Category Archives: photography

New Work

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Microscopic image of skin cells

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Ben Freeth’s sound and light installation

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Ahren Warner’s scrolling prosimetrum

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Tom Schofield’s interactive ‘skin-covered’ construction

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Kate Sweeney’s photographic Still Life

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My new prose poem bound as a book

(an extract on the left hand side of the first image here)

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The Last Day

Saturday 30th July

Back in the Botanic Garden, and of course it looks lovelier than ever because I am saying goodbye. I find myself making my ritual walk round, trying to imprint the experience of it in my memory to revisit when I am back in England.

There are only two other visitors – a woman of about my age and what I presume is her granddaughter. She takes a photo of the smiling child in front of a fern in the glasshouse. One of the gardeners is sitting at a wrought iron table outside in the full afternoon sun reading the Saturday paper. I, on the other hand, quickly seek out the shade round the back by the rose garden – one of the whitewashed wooden benches, a soothing place to sit, despite the unavoidable whine of the traffic barely twenty metres beyond the cypresses marking the garden’s boundary.

You enter this garden through a small flower shop, potent with the scent of lilies – cut flowers arranged in vases, highly confected bouquets, that the Bulgarians seem to love, plants in pots, for indoors and outdoors, lots of different papers and ribbons for wrapping. It is the custom to take flowers when you’re visiting – and always an odd number; even numbers only associated with death.

A door opens onto what they call the Greek garden – a little vignette of village life, panoramas of the timeless classical landscape and some ancient jars and marble fragments alongside southern plants, including a venerable specimen of a ‘European olive’. Every time I see a plant on this trip with Europaeus in its name I feel a pang of anger and sadness, already nostalgic for the continent I feel part of, at home in.

After ‘Greece’, you enter Central and Southern America, the desert plants – cacti, succulents and palms. There’s also a small Tropical House with a constant fine mist fed by a flowing cascade and trough. Even though it’s still hot, the sight and sound of the water makes you feel cooler. They are generally good with fountains here, large and small, part of their Austro-Hungarian heritage, scattered all over the city, particularly in the parks and gardens.

Outside, pears are ripening above pots of purple basil. Since my first visit to the garden a month ago, various things have gone over. The lilies and day lilies that were so striking then have been replaced by dahlias and Japanese anemones. Though I think today the roses have truly come into their own, looking fuller and more beautiful than a fortnight ago. I’ve enjoyed this way our two countries are connected – through our national flower – despite all the differences between us, a sense of recognition and understanding, possibly thorny at times.

Another of the gardeners (in the uniform of green dungarees and yellow shirt) is giving this part of the garden a good soaking – everything desperately thirsty. During this month there’s been only one day (an evening really) of rain. Otherwise it’s been in the high 20s and low 30s centigrade day and night. I have acclimatised mostly but sleep is sometimes troubled by the heat (and the mosquitoes, who took two weeks to notice I was here but, crikey, when they did, made a proper meal of me…).

In the Rose Garden there’s a fragment of volcanic stone – an unusual flowing shape almost like a horse, legs hidden by the grass, as if it were swimming. I saw a lot more of this on the coast, often studded with lots of tiny fossils. It is used extensively in the hard landscaping at Balchik Palace and the Botanic Garden there. Bulgaria has very diverse geological formations – to match its biodiversity (and cultural diversity) generally. It’s the second most biologically diverse European country (after Spain) – a fact that many of the Bulgarians I speak to are unaware of. They shrug and look confused when I tell them, unfamiliar with feeling anything like pride for their native land.

Last week I was interviewed on the National Radio about my Residency here with the Next Page Foundation’s Literature and Translation House. When the presenter (also passionate about plants, which I have to say is rare) asked how I found the country and Sofia in particular, I wasn’t entirely satisfied with my answer – along the lines of ‘unusual, exotic, contradictory, something Asiatic, something European and something else I can’t put my finger on…’ Afterwards however I was more interested in the simple fact of being asked; seeming to suggest Bulgarians are so unsure about their national identity, they need to hear it from someone else, an ‘outsider’. So many things here seem very aware of their own status as work in progress. Nothing is fixed, certain or reliable. I noticed something similar on my travels to gardens in Italy. Although this can at times be frustrating, there is a truthfulness in it. Everything is work in progress after all, isn’t it? Including us. Hence my difficulty pinning down any neat definition.

Walking through the city to the garden this morning, I was struck by the accidental wabi sabi aesthetic of the place. Wabi sabi is what the Japanese call the quality of impermanence, unsatisfactoriness and insubstantiality of life as manifest in the physical world, natural and man-made and the fruitful place where they meet. Unlike in Japan, in Bulgaria they don’t set out to create such an aesthetic, but it happens anyway. Their history – of many different invasions and changes of regime – has been absorbed into their world view and natural philosophy. There’s a strong sense of the ad hoc, ingenuity in the moment, informed by a deep acceptance (or maybe sometimes deep resignation) at the way things are.

Even though there’s a decadence to the appearance of things – architecture, streetscapes, even gardens – because of this outlook, there’s also an intense freshness, a childlike quality of innocence and openness. There is something consoling in this – a relief to let go of the whole goal-oriented, ‘grown-up’ perspective. And it also allows for the fact that if a thing (an idea, a poem, a garden) is never really finished then it can never really come to an end.

It’s only later I discover that Sofia’s motto is ‘Always growing, never ageing.’ I ask my friend Nadya (Radulova – one of the city’s best poets and translators) if some people might think it’s more accurate the other way round – ‘Always ageing, never growing’. But she is adamant neither are true, the city is always just itself, eluding any neat phrase or defining formula. The work in progress continues.

 

 

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Flower, Flower, Flower

Just returned home from a wonderful trip to Glasgow where there seemed to be flowers everywhere we went…

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at the Tramway’s beautiful hidden gardens

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and the lovely Botanics

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in Kibble Palace

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to this – my new collection!  Hooray!  Spring is here!

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When the Clocks Go Forward…

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…The Whole Place Goes Up

 

Today with Spring here finally we ought to be living

outdoors with our friends.

Let’s go to those strangers in the field

and dance around them like bees from flower to flower,

Building in the beehive air

our true hexagonal homes.

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Someone comes in from the outside saying,

‘Don’t play music just for yourselves.’

Now we’re tearing up the house like a drum,

collapsing walls with our pounding.

We hear a voice from the sky calling our lovers

and the odd lost people. We scatter lives.

We break what holds us, each one a blacksmith

heating iron and walking to the anvil.

We blow on the inner fire.

With each striking we change.

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The whole place goes up, all stability gone to smoke.

Sometimes high, sometimes low, we begin anywhere,

we have no method.

We’re the bat swung by powerful arms.

Balls keep rolling from us, thousands of them underfoot.

 

Now we’re still. Silence also is wisdom, a flame

hiding in cotton wool.

 

Rumi

 

 

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Back at the Lake

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as if the world could be different  – an avenue of budding branches

the upturned boat a sarcophagus for the corpse of winter

siestaing swans – necks wrapped across their backs

water’s gentle glissando as a man takes his reflection for a walk

a child’s drawing of flowers – bright celandines

on the island a female goosander shows off her elegant profile

inside this lake a smaller lake – patch of blue sky

who will teach me how to hold these incongruities?

small insects motes of dust tickling my face

this is what nothing looks like – liquid fullness

last year’s willowherb scrawny and bedraggled

the boardwalk a wooden snake winding nowhere

behind my eyes penicillin blue pomegranate red

planes of light glancing off the lake’s stillness

 

 

 

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A Year in Beadnell

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I’ve mentioned visiting Lisa and Mel during their year in residence at Beadnell before and posted a log on their lovely blog. For this new publication, I’ve written a poem from my time there – about the Rosebay Willowherb growing in the dunes.  Do come along to the Lit & Phil, if you can make it, on 12th April.  I’m sure it’ll be a rich and interesting evening.   Look forward to seeing you there.

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Trailer

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Today’s flurry of snow settling round what few flowers are out in the garden also brings a couple of trailers for my new collection.

You can read an ‘In Conversation’ piece I did with Paris Morel on the Arc website here.  Apparently the cover’s still work-in-progress but you can see the beautiful photo of an Eryngium taken by Karen Melvin in her garden.  Out of shot, I am the one holding the piece of white card behind the plant.

One of the poems from Reading the Flowers (due in the Spring – with a launch reading at Hexham Book Festival) is in the new edition of the Australian Plumwood Mountain Journal, guest edited by Tricia Dearborn.  You can read it – ‘Self Portrait as a Case of Stick Insects’, and another newer poem – ‘Watching the Perseids with Sue’, here.

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South

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Images from the wonderful Antarctica exhibition at Palace Green Library in Durham.  The poem is by Dr Wilson who was part of Captain Scott’s last expedition.

 

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Dear Lake

IMG_0587an ache in the day the way bones ache where they were broken

is it enough to say rosehip? my shadow walking?

grubby necks under water the swans are two fat pillows floating

not a lonely place – a lonely month – back-to-back faces

I try to find a corner round a lake which has none

wind engraves its secret formula on your gunmetal surface

the sort of weather broom is built for – waxed rumours of leaves

an eyeful of fieldfares cast loose in the implacable sky

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this bench dedicated to a child who died after ten years in the world

so cold a flask of coffee can’t warm me

swan wings working like an engine trying to ignite

slowly I feel the real in my finger ends

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what should be done by one who’s skilled in goodness and knows the way to peace

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Your Origami Life

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Last year ended with my travels in Turkey, where one of the many highlights was a hot air balloon ride as the sun rose above the astonishingly beautiful valleys of Cappadocia.

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Back in the North, the new year began as usual for me at Harnham Buddhist Monastery.  Yesterday a group of us gathered there for one of our occasional renga sessions.  In the chilly winter conservatory we saw the light fade as we worked our way through a new schema, with the additional rigour of conforming to the traditional 5-7-5 and 7-7 syllable count throughout.  After five hours of finger-tapping and head-scratching, the odd spat of wrangling, we’d created this seasonal renga catching the year as it turns.

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*

Your Origami Life

Hungry now, the jaws
of winter are snap-snapping –
the upstart year prey

a row of unruly ash
gesture to the rain-washed sky

jackdaws crowd the field
sodden silent monitors
a message in black

as if the moon were patched silk
shredded honesty, falling

across Bolam Lake
a raft of male goosander
white bodies, hooked beaks

you didn’t need to say it
but what a difference it made

will this be the year
she sorts through those old boxes
clears her path of dust?

we are all responsible
and me more than anyone

pruned raspberry canes
twigs, bits, dry in the greenhouse
ready for burning

so how many paper folds
in your origami life?

telephone cable
insulated conductor
sways to wild weather

bullfinches chase their redness
through my thicket of slow thought

sweet, sharp, dangerous
licking honey off the knife –
well, that’s how it looked

the lilt of a saxophone
curling towards the ceiling

in the quiet morning
we pass windblown oak and pine
part sawn, cleared quickly

Forties, Tyne, Dogger, Fisher
storm force 12 rarely forecast

here in old tough grass
waiting for the miracle
of winter snowdrops

every day the sun climbing
higher above layered cloud.

 

 

A han-kasen renga
at Harnham Buddhist Monastery
on 2nd January 2016.

Participants:
Ajahn Abhinando
John Bower
Holly Clay
Linda France
Geoff Jackson
Linda Kent
Eileen Ridley
Tim Rubidge
Christine Taylor

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