Goethe’s last words
Every year the Institute of Advanced Study here in Durham adopts a theme to provide a focus for the interdisciplinary conversation and this year’s is Light so the Lumière Festival was a wonderful reflection of the various subjects we have been discussing in the past few months, connecting the history, science, philosophy, paleobiology and politics of light. My contribution is an angle on the poetry of light, via my current work on plants, gardens and ecology. I have a sense that making a poem is, like the germination of a seed, an act that takes place in the dark, leaves and language reaching for the space to open into that light makes possible.
Johnson: Why, sir, it is much easier to say what it is not. We all know what light is; but it is not easy to tell what it is.
From Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson
When a friend sent me a link to an online word frequency counter, I discovered that light was the fourth most frequent noun in my new collection-in-progress (after garden, home and tree). Other frequent nouns, in descending order, are flower, flowers, earth, love, leaves, heart, dark and world.
Light plays itself out in various layers of my recent investigations. The simple fact of it is reflected in the difference between the Northern and Southern hemispheres and suggested my itinerary – from North East England to Sydney, visiting Singapore en route. I wanted to experience summer in winter, an up-ending associated in my mind with the disorientation of so-called certainties in relation to place, climate and culture. Always drawn to examining the nature of polarities – north/south, city/country, male/female, home/away, self/other, static/dynamic – I was keen to explore the possibility of writing from that queasy spot experienced as insecurity, tension, paradox, groundlessness. It’s definitely been a case of Be careful what you wish for as I have indeed found myself occupying this open zone and – surprise, surprise– it is not entirely comfortable. Maybe that is the concentrated point of risk and inquiry (a certain degree of darkness) that poetry arises from. I’ve appreciated the support of this small tribe I’ve become part of in Durham while I continue my navigations.
pure space before us, such as that which flowers
endlessly open into.
From Rilke’s 8th Duino Elegy
Light occurs implicitly in these new poems, acknowledging the biological process of photosynthesis, without which we would literally have no air to breathe. No plants, no life on earth: something most people take utterly for granted, instead of remembering to celebrate the joy of interdependence and exchange. There is great intimacy and compassion in this deep sense of ecology, which has the potential to change the way people choose to live.
Joy and wonder are inevitable consequences of an awareness and appreciation of the natural world. Sometimes I think I am just ‘singing the flowers’, like an Ethiopian herdsman sings the praises of his cattle, one by one, his greatest wealth. This year I have been fortunate enough to have seen so many wonders, such delightful and astonishing plants and trees, how can I not bring back traveller’s tales, share the fruits of my explorations?
On this journey of discovery, light has given me access to the unknown, otherness. Through the light of awareness, I have begun to penetrate the historical (and contemporary) darknesses of exploitation, prejudice, exoticisation, colonialism and capitalism. Close observation, reflection and articulation shed light on these areas that thrive in shade and silence. Light contains within it its opposite – and so my work also inevitably touches upon grief and melancholy; within the cycle of life, there is death, loss.
Human beings have always harnessed the healing, regenerative properties of light. In relation to plants, this medicine is both literal and metaphorical. It also pertains to the transitional – the time of necessary change in which we find ourselves where we are being encouraged to consume more and more of less and less to redress the balance of decades of over-consumption. The gesture is one of letting go, shedding – particularly relevant perhaps for those of us getting older and needing to move more in tune with the time, the season of our lives, as well as the time of the increasingly burdened planet.
Imagine a walled garden, the hortus conclusus, as a vessel of light. It is the body of the Virgin Mary, a mythic Eden or Paradise (honouring birth and death), the blessings of light held safe within its boundaries. I have opened a door in this garden, letting the light spill out, making a track to follow and see by, illuminating the ground to be covered and creating a sense of path or journey. I was amused to learn that the ‘random meander’ strategy I instinctively evolved (of having no fixed goal or destination and responding to whatever I encountered along the way) is an accepted ‘scientific’ research method.
Light has been part of my methods in other ways relating more directly to poetic technique. I see it in my consideration of the white space around the individual poems, allowing the form to mirror the diversity of plant physiology I find so fascinating. Achieving this degree of ‘engineering’ requires clarity of mind, incisiveness and discriminating awareness (what to cut? where? how to create an authentic texture of light and presence, absence and shadow?). A poem also needs a lightness of touch in the voice and address to persuade the reader it is worth reading or listening to at all. I am keen that these new poems with their ecological concerns should never be worthy, in danger of putting a reader off rather than making a connection with (and for) her. Doesn’t every poet want to be able to direct their own light, illuminating their ‘subject’ for a reader, and so leave her changed by it?
I am pursuing a line of investigation around the Nine Muses as sources of inspiration – Art, Science and Culture, and their mother, Memory (and ‘stepmothers’, Earth and Harmony). Ralph Waldo Emerson claimed that the first muse was Health and there seems no reason to contradict him.
These final thoughts have led me to start thinking of my collection-in-progress as something growing, a healthy, vibrant, though unfinished, garden, with the working title Heliconia. This is a reference to one of my favourite plants I first ‘met’ at Moorbank and followed across the globe, beyond the limits of glass, to Singapore and then Sydney (you can see an example of one variety in the banner at the top of this blog), as well as pointing to that mountain in Boeotia, traditionally home of the Muses, surely a source of all manner of light.
What is to give light must endure burning.