One of the problems of working on computers is the thorny issue of when to back up, and what happens when you don't. I am extremely lax about backing up and have paid the price. Hundreds of my poems written between 1997 - 2004 are lost in the belly of the beast - i.e. inside one of my dead computers - and I have no idea how to access them and no funds available to engage the services of an expert on information retrieval.
One of the major victims is my long verse sequence UMBRA - later developed into a play for voices which was performed at Brasenose College, Oxford - of which only four poems still exist from about 40 in the original sequence. The rest are trapped inside a now defunct laptop which I was using while at Oxford. Having moved house five times since 1998, I have also managed to become separated from the paper copies of my older poems - where they existed at all. So unless they come to light at some point in the future, UMBRA is no more. No great loss, perhaps, to the literary world. But a part of my past which I would rather still have access to, if only for the pleasure of it.
So today I thought I'd post up a poem from UMBRA, and maybe the others that I have, slowly, in the coming days, to give them a little airing. They are certainly among the oddest poems I have ever written but they do deserve to be seen, I think. Indeed, the only reason I have these four poems at all is that they were published in the poetry magazine ‘Brando's Hat’ back in 1998, I think, and can be found at the Poetry Library website where they provide back issues of poetry magazines online. The rest are lost, probably forever.
UMBRA is a story told in poems - rather than a 'verse novel' - a storyline or theme developed through a sequence of poems.
The title character, Umbra, is a young woman who believes herself to be the reincarnation of Barton's wife, and feels drawn to take her place in his life. His daughter, Stella, feels threatened by Umbra whom she suspects of superseding her in her father's affections. Barton, who may or may not have murdered his wife, is both excited and disturbed by Umbra's sudden appearance. The sequence darts between the three voices, sometimes explorative, sometimes lyrical, often violent.
If there is a clear-cut theme in UMBRA - though I dislike having to discuss theme, which can be such a slippery thing for a writer - it's probably something to do with mental breakdown, with the odd disturbing shifts in personality that happen at that time, the inability to see oneself clearly, or as others see you, and the constant suspicion that your entire environment is somehow 'against' you, in a very real and threatening way.
This poem, 'Heaven to be out there, under', comes midway through the sequence and is unusual because it is written from the dead wife's point of view. She wants to communicate with her husband, to describe the experience of being dead, I suppose, but since the poem is told through Umbra's voice, it may not be entirely trustworthy. Umbra has begun to learn about and identify with the dead woman to such an extent that the boundaries between them begin to shift and blur from this point. Is she really the reincarnation of Barton's wife, possessing a direct mental link to the secrets and tragedies of his past, or is she simply mad?
Heaven, to be out there, under
she might have told him,
not rolling, but holding, taking
the thunder, a wild bird
into shelter, dredging the surf
of the storm, shimmying.
Hell, to be in here, realised,
torn to a stand, stripped
of these leaves, these coverings.
A cold hand summons the star.
Warm breath mists the mirror,
repeating the winter,
the dead season, where I
reel from the whirlpool,
the sucking in, the bright mote.
N.B. This is the first - and only - poem in which I have used the word 'mote' (speck of dust) more commonly associated with poor imitations of nineteenth century verse. Personally, my eyebrows shoot up whenever I encounter it in contemporary poetry, yet here it seems natural. To me, that is. You may disagree.