Category Archives: sonnets

Sonnet: “From the Sudden Sun”

Life bioengineers its seamless rounds
with green leaves scarleting in fierce blue skies,
falling from sudden sun or winds that rise
with violin-sad sighing, dying, sounds.
Toddlers in pointlessly expensive clothes
with pregnant women breadily approach
some non-migrating geese which with reproach
lift in unfrantic flight to lake’s repose.
Despite such fertile life, the living leaves
blaze with the imminence of winter’s touch
and dead leaves blow beyond the groundsman’s clutch
in a wind chilled for one who disbelieves
that life entails the sudden cutting short
of your expression flowering in mid

Another of my existential sonnets, first published by Bewildering Stories (thanks, Don Webb). And, again, Don gave it a crisper title than my original “The Interplay of Life and Death in Fall”. I wrote this in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, watching the Canada geese at a small lake behind an upscale not-really-rural office building. Fall is, like every season, intensely evocative of human life.

I admit the ending involves a cheap trick–but leaving off the last word is designed to drive home the thought of mortality, and the missing rhyme is a perfect one… at least with an English accent, if not an American one…

 

Sonnet: “Sly Reality”

Quantum entanglement

“2” by khumana

Sometimes a parent, dying far away,
says goodbye in a dream; or a child in harm
causes the distant mother sharp alarm;
or a crow caws of death, sensing decay.
Tots babble of imaginary friends –
and some prove real, strangers to all concerned,
long dead. But the experience is spurned,
and soon the child forgets, the memory ends.

No alternate world, Narnia, Looking Glass;
these are events, though rare, we all have had
if honest with ourselves. Not good or bad,
entanglement hints who’s in your karass –
doing God’s unknown work, Vonnegut reckons.
Some sly reality peeks through and beckons…

This sonnet was originally published in Bewildering Stories, and renamed ‘Sly Reality’ at the suggestion of editor Don Webb. I had submitted the poem to him with the title ‘On the Quantum Entanglement of Humans’, which was itself a change from my early draft ‘Indications of a Karass’. But I figured not enough people would know what a karass is. Don may have figured the same about QE… or, more likely, he just has an eye for a punchy title.

Regardless, I see the world, the universe, as unknowably strange and I suspect it of being deliberately so. Everyone (perhaps) has experiences that fall outside normal scientific explanation, but everyone interprets their origin and importance differently. For myself, I think of most of them as being related to some quantum entanglement of people who have been physically close (none more so than mother and child, or twins in the womb). And then, when there is a change of state in one (the aged mother dies, for example) it registers immediately, regardless of distance, with the other (the now adult child, in this example).

When you have a “woo-woo” experience, you can dismiss and forget it, or you can ascribe it to whatever spiritual or religious power you believe in, or (like me) you can insist there has to be a rational explanation, we just don’t yet understand the workings of the universe well enough.

I’m not prepared to say I’m an Atheist, because I don’t have an answer to the question “Why is there anything?” So I’ll settle for Militant Agnostic: “I don’t know, and you don’t either.”

Potcake Poet’s Choice: Brian Gavin, “The Work of Trees”

Brian Gavin 2020

Brian Gavin

The Work of Trees

Things, like people, in the business of decay
depend on trees. Within this latticed dusk
the wearying pretensions fall away
like flecks of paint from off a shrouded husk
of clapboard, and green stones spilling from a fence.
The house leans forward now, nails soft with rust —
it is the way an aged woman bends
forward in prayer, shapeless in shawl. There must
be trees beneath which things grow ripe and rot,
to be again with other things, in dreams —
old women at mass, men at bars, forgotten
things, distilled of story. Underneath the beams
the brush ebbs; all change is by degrees
of lessening – that is the work of trees.

Brian Gavin writes: “This poem ran a couple of years ago in The Road Not Taken: A Journal of Formal Poetry. I chose it because, for me anyway, the compelling thing about writing poetry is the way that a poem kind of leads the poet where it wants to go. With this poem, for example, I had absolutely no idea what it was going to be about. Then I started playing around with the image of the dilapidated house and the other images and rhymes until it seemed like the poem was satisfied!

I find writing this stuff to be most gratifying when the process plays out this way, and least gratifying when I try to tell the poem what to do.”

Brian Gavin is a retired Distribution Manager who started writing poetry about 5 years ago. His poems have appeared in The Journal of Formal Poetry, Peninsula Poets and Snakeskin Magazine, and in the Potcake Chapbook ‘Careers and Other Catastrophes’. He lives in Lakeport, Michigan, USA, with his wife Karen.

Sonnet: “When the A.I. Hit”

When the AI hit, Diamandis, Thiel,
Branson, Page, Brin, some Russians and Chinese
became the gods of Earth, of skies and seas,
by grappling it to themselves with hoops of steel;
appeared as giants, credit cards, or scotch
to screw with mortals, rape them just for play;
fought, and destroyed the Earth, blasted away…
taking along, as fleas on arms, legs, crotch,
musician, writer, politician, whore,
derelict, linguist, murderer, the insane…
some samples of the human heart and brain
as being interesting distractions for
the gaps of interstellar time and space.
Aspire to fleadom, folks, or leave no trace.

This sonnet was originally published in Snakeskin a couple of years ago. Like the previous sonnet I put up here, it reflects my concerns about the near future. The list of people who might take advantage of the possibilities offered by the ongoing revolutions in genetics, robotics, A.I. and Nanotechnology should today include Elon Musk–but the candidates for practical godhood change every few years.

And what the vast majority of left-behind humans can do about it is anyone’s guess.

Sonnet: “When the A.I. Starts Analyzing Us”

artificial-intelligence

In the dire months before the comet hits
or other unavoidable known doom occurs,
all social structure fails, all vision blurs,
that world–in book or film–goes on the fritz.
The reader or the viewer merely sits;
asked of his own mortality, demurs–
“My death’s not imminent.” The crowd concurs:
others’ll die first; we won’t lose our wits.

Our AI, tasked with knowing human minds,
reads, views, reviews disasters huge, small, odd,
absorbs how humans pray in grief and tears,
the Bible, Shakespeare, the Quran, and finds
our gods by crowdsourcing our hopes and fears…
works out just what to do… becomes our God.

This sonnet was originally published in Snakeskin. The near future obsesses me–I don’t see homo sapiens continuing for another 100 years as the lords of this planet. But what will supplant us appears unknowable. I’ll stick around as long as I can to watch…

The Greatest Early 21st c. Poet? M.A. Griffiths

M.A. Griffiths

Margaret Ann Griffiths–scanned photo provided by David Adkins

Ruthless, witty, iconoclastic poetry–much of it formal, much of it free–by a lighthearted woman with much to be serious about. Just coming into international prominence as an internet-oriented poet as she turned 60, Margaret Ann Griffiths was dying of an incurable stomach ailment. She posted poems online under her own name and as “Maz” and “Grasshopper” from 2001 until her death in 2009. Her only book, Grasshopper, was assembled posthumously from her writings in print and on line around the globe; it has 352 pages of poems, plus an extensive preface by Alan Wickes.

Probably her best-known poem is the Eratosphere prize-winning Opening a Jar of Dead Sea Mud:

The smell of mud and brine. I’m six, awash
with grey and beached by winter scenery,
pinched by the Peckham girl who calls me posh,
and boys who pull live crabs apart to see
me cry. And I am lost in that grim place
again, coat buttoned up as tight as grief.
Sea scours my nostrils, strict winds sand my face,
the clouds pile steel on steel with no relief.

Sent there to convalesce – my turnkeys, Sisters
of Rome, stone-faced as Colosseum arches –
I served a month in Stalag Kent, nursed blisters
in beetle shoes on two-by-two mute marches.
I close the jar, but nose and throat retain
an after-tang, the salt of swallowed pain.

She was a brilliant sonneteer (which seems to be a less exalted compliment in the US than in the UK), but also irreverent in light verse as in Clogs which begins:

The Queen Mum’s gorn and popped her clogs;
the telly’s stuffed with Royal progs.
I’ve heard a thousand epilogues
now the old Queen Mum has popped her clogs…

skillful with dialect verse, as in Fer Blossom:

Tha’s not allowed ta bury pigs, tha knows.
I blinks et Blossom’s bulk stratched awt on
a bad of bettercups end pink-tinged deisies,
aye closed es ef ha nipped off en a nep…

skillful with unstructured verse, as in Falling:

In the library,
you fell over me.
You said, So sorry.
I said, Ouch.
Later you fell over me
on the couch…

parody, as in Cutlet, Mince of Denmark, whose Act 1 is:

What fowl noisette’s abroad this night? I walk
the battlements. Porked lightning! Next appears
my father’s goose. O Veni, son, he says. We talk
of offal oxtails – poussin in his ears!

And the rolling, sonorous Sholey, beginning

Sholey brings the summer in a shiny old tin bucket
every year. He walks head high across the mountains
carrying the flowers. In the brim of his wide hat
nestle songbird eggs in pastel clutches…

I find it impossible to quote a full range of her poetry, there is too much, too diverse. But my favourites are her sonnets, circling around her themes of pets and poets, nature and history, war, women and sex… and illness and death.

Born and raised in London, an archaeology student at Cardiff, she lived in Poole on England’s south coast for the last decades of her life. Online she worked with poets around the world; offline she lived alone and unknown, her death not discovered for a month.

Google her, read whatever shows up, and then buy Grasshopper. I would recommend it to anyone who reads or writes poetry, anyone. I dip into it periodically, and read it right through every two or three years.

M.A. Griffiths–Maz–with her technical skill, insight, imagery, empathy and vast range… might just be the early 21st century’s greatest poet.

Potcake Poet’s Choice: Gail White, “Anecdotal Evidence”

Gail White

Gail White

ANECDOTAL EVIDENCE

My aunt who brought her kidney function back
By eating grapefruit seeds for fifty days
Makes no impression on our local quack.
It’s anecdotal evidence, he says.
There are no reproducible results.
Another person might eat grapefruit seeds
For fifty days and cease to have a pulse.
Cause and effect’s the evidence he needs.
The evidence is all in favor of
The proposition that the dead are dead,
Despite our bitter hope and wistful love.
Yet when my mother died, my father said
That just before the chill that would not thaw,
Her face lit up with joy at what she saw.

Gail White writes: “One poem out of a lifetime’s work is hard to choose, but I find that when I think back over many years of sonnets, my mind keeps settling on this one (first published in Measure). The opening is light (and fictional), but the final sentence on my mother’s death is serious (and true). Perhaps for that reason it has stayed near my heart.”

Gail White is the resident poet and cat lady of Breaux Bridge, Louisiana. Her poems appear in several of the Potcake Chapbooks, available from Sampson Low Publishers; her books ASPERITY STREET and CATECHISM are available on Amazon. She is a contributing editor to Light Poetry Magazine. “Tourist in India” won the Howard Nemerov Sonnet Award for 2013.

Sonnet: “Viking Slave”

Viking funeral

Why did they make me swallow this mead muck?
My lord, alive, would barely let me drink.
They wouldn’t treat his wife this way, I think.
Now all I am is something they can fuck.
They say this way they’re sharing in their lord,
Behaving as he did with me, his slave.
And now they launch his boat upon the wave,
The dragon boat with him and me aboard.
Just me, his horse, his sword… the boat’s been fired;
An honour, just for me, not for his wife;
So with him I will end this stage of life
And go with him to Asgard… I’m so tired,
Couldn’t move even if I wasn’t tied.
They told his wife he loved her too. They lied.

This sonnet was published in the Rat’s Ass Review, Summer 2020 issue. The image of the burning longship funeral, complete with much-used female slave, goes back to the writings of Ahmad ibn Fadlan. In 922 he was sent as part of an embassy from the Caliph of Baghdad to the king of the Volga Bulgars, and ibn Fadlan wrote several pages on the Vikings who had settled along the Russian river Volga. (The very word Russia comes from “Rus”, Vikings from southern Sweden.)

Unfortunately for the burning ship image we love, the Viking chief’s boat was burnt on the shore of the river–at least in ibn Fadlan’s account. That allowed ship, chief and slave to be entombed. But it’s still a great image. Perhaps in other times and places…

 

Sonnet: “Flags We Have Feared”

The Swastika, that ancient Vedic sign,
the lightning wheels with which the Aryan bands
in lightning war overrun other lands,
wheeled juggernauts that crush, self-claimed divine.
Hammer and Sickle, commoners’ work-tools;
weapons for rising up, and tearing down
the castle of the rich, the bourgeois town;
fake honour to the poor the Party rules.
A flag with Stripes, memorial for flogged slaves,
striped jail clothes for resulting underclass;
and Stars like bullets through the windshield’s glass
for leaders by the CIA shot down,
star earned for each election overthrown,
star for each land the flag invades, or ‘saves’.

This sonnet was originally and ironically published in Ambit in the UK. The irony being, of course, that the Union Jack is viewed by much of the world with as much fear and hostility as any of the other three flags. But you don’t learn that, or the reasons for it, in school in the UK–at least not in England. The British (at least the English) have a warm and fuzzy feeling toward their flag, and are innocent or puzzled that anyone else should find it negative. Similarly in the times of the other three flags, the Germans (at least the Aryans), the Soviets (at least the Russians) and the Americans (at least the whites) have been happy and proud of their flag, puzzled that anyone else should fear or dislike it.

Another irony: the jury is still out on to what extent one of the leaders shot down by the CIA was their own.

Technically it’s a sonnet with a non-standard rhyme scheme: ABBA CDDC EFFGGE. But the rhymes and the scansion are OK. As for the volta, the requisite turn of mood or argument between the octave and the sestet… well, after dealing with the two great enemies of western democracy, you weren’t expecting me to pick on the US, were you?

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.