Category Archives: women

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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Dear March –

Dear March – Come in –

How glad I am –

I hoped for you before –

Put down your Hat –

You must have walked –

How out of Breath you are –

Dear March, how are you, and the Rest –

Did you leave Nature well –

Oh March, Come right upstairs with me –

I have so much to tell –

 

I got your Letter, and the Birds –

The Maples never knew that you were coming –

I declare – how Red their Faces grew –

But March, forgive me –

And all those Hills you left for me to Hue –

There was no Purple suitable –

You took it all with you –

Who knocks? That April –

Lock the Door –

I will not be pursued –

He stayed away a Year to call

When I am occupied –

But trifles look so trivial

As soon as you have come

 

That blame is just as dear as Praise

And Praise as mere as Blame –

 

Emily Dickinson

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After two days thinking about Poetry, Creativity and Environment at last weekend’s symposium in the School of English at Leeds University, the idea that my mind keeps returning to is one suggested by Zoë Skoulding – ecological writing (and thinking) should always engage with the possibility of imagining something different, a radically altered viewpoint.

Her own practice enacts that process by taking ‘a deliberately skewed perspective’ to both time and place, walking in urban spaces and re-imagining them as if all the accretions of man-made city life were not there, acknowledging historical disjunctions and the impossibility of ‘accuracy’. She read from her wonderful sequence Teint, which charts the Biévre, one of Paris’s underground water courses.

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Harriet Tarlo also spoke about her ‘writing outside’, the notion of fieldwork, both alone and in collaboration with artist Judith Tucker – their different disciplines coming together like Bunting’s ‘lines of sound drawn in the air’. Going out in a state of attentive awareness in search of ‘particulars’ and then undertaking a process of ‘condensation’ and ‘selection’, preferring to bypass ‘the lyrical I’ in any resulting text. It was good to hear Harriet quote her mentor in Durham, Ric Caddell: ‘To live here is not to escape’.

I was particularly happy to meet Madeleine Lee, a Leeds alumna like myself. She is a poet and an economist and recently Writer in Residence at Singapore Botanic Gardens, where I spent a fascinating and fruitful week en route to Sydney in 2013. She noticed that people were tending to sleepwalk through the gardens and wanted to draw attention to the environmental implications of their colonial history through poems about native ‘economic plants’ like rubber, nutmeg, clove and other spices, traditionally grown along Orchard Road, now the main shopping avenue. Through her writing she has become an ‘accidental advocate’ of green spaces, the remaining 5% of tropical rainforest on the island of Singapore.

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No one was particularly interested in either the didactic/rhetorical or the elegiac/mourning modes of writing about the natural world. Generally these poets are bearing witness to land, place, plants and creatures, dismantling assumptions, risking ambiguity and uncertainty, taking a modernist, experimental stance. A lucid, appreciative interpretation of Jorie Graham’s Prayer (by post-graduate researcher Julia Tanner) reflected the weighing up of moral and ethical predicaments with ‘something instinctive’ in order to transform and ‘re-singularise’ that ‘problematic’ ‘I’ everyone was tiptoeing around so nervously. Although it was heartening to see it for a change, I wondered if the mood and emphasis would have been different if the panel were all-male rather than all-female, or a mixture? Another poet with a strong Leeds connection, Jon Silkin (as you can see from the photo) was also with us in spirit – and in Emma Trott’s paper on his Flower Poems.

Yesterday I walked out of the School of English onto Clarendon Road after my classes, delighted to see the magnolia buds stretching to release their deep pinks and to hear a lone great tit playing the xylophone of its throat – notes going up, notes going down. Encountering poetry and creativity at its most vivid, spontaneous and inescapable out of doors.

 

 

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Sparks of Light

 

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Colour is seen in growing things, living the life of the rainbow curve, the sevenfold spectrum. Flowers create colours out of the light of the sun, refracted by the rainbow prism. So I paint flowers, but they are not botanical or photographic flowers. My paintings talk in colour and any of the shapes are there to express colour but not outline. The flowers are sparks of light, built of and thrown out into the air as rainbows are thrown in an arc.

Three Kinds of Artist, 1974

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I like painting flowers – I have tried to paint many things in many different ways, but my paint brush always gives a tremor of pleasure when I let it paint a flower – and I think I know why this is so. Flowers mean different things to different people – to some they are trophies to decorate their dwellings (for this plastic flowers will do as well as real ones) – to some they are buttonholes for their conceit – to botanists they are species and tabulated categories – to bees of course they are honey – to me they are the secret of the cosmos.

 The Flower’s Response, 1969

 

After a visit to Dulwich Picture Gallery to see Art and Life 1920 – 1931 – Ben Nicholson, Winifred Nicholson, Christopher Wood, Alfred Wallis and William Staite Murray.

Words and images by the wonderful Winifred Nicholson.

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Flowers and the Female

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I’ve been very much enjoying having some Cerinthe in the house (or Honeywort – as they’re beloved by bees) – a present from my friend Susie, grown in her beautiful Allendale garden. Although only an annual, it is has survived all through this winter.  I have a new plant of my own, with no flowers just yet, but it’s looking happy enough.

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I was pleased to learn that the name Cerinthe comes from the Greek – keros, for ‘wax’, after the almost fleshy texture of the leaves and bracts;  anthos means ‘flower’ (which gives us the word ‘anthology’).  To my ear it still sounds like a woman’s name.

Why is it girls are often named after flowers but no one thinks to name a boy after one?  I can only summon up Rowan Atkinson (strictly speaking a tree, for which there might be different rules) and Lupin in The Diary of a Nobody.  Anybody know any more?

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Delay

The radiance of the star that leans on me

Was shining years ago. The light that now

Glitters up there my eyes may never see,

And so the time lag teases me with how

 

Love that loves now may not reach me until

Its first desire is spent. The star’s impulse

Must wait for eyes to claim it beautiful

And love arrived may find us somewhere else.

.

 

Elizabeth Jennings (1926 – 2001)

 

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In And Out Of The Woods

IMG_7405As yesterday was the anniversary of my arrival in Sydney (for my stint at the Botanic Gardens in 2013), it seemed like the perfect day to receive an email from the folk at Plumwood Mountain (An Australian Journal of Ecopoetry and Ecopoetics) letting me know their first issue is now available online.

The poem of mine they have included considers the ants I met while I was in Australia.  I like the idea of them being called back home, to the forests where they belong.

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This week I’ve been enjoying listening to Germaine Greer read from her new book White Beech: The Rainforest Years, about her conservation efforts on 60 hectares of an old dairy farm in south eastern Queensland.  It’s a great venture and her narrative is teeming with powerful evocations of the plant, bird and insect life at Cave Creek in the Numinbah Valley.  As Yasmin Alibhai-Brown says in The Independent, ‘It really is some story’, written by a woman who is ‘a force of nature and among its most erudite defenders’.

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Closer to home, several of the trees in our woods were perilously near to crashing down in last autumn’s storms so they’ve had to be felled.  They’re such enormous trees, fir and spruce, that their shift from vertical to horizontal makes the space out there feel quite different.  It’s as if something’s been erased, a stretch of time lost.  But I’m sure the ants will be very happy.

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‘How long does it take to make the woods?’

How long does it take to make the woods?
As long as it takes to make the world.
The woods is present as the world is, the presence
of all its past and of all its time to come.
It is always finished, it is always being made, the act
of its making forever greater than the act of its destruction.
It is part of eternity, for its end and beginning
belong to the end and beginning of all things,
the beginning lost in the end, the end in the beginning.

What is the way to the woods, how do you get there?
By climbing up through the six days’ field,
kept in all the body’s years, the body’s
sorrow, weariness and joy, by passing through
the narrow gate on the far side of that field
where the pasture grass of the body’s life gives way
to the high original standing of the trees.
By coming into the shadow, the shadow
of the grace of the straight way’s ending,
the shadow of the mercy of light.

Why must the gate be narrow?
Because you cannot pass beyond it burdened.
To come into the woods you must leave behind
the six days’ world, all of it, all of its plans and hopes.
You must come without weapon or tool, alone,
expecting nothing, remembering nothing,
into the ease of sight, the brotherhood of eye and leaf.
Wendell Berry
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First Snowdrops

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This week seeing the first snowdrops in my garden, and just sprouting in the woods behind the house, has made me inordinately happy.  Such a strong sense of recognition and relief – that precious flash of pure white amidst all the browns, greys and muted greens of the winter palette.  It’s easy to see why the snowdrop has come to symbolise hope.  A welcome early indicator that Spring is on its slow and winding way.

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The snowdrops in the Manse garden were countless, there were always more, giving a kind of knowledge that nature is inexhaustible, that multitude is her secret, her deep mystery.  There could be no end to snowdrops.

 Kathleen Raine

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Portrait of the Artist

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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.

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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.

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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

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 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)

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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

of transformation,

Of course

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,

firmly, lovingly:

a little while and then this body

will be stone;

then it will be water;

then it will be air.

 

Mary Oliver

 

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How To Get Through The Winter

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A friend brought me three pomegranates, a traditional New Year’s gift in Greece.  I can’t remember how many years ago I last ate one.  When I was a kid, we used to eat the seeds with a pin, which seemed like great fun.  Apart from the fat shiny russet globes warming up my winter kitchen, it’s been an intense pleasure spooning out the garnet seeds to eat raw, add to yogurt or scatter onto salads.

photoI can’t agree with Jane Grigson, who calls them ‘unrewarding fruit’: no more than a closet of juicy seeds, each one gold in a deep pink jelly, the sections held firmly in a yellow astringent pith.  She quotes an extract from André Gide’s Les Nourritures Terrestres (1895), a long poem in praise of pleasure, dedicated to the pomegranate.

A little sour is the juice of the pomegranate like the juice of unripe raspberries.

Wax-like is the flower

Coloured as the fruit is coloured

Close-guarded this item of treasure, beehive partitioned,

Richness of savour,

Architecture of pentagons.

The rind splits; out tumble the seeds,

In cups of azure, some seeds are blood;

On plates of enamelled bronze, others are drops of gold.

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The story of Persephone tells us that the maiden, abducted to the Underworld by Hades, made the mistake of eating six pomegranate seeds while she was there.  According to a law decreed by the Fates, this meant she had to stay there for six months; only then could she return to the surface of the earth for the other six months of the year.  Her mother Demeter’s grief explained the alternating seasons – decay, barrenness, growth and harvest – the cycle of life.

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Image from collaboration with Hexham Embroiderers’ Guild for Hexham Hospital

Pomegranate (Punica granatum) literally means ‘seeded apple’ and it’s easy to see how eating them might feel like sympathetic magic.  Winter will pass. Things will start growing again soon.  Early agricultural communities, after many thousands of years’ hunter-gathering, utterly dependent on a good crop, created stories and rituals (like that of Persephone and Demeter within the Eleusinian mysteries) to affirm the rhythms of their labours to survive and flourish.  What do we look to encourage us through the winter?  A well-stocked larder, a good book by a roaring fire?  Don’t we all have our own talismans to help us get through and out the other side of the dark?

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In some Jewish traditions it is thought the pomegranate was the ‘forbidden fruit’ of the Garden of Eden.  In the light of the vast mythological lore surrounding this remarkable fruit, that would make sense.  In Tamil the name for it – maadulampazhum – means ‘woman’s mind’.  The seeds (between 200 and 1400 in one fruit) represent the multifaceted way the female mind works, apparently unfathomable to the male, as the pomegranate seeds are hidden by the skin.  Persephone, Demeter and Hecate were all seeds of the same fruit but it fell to Eve to claim free-will for human beings, making grown-ups and gardeners of us all.

The summer had been ended for some time

If not officially

Before the shock of greyness, blanketing,

Pressed the blind season up against our faces.

Winter, my God, a familiar I had forgotten:

That’s all I needed.

The portcullis dropped and locked around our houses.

The long worthwhile campaign to build the town up

Surrounding it with fruitful fields was seen

To have been only a little flourish; frivolous –

The house of straw of the pig before the wolf.

‘The dark is back’ the eyeless morning said..

From Persephone by Jenny Joseph (Bloodaxe 1986)

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Her Rare and Precious Botanical Cabinet

IMG_6584Soon after the IAS Fellows arrived in Durham for the Michaelmas Term from all corners of the globe, a group of us went on an outing to Bowes Museum in Barnard Castle.  Amongst the wonderful treasures we saw (a gold mouse, silver swan and a whole room full of Laura Ashley dresses!), I was kindly shown Lady Mary Eleanor Bowes’s specially commissioned Botanical Cabinet.  She was John Bowes’s grandmother and married John Lyon, 9th Earl of Strathmore, in 1767.  Mary Eleanor was a keen amateur botanist and maintained hothouses at Gibside, Northumberland, and at her London house, Stanley House, Chelsea, close to Chelsea Physic Garden.

IMG_6589In the 1770s she commissioned William Paterson, a Scottish botanist, to collect exotic plants for her during his expeditions to the Cape of Good Hope between 1777 and 1779.  The cabinet, made of oak, kingwood and box, was intended to house her collection of botanical specimens.  Inside the cabinet’s legs are hidden lead pipes and taps, possibly designed to regulate temperature and humidity.  The cabinet itself contained part of Mary Eleanor’s collection of dried plants until the 1850s, but they were probably destroyed when it was sold in the 1920s.

IMG_6643Now my sojourn in Durham is coming to an end, it occurs to me that much of my work here has been about finding ways to store and save my own precious ‘collection’ of specimens, observed on my year of botanical journeys – the experience of the plants themselves and my ‘translations’ of them into words.  I want more than anything for these poems to leave an abiding impression on the reader of the pricelessness of what grows on our beautiful green and blue planet.  That seems like enough.  I’ve written some new poems here and have also been working on refining the collection, building my cabinet.  I have a sense there are other possibilities for this work I will explore next year.

IMG_7135So these three months in Durham have themselves been rare and precious.  Having time to dedicate to my own research, thinking, reading and writing has made an immeasurable difference to how much new writing I’ve been able to manage and how wholeheartedly I’ve been able to immerse myself.  I’ve also benefited here from the multi-layered culture of the IAS and the University at large.  I feel as if I’ve been invited into doorways opening onto the deep past (via Cambrian fossils) and deep space (via the Hubble telescope) – with passing adventures in 18th century optics, the memorialisation of our Romantic poets, the persistence of nationalism, the true nature of light and the human fascination with darkness (courtesy of my fellow Fellows).  I’m left with the feeling that in a library or waiting room I’m as likely now to pick up a copy of the New Scientist as the London Review of Books.  For me that’s quite a leap, a profound and precious transformation.

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