Monthly Archives: January 2020

Poem: “The Knife of Night”

Dark Woods

“Dark Trees” by MonoStep

The knife of night
Spreads swirls of black and white
Over the slice of here.

The taste is bold:
A pinch of cold,
Spiced with primeval fear.

This little poem was first published in Candelabrum, a British print magazine that ran twice yearly from 1970 for some 40 years. Its editor, Leonard McCarthy, was a lone voice dedicated to keeping traditional poetic sensibilities of metrical and rhymed
verse alive.

The poem itself came from a nighttime ramble in the forests that cut through the residential areas of Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Hundreds of acres in town are undevelopable because of steep slopes, creeks and ravines. Where the night woods are unlit except by moon and stars, there are deer, possums, foxes, flying squirrels, owls… copperheads… poison ivy… The night is beautiful, but you can’t help moving through its darkness in a different state of being, compared with daylight.

 

Poem: “Zombie Apocalypse”

Zombie Apocalypse –
humans have always had
end-times fear: Ragnarok,
Judgement Day, World War III,
comet strike, Y2K,
supervolcano – well,
you get my drift.

Zombie Apocalypse –
there’s a pandemic and
AI has run amuck –
this is no practice round,
this is for real!

Zombie Apocalypse –
head for a tropic isle,
live on fish, coconuts –
solar will last a few
years, then corrode.

Zombie Apocalypse –
walls can be built without
concrete or plastering,
fight infestations of
zombies and dogs.

As the world splits in two
all the Enhanced are gone,
gone to the Cloud and space;
only the Left Behind
scrabble, deteriorate,
left in the dirt and ash,
left on the Earth.

I, the last poet am
here on Earth’s farthest beach,
toweled, not panicking,
waiting for Branson and
Musk in their ships.

Yes, humans love the threat of the end of the world, the collapse of civilisation, all apocalyptic disasters. We don’t want the disasters to be inflicted on us… but we love thinking about them. Perhaps it’s a way of thinking about our own mortality, without actually thinking that it is we who will die one day.

The Zombie Apocalypse is wonderful because it is both a complete fantasy (as in the photo) and an image for the kind of catastrophic real-world disaster that an out-of-control plague can inflict–a medieval Black Death killing a third of the population… an early 20th century Spanish Flu infecting a third of the world’s population (but “only” killing maybe 50 million)… or, of course, a coronavirus leaping out of a food market in Wuhan and spreading around the world before anyone can get a proper handle on it. Death is real. Around the world, 150,000 people die every day. What can you do but work to minimize death–and laugh at it?

And then there’s the fantasy of being one of the lucky few survivors, faced with the difficulties of a post-apocalyptic world, a post-nuclear Wasteland, a flooded Waterworld, a Biblical Left Behind, reminiscent of Nevil Shute’s On The Beach, John Christopher’s The Death of Grass (No Blade Of Grass in the US), even Ursula Le Guin’s post-alien-invasion City of Illusions. Carrying a towel like Ford Prefect to hitchhike through the galaxy, away from doomed Earth. Dramatically, heroically, surviving the destruction of the world as we know it. As though you can dramatically, heroically, survive the time-driven destruction of your body…

The poem itself (yet another one published in Bewildering Stories) is unrhymed, but written in a form inspired by double dactyls. Technically double dactyls are eight-line poems with a few additional requirements–the form was created by Anthony Hecht, Paul Pascal and Naomi Pascal in 1951, and popularized by Hecht’s and John Hollander’s collection Jiggery Pokery… the name of the book being a double dactyl, naturally. So this poem is only “inspired by” double dactyls. But, as with limericks, the bouncy rhythm adds to a mood of flippancy, frivolity, which is always suitable (in my mind) when discussing existential catastrophe. I tip my hat to Country Joe and the Fish for the I Feel Like I’m Fixin To Die Rag, and to all political cartoonists everywhere.

Life is short; enjoy each day.

Sonnet: “The Walls of Planet Three”

On this wild planet, in its seas and sand,
forests and ice, lie ruins of perverse
attempts to overrun the universe:
the crumbling walls of failed human command–
Hadrian’s, China’s, Texas, Jerusalem…
fallen, decayed, functionless, desolate,
with scribbled mentions of their fears and hate:
Rivera… Pyramus… Pink Floyd… Berlin…
their stones – cut, mined and blasted – left land bare,
leave plants still struggling over gouge and groove.
Planet-fall’s made, but no one dares remove
their helmet in this dangerous atmosphere.
Infections lurk in water, air and ground–
walls’ poisoned Keep Out signs are all around.

Another of my sonnets that has been first published by Bewildering Stories. Maybe I just write bewildering verse…

I love walls when they are decorative, walkable, climbable or otherwise friendly. I’ve always loved the low garden walls along Franklin Street in Chapel Hill, North Carolina:

But I dislike the use of walls to destroy the lives of other people, whether Palestinians, refugees or any other unfortunates who are struggling to survive. This poem, of course, is about the destructive walls–not the charming ones. In the far future, which ones will Old Earth be known for?

Sonnet: “Windsor and Oakes, 1943”

Oakes and Windsor

Sir Harry Oakes and the Duke of Windsor in Nassau

Edward, ex-king, pro-Nazi, was sent out
to the Bahamas for the War’s duration.
As Governor of our well-mixed-race nation
he joked with blacks but liked white rule and clout.
The wealthy Bay Street Boys, all white, agreed.
But one combative multimillionaire
felt equal pay for non-whites would be fair.
Canadian Harry Oakes disliked white greed.
Oakes pumped in cash for land, built an airport,
bought a hotel, hired coloured management,
then fought the U.S. Mob’s gambling intent.
Still, Bay Street had the Governor’s support.
Oakes wouldn’t change his mind, and he got killed.
Edward prevented justice. Whites were thrilled.

The 1943 murder in the Bahamas of Sir Harry Oakes–perhaps the richest man in the British Empire–was never legally solved. Having been found bludgeoned to death in his bed, with an attempt having been made to set the bed on fire, foul play might have been suspected immediately. But the top realtor in the Bahamas, Harold Christie (subsequently knighted) who had been sleeping in a guest bedroom two doors down from his host, hadn’t heard a thing and, discovering the body in the morning, tried to revive Oakes by getting him to drink some water.

Harold Christie first called his brother, and next the Duke of Windsor, rather than the police. The Duke of Windsor, being the Governor of the Bahamas, could have called the local police, or local British military forces, or brought in the CID, Britain’s Criminal Investigation Department. Instead he called two Miami detectives he knew (and who in later years were found to have Mafia connections), telling them “he wished to confirm the details of a suicide”. The Americans came, screwed up the crime scene, planted false clues, and then arranged for Oakes’ son-in-law to be charged.

But the evidence against the son-in-law, Alfred de Marigny, was so clearly fraudulent and the evidence against Christie and his brother was so strong that the Police Commissioner at the time refused to charge de Marigny. So the Duke of Windsor had the Police Commissioner transferred to Trinidad until the trial was completed, in order to prevent him from testifying.

One of the mysteries unresolved at the trial was matter of the four triangular holes in Oakes’ skull. Some form of local voodoo was suggested, but no one could think of anything specific that might have caused it. No one suggested it might have been a tool found on every boat in Nassau Harbour…

Oil drum bung wrench

Oil drum plug wrench

After one of the greatest legal defences of the 20th century de Marigny was acquitted and, although innocent and a British citizen, ordered deported. Unsuccessful attempts were made on his life in the next couple of years, as he detailed in his book A Conspiracy of Crowns.

Other books on the murder, two of which were called Who Killed Sir Harry Oakes?, initially failed to point a finger of blame. This was probably wise, as a couple of people who might have discovered unpleasant facts came to violent ends.

In 1950 American lawyer Betty Renner–a former Department of Justice lawyer who had done war crimes work in Japan–came to Nassau to gather evidence about the Oakes murder and speak to a potential informer. She was hit over the head, stripped half-naked, dragged over coral rocks and thrown head-first down a narrow well where she suffocated to death. Tree branches were cut and placed over the well. The autopsy concluded “there was no positive evidence of criminal attack but the possibility was still being investigated.”

In 1962 Dorothy Macksey, a 60-year-old white Bahamian secretary, was raped and murdered in her apartment some months after she told her employer she knew who had killed Oakes and was starting to write a book about it. Although it turned out she had been Harold Christie’s secretary in 1943, the Nassau police quickly determined there was no connection.

Books continue to be written about the Oakes murder. Perhaps the most complete and authoritative so far is John Marquis’ Blood and Fire, but the story is still dribbling out from those (apparently many) people who know the truth.

Oh, and by the way, my sonnet at the top was just published in Bewildering Stories, which I think is appropriate!

The Best Short Poem Ever: “Jenny kiss’d Me” by Leigh Hunt

Leigh Hunt, young

Leigh Hunt when young

Jenny kiss’d me when we met,
Jumping from the chair she sat in;
Time, you thief, who love to get
Sweets into your list, put that in!
Say I’m weary, say I’m sad,
Say that health and wealth have miss’d me,
Say I’m growing old, but add
Jenny kiss’d me.

I love the sentiment, the versification, the tightness, the back story, everything. If you erased everything else Leigh Hunt ever wrote, this poem should still be in every anthology of English poetry.

As the Poetry Foundation says, Hunt was “a central figure of the Romantic movement in England, but he was not, as he wished to be and knew he was not, one of its great poets.” But he was the author of Abou Ben Adhem (often taught in schools for its quietly uplifting morality); The Glove and the Lions (ditto, for its more boisterous morality); and the Song of Fairies Robbing an Orchard (taught less often, as schoolchildren hardly need encouragement in the heightened pleasures of theft).

Jenny kiss’d Me was originally entitled Rondeau, but the poem doesn’t really meet any of the various definitions of the form. It rhymes ababcdcd instead of holding to the rondeau’s tighter requirements of rhyme and repetition, but the alternating feminine and masculine rhymes give it a strong rhythm that is tightly adhered to. It has four feet to each line, but only two in the last, and the effect of the poem is heightened by the fact that, when reading the poem aloud, you can’t help creating a longer pause than usual before the last line – it is as though Hunt has dropped the first two feet, not the last two in that line. That last line repeats the first words of the poem (which is common in a rondeau), but does it as a fresh punch line. It is a remarkably effective piece of versification.

Jenny Carlyle

Jenny: Jane Baillie Carlyle, née Welsh

The back story is that Hunt had been severely ill during a flu epidemic, but, recovering, paid an unexpected visit to Thomas and Jane Carlyle, Jane being “Jenny”. The Carlyles had a difficult relationship to each other and the world in general. Samuel Butler once remarked “It was very good of God to let Carlyle and Mrs Carlyle marry one another, and so make only two people miserable and not four”. But clearly Jane Carlyle was capable of showing affection and making an impression. Hunt at that time was no longer young.

Leigh Hunt

Leigh Hunt at about 66

The poem manages in its eight brief lines to touch on themes of time, age, mortality and failure; also on affection, love, spontaneity and success; and to combine them all into a single image. I cannot think of a more perfect short poem in English.

Poem: “Implants and Biotech”

These are the scarecrow years
When frost tears glisten
On moulded and painted cheeks, beside ears
That no longer listen
Being more deaf than dead
And hearing only
Through implants and inputs into the head
Bonily, stonily.

Fears come while certainties lapse:
Fears of the dark,
Of abandonment, monsters, uncertainty. Now (perhaps)
Some Schrödinger’s shark
Divides cosmonaut, cryonaut, chrononaut
From those who can’t trust
The unknown, are ill-taught, or die without thought.

Thrive on change, or be dust.

This was first published in The Rotary Dial, an excellent online monthly of a dozen formal poems that was put out by two of Canada’s best poets, Pino Coluccio and Alexandra Oliver. Unfortunately The Rotary Dial folded in 2017 and Pino, after winning Ontario’s Trillium Book Award for ‘Class Clown’, disappeared off the radar.

The poem subsequently appeared in the fifth Potcake Chapbook: ‘Strip Down – poems of modern life’, where it has a page facing A.E. Stallings’ far gentler and more positive view of modern medicine, ‘Ultrasound’.

Sonnet: “Magnificent Young Thing”

You are the most magnificent young thing:
you bud, you blossom, fruit before my eyes,
kinetic artwork winning some great prize,
you move and flourish, and my heart takes wing.
I glory in you, as a countryside
enraptures one who loves his place of birth
and sees life blossoming, feels nature’s mirth
in fertile land the farmer takes as bride.
He loves his bulls and cows, his boars and sows;
sees orchards, beehives, pastures and is thrilled…
The piglets first, then the sow will be killed.
But beasts don’t know the fate of pigs and cows –
they know the farmer loves them, and that’s that.
And you don’t know you’ll age and run to fat.

This sonnet originally appeared in Snakeskin, for which George Simmers accepts a wide range of verse, formal or free, tender or cynical, objective or subjective – whatever catches his fancy. And this one is… well, it caught his fancy anyway.