Before I travelled to Jordan I became slightly obsessed with Lee Miller’s Portrait of Space, taken when she was in Egypt in 1937. I pinned a copy on my kitchen wall and later, after visiting her exhibition at the Hepworth, propped a postcard on my mantelpiece. It was thrilling to discover my very own version in the bathroom of my flat at the CBRL – the same torn fly screen and sense of an unknowable beyond (literally in my case, with the opaque glass and shadowy Islamic curves) – uncanny as well as affirming to find this significant view had travelled east with me. I took it as a good sign.
One of the events I participated in in Amman was a session with English Literature students from Jordan University – all wonderfully well-read, enthusiastic and attentive young people. In the Q & A after my reading, one of them enquired about my position as observer in my poems – always looking rather than doing. We’d already discussed Blake’s ‘doors of perception’ and Keats’s ‘negative capability’ so I was sorry that I perhaps hadn’t expressed clearly enough how active I believe looking and listening are, how much they demand of us – often far harder than talking or doing.
It was a reminder of the risk that looking and listening, both happening in silence, won’t be seen, acknowledged or valued in our hectic, cacophonous world. What is slow and reflective must be as important and transformative as more visible engaged energy. Don’t we need both – as individuals and collectively?
Spending time in Jordan gave me plenty of opportunities for observation – spiced with the exciting freshness of surprise – but also to connect, communicate and play. Moving between being alone and with others, I was able yet again to interrogate my ideas about folk (of all tribes) who appear different from me – how we might occupy the space together. It also took me to a place where I could re-acquaint myself with all the ‘others’ I carry inside me, my own warring factions and scapegoats. There is never simply looking or listening: alone or all-one, we are always thoroughly implicated – and knowing that, changes the quality of our various modes of perception. This is the space a writer (or an artist, like Lee Miller) must climb through and create from, making something invisible visible.
So that is my task now – assimilating and tentatively transforming my experience, notes, reading and images into some new writing, mindful of 19thcentury traveller to the Levant, Isabella Romer’s warning that trying to find anything new to say is ‘like squeezing a squeezed lemon’ (1846). I think maybe she was guarding her own threshold too jealously. Better to keep in mind the TLS’s review of Gertrude Bell’s The Desert and the Sown, her compelling (though not unproblematic) account of a journey through Syria, published in 1907:
Women perhaps make the best travellers, for when they have the true wanderer’s spirit they are more enduring and, strange to say, more indifferent to hardship and discomfort than men. They are unquestionably more observant of details and quicker to receive impressions. Their sympathies are more alert, and they get into touch with strangers more readily.
I stayed in Amman during September as part of ‘Alta’ir: Durham-Jordan Creative Collaboration’, a partnership project between Durham Book Festival/New Writing North, the Council for British Research in the Levant (CBRL), St Mary’s College, Durham University, Dr Fadia Faqir and the British Council.
You can read an earlier post from Amman on the Durham Book Festival blog. There will be an ‘In Conversation’ event with my Jordanian exchangee Mofleh Al Adwan chaired by Fadia Faqir on Sunday 14th October, 12 – 1pm. All are very welcome.
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.
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.
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.
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)
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.
I went to one of Sofie Layton’s wonderful workshops around this work and ended up contributing a poem to the exhibition. This is not it…but a sideways take I found during my research.
The earth is suffocating. Swear to make them cut me open, so that I won’t be buried alive.
Chopin on his death bed, 1849
Smuggled by his sister
back into his homeland
past Russian guards
sealed in a jar of cognac
interred in a Warsaw crypt
conferred on an SS officer
who admired his music
returned to the Holy Cross
examined for cause of death:
pericarditis, chronic tuberculosis.
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.