Poem: “Never Believe”

Never believe the lies of war, and the orders
that seem to make sense –
whether Hitler or Bush, no one storms over borders
“in self defence”.

“Leading the Free World” by having the biggest gun
has always chilled
those on whom the guns are turned, on everyone
free to be killed.

This is another of my anti-imperialist or anti-war poems, first published in Ambit’s 200th quarterly issue in the UK. Despite the tone of the poem, I should clarify that I don’t dislike guns in themselves. One way or another they were in my life for decades: capguns as a kid, then BB gun and speargun, four years of .303s at school in England (and a submachine gun on school exercises in Denmark), earning my Marksman badge in training in Canada, letting my own kids try skeet shooting, Nerf guns and super-soakers… 

But I don’t see any reason for anyone to own any firearm other than a single-shot hunting rifle.

And as for military forces, given that invaders need several times the firepower of defenders to be successful, I don’t see the need for any military force to be more than a third the size of its biggest competitor. Anything more than that would be best channeled into (a reformed, effective, efficient) United Nations. And never believe anyone who says they need to strike first, in self-defence. They are the bad guys, by definition.

Technically the poem is a little loose. The rhymes are OK, but the scansion is erratic, relying on the reader to find five beats in the longer and two beats in the shorter lines for a rhythmic read. Iambic pentameters it ain’t. But the short lines are the cleanest and the punchiest: that’s where the action is. My hope is always that a strong last line absolves a lot of earlier sins.

Sonnet: “Flags We Have Feared”

The Swastika, that ancient Vedic sign,
the lightning wheels with which the Aryan bands
in lightning war overrun other lands,
wheeled juggernauts that crush, self-claimed divine.
Hammer and Sickle, commoners’ work-tools;
weapons for rising up, and tearing down
the castle of the rich, the bourgeois town;
fake honour to the poor the Party rules.
A flag with Stripes, memorial for flogged slaves,
striped jail clothes for resulting underclass;
and Stars like bullets through the windshield’s glass
for leaders by the CIA shot down,
star earned for each election overthrown,
star for each land the flag invades, or ‘saves’.

This sonnet was originally and ironically published in Ambit in the UK. The irony being, of course, that the Union Jack is viewed by much of the world with as much fear and hostility as any of the other three flags. But you don’t learn that, or the reasons for it, in school in the UK–at least not in England. The British (at least the English) have a warm and fuzzy feeling toward their flag, and are innocent or puzzled that anyone else should find it negative. Similarly in the times of the other three flags, the Germans (at least the Aryans), the Soviets (at least the Russians) and the Americans (at least the whites) have been happy and proud of their flag, puzzled that anyone else should fear or dislike it.

Another irony: the jury is still out on to what extent one of the leaders shot down by the CIA was their own.

Technically it’s a sonnet with a non-standard rhyme scheme: ABBA CDDC EFFGGE. But the rhymes and the scansion are OK. As for the volta, the requisite turn of mood or argument between the octave and the sestet… well, after dealing with the two great enemies of western democracy, you weren’t expecting me to pick on the US, were you?

Sonnet: “Last Will and Testament”

I, Robin, being of sound mind, declare
the Cryonics Institute shall have my corpse.
That’s where I’ll rest, if I can get shipped there,
no matter how friends stare, family gawps.
“I”, “corpse” and “rest” are contradictory, true,
because we’re into science frontier realms
where problem-solving causes problems anew,
where human thought both helps and overwhelms.
Limitless lifespan, or apocalypse?
Both feasible as we reach out through space.
Cryonics is a ticket for both trips…
or none at all, if humans lose our race.
Enjoy this puzzle-path, solve it and thrive.
Drive to arrive alive. Strive to survive.

Another of my existential sonnets, this one just published in Star*Line, the quarterly publication of SFPA, the Science Fiction & Fantasy Poetry Association, now in its 43rd year. Star*Line is one of those tolerant poetry magazines which will publish anything that appeals to editor Vince Gotera, from formal verse to experimental poetry–so long as it deals with space ships or time travel, dragons or golems and so on, of course.

Technically this is a Shakespearean sonnet, i.e. it’s in iambic pentameter and rhymes ABAB CDCD EFEF GG. Each of the 4-line blocks is a complete thought, describing the existential situation being faced. There is a volta or turn (but it’s weak) before the final couplet which moves from description to prescription: the couplet is a call to action.

By the way, I am changing the poem’s title with this blog post–it appears in Star*Line with the first line as the title.

Sonnet: “Bring on the Violins”

Bring on the violins, the falling leaves,
the wistful ending to a misty day.
The long game’s over and we ride away
to sunset Heaven that no one believes.
Our world is dying, yet here no one grieves:
Earth warms, seas rise, but Wall Street’s still in play…
and we ourselves are aging anyway.
We all face death, and there’ve been no reprieves.
And yet, and yet…robotics and AI,
gene therapy, unlimited life span,
promise an almost-here-and-now sublime,
an unknown life, with our old life gone by.
Trumpet a fanfare for the Superman,
music for dancing to the end of time.

This sonnet has just been published in the Amsterdam Quarterly, this spring’s issue being on the theme of Beginnings and Endings. That may be relevant for our Covid-19 catastrophe, but of course the theme was determined a year ago, and life and death have merely decided to smile on AQ ironically.

But we were all facing death before this latest coronavirus came along. As the saying goes, “Perfect health is simply the slowest rate at which you can die.” And interwoven with death is always new life, never an exact repetition of the old life and often dramatically better. The real issue is, will the new life come at the expense of the old, or can the old reform and regenerate itself, renew itself without needing to die? The avoidance of death has been the quest of religion and medicine since those disciplines (or that discipline) originated. It is great driver of culture, and the pot of gold at the foot of the never-quite-reached rainbow.

Technically this is a correctly structured Petrarchan sonnet, with an initial octave (in this case of existential doom and gloom) rhyming ABBAABBA, followed by a volta (in this case a reversal to hope) for the sestet that rhymes CDECDE.

The sonnet is a marvellous structure for expressing an argument in a compact way.

Review: “Shakespeare’s Sonnets: Abridged Beyond the Point of Usefulness” by Zach Weinersmith

Shakespeare's sonnets

Zach Weinersmith is best known as the creator of Saturday Morning Breakfast Comics, a daily comic of random existentialism, religion, robots, sex, etc. As a gift to people self-isolating or otherwise inconvenienced in a time of Covid-19, he is making eight of his books available free as PDFs. I chose one for its intriguing title, and discovered the most amazing piece of literature, more offbeat-creative than anything I’ve read recently: “Shakespeare’s Sonnets, Abridged Beyond the Point of Usefulness“.

What he has done is abridge each of Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets from its rhymed pentameters into a rhymed couplet, abridging the pentameters into tetrameters. (And sonnet 145 being uniquely written in tetrameter, he naturally reduces to trimeter.) For a taste of this, consider Sonnet 18:

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate.
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date.
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimmed;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance, or nature’s changing course, untrimmed;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st,
Nor shall death brag thou wand’rest in his shade,
When in eternal lines to Time thou grow’st.
So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

Under Weinersmith’s treatment, it becomes

Summer’s bad, then dies. You won’t.
(OK, you will, but poems don’t.)

But cutting through to the simple essence of the poem without any of that unnecessary flowery stuff is only part of what he has achieved: the greater gift is that in radically abridging the poems, Weinersmith allows the entire series to be seen as a connected series of comments, almost diary entries, in Shakespeare’s relationship first with the so-called “Fair Youth” (the first 126 sonnets) and then the “Dark Lady” (the last 28).

As Weinersmith points out in his brief but enormously enlightening introduction,

‘the term “Fair Youth” is not present in the sonnets, but is something of a euphemism designed to, as poet Don Paterson writes in Reading Shakespeare’s Sonnets , “[keep] everything just on the right side of sodomy”.

After the initial 126 poems, we encounter the 28 “Dark Lady” sonnets. These contend with an unattractive, bad-smelling, yet surprisingly popular married woman whom Shakespeare negs until she sleeps with him. Most of the poems that follow this consummation concern how Shakespeare hates himself for having sex with her. Remember this next time you receive these as a Valentine’s gift.’

Weinersmith lays out the whole flow of Shakespeare’s relationship with the Fair Youth, and the relationship of both of them with the Dark Lady… You will never think of Shakespeare the same again. Read Weinersmith’s introduction, then blast through his couplets. You may, like me, find yourself needing to work your way through the damn sonnets themselves, and see them for the first time as they truly are.

Poem: “The Train Will Stop”

“The train will stop for ten minutes at the next station.
If you wish to make this your annual vacation,
please reboard in nine minutes.” The travellers gaze
at the countryside slowing past, consider ways
to take more than nine minutes for a break
but, looking down a slight curve in the track,
see no way to get out and back
nor a real reason they should take
the risk. The train will go…
and what else do they know?
They’ll stay till dropped
at some end stop.
Descend.
The end.

This little piece of existential angst appears in the current Bewildering Stories. It was written, submitted and accepted long before the current Covid-19 crisis came along, which it in no way relates to. In fact, in the awareness that we are all mortal and that everyone’s journey will have an end stop regardless, you might even say this suggests that in the Grand Scheme of Things the Covid-19 situation is trivial. The bigger issue is: eventually we all die. A solution to that would be far more dramatic than a successful Coronavirus vaccine.

Technically? Not a tightly formed poem – the initial lines are straggly, but as they shorten they tighten into iambics. The rhymes too are erratic, mostly in couplets but not quite. Not a perfect poem. Flippantly you could ask, In the Grand Scheme of Things and in the present circumstances, why should this matter? And the answer is, The level of artistic quality always matters; ultimately, it’s the most you can hope to achieve and be remembered by.

Poem: “This Ape I Am”

Under our armoured mirrors of the mind
where eyes watch eyes, trying to pierce disguise,
an ape, incapable of doubt, looks out,
insists this world he sees is trees, and tries
to find the scenes his genes have predefined.

This ape I am
who counts “One, two, more, more”
has lived three million years in empty lands
where all the members of the roving bands
he’s ever met have totaled some ten score;
so all these hundred thousands in the street
with voided eyes and quick avoiding feet
must be the mere two hundred known before.

This ape I am
believes they know me too.
I’m free to stare, smile, challenge, talk to you.

This ape I am
thinks every female mine,
at least as much as any other male’s;
if she’s with someone else, she can defect –
her choice, and she becomes mine to protect;
just as each child must be kept safe and hale
for no one knows but that it could be mine.

This ape I am
feels drugged, ecstatic, doped,
hallucination-torn, kaleidoscoped,
that Earth’s two hundred people includes swirls
of limitless and ever-varied girls.

This ape I am
does not look at myself
doesn’t know about mirrors, lack of health,
doesn’t know fear of death, only of cold;
mirrorless, can’t be ugly, can’t be old.

This is one of my favourite poems. Originally published in Ambit ten years ago, it has been reprinted in magazines as diverse as Better Than Starbucks, Verse-Virtual and, last month, Bewildering Stories. It speaks to what I believe is a largely overlooked truth, that we are genetically predisposed to function best in social groups or households of 20 to 30 people, within a larger network of six to ten such groups. These provide the numbers of people that we can know well (the social group) and people that we can also recognise and interact with comfortably (the larger network). This is the world of chimpanzees and bonobos, and of the hunter-gatherer existence of early humans.

In practical terms, I am in favour of recreating the sense of community of the village, even within the context of cities. Develop housing complexes that become neighbourhoods – keep schools small – reintegrate nursing homes into the community, let the children and the old people interact – and (a further step in acknowledging our hunter-gatherer humanity) keep everyone in touch with parks, with gardens of fruit, flowers and vegetables, with trees and birds, and with a variety of animals.

Technically the poem is written in iambic pentameters, loosely structured in stanzas of varying length, with lines mostly rhymed but with no set rhyme scheme. (And note: a stanza’s initial “This ape I am” needs to be counted with the next line to produce the pentameter.) Iambic pentameters provide a natural mode for meditative or expository verse. The rhythm is comfortable for quiet reflection or narration. The rhyme in this case is a secondary enhancement.