Archive for September, 2015

competence

really?? is that me?
a servant of the Dark Lord?
— behind the bumbling
idiot
persona lies
machine-like efficiency

It’s not my most elegant poem ever, but it does effectively pinpoint an issue which is a constant concern, never too far from the front of my mind — namely, that of my own competence or lack of it — competence not only in my work role, but as a partner to my beloved, as a family member, and just simply as an effective member of society. I had serious emotional problems as a teenager which meant my concentration was always impaired. And then I lived the next two or three decades homeless, in more or less total isolation, where those skills I’m talking about got no chance for exercise or development. So the last ten years have been a steep learning curve. In my dream I was moving swiftly and smoothly along the floor — clearly not employing legs for the purpose — in a manner apparently based on an evil snake character from Doctor Who. Although evil, this character’s competence (unlike my own) seems never in question. I have checked out the character’s name: Colony Sarff. And, well I never, sarff apparently means serpent in Welsh — an interesting point of continuity with yesterday’s post Lloegyr.

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Lloegyr

how shall I ever
conquer my own arrogance?
— by remembering
to honour the Welsh hills — whose
gentleness answers the dawn

There are too many allusions here, making it very meaningful for me personally and probably of negligible merit for anyone else. This is an occupational hazard both for poets and for dream-interpreters. The starting point was last night’s dream of a satellite view of North London, showing numerous areas of natural open space — not so much parks as in reality, as heathland, hills and moors. These hills had Welsh names, even though this was London. I also dreamed of a church where the dead body of my paternal grandfather was being displayed for his funeral. The corpse had quite an attractive, gentle smile on its face and I felt a flood of positive emotion. My grandfather’s name was Arthur, which connects, as it happens, with the title of the poem. Lloegyr is the original Welsh name for Roman Britain from which came the name for King Arthur’s Britain (Logres). As a child I was an avid reader of the books of Roger Lancelyn Green, whose retelling of the Arthurian legends makes great play of the name Logres as indicating some kind of semi-holy realm, not just the geographical land of Britain. The symbolic importance for me of the Welsh hills refers back to a dream I had in the early nineties when I was homeless and entertaining fantasies of settling down in a relationship with a transgender person (male to female) whom I’d met. In my dream, she was an artist, painting watercolours of the Welsh hills, and this visual image filled me with an incredibly poignant yearning. I have never forgotten it as a symbol of unattainable happiness just out of reach, but nevertheless existing as a promise.

Yuval Noah Harari #2

could it be true, myths
choose us not we them? — thinking
itself, a process
not so much of digesting
as of being digested?

In my dream last night, I found myself welcomed, with my mother and sister, into the Parisian apartment of a Jewish family — the family of Dina Lecache (the ‘stunning French girl‘ whom I posted about here). Too much detail to go into. The dream seemed to have been shaped by having watched TV yesterday and stumbled upon the new, revamped Thunderbirds series. I used to watch the original series in the sixties as a child. In my dream the Lecache family was something like the Tracy family, but instead of technology, they had magic powers based on Cabbalistic knowledge. The starting point for my poem was my own obstinate Christianity — which is an inexplicable, irrational phenomenon. Not just because Christianity itself is inexplicable and irrational, but because I call myself a Christian yet am uncompromising in my rejection of the notion of Jesus having risen from the dead. It’s very odd how fond we become of certain ideas (e.g. religious beliefs, political beliefs, philosophical positions) — even sometimes maybe if we don’t actually believe them literally. And that led somehow to wondering if ideas themselves are predators and we their prey. Clearly this bears a close relation to the line of thought followed by Yuval Noah Harari (for example where he suggests that humanity has been colonised by wheat), so I used his name as a title again for the second time (see my original post last week Yuval Noah Harari).

I am that

the play of the sun
and the drama of the clouds
— simple rhetoric —
by which God speaks to the heart
using a person’s own voice

In my dream I was in Rome, walking along a river, presumably the Tiber. But the buildings on the opposite side of the river were a long way away and in real life the Tiber is not that broad. It felt a bit like Venice where you often find yourself gazing at buildings on the skyline, across water. The sky became very dark. I noticed I was able to look directly at the sun because it was partly shrouded in cloud. A massive storm cloud lay directly overhead, but it was moving swiftly and I awaited the return of the sunlight any moment. I wanted to convey in my poem a sense of awe at knowing oneself caught up in some huge massive impersonal drama involving simultaneously both Nature and Civilisation — and the paradox by which this drama is also the fact of my own individual existence — hence felt at the most intimate and personal level. I only arrived at the title after completing the poem, and I had to google it just to be sure it was a genuine Sanskrit saying (which it does seem to be). I’ve no idea where I would have heard it originally. In a book no doubt, in the days long before the internet.

The Hanged Man

the photo shows his
good looks clear as anything
— this is a surprise —
but, to me, the real shock
is the fact that I’m surprised

mithras_statue_roman

This is doubtless confusing for the reader: so I must explain. There are 3 or 4 separate images in question, all conflated deliberately.

The poem refers to Leo Trainor, my Irish great-grandfather, who was a music hall artist at the beginning of the 20th century. I must have been in my teens when I first saw a photo of him. It showed him looking quite grotesque in drag, and anything but attractive. But then, less than ten years ago, I saw another photo. This one shows him as himself, wearing a fashionable ‘boater’ of the time. He looks dapper. But his life was a tragedy. My surprise at his good looks taught me to feel a bit ashamed: I had been thinking of him perhaps as some kind of illiterate peasant from Ireland — almost a leprechaun rather than a human being. My pride in my Irish ancestry was all mixed up with an idealisation of the Celtic races for their association (in my mind) with pagan spirituality, and also with feeling sorry for my ancestor who had been viewed as a monster by his wife’s family, because he gave up his livelihood as a tailor in order to tread the boards (coming back home less and less as time went on, so that the family starved). But here suddenly was a very worldly-looking man in the prime of his life, needing nobody’s pity — indeed, looking far more capable in every way than me who had always identified with him. I was quite the black sheep of the family myself, though for different reasons.

The 2nd image I’m using (though it’s a literary image not a visual one) is the Tarot card The Hanged Man. All through the eighties and nineties, this was a firm association. Hanged Man = Leo Trainor.

Thirdly, the image itself is of the Roman god Mithras. He sprang to mind this morning as being the closest I can get to the quality of pathos I see in Leo Trainor’s photo, and life.

Interestingly, both Mithras and The Hanged Man are connected with sacrifice.

My dream last night was of Leo Trainor’s grandson David, who does in fact share his grandfather’s good looks. Or did. He is an old man now. In the dream, I saw him at the wheel of a car, and thought to myself just simply what I’ve just said: he shares his grandfather’s good looks. Dreaming of David Trainor is a result of having yesterday done some work on a poem about Leo Trainor’s daughter, my grandmother. Here it is in its reworked form. I wrote it originally in the late nineties.

Tess

Best of all my family,
I loved my grandmother —
her venom and her vigour.

I loved her insufferable
vindictiveness, straitlaced severity
— her Christian morals directed

hardest against the very things
she loved most — with an exuberance
of the imagination, frenzy,

even humour. All things bright,
blood-red and beautiful —
she damned them all.

realist

sensing my reckless
desperation — maverick
ambition — her gift
as we said goodbye was — I
hope you find your niche in life

A few days ago I posted about Judith Everard, and this morning’s poem is about her as well. I’ve always had mixed feelings about her words to me. They were said with such deliberate thoughtfulness, summoning all the goodwill she could, but I always felt just a little disappointed that ‘ordinariness’ was apparently the best she could wish for me. I felt that as a criticism of her. And yet maybe she saw true. This took place in 1978, and I was to cling obstinately over the next three or four decades to a belief in the value of my own recklessness. But one way or another, it’s ordinariness that has won out and I am mostly glad about that. My dream last night seemed to depict someone attempting to settle down with a job, a relationship and a place to live.

Yuval Noah Harari

he’s so right — it’s our
collective capacity
for storytelling
— for believing fictional
narratives — makes us human

I heard about Yuval Noah Harari’s book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind when it came out about a year ago. I thought it sounded interesting, and probably correct in its fundamental premise. But I didn’t have the patience to even try and wade through it. Yesterday however, I heard him on the radio again, and this time hunted him down on the internet, discovering a superb fifteen-minute summary of his ideas on TED. The impact on my dreamlife last night is quite clear. I dreamed of the man who currently holds the post of Director at Mind in Camden, where I have been employed in an admin capacity since 2012. In the dream, he was being imprisoned on a technicality whereby the good work he was doing was actually illegal. Much of our work at Mind in Camden would be impossible if we didn’t believe passionately, as an organisation, in human rights and their application (or non-application) in the sphere of psychiatric treatment. And human rights is, according to Yuval Noah Harari, one of the ‘stories’ which underpins criminal justice. The implication seems to be that different ‘stories’ can be told on the same subject. It isn’t just that the human race can achieve marvellous things when its members all believe together in one broadly similar story. It’s also worth wondering about the process whereby stories get shaped and changed. Who gets to be the Storyteller? When two stories fight, which one survives? I wrote a poem some ten years ago, which more or less suggests God to be The Master Storyteller. Here it is:

Rag and Bone

The Master Craftsman, when he feels guilty
breathes the air and a picture is born;
when he wants to say sorry, drinks the water
and a poem rides the clouds.

But God is different. He has set love
to be the image of imperfection in the barren mind
— has made mud and filth to bathe and blanket human
arrogance — our hurts, hypocrisies and hopelessness.

Every twist and dislocation Fate has wrought He puts to use.
God is a rag-and-bone man, carting away
the bits and pieces of our lives to Wonderland
where stories are crafted by fools

and pictures painted by madmen; where chocolate
tastes of blood and earth, and sin is magic and forgiveness
is a falling of angels, a spinning of skies, a mirroring of souls —
a dance — the ancient dance — half-remembered, half-believed…..