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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Knowing our place is no easy matter – fierce, transgressive, and extremely quiet, it must take the risk of being there, doing it for ourselves.
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
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.
Sofia Botanical Garden is the only one I’ve visited (so far) that is practically located on a roundabout. It’s hard to imagine – even when you’re actually there. But of course the result is it’s very far from being an oasis, the constant heckle of traffic impossible to ignore.
Slow is the word…even the gardeners go very slowly to be able to work in the burning heat. Sometimes it’s cooler inside the glasshouses. My poetry brain feels a bit like a battered coffee percolator on an old iron stove.
Because it was a sunny day and I’d just missed my connection – watching powerless as my homebound train pulled out of the station without me (always painful, much worse than missing it by ten or even five minutes) – I walked on to the end of the platform where sun struck stone paving unimpeded by canopies or walls. A row of advertising boards, brash inducements to buy the latest ‘Number 1 Crime’ books, each with their own moody picture, intimating the gruesome and forensic, gradually petered out. I was happier looking at the stone underfoot, the grid of moulded rectangles harbouring sweet green creases of moss the further along I walked.
A tiny pennycress grew out of nothing, no visible earth, valiant among the coming and going of trains with their strident livery and their harried passengers, noses in novels, fingertips stroking screens, ears plugged against the outside world – I knew this because I’d just been one of them.
At the very end the platform sloped gently down until it met grey-blue clinker. I could see some plants with red leaves growing among it, sturdy against the sharp stones. Deep-veined, prolific, possibly a willowherb. I ambled slowly down the ramp scanning for any other plant life that might be thriving in this apparently inhospitable setting. The toothed leaves of an unfamiliar thistle wrapped themselves around a discarded bolt, rusty and large enough to be missed.
I eased the rucksack off my shoulders and placed it on the ground at my feet; knelt to look more closely and touch the veined leaves I’d seen from a distance, fiery in the sunlight that warmed my face and shoulders after such a very long winter, cramped and flowerless.
I dug in the pocket of the rucksack for my camera to take a picture in the afternoon light, all the lovelier for coming unannounced, unexpected. I crouched down again to focus close enough to catch these low-to-the-ground, unostentatious plants.
Come away from there, now, step away, step away. Please return to the platform.
A loud voice, with worry in it, a man’s. I lifted my head to see a bearded young man in a lilac uniform carrying a walkie-talkie. He repeated his instructions as if it were a matter of life and death, staying at the top of the ramp some distance from me. Until proven innocent, clearly I was dangerous.
Come up now, come back to the platform.
Another man, shorter, navy blue jumper, stood beside the first, twitching slightly. If he’d had a gun, he’d have his finger on the trigger. I could tell how much it cost him to say nothing. The tremor in his shoulders gave him away.
I had a choice: to argue the toss and claim my freedom as a citizen, my fundamental right to look at plants in the sunshine while waiting for a train; or simply let it go and reassure them – for I could see they were anxious about something and were in dire need of reassurance – that I wasn’t a terrorist, or suicidal, or a flagrant destroyer of railway property. Though what they were reading into my grey hair and best black coat was a puzzle to me, a disguise impenetrable even to myself.
I’m just taking some photographs.
Forced to confess, it sounded like a crime. To persuade them it was true, the only sin I was committing was photography, I lifted up my camera and the shorter man started bobbing from foot to foot. I wouldn’t have been surprised if he had told me to drop it and raise my hands above my head. 15.34, a Wednesday and Central Station was suddenly an action thriller. I couldn’t help feeling sorry for these men, looking down at me, chests puffed out – so keen to do their duty, or be seen to do their duty, on high alert where there was nothing to be alert about. How exhausting it must be to wear a lilac uniform, carry a walkie-talkie and suspect middle-aged women of unspeakable crimes, a threat to the common good and trains running on time.
I made my way up the ramp slowly, with dignity I hoped: the only way I could express my deep disappointment at such misdirection of human energy, a senselessness that seemed to becoming more and more familiar, not just to me but everyone I speak to. Resistance burned at the core of me, political, existential. The willowherb remained unphotographed. Had it come to this – that a person was no longer able to look at flowers growing in a railway station when the weather coaxed them in that direction? Would it have been different if I was a man writing down the number of a passing train?
The two men looked disappointed too. Perhaps that I’d proved such easy meat and offered no further opportunity for their heroics. The drama had come and gone too quickly. I wanted them to be embarrassed but no one apologised to anyone else. Not I, nor the men, who turned on their heels and scurried back towards the main body of the station, disappearing in the coolness of the shade.
‘the wild and the manured Teasel – two different species’
there is a fmall Moth about twice the size of the Euonymella, fpeckled with black, which finds its way into this formidable plant, and makes a comfortable and fecure domicilium of its fpinous head
Flora Londiniensis, Vol II 1796
Show me your garden and I shall tell you what you are.
– for Karen and Joe –
am I dreaming
or is it dreaming me?
the sudden marvel
of a cactus bloom
white peacock tail
starburst and curl
a clematis unclenching
modelled in wax
the fin de siècle scent
Nerys’s peonies always
on the point of opening
what to love most
or their shadows?
a bowl of stones
raven skull and wingbone
of green thoughts
about their flicked tips
just so, chic
say what they mean
and mean what they say
a second spiral
a whole afternoon
reading the trees
binding their torn pages
to a house of flowers
I bring flowers –
two kinds of lilies
the smell of green
1 – 10 May 2015
On Thursday we gathered at the Queen’s Hall in Hexham to launch another wild – a new edition of a pamphlet published ten years ago under the title wild. There was a mix-up between the publishers and the printers so it came back with much thinner paper and cover than expected but the small print run quickly sold out. We always hoped we might work on another edition and now, with a beautiful new re-design by Melanie Ashby, here it is…
In 2002, the artist Birtley Aris and I sought out a wild flower each month in different places around the north-east of England. This is from the original introduction:
We were interested in ordinary, less well-known spots as well as more obvious landmarks; the surprising uncontained spaces in towns and cities as well as the rural environment.
Inspired by the reverberations of wild, we wanted to seek out and celebrate that particular quality of North – an autonomous identity, the open spaces, resilient flora and fauna, unfolding seasons, relatively sparse population and unequivocal weather.
From the start we envisaged setting the large-scale context of landscape alongside the miniature world of wild flowers. Some months we had an idea of the flower we were looking for; others we left it to chance, waiting to see what was growing.
For the new version we have included eight more poems that pick up the themes of wild and take them somewhere else – looking at light, energy, memory and belonging. They are introduced by this wonderful quotation from Pico Iyer:
Love is a wildness that has been falsely domesticated.
We were very lucky to have Morag Brown playing the violin for us, her wild northern tunes creating just the right atmosphere and bringing us all together in a celebration of place and this new work in print.
If you missed it, there’ll be another chance to hear some of the poems and buy the book at the Lit & Phil in Newcastle on Thursday 4th December, 7pm. No need to book – all welcome.
Who could say exactly where a river
shifts shape into sea? Where current collides
with tide? On the pier’s stone slopes, mugwort
grows in spite of the salt and the weather:
who could say where its black becomes brown
becomes silver-grey? Today everything
is edgeless and strange. Even the spray
from the waves battering the southern jetty
bursts in the air like fireworks: a negative
framed by the window of the Bungalow Café.
Dirty glass catches the blur of what
could be a man, crouching to make a sketch
of mugwort fronds, like alchemical wands,
chancing their silver. Although, who could say?
Roker Pier, Sunderland