Paul Nash, Flight of the Magnolia, 1944
New Year’s Day—
everything is in blossom!
I feel about average.
Paul Nash, Flight of the Magnolia, 1944
New Year’s Day—
everything is in blossom!
I feel about average.
Christmas Cactus, 1979
Oil on board, 46 x 56 cm
The world is white, deep snow, the sky is deep blue, the mountain Old Man Tindale is blinking sleepy eyes of silver blue white, and I would like to be a squirrel and sleep until my flowers come out from deep under the snow.
Letter to Ben Nicholson, Bankshead, late 1970s
Back in 1995 when I fell off a horse called Pandora and broke my back, I spent a long time in hospital and then recovering at home. Julia Darling, no stranger to illness and hospitals herself, wrote me a poem about the art of convalescence, later illustrated by Birtley Aris. It’s one of my favourite mementoes of our long friendship.
Poetry is one of the best medicines – for all manner of predicaments – especially when all else fails. Ten years after Julia’s death, there are currently lots of opportunities to celebrate her life and remember her fantastic energy and unique contribution to writing in the North East, and beyond.
On Friday evening (29th May), there will be a reading at the Great North Museum to commemorate The Poetry Cure, an anthology of health-related poems Julia edited with Cynthia Fuller. The wonderful image on the cover is a painting by one of Julia’s collaborators, Emma Holliday. Some new poems have been commissioned in the spirit of that book and a selection of Julia’s own work will also be read. The event’s sold out but it’s being live streamed (6 – 8pm BST). You can find the link here.
Various other exciting events are taking place and updates are available at a beautiful new website, designed specially for the occasion.
Visiting the Laura Knight exhibition at the Laing, I was struck once again with artist-envy: the direct presentation of ‘the world of things’ so much more possible for the painter than the poet. Her portraits are striking and strong, but also suggest a wistfulness, the sense of more happening below the surface, something essentially human that we all share.
The show includes drawings, preparatory sketches for the larger paintings – a reminder that such persuasive images don’t just appear by magic. Like a poem that goes through many drafts before it finds its final form, to appear effortless a portrait might need hours, days of behind-the-scenes work. Laura Knight’s painting of the munitions worker Ruby Loftus Screwing a Breech Ring took three weeks’ careful research on the factory floor.
People as a rule, most of us, we glance, we don’t see, don’t look. And I think it is the artist, who is a true artist, who looks to see and understand the marvel of the universe.
Dame Laura Knight
The fact is, as soon as you start with words, you’re locked into a debate, forced to take a position with respect to others, confirming or rebutting what has been said before. Nothing you say stands alone or is complete in the present: it has its roots in the past and pushes feelers into the future. And as we grow heated, marking out our corner, staking our claim, we stop noticing the breath on the lips, the tension in our fingers, the pressure of the ground under our toes, the tick of time in the blood.
From Teach Us To Stand Still by Tim Parks (Vintage 2011)
To help heal the persistent rift between idea and reality, mind and body, I enjoy reading (and writing) poems that don’t let us forget the physical. Isn’t it only by keeping our feet firmly on the ground that we are able to soar? Last week I heard this poem read at a funeral. It had helped the friend reading it’s mother to die. It’s still in the air, helping those of us left behind to live, and remember what our bodies are made of.
What the Body Says
I was born here, and
I belong here, and
I will never leave.
The blue heron’s
gray smoke will flow over me for years
and the wind will decide all directions
until I am safely and entirely something else.
I am thinking this, this winter morning
I wonder about the mystery
that is surely up there in starry space
and how some part of me will go there at last.
But I am talking now
of the way the body speaks,
and the wind, that keeps saying,
a little while and then this body
will be stone;
then it will be water;
then it will be air.
Another stimulating and nourishing day last week for a small group of us at Moorbank, writing and painting…Knowing that a meeting to decide the garden’s fate was going on at the same time was hard to ignore and crept into my own early draft. I was also influenced by recent newspaper reports of further species extinctions. Already a very special place, the thought that it might not continue in its present form after November made the garden feel even more precious.
After the Petition
The day of the meeting no sun shone
in the sky, no one could find anyone else,
everything running behind time.
A handful of gardeners carried on
regardless, weeding and planting, corralling
a home for the family of hedgehogs.
We all had one foot in the garden,
the other elsewhere, still unimaginable.
This naturally involved some wobble.
News had already reached us the conifers
would be the first to go, eaten away,
if not by feral goats, by diseases
with names that sounded as if they longed
to be trees themselves; or just felled and split,
casualty of another meeting,
the city trickling ever wider, milk spilt
from a plastic container. Top of the list
was the Atlas Cedar, touchstone
and compass, old friend. We were in danger
of being locked out of the garden, looking
the other way, forgetting what we used
to call life without offending the god
of irony; distracted by square plots
cultivated inside our houses
we learned never to be without, tucking
them in our pockets, close to our hearts,
where they pulsed on our behalf. In the end
the meeting left many things undecided,
except the date of the next meeting.
Birtley Aris and his Croton, painted in the Tropical House.
There will be a NGS Open Day at Moorbank next week on Sunday 21st July, 2 – 5pm. I would encourage those of you who live in the North East to go along and make the most of this sanctuary almost hidden in the heart of the city. It’s looking beautiful and summery just now.
A weekend in London and a visit to the wonderful Garden Museum…
Tucked away next to Lambeth Palace, the Museum is housed in a converted church. The 16th century plant hunters, gardeners and collectors, John Tradescant the Elder (c.1570-1638) and Younger (1608-1662), are buried in an ornate tomb in the garden. Apparently they used to have a small botanical museum in the area, which they called the Ark.
At this time of year everywhere’s rather bare and back to the bone, but I look forward to returning to see it during the summer. The knot garden and its surrounds are planted with species introduced by the Tradescants – such as the scarlet runner bean, red maple and tulip tree – and many others grown by them in their Lambeth garden.
A great way to spend a winter Saturday, looking at old spades and hoes, mowers and watering cans! Lots of quaint adverts reflecting changes in horticultural fashions.
As well as the permanent collection, there was also an exhibition of art inspired by gardens over the centuries. I found a lovely book in the shop recording Charlotte Verity’s year as Artist in Residence – beautiful, delicate paintings and drawings.
I envied her the chance to observe the changing seasons in such a small but resonant space – time to go deep into it and let it go deep inside her. I felt something like that during my time at Moorbank. Looking more widely now at a range of different gardens, I am missing that sense of a clear boundary. Poetry for me works best in sharp focus, in miniature. The absences associated with winter also make for a certain spareness just now. Perhaps the turn of the Solstice will shift things…
Reblogging Rebecca’s piece about the garden in Arizona touched upon an area I’ve been roaming around ever since I began to write about plants: the difference between reading-based research and first-hand experience, between representation and phenomenon, and how that’s reflected in my writing. I’m trying as much as possible to spend time really looking at the plants and gardens I’m writing about, making notes in the field in the same way an artist makes sketches, catches a sense of the moment. It encourages me to stay still and really get to know a plant or a tree and for that understanding to be based on the actual truth of the plant’s morphology, condition and habitat, rather than simply being an excuse to indulge my fantasies. There is freedom and delight in this deep appreciation of what appears to be other – harmony between the seer and the seen.
The artist is a beholder. The artist carves with his eyes.
This week I’ve been writing about Miró’s The Tilled Field, a 1923 painting that has stayed with me since I saw it in the Tate’s retrospective a few years ago. Working from an image on the screen of my laptop was better than nothing, but frustrating. I was aware of my eye skimming over the surface, missing the evidence of a human hand directing the brush, the sense of 3-dimensionality. Because the mood of the painting is one of idealism and nostalgia I was able to persuade myself working from the virtual rather than the visual might be okay. As I said, better than nothing. Maybe.
Perhaps it’s also comparable to the difference between reading a poem on the page and hearing it read aloud, live, by the poet herself. Many people commented on that at the recent launches of Border Song – another piece of work that couldn’t have happened without field trips, this time along the North Tyne valley. Direct experience was filtered through an investigation of the Old Testament Song of Songs – a balance that suited my need for both the physical/natural and the intellectual/cultural.
Being present and really looking is not as easy as it sounds. We get in the way, and the world gets in the way, preventing us from seeing what’s in front of our eyes. The mind will always struggle to go somewhere else; the flow of impressions and digressions and voices in our heads like a badly-tuned radio. Writing in a garden helps me tune in and settle down, find the serenity to let my mind open enough to see what’s really going on and let the marvellous layers of it sink in.
Looking is as creative as making as long as it is possessed of the art of seeing.
Robert Pogue Harrison