NaPoWriMo 25: Picnic Ballad

Here is your hamper…

…have a lovely time

Sometimes, you’ve just got to let it all out. But, so a long-standing motto of mine goes: Make Your Pain Entertaining.

It’s not been a great day, so when the prompt of a Ballad came through, I wrote the following ‘picnic ballad’. Don’t worry, it won’t be anything as chintzy as you first imagine.

The idea came from working with a student today, on Tennyson’s ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade‘, which features the lines ‘All in the valley of Death/ Rode the six hundred’.

And the student asked, ‘Why have I written there’s no hope of them coming back as a note underneath it?’ 

To which I responded, ‘Well, if I said I was going for a picnic in the Forest of Despair, would you think it was going to be a nice picnic?’

And so when I got in, I wrote this, about that very forest. It just sort of…popped out.

Probably best to read it either if you’ve had a really good day, or a really bad one.

I might get it set to music.

 

Picnic Ballad

or, As I Wrote This My Pencil Snapped and As I Typed It Up My Computer Shut Down

 

[CHORUS]

The city’s full of scorpions,

There’s locusts in the air:

We’re going for a picnic in

The Forest of Despair.

 

The wrought-iron gothic entrance gates

Say we should turn around;

But we have flesh and knives and plates

And Gingham for the ground.

 

[CHORUS]

 

Among the leaves, the birds do sing

Ballads of woe and fear;

But we shall thwart their whispering

With bread stuffed in our ears.

 

[CHORUS]

 

The squirrels bury in the ground

All hopes of picnics past

And six feet down, they can’t be found –

The tree-rats dig too fast.

 

[CHORUS]

 

Up in the balmy, cloudless sky

The Sun’s great furnace fumes.

His black baseball-cap upon high

Which reads: “I OWN YOUR DOOMS”.

 

[CHORUS]

 

We’ll leave there with our bellies full

Of Emptiness and Pain

And – gored by the resident bull –

Plan when we’ll come again.

 

[CHORUS]

 

Around these tangled roots of lines

The bindweed-mind writes QUIT:

Its gobby trumpets blare and whine

That life can be a chit*.

 

[FINAL CHORUS,

REPEAT AD INFINITUM UNTIL

YOU CAN NO LONGER BREATHE:]

 

The city’s full of scorpions,

There’s locusts in the air:

So join us for a picnic in

The Forest of Despair.

 

*Be careful not to misread this rhyme as something rude: a ‘chit’ is, in fact, ‘a signed note for money owed for food, drink, etc.’ or ‘any receipt, voucher, or similar document, especially of an informal nature’. Thus, life is merely a receipt or short note – perhaps just a poem, like this one. Cheerful, eh?

(ADDENDUM: if you enjoyed this one, then why not try my other NaPoWriMo musical efforts: A Sea Shanty for Failed Urban Development and The Pies of Awareness – which feels like a sister piece to this one. Sometimes I write happily; sometimes I write grumpily; usually I write with energy. Such is life!)

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NaPoWriMo 11: Double-Duvet Mecca

A pair of washers at a washeteria

Day 11’s prompt was to write a Tanka (five-line stanzas with 5-7-5-7-7 syllables) – so I’ve used the form to bring an autobiographical poem into being.

I had this idea a little while ago: as my partner and I live on a narrowboat, we don’t have a full-size washing machine and either use a little twin-tub (which can be labour-intensive) – or visit a laundrette. On our travels up here to Leeds from Bristol via the inland waterways (see Inland Odyssey posts!), we used various laundrettes  (including my favourite, the ‘Washeteria’ (a delightfully old-school term), which was still pleasingly 1950s/1960s in its layout and appliances, but worked perfectly).

Laundrettes, or Washeterias, can be a really pleasant experience I think – the urban equivalent of gathering at the water’s edge to wash clothes in the river: there’s something connective about it – human, cleansing.

So this poem is about the laundrette (the place and the person) we use in Leeds – and about connecting across difference, in this ‘urban riverside’.

 

Double-Duvet Mecca

or, Paired Socks

 

We fold its cover

together: a courtly dance.

I go to give thanks,

but behind his warm machines

the laundrette prays to Mecca.

 

A service wash bought:

I call you ‘the other one’,

dodging a term. But

he smiles, his warmth bestowing

a Universe of paired socks.

NaPoWriMo 10: Un-love Poem for Call-Centre Conversations

The battery-farming of conversation, in the form of a call centre.

Day 10’s prompt was to write a poem of un-love; not a malediction, so much, but just a poem of ennui (that’s how I read it) about someone, or something.

It so happens that I spent quite a bit of time doing a transfer from one credit card to another today, as well as spending some time on the phone to a large mobile phone company. While the people I spoke to were perfectly polite and proficient, there is something really jarring about that stop-start scripted version of a conversation you have to have with them. Generally, I like people and enjoy meeting new humans; finding out how surprising and unusual people can be. But there’s no sponaneity when you have to speak to  (some, not all) call centres or worse, there’s very little humanity about those types of interaction.

You’re both becoming a part of a process, elements in a mechanised version of a conversation, with niceties wedged in here and there as WD-40 (that’s a type of lubricating oil for machines, non-British readers!) to make it seem less robotic…I should know, I’ve worked in call centres myself – although I don’t think it was ever going to be a long-term prospect (I tended to deviate from the script too much).

(By the way, I called it ‘Going Forward’ as one chap I spoke to said it about ten times – it’s a real politician’s phrase that, ‘Going Forward’ – as opposed to what? Going back in time? Or does it mean ‘Moving forward’, progressing, in some way? It means, I fear, very little.)

So here’s a poem about it:

 

Going Forward

or, Transference

 

** Our staff are currently both

at present engaged in

dealing with the customer

enquiries of other clients **

 

Can I just confirm your name, Mr Parkin,

Sir, Mr Parking, sir, yes, of yourself, sir?

And the 16-digit number, sir, the 3-digit figure

tattoed on your face and the date

your number is up? Going forward, Mr Parken, sir,

we just wanted to ask, before the transfer

some questions about your circumstances, if we may,

if I may, on behalf of ourselves, to yourself?

 

We’d like, Mr Perkin, to discuss

the finer points and repercuss-

ions of your over-

spending, Mr Parkan,

sir,

we’d like it if we

could just go over

a few things,

for yourself,

from ourselves,

to perform the script

tautologically,

repeatedly, with

zero per cent

interest,

to say nothing

for fifty years,

to  itemise the

Terms and

Conditioning.

NaPoWriMo 9: “I’m the plot, babe, and don’t you forget it”

Smoky big-haired replicant femme-fatale from the future!

Still catching up, so here’s my Noir poem for day 9.

I actually found an IMDB list of the Top 100 Film Noir and then created a poem using only (mostly, give or take a few joining words) their titles – so it’s a found poem which, because of the diction of Noir titles, feels very noir-ish, of course.

AND, as I failed to write a cinquain for day 5 (I went ‘off-piste’ that day), I’ve written it in three cinquain-ish stanzas! Take that, NaPoWriMo: defecit catch-up prompt-fusion!

Sifting through the Noir titles, it strikes you how fearful they sound of the feminine, of male-female romance: so the poem ends up being a little bit about that femme fatale figure.

Although on the other hand, as Margaret Atwood wrote in Unpopular Gals (a first-person story on behalf of ‘wicked women’ in fairy talesfrom the collection Good Bones and Simple Murders: “I’m the plot, babe, and don’t you forget it.”

 

Killer’s Kiss

 

Pickup

on South Street, caught,

now in a lonely place:

the desperate hours are a stray dog,

Laura.

 

This gun

(raw deal) for hire:

a nightmare alley is

the narrow margin’s kiss of death,

Gilda.

 

Your scar-

face: kiss me dead-

ly, boomerang wrong-man.

I, the woman in the window,

confess.

Very Extremely Very

An artist’s impression of the European Extremely Large Telescope, to be built high up in the Andes – placed next to the London Eye, for some perspective…

Well, I’ve oscillated back from animals (Whales, T-Rexes) to SPACE again: so here’s something comic about telescopes. Earlier, I read this story on the UK’s financial commitment to the European Extremely Large Telescope (from the Guardian) – and was reminded how funny I always find the naming of telescopes. I’m pretty sure the last one was called the European Very Large Telescope. So it also begs the question of where they’ll go after ‘Extremely’…?

So that’s the starting point for this – the act of naming telescopes (and, perhaps, the difficult act of naming in something like astronomy) – and it takes the form of a conversation between two (antagonistic) astronomer-colleagues, perhaps in another telescope. The main thing is: it’s hopefully a bit of (if not Very, or Extremely) fun:

 

Very Extremely Very,

A Gazillibazoolian-Squillion

 

“BREATHTAKINGLY!” he gasped, before even a greeting, crashing the door against the wall. “That’s got to be it.”

“It’s hardly very objective,” the reply sighed. “We’re scientists, Dave – not advertisers. And good morning to you, too.”

“But that’s what I mean. ‘Extremely’, compared to what? Compared to the things we’re going to be looking at it’s not ‘extremely’ large at all.”

“We’re not comparing it to the things we’re looking at, Dave – we’re comparing it to the other telescopes. Compared to them, this one is extremely large.

A silence as both men make notes, turn dials, type furiously –   front for figuring out their next line of attack.

“By your rationale,” Simon quickly established a new angle, “each measuring instrument would then be relative to that which it measures. What would have become of the Large Hadron Collider then? The Super-Massive Underground Mega-Hoop Measurer of Ultra-Tiny But Super-Important Things?”

“Actually, that’s not a bad –

“ – oh for Heaven’s Sake.”

An impasse – the almost-daily ritual.

“I just think that ‘Extremely Large’ doesn’t do it justice. Although I guess it makes sense as part of a kind or product range, or something.” He assumes a sales-voice in the vein of QVC or similar: “If you enjoyed the features of the ‘Very Large Telescope’, you’ll just love the new features of the ‘Extremely Large Telescope’: now able to blend the distribution of dark matter and finely slice the evolution of black-holes and galaxies!”

From the other desk, he can almost hear Simon’s smile being suppressed:

“I’m not sure anyone’s going to call in and pay for it: the cost would barely fit on a TV screen.”

There is a pleasant spaciousness, both enjoying a rare intersection of humours.

“Well today,” Dave takes back up his hyperbolic cudgel, “I’m backing ‘Breathtaking’ – what else could it be described as? It’s as big as all the other ones put together. If you did that with a cake, people would be impressed. And cakes can’t see into the origins of Time itself, not that I know of.”

“That might depend on the cake. And anyway: isn’t that a compound word, ‘Breath-taking’? You’re like a kid, making up numbers to win a competition.” He assumes the manner of an eight-year-old Dave: “A squillion, a gazillibazoolian-squillion!”

A brief silence as Dave decides whether to be offended, or flattered, at the impression. Then:

“How many zeros would that have?”

“A bloobazoolian zeros, OK?”

“I see.”

The tapping of keyboards. This had become the tacit sign now that they had wasted enough time and should get on with some proper work – nebulae were on the menu today, as they had been for the last four years.

“I just think we’re not going to give the public a real sense of the scale of this thing unless the name truly reflects it. It just sounds so mid-range – like a family car: ‘extremely spacious’. We may as well call it the ‘Pretty Gosh Darn Big Telescope’”.

Now the silence of someone studiedly ignoring someone else. Then, the final barrage, the day’s last attempt:

“The Almighty Telescope?”

“Oh the Churches will love that.”

“The Strikingly Large Telescope?”

“We don’t want it striking anything or anyone except light, Dave…”

“The UNCOMMONLY-”

“Dave: get off Thesarus.com – NOW.”

The Angry Birds

Part of an excellent comic strip on cat killers from: http://theoatmeal.com/comics/cats_actually_kill – go on their website and buy their stuff!  (There – hopefully now he won’t mind my borrowing the picture and linking to the site…)

 

Last week, I read this story about just how many birds and other small mammals our domestic cat friends (or fiends) actually kill…And the answer is a LOT of small birds and mammals: in the USA, “between 1.4 and 3.7 billion birds and 6.9-20.7 billion mammals annually”. Wow.

Now I make no secret of the fact I’ve always had a patchy relationship with domestic cats, even though I had them in the family home growing up. There’s just something I don’t trust about a lot of cats. Which is not to say I don’t meet a cat sometimes I get on with – but I’m not of the mindset of a lot of cat-owners and cat-lovers who see them as these charmingly-aloof and ever-so-‘sassy’ little characters. To me, they usually seem just plain rude-aloof and scheming, not sassy. Not all cats. But yes, for me – most cats. It’s not personal, cats – it’s general.

I realise I’ll probably get ‘trolled’ for expressing my ambivalence about cats, but so be it. I’m a dog person. There we are. (And yes, I know dogs have been used to hunt for millennia.) So perhaps this story played into my feeling that cats are up to something – which is mostly irrational on my part (see dog comment). But it’s not irrational to be concerned about the amount of wildlife they’re killing.

As is my first-person fashion, I wrote a piece from the birds’ perspective. And, being as it’s something of a cultural phenomenon (have you seen the amount of kids wearing Angry Birds hats?), the title references a popular app-game – adding a definite article to avoid any pesky (c)opyright issues. Hopefully? Surely?

Poetry from apps – how postmodern. Po-app-ry. Said game seems to involve hurling bird-heads (or weirdly-spherical birds) at platforms in order to destroy them. This – call me macabre (I call myself macabre) – reminded me of those little ‘gifts’ cats seem to leave on doorsteps and hence informed some of the poem. Once, a cat of ours left a blue-tit head, facing the door, the right way up and in the centre of the doormat. Aww, a….gift?

 

The Angry Birds

 

Dusk. The swish of the tear

in the door. Silence. The sky a cage

of black-blue branches. Breathing.

 

A darkness thickens our feathers,

sticks to the points of our beaks.

We petrify. By the table of bait,

it waits. A first screech flickers

life into the street-lights. Then –

reflected on narrow green eyes –

a manicured lawn of limbs.

 

The baby ape takes in tiger cubs.

We watch you through the glass,

face alight, twiddling your thumbs.

Playing games in the night,

with our heads.

 

From up here, we look down on

the pastel television-picture within:

Kitty returns, is named, tickled under the chin;

delicately purrs at an opening tin.

 

And you, unwitting napkin,

with blood all over

your hunter’s hands.

 

 

And the news story by which the poem was inspired: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-21236690

 

774 or, Darkling Child

"Two vortices their nuptials swore..."

“Two vortices their nuptials swore…”

 

I’ve been continuing to read Paul Matthews’ excellent book on writing, Sing Me The Creation. One of his various suggestions on how to extend the imagination through writing practice (particularly working together, as a group), is to have a go at rewriting a style of repeated-simile poem, like this famous one:

There was a man of double deed,
Who sowed his garden full of seed;
When the seed began to grow,
‘Twas like a garden full of snow;
When the snow began to melt,
‘Twas like a ship without a belt;
When the ship began to sail,
‘Twas like a bird without a tail;
When the bird began to fly,
‘Twas like an eagle in the sky;
When the sky began to roar,
‘Twas like a lion at my door;
When my door began to crack,
‘Twas like a stick across my back;
When my back began to smart,
‘Twas like a penknife in my heart;
And when my heart began to bleed,
‘Twas death, and death, and death indeed.

………………………………..………—Anonymous

It’s strangely compelling and vortex-like, I thought – drawing you into the images, then on to the next, then on to the next. A kind of chain reaction in verse and simile, ending in doooooooooooom.

So it struck me that it might be a suitable vehicle to write about a science story from last week – that of the’discovery’ (if that’s the right word – it happened a while ago) that during the Middle Ages (774-775, to be precise) a kind of ‘Cosmic Burst’ (or Bang – you decide) hit the Earth. And now, scientists are in more accord that it was due to two black holes or neutron stars merging in our galaxy – sending a big ol’ Gamma Ray-Fest our way (Hulk references, anyone?).

However, it seems it barely even ruffled any tunics, or whatever it was that folks were wearing at that time (which would have varied a great deal globally, of course). Instead, it deposited  some unusual radiation signatures in the ice of Antarctica and the cedar trees of Japan, only now being deciphered. And this is what has led to accord about the distant union of two black holes/neutron stars. Anyway, the link is at the bottom of the page – I shan’t mangle the science any further here.

But before that, my take on the simile-vortex verse form – using this news story as a starting point. (Perhaps black holes in verse require such a vortex/vortices, form and subject aligning?) I tried to stay true to the form as much as possible, including a ‘dreich’ and bleak repetitive ending. I hope you enjoy it…

 

774

or, Darkling Child

 

 

In seven-hundred and seventy-four,

Two vortices their nuptials swore;

As they swore, the rings did shatter,

Twas like a child of darkling matter;

When that child swam through the dark,

Twas like a silent toothless shark;

When that shark began to bite,

Twas like a breath in dead of night;

When that breath it ceased to blow,

Twas like a wilting flake of snow;

When that snow began to melt,

Twas like a kiss that was not felt;

When that kiss began to frown,

Twas like the seas turned upside-down;

When the seas began to wave,

Twas like the turning of a grave;

And when that grave it did open,

Twas over and over and over again.

 

And so to the original BBC Science story by Rebecca Morelle:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-21082617

‘As Above, So Below’ or, ‘Capital E. Control A. Control C. Control V.’

Galaxies or neurons? The Universe is, or is like, a Giant Brain. Or the Brain is, or is like, a Little Universe. Same diff.

Last week, I read this story:

http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2012/11/27/physicists-universe-giant-brain_n_2196346.html

It’s not a very recent/topical one (from the end of last year) – but being as it’s about the self-similarity of networks ranging from the internet, the brain and the Universe itself, I figure a few weeks isn’t that significant.

Anyway – the headline is ‘Physicists Find Evidence That The Universe Is A ‘Giant Brain”. An intriguing one, is it not?

So I wanted to write something about the idea of networks – and the people who work in this kind of theoretical mathematics, which is so entirely beyond my understanding (technically, if not thematically). I don’t know whether working in these kind of mind-blowing theoretical (yet perhaps realer-than-real) realms of science would make you more connected to the world around you, or indeed make you feel the total insubstantial nature of the world around you. So that’s the feeling from which I started to write, imagining one of the scientists involved, lit by the glowing bank of computers which must have been deployed to crunch this much data…

As I posted the news story on Facebook (one of the networks it mentions), a friend used the phrase ‘As Above, So Below’ to sum it up – and that formed the starting point of the poem. At what point is such an aphorism just as useful as all the data we can find? When do we cease to be able to understand (and just need to allow the Universe to get on with it)?

I don’t know – but I hope you enjoy the poem. The ending fully let out my inner-hippie, and I make no apologies for it 😉

 

As Above, So Below

or, Capital E. Control A. Control C. Control V.

 

‘Universe Is A Giant Brain’: journos, tip-tapping innocently,

will claim they cannot see the difference between,

like, metaphor and simile.

 

Knowing this, the analysis complete,

he sat at the centre of the screens, replete

in the data. The sense of having caught

something. Then, a gagging spider, he

Selected All and hit Delete.

 

So, on every page of the report

he reproduced the phrase in haste –

Copy Paste Copy Paste:

As Above, So Below.

 

 

As that very morning, LinkedIn

had asked him if he would like to connect with

Everything. Capital E.

Control A. Control C. Control V.

 

He uttered: Fundamental Laws,

as Facebook asked him what he thought about

Everything? Capital E. Pushing question marks

down cables in the floor; whispering answers up

into the lattice-dark. As

Everything updated its status:

As Above, So Below.

With a winking smiley 😉

 

Control A? Control C? Control V?

Capital E. Controls Cosmos. Controls Velocity.

Consciousness Copy. Vastness Paste.

Control Facebook. Paste Brain.

Copy Everything. Paste Same.

Cut Above. Paste Below.  And so

the report was pasted onto his profile:

As Above, So Below.

 

So, he sent Everything a message

as the single word ‘Love’. Capital L. Thinking:

As Below, So Above.

Which Winter?

A snow-dome iris, cracking through the screen…

This spell of wintry weather reminded me of a poem I wrote and put on some Christmas cards some years back – which is very wintry indeed…I think it was mainly to do with playing around with the image-paraphernalia of snow and wintry landscapes; so perhaps it’s not my most successful poem – but I hope it paints interesting pictures, at least (and follows a sonnet form too – good old ABABCDCDEFEFGG – as a technical exercise!).

Still working on my second sci-poem of the week, which I’m hoping to pop up later – but in the mean time, here is my snowy sonnet, entitled:

 

Which Winter?

 

There is a blizzard in our eyes sometimes;

A snow-dome iris, cracking through the screen.

Our cabins locked within a shaking mime

As giant flakes engulf the fish-eyed scene.

 

There is ice within our smile some days;

Sharp fragments dripping from our roof top lips.

The mountains mouth an O, the silence plays

On plastic pine tree pivots where Earth tips.

 

There is a frost across our minds some nights

Which petrifies the valleys of our thought.

It hushes colour, crushes light and slights

Our source; stills the singing of the stream.

 

Yet constant is the chorus of the flame

Each cabin’s candle dances, seeks the same.

Crinkly Fingers or, A Lonely Fisherman Sings to the Catch

The Loneliness of a (Prune-Fingered) Trawler Fisherman

This morning, I read a lovely news story by Jonathan Amos about research on crinkly fingers:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-20951232

Scientists led by Dr Tom Smulders have discovered that prune-like bath-fingers may have more to them than simple ‘Ooh, look how old and wrinkled my fingers look!’ value. They have surmised that this may be an evolutionary development to aid in handling wet objects: in their experiment, this was marbles – but out in ‘nature’, this could be fruit or fish, I suppose. Or anything that is – as the saying goes – slippery when wet (is it a saying, or just something that many things are?).

The researchers asked people to carry out a marble-moving task and discovered that those who had wet hands – and consequently got prune-fingers – were more effective at the task. I suppose if those marbles were actually tiny berries, or some curious spherical animal-foodstuff (wood-lice? frog-spawn? Small wet round things all seem a bit witch-y…), then having crinkly fingers could make all the difference to a hunter-gather-omnivore species like Homo Sapiens Sapiens. The difference between eating (and being ‘selected’ by evolution) and starving (and being ‘out of the evolutionary race’). So perhaps that’s why – so the researchers say – it might be triggered involuntarily by our nervous system, instead of being simply a ‘side-effect’ of being soggy.

As I enjoyed the story so much, I thought I’d base one of this week’s sci-poems around it. Here’s a sort of ballad, or song, I suppose – written by a character I thought would have wet, crinkly, prune fingers much of the time – a fisherman. Perhaps I’ve seen too many Neutrogena adverts, or something. (And maybe as a boat-dweller, I’m drawn to such characters!)

As it went on, it evolved (as poems and humans do) into something a little sad (and silly, all at once) – but I hope you enjoy its rhyme-y mariner-y quality.

(Incidentally, while looking for some appropriate music, I found Britten’s ‘Four Sea Interludes’: I hadn’t ever listened all the way through and I recommend them – incredibly oceanic, panoramic and gorgeous).

 

A Lonely Fisherman Sings to the Catch

 

My coral fingers, these shrivelled hands

Grasping now Oceans, are slipp’d from land,

But my ship and the mesh, they can be no match:

For you are slippery when wet, dear Catch,

And your flicking tail is hard to get.

 

The crests of waves are your steely eyes,

Your limbs froth the clouds from the salty skies –

Yet my bark only ever glimpses a snatch:

For you are flicking hard to get, dear Catch,

Though my gaze and fingers are become a net.

 

These delta’d thumbs, these puckered claws –

Could they not lift you up from the swell’s great maws?

I will climb down the line, I will scratch at the deck

If you ne’er flicker in my net, dear Catch.

My candle sinks low now, my eyes stinging wet.

For your light slips away, dear, and the night’s bitter yet.

 

Oh and if you enjoyed that one, then here’s a link to another piece – Powder-Monkey – which I wrote a couple of years ago and is of a similarly seafaring and slightly-tragic (and very rhyme-centric, as a villanelle) vibe:

http://skylabstories.wordpress.com/2010/08/07/powder-monkey/