Category Archives: Robin Helweg-Larsen

Poem: ‘The Tale of Jesus’

Jesus, you came with Peter Rabbit,
Mowgli and Pooh Bear.
School tried to make your prayers a habit
But it was hard to care.

Teachers said do what you said
(Though things you did were odd),
But didn’t follow where you led –
So, just a load of cod.

I saw you as a man forthwith –
If you were real at all,
And not some mushroom-inspired myth,
Tales primitive and tall.

Though stored away up in the attic
The image of you stays:
Wit, healing, laughter… enigmatic
Violent angry frays…

Bush/Cheney occupied Iraq
As Rome did Palestine;
Bin Laden tales came down a track
With yours to intertwine:

Lean, bearded, robed and cinematic
Striding over hills,
Laughing and angry, the fanatic
Invokes, inspires and kills.

Pig-eating, beardless Westerners
Uniformed and well-armed,
Are just thieving idolaters
Who leave God’s people harmed.

Seize, cleanse the Temple at Passover,
King of the Jews! But all
Faith fails against Rome, you discover…
(The tale was changed by Paul.)

Whatever Jesus was, he wasn’t “meek and mild”. The Gospels have him cursing and withering a fig tree, telling his followers to get weapons, trashing the moneychangers in the Temple because of their handling of idolatrous coins; early legends of his childhood have him killing and blinding other children in fits of rage.

Occupied by the Romans, Palestine went into revolt every 20 or 30 years for a couple of centuries, until Rome finally tore the place apart and exiled all the Jews. Jesus had a minor role in the political history of this (but, thanks to Paul, a greater religious impact). My novel on this is The Gospel According to the Romans.

The poem was published in Snakeskin.

Photo: this t-shirt is available from Zazzle

Poem: ‘So Listen Now’

      So listen now to what the prophet saith, 
          He teaches anything, he gladly learns, 
             He follows scientists and what they say, 
             And now, Philosophy of DNA. 
           Regard the spiral of it as it turns, 
      And listen now to what the prophet saith: 
  The two as one, entwining intercourse, 
Then separate from toes to very head, 
And, separated, seek another bed, 
  Their separation procreation’s cause. 
      So listen now to what the prophet saith— 
           And this the canniballed male spider learns, 
                Eaten by her, as her he’d try to lay, 
                Who procreates in separation’s day— 
           No spark of love or life or hate there burns, 
      But, listen now to what the prophet saith, 
      Only a life of procreating death. 

Another of my early poems: I wrote this when I was 17, in my last year at school. DNA was still a newish concept to the general public, and it appealed to my nihilistic teenage state of mind. My opinions decades later are still pretty similar, though my attitudes are much more relaxed and happy.

I had been thoroughly immersed in iambic pentameter by then, studying several of the Canterbury Tales, several of Shakespeare’s plays, and a whole slew (or slough) of poets from Donne and Milton to Cummings and Frost–learn enough poetry by heart, and you become very comfortable writing in the forms you know. I developed the rhyme scheme to allow the indentation-by-rhyme to reflect as best I could the spiral of the subject: ABCCBADEEDABCCBAA, the rhymes winding back and forth across the much-repeated central line, ending with a couplet to round it out at 17 lines.

The poem was originally published in Metverse Muse, an Indian periodical that champions traditional verse.

Photo: “DNA rendering” by ynse is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

(Loosely) Anapestic Sonnet: ‘A Run’

Over the island from beaches this side where it’s blowing,
it’s only a mile to the side where today it’s flat calm;
so over the hill’s potholed tarmac, to tracks of sand going
along under southern pine, seagrape, gum elemi, palm;
and then between sea-oats and cocoplums over the dunes
and down to the beach where the sand is as dusty as powder,
then lower across the high tide mark that seaweed festoons,
to harder packed sand under sun hot as bird-pepper chowder —
the sand at the ocean low tide, flat and hard as a ledge,
so flat you don’t feel that you’re running the side of a slope
where the ocean runs up inches deep and you splash through its edge,
one more mile to the end, where the sand is as pink as fresh hope,
is as pink as a conch shell, as pink as the still morning skies —
and you rest on the rocks in the shade while the southern pine sighs.

Eleuthera, the island where I was raised and where I live, is long and skinny like many of the Bahama Islands. A hundred and ten miles long, mostly a mile or two wide. I live on the south side (local name), the west side (tourist name), the sea side, the Sound side, the Caribbean side. It’s a great run of a mile over a 60 foot hill to the north side (or east side, ocean side, Atlantic side). On the south side the sand is white, and all the way out to the horizon the water is only 20 feet deep or so. On the north side the sand varies from powdery white to coarse pink, and long before you got to the horizon you would be in 8,000 feet of water. You can tell immediately from a photo which side you’re looking at: vegetation, beach, colour of the water, they’re all different.

This poem was published this month in Snakeskin, edited for 25 years by George Simmers. He is receptive to both traditional and free verse, everything depending on what appeals to him at the time. This is good for me, because I am inconsistent with what I produce. With this one, I went for the rhythm, the da-da-dum, da-da-dum which may not be the sound one person makes when running, but for me captures the mood of running. I can’t define it more than that. And so long as that rhythm is in the heart of each line, I don’t have a problem with being a syllable short at the beginning, or having an extra one at the end, so long as it all flows from one line to the next without a big hiccup.

Poem: ‘For Peter, Drugged in a Mental Hospital’

In the winter the Interior stops
The shops close
Clocks unwind
Clothes hang frozen on the line.

With the summer tourists gone
Birdsong is ended
The water is locked away in the hills
And the waterfall hangs suspended.

No one takes down the signs that read
“Entering tunnel, remove sunglasses”.
Stopped by the wind at the top of the passes
We look down
On some tiny, frozen, unmoving town,
Down on a land without seed.

The city, car-filled, cascading, bickering,
Seems so long, long ago.
Look down on the river trickling
Through the desert dusty with snow –
The tracks of coyote and deer
Echo the unseen in our own austerity.
Will Spring ever come, here?
In this desolate clarity?
With blossoming fruit trees and softening lakes?

It will, and the snow will be brushed from the sage
But until then the only life that we see
Is:
Giant snowflakes
Lily pads of ice
Flowing down the Fraser to the sea.

In 1975 I had started living in British Columbia (where every landscape is monumental and dramatic), and I was friends with a young man who was in and out of mental hospitals. Under the stresses of university finals and high parental expectations, he had flipped out: as best I remember, he had boarded an airplane that was being cleaned and tried to hijack it from the cleaning lady with a pocketknife. At the time of writing the poem I believed he would work through his mental breakdown and return to a quiet, charming, intelligent existence. Unfortunately that was happening too slowly, and he died a couple of years later in a fire at a halfway house.

The poem was published in Candelabrum Poetry Magazine, a British publication that appeared twice yearly from April 1970 to October 2010, dedicated to keeping traditionalist poetry alive through those darkest of poetry decades.

Photo: “ice-pancakes” by JeremyOK is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Sonnets: ‘Confronting Churches and the Void’

A man-like god creates the universe?
Two hundred billion galaxies? Each holding
a hundred billion stars? And each star moulding
its planets into life, teeming, diverse!
All this from some bearded old angry face
who says “Build me a temple, pray, and pay
the priests who’ll guide you onto Heaven’s way,
erase your sins . . . or you’ll go in disgrace
to torment underground — eternally.”
No way your life gains from such small belief,
passed on by some royal or holy thief
who says “God wants your money, send it me —
my palace honours Him . . .” The human lurches
fearful, confused, through wastes of wasteful churches.

As social animals, we find our place
by walling others out, putting them down:
these walls, my family; those walls, my town.
Even more walls: tribe, country, faith or race.
This atavism’s bad for mental health,
supports no sense of personal strengths or meaning,
allows no purpose, individual leaning,
denies achievement to your inner self.
Identity’s reduced to football fan,
or something uniformed, or some group prayer;
without those — alcohol, drugs or despair,
not knowing how to move past Nowhere Man.
Know yourself, human, to confront the Void:
your proper study’s all that’s anthropoid.

You can think of these two sonnets as the result of ten years of Church of England boarding school–five years in Jamaica, five in England–where Scripture lessons and daily church services were complemented by solid science and rigourous literature. And of course the Church of England recognises no Pope except the man who wrote “Know then thyself, presume not God to scan; the proper study of Mankind is Man.” So here you see the fruits of a well-rounded education.

This poem has just been published in Better Than Starbucks, a remarkably extensive poetry journal (and with some fiction too). The bulk of my BTS-published poems are in the Formal Poetry section, but there are many other sections–it’s a 100-page magazine. The online version is free, and well worth exploring.

“stepping across the bridge” by Max Nathan is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Sonnet: “The Word”

“In the beginning was the Word.” What word?
Said by what tongue? Indeed, said in what tongue?
And by what consciousness was the Word flung
Out into Nothing, as from Ark a bird?
Nothing will come of nothing, we’ve concurred.
A billion galaxies, from Nothing sprung?
How “the beginning,” if a lowest rung
Requires both ground and ladder? It’s absurd.
Religions, sects, philosophies and schools,
Simple or complex, always come to grief
Because our grasp of Nothingness is flawed.
The atheist rightly shows all gods are fools;
The agnostic claims that any held belief —
Including one in Nothing — is a fraud.

I’ve written poems for and against various religions, depending on my mood and on whatever idea I was exploring. But in the end I come back to disbelief. I’m a militant agnostic: “I don’t know, and neither do you!” And this acknowledgement of ignorance of where the Universe comes from is emphatically NOT an endorsement of any religion. It is an endorsement of the (probably hopeless) search by science for all the answers.

This sonnet, with Petrarchan rhyme scheme ABBA ABBA CDE CDE, was originally published in Bewildering Stories, issue 789. I’ve tinkered with the penultimate line since then, trying to improve the metre.

Photo: “WORDS” by Pierre Metivier is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Sonnet: ‘The Poem’

Poems are merely words you can remember
word for word. Question: What makes them so?
Think of the earliest nursery rhymes you know,
held from child’s January to old December:
rhymes, rhythms, imagery—rich as meringues.
Then complicate discussion, don’t reduce
odd imagery, words foolish, strange, diffuse—
aim for rijsttafel with tongue-tingling tangs.
Use richness to engage the memory:
conflicting quotes from Bible, Shakespeare, Yeats,
with Bach-like sense of heaven’s opening gates
or hall of mirrors, or sun-scattering sea…
Mesmerized readers have to puzzle out
in memory mazes what it’s all about.

My firm belief is that poetic structures originate as nothing more than memory aids, so that a work can be recited word for word. This was invaluable in preliterate societies and was used for tribal histories and spiritual revelations (Muhammad was illiterate, and the most powerful passages of the Quran are in strongly rhythmical rhyme) as well as for lullabyes and love songs. But the use of our human love of rhythmic beat, and our enjoyment of rhyme and wordplay, have helped verse develop into elaborate, engaging, memorable forms, varying by culture because of the different opportunities of the different languages. Enjoy the diversity, and the complexity!

This sonnet, like ‘The Four Duties‘, has just been published in the Winter 2020 edition of The Orchards magazine of formal poetry.

Photo: “Indonesisch Rijstafel” by johl is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Sonnet: ‘The Four Duties’

First, to your family, the spouse you chose,
children you gained who themselves had no choice;
to give a space wherein to find their voice
with safety, happiness, as each one grows.

To self: to keep yourself happy and whole,
free of both physical and mental pain
through yoga, exercise, good stress, good strain,
a moderate diet, peaceful self-control.

To all humanity: using some gift,
some insight, skill set, asset, useful tool
to better people’s lives through work or school,
some mast and sail or oar for those adrift.

And to the Muse that underlies the world:
express yourself—banners are useless furled.

This sonnet feels a little uncomfortably preachy, pretentious, self-righteous, and generally out of touch with the flippant persona I prefer. But it’s what I actually believe deep down. To me, it’s self-evident in terms not just of personal morality, but also as regards what makes a person feel fulfilled and happy. And the last bit is important: everyone has a creative aspect, and everyone has a Muse. The Muse is just part of how the world works, perhaps how your creative subconscious communicates with your conscious mind, perhaps how God or gods or angels communicate with you… it’s a little mysterious, but it’s part of your reality. And the correct thing to do is to express yourself creatively when you have an idea for it: that turns on the tap for further creativity. Not doing anything with the creative idea you get turns the tap off, and reduces future creativity. You need to honour the Muse when he/she/it appears.

‘The Four Duties’ has just been published in the Winter 2020 edition of The Orchards magazine of formal poetry. A few days late for that year, perhaps, but I just saw a weather forecast for “six more weeks of 2020”. Indeed, a sense of calm and responsibility is what the world needs, now and always.

Photo: “Her duty” by Go-tea 郭天 is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Sonnet: ‘Mythic Memories’

From all the mythic memories we make
Of childhood’s forests, gardens, beaches, seas,
Disturbed by adults’ eccentricities,
Come all the world’s religions – Tree and Snake,
Hero and Mother, Martyr, Saint and Fake.
Then let us make our mythic memories
(Implying endless possibilities)
From all that follows in the island’s wake:

Climbing up banyans, palms and tamarinds –
Firelight and starlight – total black of caves –
Spearing a lionfish – running on pink sand –
And unknown flowers scented on sea winds –
And jagged cliff heights where the ocean raves –
And views of huge horizons past all land.

I think it is important for children to experience the diversity of the world in different ways: when very small they need to feel the rhythms of day and night, winter and summer, and celebrate them with memorable festivals. When they are a little older, say six to eight, it is useful to experience the diversity of the world: if they live in cities, to go to farms and mountains and forests and beaches; if they grow up in a rural area as I did, it is a huge experience to spend a few days in a city. In either of those cases, the experiences make school learning much more relevant, something that can understood and believed in, because of the personal memories. I was fortunate to experience cities and countryside, jungles and deserts, before I started school. History, geography and languages were always very interesting as a result.

For even older children our family advocates a further step: in grade 10–i.e. at age 15–each of our kids got to choose where they were going for a year of schooling overseas. The only restriction was: Not an English-speaking country! They went away for Grade 11 and returned to finish high school with their friends for Grade 12. They went through competent organizations (YFU–Youth For Understanding, and AFS… though one went to the family of a boy we had hosted the previous year). The normal structure was that they went to a family (best if there are other children in the family) in which one parent spoke English; they had a week or two of prep time with the organization in the new country before the school year started; in school, initially they sat at the back of the class and didn’t know what was being said except in English classes and maybe Maths; by Christmas they understood everything; by Easter they spoke fluently; by the end of the year they had acquired the regional accent. The five kids each chose different countries: Denmark, Costa Rica, Italy, Japan and France.

They came back several years more mature than when they left. Instead of dreaming of owning a car, they none of them wanted a car particularly: they had learned to get around a strange city by bus and metro, which is cheap and flexible. Instead of believing that there is only one appropriate style of clothing and only one good type of music for their generation, they realized that even if all teens think that, those clothes and music are different in different countries, and it is a matter of choice. Instead of fighting with us, their parents, over teenage complaints of lack of freedom, they came home delighted to return to the rules and life they had known, with a year of living differently under their belt. And they had seen a lot of the world in a very deep way, the childhood and school experience, the local family experience, all the seasonal foods and songs and rituals, something that is very hard for an adult to ever experience in a foreign country.

And as it is from our childhood experiences that we derive our understanding of the world, and make the myths we live by and the goals we strive for, it is beneficial for us to have as wide and deep a range of childhood experiences as possible. So I believe, anyway.

This poem was originally published in Snakeskin. It may feel like an unfortunate post for a time of Covid and lockdowns in various parts of the world, but the days of good travel should return soon, and we can start planning…

Photo: “Pink Sand Beach” by Cédric Z is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Poem: ‘Good Enough For Me’

The wide world has its glories
In a rich complexity
But sitting watching the sun set
Is good enough for me.

Canada has six time zones
From sea to sea to sea
But one tide lapping where I sit
Is good enough for me.

The muezzins in the Saudi mosques
Wake all to pray and pee
But a rooster crowing in the bush
Is good enough for me.

And Singapore is lush and green
And managed prettily
But scrub grass and a sandy beach
Are good enough for me.
All – good enough for me.

This poem was originally published in Snakeskin, and then found a place in The Hypertexts. It’s a simple poem, but after all we lead simple lives, sitting on our little planet going round our little star on the fringe of a minor galaxy. So the mood of the poem is: Our lives are unimportant, and brief. Relax and enjoy.