Monthly Archives: September 2019

Sonnet: “Beat This Level”

Forget that crap about some God or Devil –
you’re on your own against the Universe;
but till you’re free of our Stage One’s perverse
orientation, you won’t beat this level.
The Heaven idea is fraudulent, and worse:
Father McKenzie wields a deadly shovel.
Stage Two’s extended life – hard, but don’t snivel.
Stage Three: genetic change, youthful reverse.

You must want Life – must fight Death all the way,
ignoring social norms, pressure from peers;
such life will need a gamer’s vigilance.
Your other futures are: ashes, or clay.
And if help’s late, as you slide down the years,
cryonics is your waiting ambulance.

This sonnet, written over 20 years after the previous “Death Will Be Harder Now”, was first published as a pair to it in Ambit No. 190, October 2007. (Also like the earlier sonnet, it was reprinted in Bewildering Stories, edited by Don Webb.)

The theme is our age-long human dream of avoiding death, including that celebrated by Father McKenzie, “wiping the dirt from his hands as he steps from the grave.” (No one was saved.) For the first time in history we can see the realistic prospect of indefinite lifespans coming closer, if we can just live long enough for genetic modification to give us not only better hair and wrinkle-free skin, but actual rejuvenation. If you die before that happens, cryonic suspension is your ambulance to the future… you may not survive the ride, but you’ll have a better chance of a fresh lease of life than if you let them cremate you or pass you through the bodies of worms.

Technically the sonnet is unconventional, reversing the rhymes in the second quartet rather than echoing them, so that the poem reads ABBABAAB CDECDE. I don’t think that’s a problem; probably the bigger sin was splitting noun from adjective in lines 3 and 4, breaking the rhythm of the pentameters, which the other lines hold comfortably.

 

Sonnet: “Death Will Be Harder Now”

“trying to sneek a peek” by lastbeats 

Death will be harder now, as, year by year,
We solve the clues of immortality:
Emotions sink to animality
As false hopes tighten screws of desperate fear.
Hormone control will make age disappear—
After false starts, most horrible to see—
But those already old must beg to be
Frozen for the genetic engineer.
While war, starvation, pipe Earth’s gruesome jigs,
Successful businessmen will fight to gain
Some dead teen’s body, to transplant their brain,
The already-old beg to be guinea-pigs.
Children, look back, hear our despairing cry:
We bred immortals, but we had to die!

This sonnet was originally published in the British quarterly Ambit in 2007, back when the amazing pediatrician and novelist Martin Bax was editing it and accepting formal verse. Perhaps the best-known piece Martin published was J.G. Ballard’s “The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race”…

But although the poem’s subject-matter seems current, it dates from 1982 when I was first becoming aware of cryonics and the speculative thinking around genetics and nanotechnology. I believe if a person is truly aware of their surroundings, they are going to be aware of both their historical context and their possible science fiction futures. Otherwise, to repeat, they aren’t truly aware of their surroundings.

As Heraclitus said, “The only constant in life is change.” He couldn’t have imagined our present world. The rate of change is accelerating. I doubt anyone today can imagine the world a hundred years hence.

Poem: “Agenda for a Political Career”

Help the peaceniks
With their cut-backs
To the Army,
It’s fulfilling;

Once elected,
Buy cheap arms stocks,
Start a war and
Make a killing.

This poem was originally published in Lighten Up Online, edited by Jerome Betts. I dislike war, but even more I loathe “chicken hawks“, those who personally avoided combat when their country called them up but who later in their careers advocated war and made a fortune from it. That includes a lot of American politicians.

Good guys: Eisenhower and his military-industrial complex warning. Kennedy, assassinated when he was trying to pull US troops out of Vietnam. Carter. All military men who understood war.

Total jerks: Johnson, ramping up the Vietnam war while everyone was distracted by the Kennedy funeral. Kissinger even more than Nixon. Cheney even more than George W. Bush. Trump. Chicken hawks.

The US doesn’t have a monopoly on avaricious politicians. The UK’s Tony Blair has been rewarded by the world of oil and wars to the extent of acquiring an estimated $90 million and a property portfolio worth $37.5 million in the first eight years since leaving office (i.e. 2007-2015).

 

Poem: “Optimism”

Do you have a clear detection
Of an unexpired affection?
Are you reckoned to come second in her life?
Was there someone there before you?
Let it be, don’t let it bore you;
It’ll maintain her somewhat saner as your wife.

This little throwaway poem was recently published in Lighten Up Online. In my mind its value is not so much as a commentary on modern marriage, as an enjoyable way to string some rhymes together. I no longer have any idea what was on my mind when I wrote it.

Many poets would analyse this as written in trochees with lines of either four or six feet, the third line being

ARE you RECKoned TO come SECond IN her LIFE?

but to my mind the lines have only either two or three strongly accented syllables, with the third line being

Are you RECKoned to come SECond in her LIFE?

It is a short piece of patter, which is emphasised by the internally stressed rhymes of reckoned/second and maintain-her/saner. But that leads to a problem: there is a difficulty with the beginning of the last line, and it is hard to find a smooth flow.

Originally it read

‘Twill maintain her —

Archaic, said LUPO editor Jerome Betts, and requested a change for publication as

It’ll keep her —

I accepted this, not noticing that I was losing the rhyme with saner. So why not

It’ll maintain her —

Now the problem is that there is one syllable too many, and we don’t have a smooth flow from the previous line.

You’ll maintain her —, perhaps?

That gives a brand new problem, a subtle shift of meaning from the abstract “it” to the personal “you”, with a much more active sense of “maintain her” and even a suggestion of financial concern.

If it was just an oral presentation, you could probably slide by with

‘t’ll maintain her —

but is that acceptable, comprehensible, in print?

My operating principle with poetry is that there is always a solution. But in this case I haven’t yet found it. 

Poem: “The Fig Tree”

 

The fig leaf symbol’s one of History’s greats
As, inter alia,
It hides, discloses and exaggerates
Male genitalia.
The fruit itself suggests the female form —
Dripping with honey
The little hole breaks open, pink and warm . . .
The Bible’s funny.

First published in The Asses of Parnassus, this poem has just been republished in Better Than Starbucks, which earned a “Kudos on your brilliant ‘The Fig Tree'” from Melissa Balmain, editor of Light. That’s a trifecta of editorial acceptance – it makes me proud, and I have to erase my lingering suspicion that the poem would be thought too rude for publication. Now I rate the poem more highly, as being not just a personal favourite but also acceptable to a wider audience.

It sometimes feels that all I write is iambic pentameter. It is always reassuring when a poem presents itself with half the lines being something else, and the result is a lighter, less sonorous verse. The rhymes are good; the poem’s succinct and easy to memorise. I’m happy with it.