Category Archives: Robin Helweg-Larsen

Poem: ‘Poems Like Mice’

Poems should be concise:
quick, small, like mice.
Then one day you find
they’ve made a nest in your mind.

I seem to be writing shorter, more epigrammatic verse recently. Probably influenced by reading too much FitzGerald/Khayyam.

This little poem was published in the December 2020 issue of Snakeskin–which celebrates 25 years as a monthly online poetry magazine, presumably the oldest (or rather “the most venerable”) such magazine in the world. Congratulations to its creator and sustainer, George Simmers!

Photo: “Look at the cute mouse ^^” by letmehearyousaydeskomdeskom is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Poem: ‘Gods On Trial’

When all the old gods go on trial, loud cursed
In the High Court of Public Thought Review,
Jehovah (tribal god of bronze age Jews)
Stands of his vast pretentiousness accused:
Claims he created Heaven and Earth
When he was born six thousand years ago!
(Can’t define Heaven, doesn’t even know
If there’s a difference between Earth and Universe.)
God of the Christians and the Muslims too!
Won’t do anything against the AI
Displacing all the gods. Thor in the dock
Scratches his bull-neck, Odin his empty eye,
Zeus his cock.
The gods are human, know they face death, forgotten
As any carven deity, buried, rotten.
Concerned, they fidget restlessly –
Only Jehovah, the least self-aware,
Storms he’s exempt, blusters with beard and hair,
Thinks his small tribe is all that there can be.

I have a lot of sympathy with apocalyptic thinking: the end of the world as we know it is always happening, being replaced by something with unfamiliar and disturbing aspects. All the old ways are always ending. And those who grow up with the new ways, which is all children, mature and age and find their ways displaced in turn. But the scale of displacement varies… a war raging across your homeland is worse than a wave of new immigrants, though both of these are familiar problems. But the rise of AI and a host of new technologies, and the wholesale washing away of gods and pre-scientific explanations, is leading to a future where not even the make-up of the human can be known for sure. The gods shrink and become amusing.

The poem was originally published in Snakeskin. It’s a bit slapdash, mostly in iambic pentameter, mostly rhyming, but not technically great. But then, I was always one of those students whose report cards read “Could try harder”, “Could do better”.

Photo: “Wäinämöinen” by Teppo is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Poem: ‘Unexplained’

I’ve only once in my six decades–
Years spent in many lands and islands–
Had a crow fly to and caw at me…
It flew ahead and cawed from a second tree…
Then flew ahead to a fence post,
Cawed a third time as we came close.
Then flew away. This in the driveway
Of a well-treed hotel outside Nairobi.
Kenyans have no tradition of the crow
As messenger of death… but we sure do.
We checked the time: 1:05 pm.
As it turns out, that was the moment when
In the night in British Columbia
My favourite in-law, my children’s grandmother,
Died.

This is not exactly formal poetry… I can read it with four beats to a line, but only just; and as for rhyming couplets, yes, it has them, if you’re prepared to allow “rhymes” like driveway-Nairobi. Normally the needs of rhyme and meter will shape the finish of my poems, may alter its details, often add to its meaning in the process. But with this one, it was more important to me to stay as exact to the event as possible. I’ve short-changed the description by leaving out the presence of my wife Eliza, who was also close to my ex-mother-in-law; and a couple of other British Columbia-related coincidences that occurred in the previous hour in Kenya.

This poem was published appropriately enough in ‘Bewildering Stories‘. My suspicion is that everyone on very rare occasions experiences some woo-woo event that defies logic or probablility. In this case, say the event lasts a minute; to be generous to the gods of chance, let’s say it was accurate to within an hour on Molly’s death. Say I’ve been awake 16 hours a day for 60 years since childhood: that’s over 350,000 hours. Say that half a dozen people who I’ve felt really close to have died in that time. The chance that the one and only time a crow very deliberately comes up to me and caws three times is in one of the half-dozen hours that someone close has died, is therefore less than one in 50,000. That’s not impossible, of course. There are one-in-a-million lightning strikes and lottery wins. But crows have a reputation for doing exactly this.

I reject a mystical solution. I want to know the science of what happened. My purely speculative guess is that some quantum entanglement happens between people who are close (especially twins, or mother and child) and when there is a change of state in one, it registers with the other. Further speculation: that crows are so sensitive to the smell of death that they can register it in the changed state of a living but quantumly entangled person. Sorry, that’s admittedly unscientific, but at least it’s an attempt at a material rather than a spiritual answer.

Anyway, it happened.

“Carrion crow, cawing” by Drbrown1970 is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Sonnet: ‘The Body Retreats’

Loss of response of toes, legs turned to jelly,
we’re fighting rearguard actions through the body:
the hair deserting, skin becoming shoddy,
strengths all withdraw – to reinforce the belly.
Under sustained attacks, the ankles fail,
cannot provide support. Legs mutiny,
they seize the muscles when no scrutiny
at night stops leg cramps grabbing to impale.

Stamina fading in both heart and lung,
sex organs weakened, bold lusts dying back,
skull’s the last stronghold where all force retreats.
With fading senses out the window flung,
success is redefined not as Attack,
but barely maintained memory and wits.

In the aftermath of the no-holds-barred wrestling match for the US Presidency by Trump and Biden, both septuagenarians, let us remember that they are past the “threescore years and ten” that humans are allocated by the Bible–to which both wrestlers profess to adhere. Things are going downhill at this point, regardless of how much care you take.

It’s time for science, the medical profession and gengineers specifically, to step up and give us all the tools to stop us ageing. Thank you, and I personally would appreciate it sooner rather than later!

This sonnet was originally published in Snakeskin, currently prepping for its 25th anniversary as a monthly online poetry magazine–likely the oldest such in the world!

“Getting old in dignity…” by ЯAFIK ♋ BERLIN is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Poem: ‘The Future as Event’

The future like an avalanche
is roaring down the sky.
If you’ve prepared no hiding place
then be prepared to die.
You never reason why.

The future like a question mark
is scything humankind.
If you can see, then handle it –
you’ll be cut down if blind.
The future doesn’t mind.

The future like a giant wave
is heading for the shore.
If you can ride that wall-like wave
it’s no wall, but a door
into forever more.

I was looking for one of my poems that might be appropriate for the aftermath of the 2020 US election, regardless of any of the possible outcomes. This is the best I could find: no matter who wins which election in any country in the next couple of decades, the world is going to be struggling to play catch-up with enormous changes happening in the climate, the sea, cyber warfare, space militarisation, A.I., genetic modifications… Trump, Biden, BoJo, Putin, Xi, they are all corks on an ocean with a hurricane coming.

‘The Future as Event’ was originally published in the much-lamented ‘Rotary Dial’, produced in Toronto by award-winning poets Pino Coluccio and Alexandra Oliver. A delightful monthly of formal verse, it ceased without warning. So it goes.

Photo: “Giant waves at Half Moon Bay in Calif.” by robertg6n1

Poem: ‘An Atheist Demands Access to Heaven’

There flows in my veins the most ancient of ardours:
not power, or love, nor yet worship of God;
the fight that each tiniest baby fights hard as
fought earliest man: “Understand!” Pry and prod
with unquenchable flame of the world-disregarders
for Truth! – be it complex, destructive or odd.
If this fire is from Heaven, then Heaven I’ve earned;
so write on my grave: “This stone too shall be turned.”

This teasingly paradoxical little poem was originally published in the Shot Glass Journal, a thrice-a-year journal of 20-30 American poems and an equal number of international ones. Why the name? Because this is a journal for short poems, none over 16 lines. Most of the material they publish is free verse, but they like to have a full range of styles in each issue… which is good news for formal poets.

Photo: “Atheist Campaign on Tube Train” by Loz Flowers is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Poem: ‘Sandcastles’

We’re only children, making castles in the sand.
Enjoy the day.
Night comes, and tides wash all away.

The northern summer is over. Snowy places have snow. Even in the Bahamas and Florida the water temperature is dropping below what locals will swim in (though it doesn’t bother tourists). The day ages towards dark. The year ages towards winter. And we age too. But we know this when we sign up for morning, for spring, for life–and we sign up for everything because there is so much joy, beauty, discovery and love to be experienced.

In Kipling’s ‘Just So Stories‘ one of my favourite passages is the beginning of the story, ‘The Crab That Played With The Sea’:

Before the High and Far-Off Times, O my Best Beloved, came the Time of the Very Beginnings; and that was in the days when the Eldest Magician was getting Things ready. First he got the Earth ready; then he got the Sea ready; and then he told all the Animals that they could come out and play. And the Animals said, ‘O Eldest Magician, what shall we play at?’ and he said, ‘I will show you.’ He took the Elephant—All-the-Elephant-there-was—and said, ‘Play at being an Elephant,’ and All-the-Elephant-there-was played. He took the Beaver—All-the-Beaver-there-was and said, ‘Play at being a Beaver,’ and All-the Beaver-there-was played. He took the Cow—All-the Cow-there-was—and said, ‘Play at being a Cow,’ and All-the-Cow-there-was played. He took the Turtle—All-the-Turtle there-was and said, ‘Play at being a Turtle,’ and All-the-Turtle-there-was played. One by one he took all the beasts and birds and fishes and told them what to play at.

To me this is one of the great secrets of happiness: Play! Play at being who you are, what you are. That includes all your dreams and aspirations, because they are part of who you are. So play at them, as part of playing at what is to be done today. Just play. Play at being yourself.

‘Sandcastles’ was originally published in The Asses of Parnassus, a Tumblr site of “short, witty, formal poems”. This poem isn’t particularly formal, but it has iambics and a rhyme… and it’s short.

Photo: “Sandcastles” by RobW_ is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Poem: ‘Poetic Themes’

You wake and see dew on the grass in spring
But I see futures present changes bring:
Global warming replacing dew with drought,
Nanotech replacing grass with grout,
A.I. replacing people’s minds and thought,
Genetic mods replacing us—with what?
In other words, our world’s about to pass.
Poetry must be more than dew on grass.

I was honestly a little surprised when Light Poetry Magazine told me they would publish this poem. I mostly associate them with their snippy, jokey little poems that appear weekly on topical subjects, Poems Of The Week. Maybe this is unfair, as their full twice-yearly magazine profiles individual poets and has useful book reviews as well as poetry from a couple of dozen formal poets. Be that as it may, I felt this poem might be a little more Dark than Light.

Not that I’m pessimistic about the future. I’m intrigued, and resigned. Just as in William Golding’s ‘The Inheritors’ in which a tribe of early humans finds modern humans moving in and displacing them, so modern humans look like being displaced by something we can’t yet identify. We are like Native Americans when the Europeans started arriving, like White America as the demographic shifts to a more globally representative population, or like every generation that finds the children and grandchildren listening to unrecognisable music and using incomprehensible technology. Is any of this bad? It can be handled well or badly, but it is a natural and unending process.

And now we’re facing a variety of technologies that together can completely remake the human: genetic engineering, A.I., robotics, infinite data-crunching, nanotechnology… Will we casually and irresponsibly start remaking humans? Of course. It’s inevitable. If one country clamps down on it, it will simply happen elsewhere. And what is the likely outcome? I haven’t a clue, but I’m intrigued.

Photo: “morning dew” by haglundc is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Poem: ‘Chrysalis’

After a billion years of larval hit-and-miss
humans emerged, stood up, and fed, and grew,
started to build their city chrysalis
from which, 3,000 years entombed, now formed anew,
they burst in wild bright flight with wings deployed
out to the stars. The egg case of this final birth,
the Earth,
was, naturally, destroyed.

We have good news and bad news. The bad news is that the rate of change is ever-increasing in all aspects of human life–from our bodies to our planet–and we will never return to the old normal. The good news is that this is the process by which life advantages to higher levels of organisation and intelligence.

This poem was originally published in Star*Line, one of the two magazines of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Poetry Association (SFPA). The other magazine is Eye to the Telescope (ETTT).

The poem rhymes and is written in iambics; but the rhymes are not structured to a pattern, and the lines are of uneven length. This casual form is used by Matthew Arnold and T.S. Eliot among others, in some of my favourite poems such as A Summer Night (I have always loved the three paragraphs beginning with:

For most men in a brazen prison live,
Where, in the sun’s hot eye,
With heads bent o’er their toil, they languidly
Their lives to some unmeaning taskwork give,
Dreaming of naught beyond their prison wall.
)

and The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. The form doesn’t have the musicality of more regular forms like the sonnet or limerick, but it provides all the memorising strength of rhythm and rhyme within a more conversational flow, and facilitates different lengths of thought including, if wanted, a punchline.

We live in difficult times, what with the unprecedented challenges of climate change, mass migration, infectious diseases, unpredictable technological advances in weaponry, and more. And the problems will continue to multiply and get larger, even as we develop solutions to the smaller, simpler ones. And from the inevitable destruction of our form of life will emerge… what? We cannot know, we probably cannot even imagine.

Photo credit: “Cicada emerging from old exoskeleton” by Shek Graham is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Poem: ‘Lizard an Mosquito’

Mosquito bite yuman,
Now e full a blood.
Lizard eat mosquito
Say, man dis is good.

Lizard help hatch mosquito,
Raise dem up good.
Send dem out like good daddy
Fe go find yuman blood.

Mosquito so happy
Dem eat plenty blood.
Lizard so happy
Dem mosquito taste good.

Politician same like dis:
Yu clap an yu sing,
Yu eleck im an den
E tax yu ting an ting.

I don’t normally write dialect verse, but it seemed appropriate for this idea. It was originally published in Snakeskin, republished in both The Hypertexts and Better Than Starbucks. The Bahamian accent can sound impenetrable to foreigners, but the words and grammar are not so different from standard English. By the way, “ting an ting” is just the non-specific plural of “tingum”–unspecified “stuff” rather than a specific “thing”.

Photo: “Brutality against mosquitoes.” by Bobinson K B is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0