms of the verb. Latin-worshippers of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment thus felt compelled to follow suit.

Why then, would Shakespeare, the greatest exponent of our national language, indulge in such fawning nonsense? Well, for one thing, Shakespeare, like all of us, was a child of his age and followed the fashions of his time. His greatness derives from the fact that he played—linguistically, dramatically, politically and psychologically—with these fashions much more than most dare do.

More interestingly, however, is the theory that Shakespeare deliberately put the fussily hypercorrect bad grammar of the schoolmaster into the mouth of his flawed, dithering, over-reflective male lead. “To be or not to be” sounds almost, when you think about it, like the beginning of a conjugation learnt by rote under the rod: the outset of a neurotically scholastic syllogism, not the foundation of a firm decision-making process.

Compare the tremulous self-conscious language of Hamlet’s most famous soliloquy, with the clipped confident imperatives (indistinguishable from bare infinitives in English) with which Fortinbras (whose name means literally ‘strong of arm’) closes the play.

“Let four captains

Bear Hamlet like a soldier to the stage,

For he was likely, had he been put on,

To have prov’d most royal; and for his passage,

The soldier’s music and the rite of war

Speak loudly for him.

Take up the bodies. Such a sight as this

Becomes the field, but here shows much amiss.

Go, bid the soldiers shoot.”

Such sturdy discourse, not a foppish imitation of Latin, was the kind of language that would go on, for good or ill, to make Britain great.

School through Fog–Poetry Rebab Smoke

In response to this week’s Poetry Rehab prompt https://wordpress.com/read/post/feed/31982590/800499948, I repost a poem I originally posted in February this year as part of the original poetry course. The poem is one of an ongoing series on the theme of childhood memories from the 1960s and 70s.

 

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 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.

Brides — Poetry 201 Rehab Decisions

This prose-poem, originally written in the year 2000, has nothing whatsoever to do with this week’s prompt https://wordpress.com/read/post/feed/31982590/793887517 , except in so far as I recently decided to drag it out of my archives and touch it up a bit and this post thus has to do with the decisions we are constantly making and re-making as artists as to what to keep and what to discard. I hadn’t even included this piece in the ongoing ‘official’ inventory of my work. Perhaps because it harks back to the prose poetry of my earlier years, at a time when I was struggling to move on to free verse. Perhaps for more personal reasons.

Brides

 

If you get your pictures developed at the shop next to the bar that is my home these days, you get one enlargement free. The word FREE is written in bold blue letters on a large white star. So it must be true.

I imagine that the free enlargement you get is not as grand as the ones you see in the vitrine. Brides and babes, mostly. Blown up to a size that is normally reserved for those puffed up in expectation of political office.

Looking over them again, they are really nearly all brides. Some flashing sets of toothpaste-advert teeth straight into the camera as a gartered ankle steps into a car. Others looking coyly down into a white nosegay nestled in their bust, as if fixed on some melancholy import of the moment. Others looking up into the eyes of someone off-camera who is taller or greater than they.

They all faintly resemble someone you know. Everyone looks vaguely the same in wedding dress.

The photographer attends weddings even more often than washed-out movie stars. Each time it is the same image he is trying to catch; something that won’t develop out of chemicals in a dark room. Something beyond the smiles and the sparkling whites of eyes and the flush of descending busts. Something that you can see and feel, but not say. The image of an expectation that can never match its original representation.

And, if you look closely, think about it, there is nothing in any of it. Like cut crystal, icing, lace, meringue, a silver spoon. Something meant for show, not use. Something waiting only to be broken.

*

And tucked away in a corner, almost lost among these overblown icons of improbable wedded bliss, a cheap wood-cut of a long-haired Jesus Christ.