Tag Archives: Robin Helweg-Larsen

Poem: “Dark Fedora”

 

 

“You look like a musician-poet in that dark fedora.”
I think of the young Dylan, and it takes away my breath,
And for her easy flattery I all the more adore her…
But she meant Leonard Cohen in the days before his death.

 

 

First published in Light Magazine, Summer/Fall 2017.

Poem: “Never Believe”

Never believe the lies of war, and the orders
that seem to make sense –
whether Hitler or Bush, no one storms over borders
“in self defence”.

“Leading the Free World” by having the biggest gun
has always chilled
those on whom the guns are turned, on everyone
free to be killed.

This is another of my anti-imperialist or anti-war poems, first published in Ambit’s 200th quarterly issue in the UK. Despite the tone of the poem, I should clarify that I don’t dislike guns in themselves. One way or another they were in my life for decades: capguns as a kid, then BB gun and speargun, four years of .303s at school in England (and a submachine gun on school exercises in Denmark), earning my Marksman badge in training in Canada, letting my own kids try skeet shooting, Nerf guns and super-soakers… 

But I don’t see any reason for anyone to own any firearm other than a single-shot hunting rifle.

And as for military forces, given that invaders need several times the firepower of defenders to be successful, I don’t see the need for any military force to be more than a third the size of its biggest competitor. Anything more than that would be best channeled into (a reformed, effective, efficient) United Nations. And never believe anyone who says they need to strike first, in self-defence. They are the bad guys, by definition.

Technically the poem is a little loose. The rhymes are OK, but the scansion is erratic, relying on the reader to find five beats in the longer and two beats in the shorter lines for a rhythmic read. Iambic pentameters it ain’t. But the short lines are the cleanest and the punchiest: that’s where the action is. My hope is always that a strong last line absolves a lot of earlier sins.

Sonnet: “Bring on the Violins”

Bring on the violins, the falling leaves,
the wistful ending to a misty day.
The long game’s over and we ride away
to sunset Heaven that no one believes.
Our world is dying, yet here no one grieves:
Earth warms, seas rise, but Wall Street’s still in play…
and we ourselves are aging anyway.
We all face death, and there’ve been no reprieves.
And yet, and yet…robotics and AI,
gene therapy, unlimited life span,
promise an almost-here-and-now sublime,
an unknown life, with our old life gone by.
Trumpet a fanfare for the Superman,
music for dancing to the end of time.

This sonnet has just been published in the Amsterdam Quarterly, this spring’s issue being on the theme of Beginnings and Endings. That may be relevant for our Covid-19 catastrophe, but of course the theme was determined a year ago, and life and death have merely decided to smile on AQ ironically.

But we were all facing death before this latest coronavirus came along. As the saying goes, “Perfect health is simply the slowest rate at which you can die.” And interwoven with death is always new life, never an exact repetition of the old life and often dramatically better. The real issue is, will the new life come at the expense of the old, or can the old reform and regenerate itself, renew itself without needing to die? The avoidance of death has been the quest of religion and medicine since those disciplines (or that discipline) originated. It is great driver of culture, and the pot of gold at the foot of the never-quite-reached rainbow.

Technically this is a correctly structured Petrarchan sonnet, with an initial octave (in this case of existential doom and gloom) rhyming ABBAABBA, followed by a volta (in this case a reversal to hope) for the sestet that rhymes CDECDE.

The sonnet is a marvellous structure for expressing an argument in a compact way.

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.

Sonnet: “We’ve Reached Earth’s Edge”

The Earth’s explored, and flat. And I know this
despite Earth’s shadow in lunar eclipse,
and how horizons hide the hulls of ships.
We’ve reached Earth’s edge, stare into the abyss
with Branson, Musk, NASA and the Chinese,
toppling into blackness, falling prey
with Kurzweil, CRISPR, Google, Bostrom, de Grey,
businesslike scientists battling disease,
entrepreneurs with dark unearthly schemes:
the outer darkness space’s endlessness,
the inner darkness immortality.
Pushing and leaning into stellar space,
the event horizon of our thoughts and dreams,
the black hole of our post-humanity.

Published in the Formal & Rhyming Poetry section of this month’s Better Than Starbucks, the “Earth’s edge” idea is just another way of trying to express my ongoing fascination with the end of humanity-as-we-know-it, and the beginning of something that we can’t even visualize yet, let alone make confident predictions about. Close to the idea of the “posthuman god” at the bottom of the Wikipedia page.

Technically, this is a poorly-structured sonnet (ABBA CDDC EFG FEG), with a really weak rhyme of endlessness / space. Sorry about that. But I hope you can enjoy it for the ideas, anyway!

 

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.

 

Poem: “Head of the Table”

Your grandparents die
And your children are born;
Then your parents die
Then grandchildren are born;
And you move one more seat
Round the mad table
To the head of the table,
At which point you’re expected to go.

As when the crow came
Wild, not tame – all the same
It cawed you the news
That confirmed death and time;
So when your time comes
And you feel in your bones
That the body is over
Where will you, the guest, go?

Then bring food and drink!
Glasses clink! Glance and wink
As you move to the brink
Of eternity.
Who knows what follows next?
“Afterlife” is absurd –
But then all life’s absurd –
We just know, when it’s time, that we go.

This is about as religious as I’ve found myself in the past 30 or 40 years – in other words, I waver between mild atheism (“None of this God stuff makes sense”) and militant agnosticism (“I don’t know, and neither do you.”) But at least you have a seat at the table! Enjoy the party while you can (preferably while being pleasant to others).

Originally published in Snakeskin No. 232 (or #232).