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Old Scarlett

Old Scarlett
(Robert Scarlett, 1496-1594)

Enter the cathedral. He is still there,
painted onto a wall, above a door.
A bizarre, intriguing figure,
Robert Scarlett – “Old Scarlett”,
immortal grave-digger.

What a story he could have told,
what a life he must have led,
enduring to be so old;
yet living with the dead.
Like a leech, or vampire,
perhaps, sucking their blood,
for sustenance, as food,
a hunger that must be fed.
Unsurprising, perhaps,
his surname means “red”.

He buried Mary, Queen of Scots,
and Katharine of Aragon,
with hundreds of others,
their stories long-gone.
He had an unquenchable
lust for life; aged eighty-nine,
he wed his second wife.

Look again at the painting;
a tiny detail, almost unseen,
gives an edge to the image
of this man who buried queens.
Stocky in build, stout, not lean,
fierce character, pugnacious mien;
a direct gaze, sturdy in the hip,
there dangles from his waist
a slightly sinister whip.

As followers of this blog will know, I live in Peterborough, Cambridgeshire, and Peterborough happens to have a notable cathedral, which dates back to Norman times.  I constantly castigate myself for not visiting the cathedral as frequently as I should, but I do like to read about its history, and the local history of the area.  It was while I was reading a book about the history of Peterborough that I first came across Robert Scarlett, who was described as one of Peterborough’s most legendary residents.  Scarlett was born in 1496, worked as a gravedigger, and was employed as sexton by the cathedral.  His main claim to fame is that he buried both Katharine of Aragon and Mary, Queen of Scots after their funerals in the cathedral, but he is also notable for living to the age of 98, and for marrying his second wife – only a year after the death of his first wife – when he was 89 years old!  It is possible that Shakespeare based the character of the gravedigger in Hamlet upon Scarlett.

As soon as I read about him, I wanted to write a poem about “Old Scarlett”, but it wasn’t until I found out that there was a painting of him in the cathedral that I realized how I could actually do it. 

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KAB

KAB

The Kurdish contingent congregate
mid-day on Friday, at the corner of my street.
How the Kurdish populace propagate
is a miracle, for they are exclusively
male, and bearded. They meet,
they greet. Glossy leather shoes
adorn their feet.

The Kurdish contingent:
thereby hangs a tale
of innocent illusion,
and myself, in a state
of self-willed delusion.

“Kurdish Association
of Britain”.
So weak, the functioning
of my brain.

For months on end,
I would walk past, and see
the sign on the building: KAB.

That’s handy, I thought;
convenient for me,
next time I need
to call a taxi.

Months passed by,
before I would see
the small-case letters
underneath “KAB”.

“Kurdish Association
Of Britain”.
That took months,
to clarify, in my brain.

In a previous post (Local Knowledge, November 12, 2015) I wrote about my lack of attention to street names, as I walk about my locality, and the difficulties it causes when people ask me for directions.  I am afraid I am showing no signs of improvement, as regards to this.  Indeed, I pay so little attention to the sights around me that I seem to be walking around in a sort of self-obsessed mental fog at times.  Not the best of attributes for an aspiring poet, one might think!  The above poem was written when I finally realized – after a period of months – that the sign outside a building I walked past every day had a completely different meaning from what I originally thought.

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Genghis

GENGHIS

Strange sights are liable to be seen,
at any time, on St. Martin’s Street.
This very afternoon, for example,
I looked out of my bedroom window
just as an elderly man on a motorized
single-person vehicle – designed,
presumably, for a physically handicapped
person – drew to a sudden halt,
right underneath my window.

Nothing strange about that, you
might say; but wait, just give me
a chance to explain, to elaborate.

I had seen this man before,
several times, in fact, walking
along St. Martin’s Street, but
never before on this
striking-looking silver vehicle.

He is a short, stocky man with a
distinctive, Asiatic appearance.
Narrow, slanted eyes gaze out,
fiercely, from a lined face toughened
and seasoned by many arduous years.
A bristling, dark moustache covers
his upper lip. He wore a furry,
Cossack cap, with flaps
hanging down over his ears.

As I watched, he pulled a half-bottle
of Vodka out of his pocket,
unscrewed the top, and took
a hearty swig. He then kicked
his silver steed into life, and
headed off, along the street,
for all the world looking like
Genghis Khan, on a Mongolian
plain, ready for his next exploit
of rape and pillage.

See what I mean, now?

Last Sunday afternoon, I was listening to an interview, on BBC6 Music, with the American film director Jim Jarmusch.  It was a fascinating interview, mainly about Jarmusch’s love for the music of Iggy Pop and the Stooges, but towards the end of the interview he spoke about his latest film, which features poetry by Ron Padgett.  Jarmusch said that Padgett was his favourite poet, and was a member of the New York School of poets.  I knew a bit about the New York School, but had never heard of Ron Padgett.  I went online, to see what I could find out about him, and soon came across a YouTube video of him reading one of his poems – Nothing in That Drawer.  I can recommend it, for light entertainment value, if for nothing else.  The first line of the poem repeats the title: Nothing in that drawer.  The second line is the same.  So is the third line.  And so it continues; fourteen lines, all identical.  Padgett himself comes across as a droll, very likeable individual.  He explains that he wanted the poem to have fourteen lines to emulate the classic form of the sonnet, and the way he read the poem gave slightly different meanings to each line – although the words were identical.

Anyway, the main point of all this is that the New York School of the 1960’s were known mainly for “freeing-up” formal verse; making it more spontaneous and free-wheeling.  Some of the poems can read like fun, fact-filled personal essays.  The next day – on Monday afternoon – I looked out of my bedroom window, onto St.Martin’s Street, and saw the events described in the above poem.  I just sat down and wrote it, spontaneously; just as if I were – like Ron Padgett – a member of the New York School.  I think it works ok!

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Power Outage

ATAVISTIC

First Man sat, stupefied,
in the sudden silence.
Felt, instantly, the chill,
seeping into the space
vacated by the waft
of warm air from the heater.

He got to his feet, befuddled
by the blackness enveloping him
so abruptly, so completely.

Blackness; underlying everything,
integral to existence,
yet so alien to him now.

It pressed upon him,
muffled him, constricted him
with converging walls,
with unseen objects.

Blind, bewildered,
First Man stumbled
to the window,
but didn’t get there,

for the light had already
returned, and First Man,
now Homo Sapiens again,
was re-admitted
to the golden ease
of civilization.

On the last two occasions when I’ve experienced a power-cut (or “power outage”), I’ve ended up writing a poem about it.  There’s something about the sheer intensity of the experience; how you are suddenly plunged into a completely strange, alien world.  The latest experience occurred at a time when I just happened to be reading a crime fiction novel entitled “The First Man” (by Xavier-Marie Bonnot – I can thoroughly recommend it!)  The “First Man” of the title refers to our primitive ancestors, before the Neolithic Revolution.  When I started writing the above poem, I suddenly realized that an effective way to express the bewilderment and alienation caused by the power-cut might be to use the images of primitive man contrasted with homo sapiens.  This also solved the minor problem of what to use as a title for the poem.  I was simply going to use “Power-Cut” as the title, but then remembered that was the title I had used for the poem I had written on the previous occasion.  I think “Atavistic” is a much more resonant title than “Power-Cut (2)”! 

 

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Modern Verse

MODERN VERSE

Some modern verses I read
in fear and dread. They start
enticingly, at times;
pleasant rhythms, even rhymes.

The lines pellucid, meanings clear;
I suppress my mounting fear.
I await the non-sense,
into which they descend,
or the sublime heights
to which they ascend.

Then I reach it: a point
where all I think I knew
is suddenly, chaotically,
flung askew.

No matter how hard
I focus, how eagerly
I attend; I am, inevitably,
lost at the end.

The meaning flies away,
leaves me for dead;
wiping perspiration
from my obtuse head.

I’ve written before in this blog about how I find some modern poetry to be wilfully obscure.  I know that poetry is not supposed to be transparent and as easy to read as a nursery rhyme, but some poets seem to me to be deliberately enigmatic and elusive.  Poets like T.S. Eliot and Elizabeth Bishop tantalise me by hinting at clarity and meaning, and then pull the rug away from under my feet.  Other poets – Wallace Stevens, Ezra Pound, Geoffrey Hill and (my particular bête noir) John Ashbery, for example – are completely opaque from start to finish.

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The Speed of Light

THE SPEED OF LIGHT

We look at a star, two thousand light-years
away from us; we see it as it was
two thousand years ago.

An intelligent being on that star
trains his high-powered telescope
upon our planet, and sees
the crucifixion of Jesus.

For us, it happened two thousand years ago.
He sees it live, as it is happening;
for, after all, it is happening now.

From a star much nearer,
another intelligent being observes
the Battle of Hastings.

It offends against reason;
it cannot be right,
that this be brought about
by the speed of light.

But the whole quantum world
affronts logic and reason.
Argue about it all day, all night,
but it exists; oh yes, it exists all right.

I think about the speed of light;
get a glimmer of an insight
into what is meant by physicists
when they claim Time does not exist.

For, depending where
you are in the Multiverse,
everything is always happening,
for better or worse.

I will always associate the British writer/philosopher Brian Magee (born 1930) with the most enjoyable three years of my life, spent studying for a Humanities degree (as a “Mature Student” aged twenty six) at Cambridgeshire College of Arts and Technology.  The main subject of my degree – European Thought and Literature – was exactly what I was passionately interested in, and Brian Magee became part of it all when, in 1978, he presented a series on BBC Television called “Men of Ideas”.  I remember watching the programme every week, fascinated by Magee’s conversations with some of the most eminent philosophers of the time. 

I have followed his literary/broadcasting career ever since, and so I was fully aware that his latest book “Ultimate Questions” is intended to be a final resume of the ideas that have obsessed him throughout his life.  I have yet to read the full book, but I immediately went onto Amazon to have a look, and found myself reading the first chapter.  I soon realized that what Magee was doing in this first section was compressing a vast amount of information about the speed of light into a relatively short space.  As I read, the full import of what he was saying started to sink in, and I have tried to express it in the above poem.

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Mr Twink

MR TWINK

the cat detective. I must have been
seven or eight when I met him,
in the Children’s Public Library.

Mr Twink, the black cat; so calm,
so clever. So sleek, so slim,
so self-contained.

Sgt. Boffer, the large, hairy,
friendly dog assistant, ran around,
laboriously, all over the place;
sweating, fretting, getting nowhere,

while Twink slept, preened
his immaculate fur, and solved
the case, by pure ease of intellect.

Poor old Boffer ended up
baffled, bothered, and bewildered.
How I envied Twink! How I wanted
to be him!

Later, I read Conan Doyle;
saw Holmes and Watson as pale
simulacra of Twink and Boffer.

Then there was Cardew
of the Fifth Form: lax, lazy
with his homework,

lounging, smoking cigarettes,
while his schoolmates toiled
and scratched their heads.

Coolly timing his decisive
surge to the tape in The 440 Yards
on School Sports Day.

Later still, I recognised Mr Twink’s
feline intelligence in Mrs Peel
on The Avengers.

Steed was no slouch,
but he would puzzle and fret,
while she calmly cut to
the heart of the case.

They were my heroes; my idols.
I wanted to glide, lazily, through life;
succeeding, where others failed,
by the languid use of my
incisive intelligence.

But now, as I veer unsteadily
towards my doddering seventies,
I can see that Mr Twink as me
was something that could never be.

I was, have always been, Sgt. Boffer:
bothered, baffled, bedraggled,
and now, increasingly,
bewildered.

The global success of the BBC TV series “Sherlock”, with Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes and Martin Freeman as Dr Watson, is the latest incarnation of the Holmes and Watson characters from the original stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.  When I first started reading the Sherlock Holmes stories, as a teenager, my initial response to them must have been fairly unusual, for I remember thinking “Oh, I see what this is: this is an imitation of the Mr Twink stories!”

I can still vividly remember my excitement when I came across a series of books, in the Children’s Section of Barnsley Public Library, all featuring a cat detective called Mr Twink and his collie dog assistant Sgt Boffer.  I was, I think, seven or eight years old at the time.  I remember the books having jackets in different shades of pastel colours, and black and white illustrations of the animal characters.  I’ve searched the internet many times without success, looking for any trace of these wonderful books.  I even started to wonder whether they were a figment of my imagination.  It was only today that I finally found a website that actually had the information I was looking for.  So I now know that the books were written by a children’s nurse called Freda Hurt, and the illustrations were by a well-known artist called Nina Scott Langley.  There were a series of nine books, published between 1953-1962.  One other interesting fact, that did not impinge upon me at the time, is that Mr Twink’s owner happened to be a poet!   

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War and Peace

WAR AND PEACE

“Do I dare to eat a peach?”
Or should I, instead, read “War and Peace”?
In a few months’ time, it’s on BBC;
a series I shall be compelled to see.
Jim Broadbent’s in it: good enough for me!
But then, the book will forever be
an unread classic. I hang my head;
so many of these I should have read.
Now in my sixties, still I feel
lacking in resolve, the essential steel.
I identify with Ethelred,
forever unready, forever in dread;
this Tolstoyan epic, this massive tome,
a sword of Damocles over my head.
A man’s ambition should exceed his reach;
perhaps life’s too short to read “War and Peace”.

I recently read a highly entertaining, stimulating, amusing book: “The Year of Reading Dangerously” by Andy Miller.  It’s an autobiographical account of how he decided to read his way through a list of fifty books in the course of a year.  The fifty books on his “List of Betterment” are generally literary masterpieces or popular cult classics, and included Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina” and “War and Peace”.  It was partly reading Andy Miller’s book that made me think about whether I should read “War and Peace”.  Then, just a few days later, I saw that the BBC are planning to show a major dramatization of “War and Peace” early in the new year.  I suddenly realized that, if I didn’t read “War and Peace” before the BBC show it, then I would probably never get around to reading it.

My poem has two quotations in it; one correct and the other one deliberately incorrect.  The correct quotation is “Do I dare to eat a peach?”, from T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”.  This line has had many interpretations over the years, many of them with sexual connotations; but I just liked the sound of it, and the way it rhymes with War and Peace.  The incorrect quotation I used is Robert Browning’s “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp”, which – purely for the sake of the rhyme – I’ve changed to “A man’s ambition should exceed his reach”.

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Beckett in Haiku

BECKETT IN HAIKU:

The sun rose, and shone,
having no alternative,
on the nothing new.

Sam sat out of it,
as though he were free,
and not captured in haiku.

The first two sentences of Samuel Beckett’s 1938 novel “Murphy” form one of the most resonant openings to any novel in 20th century fiction: “The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new.  Murphy sat out of it, as though he were free, in a mew in West Brompton.”

I recently read a charming novella: “The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman” by a Canadian writer, Denis Theriault.  The story is all about haikus, and the effect they have upon the main characters.  I learned quite a lot about haikus, as I was reading the novella, and the opening sentences of “Murphy” kept springing into my mind.  I realized that this was happening because those opening sentences – although they were written purely as prose – had exactly the same resonance as a haiku; or, to be exact, two consecutive haikus.  I decided to rewrite Beckett’s sentences, and cast them in the form of two connecting haikus, which required some slight, judicious editing, in order to satisfy the necessary syllabic structure.  I admit the resulting poem is a collaboration between Beckett and myself, and will probably be meaningless to anybody unfamiliar with haiku or “Murphy”; but, if it attracts more readers to “The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman” and/or “Murphy”, it will have served its purpose! 

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Quantum Poet

 

 

QUANTUM POET:

Schrodinger’s Cat is alive and dead;
it’s all a matter of superposition.
Quantum computers now exist,
utilising this transition.

He reads the great verses in the bath.
He reads one poem; it makes perfect sense.
He reads another; it makes no sense.
Then there are some that are in between;
that shift and blur their meanings,
mutate, even as he’s reading.

It’s not a question of right or wrong;
some poems will make sense, ere long.
He thinks, again, of superposition;
a quantum poet could sing this transition.

It’s a binary world: the weak, the strong.
Binary opposites: the right, the wrong.
Binary opposites: the generous, the mean.
But don’t forget the ones in between.
Don’t forget the constant transition;
necessary for the superposition.

Constant flux; Heraclitus was not wrong.
The binary opposites switch off and on.
The world keeps singing its binary song.

I’ve read quite a lot about “Quantum Computers” recently.  Apparently they exist more in theory than practice at the moment, but if and when they come into being they would revolutionise computing as we know it.  I read about how they are based upon “superposition” of atomic particles, and the almost infinite options that arise from the seething flux of colliding particles; whereas conventional computers are limited to binary digits.  I started to think about the notion of quantum poetry: if quantum computers could be developed, shouldn’t there be “quantum poets”, who could give meaning to the myriad possibilities of quantum collisions?

I struggled for quite a while, wondering how to write a poem about this, but the well-known story of Schrodinger’s Cat proved to be a breakthrough into how to start the poem.  I then realised that the images of constant flux – anticipated by the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus – could be applied to virtually anything; even my habit of reading poetry in the bath!

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