Back In The Day

Introduction to In That Howling Infinite – Poems of Paul Hemphill, Volume Five

© Paul Hemphill 2013.  All rights reserved.

“One of those days in England, with a sword in every pond”, sang Roy Harper, the high priest of anglo-angst. On that high of hope and hype, so it all began. With a heritage of Irish rebel songs and folksongs, and the ‘sixties folkie canon (but never, ever ‘Streets of London’). Sea shanties, a capella Watersons, Sydney Carter’s faith-anchored chants, ‘The Lord of the Dance’ being the most beloved (a song now and forever burdened with the curse of Michael Flatley). Across the pond, young Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and Peter, Paul & Mary decanted fine old wine into new bottles, and during the Easter CND march in London in 1966, billeted in an old cinema in Southall, a first public ‘performance’ with Ewan MacColl’s “Freeborn Man of the Traveling People”. The journey had begun, and, as the father of America poetry had crooned, “Afoot and light-hearted, I take to the open road, healthy, free, the world before me, the long brown path before me, leading wherever I choose”.

And it led beside strange waters. “Marc Bolan warbled “My people were fair, and had sky in their hair, but now they’re content to wear crowns stars on their brows“. But didn’t they all in the days when Tolkien was king, and elves and ents walked amongst us. We thoroughly understood and empathized. And we marveled at the Scottish bard who could pen ‘The Minotaur’s Song’ and ‘Job’s Tears‘, and then run off with Old Father Hubbard. Then Roy sang ‘McGoohan’s Blues’, a twenty minute digression from the concept if not the plot of an iconic if indecipherable television series. “The Prisoner is taking his shoes off to walk in the rain”.

‘The Songs of Leonard Cohen’ played in every wannabe poet’s bedsit. “Come over to the window, my little darlin’. I’d like to try and read your palm“. What a pick-up line, so fitting for the generous times that were the ‘sixties. Others might sigh over the agonies of ‘The Stranger Song’, and ‘The Stories of the Street’. But I preferred the drollery of “Sometimes I see her undressing for me; she’s the sweet, fragrant lady love meant her to be“. And the wondrous punch-line of ‘Chelsea Hotel #2‘, that gorgeous tribute to the peerless Janis: not what happened on the unmade bed, but “we are ugly, but we have the music”. Bob segued from folk to rock, carrying with him many if not all of acolytes on the joker man’s journey from “Oxford Town” to “Desolation Row”. To this day, people ponder the meaning of “Jewels and binoculars hang from the head of the mule”‘ and marvel at “The ghosts of electricity howl in the bones of her face“.

Roots and fruits. Roots and fruits. First the settings for poems that caught the fancy. Yeats, Auden, the Mersey Poets, Sam Coleridge, even The Lord of the Rings. Most have disappeared down the foggy ruins of time, including ‘The Lady of Shallot’ (predating by three decades Loreena Mckennitt’s take on Tennyson), and Auden’s ‘The Shield of Achilles’. But others still get a public airing. ‘Square Dance’, Roger McGough’s hoe-down in No Man’s Land‘; TS Elliot’s, ‘Hippopotamus’, a hymn to faith, fauna and food; and AJ Tessimonde’s bittersweet ‘Black Monday Love Song’. “Seeing and being enlightened”, out of the cloud of unknowing emerged first ‘Conversations’, and then ‘London John’, a harperesque epic of introspection. The quasi–spiritual ‘Celebration’ and ‘Embryo’ (no quasi this one, borrowing surat of Al Quran – the word of the Almighty Himself). A fabulist ‘Byzantium’ “with a little help from my friends” (Yeats, Whitman, Kipling, and Auden). And ‘King of the May’, and ‘Christopher Columbus’, with Rudyard most generous. The latter, and its sequel, ’The Day After Creation’, were inspired by the scale if not the bloody reality of the journeys of Columbus and Alexander the Great. “Out there in the distance, so tangible it seems, I conjure up this caravan of dreams. And we are sailing the seas to come…”

Two and half thousand years ago, an old Greek quoting another old Greek, remarked that “the unexamined life is not worth living”. That throwaway line has been the ruin of more young men than any of the hookers in the House in New Orleans, and of countless forests of paper. “London John long watched his day begin from the edge of an optimistic morning”. Lightweight and half-baked philosophy, the adolescent’s bane, ensued. “Give us the morning to guide us. Into this time we’re hurled. Motion is standing beside us as we drift in the untraveled world. Give us the morning to guide. Questions around us are hurled. The answers are burning inside us as we’re sifting the unravelled world”. Emotional and spiritual questing: “You were building upon an illusion, she said. I thought that you were the strong one. I sought a god in confusion, he said, but the way of the lord was the wrong one”. “But déjà vu and memory have built an iron cage to show in disillusion where our hope dies”. Roger Waters wasn’t exaggerating when he sang that “hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way”. But you get over it.

Then, down to the sea, always to the sea returning. One of those early folksongs was “Shoals of Herring”‘, sung by the Clancy Brothers, but written by the fabled Ewan MacColl. “With our nets and gear, we’re far’in’, on the wild and wasteful ocean. It’s out there on the deep that we harvest our bread, as we hunt the bonny shoals of herrin'”. And the power of it. In the old ‘Lewis Bridal Song’, ‘Morag Bheag’, the singer asks: “How shall we fair when the wind’s in the sail, when storm clouds gather, storm clouds gather, how shall we fare in the whirl of the gale, out in the midst of the islands?” It was the stuff of dreams, of magic, and paradoxically for a landsman born and bred on a plateau miles from the ocean, and who has never liked immersion, a constant lyrical image and metaphor. The big, swelling, storming, wild, windswept, and restless ocean. Unfathomable and immeasurable – so like humanity. As Ishmael says, when we first meet him in Moby Dick, “whenever I find myself growing grim around the mouth, whenever it is a damp drizzly November in my soul…then I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can”. So Columbus sings: “as a seeker and dreamer, I came, with my seed and the need to declare it, to the sea which my fathers had dared and my children shall dare it”. And in these latter-days, we cannot escape a nautical image or two: “We rise on the billow, descend to the hollow, climb to the topmast or we cling to the raft”.

And eastwards, ever eastwards. “There is nothing in the desert, and no man needs nothing”, says Peter O’Toole as Lawrence of Arabia. But it is the very emptiness and nakedness of the desert that has drawn prophets and pilgrims to it over the millennia. “A voice reaches out in the thickening night, over pale and barren lands”, as “from the mountains to the desert and all the fires between”, “sages seek the desert as an antidote to fate”.  The restless sea, the rolling earth; spreading landscapes and panoramic land shapes. “Eager as a hungry flame, eastward, aye, I wandered. Circumscribed horizons change, burst and roll asunder”. Condemned to drift, or else be kept from drifting, are songs of wandering and wondering, romance and rebellion. Introspectives about wanderers and nomads, seekers and searchers. ‘Christopher Columbus’ has a distant pedigree in the theme song to John Ford’s classic western The Searchers. This was penned by Stan Jones, who also wrote ‘Ghost Riders in the Sky’. Fast forward, and there are echoes in the Homeric yarn of the battling bulls (not included in this volume). All of this is recapitulated, almost, in ‘Valences’, a retrospective travelogue. For all the failings of memory, nothing is entirely forgotten. It is all there on the hard disk: “vanishing echoes of strange dreams returning, just out reach of the memory’s hand, falling like mist through my arms”.

And juxtaposed with the theme of wandering is this falling, weaving through it all in social, emotional, and political circumstance. Falling down, falling through, falling into, falling out of, and falling apart. Falling from heights, falling into gloom, falling into chaos, falling in love. An image lingers from Auden’s Musee de Beaux Art. The poet contemplates Breughel’s Fall of Icarus. The proud youth has flown too near the sun on golden wings of wax, and these having melted, he plunges into the Mediterranean. In a corner of a bucolic panorama, a tiny splash disturbs the tranquil waters, and two tiny, stricken feet and some scattered feathers mark his exit. Elsewhere in the tableau, life goes on. Farmers toil, hunters stalk, revellers party, and ships set sail for strangers’ shores. The great drama, the tragic tale of vain Icarus, is lost in the busyness, the ordinariness, the everydayness of the lives that carry on about him.

Two other images resonate. American writer James L Dickey is best known as the author of that backwoods, survivalist, revenger’s tragedy Deliverance. But he also wrote a remarkable poem that told the true story of an airline stewardess sucked out of her plane’s emergency exit and falling to her death in 1962. From her perspective and literally, her vantage point, as she falls – no, floats, drifts – down, down in a journey that takes forever. And then there is Richard Drew’s iconic picture of 9th September 2001 of a young man falling from atop the World Trade Centre.

Similar themes emerge in the dark vignettes of ‘When Freedom Comes’ and ‘E Lucevan Le Stele’, ‘The Sons of the Beast’, ‘The Marching Song of the New Republic’, and ‘Bless This Day’. Contemporary events echo historical parallels, plunging into waters cold and turbulent. Rwanda, Lebanon, Chechnya, Palestine, and the wars of the Yugoslav succession jostle for space with the Crusades, the Thirty Year’s War, the Napoleonic Wars, and more. And right on through the dark night, to The Twin Towers, the Global Financial Crisis and Arrabi’e ‘arabiye. “From the dust bowl of Manhattan to the ruins of Jenin”. “From Hattin to Shatilla Camp, Wexford to Armagh; in Kosovo, we heard the call that sundered Vukovar”.

“It is written in the Book of Days where the names of God a wrought, where all our dead a buried and all our wars a fought”. And so we range through “the battlefields and graveyards and the fields our fathers knew”. The cartography of carnage: Bali, Beslan, Gaza, Grozny, Kabul, Kigali, Sabra, Sarajevo, Srebrenica, to mention but a few of those “far-away places with strange sounding names”. ”Many have perished, and more most surely will”. This latter quotation is adapted from Auden’s often overlooked masterpiece The Age of Anxiety, a meditation on a world between the wreckage of The Second World War and the  foreboding for the impending armed peace. “The bane of bad geography, the burden of topography. The lines where they’re not meant to be are letters carved in stone”. “One half of mankind does not think and the other does not care; and the sheep go to the slaughter when the wolf pack leaves the lair”. And all this against a back-drop of the revolution despoiled, hijacked and betrayed. “The revolution’s father, the hero psychopath” shows us how hopes and dreams can be “fooled by the riddle of the revolution”. “Words carried far in time and space will topple tyrants, but there’s no salvation”.

An almost forgotten book was published back in the ‘eighties in a series entitled A Day In The Life of…that chronicled in pictures the lives ordinary folk in major cities around the world. This one was dedicated solely to the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial in Washington DC. It is a poignant gallery of images and messages of loved ones and comrades, the emotional debris of that almost forgotten war that although long gone, reaches out through history with an admonishing finger. “Shadows in search of a name for victims we’ve left far behind”.

As Buffy once remarked, “You know what they say. Those of us who fail history are, doomed to repeat it in summer school”. John Banville wrote, in The Sea, “the past beats inside me like a second heart”. This, the epilogue of a later poem, ‘E Lucevan Le Stele’, is the drum beat that drives many, if not most of the later works. “Canyons and castles lie ageless and ageing, and captive in time”. “And sing such songs as we might hear in dreams before day breaking, as ancient echoes hide between the slumber and the waking. We remember, yes, we remember”.

So it goes, and so it grows. Roman Holiday – The Poems of Meniscus Diabetes, an anthology not  included in this volume, and other ‘histories’ juxtapose past and present in a vein that is at turns dark and jocular. They combine poetry and music, horror and humour. Vikings, Romans, Mongols, and the Spanish Inquisition all faced the music, pushing poetic license to its hazy limits, reacquainting us with a particular take on history, imparting an altogether different perspective on pain and pandemonium, with dubious anthems to power, pride, and prejudice. And always, whether in light-hearted satire, or serious commentary, in ‘Torquemada’s Blues’, or ‘Devil’s Work’, in ‘Summer Is The Time’, or ‘Red Rain’. The beast that lurks in man is there, watching, waiting, seeking an opportunity to break out of its cage. The need for power, for gain, for dominion over others. The willingness to dictate, to oppress, to brutalize, and to kill.  And the desire that so many people have for others to be just like them, and with it, the atavistic fear of ‘the other’.

And so, the tenor changes. I am reminded of Volumnia’s description of her son, the arrogant, ambitious Coriolanus: “before him, he carries noise, and behind him, he leaves tears; death, that dark spirit, in’s nervy arm doth lie; which, being advanc’d, declines, and then men die”. We go to dark places where bad things happen. The Meniscus anthology notes how in his latter years, the Roman poet’s “melancholy muse was leading him down by dark waters, making him to lie down in barren pastures. He was clearly journeying through a confused ethical landscape to a sinister philosophical place”. It is as of Meniscus’ wandering shade was messing with the scenery, moving the sets around like some poetical poltergeist. And now we, like him, are sucked into the machinery of it all.  And thereafter, juxtaposed with images from the Bard and the Bible, the Qur’an and Quixote, Melville and Mandela, angels and artists, devils and diplomats, martyrs and mariners, prophets and pirates, rebels and rhymers, saints and soldiers march across the stage.

Who were they? What did they think and feel? The thinking of another time can be hard to understand. Ideas and ideologies once compelling may become unfathomable. And the tone and sensibility that made those ideas possible is even more mysterious. We read, we ponder, and we endeavour to empathize, to superimpose the template of our value system, our socialization, our sensibilities upon the long-dead. And thence, we try to intuit, read between the lines, draw out understanding from poems, plays, novels, memoirs, pictures, photographs, and films of the past. We feel we are experiencing another facet of the potential range of human experience. But in reality, we are but skimming the surface, drawing aside a heavy curtain for a momentary glimpse through an opaque window into the past.

An old song, ‘Let Erin Remember’, encapsulates it: “On Lough Neagh’s banks, as the fisherman strays, in the clear, cool eve declining, he sees the round towers of all our days in the waves beneath him shining”. And that, perhaps, is what history is all about. It is the layers of history, the Long March of humanity. And the lesson learned? When it all comes down to it, all flesh is grass, and we are rendered into dust. Over two and a half thousand years ago, the controversial Greek poetess Sappho wrote ”I tell you, someone will remember us; even in another time”. But not all of us. As the unfortunate neighbour in Père Lachaise complains in ‘Chanson’, “the names no one remembers and the ones no one forgets”, cohabit as equals in this grand necropolis.

It is depressing stuff, and we emerge from it all suitably depressed. And in later verse, we delve even deeper into darkness. None more so than in the allegorical saga of the Mad Captain and the Whale that gives this work its title. On one level it could be the ultimate tribute song. Jack Sparrow, Tom Waits, Captain Ahab and Moby Dick, Nietzsche, Der Fliegende Holländer, Peter Paul and Mary, Otis Reading, The Ancient Mariner, and Bob Dylan rise from the raging waters. It is a song that is part sea shanty, part treatise on madness and obsession. “Down, down, deep we dove, in a tangle of rigging and rage, down to the deep where the dead sailors sleep, in the darkness of Lucifer’s cage”. It is, perchance, a submarine version of the sad stewardess’ descent.

It’s counterpoint could be ‘The Salvation Navy’, with its storm-racked nautical roll. “The winds of the world blow so hard and so cold and tear holes in the mariners’ sails, and the wrongs of the world, oh, they make it so hard to stand fast in the teeth of the gale”. It is as if Morag Bheag is sailing to a wake. And yet, may not. The ‘Wreck of the Medusa’ refrain suggests that all is not lost. The cavalry are just over the horizon. “I know that there are better things in this dark world, and I can feel it deep down in my bones”. Whilst we are not on the ‘Morningtown Ride’ to Honalee, neither are we on the road to Pichipoi. This not the last stand of the 44th Foot at Gandamak but rather, the israelites looking out over Canaan Land. We are not climbing Jacob’s ladder to Paradise, but neither are we sliding down the road to Ragnarok! There might be the dystopian ‘All Fall Down’ with its undercurrent of millennial chaos, but there is also ‘Freefall’, the cathartic, musical play-out to the recording of ‘London John’ that takes us unto broad, sunny uplands. Recall how Dylan Thomas’ gave the metaphorical finger to mortality: “Though they sink down in the sea, they shall rise again; though lovers be lost, love shall not; and death shall have no dominion”.

With these metaphorical themes, so then did the threads unravel, so began a journey that is now drawing to a conclusion. These were the moments I occupied, looking out onto England, but imagining the wider world. And then, from the far side of the world, where the journey will most likely end, in the midst of an Australian forest. Here we are then, with the world literally at our fingertips, as we look out onto a world that is smaller, more knowledgeable, more prejudiced, less wise, more dangerous, more en-threatened, but as ever, beautiful, unfathomable, and magical. And at times like these, perhaps like Banjo, “I somehow fancy that I’d like to change with Clancy” as he “sees the vision splendid of the sunlit plains extended, and at night, the wondrous glory of the everlasting stars”. And hope that like the Bobster, we shall “dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free, silhouetted by the sea, circled by the circus sand, with all memory and fate driven deep beneath the waves”. But let’s leave the last words to AA Milne as we bid farewell forever to The House at Pooh Corner:  “wherever they go, and whatever happens to them on the way, in that enchanted place on the top of the Forest, a little boy and his Bear will always be playing”.

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