Category Archives: Robin Helweg-Larsen

Short poem: ‘Into the Cryonics Dewar’

We had no destination ever, from birth,
save into the ultimate ocean, or ultimate fire, or ultimate earth.
Now we have not quite so ultimate ice.
For now, it will have to suffice.

The chance of reanimation from cryonic suspension may be small, but still greater than the chance of reanimation after creation or burial in land or at sea. And I guess we now have a fifth option – ending up off-planet, adrift in space. But in effect that will be a variant on “not-quite-so-ultimate ice”. In space you’d end up near Absolute Zero, as with cryonics – but whereas with cryonics there is the miniscule hope of eventual reanimation, in space your ultimate fate would be that of all space debris: drifting for millions of years until burning up into a star or planet, or getting sucked into a black hole.

Life, death, quite fascinating. Not many options for changing the outcome, though various billionaires are throwing some of their money at the search for immortality, as people have done since at least the time of the pharaohs and early Chinese emperors. And why not? think it’s “just science fiction”? For thousands of years we used to dream we could fly to the moon, and that happened eventually…

This poem was originally published in Snakeskin #274, July 2020. Thanks, George Simmers!

Photo: cryonics.org

Sonnet: “What Will You Be When You Grow Up?”

Historically, this never was a thing.
You did what you were born to do, were told,
Fitting yourself into your parent’s mold,
A farmer’s son a farmer, king’s son a king,
A girl to be a mother and a wife.
But then came education, travel, choice,
Awareness of the wishes you could voice,
Countries, careers, sex partners — it’s your life!
And though just who you are you cannot know,
Nor what you want, yet all is your decision.
You’ll make mistakes, find failures and derision,
But life is long: so have another go . . .
Retry, and then try something else; take; give.
Do what you love. You die, regardless. Live!

This sonnet is a mirror of the short poem I posted most recently – and I’m happy to see that my outlook has a certain consistency, even over a 50 year period.

The sonnet has just been published in the formal verse section of the current Better Than Starbucks – thanks, Vera Ignatowitsch!

Photo: “career choices” by Jerome T is marked with CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Short poem: ‘Remember’

Remember the whole world’s in your range,
When all your strength is gone.
If you can’t accept, then rearrange;
Can’t rearrange, move on.

I wrote this little poem when I was a very unsettled and directionless 20-year-old, and I lived by its tenets for several years, constantly changing jobs, countries and relationships. Eventually I slowed down, only changing jobs, countries and relationships once every few decades. But I still hold to the principle that you have no obligation to stay in an unsatisfactory situation, that you should actively try to identify what makes you happiest at the deepest level and then change your life in that direction. And sometimes random change is an appropriate if temporary solution.

This poem was finally published, decades later, in The Asses of Parnassus.

Photo: “File:Banksy Hitchhiker to Anywhere Archway 2005.jpg” by User:Justinc is marked with CC BY-SA 2.0.

Epigram: ‘Bit with Bite’

I think I’ve blinked
At what you write:
Edgy, succinct–
A bit with bite.

This is in the spirit of a homage to The Asses of Parnassus, in which the poem found a home. Editor Brooke Clark has created a tumblr account that for the past few years has been posting “Short, witty, formal poems” on an occasional (i.e. erratic) basis, much in the spirit of Latin and Greek epigrams (and often translations of them, or modern retellings).

This poem itself is not particularly noteworthy – but I enjoyed rhyming ‘blinked’ with ‘succinct’, as well as the ‘think/blink’ and ‘bit/bite’ pairings. Wordplay is at the heart of poetry, from Anglo-Saxon alliteration to modern rap, from nursery rhymes to Shakespearean sonnets. Wordplay is memorable, and sharpens the pain of an epigrammatic jab. Use it, if you want your barbs to be effective.

Kyrielle: ‘Desire is the Last Domino to Fall’

Religion starts as trying to explain,
Progresses to high priests’ financial gain.
I’ve tried religions, and seen through them all;
Desire is the last domino to fall.

Explore the world – well, fifty lands’ enough;
Novelty fades; folks are just folks; stuff’s stuff.
I’ve seen both rich and poor round this blue ball;
Desire is the last domino to fall.

And I’ve gone barefoot, and I’ve gone first class:
The trinkets pall beside bare feet on grass.
Markets go up and down and they too pall;
Desire is the last domino to fall.

The fearful right, the overtrusting left:
Politics, history, both of sense bereft.
Reagan’s road leads to Trump and hits a wall;
Desire is the last domino to fall.

My arts expression’s been in writing verse–
The arse end, clearly, of the universe.
There’s rarely silver in the nets I haul;
Desire is the last domino to fall.

I’ve had my fill of sex – but when I see
A vibrant youth, my thoughts are freshly free.
I want, though why I want I mayn’t recall…
Desire is the last domino to fall.

This poem, published by George Simmers in April’s Snakeskin, flowed straight out of a comment by Jackson Browne in a Guardian article on his latest album, ‘Downhill From Everywhere’. My thanks go to Mindy Watson, creator of poems in every form she hears of, for identifying this one as a kyrielle. I hadn’t set out to write within a specific form, I merely wrote a poem that used a repeating last line of the stanza. And this highlights one of the things about form: form follows function, in poetry as in architecture. Metre, rhyme scheme, line length, all these are chosen for their appropriateness for the mood and content of the poem. Ballads, sonnets, couplets, villanelles, each type finds its best use in a different situation, each evolved to provide a good expression of a different mood, each became popular as its expressive strength was demonstrated.

A kyrielle seems to me a natural poetic construct for an expression of prayer or despair or wherever all avenues of thought lead back obsessively to the same essential fact or wish. It was formalised in the time of the troubadours, and its name derives from the Late Latin phrase “kyrie eleison“, “Lord, have mercy”. Very appropriate.

Photo: “Where It All Began” by mckinney75402 is marked with CC BY 2.0.

Experimental Poem: ‘Pumpkins’

I said: “Look at the little kids playing Tag round the pumpkins – you can be that age again, if you close your eyes and remember pumpkins almost as big as you, too big to move – the massive newness, strangeness of them, never seen before, so big, but obviously to sight and touch a vegetable – you can reexperience the never before experienced, a world in which everything new absorbs your mind, and every minute you experience something new – playing Tag is a sensory delight, of running-and-not-falling (wobbly) in the half-dark (strange light) around pumpkins (absorbing color and texture) with an older sibling (touch and clutch) across strewn hay (a new but not difficult surface) and sometimes wooden pallets (a new and bizarre and impossible-to-run-on surface) but mostly the joy of running in the dark as a physical delight and not falling over – and then you stop and sit and throw straw in the air, and it doesn’t hurt (unlike gravel) and it doesn’t make a mess (unlike mud) and it doesn’t really get in your hair and eyes (unlike sand) and it also doesn’t really go anywhere no matter how hard you throw it (unlike any of them) and you laugh; you can remember all that if you can remember/imagine all the pumpkins three times as big, nearly as tall as you, too big to move – and adults become a different species, they go “Wa-wa-wa-wa-wa-wa-wa-wa” and make no sense, so you only really talk with other kids until finally an adult breaks into your world and tags your mind, and makes you hear with threats of violent pain, makes you give up your soul in self-defence,
Leaves you a narrow life of yes’m, no’m.”
She said: “You don’t make any sense.
Go write a poem.”

This is the last of five poems recently published in The Brazen Head. Technically it might be a quatrain… but unmetered, and with a very long first line. Neither this post nor The Brazen Head manage the format that I wanted, which is to have the bulk of the poem (everything that overflows the first printed line) inset half an inch from the left margin where the four lines start. This is designed to make that body of text look somewhat pumpkiny. Here I’ve settled for bolding the first words of each line.

The poem itself tries to recapture the flood of sensation that a child experiences in a new environment. A coffee shop in a wooded suburban area of Carrboro, North Carolina, had a large outdoor area of pallets, hay bales and enormous pumpkins in the run-up to Halloween, and small children were running riot in it as the evening drew in. For a moment I felt able to recapture the massive novelty of childhood experience.

Photo: “Pumpkin Patch Kid” by mountain_doo2 is marked with CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Poem: ‘Poems Like Motes of Dust’

Like tiny midges, poems in the air
were unseen all my life, presence unclear,
occasionally one would land, bite, sting…
I’d be aware
a poem had come, was singing by my ear.
Now everything, literally every thing,

is a poem: a car, a dog, a glass,
a chair, a seagull, every blade of grass,
all people and each thing they pass.
Now I see swarms, millions of flies,
or like light’s dots of darkness thickening as day dies,

the poems are visible in the air around,
a pointillist canvas, every dot
a poem in itself, an image, word, rhyme, thought,
or like neutrinos streaming from the sun,
billions a second passing with no sound
unseen, unfelt, through everyone,
the poetry of existence, raw, untaught.

The Universe: a cloud of dust that hangs and floats,
dust like a drive of cattle on the range,
or when you fill a barn with dusty motes
by sudden action, and a sunbeam’s slice;
or as Sumerian gods convene, converse,
swarming like flies around burnt sacrifice,

summoned by smell of sacrificial meal…
was it my sacrifices made this change,
made poems visible like motes of dust?
Is this the Universe’s thrust?
Hide them, and then reveal?
For all the poems make one UniVerse.

This is the fourth of a series of five poems recently published in The Brazen Head. It is semi-formal: written in iambics with lines of uneven length, fully rhymed but not to any pattern. My model for this style of verse is Matthew Arnold’s ‘A Summer Night‘, a poem that I have loved and recited since high school. (We can leave for another time the debate about whether his poem should have stopped as originally at the final question mark, or whether the years-later addition of the subsequent lines is an improvement.)

Smoky Dusty Light Rays Texture” by Sprogz is marked with CC BY-NC 2.0.

Epigram: ‘The Gods Compete’

The gods compete; some harvest verse, some tears,
Some deaths in battle, some vague hopes and fears.

This epigram is nondenominational–in the sense that I don’t have any preference for how people view, or are attracted to, some particular god.

More challenging is the punctuation. Good punctuation definitely helps guide the reader through the meanings of the passage, but what is ‘good’ varies by culture. Many Americans loathe the semicolon beloved by writers of convoluted passages. Many people argue for or against comma placements. In this piece, a 17-word sentence, the first line seems clearer than the second. “Some deaths in battle” might in this case be better written as “Some, deaths in battle” but that would suggest following it with “some, vague hopes and fears.” Then it might be preferable to separate those two parts of the line with a semicolon… but then perhaps the previous line should end in a semicolon too… but then what about the semicolon after “The gods compete”? Replace it with a colon.

I can’t help thinking of the remark often attributed to Oscar Wilde, or, as David Galef pointed out in the New York Times, Gustave Flaubert: “I spent the morning putting in a comma. In the afternoon I removed it.”

The poem was originally published in The Asses of Parnassus–thanks, Brooke Clark!

Photo: “Pergamon Museum _DSC17798” by youngrobv is marked with CC BY-NC 2.0.

Poem: ‘Leadership Transition’

Julius Caesar, Antony, King Lear,
Hamlet, Macbeth – corrupted, vain, impure,
Irrational, bombastic, insecure –
He’s no more clarity or veritas
Than the deceptions of a covert war,
All morals blurred.

That tyrant rant, Tyrannosaurus roar,
Forecasts he’ll suffer a dictator’s fate:
His proud obsessed confusion first seems great,
Then grates, unravels at the seams, slips gear,
Loses its moral metaphors, grows crass;
He dies absurd.

Octavius, Malcolm, Edgar, Fortinbras,
Comes from the wings and strides to centre stage –
Competent, measured, reasonable, sane –
To rule the wreckage of the tragic reign;
Restores some structure, closes out the age,
Speaks the last word.

This archetypal character’s strong thump
Will get his nation out of the morass;
The raucous self-styled hero being dead,
A truer leader takes the throne instead.
(How Shakespeare’d end the Tragedy of Trump
Can be inferred.)

The common fate of Shakespeare’s flawed protagonists–death, and replacement by a more worthy ruler–is a story that humans enjoy and wish applied in their own times and countries… although they may naturally disagree on which ruler is disgraceful and which would be more worthy. Speaking for myself, I don’t need to see a death–I’d be happy for Putin and Trump to avoid assassination or jail by going into comfortable exile at a golf hotel in southern Russia. (You read it first here.) But Shakespeare would deal with them more definitively.

This poem is the third of the five poems published this month in The Brazen Head. Its four stanzas are in iambic pentameter with a short 6th line. The rhymes largely carry over between stanzas–the 6th lines only rhyme with each other. The rhymes and the stanza structure are designed to create a sense of satisfactory achievement–exactly what I feel with Biden taking over from Trump. (Similarly I would love to see Navalny take over from Putin, and almost anyone replace Boris Johnson.)

York Minster – June 2013 – Emperor Constantine – One Cool Dude” by Gareth1953 All Right Now is marked with CC BY 2.0.

Experimental Poem: ‘Pointillist’

(Note: this poem is so named because if you look at it closely you may not find as much meaning as if you step back, let it flow past you, and see an outline of a story.)

Awake
Anew
Awhile
Askew;
Afoot
Among
Amass
Along;
Abet
Aback
Ado
Alack;
Alas!

Abroad
Again
Astride
Amain;
Atop
Alight
Aglow
Afright;
Afar
Ahead
Aloft
Abed;
Alone!

Aware
Amused
Affair
Accused;
Away
Aboard
Affray
Abhorred;
Aground
Alive
Abound
Arrive;
Ahoy!

Array
Await
Assay
Abate;
Appraise
Accord
Amaze
Adored;
Apprise
Appoint
Arise
Anoint;
Adieu!

This poem started (if I remember correctly) as four or five of the early words coming into my head with a sense of rhyme and rhythm when I was on the point of falling asleep. I roused myself enough to write the words down, doing what I consider an essential part of the communication I long for with my unconscious, my Muse–acknowledge the Muse by writing whatever is offered to you, whether or not it is complete or makes sense.

The next day I wrote more, keeping to iambic monometer and words of Anglo-Saxon derivation beginning with A. As a hint of a story took shape, I kept writing. After the first two stanzas I moved over into words of Latin derivation and went for more intense rhyme. Long lists of words were involved. After four days I had the whole poem.

As for the story itself… I see a hero setting out, failing, trying again, under threat, escaping by boat, shipwrecked, and finally rewarded. Are they male or female, and of what age? Did they have a love affair? Did they end up at home or in foreign lands? If you look at the poem sideways you may find an answer that suits you. Or (of course) not.

‘Pointillist’ was the second of five poems recently published in the Poetry section of The Brazen Head.

Pointillistically abstracted” by readerwalker is marked with CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.