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, 24 June 2007

Handbook for Explorers 6 to 10


It's difficult to explain who you are,

To explain the people and the stories

That made you leave home and impelled you where,

In these far, intractable territories,

With no warning, a stranger's eyes decide

To let you in deeper to discover,

Where blinding spotlights swing and trace inside,

The trail of questions asked over and over

Again: how and why are you here with us?

It was so long ago that you set out,

That you'll not know, lover or incubus,

How you stand, whether to whisper or shout

That you had, in a probing, brief embrace,

Found love's secret; then lost it without trace.


You've travelled far, and heard wild parrots call;

Lived among people who shoot monkeys down

From trees, their darts smeared with poison,

Who hear, a mile away, the least footfall.

You've made signs of peace, risked their angry spears,

And danced and drunk, with them, fermented juice;

Repeated words that set your dull brain loose,

Shared rhythms of a hundred thousand years.

But now, your diaries destroyed by damp,

You'll wonder if your journey had a reason,

If you remember what year or season

You left behind; if it's time to decamp

Again, to get back to your starting place;

Although it will, by now, be somewhere else.


Here, there'll surely be a fresh obstacle:

A beckoning mountain face, bleak and sheer

That will leave you no option but a frontal

Assault; and the need both to be there

And to have climbed it, and find a place to love

Beyond it, where beans and potatoes grow,

Such as all fucked up explorers dream of,

But which few of them will ever know.

For you there is no choice; you must move on,

Over mountains and through clouds, with just one

Consolation: everything you've known

Or possessed (when, warmed by the rising sun,

You step lightly upon your chosen track)

Is either in your head or on your back.


Each foot's a mile, each minute's a day;

In each harsh breath you feel and hear shingle

Heaving up the shore; at each crest you stay

A while, look back to see nothing at all

But mist close in around you, like a valve

You've come through; each crest a peak, peak a crest

Above it. And above that the sky's black cave

Spewing from its mouth long skeins of mist.

Best not to think much about getting there

Just to keep climbing, your mind empty,

Expecting no reward but the joy and rush of fear

As you get closer to the ever widening sky.

Then at the true summit, you stop at last

Lost in the clouds till, curtains drawn apart,

You see, as though in the future of the past,

A glimpse of light and somewhere else to start.


Getting lost's the better part of getting there;

The other half's not knowing where you were

At first; or what you may discover -

God's word, or a herb that'll provide a cure

For broken bones or dislocated minds -

As darkness wraps up the mountain face

Where you flounder, and contrary winds

Give loose advice; and confused, you tread space

And falling, wonder how long until

You land;

... find, not oblivion but snow

To cushion you, and then guess you're still

Alive in a dead world of ice and rock,

At whose heart lurk new secrets to unlock.

Thursday, 14 June 2007

Epigraph: Handbook for Explorers. Handbook for Explorers 1 to 5

Old men ought to be explorers
Here and there does not matter
We must be still and still moving
Into another intensity
For a further union, and a deeper communion
Through the dark cold and the empty desolation,
The wave cry, the wind cry, the vast waters
Of the petrel and porpoise …

East Coker T S Eliot

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time…

Little Gidding T S Eliot

Le vrais voyageurs sont ceux-là seuls qui partent
Pour partir; coeurs légers semblables aux ballons,
De leur fatalité jamais ils ne s’écartent,
Et, sans savoir pourquoi, dissent toujours: Allons!

Charles Beaudelaire


Here's a place to leave, where you prepare

For hardship, discard surplus provisions,

And strain your eyes to see the horizon's

Continuous path, to catch, in its long stare,

The lure of one, parting, who looks over

A shoulder at you; and who you must follow,

If only to touch what's fleeting and know

What comes next; and before you get older

Embrace what you are not. For curiosity's

A virtue, source of energy and love, and travellers

Are lovers, unmoved without a star that dares

Them, with its light and distant promises,

To say goodbye to what they understand,

Good morning to an undiscovered land.


Poised upon this vantage point or that, you

Can expect to see only to the edge

Of what you count as true. And there, an age

Away, breaks a sea, where it seems a new

World starts, or, if not new, where old stories

Cease to be in charge, and every certainty

Drowns in the moving water and the sky

Rises downwards, fades, and past thoughts freeze.

Yet, don't think the case is closed: what happens

Next is full of wonder, and what you'll find

May seem to have no use, yet shines and runs

Like water in the gullies of the mind,

Once dry and untenanted like the moon's

Seas, now potent as a new book opened.


Best not to think too much once plans are made.

Leave without goodbyes. Discard the text

Other travellers use; keep little in your head

Except the need to know what happens next

In the story you make up as you go.

Prudence is the first thing to jettison,

Then take your leave of habit and say "no"

To every comfort you have ever known.

New patterns in chaos to discover,

First lose your way, see the needle spin,

Take moon for sun, not know what world your in,

Till, the first stage of your journey over,

You glimpse a path that seems impossible,

And know, at once, where your next step must fall.


Now it's too late to turn back; the passes

Behind you are blocked with fallen rocks; the plains,

Drowned; and on the sands you crossed, no traces

Of footsteps stay, templates of future plans.

Now figures appear like dots, spare, remote,

That will grow large and strange when they get close,

Till, human eye to human eye, they note

In you, a thing without sense or purpose,

A mushroom person sprung up over night.

You make signs and speak of food or water.

They lead, you follow, nothing to sell or barter,

Bewildered, ready, if needs be, to fight

For survival; for surely you cannot tell

If it's fear or hate their cold greetings spell.


The people here are hard to understand;

Nothing you brought could have eased the way:

As they draw wider circles in the sand

The less you know what they are trying to say.

Expect the unexpected at each step:

Customs that turn yours upside down; language

Without roots you recognise.

You're in deep; curiosity roused, you want to gauge

If there is any interest or hope

In the way they greet you; for you're alone;

Their projects seem to be beyond your scope

And their slogans, chanted in a passion,

Whose source - love, hate or religious belief -

You judge a well of unquenchable grief.