Monthly Archives: March 2020

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.

Review: “The Funny Side – 101 Humorous Poems” ed. Wendy Cope

Funny Side

Wendy Cope dislikes the term “light verse” because she feels it implies the included poetry can never be serious. Presumably she doesn’t take the matter lightly, given that she is considered (or dismissed as) a brilliant (but) light verse poet, with works such as Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis to her credit. Flippant is fine with her, but that shouldn’t be the be-all and end-all of “humorous” poems. Her choices for this anthology range from the frivolous to the suicidal; light or dark in subject, they are all amusing in their expression.

The poems are strung together in unobtrusive clumps of themes. The anthology kicks off with Richard Armour’s Money:

That money talks
I won’t deny.
I heard it once,
It said goodbye.

followed by Hilaire Belloc’s Fatigue:

I’m tired of Love: I’m still more tired of Rhyme.
But Money gives me pleasure all the time.

And so you leap in – you’ve just read the first two pages of the book. But in case you think that all the pieces are going to be so short, the next is the anonymous Strike among the Poets:

In his chamber, weak and dying,
While the Norman baron lay,
Loud, without, his men were crying
‘Shorter hours and better pay.’

and so on for seven stanzas of young Lochinvar and the boy on the burning deck and other worthies all demanding shorter hours and better pay.

Segue to the next poem, Harry Graham’s two full pages of Poetical Economy:, this being an example:

When I’ve a syllable de trop,
I cut it off without apol.:
This verbal sacrifice, I know,
May irritate the schol.;
But all must praise my dev’lish cunn.
Who realize that Time is Mon.

Most of the poems will be known to aficionados of, yes, light verse – the older pieces by Thomas Hood and Lewis Carroll and so on are relatively well known. But I found several delightful surprises: the excerpts from D. J. Enright’s Paradise Illustrated: A Sequence:

‘Why didn’t we think of clothes before?’
Asked Adam,
Removing Eve’s.

‘Why did we ever think of clothes?’
Asked Eve,
Laundering Adam’s.

Kit Wright’s (lengthy) The Orbison Consolations:

Only the lonely
Know the way you feel tonight?
Surely the poorly
Have some insight?
Oddly, the godly
Also might,
And slowly the lowly
Will learn to read you right.

And then there’s Edwin Morgan’s The Mummy, on the arrival of Ramses II at Orly airport in 1976… but that one’s too complicated for this post. You’ll have to find it yourself.

It seems that Faber put out other books in this series in the late 1990s: By Heart – 101 Poems to Remember, edited by Ted Hughes, and Sounds Good – 101 Poems to be Heard, edited by Christopher Reid. I need to get them as well.

Sonnet: “We’ve Reached Earth’s Edge”

The Earth’s explored, and flat. And I know this
despite Earth’s shadow in lunar eclipse,
and how horizons hide the hulls of ships.
We’ve reached Earth’s edge, stare into the abyss
with Branson, Musk, NASA and the Chinese,
toppling into blackness, falling prey
with Kurzweil, CRISPR, Google, Bostrom, de Grey,
businesslike scientists battling disease,
entrepreneurs with dark unearthly schemes:
the outer darkness space’s endlessness,
the inner darkness immortality.
Pushing and leaning into stellar space,
the event horizon of our thoughts and dreams,
the black hole of our post-humanity.

Published in the Formal & Rhyming Poetry section of this month’s Better Than Starbucks, the “Earth’s edge” idea is just another way of trying to express my ongoing fascination with the end of humanity-as-we-know-it, and the beginning of something that we can’t even visualize yet, let alone make confident predictions about. Close to the idea of the “posthuman god” at the bottom of the Wikipedia page.

Technically, this is a poorly-structured sonnet (ABBA CDDC EFG FEG), with a really weak rhyme of endlessness / space. Sorry about that. But I hope you can enjoy it for the ideas, anyway!

 

Poem: “The Ape in the Landscape”

Ape

I. THE APE

Like a chimp in a storm
we revert to a norm,
tree-swinging, branch-breaking,
stick-shaking, noise-making;
each baby’s a bomb
and their poise and aplomb
is a jack-in-a-box
full of fireworks and shocks,
full of colour, noise, light
full of anguish, delight,
rending, mending and tending,
exploiting, befriending,
and losing and finding,
abusing and minding,
both stupid and clever
but moving forever,
and dancing and singing
thought-prancing, word-winging,
for there’s no escape
from the million year ape,
from our in-built, inherited shape.

II. EXTERNAL LANDSCAPE

Somewhere a cleft cliff overhang, a cave
where we can stay dry, have a fire, and sleep;
though lions and bears growl outside, we feel brave–
Worship the Cave, Earth’s Deep.

Somewhere, huge in an open plain, a tree–
to climb for refuge, or the whole world see,
loving its fruit, leaves, wood, its shade from glare–
Worship the Tree, Earth’s fountain into air.

Somewhere a river ends where sea’s begun
and marshlands hold vast clouds of birds and fish,
and moon and tides swing like the winds and sun–
Worship the Waters, fresh, salt, both Earth’s gifts.

Somewhere the lightning strikes, a forest burns;
only one thing runs to it, not away,
one creature uses it to make night day,
cook food, stay warm, make tools, dance round and play–
Worship the Fire, on which being human turns.

Somewhere the landscape most potential shows:
more people, and some wary bird or beast;
by integrating them the human grows
into the landscape’s richness, Nature’s feast–
Worship the Richness with which life’s increased.

III. INTERNAL LANDSCAPE

Climbing, foraging and hunting,
running, loping, chasing something–
we were built for this.

An open field with a large tree,
a path towards a far blue sea–
the landscape we think bliss.

Keeping dogs, cats, birds as friends,
sharing food for no clear ends–
extended family.

Pigs, cows, sheep, ducks, geese as pets,
eating them without regrets–
that’s humanity.

And talking, dancing, running, singing,
friends and lovers, parents, children,
social, single, energetic,
meditative or frenetic…
we’re a tribal ape at heart,
without the wild we fall apart,
the ape’s our essence, end as well as start.

This poem was just published in Snakeskin, a very appropriate magazine from the point of view of its name, whose meaning is spelled out in the Credo in its first issue back in 1995:

The serpent whispered unto Eve:
“Think and feel; don’t just believe.”
This made the earth’s foundations shake.
We are the kindred of that snake. (…)

We trust no level tones; we ride
The roller-coaster of our pride.
The gonads’ rage, and yearning’s ache
Speak through the kindred of the snake.

In other words, no matter how much we develop our civilisation, no matter how much we tinker with our genetics, no matter how much we turn our decision-making over to AI, we need to acknowledge and work with – and enjoy – the primitive drivers and needs that are inherent in our physical and psychological makeup.

In other words (this time Nietzsche’s), “Stay true to the earth, my brothers,” even while looking forward to the coming of the Superman, for we are still part ape, and our coheret progress depends on our awareness of that, and of self-knowledge in general.

Technically the poem is a mish-mash of forms, somewhat casual in structure by formal standards, but rich in rhythm and rhyme. And this too is in keeping with Snakeskin’s Credo:

Nor shall we sit to lunch with those
Who moralise in semi-prose.
A poem should be rich as cake,
Say the kindred of the snake.

Enjoy! And my thanks to Snakeskin’s George Simmers.