Friday, 29 January 2016

BASIC TRAINING: A POEM FROM ARTS COUNCIL of GB NEW POETRY 4, 1978

I came to Britain 39 years ago, in January 1977. Over the period of a week in May that year I wrote the poem below. In December I sent it to the Arts Council of Great Britain, for their New Poetry anthology. It was accepted and published in New Poetry 4, in November 1978. The anthology was edited by Anthony Thwaite and Fleur Adcock; from their response to me at the launch cocktail party, I suspected it was Fleur, who asked me about my (non-existent) military career, who had selected my poem. She was the first New Zealander I had ever met. She was also very encouraging, and I left the event feeling I'd turned a writing corner.

Being me, I was never able to parlay that feeling and an appearance in a major anthology (other contributors included John Mole, Gavin Ewart, Anne Stevenson, Roy Fuller, CH Sisson, Peter Redgrove, George Mackay Brown, TV's Tom Paulin and many other established names) into anything bigger. The networking was likely going on around me. And I was very happy with the £15 fee and copy of the book published by Hutchinson, which I rediscovered in a file cabinet while moving this year.

The poem eventually found its way into a small collection called Neutron Bomb, published in an American magazine called Tel Let, in Illinois. Looking at it now, it's very much atypical of what I was writing at the time. In fact it's kind of a coda to my first-ever published poem, which appeared in the New Haven Register when I was 17. I've made a couple of small changes; 40 years on I suppose I'm allowed to try that. One of them is adding the formality of capitalizing the start of each line.

BASIC TRAINING

Thus we innocents, who had never before
Seen so close a war, found ourselves
In trees, dangling upside-down to test

If our helmets would hold to our heads,
If we too could hang on. And in our eyes
The trees angled down from a ceiling

Of earth, not falling, but threatening
The sky, busy pouring itself out of
The picture. Only the pressure of our

Insteps on bark alerted us to
The presence of fantasy. And only
The chin straps sliding down to our throats

Cued gravity to drop us, one by one; leaves
Somersaulting to ground, where we stood
Exultant, dizzy, in strange erect forms,

Gravity realigning the world in our eyes,
The proper sight of those fallen men
Unharmed by a distant vision of war.


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