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.

Tuesday 31 July 2007

Handbook for Explorers 21 to 25


You'll need no calendar on the way:

Every season's indifferent to its myth

And can't respond to acts of faith

That try to keep flood, famine, drought at bay.

The earth's upset and is out of kilter

With the sun and moon; it's no use to ask

What's the time, or complete a simple task

Within a period you can't measure.

And if you want to know what year it is,

The reckoning varies with who was born

And when, and who you choose to love or scorn.

Now the compass needles spin, as sages

Say they will; you must play dice to get through,

And chance alone will keep you steering true.


You must learn, when it's time to move on,

To leave no trace of your brief stay, no ash,

Charred wood, husk of nut, animal bone;

Let no cough escape, twig snap, no light flash.

An explorer, not one to be explored,

You'll not be prey that hunters can pursue,

Nor move, watched every square across the board,

A pawn, which knows how little it can do.

Unless you act to exercise restraint

You'll be treated as a coloniser

After wealth, by those who never learnt

The art of peace nor yet the art of war.

Better that they should look about and say:

It's clear no one's been here today.


Every explorer seems an intruder

To be accused of espionage

And found, when crossing a border,

To have maps or field glasses in his charge.

A fear of strangers is a common state

Of people threatened by their own self-doubt;

So better to know what drug or opiate

They relax with or choose to knock them out.

Perhaps you'll become friends and swap clich├ęs

Across a table, mingle politics

With sentiment; and think of ways

To ease the trade in sly half truths and tricks,

To find your way across a hostile land

With words its government will understand.


When you return to maps and grubby texts

To find out where you've been and aim to go,

You'll see that stains of damp and smudged insects

Have obscured the routes you used to follow,

And made a cypher of the way ahead:

Continents have appeared among the stains
And words, not yet written down or said,
Crushed by tectonic plates, drowned by oceans.

There is too much art and literature.

That mouldy smell says, hit the road again.

If there are messages encrypted there

Or piles of smoke stacked against the sun,

No matter: it's time to pull on your boots,

Walk free; you're not a tree and need no roots.


It's best, when hard-pressed, always to go slow,

Sharpen your knife with care, know where to stop,

Just where to cut, and where the buds will grow;

There is no hurry in the rising sap.

And you need not hurry to get somewhere,

(Whatever your strategy or the lack of it)

Which is just a step on a moving stair,

Past which fleeting images fit,

Or not, templates of what you most desire.

Slowly raise your wineglass to your lips

As though nothing else mattered; slowly light

A cigarette; slowly place your footsteps

In the uneasy maze of wrong and right.

Though you walk just from A to B, you'll see

The whole alphabet spread out like a tree

Wednesday 18 July 2007

Handbook for Explorers 16 to 20


Sometimes you may be surprised to have lived

In the times you have; to find yourself where

You are; and not more than halfway to where

You want to be. You have, by chance, survived

The guns and bombs of those, who have been sent

To enforce rules, which you know nothing of,

And bring bland messages disguised as love -

The teeth which gnaw the fabric of your tent.

If you have time to reflect a little

You'll see what's to come is a hazard still.

Helped just by experience and skill,

Free of both dread and hope, you'll stand or fall,

Moved by no evangelical belief,

But by the strength that brings the tree to leaf.


There are places, where you'll want to rest for days

Months, even years, which you will come to love,

Where in deep grass, you'll watch calm cattle graze;

And this will only strengthen your resolve

To be off; though someone may linger on

Beside you, stroke the edges of your spine,

Help you lift potatoes, and bring children

Round your knees to command your attention.

But when bluebells and anemones appear

You'll remember what you've long forgotten;

That, before you breathe again, you must move on:

Home isn't where you are or where you were,

But a place where you know you've never been,

And must, again, be ready to begin.


As often as you've come safe through the mist

And brushed the sunlight from your startled eyes,

You'll have tumbled from a precipice

And all you've gained will have been lost;

Though just to have survived evens the score;

And there'll be more to do; languages

To learn; instructions and maps, for ages

Forgotten, to spread out and decipher;

Yet by the time you've made sense of them, found

Words of guidance for the route you'll take next,

You'll begin to ask if you can trust the text,

And then look down to see the shifting ground

And your brave policy admit defeat,

As rocks begin to slip beneath your feet.


And yet, you must keep saying, "and yet",

To preserve your mind from loss of balance

And keep on thinking that there's still a chance

To find a route, which you can safely bet

Will lead to an unlikely country

Where people have learned the art of kindness,

With no rules of play and no blind duress,

No referee to insist how you must be.

But if they tell such stories to keep up hope;

And if you choose to sing as you trudge on,

Valiant hymns of love and salvation,

You'll feel better; and feeling better stop

To reflect: that no end is more worthwhile

Than, when it comes, you can't hold back a smile.


There'll be no one to talk to where you are,

Just horses galloping away from you,

And towards you, savage flesh made air,

And people scarcely ever passing through,

And when they do, not to communicate

Except with lowered eyes and expletives.

Though you'll have words of careful thought and wit

To share with others about their lives

And yours; or so you'll think, but cannot tell

If they're worth the trouble, till there's a note

Of recognition, a murmur or a yell:

"That's what I felt, but couldn't hit the spot".

So, on endless prairies burned by sun,

You'll tell the long, white skyline what you've done.

Thursday 5 July 2007

Handbook for Explorers 11 to 15


When in time, you come down from the mountain,

You may seem to people to be a god

Or his prophet, gifted to relieve pain;

Or else the vanguard of a horde

Of preachers, who scatter their convictions

Like viruses. You'll want just a few friends

To exchange views with, or find reasons

For another drink. But understanding ends

Before it has begun. They'll bring you gifts,

Not from kindness, but to compensate

You for the poisonous air that shifts

Across a land, where all are bred to hate.

There's nothing to be done that can deter

Their frantic genius for guile and war.


You'll wonder in time, if it's been worthwhile:

The search for gentians in rocky crevices

Or epiphytic orchids beneath high jungle

Canopies, where jaguars hunt; species

After species, that have to be defined,

Listed in tables, signed and countersigned,

Reduced to figures you must square or cube

To reach conclusions, which seem to make sense.

But amid the reckoning and statistics

(Shadows on surfaces where nothing sticks),

You'll want to turn back to the present tense,

To find new co-ordinates and refrain

From doing what you did before, again.


You may think you should begin again

Where you first set out; start on a new track,

Make new mistakes, go from now to then;

But you'll trip on footsteps if you turn back.

Better, the world being round, to go on,

To complete the circle; and if you're late,

Who knows if the continuous curve of space

Could lead you back to an earlier date,

The starting line for a different race?

In the end you'll reject the status quo,

Choose a status of your own creation

As the best of many lines to toe,

While you can't know what has been lost or won,

And doubt everyting that has been said or done.


Soon, you'll think, there'll be nothing left to find

That's new or surprising; and then you'll end up

In a city, from which there's no escape,

No sweet dreams in the corner of your mind,

And all that you thought you had discovered -

Sea anemone, elephant, chimpanzee,

Mayfly, humming bird, porcupine, leopard -

You'll need to see a second time, and try

Again to grasp the complex business

Of their origins and nature,

and, in each cell

Find a ticking universe as full of stress

As when you hear the hammer hit the bell;

Leave home; lose sight of land, of love and lust;

Get lost, just for the sake of being lost.


Water was the beginning of your journey;

You floated and grew limber in warm pools,

Found resonances in the moving sea,

Pull of tides and clamour of waterfalls.

In time you'll cross deserts, take to the skies;

And the scent of water will be the lure,

That leads you from mapped to unmapped places,

And, for most known ills, will promise a cure.

For in the new country, through which you'll roam,

You will discover a black, cold lake

Cupped in mountains, where you may drink and swim,

And where, in every bubble, new worlds break,

And you may find clues to the start of things,

A hope and reason for your wanderings.