Category Archives: poetry

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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In the House of the Wind

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The House the Wind Built

 

This is where we live now

the chimney redbrick roaring

a hollow trunk open to the flow

of the wind a bellowing fall

of wind a bellyful all day long

trying to breathe it in / break free

 

Since the trees were felled

I’ve stayed close to the floor

prone trying not to feel flayed

flaying around so full of flay

and fall all my freckled skins shed

succumbed to floor or flaw

 

 

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Digitalia

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Spending so much time in the 19thcentury lately, I’ve been thinking a great deal about our relationship with time and history.  Not just because the present is so confounding, although that is undeniable. I’m struck by how little we seem to have learned from the past, every day faced with so many instances of collective amnesia.

But context is all and we must keep re-visiting history, our own and our shared inheritance, to re-view it in the light of the present.  Only then can we orientate ourselves in the direction of the most helpful choices, for our own individual and the common good.  Frequent pauses are necessary.  Moving slowly also makes it easier to see what is really needed.  Change is subtle as well as cataclysmic.

The most powerful new element affecting the way we relate to the quotidian and the longer view is digital technology.  My very first emails were sent back home from Internet cafés in India while I was away for six months, travelling there and in Sri Lanka, Nepal and Sikkim, in 2001-2. When I got home, I bought my first mobile phone and gradually the way I (and the rest of the world) communicated changed.  Happy to admit my ambivalence to our current dependence on the digital, I’m still resisting acquiring a smartphone but have plenty of other portable gadgets to keep me connected and distracted.

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This is a SLOW introduction to letting everyone know that I have a new website (thanks to New Writing North and Creative Fuse’s recent DigiTransform programme).   At the same address as my old one, you can visit it here – and I’d be very happy to hear any thoughts you may have about it.  I now have the skills to update and amend it myself, something that wasn’t possible with my old site.

 

On another digital note, you might like to check out the Poem of the North, an exciting Northern Poetry Library initiative for Great Northumberland 2018.  It also does strange things to Time and Space, creating something new from the shared compass of the imagination.  My own contribution has just been added and you can learn more and watch it unfold here.

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So, after all that clicking and coding, I feel the need to go back, a long way back and see things from the perspective of one of our most ancient plants – Equisetum.  A living fossil, which once dominated the understory of late Paleozoic forests, it is also known as horsetail, snake grass or puzzlegrass.

 

This poem by Joanna Boulter is worth spending some time with:

Horsetail

(Equisetum)

We live in droves.  Memory herds back

to a time before there were horses or pasture

 

when soil was hardly soil, inhospitable.

You ask why we still grow, abandoned here

 

after thirty million years,

left clinging out of our time

 

by brittle toeholds

to a past you can’t conceive of.

 

Our roots reach so deep

we can grow anywhere,

 

have done and will, in marshes or sand dunes.

We cannot be dug out.

 

Think of the silica spicules

that scaffold our stems –

 

part organic, part inorganic

things could have gone either way

 

for us, you could have been

the beached ones.

 

But we are still at the crossroads,

and you need us.

 

You need to think sometimes of sparse

harshness, of glassy grains without humus,

 

your world returning to that.

 

(from Collecting Stones, An Anthology of Poems and Stories inspired by Harehope Quarry, Vane Women Press, 2008)

 

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Liminal

 

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Sea Mouse

The orphanage of possibility

has had to be expanded to

admit the sea mouse.  No one

had asked for such a thing,

or prophesied its advent,

 

sheltering under ruching

edges of sea lettuce –

a wet thing but pettable

as, seen in the distance,

the tops of copses,

 

sun-honeyed, needle-pelted

pine trees, bearded barley,

or anything newborn not bald

but furred.  No rodent this

scabrous, this unlooked-for

 

foundling, no catnip plaything

for a cat to worry, not even

an echinoderm, the creature

seems to be a worm. Silk-spiny,

baby-mummy-swaddled, it’s

 

at home where every corridor

is mop-and-bucket scrubbed

and aired from wall to wall

twice daily by the inde-

fatigable tidal head nurse.

 

Amy Clampitt

(1920 – 1994)

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As well as painting plantlife, Victorian naturalist and artist Margaret Rebecca Dickinson closely observed and recorded the array of shells and creatures she found on the Northumberland coast.  I was pleased to spot my first sea mouse a few years ago in an after-dark rockpooling adventure up at Cresswell.

I’m going to be talking about Margaret Rebecca Dickinson at the Natural History Society of Northumbria’s Library (in the Great North Museum, Newcastle) on Wednesday 22nd August, 6 – 7.15 pm, when some of her paintings will be on display.  It’s free but you need to book – details here.

 

The first photo is of harebells growing from the walls of Lindisfarne Castle, looking across to Bamburgh, 19th July 2018.

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On Lindisfarne

 

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Portrait of the Artist as an Island Flower

 

However much it loves history, a poem

is not an interpretation panel, in a frame.

 

There are many things it cannot do in a time

at odds with itself.  Gather up, as she did –

 

field garlic, brookweed, sea campion, beaked parsley,

water plantain, knotted trefoil, tufted centaury.

 

Pluck them where they hide on whin or dune to take

home (imagine crossing the sea-soaked causeway

 

by horse-drawn carriage) then paint – purple and white,

yellow and pink, the common language of green.

 

Not scented or seductive, each one’s a modest plant,

at risk from slipshod steps, or simple disregard.

 

Conjure the woman in a watercolour mirror

of flowers as tenderly as if from her own bones

 

sealed in a box; her secrets – thank god – encrypted.

Heed the silence, most eloquent against the tide.

 

  

In 1874, Margaret Rebecca Dickinson made seven watercolours of plants found on Lindisfarne, many rare and endangered.  These images are among the 468 botanical paintings in the Margaret Rebecca Dickinson Archive in the Natural History Society of Northumbria’s Library at the Great North Museum, Newcastle.  2018 marks the centenary of her death, aged 98, at Norham on Tweed. To our knowledge, no portrait of her exists.

 

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I wrote this poem for Newcastle Poetry Festival’s Waves & Bones project, based on Lindisfarne, tying it in with my PhD research.  In my critical essay, I’m connecting various threads and Margaret Rebecca Dickinson is one of them.

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One flower she didn’t paint is the Lindisfarne Helleborine, which I’m going in search of next month.  Also a good chance to see the 650 sweet peas coming into bloom they’d just finished planting in Gertrude Jekyll’s garden last time I was there.  

 

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Poem for a Birthday

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Poem for a Birthday

 

I am the single bluebell

In the mowed lawn.

I am the clusters of buds

On the British Library apple.

I am forget-me-not

Self-seeding where it will.

I am water hyssop transplanted

From India, Ayurvedic.

I am a hellebore’s nectaries

Fleshy with pollen.

I am dewdrops beading

Lady’s mantle leaves.

I am dandelion and dock,

Goosegrass and nettle,

Never say weed.

I am honesty, in love

With my faithful moon.

I am the new clematis,

Alba, kissing its trellis.

I am so many yellow keys

Of cowslip, jangling.

I am the different yellow

(Buttery) of marsh marigold.

I am these violas on the step

And their blue music.

I am narcissi –

Pseudopoeticus – still at it.

I am this garden, here, flowering

Against the odds, catching

Every last gram of wind.

 

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I sometimes feel that I have lived two hundred and fifty years already and sometimes that I am still the youngest person on the omnibus.

Virginia Woolf, Diary, 1931

 

 

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Touch

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If you are passing Hexham Hospital over the next few months, do make a point of swinging by the Atrium (next to the HVS shop) to see Touch, a beautiful exhibition curated by Matilda Bevan.  I’m very happy to have a poem included, written specially for the show – printed by Christopher Bacon in Allendale and embellished with watercolour details by Matilda.  It sits well alongside work by Mathilda Hornsey, a QEHS student who was invited to participate.

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The other artists whose work, using a range of different media, is on display are: Jo Aris, Enrique Azocar, Pauline Gibson, Sheila Martin, Claudia Sacher.  All the pieces are delicate but strong, inviting close attention and reflection, resonating in unusual ways with each other and within the hospital context.  It’s really worth a look.  You will be touched.

 

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SWEET ANTICIPATION

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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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Tenderness

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The American poet Galway Kinnell wrote: The secret title of every good poem might be ‘Tenderness’.

And so begins Jane Hirshfield’s ‘Late Prayer’ –

Tenderness does not choose its own uses.

It goes out to everything equally,

Circling rabbit and hawk.

Look: in the iron bucket,

A single nail, a single ruby –

All the heavens and hells.

They rattle in the heart and make one sound.

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In ‘Ars Poetica?’ the Polish poet Czeslow Milosz wrote:

The purpose of poetry is to remind us

How difficult it is to remain just one person,

For our house is open, there are no keys in the doors,

And invisible guests come in and out at will,

(trans. Czeslaw Milosz and Lillian Vallee)

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On yet another snowy day, I have been enjoying sitting by my fire and re-reading Jane Hirshfield’s wonderful essay ‘Writing and the Threshold Life’, from Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry (1998).  These quotes come from that book and the images are from The Heart of the Matter at Great North Museum: Hancock, an exhibition by Sofie Layton et al. ‘Heartland’ is my own contribution.

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