Monday, June 3, 2013

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts. You are free to agree or disagree with him.


I believe few things are sadder than a writer explaining at length the meaning and intention of his/her own work. The work should convey its own meaning and intention. So I would not think of burdening you with “explanations” of the following two poems, which come from my collection The Little Enemy (Steele-Roberts, 2011). Suffice it to say (a.) both poems are about history; (b.) “History 101” is really two quite separate poems, the first (obviously) inspired by a trip to Pompeii, the second commenting on the failed hopes that people in the past had for the future; and (c.) “Law of Mundanity” was a reaction against both the prettification of the past, and the way history was once written. And that’s all I need say. It’s up to you to like or dislike them.



It’s not just
that Vesuvius is covered in cloud today
or that the guide says
“This fresco has been removed to the museum in Naples”,
to the consternation of the time-stressed American.

It’s not just
that Diana’s temple, now undug,
is being wetted by drizzle
and will decay more than when it lay
under cooled lava.

Nor is it the shabbiness
of the calcified corpses behind a grille,
like a carny’s sideshow,
the dogs and dropped wrappings.
We know history builds on detritus and dust,
and middens are historical shit-heaps.

But what disturbs are those fleeting sights
of rutted cobbled alleys
with weeds in stone walls
so like (so very like) the black-and-white shots
of “a typical Roman street”
in the third form Latin text-book.

Here is the real Pompeii!

History is a place in childhood
a corner of the brain waiting,
unseasonably, to revive,
in recollected flashes.

You are not there until you see it in a photograph
and presence is a poor rehearsal
of drizzle, patter and impertinence.

Furtive as pornography in a bottom drawer
yesterday’s tomorrow is the iron rivets
on Buck Roger’s rocket-ship.

Yesterday’s tomorrow is shot in monochrome
at low angles, with piled clouds to halo
the young, the muscular, the optimistic,
who stride in perfect communal devotion,
eugenically selected, hygienic as Hovis bread and
aerated water, to build the Dneiper Dam,
plant forests for the N.R.A., drain Pontine Marshes,
dance maidenly with hoops and Kraft Durch Freude
in Labour Fronts, Youth Leagues and Komsomols.

Clean as the Bauhaus in chromium and line
yesterday’s tomorrow is constructivist-plain,
the world as architect’s blueprint
brats and beggars banished
birth without pain
desire without tears
work without calluses

History hisses a sardonic text.
Time curls the glossy paper and foxes the daydream.
The finish crackles, the pages stick.
The smell of emulsion is dead millions.



Law of mundanity. The quinquireme
powered by Nubian slaves is just one more
patrolling ship. Re-paint it battle grey.

The busy port is commerce and raw deals.
Wide view, a backdrop; up close, men at work;
the rattling abacus a p.c’s. clack.

Toga or sari, burnous, roquelaure,
clothes for the rich – their suits and matching sets.
Loincloths and rags are jeans and last year’s shirts.

The tourist thinks the scene’s exotic. Those
who live from hour to hour on the same street
flick flies, scratch itches, hear a barking dog.


“Of humble birth he rose from cabin boy
to admiral and sailed the seven seas,
mapping and conqu’ring for his country’s good.”

(He waited on the ward room, was abused
by officers of rank and watched his chance.
He studied long between decks, gritting teeth.)

“He never lost his curiosity
about the nat’ral world. He was as fresh
and lively at eighty as at eighteen.”

(And the forced smile to quality. The hours
on watch alone, relieving rich middies,
upset of storm and boredom of the breeze).

“A pattern to all yeomen and town boys,
proof that true quality will rise and win
a place when equity’s the commonwealth.”

(In lace and epaulettes now, why complain?
All crews are politics and jockeying.
Pattern? But what he won was won by graft.)


The cheap Voltaire shot, then - no man hero
to his own valet, and sweat and pimples,
in hard close-up, trump nobility?

Law of mundanity. Work outwards from
the everyday, try constancy and see
spring water in the mud, quotidian good.

The flicked fly is a goad, the abacus
a measure of the real – that estate where
life falls and rises, easy as a breath.

The surface survey of an ancient street
pans its humanity and puts in place
an unreal antiquary theatre scene.

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