I.

The rats infesting Kathmandu Airport
Appear to co-exist in peace with man
And have, it seems, since local time began,
Been treated each like some great Juggernaut.
Their teeming numbers give no pause for thought
To thwart the airport staff: it seems they can
Induce distinct responses other than
Our atavistic dread and fears self-taught.

For no-one here will blench at sight of them,
They take these lowly creatures in their stride,
Perhaps admire them for their stolid phlegm,
Insouciance, and valiance. Beside
The threat of warfarin or shotgun blast
Their nonchalance you’ll find is unsurpassed.

 

II.

Around the airport lounge in Kathmandu
The tourist in his fake designer gear
Is scoffed at by the pukka mountaineer,
While those with more street cred than sense make do
With Gucci handbags, shoes by Jimmy Choo.
Much less well-dressed and less impressed each year
The rats have neither boots nor socks to wear
But they could teach us all a thing or two

About survival, self-denial and
What truly matters in our petty lives.
It’s very difficult to understand
Why one who climbs, and doesn’t need to, strives
To stay alive through self-imposed ordeal,
Achieving goals both pointless and unreal.

 

 

Peter Hartley is a retired painting restorer. He was born in Liverpool and lives in Manchester, UK.


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17 Responses

  1. James A. Tweedie

    Peter, I am always excited when I see one of your posts and I am rarely disappointed after reading it. No exception here. Indeed, the sestet in the second sonnet is more than worth the price of admission. It gives new insight into the meaningless “rat races” we humans pathologically impose on ourselves.

    Reply
    • Peter Hartley

      James – Thank you for your kind comment and your observations. The poems (there were three of them) were written from own experience of the most humungous rats I’ve ever seen, and I was amazed at the way they mixed freely with the airline passengers in the lounge in the single-terminal building, as though we were of the same species. When the queues (sorry, lines) started to form for my flight I was half expecting a surge of rodents all heading for the check-in desk.

      Reply
  2. Leo Zoutewelle

    Peter, the last sestet makes it all worthwhile. Its impact is truly startling!

    Reply
    • Peter Hartley

      Leo – Thank you for the comment. Oddly enough the presence of enormous numbers of rats in the lounge didn’t seem to be any particular reflection on the sanitary state of the terminal itself which looked much to me like anywhere else.

      Reply
  3. Susan Jarvis Bryant

    I thoroughly admire the effortless, conversational flow of these two beautifully crafted sonnets, which makes me appreciate exactly how much work has gone into them to create this effect. The internal rhyme is spot on. I particularly like insouciance/valiance/nonchalance – delicious, especially when read aloud.

    The first sonnet paints a striking picture of people living alongside vermin without turning a hair. It makes me think of the adaptability of the wondrous critters around us and how clever and cunning rats are when it comes to turning the bustle of a busy airport to their advantage. I think our self-centeredness is crucial to their survival.

    The second sonnet is my favourite. The comparison of the on-going daily survival of the rats with the crazily-clad travellers and the observant mountaineer is wonderful. We can most certainly learn a lot from those rats, and I have a feeling the mountaineer is pretty well attuned to them… “survival, self-denial and/What truly matters in our petty lives” is more akin to the soul of a mountaineer (even if his ordeal is self-imposed) than “the tourist in his fake designer gear”, isn’t it?

    The vivid, magical and tangible imagery together with the philosophical questions posed in these magnificent sonnets have made my Saturday morning. Bravo, Mr. Hartley, and thank you!

    Reply
    • Peter Hartley

      Susan – Thank you so much for your detailed comment on my little efforts, and your perceptive analysis of them both. It was quite a long time ago now that I went to Nepal but I can still remember those rats, their warmth and generosity of spirit. I even met one at gate two that was quietly knitting a pair of socks for a local rats’ charity, and another one cutting his toe-nails in the sugar bowl in the cafeteria. You could not have taken exception to any of them, and THEY certainly made my day twice. I do believe that mountaineering is an ineffable self-indulgence, particularly in Britain, I think, where the most ill-prepared parties can be rescued from the most dangerous places at great risk to their rescuers just as long as they bring a mobile phone with them. Thank you again for your comment.

      Reply
  4. J. C. MacKenzie

    These are not sonnets. Even if they were, the subject of airport rats and use of low language is anti-poetical. The “moral” at the end of the second set of fourteen verses literally declares its own emptiness.

    Reply
    • Peter Hartley

      Mr MacKenzie – The last time I checked I think they were called Petrarchan or Italian sonnets, and I’m struggling to find the low language. However as a noted sonneteer and someone who presumably knows what he’s talking about I must respect your opinion. I shall check them both very carefully indeed just to make sure they are not Alexandrines or limericks merely masquerading as sonnets. But in any event I am exceedingly grateful for your pointing this out to me, as there must at least be some doubt in the matter of their sonnetness if someone of your high standing has called it in question.

      Reply
    • Susan Jarvis Bryant

      Sir, please enlighten me. Why aren’t these fine works sonnets? A genuine question from a poet who takes form seriously.

      Reply
    • Susan Jarvis Bryant

      Mr. MacKenzie, I admire your passion for classic poetry and I admire your intellect, BUT, we British are fully aware of the dangers of the black rat and the bubonic plague. We have many a burial site dedicated to these deaths, including Blackheath – 20 minutes’ drive from where I used to live.
      Lighten up a little. Poetry is about imagination, creativity and fun. I embrace the knitting rats and cutting-toenail rats of Kathmandu. Poetry is not just about the literal and divine – it’s about a world readers can journey to through words that lift us from the mundane. If these sonnets (and in my humble opinion they are sonnets) bring a smile, that’s a good thing in these wicked, dishonest, dictatorial times.

      Calm down, Mr. MacKenzie, kick back and let the rat lift his soothing paw to your troubled brow… metaphorically speaking, of course.

      Reply
  5. David Watt

    Peter, I find these both to be fine examples of sonnets. All the more credit for taking a subject repugnant to most people; namely rats, and fashioning meaningful pieces. My favorite is also the sestet of the second sonnet.

    Reply
    • Peter Hartley

      David – Many thanks indeed for your comment and also for giving me a little reassurance, as have others above. There were three of these poems for Evan to consider but he must have decided that the validity of the rats’ presence in the airport lounge was amply ratified with two. As I hope you will have inferred from my own comments above these were among the most charming rats I have ever seen.

      Reply
  6. C.B. Anderson

    I don’t know whether these are sonnets or not. Apparently there is more to a sonnet than the simple counting of lines. Although I respect any author’s right to express any idea or notion he or she chooses, I find the elevation of vermin to an almost saint-like or heroic status to be particularly perverse. If you’ve never seen a rat invading an infant’s cradle or spreading plague-carrying fleas, then I can imagine why you extol their virtues. And by the way, as a gardener and an equal opportunity pragmatist, I also put squirrels, chipmunks and rabbits on my hit-list.

    Reply
    • Peter Hartley

      CBA – No, I haven’t seen a rat invading an infant’s cradle and I’m extremely unlikely to see rats spreading plague-carrying fleas unless they come and show me that’s what they’re doing. Given these circumstances I’m delighted that you can understand my extolling their virtues.

      Reply
  7. Monty

    Quality stuff, Pete. How refreshing to encounter such a pleasingly-unorthodox subject for a poem(s). And a subject genuinely felt by the author. Most welcome.

    With Nepal being, as you know, my second home, it goes without saying that I can empathise fully with your observations; but I must inform you that the impunity with which the rats roam that airport has, in recent years, diminished to a certain extent; compared to how rampantly they roamed when you were last there (which, I’m sure you’ve said before, was about 15 years ago).. a time which I well remember. They’re still around, of course, and anyone spending 2-3 hours at the airport will invariably see one at some stage; but I think the powers-that-be must’ve taken steps (Poison? Cats?) to limit their numbers in recent years.

    But once one leaves the airport and ventures into the city . . rats abound, as they do in every town and village in the country. And what immediately strikes one is the way – as you wrote so descriptively above – in which they “co-exist in peace with Man”; and the way that “no one will blench at sight of them”; “they take them in their stride”; “perhaps admire them for their insouciance”.

    Which ties in perfectly with your astute observation that when it comes to rats, we – in the western world – possess “atavistic dreads and fears self-taught”; or, more to the point, fears that are taught to us at a young age. And most carry those same fears through their entire lives, and teach others along the way! Luckily, there’s always a minority who challenge the perceived wisdom of their elders: they’re the ones who reach a point, maybe in their teens, where they say: “Why have you taught me to dread and fear rats? They’re just another species: rodents, no different to mice or gerbils, and they’re just trying to do what all other species do – raise a family!” But the majority never question what they’re taught, and the innocent rat has to bear the unfair brunt of those always-unsubstantiated fears.

    I don’t know how long humans have been keeping gerbils as pets, but whenever they first started to do so . . imagine – hypothetically – that they’d started keeping rats instead, and disregarded gerbils as some vile creature to be feared. And now, hundreds of years later, we’d all be vilifying gerbils . . and buying our children a pet rat for their 7th birthday! That’s how fickle it all is to me.

    With the relationship between rats and humans in the western world, there’s never been a better example of the old adage: ‘It’s all in the mind’. That’s why rats and humans in Asia “co-exist in peace”; simply because the humans haven’t been wrongly taught to act any different.

    Have you ever heard anything so shallow as Kenzy trying to tell you that the subject of your poems was “non-poetical”? My first thought was: “Does he not realise that the very act of claiming that poetry should be limited to certain subjects is patently non-poetical in itself” . . but it then occurred to me that he surely IS aware of the inanity of his claim; but he simply couldn’t resist making an empty, derogatory remark – due to the fragment of potato which sits permanently upon his troubled shoulder.

    Reply
    • Peter Hartley

      Monty – Many thanks for your long commentary which touches on several matters pertaining to rats that you cover a lot more eloquently than I would be capable of doing. It is strange that K has gone from ignoring me completely since I joined the society to slamming me for two successive entries. I’m not really sure why, but I think it must be a deliberate personal attack, and both times his comment started a long controversy. It appears that it can’t be a sonnet by his criteria unless I have the whole panoply of angels, archangels, principalities, dominions, thrones, cherubim and seraphim and all the rest at the pearly gates greeting every saint in the Acta Sanctorum, and Bollandist you’ll find comes uncomfortably close to bollocks in most dictionaries.
      And I’m still unsure what he means by the low language I’ve used. And the end of the second set of fourteen verses [sic. in struggling so hard not to make the fatal slip of calling them sonnets when he’s already said they aren’t, he calls lines verses instead] where he expects to find a moral, there isn’t one. Sonnets DON’T have to have a moral in the final couplet. They aren’t bloody Æsop’s fables, and only a prig or moral snob like K would insist that they do. They could have a summary or a little added twist of thought at the end, or point to a little contradiction or antithesis. After reading his comment I was very tempted to use another rhetorical device, tmesis, where any word of more than two or three syllables gets a couple of tasty epithets or bits of foul language shoved in the middle of it. “Go ye and teach all nations” says Christ, but he didn’t say be as rude and ignorant and as priggish and superior as you can be while you’re at it. That sounds to me to be slightly at variance with the Christian model that he presumably thinks he is supposed to be propagating. He’s recently written somewhere, I can’t remember exactly where, that when people see his name or Dr Joe S’s in the comments they sit up and take note. They are probably astounded, in the first instance, by his humility and his self-effacement. They may take note of Dr Joe S, who, whether one likes it or not, is a bit of a guru, a fount of knowledge, the éminence grise of the society, but Mackenzie has no reason to bask in reflected glory just because he can gratuitously insert dulia,hyperdulia and latria in the middle of his rants. Which all brings me very neatly back to rats. Have you heard the factoid that we are never more than six feet away from a rat? I don’t know who came up with that one but I’m sure, whoever he is, he’s spent far too long in Kathmandu airport missing his flights while he’s been drawing grid lines every six feet across the terminal floor. Another good one is the “fact” that the Great Wall is the only man-made object visible from outer space. What about the Millennium Dome, if it’s still there, what about the Pyramid of Giza? And the factoid that a swan can break your arm. Where does that one come from? I’ve just written a sonnet about factoids that would not meet a single criterion in the “MacKenzie Guide to Sonneteering My Way”. It’s proscribed already because it’s about factoids and not about Saint Erasmus. Although poems about the Forty Martyrs don’t seem to fare much better either. Anyway thank you again for your welcome comments, Monty, and it’s people like you who make it worth writing at all.

      Reply

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