Monthly Archives: December 2019

Poem: “Any Tourist Island”

When the deep darkness dulls the dirty land
Before the moon meanders through the stars,
Invisibly the sea creeps up the sand
As night-blind drinkers lose keys to their cars.

Ah, the winter, with its delights and hazards! Escape it when you can, and explore fresh delights and hazards! That’s life, isn’t it.

This little poem was published in Lighten-Up Online, aka LUPO, the UK’s top light verse online magazine. Editor Jerome Betts carries on the work begun 12 years ago by Martin Parker: a quarterly issue of some 30 full-length poems, and as many again of the 4-to-8-line variety. Contributors include every current poet you have heard of who can write light engaging verse that rhymes and scans – unless, that is, they expect to be paid for their poems!

 

Review: “Nonsense” by Alan Watts

Alan Watts had a rich intellectual life. His formal education largely stopped at high school in his native England, but he explored his interests in mystical Christianity and Zen Buddhism so thoroughly, including attending an American seminary, getting a Masters and becoming a priest for a few years, that he was associated thereafter with various universities including Harvard and San Jose State University.

His poetry book “Nonsense” is interesting for its fresh perspective over Watts’ writing, and enjoyable enough for the ten nonsense poems it holds. As you would expect from the author of “The Art of Zen” and “The Book on the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are”, it contains both pointless happiness

Hum, hum the Humbledrum!
Rumbling bumbling dumbledrum,
Mumbling dumbly, rumbling humbly…

and comparatively clear philosophy:

The stars in their courses have no destination;
The train of events will arrive at no station;
The inmost and ultimate Self of us all
Is dancing on nothing and having a ball.
So with chat for chit and with tat for tit,
This will be that, and that will be It!

The main poem falls somewhere between the two previous quotes. One hundred lines long, written as 20 limericks, it tells the story of The Lovelorn Loon:

A certain umstumptulat loon
Fell vastly in love with the moon;
With shimular turve
And binlimular gurve
He caroozed to the gorble bassoon.

The Loon builds an enormous tower that successfully reaches the heavens, but when he calls the moon, her arrival destroys the tower.

The whole book is appropriately illustrated in 1960s psychedelic style (think Yellow Submarine and Monty Python) by Michel Dattel. And the book contains other short pieces by Watts, an Introduction that starts reasonably and slyly slides into gibberish; and short prose pieces on Nonsense, on Goofing, and on Drudgery.

A very odd but entertaining little book.

Sonnet: “Body Modding”

It starts with teeth, for even the healthiest:
Fillings put in, and “extra” teeth pulled out
Or realigned, the whole jaw moved about,
New faces for the kids of the wealthiest.
Tonsils, appendix, out. The stealthiest
Inject, use pills, every fluid reroute
With tourniquets, with tampons, condoms… flout
Flow, through to adult nappies. Atheist
As Science makes us with creative powers,
We add pumps, implants, radio, wires, chips,
Casually as tattoos, replacement hips;
Graft patchwork skin from humans, pigs, plants, flowers,
Joined in flamboyant Frankensteinish suture,
Racing against decay to cyborg future.

Like most of my sonnets, this was first published in Snakeskin. And like most of my sonnets, it has an existential theme. Ever since I was in high school (Stowe, a traditional British “public school” i.e. private school) and lost my belief in that Anglican school’s religion, I’ve been writing poetry about life and death. It’s a fascinating subject for those who are able to accept that death is inescapable except in religious fantasies, and science fiction, and the dreams of scientists out on the furthest limbs. Death may have proved universal so far, but so have the stories of the search for immortality in all the world’s cultures. Striving against death is part of what makes us human. And success will involve becoming something other than the humans that we are today.

 

Sonnet: “From Gombe’s Chimps”

From Gombe’s chimps to interstellar space
We will have war. Sanctioned by the Divine,
Moses first led the Jews to Palestine
Telling his tribesmen not just to displace
But to kill all, and wipe out without trace
Each adult, child, animal, tree, vine.
Genocide’s justified, cleansed ethics fine,
To get resources for your tribe and race.

Believers justify war’s bloody courses:
We’re right, they’re wrong, so therefore they’re to blame.
Conquer through war to grab and keep resources,
Aztecs or Spaniards, everyone’s the same –
Victory to the best guns, swords or horses,
And put defeated scriptures in the flame.

I’m pessimistic about the chances of humans being able to stop warfare. It seems built into the nature of social creatures – when you define your group, you are defining everyone else as not in your group. Then, when it’s a question of who gets limited resources, groups compete and the most ruthless groups tend to do the best.

This sonnet was originally accepted for publication by Quarterday in Scotland, but that excellent glossy magazine seems to have folded after a few issues and this poem was left hanging. Fortunately the Better Than Starbucks group is still competing successfully, thanks to the ruthless Anthony Watkins and Vera Ignatowitsch, and published it.

The sonnet is one of my favourites for several reasons: technically it is purer than most, rhyming ABBAABBA CDCDCD, though the volta between the two sections is weak (or possibly nonexistent). It deals with human nature, and the problems facing us as we move into the ever more complex future. And it highlights one of my personal religious irritations, that people can walk into a neighbouring territory, wipe out the inhabitants, and create a justifying fairytale of how the destroyers are the persecuted victims. Think of the Pilgrims and other British immigrants in America… think of the Jewish tribes coming into the Promised Land: when they captured a city outside the core area,

“when the Lord thy God hath delivered it into thine hands, thou shalt smite every male thereof with the edge of the sword:
But the women, and the little ones, and the cattle, and all that is in the city, even all the spoil thereof, shalt thou take unto thyself; and thou shalt eat the spoil of thine enemies, which the Lord thy God hath given thee.” (Deuteronomy 20:13-14)

But when they captured a city in the heart of the Promised Land,

“of the cities of these people, which the Lord thy God doth give thee for an inheritance, thou shalt save alive nothing that breatheth:
But thou shalt utterly destroy them; namely, the Hittites, and the Amorites, the Canaanites, and the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites; as the Lord thy God hath commanded thee:
That they teach you not to do after all their abominations.” (Deuteronomy 20:16-18)

It is hard to see a future without warfare, when even the most revered “holy books” teach genocide and justify it as doing God’s will.

Sonnet: “Nigerian Scammers”

Nigerian Prince Scammer

Michael Neu, charged in “Nigerian Prince” scam

Nigerian scammers write bad, IN ALL CAPS,
Misspelling, losing credibility
With all except the stupidest of saps;
No fools themselves, it’s done deliberately.
No point in wasting time on those who doubt –
Everyone who responds is a clear fool:
Desperate to believe, they throw sense out –
Greedily they send cash, earn ridicule.
So @RealDonaldTrump tells barefaced lies
Unfazed by print or film-based evidence;
And fools give cash and votes as hypnotised,
Entrust the trickster with their confidence.
“Born of a virgin! Raised up from the dead!”
Faiths, too, tell huge lies – and religions spread.

This sonnet was originally published in Snakeskin. It’s key point is that the easiest people to take money off are those people who want to believe, and who demonstrate that overlooking the most blatant signs of fraud. Nigerian scammers filter for those people by making their emails deliberately implausible. 

And interestingly, not all Nigerian scammers are even Nigerian. Google the term and you may find Michael Neu, a Louisiana man in his late 60s who was charged with 269 counts of wire fraud and money laundering. Neu is a white American–but, yes, he apparently sent some of the money to his co-conspirators in Nigeria.

Review: “Verse” by John Updike

This paperback, Verse, is comprised of two earlier hardcover volumes of poems from John Updike, The Carpentered Hen from Harper & Row and Telephone Poles from Knopf. The poems date from the 1950s and early 1960s, and in the words of Phyllis McGinley, “His is what poetry of this sort ought to be: playful, but elegant, sharp-eyed, witty.”

Here are the beginnings of some of his poems. Some of them are pure wordplay, as in “Player Piano”:

“My stick fingers click with a snicker
And, chuckling, they knuckle the keys;
Light-footed, my steel feelers flicker
And pluck from these keys melodies.”

Several of them start with a quote from a newspaper story and then run wild with it, as in “The Descent of Mr. Aldez”:

Mr. Aldez, a cloud physicist, came down last year to study airborne ice crystals.
– Dispatch from Antarctica in the Times
That cloud–ambiguous, not
a horse, or a whale, but what?–
comes down through the crystalline mist.
It is a physicist!”

And some are meditative, as with “B.W.I.” (the old British West Indies of the 20th century):

“Under a priceless sun,
Shanties and guava.
Beside an emerald sea,
Lumps of lava.

On the white dirt road,
A blind man tapping.
On dark Edwardian sofas,
White men napping.”

A largely enjoyable collection, but not up to the standard of those similar 20th century poets, Phyllis McGinley and Dorothy Parker. But then again, Updike’s many American awards (Pulitzer, National Book Award, etc etc) were for his fiction. His poetry can be considered a remarkable bonus.

Review: “Send Bygraves”, by Martha Grimes

Send Bygraves

Martha Grimes is best known as an American author of mysteries set in England, each with the unlikely name of a pub for its title. Here she provides a thrilling piece of well-versified pseudo-murder-mystery nonsense: the enigmatic Bygraves appears in the distance of the characters’ views and of the book’s illustrations. Is he the most brilliant detective, or possibly the murderer, or perhaps the undefined victim… is it conceivable he is all three?

Mystery. It’s all the same:
Questions without end or aim.
What will lead us to the dead?
Footprints in the flower bed.
What appeals were made too late?
Sift the ashes in the grate.
What was fatal in the mug?
Pick the fragments from the rug.

The story, told in a range of voices and in styles from sonnet and pantoum to free verse, never clarifies quite what is going on.

We’re a decent lot. We cause no trouble.
(That spot of bother with the poisoned dogs
At Smythe-Montcrieff’s? We’d nothing to do with that!)
You standing, Sergeant? Ah, thank you, I’ll have a Double
Diamond. Jameson on the side. That fog’s
Thick as pea soup innit? I’ll tell you flat:
We don’t much like the Yard nosing about
In Little Puddley.

I would have given it five stars on first reading because it is so original and well-crafted. Rereading it some years later (with my expectations higher), I find the verse less inspired, the characters excessive to the point of being undifferentiated… but this is not a novel, this is a piece of art work (and the illustrations by Devis Grebu are a solid component of it). It gives the tone, the impression of an Agatha Christie or Peter Dickinson novel, but it is a smaller, more delicate and decidely more enigmatic work.

Constable Feathers, I see
Nothing unusual here:
The tradespeople, the gentry,
The servants, the village lout–
All of the villagers out
To murder one another
In typical English fashion.
I wander through the fog,
Pondering the red herrings:
The bloodstained glove, the dogs,
The marmalade, the locket–

It deserves a place on the bookshelf, not with the regular mysteries, but maybe between Edward Gorey and Jorge Luis Borges.