Category Archives: books

First Song / Last Call

Posting a few things here related to our Writing the Climate Dawn Chorus collective sound poem project as the closing date for submission’s creeping up. You have until 2nd August to send in your 30 seconds of poetry, thoughts, dreams and songs for the finished soundscape that will air as part of this year’s Durham Book Festival.

It would be wonderful to hear from as many people as possible – imagining what words you’d want to land at the beginning of a new day or even a new world. Every day we get a chance to start again. What would it feel like if we brought that freshness and creativity to how we’re approaching the climate crisis? Every day realigning ourselves with a vision of a fair sustainable future and renewing our efforts to make it possible, in our individual lives and within our local and global communities.

I hope that our Dawn Chorus will catch a sense of wonder and appreciation and remind us of what’s at stake if we ignore carbon emissions continuing to rise and the all too evident dangers of escalating temperatures across the globe. Last week in the UK the Met Office issued its first ever extreme heat warning. This is a tipping point. so our Dawn Chorus is also an alarm call – a cry for protection and an unshakeable commitment to mitigation. Singing ourselves awake includes the whole spectrum of feelings and responses. Everyone’s voice is welcome – all languages and accents.

You can find details of how to enter here

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An essay of mine that touches on the idea of the Dawn Chorus and poetry more generally is now available online as part of David O’Hanlon-Alexandra’s wonderful NCLA project New Defences of Poetry. Do have a read – the whole site is full of delights and provocations.

Another place for delight is a new book edited by Mike Collier, Bennett Hogg and John Strachan – Songs of Place and Time, Birdsong and the Dawn Chorus in Natural History and the Arts. It’s ‘a celebration of what it is to be alive and share our much more-than-human world with birds in their sheer exuberance of life at the dawn of day’.

This from the introduction:

Most of us accept that the climate emergency threatens the survival of our planet. One of the things we can do to raise awareness of this existential threat is to rekindle our imagination about what we have and what we stand to lose. we have the ability to imagine, and to develop a new narrative; it’s what we’re good at; good at imagining; good at telling stories. It’s our strength as creative people; and this is one way we may also discover our power to act.

The creative people in Songs of Place and Time include artists, writers, poets, academics, sound recordists, musicians and photographers. I’m very happy to be among their company. The assembled chorus of voices sings sweetly and gives rise to a sense of practical hope.

…an onomatopoeia of feathered things

that Emily Dickinson, dressed all in white,

heard as ‘Hope’, vowel and plosive, a gesture,

a giving of lips and throat –

how we learned

to talk after all, by imitating

these birds, borrowing their beauty, bringing

our very selves to light. And so we hear the compass

of our own hearts – tinsel and workshop, too many

messes to count; according to Emily, find ecstasy

in life, the mere sense of living joy enough –

turning it up, turning it up, us all, ratchet and caw.

(from Dawn Chorus, written for Compass, installation with sound artist Chris Watson at Cheeseburn, 2015)

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Bringing Death to Life

It’s Demystifying Death Week in Scotland and Larry Butler and Sheila Templeton, editors of a new anthology in progress Living Our Dying, chose the moment to launch their crowdfunder appeal to make the book happen.

Dying is part of life. How we live our dying is fundamentally important. What do we do when someone we know has died? How do we make our own dying part of our lives? Living Our Dying offers a fuller engagement with death, so that life can be rich; it offers ways to engage with pain, fear, anxiety, and loss of dreams. Dying is part of life. How we live our dying is fundamentally important.

The book’s all ready to be printed – here’s the cover with artwork by Pauline McGee. If this is something you’d be interested in supporting or receiving an early copy, please do visit the kickstarter page here.

I have a few poems in the book about ageing, loss and turning towards dying, all with a botanical theme, including this one:

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When news came of her death

there was a breach in the weather,

east wind’s salt breath.

All the garden’s roses

lost their petals as roses

do when summer does

what summers do without

looking back. Not so the poet –

what else to write about?

Love, death, how we react.

I choose a single rose, black,

inked petals, scentless, intact.

Spring might be here but death is still in the air after such a long difficult winter. I’m pleased to have a piece in the latest Dark Mountain Journal, which in its beautiful shroud wrapped cover (by Graeme Walker) ‘revolves around themes of death, loss and renewal’, with a particular emphasis on grief for the world. The collection is a requiem, a memorial, a cairn of many voices.

You can find out more and order a copy here. My piece called Incunabula is reproduced here.

C.S. Lewis wrote in A Grief Observed:

I thought I could describe a state; make a map of sorrow. Sorrow, however, turns out to be not a state but a process. It needs not a map but a history…There is something new to be chronicled every day. Grief is like a long valley, a winding valley where any bend may reveal a totally new landscape.

The Living Our Dying kickstarter launch ended with a beautiful video of Sandy Hutchinson reading his poem, Everything. Sandy is no longer with us but his poem will stand as a coda to the book. You can watch it here.

And so we go on.

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Winter Market

My longtime collaborator Birtley Aris and I are delighted to have finished work on a new publication Dwelling Place, set at the National Trust site Allen Banks in Northumberland.  It features four poems and pen and ink drawings prompted by work I did for my PhD looking at Susan Davidson, a Victorian descendant of the Bowes Lyon family, who landscaped the grounds of Ridley Hall where she lived after her marriage to John Davidson, extending into the gorge and woodland at Allen Banks after his death in 1842.  As part of her vision, she created the tarn in Moralee Wood, bridges across the river, a network of footpaths and various summerhouses across her estate.  The Cedar Hut above Raven’s Crag on the cover is a modern reconstruction of one of these.

All of the poems in Dwelling Place are sparked by ideas of home and belonging, what we do to create spaces of shelter and sanctuary.  Birtley and I started work on it long before the pandemic but it seems to have accrued new layers of meaning in the light of this past year.

As we can’t launch the pamphlet in real life, we’re offering it here for sale at £8 (£10 including p + p).  Hopefully there’ll be an opportunity to gather together for a reading in Hexham and Newcastle at some point next year.  There are many things I’m missing at the moment but poetry events are among the top of my list.

Taking stock of The Bookshop under the Bed, there are also some copies of other pamphlets and books – some quite old and rare – that I can also send in the post for anyone who’s interested or looking for an unusual Christmas present.  The best thing, if you’d like any of these or Dwelling Place (or want to enquire about any other of my books), would be to email me at linda.france@cooptel.net, send me your postal address and we can sort out how you’d like to pay.

Acts of Love (Echo Room Press, 1990)  

Aerogramme (Talking Pen, 2004) 

Heartwork (Playspace Publications  2012)

Through the Garden Gate (NCLA 2011)

Border Song (Hareshaw Press, 2012)

another wild (Hareshaw Press, 2014)

All of the above are £6 each (+ £2 UK p+p) or any 3 copies for £20 (inclusive of UK p+p). I can look into international postage costs, if necessary.

I have unearthed one remaining copy of Acknowledged Land (Northumberland County Libraries, 1993) – an early collaboration with Birtley Aris, now extremely rare and much sought after – and am happy to consider offers.

I am offering these books as part of the Artist Support Pledge, where if I make £1000 (unlikely I know, but these are unprecedented straitened times…), I pledge to buy another artist’s work for £200.

Stay warm and well.

L

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August

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August is a yellow month – hypericum, mullein, alchemilla, ragwort, oilseed rape.  A small black beetle is inexorably drawn to all that yellow and the promise of protein-rich pollen, hence its generic name ‘pollen beetle’.  August is also the month for an insect less visible to the eye – the berry bug or harvest mite, in the Trombiculidae family, relative of the tick.

Every August the wily, indiscriminate berry bug (that the French call aoûtat after the wily, indiscrimate month) comes to my garden – and me – to feed, enjoying what sweetness I have left.  With its precise and persistent mandibles, the larva punctures my skin, injects a digestive enzyme, chews a hole called a stylostome and leaves raised red itchy spots on my arms, legs, torso, neck.  Without realising what’s in the air, I start scratching and then, it dawns – the hypericum’s in bloom, and I remember it’s that time of year again: August, the difficult month.

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Looking back, the long summer holidays stretched out into an infinity of sunshine and sand and no school – an exciting, dangerous mixture of freedom and boredom.  Where we lived, on the south coast, most of that happened near water, either salt or chlorinated, but sunny days that weren’t beach or pool days would be spent either ‘down the lane’ or ‘over the railway line’.  These were lonelier places and therefore potent with risk, though no one spoke of that; the taboo carrying a terrible weight of darkness.

‘Down the lane’ there was water, a trickling stream and a flat wooden bridge, and sometimes boys, precocious with leer and innuendo.  It was where I learned what an oak tree was, saw my first celandine and picked blackberries, scratched much worse than a hundred berry bug bites.  It was where a girl called Hazel from ‘up the road’ fell out of a tree and got spiked on a piece of metal jutting out of an abandoned van.  The drama – screams, blood, sirens, uniforms – hushed us all for days.

‘Over the railway line’ there were pigs that squealed and grunted and boys on scramble bikes that whined like giant insects.  Hidden by trees, there was a circuit they would ride around in pointless ovals on Sunday afternoons, a ritual of speed and petrol.  This was the place where every December Mum and I would go in search of a Christmas tree.  My mother trying to carry her saw nonchalantly, as if it were a handbag or umbrella.  Again, this was dangerous, forbidden but necessary, some ancient feudal right.  No one else used to have Christmas trees like ours, long-needled straggly pines, sticky with resin, rather than compact, domesticated, garage-bought spruce.  We’d spend a long time choosing ‘the best one’ – the right size (no taller than the ceiling), a good branching shape – and carry it back, Mum at one end, me at the other, like a comedy double act.

We’d also collect cones that my mother would paint white or scatter with glitter to make Christmas decorations, miniature worlds that confounded scale, where a tiny Santa Claus sat on his sleigh in a forest of enormous pinecones and a tall red candle that year after year was never lit.  We’d find holly and cut a carrier bagful to prop sprigs behind pictures or on the mantelpiece in odd little pots that only appeared at Christmas out of one of the big brown cardboard boxes Mum kept on top of her wardrobe.  The holly also scratched and prickled but it was easier to bear then because we were all wrapped up in coats and scarves.

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I grew up thinking that was what ‘Nature’ did to you – cut through your skin, made you itch, sometimes drew blood.  It wasn’t clear to whom it belonged, whether we were entitled to it or not.  It was all somewhere else, prepositional – ‘down’, ‘over’, ‘across’, ‘beyond’.  Entering it meant crossing a threshold into another world, transgressive, full of menace. Our occasional forays to find something we needed, according to the season – brambles or greenery – involved taking something that both was and wasn’t ours.  The house was changed by it, more and less itself.  It made me feel the gnaw of adrenalin, cortisol, that sense of a bigger, unknown world beyond our street, my school, the town.

My mother had a phase of making arrangements out of dried grasses and ornamental seedheads – arid affairs that gathered dust on the radiogram and windowsills.  I’d keep going back to look at them, touch them, puzzled by this bit of outside brought indoors, not knowing if they were dead or alive.

Because we lived in a flat we didn’t have a garden.  There was a small patch of green in front of our block planted with bland shrubs that never flowered, mostly waxy laurels, a single oak tree, with thin grass in between.  My mother was the self-elected custodian of this contingent green space, requiring her to go out with shears and saw at regular intervals to keep everything in check.  The job was really housework outdoors, a stay against chaos and doom, the shame of untidiness.

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A bookish child, I recoiled from anything with a whiff of animals.  The nearest I got to the countryside was Anne of Green Gables, and later Wuthering Heights – an unhealthy bipolar map of the world.  When we read The Wind in the Willows at school, I sulked and tuned out, listening to my own thoughts instead.  What had a talking toad to say to me?  I have great caverns in my imagination full of trapped rabbits and lost otters, caged bears and dark horses.

One reliable zone of fascination however was the wildflower series of Brooke Bond Tea cards.  It was incredibly exciting when my mother opened a new packet and I could slip my fingers between the green paper and the lining to fish out a new card and see what it was.  I learnt everything I know about flags of the world, the history of cars and costume from them.  And wildflowers.  That’s how I knew that the yellow flower that grew down the lane in the spring was lesser celandine, and recognized others from C.F. Tunnicliffe’s blurry paintings:  cowslip, sweet violet, foxglove, ragged robin. 

 Their names were enchanting – the sound of them like snatches of song, a spell, the sort of thing you might call someone you loved.  These flowers might have been printed on small rectangular pieces of card tucked inside packets of tea but I recognized them.  Naturally they became part of me, my story, an almost whispered, immensely seductive invitation to explore one corner of the natural world that didn’t bite and mostly didn’t scratch, that stayed still, didn’t run away and abandon you.  Flowers made no noise.  Among them there was no sense of trouble.  I knew I could go there because I was there already – I was ‘of’ it – a lesson in the genitive case.

Another geometric world I shared with my mother was more arcane – even the name sounded mysterious, like a flower itself.  Philately.  Around the age of ten I became interested in stamps and, with my junior kit (album, hinges, starter set and magnifying glass) bought from Woolworths in the town a bus ride away, I began collecting.  I soon graduated to being a specialist – having ascertained that a proper philatelist concentrated on stamps from one country, or illustrated with a chosen theme.  More for pragmatic reasons than patriotic ones, I decided to collect stamps from what everyone in those Commonwealth days called Great Britain.  I pounced on all the letters that arrived through our letterbox and soaked the stamps off their envelopes in saucers of water; big commemorative ones, a special prize.  As with the tea cards, this is where I extended my education and learned about the world’s currencies and capitals, British bridges, the origins of antiseptics and the Red Cross.  My mother and I would go to stamp fairs and look at thousands and thousands of stamps in an afternoon.  I’d buy a few sets or first day covers to add to my collection and when we got home we’d consult the Stanley Gibbons catalogue, amazed how much each scrap of coloured paper was worth.  Whenever a new set of stamps was issued, my middle sister, who still lived at home, would post me a first day cover.  Although the anniversaries they commemorate have long past, I still have them – Votes for Women (50 years), TUC (100 years), Captain Cook’s First Voyage (200 years); my sister’s rounded capitals in thick blue biro, my name and our address, before postcodes were invented.

Turning the musty yellowing pages of my home-made loose-leaf folder, which I still have, I discover the threepenny Spring Gentian issued in 1964 to mark the Tenth International Botanical Congress in Edinburgh.  There’s a smudge and a space where both the hinge and stamp have been lost above my note recording the ‘1/3d Fringed Water Lily’.  By the time I was nearly nine in April 1967, the price of a second-class stamp had risen to 4d.  There were four different ones in the British Wildflowers series – Hawthorn and Bramble; Larger Bindweed and Viper’s Bugloss; Ox-Eye Daisy, Colstfoot and Buttercup; Bluebell, Red Campion and Wood Anemone – all taken from Keble Martin’s classic Concise British Flora.  The 9d Dog Violet and the 1/9d Primrose were drawn by the distinguished botanical artist Mary Grierson.  Both their names in tiny capitals at the bottom of each stamp; I had no idea who they were, or what many of these flowers looked like in Real Life.  But I was touched in a place that stamps celebrating National Productivity Year or British Technology, or even the First Flight of Concorde, could never reach.

Despite my focus on British stamps, I also had a soft spot for stamps from other countries emblazoned with flowers, intriguing as book covers in a foreign language – lilies from Hungary (Magyar), cacti from Brazil (40 pesetas), waterlilies from Viet Nam, tulips from Afghanistan (‘Queen of Sheba’ and ‘Jewel of Spring’).  When I went to the Grammar School and started to learn it, I began to understand the usefulness of botanical Latin – all those different countries, alphabets and painting styles, using the same way of describing their flowers.

And for all their bright extravagance, it was comforting that they were contained in squares and rectangles.  Sometimes even triangles, from countries I’d never heard of.  The shapes were like flowerbeds, small pieces of garden you could hold in your hand, carry in your pocket or pencil case, put in a special book to look at on rainy days or lonely nights.

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Edna O’Brien called August ‘a wicked month’.  It is a difficult month for us all, I think, but especially for gardeners.  The big story about growth is past, fewer plants are in flower and things are starting to get blousy, set seed.  Hungry caterpillars and insects leave their perforated calling cards in petals, leaves and stalks.  Green is starting to fade and dry.  Karel Capek, in his curious and wonderful book The Gardener’s Year, published in 1929, says ‘a real gardener feels it in his bones that August is already a turning point.’

Those achingly long summer holidays.  Nights still short, showered with meteors, petals falling from the heavens. Postcards landing on the mat, pictures of faraway places and exotic stamps.  Tanned skin freckled with bites.  A big fat book to disappear inside.  My mother’s birthday, Lily – named after a flower – who showed me all she could of Nature, in that strange, tight world, the working-class garden of the 1960s.

 

I wrote this for Durham Book Festival nearly a decade ago when I began the botanical journey that led to my poetry collection ‘Reading the Flowers’, published by Arc in 2016.  To celebrate it being on this year’s new Laurel Prize longlist, initiated by Poet Laureate Simon Armitage and the Poetry School, Arc have a special offer throughout August.  You can buy the hardback for the price of the paperback (the offer also applies to my previous collection ‘You are Her’) via their website.  In these difficult times for small presses (and poets), buying poetry books is a great way to support literature and culture and keep us all thriving.  

Enjoy your August and stay well.

 

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Just to say…

 

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Last week we were supposed to be holding our first Climate Reading Group at the Tyneside Cinema in Newcastle – a prelude to Rebecca Solnit’s visit.  This, like every other cultural gathering, had to be cancelled and, in our shift to connecting online, you can read my brief report of Solnit’s book of essays Whose Story is This?  on New Writing North’s blog.  I hope it persuades you to read the book, if you haven’t already.

We are working to make it possible that our next group – reading Karen Solie’s poetry collection The Caiplie Caves – will take place online via Zoom.

Wishing everyone well.

L

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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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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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Earth, Earth, I cried

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At times I was even sure the garden and I were made of the same substance, sand and earth rubbed my bones, mosses, ferns, violets and strelitzia sprouted from my skin, stretched out my limbs.  In springtime I let the caterpillars stride over me, in rusty soft processions, and when they made moving rings around my spread fingers, my skin had the stiffness of bark.

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In the old days I’d have been scared.  But now I knew it was me the garden.  I was the garden.   I was inside, I was made of priceless diamonds and I had no name.  Earth, Earth, I cried.

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From Hélène Cixous, A Real Garden (1971)       Translated by Beverley Bie Brahic

Images by Francesca Woodman

 

(The Portable Cixous

Edited by Marta Segarra

New York:  Columbia University Press 2010)

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SWEET ANTICIPATION

Untitled-1967-gouash-on-paperBanner.pngSean Scully, Untitled, 1967

Like many of us, I’m looking forward to this year’s Newcastle Poetry Festival, Crossings 2nd – 5th May.  A sweet little taster came in the form of an interview with Sasha Dugdale on the Festival blog.  She will be chairing a session at the Translation-themed Symposium at the Sage (3rdMay) and also give the Royal Literary Fund Lecture on Pushkin at Northern Stage (Saturday 5thMay).  It will be an exciting few days with lots to think about.  Do come along to listen and enjoy – and spread the word to folk who may be interested.

Further excitement in the Translation Dept – the cover of my new Selected Poems from Bulgaria – blue and beautiful.  For those of you whose Bulgarian is a touch rusty, it is called Simultaneous Dress and translated by the wonderful poet Nadya Radulova.  The book is now published but I have yet to hold a copy in my hands.  They are itching.

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When I stayed in Sofia a couple of years ago I wrote several new poems.  This is one of them – seen from the balcony of my apartment on Kyril and Methodii Street.

The Screaming Party

Every evening they come darting across

the skyline     dots and dashes of high-pitched morse.

Who knows what they’re screaming for    static

in their throats     white noise plucked from the day’s havoc

and flung back into blank air.     Hypnotic drifts.

As if auditioning for Hitchcock     these swifts

carry the contraband pressure we must

scatter     before we can capitulate

to the dark tucked inside us     and sleep.     Strident

cries     industrious wings     are hooks to rest

our shadows on     watch them soar     our own fall

mouths agape.     Each burst of piercing calls

silvers a key     to unfasten the doors

to dreams     so     greet    greet     our night visitors.

 

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COMPASS/NO COMPASS

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You’re always more unreal to yourself than other people are.

Marguerite Duras, ‘Practicalities’ (1990)

This is the epigraph to Deborah Levy’s new book, The Cost of Living (Hamish Hamilton 2018), the second instalment of her ‘living autobiography’.  It’s a compelling account of her attempt to create a new life for herself and her daughters outside the strictures of a long (middle-class) marriage.  Her reflections are multivalent – practical (the value of an electric bike), philosophical (re-reading Simone de Beauvoir) and psychological (grief at the loss of her mother around the same time).  The writing is unpredictable, playful and ultra-cool.

Just as when I read Things I Don’t Want to Know (her first memoir/instalment), my breath came in little bursts as I recognised so many things I felt about female experience but hadn’t quite been able to articulate.  This doesn’t happen for me very much these days and I am grateful for it – one of the deep delights of reading, helping clarify thoughts and grow a little.  It felt like one of those books that keep you pointing in the right direction, not not-saying.

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I’m very lucky to have been chosen as one of the Featured Poets in Issue Six of The Compass Magazine.  It is a fine online space for poetry, sensitively edited by Lindsey Holland and Andrew Forster.  There are two fascinating interviews – with Sinéad Morrissey and Pascale Petit – as well as lots of exciting new work by a wide selection of poets.

I had the chance to include poems here that were written since my last collection was published (two years ago) and before I embarked on my new PhD project.  With hindsight I can see it is the place I sprang off from (somewhere along the Whin Sill).  A sequence called ‘Soil’ looks at the small patch of Northumberland where I live through the battles it’s become known for and shaped by.  The more time I spend looking at the past, the more things seem to have stayed the same.  Military intervention, power struggles, righteousness, xenophobia – these offer no sort of compass.

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Two shorter poems, Her Voice and Tattoo, look at the whole business of trying to speak the truth, finding the right words and knowing what’s worth writing about.  There’s another page (‘Poetics’) where I attempt to review my position as a writer.  I could write a different piece on this subject every week – it turns with the world and the light.  It seems to be changing apace as the PhD process rolls on – doing strange things to one’s sense of ‘audience’ – mostly walking in the dark.

But the last words here are Deborah Levy’s last words:

When a woman has to find a new way of living and breaks from the societal story that has erased her name, she is expected to be viciously self-hating, crazed with suffering, tearful with remorse.  These are jewels reserved for her in the patriarchy’s crown, always there for the taking.  There are plenty of tears, but it is better to walk through the black and bluish darkness than reach for those worthless jewels.

The writing you are reading now is made from the cost of living and it is made with digital ink.

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