Well Rachel’s said all that’s to be said really about this third anniversary of our fire epic, so I’ll just add my appreciation for all the sweet comments and mention one of my own therapeutic efforts. Over the past year I’ve been writing a series of poems, not “about stuff”, but actually in a way I’ve never made poems before, more like studies – exercises almost, like what you’d do at an apprentice’s workbench maybe with some up-himself boss telling you “this is how it’s done” and you trying to follow all the rules and doing everything you can to quietly subvert the Master’s bidding. Anyway the poems have good old-fashioned (more or less) metres and rhyme-schemes, and the most recent are this little set I wrote for Robin’s birthday, an event which kind of coincided with the fall of the Berlin Wall thirty years ago. So when he’d got over his birthday junketings Robin duly thanked me & asked me why I’d been keeping these poems to myself instead of posting them in some public forum, and the answer was I didn’t know. So I’m doing it now, also without any clear idea of why, starting with his set, and I might go backwards and post up the rest at some time or another.
It was only the first one of the set that was really linked to the Berlin Wall as such, though I think there might be a lot of mileage in the subject for future attempts. This poem breaks “the rules” by being longer than the usual four or five stanzas, and that gave me such a bad conscience that I thought I should add some that were shorter than the normal, just to balance up the average. I wrote them on the bus to Edinburgh, when I was also reading a book filched from Ben’s collection, Arthur Koestler’s “Case of the Midwife Toad” and so my mind was running on the question of speciation – what is it that causes one species to evolve out of another and become distinct. It’s an issue that biologists only now think they might be starting to get to grips with, but I think the conventional view (rather over-simplified) was that some kind of barrier had to be created between the two evolving species – mountains, water, deserts – that would prevent what was potentially evolving from simply breeding its way back into the original species… So the connecting link between the first poem and its three smaller bad-conscience successors was the Berlin Wall, which was supposed to be the barrier that would separate the new (socialist) species of humanity from the old (capitalist) one.
Anyway the dandelions growing by the side of some of the more out-of-centre pavements in Pisa have always tickled my memory – not that there was anything specifically Pisa-ish about these chaps, that I could see: it was just that there was something very different about them from the dandelions a thousand miles to the north, although they were still apparently of the same breed. Actually you can see even bigger differences, ie across much smaller distances, in feverfew plants, which incidentally must share a common ancestor with dandelions – I suppose it’s the same phenomenon you see in different “varieties” of domesticated varieties, which of course we don’t generally allow to breed back to a common type because then there would be horrendous copyright issues…. I don’t think you see weeds growing along the pavements in British towns any more – or at least not to the extent that you do in Italy – and I always liked the Italian towns for that little sub-feature as it reminded me poignantly of growing up in the ‘fifties, when your feet would encounter a lot more than just pavement as you went along (kids were expected to learn to avoid dog-shit, for example!).
All these poems – I decided to include the first of them here along with the Robin poems, written about a year ago as I was waiting in the car for Ellie to come out of her weekly drama group – came about in roughly the same (for me fairly unusual) way: a subject, the template of rhyme & metre, and then the rest was worked out really as you do a crossword puzzle. Fun, a weirdly intellectual kind of exercise, and surprisingly strenuous, but anyway, I hope there’s as many kind words as the cross kind!
A final note about hair, a phenomenon that really does seem to have something to do with the ebb and flow of social evolution, whether as the kinds of hair celebrated in the eponymous musical, or those ancient patriarchal icons like Abraham or Darwin or Marx or God or Brahms. Edward Lear’s rhyme about the “old man with a beard” may have been intended to lampoon them or just to be another moment of his usual glorious nonsense, but it has always struck me as a kind of summing-up of that Victorian male Presence, hateful to some, intriguing to others, which still dominates so much of our thinking. And related to that – another little final note, about how careful we should remember to be about the pronouncements of “science”. Koestler mentions how the soviets championed the Lamarckian theories on evolution in defiance of Darwin’s, which of course were sanctioned by the Nazis and even the more moderately-inclined capitalists of our own day. Inherited or acquired characteristics? Darwin or Lamarck? Nietzsche or Darwin? Capitalist realism or socialist idealism? Take your pick: for myself, I don’t always see as much science as I’d like: more a bunch of guys jostling to be recognised as right….
Here’s the Robin Poems:
(Poems # I can’t remember): Berlin & Other Things
You were born on the day the Wall
fell down – well near enough, and ‘fell’
is not quite right either: was pulled,
pushed, undermined, hacked, rocked, cajoled
and cheered, or cursed, by crowds who howled
with joy that all had turned out well.
What was it for? Well, partying
and fun need no justifying –
but why was the thing there? Well, no-one
remembers…. Only that the sun
of freedom was a bit dimmed, the brawn
of Tyranny was doing its thing
While poor little Reason went to ground
and the roars of Principle would sound
louder every day: here capital,
here the hard fist of state control
Cain and Abel at their ancient brawl –
slick advert versus snarling hound.
Well, it was all long ago – or not
depending on the age you’re at
in your own mind – caught in the grid
of pleasure and sorrow, or making bid
to scale the celestial pyramid
to view your little blue home planet
And wonder if it was ever home
or just some marble in a game
played by a careless angel-gang
with nothing better to do than hang
around and see if the next Big Bang
yields more, or less, or much the same.
All round the world the walls are built
higher, and meaner, as the guilt
of mankind increases – and here’s you
and me forced to see it all through
by accident of birth: for few
human hopes have quite the songbird’s lilt.
The dandelions in Pisa look like
their northern counterparts, more or less;
but it’s the less that occupies
my curiosity, for this
may be a cross-section we take
through time, one step in the slow trek
One life-form makes into another
forfeiting its right to procreate
with its old kind, and isolate
itself, according to dictat:
a Species, that the lists infer
As cul-de-sac – from here, nowhere.
Somewhere a barrier goes up,
a point-of-no-return, a wall
of stuff that may be tangible
as Berlin’s concrete, or conceptual
only: a breakdown of co-op-
eration; a closed door; a full stop.
Though I don’t see how breaks can form
so quick – channels, mountains, deserts
or Unreason’s battlements and forts –
that crazy tower on the muddy skirts
of Pisa reminds me how the worm
of change burrows under all that’s firm.
It’s forty years since the hippie chicks
said hairy’s fine and hairy’s proud
and underarm and groin this thick’s
the mark of feminine power, and stood
to that principle and allowed
no argument from surly pricks.
Forty years – what happened to them?
they mince along, and no stray coil
so much as peeps beyond a hem.
I would miss them less if they wouldn’t fool
themselves, or me, that they smashed the rule
and saw nothing spurious in their claim.
Those forty years of forgetfulness
saw you come into the world, and smile
on the stupidity and stress
of scrambling on the slippy Pile –
hell, boy, have you no inkling at all
of evolution and progress?
Darwin’s a dunce and Dennet’s beard
evolved from the same ancient chin;
but that clown Lear went like a bird
and made it a place to nestle in
and in its spacious mansions heard
the Great Man swallow down what he feared:
he’d made Truth into God’s prison.
Clowns and dunces and heroes all
I sing their praises from my tree;
be evolution ascent or fall
you’ll hear it twittering through me
how God strides through his garden to call
come on out Adam you snivelling fool
when you flew the nest you set me free.
(Poem #1): Dandelion Yellow
I think the world might end tonight
however it might come about
by ice, or tidal wave, or war
or plague-spores released in the air –
whatever galvanises fear;
I’ll just switch on my dim desk-light
and grip the sides and sit it out.
You ask if I don’t understand
the meaning of the world will end;
I hold your hand and stroke your hair
and call you precious and my dear
and say there’s not a wound won’t scar
and if there’s truly no beyond
there’s no belief, to comprehend.
The world has stopped, for all I know
it could have happened yesterday
it could have happened three years on
and we still lag behind the sun
that blew itself out in a crown
of light, to catch some future eye
that, truth to tell, died long ago.
All I can say is, here we are
I stroking your long-vanished hair
in the yellow light around my desk
you answering what I’ve yet to ask
both clutching what was least at risk:
the light-puff of a broken star
a dandelion just past its flower.