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On Poems I Can’t Get Arrested With

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According to Wordsworth poetry is emotion recollected in tranquillity, a view which I feel holds some truth, but I prefer to think of it in terms of capturing the moment. That said, there is only one piece of verse that I have written which (I flatter myself) successfully does that. Unfortunately it is a poem universally disliked. I tried submitting it to numerous competitions, have shown it to numerous people and—yes—workshopped it, all with negative results. In fact, I was planning to self-publish it in a volume (with many others) entitled Poems I Can’t Get Arrested With.

In my defence I’ll say the following: this is in alliterative longline, a form which effectively died out in England at the end of the Fourteenth Century, in Scotland at the end of the Fifteenth. Although poets from Dunbar through Swinburne to Hopkins are credited with its revival, none of those strictly writes in longline. Some modern poets do qualify—Steve Ely’s ‘Big Billy’ springs to mind—but all the examples I know tend towards Chaucer’s ‘rum ram ruf’, being vehicles for Morte Arthure-style battle poetry or satire, rather than the ‘lele lettres loken’ subtler effects of Gawain and the Green Knight or the prologue to the Parlement of the Thre Ages.

I wrote it on the spot in Aksum, Ethiopia, looking down into the valley from a hill near the Queen of Sheba’s pool, watching boys lead strings of camels to water against the background of those fields of obelisks called steles (stelae is wrong), while drumbeats echoed from the church where the Ark of the Covenant, stolen by the Queen from Solomon, is kept. The moment was so awesome in the literal sense of the word it was indescribable, then suddenly it could be described with poetry, falling naturally into longline:

The Queen of Sheba’s Pool

The subdued evening’s syllables · mesmerically resound
In the Ark’s dreamlike drums · through the distant mist
Where two buzzards still ballet · and beneath the blue-grey
Of the steel-canopied sky · camels, straw-heavy, are led
To the wells of reflection · where she bathed and wondered
How such words of wisdom · could part the waters of life
And produce kings and princes · so anointed with prudence:
A line leading through love · to the light beyond time.

This sacred moment’s syllables · find subtle counterpoint
In the dampened bray of donkeys · on darkening hills,
Where a striking young woman · strides between steles,
Sets down bundle and bows · before the church on the slope.
The moon shimmers in the mirror · of the enchanted mere,
And mysterious meanings · round-ripple, emanate
As witness of when in faraway lands · the Queen of these waters
Sought out her Solomon · and the Song of All Songs.

Those secret-bearing syllables · were sealed deep in the Ark,
The angels smiling accomplices · to its acquisition and theft,
Preventing Sheba’s pursuit · as they parted the seas;
Thus Ethiopia eluded Israel · as Israel escaped Egypt.
And now the same rhythm · beats in red soil and rock
Where the Queen of the South · considered her quest;
Where legend now leads · to this landscape of thought;
And where whatever was · becomes whatever will

Here, in these steles and stones · where their wisdom sings still.

The above is the competition submission version, a little ‘dumbed down’ from the original. My travel verse philosophy is to bear honest witness to what my senses perceive, but I did make one change here: the ‘striking young woman’ was carrying a bucket, used for cleaning out a latrine, which was present in the early drafts but sat ill with the elevated perspective.

Here she is below, in prosaic reality.

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