Latest Entries »

A Poem for Ben

A Poem for Ben

Sometimes life’s like chess.
Sacrifices must be made
To gain the game.

Pawns move slowly,
Prey for devious bishops
And leaping knights.

Yet pawns too have their power.
A deft deception:
The queen departs.

Sometimes we’re pawns:
Part of a greater plan;
Minor players on the board of life.

Yet if we play our part,
The plan unfolds.
Checkmate!

Writer’s Block

I’m watching the computer cursor blink,
Waiting for my thoughts to crystallise
Around an image.

And as the cursor blinks, my fingers move,
Seeking out the perfect turn of phrase.
It isn’t coming.

And I’m not sure quite what I’m waiting for;
Poetry, perhaps.  Or maybe words.
Is there a difference?

The words come easy, sliding off the keys;
Poetry hacks wounds upon the screen.
And there’s the difference.

Siegfried Sassoon’s war poetry

OK, I’m going to do something a little different, since I seem to have “dried” poetically right now. These are NOT my poems (though by God, I wish they were!)

These are five poems by one of my poetic heroes, Siegfried Sassoon. You can read more about him here, and more of his poetry here (but there are a number of textural errors in many of the poems on this site). But in my mind Sassoon is one of the absolute Gods of poetry. First World War poetry to be precise.

He isn’t as widely known or as “respected” as Wilfred Owen amongst the general public, although he is definitely considered one of the very top war poets, possibly second only to Owen; and he had a huge influence on Owen, whom he met and mentored while they were both being treated for “shell-shock” at Craiglockhart Hospital.

Owen himself felt that Sassoon was a vastly more accomplished poet than himself [Owen]. History and literary criticism seems to have decided that Owen was wrong about this; I’m undecided.

But Sassoon IS very different: where Owen is famous for his technical prowess, his magnificent imagery and his unmatched ability to evoke what he called “the pity of war”, what Sassoon specialised in is mordant, savage humour and a bitter anger at the whole war effort, its pointlessness, the incompetence of the leadership, and the way that the ordinary soldier was sacrificed by the million for no gain, without any compunction whatsoever.

Yet Sassoon himself was a war hero, with an almost suicidal personal bravery. His war career is shot through with contradictions – his bravery is only matched by his hatred for the war, and his original zeal transmuted into an intense pacifism and a refusal to continue to fight in a war that is also an example of his personal bravery: he very publicly denounced the war, declared he would fight no more, and was widely vilified for his stand. Yet even in 1918 he can write a poem like “The Kiss” – there does not appear to me to be an ironic twist to this poem. It is as if his celebration of (and attraction to) the most intense violence versus his new-found pacifism represents a split of an almost schizoid nature.

Sassoon survived the war; Owen, tragically, did not: he was shot and died literally a few days before the end of the war, leaving only a relatively tiny output of the most intense and shattering poetry. Sassoon continued to publish after the war, but I find his later poetry curiously unmoving. It’s as if with the end of the war he had lost his way poetically and also lost his poetic subject, the subject that made Sassoon Sassoon.

Frankly I had a hellish job choosing just five poems. Sassoon was prolific and his standard is so consistently high (and I love his poetry so much) that the choice ended up as not “Sassoon’s five greatest war poems” but simply as “five of his war poems”; nevertheless I think they represent his style and range rather well, and Oh Lord! I love all five of them to distraction.

Note – just in case it’s not completely obvious: the fifth poem, “Everyone Sang” is about the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11 month; the end of the war in 1918, what we now know as Armistice Day. I cannot read this poem without weeping. Over the last 30 years I have made endless efforts to set this poem to music (since I am also a musician); I have had no success. It would make a glorious song in the hands of the right composer. I simply do not have the technical skills to do it justice.
 

************************************************************************

Does it Matter?
 
Does it matter?–losing your legs?…
For people will always be kind,
And you need not show that you mind
When the others come in after hunting
To gobble their muffins and eggs.

Does it matter ?–losing your sight?…
There’s such splendid work for the blind;
And people will always be kind,
As you sit on the terrace remembering
And turning your face to the light.

Do they matter?–those dreams from the pit?…
You can drink and forget and be glad,
And people won’t say that you’re mad;
For they’ll know you’ve fought for your country
And no one will worry a bit.
 
************************************************************************

Base Details

If I were fierce, and bald, and short of breath
I’d live with scarlet Majors at the Base,
And speed glum heroes up the line to death.
You’d see me with my puffy petulant face,
Guzzling and gulping in the best hotel,
Reading the Roll of Honour. “Poor young chap,”
I’d say — “I used to know his father well;
Yes, we’ve lost heavily in this last scrap.”
And when the war is done and youth stone dead,
I’d toddle safely home and die — in bed.
 
************************************************************************

Memorial Tablet

Squire nagged and bullied till I went to fight,
(Under Lord Derby’s Scheme). I died in hell—
(They called it Passchendaele). My wound was slight,
And I was hobbling back; and then a shell
Burst slick upon the duck-boards: so I fell
Into the bottomless mud, and lost the light.

At sermon-time, while Squire is in his pew,
He gives my gilded name a thoughtful stare:
For, though low down upon the list, I’m there;
‘In proud and glorious memory’ … that’s my due.
Two bleeding years I fought in France, for Squire:
I suffered anguish that he’s never guessed.
Once I came home on leave: and then went west…
What greater glory could a man desire?
 
************************************************************************

The Kiss

To these I turn, in these I trust;
Brother Lead and Sister Steel.
To his blind power I make appeal;
I guard her beauty clean from rust.

He spins and burns and loves the air,
And splits a skull to win my praise;
But up the noble marching days
She glitters naked, cold and fair.

Sweet Sister, grant your soldier this;
That in good fury he may feel
The body where he sets his heel
Quail from your downward darting kiss.
 
************************************************************************

Everyone Sang

Everyone suddenly burst out singing;
And I was filled with such delight
As prisoned birds must find in freedom,
Winging wildly across the white
Orchards and dark-green fields; on–on–and out of sight.

Everyone’s voice was suddenly lifted;
And beauty came like the setting sun:
My heart was shaken with tears; and horror
Drifted away … O, but Everyone
Was a bird; and the song was wordless; the singing will never be done.
 

A walk in Kings Park

 

Silent decay in silvers -
slivers of bark still
depend from shattered limbs
memories of the living tree.

Beneath, the thirsty earth
receives each dropping gift.
Each bark-morsel a benison;
already new life sprouts.

 

*****************************************************************

 

A group is something
one joins.  No choices here:
joined forcibly with strangers,
sharing nothing but pain.

 

Even that we may not share;
quiet tears, perhaps; not more.

 

No sharing horror.  No sharing
pain that rips itself from minds
and mouths in messy gobbets.

 

The Group Norms poster says so:
“Such sharing may distress
other group members; please maintain
these norms for the benefit of all.”

 

Far better pretend we are fine.
Making progress.  Discharge beckons.
A normal life.
Therapists make Notes, discreetly.

 

Meanwhile we wail within,
gobbets well concealed.

 

Such things are for
secluded soundproof rooms.
Notes are made, of course.

 

No, it would not be therapeutic
for ‘the group’ to know
we suffer as they.

 

Our horror is as theirs;
we too long to scream.

 

Acknowledgement, acceptance, respect:
too much to ask?

 

For those unable to fulfill group norms:
alternatives.

 

Occupational Therapy:
fill endless mindless minutes
with puzzles, trivia, guessing games.
Attempts to still the raging mind,
the surging seethe of thoughts.
Notes are cursory in OT.

 

Art Therapy is good.
Torment becomes … acceptable.
In poster paint on butchers’ paper,
or charcoal scrawls
on stiff cheap coloured card,
pain is distanced, horror allowed,
officially encouraged. But Noted.

 

The thin, thin girl with the naso-gastric tube
Draws endless stylised vaginas
in wax crayon.  They gape
in wordless yowls.
She calls them flowers.
The Therapist nods approvingly,
and makes a Note.

 

A man spends an age cutting card
into ever smaller pieces.
The scissors are quite blunt;
bandaged wrists say
he knows too much of sharpness.
Another Note is made.

 

Me? I don’t do art. I’m a musician.
But there’s no more Music Therapy.
Not since the anguished boy
garrotted himself
with a steel guitar string.
That Therapist no longer makes Notes.

 

And nor do I.

 

********************************************************************************************

Group Therapy Notes

 

I always thought a group was something
one chose to join.  No choice here:
assigned to a multitude of strangers,
sharing nothing but our pain.
And even that we may not share;
quiet tears, perhaps, but not more.

 

No sharing the horror.  No sharing
the pain that rips itself from minds
and mouths in bloody gobbets.

 

The Group Norms poster says so:
“Such sharing may distress
other group members; please maintain
these norms for the benefit of all.”

 

Far better to pretend we are fine.
Making progress.  Discharge beckons.
A normal life.
Staff make Notes, discreetly.

 

Meanwhile we scream internally;
the gobbets well concealed.
Such things are for private consultations
with nurses, registrars, consultants,
in secluded soundproof rooms.
Notes are made, of course.

 

No, it would not be ‘therapeutic’
for our fellow-patients to know
we suffer just as they do.
That we too long to scream our horror.
Acknowledgement, acceptance, mutual recognition:
is that too much to ask?

 

For those of us unable to restrain ourselves
there are alternatives. Occupational Therapy,
where we fill blank mindless hours
with puzzles, trivia, and guessing games.
All to still the raging mind,
the seething thoughts.

 

Art Therapy is good.
Somehow a scream of pain
becomes acceptable when it’s
in poster paint on butchers’ paper.
Or charcoal doodles
on stiff cheap coloured card.
Pain is distanced, allowed,
Even encouraged.

 

The thin, thin girl with the naso-gastric tube
Draws endless stylised vaginas
in wax crayon.  They gape
as if in wordless screams.
When asked she says they are flowers.
The therapist nods approvingly,
and makes a Note.

 

A man spends an hour cutting card
into ever smaller pieces.
The scissors are quite blunt;
the bandages on his wrists say
he is over-familiar with sharp objects.
Another Note is made.

 

And me? I don’t do art. I’m a musician.
But they don’t have Music Therapy any more.
Not since the tortured boy
garrotted himself
with a steel guitar string.
That therapist no longer makes Notes.

 

And nor do I.

 

********************************************************************************************

Together

Look, you’re there,

and I’m here.

Distance is illusory;

gulfs meaningless;

mistaken.

We are where we are.

There and here.

Are we apart?

Can distance

dissociate us?

I’m here.

You’re there.

Together.

 
+++++ *******************************************************
 
Written as a Christmas present for my much-loved niece who had moved 3000 km across the country.

Venus on a bus

Venus on a bus.
A Botticelli
rising from
the sea of faces.

Venus on a bus.
Spun-gold hair
falls in waves
around her shoulders.

Venus on a bus.
Tired commuters,
strap-hanging, are
mute in veneration.

Venus on a bus.
Teenagers adore her
from a distance,
ungainly cupids.

Venus on a bus.
Eager for her smile,
one stands and
offers her his seat.

Venus on a bus.
Ignoring his offered
cockleshell, she
rings the bell.

Venus on a bus.
She alights; her
worshippers sigh:
reality returns.

 

************************************************************************************

 

Who knows where poetry comes from?  In this case I can date the germinal idea pretty exactly: late May, 1982.  I was in Italy – Florence, to be precise – and I had just stumbled from the Uffizi Gallery, stunned.

I’ve known Botticelli’s ‘The Birth of Venus’ all my life, and even if you think you don’t know it, you do:

A definition of depilated Beauty: The Birth of...

The Birth of Venus. Sandro Botticelli. (1486)
Source: Wikipedia

When I say I’ve known it all my life I mean I don’t know exactly when I first saw a print of it, but I doubt that I was more than 3.  Dad had many fine art books and I was allowed to “read” them, with suitable guidance as to turning pages carefully and not scribbling in them.

And that’s how I “knew” the painting: as a large colour print in a folio-sized art book.  Beautiful.  But that was the only way I knew it: a print around 180mm X 280mm (7″ X  11″ or thereabouts).

The Uffizi changed that.  I had no idea of the glory, the detail, the delicacy or the sheer scale of the work.

It’s a big painting: 172.5 cm × 278.5 cm (67.9 in × 109.6 in).  When I walked into the chamber it struck me dumb.  I don’t know if this is still the case but in 1982 you could stand within a metre or so of the painting.  Nothing between you and Botticelli’s genius except a velvet rope on brass stanchions, with a bored armed guard to one side.

I literally spent an hour in front of that one painting, until eventually my brother dragged me away.  We toured the rest of the gallery, but The Birth of Venus is all that really stays with me – not so much the actual image since I have almost no capacity for visual memory, but the impact it made upon me.

And later, outside the gallery, sitting in a street-side caffé I happened to glance up at a passing bus.  And there she was: Botticelli’s Venus amongst the other passengers.  Just another Florentine girl, stepped from a 15th C. painting and made 20th C. flesh.

That’s where this poem comes from, that unknown girl glimpsed for a moment and then gone.

Icarus Falling

When he flew too high
the wax that held
the feathers in his wings
melted, and he fell
from glory to tragedy
in a long slow arc
of terror and regret.

I have flown too high
on chemical wings.
The wax is melting,
feathers loosen.
The arc begins:
already I can feel
the grasp of gravity.

*******************************************************************************************************************************

Icarus flying to close to the sun and falling as the wax that holds his feathers melts

Icarus falling – from a children’s book illustration by Fiona Sansom

Source: Fiona Sansom

A Rose in Winter

Our southern winter sun is kind.  Her ray
Beams down on us; and in July the rose
Still blooms and in its scented splendour shows,
We need not Shakespeare’s darling buds of May.
In spring the rose in sweet profusion lifts
Her flowers to the sky.  The sun, yet light,
Before the summer’s glaring, vengeful might,
Warms gently, and the rose bestows her gifts.
The sun of summer sears; but when it goes
Comes autumn, and a flush of flowers bright.
Yet I most love the winter’s gentle light,
When on the bush is one last perfect rose.
+++ My mother is as that one flawless rose:
+++ In winter, still her beauty brightly glows.

************************************************************************

This is one of only two sonnets I have attempted; the other is, frankly, crap.  I’m quite proud of this one; until I tried writing sonnets I had NO IDEA of how hard they are.

I wrote it as a gift to my Mother on the occasion of her 80th birthday.

It’s not in the “traditional” Shakespearian rhyming scheme – it’s a little closer to the Italian rhyming scheme, but not identical.  Nevertheless, it fulfils the technical requirements to be considered a “true” sonnet, for there are a multiplicity of possible rhyming schemes, and the form can be summarised as 3 quatrains with a final couplet, in iambic pentameter (usually, but there are exceptions).

Incidentally, if you are from the Northern Hemisphere and wondering why it mentions winter and July, you should probably know that I live in Australia.  And yes, where I live it really is warm enough that roses will flower for 12 months of the year.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.