When I was a child, we lived in a flat with no garden. All the flowers I knew were on stamps I collected, or cards in packets of Brooke Bond tea I pasted into stiff little albums that had to be sent away for. From the bright flat images next to the old songs of their names – cowslip, butterbur, meadowsweet, forget-me-not – I sensed that plants were powerful, even though they were small, soft and, as far as I knew, silent. So I learnt young that there was such a thing as paradox, that life could contradict itself and things weren’t always what they seemed.
The flowers whose names chimed in my head, like portable poems, wild and cultivated, seemed to grow in an imaginary realm, a world I read about in books where people lived in houses with gardens and gardeners, exotic apparatus like wheelbarrows and spades. They belonged to people who weren’t us, with different names and different lives – Alice Through the Looking Glass and Mary in The Secret Garden, across the ocean Anne of Green Gables. My mother’s name was Lily and, in the absence of a garden, she filled our flat with houseplants she’d water every Saturday morning and feed a magic potion from a fat brown bottle.
I was twenty-four before I saw a snowdrop and knew that was what I was looking at, consciously paired the word with the three-dimensional flower growing out of hard winter earth. By then living in rural Northumberland, as the seasons changed and flowers appeared in garden, woodland and hedgerow, I remembered all the names I’d forgotten I ever knew. It was a revelation that echoed Adrienne Rich’s reflection on poems – that they ‘are like dreams: in them you put what you don’t know you know.’ Flower and word spoke to each other – in the botanical texts I read as well as the poems I wrote. I got my hands dirty in the soil, watching and learning how different plants grew, looking up where they came from and how they were named. Moving between inside and outside, self and other, I experienced a kinship and intimacy I found nowhere else.
When Georgia O’Keeffe took the flower as muse, she felt her portrayals were misinterpreted. How she explained it is a touchstone for me:
A flower is relatively small.
Everyone has many associations with a flower – the idea of flowers. You put out your hand to touch the flower – lean forward to smell it – maybe touch it with your lips almost without thinking – or give it to someone to please them. Still – in a way – nobody sees a flower – really – it is so small – we haven’t time – and to see takes time like to have a friend takes time. If I could paint a flower exactly as I see it no-one would see what I see because I would paint it small like the flower is small.
So I said to myself – I’ll paint what I see – what the flower is to me, but I’ll paint it big and they will be surprised into taking time to look at it – I will make even busy New Yorkers take time to see what I see of flowers… Well – I made you take time to look … and when you took time … you hung all your own associations with flowers on my flower and you write about my flower as if I think and see what you think and see of the flower – and I don’t.
Like a friend, a flower is never just one thing: both subject and object, it is a composite form, a layered text. In the field, however long you look at a flower, however closely you observe it, the flower shifts shape at different times of day in different kinds of weather. You have to get on your knees, down at the flower’s level, to inspect it properly. I need to put my glasses on and lean in very close. If you use a botanical hand lens, the scale changes even more: stigma and stamen, pollen grain or droplet of nectar are magnified, so you can imagine how it might look to a foraging bee. This is ‘reading the flowers’, via our word ‘anthology’ from the Greek, which also means ‘gathering the poems’ – just one seed of a long association of plant and book, word and root, folio and leaf.
Images from the Margaret Rebecca Dickinson Archive in the Natural History Society of Northumbria’s Library at the Great North Museum: Hancock, Newcastle upon Tyne.
Blessings on the winter.
May all beings be safe and well.
Wild Teasel’s botanical name Dipsacus fullonum derives from the Greek ‘to thirst’, referring to the way rainwater collects in the cup-like structures formed round the stem by the leaf bases. This led to the plant being called ‘Venus’s lips’ or ‘Venus’s basin’. The dry seedheads were used to tease out, or card, wool before spinning.
In the Physic Garden
Andrew asks if spiritistically is a word
it is now I say
how do you spell it he says
and we sound out the letters together
him way ahead of me
written down they’re ghosts
of the evening primrose
throwing up its arms behind us
MOTH’S MOON FLOWER
says the sign and we lean in
to yellow like thunderbugs
drinking from wilting cups
spiritistically we are yellow
and black when they are the same
night and day – me and Andrew
his words I want to save
and the flowers I can’t
and it’s okay
what does kill or cure mean he says
Just back from the Poetry in Aldeburgh Festival where I was delighted to be awarded the Bronze in this year’s Ginkgo Prize for my poem sparked by a summer’s day at Dilston Physic Garden, working with a group of vulnerable adults from Haltwhistle on one of their Zig-Zag outings.
The Prize was judged by poet Mimi Khalvati and gardener and writer Alys Fowler and organised by the Poetry School, following Resurgence’s initiation of a Poetry Competition specifically for ‘eco-poems’ a few years ago. This year the newly-named Prize was generously supported by the Goldsmith Trust, which promotes the work of ecologist Edward Goldsmith (1928-2009). It was fascinating meeting everyone involved (including one dog – Pekingese – and one baby – North American) and all the other winning poets: a real live chain of interconnection – ecology in action.
There is a beautifully designed and produced pamphlet of all the winning and commended poems. You can read it online here. Our wonderful certificates were designed and hand-made by Charles Gouldsbrough.
Part of the award for winners and the runners-up is a 10-day residency in Ireland next Spring at Cill Rillaig Arts Centre, County Kerry. The chain of interbeing continues and will grow…
The House the Wind Built
This is where we live now
the chimney redbrick roaring
a hollow trunk open to the flow
of the wind a bellowing fall
of wind a bellyful all day long
trying to breathe it in / break free
Since the trees were felled
I’ve stayed close to the floor
prone trying not to feel flayed
flaying around so full of flay
and fall all my freckled skins shed
succumbed to floor or flaw
The small, medieval city of Durham, UK and the bustling metropolis of Amman, Jordan, might seem worlds apart. But for writers Linda France and Mofleh al-Adwan, who are swapping places as part of a unique creative exchange programme called Alta’ir (bird), each provides a rich source of literary inspiration. We found out more with Linda and Fadia Faqir (initiator of the exchange) ahead of their appearance at Durham Book Festival.
We live in dark times and are witnessing the return of the ultra-right and fascism. To counter the rise of racism and xenophobia, I began thinking about a project that could be an antidote to the toxic culture of hate prevailing all over the world. An exchange programme between Jordan and Durham, UK, seemed a fitting way of challenging preconceptions and creating meaningful dialogue between…
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Before I travelled to Jordan I became slightly obsessed with Lee Miller’s Portrait of Space, taken when she was in Egypt in 1937. I pinned a copy on my kitchen wall and later, after visiting her exhibition at the Hepworth, propped a postcard on my mantelpiece. It was thrilling to discover my very own version in the bathroom of my flat at the CBRL – the same torn fly screen and sense of an unknowable beyond (literally in my case, with the opaque glass and shadowy Islamic curves) – uncanny as well as affirming to find this significant view had travelled east with me. I took it as a good sign.
One of the events I participated in in Amman was a session with English Literature students from Jordan University – all wonderfully well-read, enthusiastic and attentive young people. In the Q & A after my reading, one of them enquired about my position as observer in my poems – always looking rather than doing. We’d already discussed Blake’s ‘doors of perception’ and Keats’s ‘negative capability’ so I was sorry that I perhaps hadn’t expressed clearly enough how active I believe looking and listening are, how much they demand of us – often far harder than talking or doing.
It was a reminder of the risk that looking and listening, both happening in silence, won’t be seen, acknowledged or valued in our hectic, cacophonous world. What is slow and reflective must be as important and transformative as more visible engaged energy. Don’t we need both – as individuals and collectively?
Spending time in Jordan gave me plenty of opportunities for observation – spiced with the exciting freshness of surprise – but also to connect, communicate and play. Moving between being alone and with others, I was able yet again to interrogate my ideas about folk (of all tribes) who appear different from me – how we might occupy the space together. It also took me to a place where I could re-acquaint myself with all the ‘others’ I carry inside me, my own warring factions and scapegoats. There is never simply looking or listening: alone or all-one, we are always thoroughly implicated – and knowing that, changes the quality of our various modes of perception. This is the space a writer (or an artist, like Lee Miller) must climb through and create from, making something invisible visible.
So that is my task now – assimilating and tentatively transforming my experience, notes, reading and images into some new writing, mindful of 19thcentury traveller to the Levant, Isabella Romer’s warning that trying to find anything new to say is ‘like squeezing a squeezed lemon’ (1846). I think maybe she was guarding her own threshold too jealously. Better to keep in mind the TLS’s review of Gertrude Bell’s The Desert and the Sown, her compelling (though not unproblematic) account of a journey through Syria, published in 1907:
Women perhaps make the best travellers, for when they have the true wanderer’s spirit they are more enduring and, strange to say, more indifferent to hardship and discomfort than men. They are unquestionably more observant of details and quicker to receive impressions. Their sympathies are more alert, and they get into touch with strangers more readily.
I stayed in Amman during September as part of ‘Alta’ir: Durham-Jordan Creative Collaboration’, a partnership project between Durham Book Festival/New Writing North, the Council for British Research in the Levant (CBRL), St Mary’s College, Durham University, Dr Fadia Faqir and the British Council.
You can read an earlier post from Amman on the Durham Book Festival blog. There will be an ‘In Conversation’ event with my Jordanian exchangee Mofleh Al Adwan chaired by Fadia Faqir on Sunday 14th October, 12 – 1pm. All are very welcome.
It’s not easy being a flaneuse in Amman – the city’s built on a series of hills and steep valleys. Dusty red limestone is never far away and pavements are consistently unreliable – often not there at all, and if so, broken and disconcertingly high, planted with trees right down the middle. The dry heat and constant traffic adds to travelling by foot’s lack of appeal. But after four days here, getting around by car, I feel the need to know where I am from the ground up, so this morning the air’s a little cooler and I venture out for a gentle stroll round the neighbourhood where I’m staying.
It’s hard not to feel self-conscious when no one else is out walking. Taxis keep tooting at me – a signal they’re available. I try looking both nonchalant and purposeful but probably just appear more and more strange as I keep stopping to inspect plants growing in the front gardens and along the roadside. While I’m photographing a mat of tiny red daisies creeping beneath a decapitated palm, a man who looks like he might be a gardener comes to see what I’m doing. He talks away to me in Arabic and I talk back at him in English, asking questions about the flowers of course he can’t answer. After a while, we part with smiles and nods, making peace with our mutual incomprehension.
Not far down Uhod Street the land to the west falls away and right there in the heart of this densely populated suburb I can see a flock of sheep – brown-wooled, semi-somnolent and fat – although it’s not clear what they might find to eat with not a blade of grass in sight. They really couldn’t be any more different from the sheep I see every day back on Stagshaw Fair – making me feel closer to home and impossibly distant at the same time. An encampment of cardboard shacks is perhaps where the shepherds live – urban bedouins. Another sort of flock – of construction workers – are perched on one of the many half-finished or abandoned buildings, clambering over great blocks of concrete, sprouting rusty iron rods, without the aid of scaffolding. ‘Luxury Homes’ says the sign.
Pretty flowers spill out from the railings of those luxury homes that are finished – plumbago, jasmine, bougainvillea. Hollyhocks, native here, have seeded themselves beneath olive trees and telegraph poles. Some of the grander houses have topiaried cypresses dissecting their stretch of pavement. The ‘pavement’, private rather than public space, speaks in many languages.
On the rougher patches of ground between housing lots the involucrate carline thistle and other prickly plants I’ve still to identify are well-adapted to take their chances with the rubbish, cigarette butts and random building materials. My feet get dustier and dustier and the coolness quickly dissipates giving way to more familiar relentless heat. Even though this part of Amman, Tla Al Ali, is one of the highest spots in the city (nearly 1000 metres – the same altitude as Scafell Pike) only the occasional breeze relieves the weight of the sunlight so close to the land here.
Over the course of an hour, I pass only one other person on foot – a man carrying a yoke on his shoulders strung with clusters of shocking pink candyfloss bagged in plastic. Later, back in my room, I hear him blowing a whistle like the Pied Piper to announce his presence and tempt the children. Today, Saturday, is the equivalent of our Sunday – the weekend, traditional family time, after Friday afternoon prayers. I lean over my balcony watching him climb the hill again with his vivid featherlight load, still whistling, but no one comes to buy. High as a bird, my arms are cooled by the smooth red-veined limestone beneath them. I have landed at last in this wondrous city of many layers.
I am staying in Amman as part of ‘Alta’ir: Durham-Jordan Creative Collaboration’, a partnership project between Durham Book Festival/New Writing North (co-founder), the Council for British Research in the Levant (CBRL) (co-founder), St Mary’s College, Durham University (co-founder) and Dr Fadia Faqir (initiator and co-founder) and the British Council.
CBRL website is http://cbrl.org.uk/
CBRL’s British Institute in Amman accommodation: http://cbrl.org.uk/british-institute-amman/accommodation
There’ll also be posts on the Durham Book Festival blog and an event with my fellow Jordanian exchangee Mofleh Al Adwan on Sunday 14th October, 12 – 1pm. See Durham Book Festival website for booking details.
Spending so much time in the 19thcentury lately, I’ve been thinking a great deal about our relationship with time and history. Not just because the present is so confounding, although that is undeniable. I’m struck by how little we seem to have learned from the past, every day faced with so many instances of collective amnesia.
But context is all and we must keep re-visiting history, our own and our shared inheritance, to re-view it in the light of the present. Only then can we orientate ourselves in the direction of the most helpful choices, for our own individual and the common good. Frequent pauses are necessary. Moving slowly also makes it easier to see what is really needed. Change is subtle as well as cataclysmic.
The most powerful new element affecting the way we relate to the quotidian and the longer view is digital technology. My very first emails were sent back home from Internet cafés in India while I was away for six months, travelling there and in Sri Lanka, Nepal and Sikkim, in 2001-2. When I got home, I bought my first mobile phone and gradually the way I (and the rest of the world) communicated changed. Happy to admit my ambivalence to our current dependence on the digital, I’m still resisting acquiring a smartphone but have plenty of other portable gadgets to keep me connected and distracted.
This is a SLOW introduction to letting everyone know that I have a new website (thanks to New Writing North and Creative Fuse’s recent DigiTransform programme). At the same address as my old one, you can visit it here – and I’d be very happy to hear any thoughts you may have about it. I now have the skills to update and amend it myself, something that wasn’t possible with my old site.
On another digital note, you might like to check out the Poem of the North, an exciting Northern Poetry Library initiative for Great Northumberland 2018. It also does strange things to Time and Space, creating something new from the shared compass of the imagination. My own contribution has just been added and you can learn more and watch it unfold here.
So, after all that clicking and coding, I feel the need to go back, a long way back and see things from the perspective of one of our most ancient plants – Equisetum. A living fossil, which once dominated the understory of late Paleozoic forests, it is also known as horsetail, snake grass or puzzlegrass.
This poem by Joanna Boulter is worth spending some time with:
We live in droves. Memory herds back
to a time before there were horses or pasture
when soil was hardly soil, inhospitable.
You ask why we still grow, abandoned here
after thirty million years,
left clinging out of our time
by brittle toeholds
to a past you can’t conceive of.
Our roots reach so deep
we can grow anywhere,
have done and will, in marshes or sand dunes.
We cannot be dug out.
Think of the silica spicules
that scaffold our stems –
part organic, part inorganic
things could have gone either way
for us, you could have been
the beached ones.
But we are still at the crossroads,
and you need us.
You need to think sometimes of sparse
harshness, of glassy grains without humus,
your world returning to that.
(from Collecting Stones, An Anthology of Poems and Stories inspired by Harehope Quarry, Vane Women Press, 2008)