Tag Archives: George Simmers

Poem: “The Silence”

“Pareja (Couple)” by Daquella manera 

On those days when, because you felt attacked,
you just won’t speak, it’s like a dress rehearsal
for one of us being dead. (So, a prehearsal?)
Can’t speak for you, how you’d react,
but for myself, if you die, I know only:
I’d be lonely.

After the slow dispersal
of the acquisitions of the years
from yard sales, impulses, unfinished plans–
after the children’s and grandchildren’s tears,
(their own mortality foretold in Gran’s)
there’d be an emptiness.

Routine unravels:
I’d need an act of will to even shave–
the dogs don’t care how I behave.
All I need’s here in cupboards, shelves, on line.
I’d be just fine…
apart from growing restlessness.

I guess I’d restart travels.
Meanwhile I’ve learned how it will be
to live without you, just your memory,
a silent apparition in this room and that,
the ghost of one who used to laugh and chat.

Think of this as a melancholy love poem, written in a temporary (thank goodness) state of being that can occur in any relationship.

This poem was published this month in Snakeskin No. (or #) 276. I feel proud to be in the issue, as I rate it as one of the best ever in the 20+ years that George Simmers has been putting the magazine out. Though much of the poetry is formless (but still worth reading!), there is some truly impressive work by Tom Vaughan and Scott Woodland, with well-structured work by Robert West, Nick Browne and Jerome Betts, and with interesting innovations in form by Marjorie Sadin, Claudia Gary and George himself–in this last, the character of the verse becomes more lively as the character in the verse becomes more alive.

Technically the form of the poem–uneven lengths of iambics, all lines rhyming but not in a structured way–is one that allows the line breaks to echo your intact chunks of thought as well as the rhythms of speech. It is the form of Eliot’s Prufrock and, earlier, of Arnold’s A Summer Night:

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;

It is a casual form, but it retains enough of the hooks of more formal verse to make it easy to memorise and recite.

The Spectator Competition: “Paradise Lost in four lines”

Milton Dictating to his Daughter, 1793, Henry Fuseli

Lucy Vickery runs a competition in the British weekly The Spectator–a truly venerable publication which recently reached its 10,000th weekly issue. Its politics are a bit too conservative for my taste, but the competition is in a class of its own (The New Statesman having dropped its similar competition a few years ago).

The most recent challenge was this: “In Competition No. 3163 you were invited to submit well-known poems encapsulated in four lines.” The gorgeous responses prompted Lucy Vickery to call the results “Paradise Lost in four lines”, after this entry by Jane Blanchard:

Satan found himself in hell —
Eve and Adam also fell —
Good gone bad got even worse —
Milton wrote too much blank verse —

(which exactly reflects my feelings, having had to waste too much of my A Level studies on Paradise Lost at the expense of more interesting poets such as John Donne and Matthew Arnold.)

My personal delight in The Spectator’s competitions is in seeing so many Potcake Poets there (in this case not just Jane Blanchard, but also Chris O’Carroll, Martin Parker, Jerome Betts, George Simmers and Brian Allgar), and in identifying more poets to keep an eye on for possible future chapbooks.

Anyway, if you want to see nice condensations of famous poems, have a look at that specific competition’s results. My favourite is Martin Parker’s take on e.e. cummings’ ‘may i feel said he‘:

foreplay
(more play)
errings, ummings
(and cummings)

Poem: “Time”

Time takes the young child by the hand
and leads it through a golden land
so timeless it will never note
Time’s other hand is at its throat.

This little poem was just published in Snakeskin, in one of its richest issues ever. I’m glad to have been included, along with several others–Claudia Gary, Tom Vaughan, George Simmers, Marcus Bales–of the formalist poets who appear in the Potcake Chapbooks. And a shout-out to Nikolai Usack, who made me clear up clumsy pronouns in the original draft.

Potcake Poet’s Choice: George Simmers, “The Old Man’s Heaven”

George Simmers

George Simmers

Do those whose taste in music
Is grandly hoity-toity
Think Heaven’s operatic
And ineffably Bayreuth-y?
Do those who go for punky gigs
Think paradise less posh,
Packed hard with spit and violence,
So Heaven’s one long mosh?

Let me describe the paradise
My ageing heart prefers–
A dimly-lit piano bar
And a bottle-blonde chanteuse.
Some broad who’s been around the block,
With a voice of smoky yearning,
A lady who has seen too much,
But she keeps the old torch burning.

She sings that life is made for love,
And time will kill the pain.
She sings that though your love’s gone bad
You still should love again.
She sings that there is always hope
And those who love are wise.
Yes, I could spend eternity
Hearing those lovely lies.

George Simmers writes: “I’ve sent this poem as a favourite because it starts off very definitely as light verse, but then modulates into something else. I like poems like that (and dislike the opposite – the ones that start off sounding deep, but then opt out and end up flippantly).

In the description of the singer and her music, I’m celebrating the kind of music I most enjoy – the torch-songs of the Great American Songbook, mostly from that golden age between 1920 and 1960. As I listen, I enjoy remembering that this is the kind of popular song that in its time was fulminated against by vicars and Leavisites for being popular and shallow (but more deeply perhaps because such folk were made uncomfortable by the Jewish melodies and African rhythms). Great singers like Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan made perfect art of it, but I prefer to think of a more imperfect one, a singer in a smallish bar, provincial, earning her rent doing what she loves, and finding in the songs a way of expressing the trials and yearnings of her own imperfect life. The customers drink, and maybe some of them chat. She sings.

Her repertoire is heavy on the music of Harold Arlen, but there is plenty of Rogers and Hart there, too, and Jerome Kern and Irving Berlin, and Gershwin, of course. And yes, Herman Hupfeld and… you name them.

I’m amazed, when looking into anthologies of twentieth-century American poetry, that they do not include ‘The Man I Love’ or ‘I Wish I were in Love Again’ or ‘Blues in the Night’. These are words that will surely outlast those of the poets academically respectable in their day. My poem is a tribute to those songwriters.”

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.
https://greatwarfiction.wordpress.com/
http://www.snakeskinpoetry.co.uk/

Potcake Poet’s Choice: Dervla Ramaswamy, “Woman vs The Virus”

Dervla Ramaswamy

Dervla Ramaswamy

Dervla Ramaswamy writes:

The poem of mine that you will print is my most recent, which contains my thoughts on the Coronavirus epidemic:

WOMAN vs THE VIRUS

the virus is the virus

the old and the debilitated
sadly become victims to its power

the doctors quake
the politicians tremble
but
I am woman

the power of woman confronts
the virus
for males are fifty
percent more likely to expire
due to the virus

such is the fortitude of women
I am the strength of women

yes, for my hips are monstrous
my belly is glorious
my appetites are profound
my cunt terrifies clergymen
power must bend before me

I am woman
I am the strength of all women
I am Marie Curie
I am Marilyn Monroe
I am Viginia McKenna
I am Jiang Qing
I am Winnie Mandela
I am Meghan Markle
I am our NHS
I am woman

Undefeated

Dervla Ramaswamy’s Potcake Poet bio simply states: “Poet. Thinker. Woman.”

She is hard to track down. Through our mutual friend George Simmers, Editor of Snakeskin, I heard she had entered a two-year writing retreat somewhere in the Balkans, with the project of creating a thirteen-line sonnet. “Luckily,” he continued, “the Mother Superior of the convent where she is currently on retreat is an ex-girlfriend of mine.”

This led to Dervla Ramaswamy herself suggesting that Potcake Chapbooks should publish what she describes as “my major work. It is a 4,000 line epic in free verse, describing the grim struggles of a family of Bulgarian potato farmers through seven depressing decades. I think you will enjoy it.”

Perhaps. But there are shorter, more traditional poems of hers which I look forward to including in future Potcake Chapbooks.

 

Poem: “The Ape in the Landscape”

Ape

I. THE APE

Like a chimp in a storm
we revert to a norm,
tree-swinging, branch-breaking,
stick-shaking, noise-making;
each baby’s a bomb
and their poise and aplomb
is a jack-in-a-box
full of fireworks and shocks,
full of colour, noise, light
full of anguish, delight,
rending, mending and tending,
exploiting, befriending,
and losing and finding,
abusing and minding,
both stupid and clever
but moving forever,
and dancing and singing
thought-prancing, word-winging,
for there’s no escape
from the million year ape,
from our in-built, inherited shape.

II. EXTERNAL LANDSCAPE

Somewhere a cleft cliff overhang, a cave
where we can stay dry, have a fire, and sleep;
though lions and bears growl outside, we feel brave–
Worship the Cave, Earth’s Deep.

Somewhere, huge in an open plain, a tree–
to climb for refuge, or the whole world see,
loving its fruit, leaves, wood, its shade from glare–
Worship the Tree, Earth’s fountain into air.

Somewhere a river ends where sea’s begun
and marshlands hold vast clouds of birds and fish,
and moon and tides swing like the winds and sun–
Worship the Waters, fresh, salt, both Earth’s gifts.

Somewhere the lightning strikes, a forest burns;
only one thing runs to it, not away,
one creature uses it to make night day,
cook food, stay warm, make tools, dance round and play–
Worship the Fire, on which being human turns.

Somewhere the landscape most potential shows:
more people, and some wary bird or beast;
by integrating them the human grows
into the landscape’s richness, Nature’s feast–
Worship the Richness with which life’s increased.

III. INTERNAL LANDSCAPE

Climbing, foraging and hunting,
running, loping, chasing something–
we were built for this.

An open field with a large tree,
a path towards a far blue sea–
the landscape we think bliss.

Keeping dogs, cats, birds as friends,
sharing food for no clear ends–
extended family.

Pigs, cows, sheep, ducks, geese as pets,
eating them without regrets–
that’s humanity.

And talking, dancing, running, singing,
friends and lovers, parents, children,
social, single, energetic,
meditative or frenetic…
we’re a tribal ape at heart,
without the wild we fall apart,
the ape’s our essence, end as well as start.

This poem was just published in Snakeskin, a very appropriate magazine from the point of view of its name, whose meaning is spelled out in the Credo in its first issue back in 1995:

The serpent whispered unto Eve:
“Think and feel; don’t just believe.”
This made the earth’s foundations shake.
We are the kindred of that snake. (…)

We trust no level tones; we ride
The roller-coaster of our pride.
The gonads’ rage, and yearning’s ache
Speak through the kindred of the snake.

In other words, no matter how much we develop our civilisation, no matter how much we tinker with our genetics, no matter how much we turn our decision-making over to AI, we need to acknowledge and work with – and enjoy – the primitive drivers and needs that are inherent in our physical and psychological makeup.

In other words (this time Nietzsche’s), “Stay true to the earth, my brothers,” even while looking forward to the coming of the Superman, for we are still part ape, and our coheret progress depends on our awareness of that, and of self-knowledge in general.

Technically the poem is a mish-mash of forms, somewhat casual in structure by formal standards, but rich in rhythm and rhyme. And this too is in keeping with Snakeskin’s Credo:

Nor shall we sit to lunch with those
Who moralise in semi-prose.
A poem should be rich as cake,
Say the kindred of the snake.

Enjoy! And my thanks to Snakeskin’s George Simmers.

 

Launch: Potcake Chapbook 6, “Wordplayful”

06 Wordplayful

The sixth in the series of Potcake Chapbooks, ‘Wordplayful – poems to amuse and amaze’, is now beginning to wander around on both sides of the Atlantic (and hopefully further afield). This one is a little different from the earlier ones in the series: puns and puzzles, poems that can be read vertically or in reverse, wordplay in a variety of forms… but, yes, all formal poems, stuffed full of rhyme, rhythm and rich language.

Returning Potcake poets are Marcus Bales, John Beaton, Ed Conti, Daniel Galef, Chris O’Carroll, George Simmers, Alicia Stallings, Rob Stuart and myself; newcomers are Sam Gwynn, Bob McKenty, the unlikely Noam D. Plum and the elusive Dervla Ramaswamy. Mini-bios and photos for most of them are on the Potcake Poets page.

Alban Low has again provided all the art work, but he will now be taking a five or six month break to work on other things, especially the annual Art of Caring exhibition which opens in St George’s Hospital in Tooting in London in May, and moves to St Pancras Hospital in July – or at least it did in 2019. But Alban promises to re-engage with us in the early summer, by which time we may have more idea of what further Potcake Chapbook themes to pursue.

Sonnet: “Unanswered”

The Afterlife – some Happy Hunting Ground?
Or Jesus, virgins, merging flesh and breath?
Or god of your own world, white-robed and crowned?
Or ghost? Rebirth? Just, please, no final death!

The sparrow through the Saxon hall at night –
Brief light and warmth, then cold obscurity.
Is this our life? But yet the bird in flight
lived in the dark, both pre and post. Do we?

Frogs, living in a buried water tank,
spend all their time in darkness. Then the lid
is lifted and sun shines into the dank –
lid down, light gone… but they live on, though hid.

We work and play throughout our brief day’s sun –
Day raises many questions – night, just one.

This sonnet was published in Snakeskin No. 265, edited by George Simmers. I write both religious and irreligious poetry as the muse suggests, but my own personal views are Fundamentalist Agnostic: “Nescio et tu quoque”, “I don’t know and neither do you.” The sparrow reference is to a passage in the Venerable Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People which usually seems to resonate well.

Technically the sonnet is Shakespearean: iambic pentameter rhyming ABAB CECD EFEF GG. The three quatrains are each self-contained, but leading to the resolution (or lack of resolution) in the couplet. The last line is the strongest, which is always satisfying.

Poem: “From the Heart of Europe”

Warning, it’s long: 140 lines. And it’s a rant, a chant, with formal passages only towards the end. It is published in the current issue of Snakeskin, whose editor George Simmers expressed reservations, calling it “your monster of a poem. It’ll be interesting to see if there are indications that anyone gets to the end of it. My suspicion is that 24 lines is about the maximum most people are willing to read online. But I like having an occasional long poem in Snakeskin – gives readers a challenge.

So here it is… “From the Heart of Europe

Europe

I am the Celt, westering across Doggerland
Into the wilds – in me live
The stories of the monsters, dragons, ogres
I found as I struggled through trackless wilderness
Fighting off the wolves, bears and cavemen.
If you would see me, look to Ireland and to France,
To Scotland, Wales, Cornwall and Brittany.
When verbs are forming complicated trains you’re seeing my Gaelic grammar.

And I am the Roman, bringing engineers,
Underfloor heating, square buildings and straight roads.
Ten generations of the Middle Sea –
Italians, Greeks, Egyptians, Libyans –
Braving the cold and damp, our children British…
Until the Empire falls, and some go “home”
To warmer seas, to citrus trees, and Rome.
Look for me in the priestly words,
As in the black Irish who fled the Saxons.

For I am the Angle, Saxon, Jutlander,
Displacing Britons, making Angle-land.
Like ours, all tribes move west and south as Rome succumbs.
Clearing the forests, making free men’s farms,
Avoiding ruins of the Roman towns,
Avoiding ruins of the great square buildings.
Look for me in the fields and farms
Of Essex, Sussex, Saxony,
Of Anglia in England and Anglia in Germany,
And in the daily words of common folk.

Then I am the Viking, avenging Christian slaughter,
Avenging Verden’s massacre, five thousand dead.
Looting and raiding for slaves and wives, and –
Hey, that’s nice land on a quiet river…
Let’s stay here with our meetings and our laws.
Look for me in the Yorkshireman of the Danelaw
And all across the north lands to the east.

I am also the Northman who settled in France –
Where Romans had ruled Celts 500 years –
And now claim the rights of the Viking,
The rights of the Saxon,
Under Roman religion
To rule Angle-land.
I come with the Conqueror, follow the Bastard,
The Builder of Castles and Cities,
With renaissance of learning,
Enlightenment, Parliament,
Even including the poor, and then even women…
Look for me where I continued to conquer –
Where I fought other Europeans to control the world –
My branches spread everywhere – North America, India –
Hong Kong, Australia, Kenya, Jamaica –
But my roots… my roots are in Europe,
From Northlands to Rome and from Ireland to Greece.
You can prune back the branches,
But don’t think of cutting the roots.

When I see a wishing well – my roots
When I see an aqueduct – my roots
When I see men wear trousers – my roots
When I see women’s braids – my roots
When I eat bread and cheese – my roots
When I drink wine and beer – my roots
When I see people vote – my roots
When I hear legal judgement – my roots
When I smell farms and forests – my roots
When I hear waves and seagulls – my roots

And my roots are not without warfare.

In the Great War my grandfather died, so too both his brothers, all in their 20s.
This was not unusual in that war.
Then came a second world war. Europe said “Enough!”
The end of the war. Twin towns were an answer, building links.
Their history begins with Paderborn, Germany, and Le Mans, France.. in 836.
(The UK was a little late to the table, its first twin town was in 1905…)
Coventry now twinned with Dresden and Stalingrad.
The end of the war. The Treaty of Paris of ’51 for the European Coal and Steel Community,
The Treaty of Rome, the EEC of the western 6.
(The UK joined a little late in ’73.)
With Denmark and Ireland in the north, then adding 3 more in the south,
Then 3 more in the north, then 14 in the east,
Until almost Turkey, almost Russia, almost Morocco, Israel…
The Eurovision Song Contest, building links from ’56
(The UK joined late, ’57).
The It’s A Knockout! silly sports on TV (De Gaulle’s idea) from ’65
(The UK joined late, ’67).

Ah, that Europe of 50, 60 years ago…
When north and west and south worked to build links,
And you could wander freely, even go
Into the east (with bureaucratic waits and stamps and inks)…

And I have stood
Under the Transylvanian full moon
And eaten moon-green apples in a smooth wet field
And the lorry-driver spoke no English.

I have hitched
A ride from a Cologne motorway stop
With a limping German who spoke no English
In a fine car with leather seats
Over 250 miles to Hamburg in 2½ hours! – as if he said
“You only think you won the war.”

I have sat
In front of Goya’s Cowherds – Duel with Cudgels –
In the Prado in Madrid, and cried
For me, for us, for Europe, for the world.

I have slept
On the top steps of a Greco-Roman amphitheatre
In the tourist-Turkey fishing village summer nights,
And tourists took my picture.

I have eaten
In the impounded lorries of the smuggling Swiss
At the Turkish-Bulgarian customs zone
And got a ride to Munich.

I have seen
There is one street in Copenhagen no one knows but I.
Invisible, unless you watch those using it go by;
It winds above the buildings, up and down about the sky,
In single file ten thousand go by each day, and no lie! –
(The seagulls heading for the City Dump from out at sea.)

I have walked
South from Glasgow illegally on the motorway
With my thumb out as the snow began to fall.
The Police said “Get in”. They drove in silence 30 miles
And dropped me at a service station.

And still I think of that long night
When through and through the lorry-park
Rutted six inches deep in mud
The madman prowled, distraught and barefoot
Under the full moon, running his fingers through his hair,
Muttering and complaining, shouting aloud,
And the lorry-driver talked with him,
Explained to me
(And I through sparse Spanish guessed at his Romanian)
That the madman in the mud
Had killed someone
Or run him over
Or was on the verge of suicide,
Perhaps all three together…
And the madman muttered barefoot through the mud
Until the sun rose and we went our way.

That was my Europe, yesterday,
as still the British Isles today:
we are where the world meets.
We came, long past, from far away –
and more still come, some go, some stay…
the heart of Europe beats.

-.-.-.-.-

For what it’s worth, instead of those last 6 lines the poem originally had six 4-line stanzas. George Simmers was kind enough to critique them, attacking them from several directions and giving me the opportunity to write something better. They were the most formal section of the entire piece, and in being rejected they help people like Mike Burch make the case that “formal” isn’t the be-all and end-all of poetry.  🙂

Here is the original ending, giving a slightly different meaning and direction to the poem… Anyway, better or worse? What do you think?

But now England may
(Yes, I say May)
Go, with Wales, its own way –
(Though Scotland and Northern Ireland said stay.)

The peace we’ve been blest
With, the growth we’ve possessed
Has led the obsessed
To stoke enmity. Laws were transgressed

In winning the vote.
Weasel words, like a stoat
Changing colour of coat,
Were all lies. May they stick in their throat.

Our Europe is one:
Celt, Roman and Hun
May be how it’s begun,
But now, like the UK, everyone

From all round the globe,
In a suit, in a thobe,
In blue jeans, in a robe,
Has their place – each distinct as in strobe

Light, is lit as a part
Of the waves of fresh start
That newcomers impart
With, like all Europeans, their heart.

New Poem: “Buried in the Garden”

I have a poem published in May’s Snakeskin which (shock, horror!) is not formal.

Snakeskin logo

Buried in the Garden

Now I lie dead, buried in the garden,
And the plants take over.
Two hibiscus bushes grow from my eyes,
Oleander from my nose,
A sapodilla will fruit from my mouth,
Casuarinas grow to sigh from my ears.
From my chest a love vine straggles out
And black crabs live in the cavities of my lungs.
A chicken boa curls around and hunts up and down
And from my private parts grows
That least private of plants, a coconut palm.
From my feet termites are building tunnels out around the world.
So is my body divided, reused, and the birds take hair for their nests
And the calcium of bones and teeth for their eggs
And the body, the body is gone.
And what am I, but a body? What would remain in your sieve if you sift my remains?
Only some thoughts, others’ memories of some thoughts,
Blown away on the wind when the rememberers themselves are gone.

At a stretch, you could claim it has elements of formality. It has a structured sequence of appropriate tropical plants and other creatures growing from body parts – the most visually arresting from the eyes, the most highly scented from the nose, and so on. It has a volta, a turn in the argument from the description of transformation as positive, to the dismissal of that process as being mere erasure.

But are those things enough to make the whole piece word-for-word memorable? Because that is my test of poetry. And I think the answer is no. So no, it is not real poetry. There may be one or two memorable phrases, but that’s not enough. The underlying concept may be memorable, the images may be memorable; still not enough. Only if the entire piece is easy to recite because of the actual expression of the words, I argue, can it be called poetry.

Should you then put your time into transforming the images into formal verse, creating perhaps a Shakespearean sonnet, iambic pentameter and all?

Buried in the Garden (Take 2)

In garden buried, I sprout from my eyes
Hibiscus; oleander from my nose;
From mouth, a sapodilla; a pine sighs
From out my ear; from chest a love vine grows;
Black crabs in lungs, small boa in my guts;
From feet, ants tunnel out around the world;
My privates sprout a palm with coconuts.
Birds peck my bones, my teeth, hair that once curled,
For calcium for eggs and for a nest…
Sift my remains: what remains in your sieve?
Of my whole body I’ve been dispossessed,
Only the memory of some thoughts still live
Within the thoughts of others’ memories;
When those rememberers go, all traces cease.

So we come back to the old questions of poetry: is the expression itself richer or poorer for having been put into verse? And is the formal verse expression (whether richer or poorer) more memorable than the non-formal expression? What do you think?

I wonder if Snakeskin editor George Simmers has an opinion.