Seventy

SEVENTY

Three score years and ten

Here I am, yet again,

On the thirteenth day

Of the merry month of May.

 

What are my thoughts? How does it feel?

It is slightly strange; somehow unreal.

My sixtieth birthday was no big deal.

But to reach what, we were always told,

Was our “allotted span”; I must truly be old.

 

The sense of the unreal is amplified,

For we are living through strange times.

A “baby boomer”, my life has been charmed.

No mortal terrors, no physical harm.

No hunger, no hardship, no impact of war.

A life comparatively blessed, so far.

But now we are in “lockdown”; confined, ill at ease,

Our lives in peril from a deadly disease.

 

Seventy years, in a minor key.

At times slightly sad; at times quietly comic.

The mood subdued; the mode laconic.

Seventy years have come and gone.

Not a painting by Turner; more like a Gwen John.

Now, I am in a global pandemic.

I finally get a first brush with the epic.

I don’t normally feel inspired to write a poem when my birthday comes around every year. Ten years ago, when I had my sixtieth birthday, I remember various friends and relatives commenting on it being some sort of momentous occasion, but, to me, it was a bit of a non-event. I didn’t feel any different; didn’t feel as if I’d suddenly become an ageing, elderly person. I resolved to enter my sixties continuing to ignore the march of time, as I had done hitherto. Now, I have reached my seventieth birthday, and I still don’t feel any different – but the occasion does seem significant, purely because of the old idea of “three score years and ten” being a reasonable life-expectation.

Thinking along those lines, I began to get a few ideas for a poem, and the Covid-19 pandemic added an extra twist to it.

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Quantum Apple

A QUANTUM PHYSICIST EXPATIATES UPON AN APPLE

In the beginning was the bit;

Binary digits of information.

Things, or “its”, arise out of bits.

All physical systems register information;

See this apple as a representation.

 

First came the fall:

From ignorant bliss, in the garden of delight,

To the knowledge of darkness, and eternal night.

For Eve bit the apple, the biter was bit;

Or so the biblical tales have it.

 

See the apple fall, through space, through time.

See it, as it transfixes the mind of Isaac Newton.

From inspired logic and imagination,

Came universal laws of gravitation.

 

But this apple conveys so much more;

See this apple as a metaphor.

The surface of the apple, to Albert Einstein,

Was a functional metaphor for curved spacetime.

 

The genetic code, locked into its seeds,

Programmed the structure of future apple trees,

And the calories of bit-rich energy;

The sustenance the human body needs.

 

Each atom in this apple, by position and velocity,

Contains more information than is known to philosophy.

Each nuclear spin, in an atom’s core,

Registers on the apple’s digital score.

 

And each spin registers but a single bit.

So we can say, thanks to quantum physics,

This apple contains only a few times more

Bits than atoms, from surface to core.

 

So, there we have it:

The Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve.

Sub-atomic wonders they could never conceive.

Newton, Einstein; scientific heroes.

And a few million billion ones and zeros.

The books I’ve been reading often spill-over into, or inspire, the poems I’m writing. I’ve recently read two excellent books in the “Popular Science” category: THE DEMON IN THE MACHINE by PAUL DAVIES (subtitled: How hidden webs of information are solving the mystery of life), and PROGRAMMING THE UNIVERSE by SETH LLOYD (subtitled: A quantum computer scientist takes on the cosmos). I can thoroughly recommend both of them, and it was the combination of the two that generated the above poem. 

 

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Somehow

TEFL(8): SOMEHOW

Somehow, I seem to be doing this well.

Somehow, people seem to like what I’m doing,

Even though I don’t know what it is

I’m supposed to be doing.

 

This “one to one” teaching is different

To any other kind of teaching.

You don’t have to control a class of kids,

Or a group of disparate individuals.

You don’t have to be masterful,

To impose rigour, or discipline.

You don’t even have to be organised;

Which is just as well, in my case.

 

Each one to one session is an encounter

With a unique individual. You have to be

Sensitive, flexible, adaptable. You have to

Attune to the individual’s needs,

His strengths, his weaknesses, and, somehow,

Coasting along, freewheeling, improvising,

Flying by the seat of my pants,

I seem to be doing it.

This is another of my prose-poems reminiscing about my experiences as a teacher of English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) in London in the eighties. As we are now gradually, painfully groping our way out of lockdown, it is pleasant for me to look back at those times, when I was learning “on the job” from day to day, and enjoying life in the metropolis, in my early thirties.

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The Sting of Reality

THE STING OF REALITY

Strange, how frequently

What I read mirrors,

Or echoes, my reality.

 

A character in Iris Murdoch’s last novel

Sits on a grassy bank, watching a spider

Build a web between blades of grass.

He stands up, but feels the spider

Walking on his hand. He helps it

Back to its web.

 

As I read this, I recall a similar encounter

I had, with a spider, just the previous day.

Sitting at my laptop, I felt a ticklish sensation

On my arm. In the act of scratching it,

I glanced down, and saw a small spider,

With bright red dots on its body,

Walking along my arm.

 

Murdoch’s character courteously, kindly,

Escorts the spider back to its web.

What do I do? I recoil, involuntarily,

Dislodging the little spider, which falls

To the floor and disappears.

 

How typical! How revealing!

Why do I shudder inwardly?

Why do I cower away from this

Novel sensation, instead of

Responding with interest and sympathy,

Like the Murdoch character?

Perhaps it was the bright red dots,

But my spider was, surely,

A harmless little thing,

With no capacity to bite, or sting.

 

Even as I reflect on these two incidents,

Yet another similar encounter

Jumps into my consciousness;

But this one is from forty-five years ago.

 

My twenty-five-year-old self,

Sitting at my desk, in the offices

Of FMC(Meat)Ltd.

I feel an itch at the back of my calf.

I reach down, to scratch it.

The next second, an agonising wave of pain

Rushes up my leg. I look down, and see

A wasp, crawling away, on the floor.

 

Perhaps it is wise, sometimes,

To recoil, to shy away,

From the sharp sting of harsh reality.

This has ended up as a similar type of poem to “Babbling Books”, which I posted in this blog a few weeks ago. In both poems, I am trying to explore what happens when the books I am reading seem to be describing exactly what is happening to me, in my everyday reality. Rational logic would explain it as pure coincidence, but it has happened to me so frequently that I tend to think there is something more to it than that.

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Faith

FAITH

The front door of the flat opens.

A woman steps out, into the sunshine,

The blue sky, the eerie silence

Of the fourth week of pandemic lockdown.

 

She is in late middle age,

A short, stocky figure.

She wears a scarf on her head,

But no mask over her face.

 

It is Good Friday, but all the churches,

All the synagogues, all the mosques,

Are shut.

 

She extends a hand in front of her face.

The hand swishes up, down, and across,

Several times; slicing through, shredding

The pestilential air, with the sign of the cross.

 

She invokes her omnipotent,

Infallible, invisible ally,

To protect her against

The omniscient, invisible enemy.

 

Fortified by her faith,

She needs no face mask.

She steps forward, bravely,

Into the occupied territory.

Having temporarily escaped the all-enveloping pandemic lockdown in my last posting, I felt obliged to return to the subject this week. Fortunately, I happened to look out of my living room window, just in time to see a woman emerging from one of the neighbouring flats. I then watched, with surprise and fascination, as she performed the ritual that immediately inspired the above poem “Faith”.

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Loving This

TEFL(7): LOVING THIS

One year in, and I’m loving this.

Loving the irregular hours,

The uncertainty, the temporality.

Loving the cramped, crowded train

From Clapham Junction to Victoria.

Loving the walk, past Buckingham Palace,

Into Green Park, across Piccadilly,

Into mysterious Mayfair,

Past the MI5 Building, with those

Opaque, enigmatic windows.

Staring into them, willing Alec Guinness,

As George Smiley, to emerge from behind them,

Shrewd eyes behind hornrims,

Darting furtive glances along the street.

Onto Berkeley Square, sadly bereft

Of nightingales. Past Bond Street station,

Across Oxford Street. A quick glance

At Selfridges. Onto James Street,

Then into Language Studies.

 

The entrance hall, the stairs,

The all-important timetable

On the noticeboard.

Who am I teaching today?

The head of the German trade union?

The giggling secretary to the owner of FIAT?

The wife of the F1 grand prix driver?

 

I’m living in London.

I’m a self-employed tutor.

I feel independent, I feel free.

I’m working my way up

The Language Studies hierarchy.

I still feel young – not yet thirty-three.

I’m loving it all, and this is little ole’ me!

Little ole’ Stewie, from Barnsley!

In an effort to escape the woes of self-isolation in this pandemic lockdown, I decided to continue writing the autobiographical sequence of poems narrating episodes in my life as a teacher of English as a Foreign Language in London in the 1980’s. It was a joy to wallow in comforting nostalgia, and to relive the excitement I felt as a (relatively) young man making my way up the career ladder and experiencing the ups and downs of life in the metropolis.

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Babbling Books

BABBLING BOOKS

My webbed fingers open “Offshore” *
Just before the onset of the floods.
I am soon immersed in this taut tale
Of folk living on houseboats.
Neither fish nor fowl, betwixt land and sea,
Bobbing and weaving, rising and falling
With the tides, spasmodically leaking,
Traumatically sinking.

The floods approach their apogee,
Submerging, it seems, half the country.
The webbed fingers open “Once Upon a River” **
I sink into the comforting narrative textures,
Succumb to the hypnotic pull and sway
Of this magical mystery tour,
A storytelling epic set on the River Thames.

The number of victims of the floods
Escalates dramatically. Their faces,
On the News, tell of grim resignation,
As the rivers relentlessly rise,
Despair, as they abandon the houses
They had fruitlessly turned into homes.

For me, safe and dry in my land-locked eyrie,
There is only bemusement, bafflement
At the intuitive, unthinking way I plunged
Into this river of reading, pre-empting
The reality of the flooding.

And I am left with curiosity at the deep,
Unfathomable currents, the streams
Of sensations, linking the unconscious self
To the brain, to the body, as it swims along,
Laden with sixty percent water,
On its surreal sojourn through
This drowning island.

*By Penelope Fitzgerald (1979)
**By Diane Setterfield (2018)

It’s almost forgotten about, now that we are so totally consumed by the Corona Virus crisis, but, in February – only just before the current crisis commenced – we were immersed in another crisis that seemed to be all-consuming, as floodwater levels threatened to submerge large parts of the country. Having already written an immediate response to the current crisis (“Life on Hold”, in my last post) I thought I’d look back to the floods, and muse about the curious connections between the floods and the books I happened to be reading at the time. While I was writing the poem, I also stumbled across a TED video of the wonderful Elaine Morgan, defending the validity of the Aquatic Ape Hypothesis, and it all seemed to tie-in with what I was writing about.

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Life on Hold

LIFE ON HOLD

We are suddenly surrounded, saturated,
Enveloped, by the all-encompassing virus.
“Coronavirus. Corvid 19.”
“Corvid 19. Coronavirus.”
I switch on the radio. It is there.
Switch channels. It is there.
In the supermarket, it is there,
On the shelves that are empty
Of pasta, eggs, sanitary wipes, toilet rolls.

It is a Saturday, when I like to listen to sport
On the radio, to watch it on TV.
But now there is no sport.
Now there is no culture.
Now there are no festivals.
No cordial meetings in pubs.
Now there are no pubs.
No cafes, no bars, no restaurants.
The virus has killed them all.
Soon, there will be no shops.

Social interaction, meeting a friend,
Going to the theatre, to the cinema,
Going to a music gig, to a folk festival.
Anything that lifts the soul,
That raises the human spirit,
All killed by this virus,
Within a mere twenty-four hours.
All sanctioned and approved
By one government statement.

The newspaper headline
I see in the supermarket
Expresses the essence of it all:
UK PUTS LIFE ON HOLD.

This time last week, I was looking forward to visiting Bury St. Edmunds on Friday 13th. A fascinating place, with fascinating pubs, only just over an hour’s train journey away from Peterborough, where I live; and yet, unaccountably, I had never visited it before. I was going to visit it with a friend who lives in Cambridge, but he sent me a text message at eight o’clock that evening.  The rapidly-mounting hysteria about the Coronavirus had obviously got to him. He was sorry, he said, but he thought it wise for us to postpone the visit to Bury St. Edmunds the next day. I was bitterly disappointed.

I wrote this poem a couple of days later, and it expresses all the disappointment I felt at the time. Now, a week later, it seems like a rather childish, self-obsessed rant by someone unable to understand the full picture. But I don’t think I am the only one who’s been completely taken aback by the speed and sudden escalation of the effects of the virus.  

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Instant Nostalgia

Signs of Senescence (2): Instant Nostalgia

Sinking slowly in a sea of sorrow
An observer on a bridge of sighs. . .

Nostalgia
A sudden, soulful, sadness
From a memory of something
That happened yesterday
Or a memory of something
That happened last week.

Yesterday, today, tomorrow
Dissolve, before unseeing eyes. . .

An instant nostalgia
A sudden, soulful, sadness
For something
That is happening now
Even as I speak.

This is the second poem in a short sequence entitled Signs of Senescence. I realize it probably conveys the image of the poet submerged in sorrows – but I’m not, really. And, at least, I think it’s a good sign that I can recognise when I am slipping into nostalgia, and am able to look at it objectively.

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Back to Front

Signs of Senescence (1): Back to Front

To start at the end
Of books, of articles,
Of long paragraphs,
Of chunks of prose.

My ageing eyes,
Affronted by the sight
Of any lengthy text,
Want to jump, instinctively,
To the end, and read back,
From there to the start.

Prescient organs,
My eyes. They know,
As I enter my seventieth year,
There is little time left
For me to read, mark,
And inwardly digest
Such interminable items.

So, I start at the end.
Read the conclusions.
Then jump back
To the middle of the text.
Read from there.
Then jump back again
To the start.

It ends up with me,
Ironically,
Taking longer
Than I would do
Reading normally.

As one of the “baby boomer” generation (born 1950), I suppose I am one of those irritating people who tend to disregard the whole process of physical ageing, and like to think of myself as ageless and ever-youthful. It’s something to do with being a teenager during the “swinging sixties”, and the revolution in attitudes that happened at that time. Anyway, I have to confront the fact that, in a few months’ time I shall be seventy, and this poem is one of a short sequence I am currently working on, describing one or two mental or physical signs of the ageing process. “Senescence” is one of those words I’ve always quite liked the sound of, but never been completely sure what it meant. Having recently looked it up in the dictionary, I now know it simply means “ageing”.

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