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My 50-year epic

by
21 August 2015

Tony D. Triggs recounts a poetic odyssey that started in childhood

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WHAT is it like to complete a poem after working on it for 52 years? I must be one of the very few people in history who can answer that question. I certainly have a sense of fulfilment, enhanced by the fact that now, at last, I can tell the story of the poem’s slow development.

To understand how it all began you must add another ten years —and a battered teddy bear. I loved my teddy, but there came a night when I went to bed without him because my mother felt it was “time to grow up”. With teddy no longer clutched in my arms, our imaginary bedtime adventures became a thing of the past. Teddy sat in a distant chair.

In my teens I declared that I wanted to be an Anglican priest. While this may have been partly genuine, it was also a way to annoy my anti-clerical parents. I didn’t go far down the priestly road, but I did embrace Christianity, and my view of those fantasy romps with Teddy became heavy with undigested faith. I enshrined it in a poem whose solemn tread of four-beat lines reflected the Rupert Bear books that had complemented my childhood.

The opening verses display an unhappy mix of hubris and Christology:

 

Jesus Bear was cosmonaut
in cosy chaos, long ago.
Ex nihilo, I set us there
to tumble headlong through the
    night.
I probed his wounds to penetrate
— my loving hands —
the bigness of a human soul,
the sweep of universal might.

 

A few verses later, the poem ends crudely, with childhood magic and teenage earnestness driven out by filial grouch:

 

What. . . turned bear-love into  
    loneliness?
. . . mother who, when I was older,
told me not to play with dolls.

 

THIS was an unprepossessing start to the writing career I later pursued. My books included children’s history, children’s fiction, and materials for overseas learners of English. One of my greatest joys was translating The Book of Margery Kempe from Middle English.

Her “Book” is both an autobiography and a variety show. In it, we see Kempe rolling in the dirt both literally and metaphorically; yet her religious transports carry her to Heaven, where she becomes God’s bride; to the Nativity, where she “made Our Lady a nice hot drink”; and to Calvary, to see the crucifixion in all its raw brutality.

By contrast, my own inner life had been inhibited by the time I was six or seven. I could blame the big, bad, adult world for Teddy’s demise, but I’d marked my coming of age with a poem that endorsed what had happened. I’d buried Teddy under reach-me-down theology and colossal presumption.

In place of my youthful “Ex nihilo, I set us there”, I wanted to say, with Wordsworth: “Heaven lies about us in our infancy” — and to cherish the hope that it might remain. Recasting my poem took decades. Eventually, though, the syllables started dancing in threes instead of plodding in twos, and threesomes replaced the earlier four-square grouping of lines (read the finished poem at the end of this article or here).

As verse comes to life, so does the bear. No longer passive, he is fully engaged in the whole adventure, and the first four verses see him as successively playmate, fellow adventurer, lover, and dying hero. Writing in my maturity, I could over-correct the bloodless account of the earlier version. I exaggerate and idealise, with notions and insights far beyond the reach of a child.

My fifth verse sees the bear — I will now say Christ — as redeemer. For a moment we are at "the still point of the turning world", before the poem’s remaining verses express the anguished yearning for a closeness to God which sometimes blessed my early years.

Gone is the easy answer about insensitive parenting! The poem seeks a better answer, but fails to find one. Gone, too, is the total desolation. “Now all is lost,” said the earlier poem, disconsolate, bleak and impersonal, while the later one cries to the Lord in passionate hope, “where are you now?”

 

HERE is comfort, then. To have such a craving shows that something remains. Moreover, in writing the poem’s opening verses, I’ve conjured up, in embellished form, the very child-life which the later verses seek in vain. I’ve always liked a paradox.

My adventures with Teddy had their own unique content, but every child dreams — and almost every child ceases to dream. This poignant fact has baffled me for 50-odd years, and I do my best to foster and celebrate children’s creativity. I run what I rather grandly call The International Song Project, a small “good cause” that links children’s poems and children’s music, and spans the oceans with friendship and song.

The project has a nativity play, The Travellers’ Delight. I wrote it as a vehicle for Christmas songs by young composers. After completing it, I realised that I’d gone back to the verse-form of my Rupert books. A lifetime spent in relaxing its hold had been swept aside. Truly, the child is father of the man.

Tony Triggs is an author and poet.

To present The Travellers’ Delight in Advent, contact the author at top.note@yahoo.co.uk


One Flesh, One Fur

BOY oh Bear, how we hugged and
    tumbled!
Such romp and tumult under the
    covers!
Such escapades in inner space!

Our cosmic cousins leapt alive at
    our call:
we had big Mr Bear and the sky-
    striding Hunter
rampaging — so scary it thrilled us
    to bits!

And there, in the clench of our
   fierce embrace,
was the pounding, pounding of a
   best friend’s blood
and the passion of a sewn-up sigh.

So I screamed for us both when I
    found your wound,
your love-blood flaring between
    my fingers
and all things ablaze with its
   fountain and fire.

(It hung so profuse in the holly grove
that every shock of the axe hurled
a crimson cataract at earth’s dry
   bone.)

So where are you now?

What became of love of a battered
    teddy bear,
whose holes and patches, straw
    and sawdust —
stardust — moved a childish heart?

Yes, what made bear-love loneliness?
What wrenched you from me,
    crowned with tears,
and flung you dreadful dark-years?

I dream of you, see you with
    streaming hair;
but my plundered hands are an
    empty womb,
an empty tomb, a disconsolate
    prayer:

Dear Lord of the Feast, my cup
    runs dry;
I thirst, I thirst for the crush of our
    bear-hug,
your G-force distilled in young love’s
    chalice, over-flowing with stars.

In these wilderness years I am
    parched to the bone:
my Lord, I crave your giddy sweat,
your love divine.


Tony D. Triggs

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