Tag Archives: Bewildering Stories

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

Poem: “Preparing for Post-Humanity”

Here’s a series of tough queries for your superstitious theories,
For I find your ancient mindset very strange:

Will it still be incest if you don’t recognize each other,
Haven’t seen each other for a thousand years?
Ten thousand years?
If you’re blended into other people
Without an individual body?

Will it still be bestiality if the animal is smarter than you?
Talks to and seduces you?

Will it still be necrophilia if the death’s intentional,
By someone who will be revived, wants to enjoy
The random insults and dissolution of
The body after death?

I’ve no quarrels with your morals or your self-awarded laurels,
But review your preconceptions. Life will change!

The subject of transhumanism and post-humanism is endlessly fascinating to me. We are very early in the discovery stage of how the body works, how genes work, what causes aging, how we can successfully tinker with our physical structure in order to increase our capabilities and, more importantly, live healthily for as long as we want. But then what happens in the rest of society?

My personal opinion is that anything that anyone has ever thought of, someone has tried to make reality, even if they failed miserably at the time. Even in ancient times people tried to find ways to live forever, to fly to the moon, and to see what others were doing in distant lands. And any grotesque personal activity that you can imagine has already been tried. So as our capabilities expand, things are going to get very, very weird.

This poem was too bizarre in both form and content for most of the places I get my work published. Therefore a natural, perhaps, for Bewildering Stories: Don Webb published it in early 2019.

Technically, of course, this stretches the definition of formal poetry… which matters to me, but not to Bewildering Stories. In effect, the first two and last two lines are a formal poem, but the meat of the speculative discussion is in the central passage which is, honestly, prose. But I still like the poem. If it is a poem.

 

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.”

Poem: “The Trendy”

In the future when your bioluminescent pet
Provides controllable lighting to your house from mine
In the Zero Light Pollution of night’s jet,
The Trendy flip on inefficient retro lights and pay their fine…

In the future when the media’s fight
Is over whether you should spray on clothes
Or blowing them on instead’s more right,
The Trendy grow them overnight from scalp to toes…

In the future when the Parking lots
Reserve the easiest, convenient spots
For Normals, called the Unenhanced (or Dead),
The Trendy disassemble their aircars instead,
Grow new wings to get home…

In the future when a thought
Will activate your airjets, wings and wheels
(Charged while you sat in sun)
To move a mile or two to friends or meals,
The Trendy paleolocomote, they “walk”,
Even relearn to “run”…

In the future when direct mind-linking 
Lets your band of friends share feeling, thinking,
“Anyone with telekinesis, raise my hand”
Becomes a daily battle for control of prey;
A Natural Leader manages subordinates –
Whole groups of Zombies which one man coordinates –
The Trendy dare to live offlinked, un-band,
As though alone as in the Olden Days…

In the future when Earth’s overcrowded
And you turn on AI, AR, AV
And instead of crowds and concrete, see a tree,
And follow a manipulated path, alone as Truman,
And mole-like tunnel, blind, controlled, enshrouded,
The Trendy leave the Earth for Mars and stars,
Wrapped in themselves and their AIs, ARs,
Sublimate selves into the posthuman,
Are never seen again alive…
But they see all. They are become the Hive.

“The Trendy” is yet another SF poem, this one first published in Bewildering Stories. The editor, Don Webb, commented that “The syntax in ‘Trendy’ is hair-raising at times, but I figure it goes with the humour. And I am fond of humour!” Very tolerant of him. But then, he’s Canadian, eh?

The formality of the poetry is also somewhat questionable, but for the most part it’s in iambics and rhymes. No different from some of Matthew Arnold’s work:

And the rest, a few,
Escape their prison, and depart
On the wide ocean of life anew.
There the freed prisoner, where’er his heart
Listeth, will sail;
Nor doth he know how there prevail,
Despotic on that sea,
Trade-winds which cross it from eternity.
Awhile he holds some false way, undebarred
By thwarting signs, and braves
The freshening wind and blackening waves.
And then the tempest strikes him…

From ‘A Summer Night’, which I learnt by heart in school and have been inspired by ever after. That’s my excuse, anyway.

Poem: “The Train Will Stop”

“The train will stop for ten minutes at the next station.
If you wish to make this your annual vacation,
please reboard in nine minutes.” The travellers gaze
at the countryside slowing past, consider ways
to take more than nine minutes for a break
but, looking down a slight curve in the track,
see no way to get out and back
nor a real reason they should take
the risk. The train will go…
and what else do they know?
They’ll stay till dropped
at some end stop.
Descend.
The end.

This little piece of existential angst appears in the current Bewildering Stories. It was written, submitted and accepted long before the current Covid-19 crisis came along, which it in no way relates to. In fact, in the awareness that we are all mortal and that everyone’s journey will have an end stop regardless, you might even say this suggests that in the Grand Scheme of Things the Covid-19 situation is trivial. The bigger issue is: eventually we all die. A solution to that would be far more dramatic than a successful Coronavirus vaccine.

Technically? Not a tightly formed poem – the initial lines are straggly, but as they shorten they tighten into iambics. The rhymes too are erratic, mostly in couplets but not quite. Not a perfect poem. Flippantly you could ask, In the Grand Scheme of Things and in the present circumstances, why should this matter? And the answer is, The level of artistic quality always matters; ultimately, it’s the most you can hope to achieve and be remembered by.

Poem: “This Ape I Am”

Under our armoured mirrors of the mind
where eyes watch eyes, trying to pierce disguise,
an ape, incapable of doubt, looks out,
insists this world he sees is trees, and tries
to find the scenes his genes have predefined.

This ape I am
who counts “One, two, more, more”
has lived three million years in empty lands
where all the members of the roving bands
he’s ever met have totaled some ten score;
so all these hundred thousands in the street
with voided eyes and quick avoiding feet
must be the mere two hundred known before.

This ape I am
believes they know me too.
I’m free to stare, smile, challenge, talk to you.

This ape I am
thinks every female mine,
at least as much as any other male’s;
if she’s with someone else, she can defect –
her choice, and she becomes mine to protect;
just as each child must be kept safe and hale
for no one knows but that it could be mine.

This ape I am
feels drugged, ecstatic, doped,
hallucination-torn, kaleidoscoped,
that Earth’s two hundred people includes swirls
of limitless and ever-varied girls.

This ape I am
does not look at myself
doesn’t know about mirrors, lack of health,
doesn’t know fear of death, only of cold;
mirrorless, can’t be ugly, can’t be old.

This is one of my favourite poems. Originally published in Ambit ten years ago, it has been reprinted in magazines as diverse as Better Than Starbucks, Verse-Virtual and, last month, Bewildering Stories. It speaks to what I believe is a largely overlooked truth, that we are genetically predisposed to function best in social groups or households of 20 to 30 people, within a larger network of six to ten such groups. These provide the numbers of people that we can know well (the social group) and people that we can also recognise and interact with comfortably (the larger network). This is the world of chimpanzees and bonobos, and of the hunter-gatherer existence of early humans.

In practical terms, I am in favour of recreating the sense of community of the village, even within the context of cities. Develop housing complexes that become neighbourhoods – keep schools small – reintegrate nursing homes into the community, let the children and the old people interact – and (a further step in acknowledging our hunter-gatherer humanity) keep everyone in touch with parks, with gardens of fruit, flowers and vegetables, with trees and birds, and with a variety of animals.

Technically the poem is written in iambic pentameters, loosely structured in stanzas of varying length, with lines mostly rhymed but with no set rhyme scheme. (And note: a stanza’s initial “This ape I am” needs to be counted with the next line to produce the pentameter.) Iambic pentameters provide a natural mode for meditative or expository verse. The rhythm is comfortable for quiet reflection or narration. The rhyme in this case is a secondary enhancement.

Poem: “Post-literacy”

Yes, I know it seems unlikely
but I simply can’t help feeling
there’s an urgency to writing:
and in verse, and fluently.

We’ve our cultural traditions
that have coevolved with language
and each language has its verse forms
that are aids to memory.

It’s all fine that we are moving
to post-literate existence
where the things all talk and tell you
everything you need, you must

when the neon signs and fridges
can discuss with you their content,
you don’t need to read or count, if
their integrity you trust.

But embedded in our braincells
are the patterns of our language
and our need to think in patterns
drives our songs, makes us a folk,

it gives dub and rap and hip hop,
it drives rhetoric in speeches,
and the false anticipation
of the punchline of a joke.

With our cultures integrating
with AI and with each other,
we risk losing all our history,
all our culture and, what’s worse,

Our minds! So sing to babies,
have kids memorise long poems,
learn the maths of songs and music –
learn and read and write in verse!

This poem, recently published in Bewildering Stories, speaks to the heart of the matters that this blog deals with. Songs and music, rhyme and rhythm, dance, melodies, alliteration and assonance, structures and patterns and verses and choruses, are all part of something that is deeply human. It starts for us with the heartbeat in the womb, is nurtured with lullabyes and rocking, carries on through the songs and music and dance that are important to every generation of teenagers. It is such a fundamental part of our humanity that educational systems that ignore it are ignoring a powerful natural teaching tool.

The issue is larger than the fact that learning verse by heart is easier than learning prose by heart. Larger than the benefits of developing the ability to remember and memorise accurately. It is about recognising and nurturing those inner forces that make us human. It is about not letting our humanity be eroded by a culture that doesn’t acknowledge the rhythms that permeate our lives.

This blog is about the value of formal verse. Part of that value is poetry’s contribution to the sanity that comes from being a complete human being.

Technically this poem’s lines could be described as iambic tetrameter, which each fourth line being truncated and rhymed. But I prefer to read it almost as a patter song with each line composed of two tertius paeons, Short-foot-meter.svg Short-foot-meter.svg Long-foot-meter.svg Short-foot-meter.svg (each fourth line still being truncated and rhymed). In other words, it is designed to have the third and seventh syllables in each line be the ones with the greatest stress or emphasis. And that includes the rhymes, naturally.

Poem: “Post-Adult”

Adults — earthworn, careweary,
grave, gravid and gravity-constrained —
take it all so seriously, furiously, fearsome and wearisome,
spuriously furious over the small stuff,
incessantly never having enough,
insensibly insatiable, insensate,
irrational, irascible,
driven by status, riven by expense,
dismissive of all greater age and experience.

How fortunate to age into osteoporosis,
bones lightening like a bird’s as you get older,
the wearying weights lifting off the shoulder,
and you drift up into the sky with your levity,
leaving behind adult cares and gravity,
unattached, detached,
careful but careless, unlatched.

This poem was recently published in Bewildering Stories. But what is it, technically? Does it have any form? It has elements of form–alliteration, assonance, scattered rhyme, the kind of rhythm (in parts) that you find in rap with emphasis on stresses, not on syllables–but none of it is organized, structured, codified, repeated…

I think it could be improved. If I come up with a significant improvement, I’ll switch it out. But there’s always the danger that the later “improvement” loses primal energy for the sake of trying to achieve an intellectual outcome. As with Auden’s poetic progress. But a little more formal structure would be good, I think.

Poem: “Zombie Apocalypse”

Zombie Apocalypse –
humans have always had
end-times fear: Ragnarok,
Judgement Day, World War III,
comet strike, Y2K,
supervolcano – well,
you get my drift.

Zombie Apocalypse –
there’s a pandemic and
AI has run amuck –
this is no practice round,
this is for real!

Zombie Apocalypse –
head for a tropic isle,
live on fish, coconuts –
solar will last a few
years, then corrode.

Zombie Apocalypse –
walls can be built without
concrete or plastering,
fight infestations of
zombies and dogs.

As the world splits in two
all the Enhanced are gone,
gone to the Cloud and space;
only the Left Behind
scrabble, deteriorate,
left in the dirt and ash,
left on the Earth.

I, the last poet am
here on Earth’s farthest beach,
toweled, not panicking,
waiting for Branson and
Musk in their ships.

Yes, humans love the threat of the end of the world, the collapse of civilisation, all apocalyptic disasters. We don’t want the disasters to be inflicted on us… but we love thinking about them. Perhaps it’s a way of thinking about our own mortality, without actually thinking that it is we who will die one day.

The Zombie Apocalypse is wonderful because it is both a complete fantasy (as in the photo) and an image for the kind of catastrophic real-world disaster that an out-of-control plague can inflict–a medieval Black Death killing a third of the population… an early 20th century Spanish Flu infecting a third of the world’s population (but “only” killing maybe 50 million)… or, of course, a coronavirus leaping out of a food market in Wuhan and spreading around the world before anyone can get a proper handle on it. Death is real. Around the world, 150,000 people die every day. What can you do but work to minimize death–and laugh at it?

And then there’s the fantasy of being one of the lucky few survivors, faced with the difficulties of a post-apocalyptic world, a post-nuclear Wasteland, a flooded Waterworld, a Biblical Left Behind, reminiscent of Nevil Shute’s On The Beach, John Christopher’s The Death of Grass (No Blade Of Grass in the US), even Ursula Le Guin’s post-alien-invasion City of Illusions. Carrying a towel like Ford Prefect to hitchhike through the galaxy, away from doomed Earth. Dramatically, heroically, surviving the destruction of the world as we know it. As though you can dramatically, heroically, survive the time-driven destruction of your body…

The poem itself (yet another one published in Bewildering Stories) is unrhymed, but written in a form inspired by double dactyls. Technically double dactyls are eight-line poems with a few additional requirements–the form was created by Anthony Hecht, Paul Pascal and Naomi Pascal in 1951, and popularized by Hecht’s and John Hollander’s collection Jiggery Pokery… the name of the book being a double dactyl, naturally. So this poem is only “inspired by” double dactyls. But, as with limericks, the bouncy rhythm adds to a mood of flippancy, frivolity, which is always suitable (in my mind) when discussing existential catastrophe. I tip my hat to Country Joe and the Fish for the I Feel Like I’m Fixin To Die Rag, and to all political cartoonists everywhere.

Life is short; enjoy each day.