Questions is a collaboration by Lucy Kempton and Joe Hyam. Poems are based on questions drawn from an agreed starting question and formed by answers, which contain and inspire the next questions. In response to Lucy's first question, Joe kicks off. This follows our earlier work in Compasses, archived here, where Lucy's photographs illustrate Joe's series of 50 sonnets under the title Handbook for Explorers.

Sunday, 11 November 2007

Handbook for Explorers 46 to 50


Being wrong has formed your plans of travel

As often as being right. The unforeseen

Explains, in part, how hard it was to tell

Useful signs from those of superstition.

You could blame limited intelligence

For errors of judgement and perception;

Admit that when, at last you arrived, chance

Played its part; that what you claimed as reason

Was wild surmise; that the choir, that captured

Your ear, was the wind buffeting the wire

That follows the road; that what you'd endured

Was for nothing, a worm wriggling in the fire;

That what you took to be the Holy Grail

Turned out to be just rags and scrap metal.


The screens that show you, point by point, the track

Of you time and trouble across the globe,

Tell you where you were right and wrong, and stack

Up all your hopes into a flashing strobe.

Yet, if you believe the technology

That enters into every corner

Of your experience and geography,

You will have nothing left to call your own.

Better to look for faults there, too, which race

To reach an unexpected conclusion;

Ambiguities, which suggest one face

For another, challenge beliefs and strain

To restore to a healthy, fractious state

The near chaos you movements generate.


To sum it up neatly, is to close it down:

The story of your travels doesn't end,

And you can't be certain where it began.

The daft voices of your forebears, behind

Your striding shadow, chatter in your brain,

Say: "Keep on this way; one day you'll learn to fly;

The Pleiades will be your destination."

You have the gift of curiosity,

And nothing you meet on the road is less

Than significant; if you look close enough,

Written on each stone you pass is "press"

Or "open";... hear "come in" in each puff

Of wind; a door's half open, always set

To halve the gap, halve that, and halve, half that.


There were things you ahd to dig for on sites

By the road. ...

... No reason to excavate,

Except an inborn sympathy for rites

Practised long before your time, private,

Magical, no longer comprehensible,

But prompted by urges bred in desert,

Forest, cave - the birthplaces of evil,

And of what was good, also, from the start,

Original virtue; this collect too,

Should be Adam's banner, Eve's song of joy -

Not to neglect the animal in you.

The falcon on your gauntlet, thoughts of prey,

Memories of scales and fur, bones piled up,

Strike you with a rhythm that just won't stop.


To look back at all the faults and failures,

Which have led you to this curious place,

Might keep you occupied for years;

Or else be worth a quick laugh, without trace

Of regret or homily, and no text

Drawn from stale notes, no sums or stately sermon.

At best, you can admit you were perplexed,

Still are, by the meagre spread of reason

In the country you know best. Facts are scarce,

Too, in these parts and hard to verify;

The noise of opinion is continuous.

You think, now you're back, it was worth a try;

You say, " I've moved, not far from where I was,

But enough to see how the distance grows."

Sunday, 21 October 2007

Handbook for Explorers 41 to 45


Sometimes you'll wake and won't know where you are,

Or why you're there, or who is sleeping by your side;

Your feet, not used to rest, will pound the air

Your arms battle with an imagined tide.

Smells of leaves, beer, petrol, piss, newsprint, tea

Will come to filter England back: "cheers, mate;

Where've you fucking been? Long time no see.

It's just like you to be so fucking late."

Round the world in eighty years is close to it.

The need to say as little as you can

Returns : you suppose you got held up a bit.

And in fact, it's much easier to move on

With a joke or two, sit beside a pint,

And ask what else in the world you'd want.


It may take years to shift the ideas

You had on a high plateau or by the frayed

Edge of seas, longer than your span allows

Perhaps, but it's the nature of your trade

Not to know exactly what is what and why,

Though you may try; surprise is its own reward

As you top a ridge and hear the sharp cry

Of monkeys give warning of a leopard

Stalking in jungle shadows, sly and lithe;

You recognise the hunter, don't you,

As a creature, ruthless, of your kith

And kin, which does what it knows how to do?

Years of speculation bring you to that;

So much comes in and very little out.


Sometimes you'll want to keep your mind empty;

Thought may be circular and unproductive,

Seditious, disloyal, a travesty

Of the model by which you're supposed to live;

For rules apply here, which you could ignore

On the road. Soldiers collect in a crowd

Here, to check your credentials. " It's the war,"

They say, "on terrorists, and you could

Be one." And you might just be if you knew

Your potential in this interesting time.

A blank mind's the best way through,

For you can find in it a sort of calm.

Yet subversive seeds lie there still, and wait

For the rain to help them germinate.


A thought you had, long ago, far away,

Will catch up with you, greet you as an old friend

One day: whatever you had meant to say -

The words themselves, and what caused them to end

In mid-sentence, without graft or traction -

Have left a hiatus, which has lasted

All your life, drew you to exploration

And led you to paths no one else trusted.

And now, a hand on the shoulder, a voice,

Unexpected and unlooked for, brings you back.

It was not that it was a difficult choice

To stop where you did, and to come unstuck;

Rather your attention wandered elsewhere,

When you just had to look ahead and dare.


You forgot what you were going to say,

And nearly said; the thought turned to vapour,

The surplus words went back to their hide-away,

Waited till they were called upon to score

A point in an argument or convert

A doubter to a cause, to come to grips

With what was going to happen and start

From somewhere else. So when you kissed the lips

Of one you'd fallen for, explored her thought

And her terrain, trekked across her kingdom,

The pace changed, the past was not appropriate.

What was now then, became the past again.

You ask: will the words you were about to speak

Come back and call you liar, trickster, freak?

Sunday, 23 September 2007

Handbook for Explorers 36 to 40


For lack of companions you will talk

To yourself; ask how a thought started -

With needs or words? Which was the first to stalk

The other?

Lonely in this search you'll tread

Paths, which go where you can't predict,

Where crowds thump out slogan after slogan

In squares where the same posters are stacked

Sky high, and flash and flicker in the brain

Images of horror and suspicion;

Where you hear your own voice on the phone

Attempt to find out when you might be free;

Where you'll see advace towards you someone

You thought you knew, and look again to see

That it's you, in a mirror, moving on.


You will say, in the middle of a city,

One day, among friends you've not met for years,

"The best part is always what you don't see -

The imagined, the hoped for, the missed chances."

Like the moment long ago when you heard

Someone sing, in a room across the street,

A song you didn't know, and wondered

Who the singer was, and why you could not greet

Her when you saw her face at the window.

Worst is a nightmare, never yet explained,

That travel has only caused to grow -

A roulette wheel, from which you cannot descend,

Where, like a silver ball, you bounce and spin,

Never to settle, neither out nor in.


You may tell your story when there's no one

To listen. No need to look for a laugh

Or exaggerate in aid of fashion

Or art; and if you manage to convey half

Of what you believe happened, you may

Have helped history.

Back from your journey

The hardest thing is to know how to pay

Tribute to the best you met on the way;

They will stand in your memory, hands

Raised in greeting or farewell, dignity

And reserve masking the natural kindness,

Which is the root and custome of their lands.

They'll be the heroes of your adventures;

From them your hope and inspiration grows.


Bold shifts of emphasis have swept

The place you left; and your ideas, lost

Under the feet of new regimes, have crept

Away, uncertain of their worth, and cost

Nothing on the market now; your return goes

Unnoticed; and your discoveries

Seem common place; while those, who can discern

Something of strength and value in your journeys,

Fear they might lose face, if they protested

The plants and creatures you brought back.

Yet, why should you, who never contested

For applause or trophies, regret a lack

Of fame? For close your eyes, instead you'll hear

The triumphant shriek of monkeys in your ear.


The changes that have occurred in the place,

Where you first drew up your plans to travel,

Will make you think you've come back somewhere else,

And that you'll have a new story to tell

About people, who like to shout a slogan

To make it clear they know they're right,

Prove it true by endless repetition,

And finding an excuse to pick a fight.

When you approach these proud strangers, take care

Not to look at them too closely, or try

To work out what kind of men they are,

Who are your brothers, yet chalk "no entry"

On their foreheads. They are explorers too

But can they know that what they've found is you?

Sunday, 2 September 2007

Handbook for Explorers 31 to 35


These are the clues some travellers look for:

Clay tablets, papyrus and bone; coins

Minted in the name of kings and scattered

Like birds; ornaments of gold and copper,

Once fastened at the breast of priestesses,

Who had the answers that were wanted then.

You'll make of such clues, some sort of sense,

As, looking for connections to decipher,

You'll weave through narrow streets and boulevards

To places every traveller visits,

And hope that, behind the picture-postcards,

You'll catch sight of something not seen before,

An artefact that time alone has made

From stains, which spread out wide from then to now.


Take no flags to raise above a planet

Or a tract of countryside, where olive trees,

With twisted trunks distil civilisation

From a terrain; where, by a lean-to hut,

A woman, her face as hard as the stone

Of an olive, watches a string of goats;

And fails to quarrel with poverty,

Or with someone like you, without roots and free

To cross seas, and be able to reflect

On the otherness of other people.

No photos please. Theres nothing you can take

From here, no sword or bangle from a grave:

Except the fruit, cheese, bread she's offered you;

And her blessing, once she sees you go.


You'll wait a long time for the words to come

To describe the conflicts that you've seen,

The routes you've taken, the research you've done,

What you have discovered.

But they'll turn out

Not as you intended; and instead

Of the sentences you'd meditated,

Grunts and whistles will astound

The audience. Would numbers or music

Better convey the story of your life -

The howling of a saxophone, murmur

Of a drum?

The trail's been difficult,

And it's spiral course helps you see why

Fibonacci's numbers match the order

Of cactus prickles and of sunflower seeds.


Perilous routes call for confidence;

Forecasts may turn out to be accurate,

And will rob your story of surprise.

Trust in prophets, and you'll forget to think,

And repeat their dubious promises,

And neither see nor hear awakening birds

Blast the forest with their notes of crisis.

The sun will rise, it always has.

If not, it will be hard to say goodbye

To all the places you have visited,

To music and to staring pictures;

See cities and artefacts disappear;

Civilisations, which shout "look, look at me,"

Go with a bang, and no time for a tear.


Hope is important to hold in your head,

Just to keep alive the inquisitive

Urge, which fuels persistence on the road.

Though it may lead you to where dangers thrive,

It lives in trees and grass, sits in the wind;

Breeds joys, which taunt and gratify the eye,

The hand, lips tongue and curious mind;

Creates clouds like promises in the sky;

Sows ideas in your brain that will turn out

To lead their own lives, as words whispered,

Uncertain of their intent, become a shout;

Takes you to watch - alone without a word -

A house, where a slow flame trembles beside

A window, and you don't know who's inside.

Thursday, 16 August 2007

Handbook for Explorers 26 to 30


You will never be more than half way there.

Though the space in front and the space behind

May seem the same, you'd like to be the hare

And the tortoise; and the prize, you will find,

Is by its nature of no fixed address.

Why else should it attract you, traveller,

Who loves the form and content, not the dress?

Who's drawn to what's ahead and fleeter far

Than you could ever be, a flash of light

Touching the heels of something gone for good,

Whose steps you'll follow just to catch sight

Of where they went into the trembling wood,

Where in brakes of hawthorn, sloe and yew,

The trail ends as it meant to continue.


The opposite of what's true is true, too:

Mirrors may tell you lies, but to lie twice

Can bring up an image you never knew.

So as you get down from a train or bus,

You'll catch sight of yourself in someone's eye,

As you walk toward each other,

You'll wonder who's meeting whom and why,

And whether, when you first set out, you were

Who you are now and who you will be when,

Held in her arms or his, you'll remember

A scent of washed hair, an inflexion

Almost of despair, a low dove-like timbre

That gives you courage to explore again

A tree bright with starlings you'd forgotten.


To start it is less hard than to end it,

No matter who you are, what it may be:

You may escape the strains of gravity;

Then find, once free, you cannot but transmit

Non-stop signals, which (you hope) may inform

People, who just don't want to listen,

Of what is about to happen and when.

You might say you took shelter from a storm

Once, when the air was heavy, moist and warm

And watched, unready to take off, winged ants,

When black sheets of rain rolled up the distance

To engulf the frail shelter and the swarm.

The flood swept on, picked up houses and trees;

So it started and has not ended yet.


Rivers will have burst their banks and flooded

The routes you'll take, snatched houses up and trees,

Showed vanishing landscapes how chaos

Works; and helped you understand why ordered

Worlds connect with something deeper, more wild

Than you had thought possible from the start.

The current is so fast, you'll lose the art

Of equilibrium and, like an abandoned child,

Clutch at passing sticks; turn head-over-heels

And all but drown; until the water teaches

You about the growth of patterns - creases

In time, perhaps the incidence of petals

In a rose; how close the great is to the small;

How hard to tie the knot that grips it all.


Avatars will be ready when you're lost

In a city or a desert, with directions

And advice; they'll know before you ask

Where you are going, though you will not know.

Such certainty may comfort you for years

Till you see your rear light in the mirror;

Don't ask (for they will kill you for your doubt)

How you travelled nowhere with their help.

Instead you'll get your bearings on your own,

Will nod politely, and pass quickly on,

Your step light, no parrot on your shoulder.

And when you sing, you'll sing of the path

Ahead, glad enough to step upon it,

Still eager to find out what is to come.