Category Archives: poetry

Neither Lion nor Lamb

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March

 

what light there is

filtered through the fan

of their feathers

 

the spine, pale and articulate,

of a fox or a hare

 

punctuated equilibrium

how earth evolves

in sudden ruptures

 

the sputnik graphic

alarmingly crimson

 

someone gets there

before me – liberating

the abandoned bicycle

 

in the open field of the day

plovers calling

 

the room full

of winter

it’s never been as warm

 

neat white flowers

of the barren strawberry

 

if a thousand people

look at the moon

there are a thousand moons

 

what I tell the bees

is between me and the bees

 

everyone stockpiling

against worst-case-scenario pain:

paracetamol, ibuprofen, codeine

 

the colour of persimmons

a new charity shop jumper

 

bags packed

last minute change of plan

staying put

 

the swift narrow rowboat

Truant Muse in cursive script

 

half going one way, half another,

trying to give myself away

to inexactitude

 

stay in touch

she says, not touching

 

bringing home snowdrops

a small handful

of lingering hope

 

a woman in a mask comes

to measure my per cubic foot energy

 

wild garlic tart

as much for the soothe of making

as the savour of eating

 

Spring Equinox: I am a tilting cup

a tremulous star

 

warcabinetspeak

lockdown, self-isolation

linguistic distancing

 

never has a daffodil

looked more beautiful

 

the pilgrimage

of these days

becoming the path

 

two long-tailed tits

among the apple buds

 

my son comes home

we dance around each other

nothing is familiar

 

clapping the NHS

under a canopy of stars

 

a hedgehog emerges

from hibernation

leaves its traces

 

our prayer flags unfurl

as the chill wind blows

 

two pine logs and a plank

a new bench

for absent friends

 

in my sleep I steal back

yesterday’s lost hour

 

star of Bethlehem

hiding its pale light

among what the flood washed up

 

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The first image is a gogotte – a natural rock formation from the Paris Basin, 33 – 28 million years old (Natural History Museum).  The second, ancient and new, frogspawn in our pond.

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Presence/Absence

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A group of us were intending to meet on Monday at the Burnlaw Centre in Northumberland for a Spring Equinox Renga – part of our cycle through the year since last Summer Solstice at Bywell.  In the light of everyone’s changed circumstances, I invited a wider group of people to write and share a few renga verses – single haiku-like three liners and two liners – as they tuned into Spring’s return over the weekend.

It was an experiment in connecting creatively across the new spaces between us and I didn’t know what would happen.

I felt very touched by all the verses people sent.  There was a real sense of presence across the distance.  Maybe not quite as much as if we were all in sitting in the Beautiful Room at Burnlaw together or on the benches round the fire pit in the field, with the curlews calling above our heads, but the form and focus of the renga held us all in a beautiful space of our own making – inside and out at the same time – at a safe distance – over the course of several days.

Several people mentioned that it was helpful at this strange time to open the senses to the world around them and be more aware of what was going on.  It’s something anyone can do.  Even just one verse a day works as a good gauge of your state of mind and a record of your activities, thoughts and feelings.  The renga we made in this way, it seems to me, is an important document of what this unprecedented time has been like for twelve people in the North of England, alone and together, this past weekend.

As often happens when we sit together for a renga, it was interesting to see ideas and phrases shared, overlapping.  I wanted to honour this very different context and way of working, as well as the sheer abundance of verses, and so created a new, longer than usual form, doubling the schema in a specular fashion – where the themes are mirrored around the silence between the two parts.  I wanted to suggest a sense of flow, back and forth, like a wave, from the various links and shifts, and occasional repeats.  I had to do a bit of cutting and stitching here and there to keep it supple, and as with traditional rengas not every verse I was sent appears.

Even remotely, a renga is greater than the sum of its parts, a strange alchemy occurs, sending out ripples of authentic connection.  I hope that in reading it, as much as in the writing, people might feel the warmth and clarity of being brought in touch – with ourselves and each other – across our physical distance.

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Landscape Without a Map

I

Spring Equinox:

I am a tilting cup

a tremulous star

 

frost bites land

slow to warm

 

beyond the garden hedge

the silence

of the empty playing field

 

some branches bear leaves

some are sticks against the sky

 

a lone runner, two dog walkers

woodpecker’s insistent tap

we move in a landscape without a map

 

a careful two metres apart

the neighbours share their stories

 

beneath the bay

melon seeds all taken by the mouse

green-petalled tulips

 

I stream old songs for comfort

            dance me to the end of love

 

close the curtains

light the candles

evening begins

 

how quiet the air is

as we count our breaths

 

not so much

for what they say

just their voices

 

pearly strands of frog spawn

in the tractor ruts

 

our hectic decadence

more evident

as the pause lengthens

 

the sun is shining

on apple buds

 

a shower of blessings

over and over

the curlew weeps her song

 

sheets spread and billow

sweetening in the open

 

the moon

waning

follows the train

 

never has a daffodil

looked more beautiful

 

show me the point where

before ends

and after begins

 

I sow pea seeds in the earth

imagine tendrils twining

 

 

II

listen for what remains

when everything we rely on

is gone

 

in the old orchard

a haze of honey

 

along the verges

blackthorn and celandine

plastic bags

 

behind the wallflowers

a saucepan lid moon

 

across the rough fell

of our hands

the call of a new corvid

 

doing nothing

takes such a long time

 

underneath this map

ancient tracks whisper

bid you tread and seek

 

dead wood alive with lichen

white, yellow, red

 

on the Sele a girl hurries by

shouting into her mobile

BASICALLY, IT’S A FUCKING NIGHTMARE

 

before we were sandpaper to each other

we were silk

 

on me your voice falls

as they say love should

(Bechet’s ‘Black and Blue’)

 

a bumble bee, heavy, dozy

bangs on the sunlit window

 

scent of silage and cow dung

as we pass Peepy Farm

all lowing and milking inside

 

we are living and dying

through history

 

it is the song thrush

at dusk

that unstops her tears

 

if this is the first unknown

why is everything the same?

 

there are breaks here and there

but still a place to sit and feel

the vibrations of your voice

 

Venus suspended – a gift

for Mothering Sunday

 

frosted air polishes my skin

I walk in the small waking hours

a hushed world

 

in the silence you hear sunlight

unfurling leaves in the hedges.

 

 

A 20/20 Distance/Presence Renga

conducted remotely over the Spring Equinox

20th– 23rd March 2020

 

Participants:

Birtley Aris

Jo Aris

Deborah Buchan

Holly Clay

Linda France

Sharon Higginson

Geoff Jackson

Liz Kirsopp

Lesley Mountain

Ruth Quinn

Alex Reed

Tim Rubidge

 

 

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February

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Without thinking too much about it beforehand, I decided on Shrove Tuesday to give up Instagram for Lent, along with a few other things.  I wanted a chance to practise restraint, hoping that freeing up some space might leave more room for things I’d rather prioritise.

I’m still keeping my ‘year renga’ but have appreciated the change in pace that not filtering it through social media seems to have brought.  Perhaps I’ll always be primarily a pencil and paper kind of writer, thinking at the speed of graphite.  But here is the next instalment in digital form – February’s verses to look back on as we enter March and whatever it might bring.

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February

 

hibernating tortoiseshell

waking up too soon

 

for Imbolc

for Brigid

endings and beginnings

 

to explain grace requires

            a curious hand                                                                        (Marianne Moore)

 

in late light

pruning the apple tree

figuring it out as we go

 

fractal mosaic

of a dragonfly’s wing

 

in this dream

we are all at once hero

and enemy and saviour

 

flock of redwings

a shook tablecloth

 

life never speaks simply

it shows itself in its flower

it hides itself in its roots                                                                    (Luce Irigaray)

 

writing in my hut

calling itself Atlas

 

storm moon and hailstones

I warm myself

at your fire

 

the year’s first snow

settles on the trees’ north

 

in the city

a few hours of spring

petals peel back

 

in the market

for tomorrows

 

do not stand

in a place of danger

trusting in miracles                                                                             (Moroccan proverb)

 

curled against the world

a small white ibis

 

my driver knows

hardly any English but says

‘We need more water’

 

the charcoal seller

in his infernal cave

 

a city lost

between its past

and its future

 

the best thing about going away

is coming home

 

50 million years old

seedpod souvenir

from the flame tree                                                                           (Brachychiton acerifolius)

 

I admire his blackboard and chalk

keeping track of the bins

 

as if we were out at sea

the wind’s waves

gusting and toppling us

 

however far you walk

the road stretches on

 

I open the front door

onto a wall

of compacted snow

 

mandala of wood

atlas of the imperilled world

 

a dead man’s tattoos –

fail we may

sail we must                                                                                       (RIP Andrew Weatherall)

 

dressed in ceremonial kimonos

they look back from the future

 

how to translate

all these words

into acts of love?

 

alone and walking

against the weather

 

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A Hundred Years of Pangolin

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1911

These animals, which might be taken for reptiles rather than mammals,

are found in the warmer parts of Asia and throughout Africa.

Pangolins range from 1 to 3 ft. in length, exclusive of the tail,

which may be much shorter than or nearly twice the length of the rest of the animal.

Their legs are short, so that the body is only a few inches off the ground; the ears

are very small; and the tongue is long and worm-like, and used to capture ants.

Their most striking character, however, is the coat of broad overlapping horny scales,

which cover the whole animal, with the exception of the undersurface of the body,

and in some species, the lower part of the tip of the tail.

Besides the scales, there are generally, especially in the Indian species,

a number of isolated hairs, which grow between the scales, and are scattered

over the soft and flexible skin of the belly.

There are five toes on each foot, the claws on the first toe rudimentary,

but the others, especially the third of the forefoot, long, curved, and laterally compressed.

In walking, the fore-claws are turned backwards and inwards, so that the weight

of the animal rests on the back and outer surfaces, and the points

are thus kept from becoming blunted.

The skull is long, smooth and rounded, with imperfect zygomatic arches,

no teeth of any sort, and, as in other ant-eating mammals, with the bony palate

extending unusually far backwards towards the throat.

The lower jaw consists of a pair of thin rod-like bones, welded to each other at the chin,

and rather loosely attached to the skull by a joint which, instead of being horizontal,

is tilted up at an angle of 45°, the outwardly-twisted condyles articulating

with the inner surfaces of the long glenoid processes

in a manner unique among mammals.

 

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1936

Another armored animal – scale

lapping scale with spruce-cone regularity until they

form the uninterrupted central

tail-row! This near artichoke with head and legs and grit-equipped gizzard,

the night miniature artist engineer is,

yes, Leonardo da Vinci’s replica –

impressive animal and toiler of whom we seldom hear.

Armor seems extra. But for him,

the closing ear-ridge –

or bare ear lacking even this small

eminence and similarly safe

 

contracting nose and eye apertures

impenetrably closable, are not; a true ant-eater,

not cockroach eater, who endures

exhausting solitary trips through unfamiliar ground at night,

returning before sunrise, stepping in the moonlight,

on the moonlight peculiarly, that the outside

edges of his hands may bear the weight and save the claws

for digging. Serpentined about

the tree, he draws

away from danger unpugnaciously,

with no sound but a harmless hiss; keeping

 

the fragile grace of the Thomas-

of-Leighton Buzzard Westminster Abbey wrought-iron vine, or

rolls himself into a ball that has

power to defy all effort to unroll it; strongly intailed, neat

head for core, on neck not breaking off, with curled-in-feet.

Nevertheless he has sting-proof scales; and nest

of rocks closed with earth from inside, which can thus darken.

Pangolin_scale_burn_in_Cameroon._Credit-_Kenneth_Cameron_-_USFWS_(2)_(32575640450)

 

2017

The true scale of the slaughter of pangolins in Africa has been revealed

by new research showing that millions of the scaly mammals are being hunted and killed.

Pangolins were already known to be the world’s most trafficked wild mammal,

with at least a million being traded in the last decade to supply the demand

for its meat and scales in Asian markets.

Populations of Asian pangolins have been decimated,

leaving the creatures highly endangered

and sharply shifting the focus of exploitation to Africa’s four species.

 

Pangolins are secretive, nocturnal and some species live in trees,

making them very hard to count and the total size of the populations in Africa is unknown. But the new analysis, based on data collected by hundreds of local researchers

at scores of hunting sites and bushmeat markets across central and west Africa,

found up to 2.7m are being killed every year,

with the most conservative estimate being 400,000 a year.

 

Pangolins curl up into a scaly ball when threatened, which defeats natural predators

like lions but is no defence against human hunters.

The researchers found half the animals had been snared or trapped,

despite wire snares being illegal in most of the 14 central African nations

analysed in the research.

 

Almost half of the pangolins killed were juveniles,

an indicator that the populations are being dangerously overexploited

as animals are being caught before they can reproduce.

This is particularly harmful as pangolins are slow breeding

and produce only a single pup every year or two.

 

 

 

 

Extracts from Encyclopedia Britannica 1911, Marianne Moore’s The Pangolin and Other Verse 1936 (layout with indents unfortunately lost in translation) and The Guardian 2017.  Wiki Commons images.

 

World Pangolin Day 15th February 2020

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A yard of sunlight

 

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A Winter Solstice Renga

at Fair Hill, Haltwhistle,

on 22nd December 2019.

 

A yard of sunlight

 

4.19, licked awake

by the dream fox

skulking across the fells

 

midwinter mist

unwraps the river

 

remember the arrow on the map

this could be the place

where old timbers revive a door

 

her shadow sharpens

blurs, doubles

 

new earth being made

from this year’s leaves

the fluff of jumpers

 

Picasso-like bird’s wing –

plaster flying

 

outside the December dusk

firelight inside

I warm my hands

 

how many footfalls

on these bare boards?

 

Aesica was built by the legions

left dry

aqueduct unconnected

 

impossible now

to not have you

 

presently the character

of his adoration

became clear

 

we are eight

circling the red box

 

if only words

were only air

rising

 

a yard of sunlight

at the north end of the garden

 

the little tree

sings

in the rusty bucket

 

stamped on thin ice

a thousand fragments of starlight

 

sonata gathered in

to one dense sound

above the rooftops

 

bulbs turn

from waiting to watching

 

empty fields

left to the rooks

snow is coming

 

tomorrow is the shape

of a leaf.

 

 

Participants:

Birtley Aris

Jo Aris

Matilda Bevan

Linda France

Sharon Higginson

Liz Kirsopp

Christine Taylor

Clara May Warden

 

Light Sculptures by Michael Seal/Lumicube

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Autumn Colour

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Caramel

 

It takes the louche cool

of late summer on the heel

of a long-drawn-out

drought to bring out the best

in a leaf

before it sets free its ghost.

 

When desire isn’t all

that matters, then fall

is the deciduous rise

to the surface

of carotene, anthocyanin

or xanthophyll,

 

silenced till now by the clamour

of chlorophyll.  And even this

sweetness must be lost –

a red lament of abandon,

defiance,

indeed, utterly natural.

 

 

 

From Reading the Flowers (Arc, 2016)

 

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Writing Lichen

There are still a few places left on my Writing Workshop – out in the field and at the Sill – next Saturday 10th August – looking at lichen.  Bring botanical lenses and magnifying glasses!  And cross fingers for fine weather.

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Iain’s photographs are stunning.  They beautifully capture these strange life forms that do so well in Northumberland – a testament to our clean air and fresh elements.  We’ll be moving between the real thing and samples of his images to write our own poems and short pieces in appreciation of lichen.  Even the word itself is mysterious and exciting – whichever way you say it – lichen!

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Jordan in the Air

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I very much enjoyed being taken back to Jordan this week via Durham Book Festival’s podcast from our event last October.  You can listen to Fadia Faquir, Mofleh Al Adwan and myself in conversation about the Alta’ir Exchange, first impressions and the seeds of new work, here.

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The photos are from Umm Quais, the ancient site of Biblical Gadara, in the North of Jordan, looking across to Lake Tiberia and the Golan Heights – and the Sea Squill in bloom, with foraging beetle.

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From Dust

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Last night I attended the Opening of Susan William’s Exhibition ‘From Dust’ in the Constantine Gallery at Teeside University, Middlesbrough.  In February, Sue asked if she could commission me to write a poem to accompany her suite of ceramic sculptures as she was reluctant to ‘put any words in front of the work’.  We’d both seen an escalation in the emphasis on critical theory in the creative arts in recent years and, in our respective practices, prefer a more embodied, intuitive approach.  Apart from thoughts along these lines and a brief discussion of the word imago and the metamorphic cycle, we didn’t talk about her work directly, keen that any writing that might come out of the process wouldn’t be illustrative or attempt to ‘explain’ the sculptures, but rather set up a new dynamic between three-dimensional form and text.  In this way, it felt more than a commission but not quite a collaboration, existing itself in some liminal space between the two.  I very much appreciate her making the space to invite a wild card element into this presentation of her work and for trusting my response.  There is the sense that it’s taken us both somewhere new, beyond the limitations of self-generated and -focussed activity into a multi-layered exchange.

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Cradle

Let’s start here: at the end,

when you lay me to rest,

according to my wishes,

 

in the mother’s milk

of snowdrop flowers

– this hollow between seasons –

 

punctuated with

slow, green hyphens.

In a final negotiation

 

of wet and dry, I’ll pierce

the snow with my bones.

Won’t there be hope in my going?

 

For hope’s own sake.

For the snowdrops.

May their petal blades

 

helicopter my ashes

gusts of that first breath

         a sudden cry – my name

 

in blue air, stir the silt

of what we must learn

about earth, this clay

 

we’re born from,

about how to love it.

Even as we burn.

 

                                                                                 February 2019

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If you’re down that way, do call by to see the show.  Sue’s work is both strong and delicate, quiet but powerful, and deserves a large appreciative audience.

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Why Flowers?

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When I was a child, we lived in a flat with no garden.  All the flowers I knew were on stamps I collected, or cards in packets of Brooke Bond tea I pasted into stiff little albums that had to be sent away for.  From the bright flat images next to the old songs of their names – cowslip, butterbur, meadowsweet, forget-me-not – I sensed that plants were powerful, even though they were small, soft and, as far as I knew, silent. So I learnt young that there was such a thing as paradox, that life could contradict itself and things weren’t always what they seemed.

The flowers whose names chimed in my head, like portable poems, wild and cultivated, seemed to grow in an imaginary realm, a world I read about in books where people lived in houses with gardens and gardeners, exotic apparatus like wheelbarrows and spades.  They belonged to people who weren’t us, with different names and different lives – Alice Through the Looking Glass and Mary in The Secret Garden, across the ocean Anne of Green Gables.  My mother’s name was Lily and, in the absence of a garden, she filled our flat with houseplants she’d water every Saturday morning and feed a magic potion from a fat brown bottle.

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I was twenty-four before I saw a snowdrop and knew that was what I was looking at, consciously paired the word with the three-dimensional flower growing out of hard winter earth.  By then living in rural Northumberland, as the seasons changed and flowers appeared in garden, woodland and hedgerow, I remembered all the names I’d forgotten I ever knew.  It was a revelation that echoed Adrienne Rich’s reflection on poems – that they ‘are like dreams: in them you put what you don’t know you know.’[1]  Flower and word spoke to each other – in the botanical texts I read as well as the poems I wrote.  I got my hands dirty in the soil, watching and learning how different plants grew, looking up where they came from and how they were named.  Moving between inside and outside, self and other, I experienced a kinship and intimacy I found nowhere else.

When Georgia O’Keeffe took the flower as muse, she felt her portrayals were misinterpreted.  How she explained it is a touchstone for me:

A flower is relatively small.

Everyone has many associations with a flower – the idea of flowers.  You put out your hand to touch the flower – lean forward to smell it – maybe touch it with your lips almost without thinking – or give it to someone to please them. Still – in a way – nobody sees a flower – really – it is so small – we haven’t time – and to see takes time like to have a friend takes time.  If I could paint a flower exactly as I see it no-one would see what I see because I would paint it small like the flower is small.

So I said to myself – I’ll paint what I see – what the flower is to me, but I’ll paint it big and they will be surprised into taking time to look at it – I will make even busy New Yorkers take time to see what I see of flowers… Well – I made you take time to look … and when you took time … you hung all your own associations with flowers on my flower and you write about my flower as if I think and see what you think and see of the flower – and I don’t.[2]

Like a friend, a flower is never just one thing: both subject and object, it is a composite form, a layered text.  In the field, however long you look at a flower, however closely you observe it, the flower shifts shape at different times of day in different kinds of weather.  You have to get on your knees, down at the flower’s level, to inspect it properly.  I need to put my glasses on and lean in very close.  If you use a botanical hand lens, the scale changes even more: stigma and stamen, pollen grain or droplet of nectar are magnified, so you can imagine how it might look to a foraging bee.  This is ‘reading the flowers’, via our word ‘anthology’ from the Greek, which also means ‘gathering the poems’ – just one seed of a long association of plant and book, word and root, folio and leaf.[3]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Images from the Margaret Rebecca Dickinson Archive in the Natural History Society of Northumbria’s Library at the Great North Museum: Hancock, Newcastle upon Tyne.

[1]Adrienne Rich, When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision (College English, Vol. 34, No. 1, ‘Women, Writing and Teaching’ (Oct., 1972), pp. 18-30.

[2]Georgia O’Keeffe,‘About Myself’, in Georgia O’KeeffeExhibition of Oils and Pastels, exhibition brochure (New York: An American Place, 1939).

[3]Linda France, Reading the Flowers (Todmorden: Arc Publications, 2016).

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