Posted by: John Looker | 8 April, 2013

SEE HOW THEY RUN

TRIBAL LOYALTIES

4. See How They Run (an afterword)

Over the centuries the trees, in their hundreds,
had been felled. Now, in the mall, under a roof of glass,

the tide of shoppers ebbs and flows; currents
– of races and creeds, of young and old –
ripple and eddy, rill and check,
now separating out into independent streams,
now mixing and moving in a single murmuration. 

© JohnStevens 2013

This completes the sequence of three-and-a-bit poems under the heading “Tribal Loyalties”. Although the separate poems can stand alone, they were written as a single composition. I don’t know how these poems will strike any readers – critical comments welcome as usual – and I don’t want anyone to feel an obligation to respond.

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Responses

  1. Hi John, this has been an interesting series, from the early days of the woods, the invaders, till the days of the shopping mall, a wonderful epos. I think the end shows we nowadays are a tribe of mixed tribes.

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    • Thank you for your kind comment Ina, and for following right through the series.

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  2. Perhaps Lucretian in the kind of distance I feel you’ve achieved in this series. The “still sad music of humanity” with the emphasis on sad. The last piece before the afterword is positively noir. The analogy of humanity in the afterword is to starlings but it feels more like insects. The whole thing has a monumental quality, but a monument to a race without much to say for itself. Perhaps, given the absolute grip of corporate capitalism, the assessment about mankind is rather gentle, quietly, firmly undeceived. The old book reviewer in me would say “powerful.” And he would note that the “saving grace” of the poem is the fastidious technique, always varying despite the increasing darkness. In the end, we hear a Chinese Ch’an poet playing his stringless lyre. Bravo, John.

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    • I very much appreciate your attentive reading of these poems, Tom. I hope they are worth it. You are right of course that this group is sad, even noir. I felt the need for a counterpart to the two earlier groups which emphasised our common humanity, and harmony, more. Looking ahead, I see later sections with different angles on life and work, some blacker, some lighter, without being didactic.

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  3. this has been an enjoyable series John!
    I always look forward to your work, you
    can take us readers on quite a trip. Thanks
    again!

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  4. Thank you for sticking with it, Fred!

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  5. Great metaphor, well done!

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  6. Very much enjoyed this series, especially the astute and spare/unsparing observation of “The Trap” which seems to complete the mood from lines 2-6 of “They Run at the Speed of Terror” As ever, looking forward to seeing where you go next.

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  7. I’m grateful to you for following this series. The next batch, I feel, will need to take a different path.

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  8. Yes, an interesting pairing of elegant writing with some of suffering that humanity is heir to. I’m not sure why, but I’m reminded of The Heart of Darkness. Perhaps not to the extent of murmuring ‘the horror, the horror’ but I do think Marlow’s opening gambit—‘And this also… has been one of the dark places of the earth’—quite appropriate. Conrad uses elegant prose to reflect the darknesses of humanity. (Can there be more than one darkness?) Tribal loyalties may be a particularly dark one. Lush in language—‘waves whisper on the shingle and a silver mist lies sleeping on the sea’—arch in its appropriation of the bounty—‘all such a short carry and no hurry to that dark capacious boat’—pairing up ‘dark’ and ‘capacious’ is a wonderful idea, by the way. These invaders have their civilities, don’t they? Even if they do ‘shout in foreign’…Why, one would almost think language is to blame. Did the Greeks really think all the barbarians said was ‘bar, bar, bar’ to themselves? At least they didn’t take any slaves. Maybe they didn’t have to.
    We seem to have entered the forest primeval—or is a ‘dark wood’? At first, it seems pretty nice: ‘all the nations of birds sing in elation.’ Except it turns out the king owns the whole thing. Even…
    a man, unwashed, unfed, and watchful stands –
    a hare, still warm, in his hands.
    We hope not, don’t we?
    And why does part three strike us as ‘noir’? Definition 2 in the Free dictionary sums it up nicely: ‘Of or relating to a genre of crime literature featuring tough, cynical characters and bleak settings.’ ‘Youth, brimming with health, offering to mend that roof,’ does a lot of work, setting the scene: an old man, obviously, with a roof in need of repair—not to worry, Pop, we’ll fix it for you and clean out your life savings along the way. Allan Sillitoe, we have need of thee. (This may be an unfair comparison. It’s been a long time since I read any Allan Sillitoe, and I’m probably remembering the movie of the Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, not the story—but still, the ambience seems right.)
    Still, there is something about an attack on someone in his home that is ‘noir’ in the ‘noir-est’ sense. And we don’t even know how it comes out.
    As always, I have learned to look for what is not included in a John Stevens poem. And ‘how it comes out’ seems to be the principle thing. Flash: an illumination, so elegant, so clear, so civilized. Flash: the beach is overrun with invaders. Flash: the king is hunting on his land again. Flash: another old man is victim is stripped of his life savings. Flash: the tide of shoppers ebbs and flows. Where did all those trees go? I’m reminded Jared Diamond’s book, Collapse, where in recounting the destruction of the environment on many islands in the South Pacific, he ask about the guy who cut down the last tree… Just what exactly was he thinking?

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  9. You’re a real nice guy Jim for reading all three & a half poems so carefully, and for taking time to comment in detail. I’m encouraged to think that I came as close as I was able to writing what I had in mind. I’m particularly glad you felt that the language worked at various points. References to Conrad and Sillitoe however are a sobering pointer to the Real Thing!
    I’m taking stock of this sequence before continuing. I have another section drafted, which is even blacker, until the end where it suggests some redress – and I might work out some intermediate relief of mood first.

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  10. I enjoyed reading all of your poems. I always enjoy coming here to read both the poems and the comments. I do have a favourite of the four:
    See How They Run (an afterword). It’s important, I think, that you started the poem with the felled trees, the heartland, and the transition to the people under glass is vivid and I think immediately of trapped ants, scurrying along in currents as one organism. I very much enjoyed the word, “murmuration.” Wonderful reading.

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    • Thanks Anna for reading and commenting; I greatly appreciate your continued interest. It interests me that you liked the afterword; it was not part of my original concept but I came to believe that it would be needed, and I first attempted something very different.

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  11. I have spent most of my life working in tribal communities, John, mostly with the Anishinabe (Chippewa), Menominee, Winnebago, and Navajo. Ada Deer, one of the great leaders of American Indian in the United States, once said that “it takes a village to raise a child.” I think you’ve read at least a substantial portion of An American Spirit, the first epic poem I wrote. There is a part of the epic that seems to me to be appropriate to this comment:
    Inside the tribe
    The world was bright, the Reservation’s trees,
    Soils, streams all blending to a unity
    Of universe: The deer, the butterflies,
    Mice, plants, earth, Indian essence, growth.

    But deep inside the brightness, hidden deep
    Inside the unity, an angry, writhing snake
    As black as night without a moon or stars
    Kept striking at the brightness, swallowing
    Light, letting Indian/white-man poisons ooze.
    What strikes me about this series is the position of the poet. He is looking at the tribes that wind through history to the present day from outside the tribe. He sees the “angry, writhing snake/as black as night without a moon or stars” from the victims of the tribes’ viewpoint, seeing the horde coming on shore as the villagers ran, the ebb and flow of shoppers in a mall where once a forest stood. This darkness, in turn, becomes a metaphor for humanity itself, the dark urges and organizations that drums chaos into the daily lives trying to find order and safety.
    If you had taken the position of the poet looking from inside the tribe outward in the series, the metaphor would have had to be different. The drumbeat of the poem and its blood and passions would be different.
    I love this series. It gives the reader a deep cause for thinking about the differences in humanity and how we are so varied in our continuing tribal loyalties as the nature of tribes change, but still are caught inside the darkness of human nature even though we cover forests with light and concrete and try ever to achieve stability and safety.
    This is a wonderful, wonderful effort, John.

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    • I thought I had posted a reply Tom but it seems not to have popped up. I was very grateful for your thoughtful response. Certainly I remember your poem “An American Spirit” which I greatly enjoyed for the way you evoked the history and culture of North America and especially that of Native America. You make a good strong point about how ‘the tribe’ looks different from two different perspectives of within and from outside – and you are right, of course, in saying that in these three-and-a-half poems the perspective of the poet is from outside – way outside indeed.

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  12. This is a disturbing sequence John.
    In particular “The Trap” perhaps because it brings us up to date and reflects so well on a reality in society today.
    Somehow one has empathy with the man with the hare.
    But of course none for those who would prey on the weak and the vulnerable.

    The poems resonate with what is in my newspapers recently –
    the tribal reaction to Margaret Thatcher’s death,
    the tribal violence on the streets of Newcastle after a football match.

    It is said that civilisation is only 4 good meals away from anarchy. Yet it seems that anarchy exists anyway

    I look forward to your next series

    David

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    • Thanks David. I like the way you connect these poems with tribal loyalties that are on display here in the UK this week. That sort of extrapolation is exactly what I was hoping for, so thank you.

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  13. Just stopped by to enjoy Tribal Loyalties again. Look forward to more.

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  14. John, thank you so much for drawing me toward this series of poems. I read them aloud slowly, which, time-wise, doesn’t take long, and yet you traveled me 1000 years. I feel like I’ve read prose, though I know it’s poetry; the words, so carefully selected, draw stark imagery, yet the events feel neither compressed nor distilled. It’s full action, real time, outside of time. I love this!

    When I’d finished reading, I ran to my shelves to pull out a delightful 1935 book called, “I Walked By Night”, Being the Life & History of the King of the Norfolk Poachers, written by Himself, edited by Lilias Rider Haggard. There’s a unity to this theme of necessity…you have tapped it. (I’ll be posting this comment at my own blog too. Heirs, they’ll thank us one day.)

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    • Thank you for your generous comment Elaine, and above all for giving these poems your time for a slow and careful read.
      I must look out for the Life and History of the King of the Norfolk Poachers – perhaps I’ll find it in a second hand bookshop next time my wife and I are in Norfolk, which we visit frequently.

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  15. I float in and out of sites, yours especially, without comment – usually. Here, though, in your Tribal Loyalties the murmuration of shoppers moving as one, paths deserting their locations and waves whispering on the shingle are such moving descriptions that I cannot help but say: well done.

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  16. Hello John– I have spent some time this week catching up on your series, reading the poems “all in a row”, and am almost overwhelmed with the breadth and depth of what you are doing here. You are spinning a world (implied globe) but also a cloth of many colors, textures and rhythms to delight and set a reader’s mind spinning. You took me back to a time in Nazare, Portugal where I watched the village women lead oxen toward the surf to meet the fishing boats and help drag the day’s catch up the beach to market. I bought some of those “sardines laid out in boxes.” The transition from this to factory hands engaged in industry that has nothing to do with handiwork and thence to mercurial movers and shakers is breathtaking.
    “States of Mind”””is, I think, my favorite of these three sections. Despite the title these poems are anything but abstract, in an obtuse sense. The variety of form, which for each one resonates its meaning, is delightful. At the same time, there seems a unity to the group created in some part, I think, by your skillful treatment of rhyme. I admire your gift of human empathy.
    “Tribal Loyalties” is more difficult for me to construe. (I am no longer humming Three Blind Mice!) The poems are wonderfully crafted, as usual, but I don’t enjoy the aura of menace and impending chaos, especially in The Trap
    which I–as one now solely responsible for a large, older home–can say that you have “nailed it” exquisitely.
    This is a beautiful series, John. I am moved, provoked, and inspired by it.
    Coincidentally,I began a series some years ago around the theme of work. In a sort of reversal of yours, I could dub my series “looking at work through life.” I was under the spell of Csikszentmihalyi’s psychology of optimal experience and playing with the dichotomies of Mary vs. Martha, Love vs. Money and Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic motivations to work. Don’t know if or when I will return to that series, but I understand that there is more of yours to come. Bring it on! I shall look forward to it.

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    • I’m honoured and encouraged by your generous remarks, Cynthia. I shall reply properly, but that’s going to have to be tomorrow.

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  17. I’ve been thinking about your comments Cynthia and I’m most grateful to you for reading this series so carefully. What an encouragement to continue! “Tribal Loyalties” was indeed negative: a counterpart to the celebration of our common humanity in sections 1 & 2. The next section due (the fourth, “The Ancient Guild of Hostage Takers”) goes deeper into darkness before looking for a way out. I won’t post that; it’s nearly 200 lines long. Section 5 is half drafted: a group of poems called “The Silk Road” – ancient and modern, and back to common humanity but a different aspect.
    Could you be persuaded to post or to email me your own series on life & work? I’d be very interested, even if incomplete.

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  18. Oh my goodness….the series, as series, like a crazy aunt up in the attic, doesn’t hang together well enough for me to let it out. A few poems that I thought could stand alone are published in the 2012 archives of my blog.(May 20,31–June 17, 20, 27–July 1, 18–August 7–Sept. 18,–Oct.6, 14–Nov. 30–Dec. 8) The sudden death late in 2010 of my domestic partner of 43 years threw all my poetry up in the air like a mean, heavy confetti, and the following year was spent writing only De Profundis. I guess I lost momentum for previous projects and just haven’t got back to them. A new idea for a series has me more interested, now that the confetti has landed. Thanks, John, for your interest.

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    • That would have been a heavy blow – I’m sorry to hear of it. By chance, I had been reading the 2012 poems on your blog earlier today – with great pleasure – I love the natural voice, the humour and the original thought – and will continue tomorrow. So a new idea for a series from you sounds very promising – bonne chance!

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