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.
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
How do geese know when to fly to the sun?
Who tells them the seasons? How do we humans
know when it is time to move on? As with the migrant birds,
so surely with us, there is a voice within if only we would listen to it,
that tells us certainly when to go forth into the unknown.
‘Compass’, a new sound installation, created especially for Cheeseburn Grange in Stamfordham, Northumberland, is a new collaboration with Chris Watson, one of our leading wildlife recordists. On Google Earth, Cheeseburn sits at just a few minutes past the noon of North. As well as North, South, East and West, ‘Compass’ also refers to other concepts that come in fours – the seasons, the elements and the four quarters of the day. So, in four separate locations around Cheesnburn’s grounds this Bank Holiday weekend, visitors can listen to an orchestrated soundscape of birdsong, wildlife, weather and original poems composed for each setting, time of day and season.
As Cheeseburn’s first Writer in Residence, I visited over the span of a single year, on solstices, equinoxes and cross quarter days, to create a calendar of the place, based on simple observation and reflection (You can read the ‘notes’ of this experience here). The intimate awareness gained from this research informed both the concept of Compass and the poems I wrote to accompany Chris’s recordings.
The two of us spent time at Cheeseburn together over another year to create this exciting new installation, where a world riven with migration and change finds a compass in the sense of sound itself, the poetry of everyday listening. Filtered through the ears and the imagination, visitors are invited to travel across time and space, through light and darkness, life and death, home and away, whilst also being able to experience the wonderful gardens and grounds at Cheeseburn in ‘real time’ on a summer afternoon.
As well as ‘Compass’, there will also be new work from Mike Collier and Sarah Dunn, also referencing the natural world and its winged creatures.
Hoping the sun shines for us and looking forward to seeing you there – Saturday, Sunday, Monday 11 – 4.
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 –
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.
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.
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.
My friend and collaborator the artist Birtley Aris has just finished making some new drawings to illustrate a small pamphlet of work from the Rutland Friends of the Earth Earthwords 2 Writing Competition I helped judge with Clive Anderson and Jon Canter. They’d asked me if I might contribute a couple of poems of my own. These two seemed to fit with the theme and, as usual, Birtley’s images have added a fresh dimension. The whole business of collaboration, the conversation between poet and artist, word and image, an endlessly fascinating one. Where does one end and the other begin? How to describe that third element, what happens in between?
Talking About the Weather
The gardener sat on the old wicker chair,
hands wrapped round a mug of nettle tea –
and even though the room was warm, curtains
drawn against the night, the way we hold
our breath between winter and what might follow –
snowmelt, rainfall, lambing storm, the words
she spoke flung open the door on water, a river
in spate, rushing and roaring between us –
her worst fears of flood and disaster,
an unstoppable lostness sweeping her away,
tossed in the current of truth, lies, testing
the strength of this earth we cling to – as if our lives
were leaves, whispering North, North, North.
After Guiseppe Bartolini’s lithograph, Pisa
Jellyfish fall through the heavens above
the viridescent night of the Orto Botanico.
Count their drifting moons, skullcaps
for the duomo, just visible over the wall – 7, 8,
9. In fact, they’re all parachutists: cumulative grace
at odds with their singular mission; that history
still untold. Let’s say today they wear the ruched silk
of angels, landing within the garden’s jurisdiction.
Watch them unhook their spent umbrellas and pick up
a spade to dig fresh beds or a rake to sweep paths
clear. They’ll unravel the hose to revive parched myrtle
or pelargoniums; reinstate tumbled ceramic, fix
cracked signs and screw the last bolt in new glasshouses.
As the city sleeps, they’ll delve till the trees toll
their boughs in exaltation, each one seen so hard
the people will wake up to the world’s first day.
Be ahead of all departure; learn to act
as if, like the last winter, it was all over.
For among the winters, one is so exact
that wintering it, your heart will last forever.
Die, die through Eurydice – that you might pass
into the pure accord, praising the more, singing
the more; amongst the waning, be the glass
that shudders in the sound of its own ringing.
Be; and at the same time know the state
of non-being, the boundless inner sky,
that this time you might fully honour it.
Take all of nature, its one vast aggregate –
jubilantly multiply it by
the nothing of yourself, and clear the slate.
Rainer Maria Rilke
From ‘Sonnets to Orpheus’
Austin Wright’s ‘Limbo’
It’s always wonderful to spend some time on the coast of Northumberland. I’m just home from a few days in Beadnell visiting Lisa Matthews and Melanie Ashby, immersed in their exciting A Year in Beadnell collaboration. Yesterday we went out for a walk and they showed me their chosen patch while I kept a weather eye out for the plant life. There was a surprising amount still in flower and several varieties that were new to me, which is always exciting. You can read a brief account of it and where it took me here. Later in the year, I’ll be writing something for the journal documenting the highlights of their year.
As well as the beauty of the Northumbrian coastline, the project takes its inspiration from the environmental writing and research of Rachel Carson (1907 – 1964), most well-known for her book Silent Spring (1962), which drew attention to the dangers of introducing pesticides into the ecosystem. Before that ground-breaking work, she also wrote a trilogy focused on the sea, based on her explorations as a marine biologist along the New England coast. In Margaret Atwood’s 2009 novel The Year of the Flood, she is Saint Rachel of All Birds.
Lisa and Mel will be reporting on their progress at this year’s Durham Book Festival on Sunday 11th October. See you there!
In every outthrust headland, in every curving beach, in every grain of sand there is the story of the earth.
He came, in time, to embrace the flower as the embodiment of all the contradictions revelling within. Their sleekness, their fullness. Humble narcissus. Passionate zen.
He found them to be worthy conspirators in the courting and development of conflicting emotions. He also found it was as easy to hurl beauty as anything else. Often they were symbolic of him; his processes. Modelled in geometric shade. Modified in a famous vase and inevitably turned in the realm of their own simplicity – the blossoming of the mystifying aspects of the pure.
And the eye became a body, the murky heart of a rose. The sinister shadow of an orchid. Or the indolent poppy balanced behind the ear of Baudelaire. All the finery, all the flame, distilled in the burning veins of the jack-in-the-pulpit, the blood of the spike surging upward into a buttery crown. In the foreskin of a lily. In another lily military, erect. In victory stems asymmetric, exact. In the head of a tulip, the curve of a staff or in the unfolding flower’s face.
Words by Patti Smith
What are poets for in these destitute times?
Risk! Risk anything! Care no more for the opinions of others, for those voices. Do the hardest thing on earth for you. Act for yourself. Face the truth.
Poetry is when an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found its words.
I, the sculptor, am the landscape.
In life, in order to understand the world, you must die at least once.
There is God. There is no God.