“someone had pictured the thing, had puzzled it out,/
had heard in the mind the ethereal singing of angels/
if it were played.”
The final section of John Looker’s collection of poetry, The Human Hive, published in January by Bennison Books, appears at first sight to depart from the book’s exploration of the world of work.
The earlier poems offer a rich and varied evocation of human work over millennia, from the bravery of men working on the construction of a skyscraper and trade between different tribes on a river, to the aspirations of an ambitious dancer and the very public failure of an ambassador.
In contrast, the final poems explore human beings at leisure, but as John says: ‘Work is there, underneath.’
And as in the poems throughout this collection, they capture the vibrancy, inventiveness, and sheer imagination of human life around the globe and down the ages.
The seven poems in the final section, entitled Keeping Busy, follow the ascent of humankind from the Stone Age to the present. With remarkable economy, and an accessibility that belies the technical skill of these finely wrought poems, we are invited to explore the origins of art; competitive sport at Olympia; games of the mind and the body; creativity and philosophy in a Ming garden; and the almost spiritual, perhaps mystical, experience of modern-day bird-watching by a lake at dawn: There’s a sense of the special, the numinous –/it’s not just a bird that is near.
One of the poems in this final section, Made in Mesopotamia, is reprinted in full below. Says John: ‘This poem celebrates the early development of music and hints at the many skills involved in this: not only the patient practice of the lyre player and the dedication of the composer, but also the technical skills of the craftsman who made the instrument – plus the inventiveness and astonishing imagination that conceived of the lyre in the ancient world.’
Made in Mesopotamia
When Saul was king
and his tiny kingdom of Israel and Judah
was beset by war, David was a boy
guarding the sheep from the wolf and the bear,
playing the lyre and
getting into fights, with fists or sticks or a sling.
It’s the lyre that grabs our attention,
with its simple strings of gut,
its arms reaching up in graceful curves
like a woman dancing,
and its rounded belly,
its ample decoration.
Just how was it made?
Not: who was the craftsman,
how did he fashion the soundbox, the bridge?
But: who had the idea?
Long before in the ancient city of Ur
someone had pictured the thing, had puzzled it out,
had heard in the mind the ethereal singing of angels
if it were played.
The British Museum contains an item made in ancient Mesopotamia that is known as the Standard of Ur. It was discussed by the Director, Neil MacGregor, in a popular UK radio series in 2010. This black wooden box decorated with mosaics depicts a king ruling an early society of agricultural surplus. He is shown at war and at peace, and as part of the decoration a musician is depicted entertaining the king and his court on an early lyre.
Music is still as important to us today, but poetry is heard less often. Yet poetry, too, still has a great deal to say to us, when we are ready to listen.
See part one and part two of this three-part series. John Looker’s first collection of poetry, The Human Hive, is available at Amazon UK and Amazon.com, as well as: