People do the most amazing things. They become concubines. They learn to live with their fate. They go to work. They sit in the wood. And when these things get into poems… the ones who sit in the wood turn into trees. Geraldine Green’s poem All Day I Sit in the Woods, and Jennifer A. McGowan’s Pharaoh’s Concubine, bring us these particular insights into people and their surroundings through poetry.
In The Work Ethic, Democracy tries to go to work. In new guidance from our not very caring State, I have this week learned that the sick note has now been renamed the fit note. Think on this, Owen Gallagher of The Work Ethic.
Nothing is too strange to happen in narrative, and narrative poetry. Some of the stories become myths. We finish with a narrating of a myth in Rayne Mackinnon’s poem Orpheus, in which Elysium is depicted more or less as a holiday location, as time off work.
Thanks to the poets, thanks to readers, and if you are both poet and reader, please consider sending a poem or two for our future posts. Instructions in the first post of the year (see archive menu).
Jennifer A. McGowan
Of course he was divine.
He said so.
There are many types
of sacrifice. I was thirteen, just.
Pretty, straight nose, long neck,
a way of speaking. So they said.
Just shy, really.
All the gold, the pomp,
the myrrh-laced ceremonies, the solemn
and smoky intonations,
all the choreographed apparitions,
cowed me. As (I suppose) it was meant.
When at last he came to me,
I was shocked to see
two arms, two legs,
and not a falcon’s head or even a jackal’s,
but slightly uneven teeth,
dark, soft eyes,
and a pimple (expertly disguised).
The years passed
in rich, encoded rituals.
We both aged—both, it turned out,
kept our figures. When at last
his ka left him, I wept—
and was passed on.
And now, listening to the litanies
in the new temple
praising his ineffable divinity,
I sing the words
and do all that I ought.
But sometimes when I watch
Ra’s solar barque passing,
I can’t help wondering
if when they weigh my soul
he’ll be clear-skinned and waiting,
and if he still snores.
First published in the author’s chapbook,
Life In Captivity (Finishing Line Press, 2011).
The Work Ethic
Democracy is vulnerable to viruses,
health problems, cancers; to having
its legs blown away, its tongue severed.
It can be seen on crutches at demonstrations,
on Zimmer frames in workplaces.
It never applies for a sick-note
or a chance to doss on a beach. When depressed
it thinks of its childhood in Greek states,
teenage years in communes.
You’d think it would seek a pension
but it wakes daily to a bowl of porridge,
goes off to work whistling.
First published in ‘Tea with the Taliban’ Smokestack Books, 2012.
All Day I Sit in the Wood
”we have come to the edge of the woods” ‘Jacklight’, Louise Erdrich
All day I sit in the woods, dreaming
all day and all night I sit,
my hair on fire with the wind.
All day I sit and sing.
All day I sit my back against this pine
my breathing slows, becomes sap
that oozes up and down the tree’s spine.
All day I sit and sing, my back to the wind.
All day and all night the flashlights green
as northern lights, all night I and the pines
weave a song from alders and willows
that live below the horizon.
All day I claw my mind to the top of the woods
my hands somersault over and under
become a tapestry of limbs.
I and the wind and the pines discover each other again.
Discover the smell of men, their cigarette breath, their
unhinged shotgun fingers triggered, crooked.
All day I sit and weave the wind
my hair becomes grey lichen
I hang from branches.
My name now is no name
my body is white and silver
my name is birch and alder.
My tongue the sound of finches
my feet sewn deep into earth
all day I grow deeper
First published in ‘Salt Road’ Indigo Dreams Pubs. 2013
“Tell me,” he asked, “Where is Euridice?”
“Among the fields of Asphodel,” the first
Head answered; “With the damned,” the second said;
“She’s in Elysium,” the third replied.
“I’m the Head head, and surely I should know.”
With snapping jaws they fought among themselves,
Shouting, “Asphodel,” “The Damned,” “Elysium,”
Then Orpheus’ lute softened poor Cerberus,
Slackened the fibre of his fangs, until
Each mouth breathed out the word “Elysium.”
Orpheus, travelling on, soon reached the bright
Underside of darkness. A small path freed
Itself from Hell’s well-trampled track, and slipped
Itself among green hills, that, rolling, raised
Trim tufts of birches on their crests. The grass
Glowed with an inner brightness, while small streams
Gurgled down the hillsides, linking field
To field. This was Elysium. Hedgerows
Burst into beauty, flowed with emerald leaves
As a mere backcloth to unfading flowers.
Each safe spirit had eternity
To roam, to rest, fulfilling the wise will
Of Cronos, who upon his airy lap
Dandled Elysium like a newborn child.
As Orpheus travelled onwards, lapwings leapt
Into a sun-swift sky out of sheer joy.
The spirits knew his quest and guided him
Onwards to Cronos, while, above, the hills
Glinted in gladness on the well-loved scene.
Orpheus at length arrived. “I know your wish”,
Said Cronos, “Euridyce is yours
To guide to dull mortality. There is
But one condition: you must not look back
Upon her face, or she will die, become
A shade once more. Go now my son. May Zeus
Give you your wish.”
So Orpheus left, his path
Prodding upwards through the darkness, while behind
Eurydice followed, like a weak lamb
Bleating for lost bliss. “Orpheus,” she wept,
“Surely you do not love me, since you force
Your face away from mine, have only eyes
For a glimpse of old earth’s garish glare.”
“Euridyce my love,” Orpheus replied,
It must be so. Why, I cannot explain.
The Gods have willed it.” So he mollified
Her into muteness, and they travelled on,
Clambering, climbing up towards the light.
Euridyce still pleaded for a pause,
For passion, love and Orpheus’ face, but all
She saw was Orpheus’ barren back. Shades scraped
Against her on her way, and Orpheus seemed
Quite without love. She could not pierce
The Gods’ deep plot. At last the two of them arrived
Where common light first linked itself to Hell.
Euridyce decided. “Orpheus,” she cried,
“I cannot leave Elysium for earth
Without your love.”
from Orpheus, first published School of Poets, Edinburgh, 1984