I’m pleased to announce that my third e-book, More Modern English Riddles, is now on sale in the Kindle store at amazon.co.uk and .com – a further 10 contemporary word-puzzles, gloriously illustrated once again by my gifted partner-in-crime Dan Tero. If anything. I’ve had even more fun writing this second collection, and I’m thrilled with how it’s turned out. All comments and suggestions welcome as ever!
I’d already decided to dedicate this volume to my English teacher from way back in 1980-2, who really got me enthused about both poetry and Tolkein. Before I hit ‘Save and Publish’, I did a quick Google search to see if he was still around – and lo and behold, I found a Derek Flatman working as a deputy head in a school near to where I knew him 30 years ago. I took a chance and emailed the school, and a couple of hours later, I received a reply. It was indeed ‘my’ Mr Flatman, and he was gracious enough to say he’d be ‘honoured’ to have an e-book dedicated to him.
So, a double delight: a new e-book out, and an old friend and mentor rediscovered. It’s been quite a day.
My heartfelt thanks as always to everyone who’s encouraged and supported my humble efforts, and got me to the point where I felt ready to do this. It means more to me than I can possibly say. N.
I lie in wait, a cold gleam in my eye,
In shady spots, on bends, so hard to see
Till it’s too late. My time is slipping by:
For though long Ages have belonged to me
In which I levelled mountains, shattered stone
I cannot last forever. Comes the day
When my old foe will rise; with warmth alone
Melt my defences, make me run away.
And should my playful tug at sole or wheel
Raise bruises, break your bones, I’ll make amends:
The injuries I cause I help to heal;
Just hold me close and soon we shall be friends.
And when you feel the world just doesn’t care,
You need not drink alone; for I’ll be there.
Couldn’t resist it. This one should be a bit easier…stay safe out there, folks.
I have no voice. Yet I sing sweet and high
As any summer lark. I draw no breath
But must have air; without it, I will lie
Inert, in rigid silence, cold as death.
I have no heart. But press me to your lips
And I’ll requite thee instantly; you’ll feel
My racing pulse beneath your fingertips.
I’m delicate, refined, yet with a steel
That runs right through: scratch me, I will not bleed.
My joints are straight and true: I do not bend.
I’ll do your bidding: all my strength and speed
Are in your hands. But here’s the trick, my friend:
I’m always on your right side, always near.
But when you pick me up, I disappear.
Another Anglo-Saxon-inspired brain-teaser for a chilly winter’s morning. I had such fun writing this.
I need no food, and drink but once a day.
I take no leisure: work is all I know.
In summer I bring in the precious hay;
In autumn, break the ground; in spring I sow.
Although I have no arms, no hands or feet
I travel far, lift mighty loads and bear
A man upon my back. I eat no meat
Yet killed a million horses. Should we share
The road, you may resent my company,
For I have many followers. I tower
Above the one who’s master over me:
I am subservient, for all my power.
OK, an easy one to start 2012. Over Christmas, I’ve been reading a selection from the hundreds of riddles the Anglo-Saxon poets wrote about birds, animals and everyday objects, and they’ve inspired me to have a go myself. I’ve always loved the ‘riddles in the dark’ exchanged by Bilbo Baggins and Gollum in The Hobbit, which are written in exactly this style (let’s not forget that JRR Tolkein was a Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford for 20 years) As with so many ancient forms of writing, it appears very simple, but is actually surprisingly tricky and subtle. The originals tend to be about swords, shields, helmets and other gear of war; mine describes something a bit more contemporary. No prizes for guessing what.
I approached the last of these poems with some trepidation. The Sutton Hoo helmet is among the most famous artefacts in the British Museum, and the centrepiece of what’s widely considered the most important British archaeological find of modern times.
Dating from the 7th Century, the helmet was interred with a (still unknown) East Anglian warrior in a Scandinavian-style ship burial. Its discovery, as part of a hoard of fabulous treasures, in 1939 completely overturned our perceptions of the Anglo-Saxon period, long dismissed as ‘the Dark Ages’, as a barbarous time devoid of skill and beauty.
For us poets, it also makes a tangible link with one of the foundation-stones of English literature; the Anglo-Saxon epic poem Beowulf. In Seamus Heaney’s masterly translation, the poet tells of Beowulf’s ‘glittering helmet…of beaten gold, princely headgear hooped and hasped by a weapon-smith who had worked wonders in days gone by and embellished it with boar-shapes’. When the Sutton Hoo helmet, broken in 500 fragments, was finally reassembled, it was almost exactly as the writer had described, right down to the bronze boars’ heads protecting the wearer’s temples. Surely a case of life imitating art.
It’s just a poem
And imagined battles
By a poet
Without a name
About a hero
Who never lived.
Till on the eve
Of their own war
They woke the Suffolk sand
From a thousand-year sleep.
The land yawned, casually
Handed them the helmet
And Beowulf’s boars
Winked at them with garnet eyes
As if to say
He told you so.
Another poem from the British Museum, this time inspired by an Anglo-Saxon knife, called a seax, that was found in the River Thames. Dating from the 10th Century, it’s of huge archaeological importance because the blade bears the only inscription we have of all 28 letters in the Anglo-Saxon alphabet, or furthorc. The other runic word is Beagnoth, which is the name of whoever made or owned the seax. Who they were and how they were parted from this magnificent weapon, which was used for hunting and fighting, we’ll never know.
Once, it was whetted for war and the hunt,
Its iron blade burnished. Then, abandoned, mislaid
Or hacked from a hand in the heat of a fight,
It spent long dark centuries sunk in the mud
Of the Thames. Disinterred, a lost tongue was revealed:
The furthorc, in full, finely-wrought on the blade.
A plea for protection or profitable hunting?
Unknown and unknowable. But the name, Beagnoth,
Removes the Museum glass, makes it a possession
A person once prized, and part of a story.
A shard from the shadows, time-shattered, the knife
Still pierces perceptions, and presents us a life.
First of a few posts inspired by a trip to the British Museum in London last week. Of the seven million or so items in the Museum’s collection, my favourites include the Lewis Chessmen. These were carved from walrus ivory in Norway (it’s thought) about 1,000 years ago; somehow they ended up buried in a sand dune on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides (off the north-west coast of Scotland) where they were discovered completely by chance in the 19th Century. They’re exquisitely detailed, with wonderfully vital expressions. I hope I’ve done them justice with these two short pieces; the first is written in the Anglo-Saxon style, which would have prevailed at the time they were made.
CHESS PIECES (1)
Lance raised in readiness, the knight rides out to battle
A foot-soldier at his side. He surveys the waiting enemy,
A fierce scowl on his face, unafraid of the king
Who sits, stone-faced, his sword in his lap
One hand on the hilt, one holding the scabbard
For a quick draw. The queen is quiet, the mother’s
Wartime worry in her wide grey eyes,
While beside her, the berserker bites his shield,
Frantic to be flung into the fight and make his end.
On both sides, bishops watch, emboldened by their crosiers
And knowledge that Another will annihilate the foe.
The front ranks have no faces. Their fear will not be shown
As dutiful and defiant, they march to death, unnamed, unknown.
CHESS PIECES (2)
An army worked in walrus tusk:
Weapons from weapons
That saw service in a savage sea;
Commissioned by a king, perhaps,
Crafted on a cold coast
By a Norwegian anonymous,
They took ship for the south
But, foundered or plundered,
They were lost on a lonely island
Halfway to Odin-knows-where.
In every sword, crosier, fold of cloth,
Crown, carved chair and wide round eye
I see a skill that dares me
To call their ages Dark;
Paraded behind museum glass
They look out at me
With familiar, lively faces younger
Than their eight hundred years.
And if I could
I’d make a series of illegal moves
And take every one of them.