Category Archives: nature

Poetry & Ecology

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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

 

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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.

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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…

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Knowing Our Place

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I had no idea that the Barbican had a Conservatory  – or a Library until a few weeks ago when I found myself there, reading at a launch of Issue 18 of Long Poem Magazine.  It was a friendly affair, surprising and happily sprawling like the unsung long poems and sequences the magazine does a wonderful job in drawing attention to.  We were tucked away in the Music Section, a niche of hidden delights.

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I particularly enjoyed hearing Katharine Pierpoint read her poem Camelopard, trying (and succeeding) to catch the giraffeness of the giraffe and Anna Reckin’s graceful evocation of various emanations of Jade.  Also Alex Bell’s epistolary Dearest, lurking in the shadows of Victoriana, as did my own contribution – A Hundred Ways to Know Our Place.

When I was younger and a touch adrift I often read self-help books to check my bearings.  Most of them have migrated from my shelves now (apart from a few classics like Dorothy Rowe on depression and Buddhist angles on anxiety) but I was interested to trace a clear line of connection between those and the beginnings of the genre in the 19th century.

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A Hundred Ways to Know Our Place is part of new work I’m writing for my PhD, an overture to a book-length piece.  If you’re interested in reading it and other longer poems and sequences, I’d point you in the direction of Long Poem Magazine, edited with passion and insight by Linda Black and Rose Hamilton.

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Etiquette books also fascinate me.  It’s hard not to be braced by their arbitrary sharpness, like eating a particularly arcane olive.  Possibly after a long soak in a dirty martini.  Some Russian visitors I had once called that sort of snifter a ‘walking stick’, to be taken before leaving the house for any reason.  And in the right quantity (although this is hard to gauge) it can rinse the senses wonderfully.  Isn’t that what we want reading a poem to feel like?  To ‘take reality by surprise’, in Francoise Sagan’s phrase.

And so back to music (always)…My senses didn’t know what had hit them watching and listening to Ukrainian ensemble Dhaka Brakha perform at the Sage last week.   And it was a performance, highly choreographed and styled with stunning costumes riffing on traditional styles, as did the music that playfully transforms folk songs from their beleaguered motherland into something almost miraculous.  I was transported, utterly enchanted, and continue to be so listening to their latest CD the road.  Dhaka Brakha ‘know their place’ and invite us to spend some time there.  Foolish to refuse.

Down in London, I can sometimes feel like a bit of a country cousin.  Walking from the Tube station to the Barbican, I was very excited to see a plant breaking up the clean lines of the long tunnel of the Bridgewater Highwalk.  It wasn’t going to be told where it could grow and where it couldn’t, what freedom means.

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Knowing our place is no easy matter – fierce, transgressive, and extremely quiet, it must take the risk of being there, doing it for ourselves.

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Installing ‘Compass’

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Despite the rain, it was good to be up at Cheeseburn today helping install our sound piece, ‘Compass’.  Hearing it for the first time in the place it was created in and for was immensely satisfying.  The Formal Garden (above) is where the Dawn Chorus happens (and where we heard it in the Spring), coming from four concealed speakers arranged around the central space.  Hard to tell what’s ‘real’ and what’s not.

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Outside the Potting Shed, an ancient sundial of unknown provenance (possibly Scottish?) was an early inspiration for the 4 x 4 concept of the piece.

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Inside the Potting Shed are some of Paul Scott’s beautiful ceramic ‘cuttings’ in old Cheeseburn pots.  For sale over the weekend.  I’m very very tempted…

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Over a year’s work for three days – like a plant that only blooms once in its lifetime or an exotic insect’s short span on the wing – even more precious for being ephemeral – like the sounds themselves.

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Magic Mountain 

Today we had a tour of Vitosha Nature Park by the Director and an expert botanist called Toni.  A massive pick-up truck transported us 2000 metres up within sight of the Black Peak.


The plants (and the views) were wonderful- rare species endemic to Bulgaria I’d never seen before, flowers I’d only ever seen grown as garden  varieties and some familiar from our hedgerows.

1489 plants have been recorded at Vitosha – about half of the native Bulgarian flora and one third more than the whole of the U.K. flora.

Ten occur only in Bulgaria; many more are Balkan endemics.  59 of these mountain plants are in the country’s endangered Red Book.

Even at the highest point it was still hot but up there, the land was boggy, disguising the ever-diminishing reserves of peat. Small blue butterflies and big orange ones, bees and crickets were busy feeding on the nectar.  We saw a couple of incredibly graceful kestrel practically floating in the enormous blue sky.


I have problems with scale in places like this, ricocheting between a focus on the miniature and expanding to fill the space, paradoxically leaving no room for familiar thought processes.

  It’s not a problem untilI try to articulate my experience and find it impossible – words inadequate, the wrong medium.  Birdsong might do it or some Scandinavian yoiking.  All I know is when we came down my ears were full up and the city appeared too soon, also full, intoxicated with its own cacophony.

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What Is Is?

Lately I have been enjoying dipping into Michael Donaghy’s delightful anthology 101 Poems about Childhood (Faber, 2005).  His brief introduction is full of insight and provocation.

In one sense, all poetry is kids’ stuff.  What makes us recognise a piece of writing as a poem is often a ‘technique’ whereby poets imitate children’s thinking.

…Perhaps poetry is our way of using the power of language against itself so that, however briefly, we see and feel the world afresh, with all the intensity of infancy.

…we expect wisdom from poets, as we expect it from philosophers and cosmologists.  In fact, we expect them all to pose the very same questions children ask:  What is is?  Why is there anything?  And why doesn’t it all happen at once?  Like children’s art, children’s speculative thought shows a resourcefulness and curiosity missing from most adults.

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The anthology is arranged chronologically and I felt the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end reading Alexander der Wilde’s poem from the 13th century When We Were Children.  In David Ferry’s elegant translation, it is beguilingly fresh.  I am fascinated by what people remember of the natural world from childhood, how those memories lay down a blueprint for our relationship with the earth and what grows and lives on it (including ourselves and others).  There is often an aura of innocence, nostalgia, paradise lost.  This poem, nearly eight centuries old, captures the sorrow of our fall into adulthood, its default, though illusory, certainty; all of us ‘left standing in the field’, ‘stripped naked’.  A better fate perhaps than being shut inside the castle with the king?  At least outside we have the chance to learn how to enjoy the art of toiling and spinning, asking and living our questions.

When We Were Children

I remember how, at that time, in this meadow,

We used to run up and down, playing our games,

Tag and games of that sort; and looked for wild flowers,

Violets and such. A long time ago.

Now there are only these cows, bothered by flies,

Only these cows, wandering about in the meadow.

I remember us sitting down in the field of flowers,

Surrounded by flowers, and playing she loves me not,

She loves me; plucking the flower petals.

My memory of childhood is full of those flowers,

Bright with the colors of garlands we wore in our dancing

And playing. So time went by among the wildflowers.

Look over there near those trees at the edge of the woods.

Right over there is where we used to find

Blueberry bushes, blackberry bushes, wild strawberries.

We had to climb over rocks and old walls to get them.

One day a man called out to us: ‘Children, go home.’

He had been watching from somewhere in the woods.

We used to feast on the berries we found in that place

Till our hands and mouths were stained with the colors of all

The berries, the blackberries, strawberries, and the blueberries.

It was all fun to us, in the days of our childhood.

One day a man called out, in a doleful voice:

‘Go home, children, go home, there are snakes in that place.’

One day one of the children went into the grass

That grows high near the woods, among the bushes.

We heard him scream and cry out. He came back weeping.

‘Our little horse is lying down and bleeding.

Our pony is lying down. Our pony is dying.

I saw a snake go crawling off in the grass.’

Children, go home, before it gets too dark.

If you don’t go home before the light has gone,

If you don’t get home before the night has come,

Listen to me, you will be lost in the dark,

Listen to me, your joy will turn into sorrow.

Children, go home, before it gets to be dark.

There were five virgins lingered in the field.

The king went in with his bride and shut the doors.

The palace doors were shut against the virgins.

The virgins wept left standing in the field.

The servants came and stripped the virgins naked.

The virgins wept, stripped naked, in the field.

 

Alexander Der Wilde

Translated from the German by David Ferry

(from Dwelling Places, University of Chicago Press, 1993)

N.B. The poem is divided into six-line stanzas but the formatting has eluded me here.

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