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.

Potcake Poet’s Choice: Jerome Betts, ‘Morning Calls’

Though buds, light-headed, arrow to the sun,
Wood-pigeons cautiously descend to drink
As through the roof the first faint cheepings run
From half-fledged nestlings in some straw-warm chink,
While welling far and near − to float and sink
Like spidery fibre silvered on the lawn −
Mercurial lark song trails out link by link,
Rocking serrated-throated crows have drawn
Their broad indelible raw weals across the dawn.

Jerome Betts writes: “Have only tried the intricate patterning of the ‘Spenserian stanza‘ a couple of times. On the first occasion it seemed to suit a comment on the design of a 4th century Roman mosaic floor and on the second, in ‘Morning Calls’, appearing in Snakeskin, a memory of the rich dawn chorus in rural Herefordshire many years ago. The point of particular interest for me is the phrase ‘rocking serrated-throated crows’ in Line 8, unchanged from one jotted at the time. The words fitted a rocking or bobbing movement, but why ‘serrated-throated’?  This is appropriate for ravens with their ‘shaggy throat feathers’  (RSPB Handbook 2014) but not, I thought, crows. The words resisted attempts at tweaking and the stanza stalled. Some weeks later I saw a crow standing on top of a Devon street light rhythmically calling and rocking . . . and as it did so its neck feathers briefly parted on the upstroke of the movement. The line had preserved an exact observation made when young and then forgotten.”

Jerome Betts edits the quarterly verse webzine Lighten Up Online in Devon. His work has appeared in Amsterdam Quarterly, Angle, Autumn Sky Poetry Daily, Pennine Platform, Light, The Rotary Dial, and Snakeskin, other American, British and Canadian publications and two Iron Press anthologies.
www.lightenup-online.co.uk

Photo: “A Crow calling – gardenDSCN9711” by ianpreston is marked with CC BY 2.0.

Review: ’51 Poems’ by Marcus Bales

This is poetry as it is meant to be: evocative and word-for-word memorable. Fair disclosure: I am an online friend of Marcus Bales – and I am so because his poetry is evocative, memorable, witty… and it all rhymes and scans in the most natural and elegant way.

His collection of ‘51 Poems‘ contains sections with very different moods. The first ones recapture childhood and wartime experiences and then give way to my personal favourites, a series of poems of love, love that in one way or another is unattained, incomplete: Pre-Flight, “I called goodbye. By then she couldn’t hear.//I pulled the chocks away, and she was gone.” Broken Sunlight “streaming down his face.” Have You Forgotten “it all, and all so soon?” Me and the Moon. Dancing with Abandon. And Precipice: “and knowing everybody knows//I’m dancing on a cliff edge, unaware//of where the precipice gives way to air.”

Others of his poems are portraits of very diverse people, political or social commentary, and (most memorably) flawless parodies of Keats, Poe, W.S. Gilbert, Auden, Shakespeare, Kipling among others. It is in the parodies that he shows the greatest diversity of rhyme and metre, because his ear catches the rhythms of other poets as easily as it understands iambic pentameters.

Online you will find him knocking out sarcastic little quatrains almost daily in Facebook. He was a standard contributor in The Rotary Dial (now sadly defunct), and frequently appears in the Potcake Chapbooks. Read 51 Poems for the wit and the human insights, and you will be rewarded with memorable earworms of wordplay and verbal dexterity.

Potcake Poet’s Choice: Michael R. Burch, ‘Neglect’

What good are tears?
Will they spare the dying their anguish?
What use, our concern
to a child sick of living, waiting to perish?

What good, the warm benevolence of tears
without action?
What help, the eloquence of prayers,
or a pleasant benediction?

Before this day is over,
how many more will die
with bellies swollen, emaciate limbs,
and eyes too parched to cry?

I fear for our souls
as I hear the faint lament
of theirs departing …
mournful, and distant.

How pitiful our “effort,”
yet how fatal its effect.
If they died, then surely we killed them,
if only with neglect.

Michael R. Burch writes: “This original poem has over 3,000 Google results, perhaps because it has been published by Daily Kos, Black Kos, Course Hero, Think Positive, Katutura (Namibia), Vanguard News (Nigeria), Best Naira News (Nigeria), The World News Platform, Darfur Awareness Shabbat, Genocide in Art, Genocide Awareness, and other human rights organizations including the UNHCR (United Nations Refugee Agency).”

Photo: “Carrying a lifeless and dying child (Famine Memorial)” by Can Pac Swire is marked with CC BY-NC 2.0.

My own comments: The statue in the photo is at House Quay, Dublin, and relates specifically to the Great Famine, the Great Hunger, the Irish Potato Famine of 1845-1852 in which a million died and two million left the country then and in the next couple of years. The potato blight also impacted continental Europe, causing a further 100,000 deaths there and becoming a contributory cause of the widespread Revolutions of 1848.

So let us be clear: whether children are dying from famine, climate disaster, pandemics, government inaction, or warfare (all present in today’s world)–dying without in any conceivable way being culpable–there is not just a moral duty to help, there is self-interest in helping, self-interest in preventing civil unrest and floods of refugees. Refugees are the product of an intolerable domestic situation: all other things being equal, people would rather make their future in the place they were raised, with familiar friends, family, foods, festivals. It is the duty of all governments to make all places so pleasant that no adults or children feel forced to leave, that no one is left to die.

Happy Easter. Happy Passover. Ramadan kareem.

Updated Call for Submissions: Potcake Chapbooks

I am always keen to read and consider rhymed and metered verse that has already been published. There are several chapbooks that are jostling in the queue for completion and publication:

City! Oh City! (urban life)
Just a Little Naughty
Portraits Unpleasant
Various Heresies (religion)
The Horror of Spring! (seasons)
a Christmas season chapbook, needs Hanukkah, Divali, Festivus, etc

and there are more; but a recent one, ‘Robots and Rockets’, wasn’t part of my original plans: I just ran across a bunch of Science Fiction poems that I liked, and they filled a chapbook nicely. So I’m an unashamed opportunist. I’ll modify my plans if I think something better is available. All the chapbooks listed above are nearly full already but, as with all of them, if I run across another poem I really like, I’ll include it. And if I receive enough good poems on an unplanned theme, that theme will get slotted in.

And if I receive more good poems than I can fit in a chapbook, there is a good chance of a second chapbook on the same theme. The most recent, ‘Travels and Travails’, is similar to the very first, ‘Tourists and Cannibals’; and the upcoming ‘Lost Love’ (which has gone to Alban Low for illustrating) is similar to the second chapbook, ‘Rogues and Roses’.

When there is enough good material on a single theme to fill 13 pages of a chapbook (still leaving room for Alban’s artwork, of course), then it may become the next project. But until a chapbook actually goes to print everything is subject to change. An even better poem may show up and displace one tentatively placed. A slew (or slough) of poems on a new theme may cause a reprioritisation of planned chapbooks.

This is one of the reasons that I prefer to consider only poems that have already been published–so that I don’t feel guilty about having a bunch of poems that will sit with me for months, years, and may or may not be included in the Potcake series. I have flagged a thousand poems that interest me; but I can only publish a dozen in a chapbook, and only a few chapbooks will get produced in a year.

Poems in the chapbooks run from two or three lines to some 40 lines in length–obviously, with space at a premium, poems over 20 lines and running over one page are less likely to be included… but it does happen. Other criteria: I’m looking for wit, elegance, a variety of traditional and nonce forms, a variety of voices and moods: happy, sad, angry, sardonic, meditative… anything interesting I can scrounge. If you have something you think I might like, on any topic, please send it along to robinhelweglarsen@gmail.com. Submit:

  • Formal, or traditional verse: rhymed and metrical
  • Previously published
  • Must be your own work, you must have the rights to it
  • Send 3 to 10 poems in a single attachment, or in the body of the email
  • In a covering note, include a link to where I can read more of your work

I can’t promise to use your work, but I will read it and reply!

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.

Potcake Poet’s Choice: Mindy Watson, ‘(Under)worlds Collide – (an ovillejo chain)’

Makaría, my girl, though you’ve heard 
Every word 
Of this myth I’ve recounted before, 
I implore 
You—indulge me again. For at last 
You’ve surpassed
Fragile childhood’s constraints. Now hold fast 
And let fantasy shift into creed. 
You’re Persephone’s daughter; please heed
Every word, I implore. You’ve surpassed 

Expectations I set at your birth.
From my dearth 
You drew bountiful joy; from disgrace 
You forged grace.
And it’s clear that your eyes could induce 
Mighty Zeus
To devise an elaborate ruse 
That would send you careening unseen
Down to Hades, where I was once queen. 
From my dearth, you forged grace mighty Zeus—

Who, three decades ago sent me bound 
Underground
As a chthonian bride—would aspire 
To acquire. 
Once, Demeter’s stray heart, all aglow
For the beau
She’d just met, allowed Zeus to sow woe.
He pared back the earth’s crust, laying waste 
To her harvest and left me displaced 
Underground to acquire. For the beau

Who then claimed me, I burned seven years. 
Through her tears, 
Fair Demeter cursed Earth and repealed
Springtime’s yield,
Vowing Winter would linger ‘til I
Bid goodbye 
To the underworld. Hades complied, 
For the innocent girl he’d once craved 
Was no more. As I rose, Mother waved 
Through her tears. Springtime’s yield bid goodbye

To its seven-year drought. But although
Status quo 
Seemed to flourish again, when detained
I’d retained 
Hades’ seed. It entrenched its black song
For so long 
In my belly, no matter how wrong,
The abyss still enthralled me. When eight 
More years passed, I spit out the innate 
Status quo I’d retained for so long,

And descended at twenty to reign
Hell’s domain.
Disavowing my schooling to seek 
Dark’s mystique,
In the city, I stripped on a stage
To assuage 
What convention had trapped in a cage.
And I deemed each male patron a thrall
On whose worship I’d draw to recall
Hell’s domain—dark’s mystique. To assuage 

The lacuna lost innocence spread 
In its stead,
I sought lust, ‘til a man who’d paid much 
Dared to touch 
Me as Zeus had once touched. But his ploy
To destroy
My esteem served instead to deploy 
Comprehension. Mercurial youth
Had to forfeit illusion that truth,
In its stead, dared to touch—to destroy.

While these decades I’ve learned to delight
In the light,
I acknowledge I’ll always endure
Dark’s allure. 
For the Hades against which I strain 
Lives to reign.
Makaría, I’ll need not explain
When, from underworld’s embers you rise
And return to me, blinking your eyes 
In the light—dark’s allure lives to reign.

Originally appeared in Star*Line, Fall 2018

Mindy Watson writes: “‘(Under)worlds Collide,’ which originally appeared in Star*Line’s Fall 2018 issue, constitutes my most ambitious attempt at restructuring a prior creative nonfiction/memoir essay (the initial ‘Underworlds Apart: A Story for Ailie’ piece appeared in Adelaide Magazine’s online March 2017 edition) into poetic form—in this case, an 8-stanza string of linked ovillejos. While the poem follows the original memoir’s metaphorical trajectory and overarching narrative—that is, a mother leverages a well-known Greek myth’s parallels to her own coming of age story to relay a “moral” (of sorts) to her burgeoning young daughter—I wanted the compressed, verse form to read less like a dark bedtime story and more like a literary song… but without losing the original’s intensity. While in hindsight I concede that my chosen form’s line/length constraints hampered my ability to clearly align my real-world characters to their mythological counterparts (a far easier feat via prose), I believe the form’s stipulation that each terminal ovillejo line contain a convergence of previously distinct phrases conferred a sense of interconnectedness between one elapsed past and another possible future that no mere prose ever could. I applaud George Simmers for penning ‘Strip,’ which made me remember my prior manifesto, and Robin for posting it.”

Mindy Watson is a formal verse poet and federal writer who holds an MA in Nonfiction Writing from Johns Hopkins University. Her poetry has appeared in venues including Snakeskin, Think Journal, the Poetry Porch, Orchards Poetry Journal, Better Than Starbucks, Eastern Structures, the Quarterday Review, and Star*Line. She’s also appeared in Sampson Low’s Potcake Poets: Form in Formless Times chapbook series and the Science Fiction and Fantasy Association’s 2019 Dwarf Stars Anthology. You may read her work at: 
https://mindywatson.wixsite.com/poetryprosesite.

Photo: “Persephone’s Rape at Uffizi -II” by Egisto Sani is marked with CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Potcake Poet’s Choice: George Simmers, ‘Strip’

The pub’s old-fashioned, and is somewhat seedy.
The clientele, all male, look lumpish, needy,
And when the stripper comes, their eyes are greedy.

A smile fixed firm upon her painted face,
She starts gyrating with a teasing grace,
Smoothly undressing at a languorous pace.

She struts through routine choreography
Removes her bra, and lets her breasts go free
The silent men watch her impassively.

And still they stare unmoving as she slips
The golden panties from her mobile hips,
Pauses a sec, then sensually unzips

Her smooth pink skin, and flings it open wide, 
To show the flesh and beating heart inside.
Her audience observes all this, dead-eyed.

The flesh from bone she now expertly rends,
And now it’s just her skeleton bops and bends
Seductively until the music ends.

Silence. She picks up flesh and skin, and drawers
So often dropped before on grubby floors.
The men are stirred to offer mild applause.

She dresses quickly, picks up a pint glass,
And then begins the customary pass
Among the men, who goggle at her arse,

Say nothing, but poke fivers in the pot
Because that is expected. They do not
Even try to meet her eye, or speak of what

They’ve seen, but, weekly ritual complete,
Get up, and, bodies drooping with defeat,
They head out to the grey indifferent street.

George Simmers writes: “It must be thirty years ago that I was in a run-down district of some industrial city, looking for a pub that would sell me a pint and a sandwich. I passed one with a sign that said ‘Stripper: 1.30’ and I thought: ‘Why not?’
The audience was very much as described in the poem, though the performance was less extreme. It was a fairly melancholy occasion, and one that stayed in my memory. It was a long while ago, and the pot that day probably filled with £1 notes (maybe even ten bob) rather than fivers, but I thought £5 would be the appropriate donation today – if lunchtime pub strippers still exist. They’re an endangered species in the North of England, I gather, and lockdown has probably killed them off completely.
I wrote this in triplets because the first three lines came to me together, and I thought I’d see how well I could continue. I feel the form somehow suits the subject, or at any rate is better than couplets, which tend to be faster-moving. The triplets seem (to me at least) sluggish and a bit unusual.
I dimly remember years ago seeing an animated film in which a stripper goes on to unzip her skin, so to that extent the poem is not original. But it was the deliberately unimpressed audience I really wanted to write about, and making them still stolid even after watching the impossible made my point, I hoped.
This is one of a series of poems that I’ve written over the past couple of years, telling stories that are extreme or somewhat gothic. I may get some of them together into a short collection later in the year.”

George Simmers used to be a teacher; now he spends much of his time researching literature written during and after the First World War. He has edited Snakeskin since 1995. It is probably the oldest-established poetry zine on the Internet. His work appears in several Potcake Chapbooks.
https://greatwarfiction.wordpress.com/
http://www.snakeskinpoetry.co.uk/

Photo: “luchavavoom stripper” by ourcommon is marked with CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.