Midsummer

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As part of Bywell Arts Festival, a group of us gathered in St Andrew’s Churchyard on Saturday evening (22nd June) to make a Midsummer Renga.  A Churches Conservation Trust Church, it was the perfect setting for some quiet contemplation and gentle celebration of the solstice’s turning.  Bywell is named from the Old English meaning ‘a spring at the bend’ and that gave us our opening verse, the hokku.  Small fairy midges were dancing but our citronella spells seemed to keep them at bay.

Strawberry Moon

 

At a turn in the river

a well to drink from –

midsummer

 

bruised clouds

heavy air, citronella

 

within the curved wall

trace of old field boundary

hawthorn succeeded by fern

 

birds speakwu-weet wu-weet

a blackbird watches

 

women buried here

share names with the living –

Isabella, Julia, Eleanor

 

burning candle

and grass-tinted air

 

first one then another

a brief silence

then from all sides a chorus

 

flares of red on the honey stones

tell of raiders, fire and rust

 

hands drift across

the tickle and prick of grass

earth-warm, soil-soft

 

late, bee foraging

in almost nectarless rose

 

she’ll be along in a while

if the rumours are true –

strawberry moon

 

waiting for poetry

surprising, slow.

 

 

A Midsummer Renga

in St Andrew’s Churchyard, Bywell,

Northumberland,

22ndJune, 2019.

 

 

Participants:

Birtley Aris

Jo Aris

Keren Banning

Holly Clay

Alexandra Corrin-Tachibana

Linda France

Lilly Fylypczuk

Liz Kirsopp

Martin Kirsopp

Alex Reed

Eileen Ridley

Christine Taylor

Clara May Warden

 

 

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How do you write about Climate Change?

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The only way I can begin to think about the question of how to write about Climate Change is to do it – start writing and see if I can spin a thread for myself, and maybe others, to follow.  This will be the first in what I hope will be a series of posts to track my spinning.

In September I submitted my Creative Practice-based PhD – Women on the Edge of Landscape – investigating place and ecology, poetry and biography.  I’ve written a collection of poems called ‘The Knucklebone Floor’, set at Allen Banks in Northumberland, imagining the 19th century widow who intervened in the landscape there – Susan Davidson (1796-1877) – as well as other women who have lived, worked and walked there before and since.  I tried to find a voice for them all, acknowledging points of difference while testing the possibility of commonality, a collective vision of an authentic good, dwelling alongside the constantly changing beyond-human.

I called my critical reflective essay ‘Flower Album’ because I wanted it to be a place where I could assemble my ideas, process and reading, using another Victorian woman, Margaret Rebecca Dickinson’s (1821-1918) beautiful watercolours of native wild flowers as touchstones.  These two very different northern women held a love of, and intimacy with, the natural world in common.

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After over three years of looking at the macro-perspective of this particular landscape and the micro-view of the plantlife that grows there – all at a time of increasing urgency about Global Warming and Mass Extinction – I felt my own sense of intimacy with the land at Allen Banks deepen and grow.  I became one of its creatures as much as the dormice, dippers and dragonflies who’ve made their homes in the woods and along the river.  My essay’s ‘conclusion’ culminated in a call for tenderness, a conscious love for the earth that stands in the way of any harm being done to it, just as you would protect your own (or anyone else’s) children.  Not on my watch.

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If ‘Climate Change’ is portrayed as our enemy, if the phrase ‘Climate Emergency’ is intended to summon up associations of wartime solidarity, I am concerned that the dynamic evoked, the story conveyed, is an unhelpful one, leaning more into conflict than healing.  Such attitudes tend to demonise Climate Change as just another ‘other’, to be hated and eradicated.  When will we learn there is no such place as ‘away’?

If we know ourselves to be truly part of nature, inextricable from it, inside and out, isn’t it more fruitful to examine the part of ourselves that needs to affirm the polarity of Self and Other?  What if we tried to come to terms with that part of ourselves that has contributed to Climate Change, allowed it to happen without doing anything to prevent it or radically alter the political structures that perpetuate our current crisis?  Surely Climate Change is less the cause of our current crisis than the effect of what Naomi Klein calls ‘the deep stories about the right of certain people to dominate land and the people living closest to it, stories that underpin western culture’.  I admire the way she has ‘investigated the kinds of responses that might succeed in toppling those narratives, ideologies and economic interests, responses that weave seemingly disparate crises (economic, social, ecological and democratic) into a common story of civilisational transformation.’

It’s important to be pragmatic and vote for the party you can trust to take action to protect the environment, but in the longer term, the system itself needs to change to ensure greater equity and justice – not just in this country but on a global level.  How to achieve that is another question we will be struggling with in the years ahead.

Tenderness is not really a word that comes to mind listening to the politicians making the case for their party’s extravagant promises.  But reading Mary Robinson’s Climate Justice: Hope, Resilience, and the Fight for a Sustainable Future is maybe the nearest I’ve got to it.  Telling stories of women around the world directly affected by Climate Change, she makes politics personal.  She remembers one woman in drought-stricken Honduras saying to her: ‘We have no water.  How do you live without water?’  Worrying about flying and driving and our various western consumer dilemmas, we really have no idea.  These women trying to look after their children in the face of unimaginable deprivation and disruption are, as Robinson says, ‘the least responsible for the pollution warming our planet, yet are the most affected.  They are often overlooked in the abstract, jargon-filled policy discussions about how to address the problem […] the fight against climate change is fundamentally about human rights and securing justice for those suffering from its impact – vulnerable countries and communities that are the least culpable for the problem.’

On the day that Mary Robinson became the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in 1997, Seamus Heaney wrote to her saying: ‘Take hold of it boldly and duly.’  That is what she is doing on the subject of climate and its impact on human rights.  What would it look like if contemporary writers took hold of our current task ‘boldly and duly’?  How would Seamus Heaney write about Climate Change?  In what form would he express his grief for everything we have already lost?  What are the words we might start hearing in unexpected places that could help us adapt and thrive?

Isn’t it the writer’s job to write so that people want to read or listen, so that what they’ve read or heard stays with them, strengthening their relationship with themselves, the world and each other?  How do you write about Climate Change so that people want to keep on reading, not flick past in search of something more entertaining or distracting?  For me, Voice usually matters more than Story – a form of words shared in passing that gives a sense of the writer’s pulse, the thrum of their beating heart, the intimacy with their conspirators I saw in the work of Susan Davidson and Margaret Rebecca Dickinson and have tried to translate into my own words.

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Still inclined to spend some time in the 19th century, I’m currently listening to Samuel West’s reading of Thomas Hardy’s The Woodlanders and although the story is beguiling, fateful and compelling, it’s the atmosphere I love best, the sense of place, particularly as it’s evoked by Hardy’s own intimacy with those trees growing in Little Hintock, characterised almost as vividly as Giles Winterborne, Grace Melbury and Marty Short.  If we knew trees in their natural habitat as well as this, perhaps we’d care for them better.

            Although the time of bare boughs had now set in, there were sheltered hollows amid      the Hintock plantations and copses in which a more tardy leave-taking than on windy          summits was the rule with the foliage. This caused here and there an apparent mixture of the seasons; so that in some of the dells that they passed by holly-berries in full red were found growing beside oak and hazel whose leaves were as yet not far removed from green, and brambles whose verdure was rich and deep as in the month of August. To Grace these well-known peculiarities were as an old painting restored.

            Now could be beheld that change from the handsome to the curious which the     features of a wood undergo at the ingress of the winter months. Angles were taking the place of curves, and reticulations of surfaces – a change constituting a sudden lapse from the ornate to the primitive on Nature’s canvas…

We can only write from a sense of who we are, the wild landscape of our hearts and minds.  The writing process depends upon our own unruly growth, the ways we choose to cultivate and nourish our imaginations and fill our days.  Seamus Heaney said that too – that it’s what we do when we’re not writing that matters.  Spending time with trees, observing their changes through the seasons, planting and protecting them – this too is the writer’s task and will send roots down into the thirsty soil of our collective imagination.

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Naomi Klein has been encouraging people to read Richard Powers’s The Overstory.  I’m late to the party but it’s next on my reading list.  She says:

            It’s been incredibly important to me and I’m happy that so many people have  written to me since. What Powers is writing about trees: that trees live in communities and are in communication, and plan and react together, and we’ve been completely wrong in the way we conceptualise them. It’s the same conversation we’re having about whether we are going to solve this as individuals or whether we are going to save the collective organism. It’s also rare, in good fiction, to valorise activism, to treat it with real respect, failures and all, to acknowledge the heroism of the people who put their bodies on the line. I thought Powers did that in a really extraordinary way.

This weekend the Woodland Trust’s Big Climate Fightback aims to encourage a million people in the UK to pledge to plant a native tree.  They have a target to plant a tree for every person in the UK by 2025.  We have a small oak seedling from a friend’s garden we’ll be adding to the recent replanting of the woodland behind our house. While you’re considering how a writer might write about Climate Change, what you need to read about it or who you’re going to vote for, you can pledge to plant a tree or support the Woodland Trust here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Autumn Colour

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Caramel

 

It takes the louche cool

of late summer on the heel

of a long-drawn-out

drought to bring out the best

in a leaf

before it sets free its ghost.

 

When desire isn’t all

that matters, then fall

is the deciduous rise

to the surface

of carotene, anthocyanin

or xanthophyll,

 

silenced till now by the clamour

of chlorophyll.  And even this

sweetness must be lost –

a red lament of abandon,

defiance,

indeed, utterly natural.

 

 

 

From Reading the Flowers (Arc, 2016)

 

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Writing Lichen

There are still a few places left on my Writing Workshop – out in the field and at the Sill – next Saturday 10th August – looking at lichen.  Bring botanical lenses and magnifying glasses!  And cross fingers for fine weather.

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Iain’s photographs are stunning.  They beautifully capture these strange life forms that do so well in Northumberland – a testament to our clean air and fresh elements.  We’ll be moving between the real thing and samples of his images to write our own poems and short pieces in appreciation of lichen.  Even the word itself is mysterious and exciting – whichever way you say it – lichen!

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Roma

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I started reading Muriel Spark’s The Public Image (1968, shortlisted for the Booker Prize), set in Rome, on the flight over.  She mentions that Time tends to go anti-clockwise there.  I was interested to see how that played out during my fortnight’s stay at the Accademia Brittanica, The British School at Rome.

 

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A fortnight is too short and too long for a writer – enough time to relax and be complacent, whilst staying open, searching for what stirs you; and not enough time, once you’ve found your hook, to stay there and excavate, experiment, understand and deepen.

 

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All the city’s clocks were full moons, electrical storms, a partial eclipse.  Rome – Eternal City, Dead City – is bigger than you are.  You might as well submit.  I went to see a friend read from a book he’d written about the moon.  He wasn’t there – just a ring of people talking about it.  In Italian.

 

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‘Go thou to Rome,’ said Shelley, ‘the paradise, the city, the wilderness.’  For me, lingering in gardens, it was more paradise than wilderness.  Although the often 30 degree heat felt like a small lick of inferno.

 

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Inevitably in the heat, I was drawn to the city’s many fountains – particularly the forty in the Villa Borghese Gardens – one per two hectares.  And there was a memorable outing to Villa d’Este in Tivoli, where the fountain is god and goddess and my mouth stayed wide open all day long.  A big O, clock, water spout, moon.

 

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Now I’m home, I’m not sure what day it is.  Whatever direction Time is going in, I will pluck the day and eat it.  Carpe Diem.  A hundred thousand fridge magnets can’t be ignored.

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Jordan in the Air

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I very much enjoyed being taken back to Jordan this week via Durham Book Festival’s podcast from our event last October.  You can listen to Fadia Faquir, Mofleh Al Adwan and myself in conversation about the Alta’ir Exchange, first impressions and the seeds of new work, here.

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The photos are from Umm Quais, the ancient site of Biblical Gadara, in the North of Jordan, looking across to Lake Tiberia and the Golan Heights – and the Sea Squill in bloom, with foraging beetle.

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From Dust

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Last night I attended the Opening of Susan William’s Exhibition ‘From Dust’ in the Constantine Gallery at Teeside University, Middlesbrough.  In February, Sue asked if she could commission me to write a poem to accompany her suite of ceramic sculptures as she was reluctant to ‘put any words in front of the work’.  We’d both seen an escalation in the emphasis on critical theory in the creative arts in recent years and, in our respective practices, prefer a more embodied, intuitive approach.  Apart from thoughts along these lines and a brief discussion of the word imago and the metamorphic cycle, we didn’t talk about her work directly, keen that any writing that might come out of the process wouldn’t be illustrative or attempt to ‘explain’ the sculptures, but rather set up a new dynamic between three-dimensional form and text.  In this way, it felt more than a commission but not quite a collaboration, existing itself in some liminal space between the two.  I very much appreciate her making the space to invite a wild card element into this presentation of her work and for trusting my response.  There is the sense that it’s taken us both somewhere new, beyond the limitations of self-generated and -focussed activity into a multi-layered exchange.

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Cradle

Let’s start here: at the end,

when you lay me to rest,

according to my wishes,

 

in the mother’s milk

of snowdrop flowers

– this hollow between seasons –

 

punctuated with

slow, green hyphens.

In a final negotiation

 

of wet and dry, I’ll pierce

the snow with my bones.

Won’t there be hope in my going?

 

For hope’s own sake.

For the snowdrops.

May their petal blades

 

helicopter my ashes

gusts of that first breath

         a sudden cry – my name

 

in blue air, stir the silt

of what we must learn

about earth, this clay

 

we’re born from,

about how to love it.

Even as we burn.

 

                                                                                 February 2019

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If you’re down that way, do call by to see the show.  Sue’s work is both strong and delicate, quiet but powerful, and deserves a large appreciative audience.

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Why Flowers?

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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.

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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.’[1]  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.[2]

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.[3]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

[1]Adrienne Rich, When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision (College English, Vol. 34, No. 1, ‘Women, Writing and Teaching’ (Oct., 1972), pp. 18-30.

[2]Georgia O’Keeffe,‘About Myself’, in Georgia O’KeeffeExhibition of Oils and Pastels, exhibition brochure (New York: An American Place, 1939).

[3]Linda France, Reading the Flowers (Todmorden: Arc Publications, 2016).

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In The Fruitful Dark

 

Blessings on the winter.  

May all beings be safe and well.

 

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*
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.

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