Tag Archives: religion

Sonnet: ‘One True Religions’

No vision brings the whole world to its knees.
Jains, Hindus, Buddhists, Mithraists, Parsees,
Moses, Muhammad, Jesus or St. Paul,
One True Religions never conquer all.
Humans are simply too cantankerous
for any one belief to anchor us.

Success at once leads into sects and schisms:
the One Pure Ray of Light hits human prisms,
and egos, power grabs, love of dispute,
traditions, curiosity, all loot
the intellectual wealth of strong belief.
This year’s great guru’s merely last year’s thief.

Control’s maintained by sword and flame, not thought.
In failure, drink the Kool Aid or get shot.

Well, maybe 14 lines rhymed in pairs isn’t really a sonnet, even if it’s in iambic pentameter. But when you’ve got a structure that works for a poem, I don’t think it’s worth trying to hammer it into a different shape just to try to reach a “higher” standard. Anyway, sonnet or not this poem was published in Rat’s Ass Review – as you could guess from the journal’s name, editor Roderick Bates publishes whatever appeals to him, with no apologies for treading on other people’s sensibilities, religious, poetic or anything else. It’s a good place to submit a poem that other journals might be squeamish about, and a good place to read a wide range of outspoken poetry.

“Jonestown massacre” by johndavison883 is marked with CC PDM 1.0

Evocative Fragments: from Macaulay’s ‘Horatius at the Bridge’

But the Consul’s brow was sad,
And the Consul’s speech was low,
And darkly looked he at the wall,
And darkly at the foe;
“Their van will be upon us
Before the bridge goes down;
And if they once may win the bridge,
What hope to save the town?”

Then out spake brave Horatius,
The Captain of the Gate:
“To every man upon this earth
Death cometh soon or late.
And how can man die better
Than facing fearful odds,
For the ashes of his fathers,
And the temples of his gods!”

An alliance of neighbouring city-states is attacking the young Roman republic with 10,000 cavalry and 80,000 foot soldiers. The River Tiber provides a natural defence, but the broad wooden bridge is a weak spot. Horatius with two friends will try to hold off the enemy while the bridge is being destroyed underneath them. Enemy champions attack them in single combat and are defeated, until the huge Astur strides up with his “four-fold shield”, shaking the sword “which none but he can wield”. He attacks Horatius and gashes his thigh. Horatius

… reeled, and on Herminius
He leaned one breathing-space,
Then, like a wild-cat mad with wounds,
Sprang right at Astur’s face.
Through teeth and skull and helmet
So fierce a thrust he sped,
The good sword stood a handbreadth out
Behind the Tuscan’s head.

(…)

On Astur’s throat Horatius
Right firmly pressed his heel,
And thrice and four times tugged amain,
Ere he wrenched out the steel.
And “See,” he cried, “the welcome,
Fair guests, that waits you here!
What noble Lucumo comes next
To taste our Roman cheer?”

I was probably 11 when our English classes in my Jamaican boarding school were enlivened by Macaulay’s nearly 600-line poem (though, truthfully, our textbook cut out a lot of the slow introductory verses). As someone who otherwise lived on works like Tarzan of the Apes and Bomba the Jungle Boy (and of course banned comics of Superman and Batman when I was home for the holidays), it was wonderful to discover that verse could deliver just as dramatic, violent and heroic a story as novels and comics. Further, verse can do so in passages of enormous emotional power, heightened by the drama of their rhythm and rhyme, with short passages sticking in the mind forever even if you aren’t trying to learn them by heart.

The other qualities that appealed to me were undoubtedly the feelings of patriotism and religious approval that I suspect are natural in children – the sense of community, of tribe, of duty, of being morally in the right, of overcoming difficulties, of excelling, of supporting and saving people, of being praised for it. And what I value in that today is that it was done without any reference to an actual modern-day country or an actual modern-day religion. In other words the emotions could be stirred up and the child could be (at least temporarily) ennobled, without the poisons of nationalism or religious fundamentalism finding a place. Indeed, by placing the heroic emotions outside the here and now, I think the poem helped inoculate me against such diseases.

I was already very comfortable with poetry when I was introduced to ‘Horatius’ – A.A. Mine, Edward Lear, Robert Service and the Anglican hymn book come to mind – but this poem took poetry into another dimension entirely!

Short poem: ‘Life Extension’

Religion leers
“Join me, or you face death”
And History jeers
“Inevitable death”,
But Science still adheres
To schemes to postpone death…
The path of a 1000 years
Starts with a single breath.

It’s interesting to speculate how long it will take before humans can start regenerating enough key pieces of our ageing and failing bodies that we can uncap our lifespan. A matter of decades rather than centuries, I think–but not soon enough for me, I fear.

The last sentence of the poem riffs on the Chinese saying attributed to Lao Tzu (also rendered as Laozi and Lao-Tze) that “The journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step.”

The poem was originally published in Bewildering Stories, a weekly of speculative writing of all types, edited by a multinational team but headquartered in Guelph, Ontario.

Photo: “Death” by Andrea Kirkby is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Poem: ‘Zippori Story’

Context, people, context! Remember that
Herod was building his new royal city
Zippori some four miles from Nazareth
when Jesus was a child. And Joseph would
have walked there, worked there, daily; Jesus too.

When Judas of Galilee raised his revolt,
captured and burned it–Roman legions came,
defeated him, cast him in the Sea
of Galilee, a millstone round his neck,
and crucified two thousand rebel Jews.

This was the year that Joseph disappears
from Gospel narratives, all unexplained.
When Jesus chased two thousand Legion pigs
over a cliff into that selfsame sea,
think retribution; think guerrilla strike.

The lack of stories and legends about Jesus’ step-father is one of the great Christian mysteries. He simply disappears from the narrative in the year of Judas of Galilee’s revolt, and is never mentioned again in polite society. Nor is Zippori ever mentioned in the Bible, either by that name or the Romanized Sepphoris, although it was the local capital of Galilee. I have laid out what seem to me obvious suspicions in The Gospel According to the Romans, and blogged about it here and there.

This poem was just published in The Road Not Taken, a Journal of Formal Poetry, in the section themed on ‘Replies’. My thanks to Dr. Kathryn Jacobs.

Sonnets: ‘Confronting Churches and the Void’

A man-like god creates the universe?
Two hundred billion galaxies? Each holding
a hundred billion stars? And each star moulding
its planets into life, teeming, diverse!
All this from some bearded old angry face
who says “Build me a temple, pray, and pay
the priests who’ll guide you onto Heaven’s way,
erase your sins . . . or you’ll go in disgrace
to torment underground — eternally.”
No way your life gains from such small belief,
passed on by some royal or holy thief
who says “God wants your money, send it me —
my palace honours Him . . .” The human lurches
fearful, confused, through wastes of wasteful churches.

As social animals, we find our place
by walling others out, putting them down:
these walls, my family; those walls, my town.
Even more walls: tribe, country, faith or race.
This atavism’s bad for mental health,
supports no sense of personal strengths or meaning,
allows no purpose, individual leaning,
denies achievement to your inner self.
Identity’s reduced to football fan,
or something uniformed, or some group prayer;
without those — alcohol, drugs or despair,
not knowing how to move past Nowhere Man.
Know yourself, human, to confront the Void:
your proper study’s all that’s anthropoid.

You can think of these two sonnets as the result of ten years of Church of England boarding school–five years in Jamaica, five in England–where Scripture lessons and daily church services were complemented by solid science and rigourous literature. And of course the Church of England recognises no Pope except the man who wrote “Know then thyself, presume not God to scan; the proper study of Mankind is Man.” So here you see the fruits of a well-rounded education.

This poem has just been published in Better Than Starbucks, a remarkably extensive poetry journal (and with some fiction too). The bulk of my BTS-published poems are in the Formal Poetry section, but there are many other sections–it’s a 100-page magazine. The online version is free, and well worth exploring.

“stepping across the bridge” by Max Nathan is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Poem: ‘An Atheist Demands Access to Heaven’

There flows in my veins the most ancient of ardours:
not power, or love, nor yet worship of God;
the fight that each tiniest baby fights hard as
fought earliest man: “Understand!” Pry and prod
with unquenchable flame of the world-disregarders
for Truth! – be it complex, destructive or odd.
If this fire is from Heaven, then Heaven I’ve earned;
so write on my grave: “This stone too shall be turned.”

This teasingly paradoxical little poem was originally published in the Shot Glass Journal, a thrice-a-year journal of 20-30 American poems and an equal number of international ones. Why the name? Because this is a journal for short poems, none over 16 lines. Most of the material they publish is free verse, but they like to have a full range of styles in each issue… which is good news for formal poets.

Photo: “Atheist Campaign on Tube Train” by Loz Flowers is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

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.”

Sonnet: “Body Modding”

It starts with teeth, for even the healthiest:
Fillings put in, and “extra” teeth pulled out
Or realigned, the whole jaw moved about,
New faces for the kids of the wealthiest.
Tonsils, appendix, out. The stealthiest
Inject, use pills, every fluid reroute
With tourniquets, with tampons, condoms… flout
Flow, through to adult nappies. Atheist
As Science makes us with creative powers,
We add pumps, implants, radio, wires, chips,
Casually as tattoos, replacement hips;
Graft patchwork skin from humans, pigs, plants, flowers,
Joined in flamboyant Frankensteinish suture,
Racing against decay to cyborg future.

Like most of my sonnets, this was first published in Snakeskin. And like most of my sonnets, it has an existential theme. Ever since I was in high school (Stowe, a traditional British “public school” i.e. private school) and lost my belief in that Anglican school’s religion, I’ve been writing poetry about life and death. It’s a fascinating subject for those who are able to accept that death is inescapable except in religious fantasies, and science fiction, and the dreams of scientists out on the furthest limbs. Death may have proved universal so far, but so have the stories of the search for immortality in all the world’s cultures. Striving against death is part of what makes us human. And success will involve becoming something other than the humans that we are today.

 

Sonnet: “From Gombe’s Chimps”

From Gombe’s chimps to interstellar space
We will have war. Sanctioned by the Divine,
Moses first led the Jews to Palestine
Telling his tribesmen not just to displace
But to kill all, and wipe out without trace
Each adult, child, animal, tree, vine.
Genocide’s justified, cleansed ethics fine,
To get resources for your tribe and race.

Believers justify war’s bloody courses:
We’re right, they’re wrong, so therefore they’re to blame.
Conquer through war to grab and keep resources,
Aztecs or Spaniards, everyone’s the same –
Victory to the best guns, swords or horses,
And put defeated scriptures in the flame.

I’m pessimistic about the chances of humans being able to stop warfare. It seems built into the nature of social creatures – when you define your group, you are defining everyone else as not in your group. Then, when it’s a question of who gets limited resources, groups compete and the most ruthless groups tend to do the best.

This sonnet was originally accepted for publication by Quarterday in Scotland, but that excellent glossy magazine seems to have folded after a few issues and this poem was left hanging. Fortunately the Better Than Starbucks group is still competing successfully, thanks to the ruthless Anthony Watkins and Vera Ignatowitsch, and published it.

The sonnet is one of my favourites for several reasons: technically it is purer than most, rhyming ABBAABBA CDCDCD, though the volta between the two sections is weak (or possibly nonexistent). It deals with human nature, and the problems facing us as we move into the ever more complex future. And it highlights one of my personal religious irritations, that people can walk into a neighbouring territory, wipe out the inhabitants, and create a justifying fairytale of how the destroyers are the persecuted victims. Think of the Pilgrims and other British immigrants in America… think of the Jewish tribes coming into the Promised Land: when they captured a city outside the core area,

“when the Lord thy God hath delivered it into thine hands, thou shalt smite every male thereof with the edge of the sword:
But the women, and the little ones, and the cattle, and all that is in the city, even all the spoil thereof, shalt thou take unto thyself; and thou shalt eat the spoil of thine enemies, which the Lord thy God hath given thee.” (Deuteronomy 20:13-14)

But when they captured a city in the heart of the Promised Land,

“of the cities of these people, which the Lord thy God doth give thee for an inheritance, thou shalt save alive nothing that breatheth:
But thou shalt utterly destroy them; namely, the Hittites, and the Amorites, the Canaanites, and the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites; as the Lord thy God hath commanded thee:
That they teach you not to do after all their abominations.” (Deuteronomy 20:16-18)

It is hard to see a future without warfare, when even the most revered “holy books” teach genocide and justify it as doing God’s will.

Poem: “4 God Limericks”

God

Christian idea of God

God made Heaven, earth, plants, people, fleas
In six days, and then rested at ease;
Then He thought: “In those stones
“I’ll hide dinosaur bones!!”
(He was always a bit of a tease.)

God looked out a Heavenly portal
And what He saw made Him just chortle:
Some dude, on a cross,
Claiming he was the Boss!
For his hubris, God made him immortal.

God, blessed with what one must call humour,
Decided to start up a rumour
That Himself as a dove
Came to Mary with love
And begat an Immaculate Tumour.

God saw how Religion had deadened
And said to His host, “Armageddon’d
“Look good on this lot”
For His plans were all shot
And His angels teased Him till He reddened.

As with the previous post, “4 Guru Limericks”, this was first published in Ambit No. 196, Spring 2009. (Hence the English spelling.) Like the previous post on gurus Buddha, Jesus, Marx and Hitler, you shouldn’t expect anything serious from a limerick. But this flippancy can have a purpose: by tackling a serious subject in a completely unserious way, you can undermine preconceptions and unthinking assumptions, and suggest alternative views and approaches.

With this in mind, consider the idea that religious belief correlates negatively with analytical thinking, but positively with moral concern and empathy. Research into this was summarized in The Independent in 2016, after more complete reporting in the science journal PLOS ONE. Limericks by their iconoclastic nature appear to be low in moral concern and empathy – but often it is some form of moral concern that has driven the limerick’s creation, although its rudeness and fresh viewpoint tends to favour analytical thinking over empathy.

Limericks are the clowns, the fools, of the poetry world. The best of clowns and fools go into stealth mode to make useful observations.