Tag Archives: Durham

Windows on Jordan

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

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Climate Change

It’s clearly in the air.  Today I listened to an interesting programme on Radio 4 – Beyond Belief, about the Papal Encyclical on the Environment and Climate Change.  You can listen again here.

I’d already read this comment from Bhikkhu Bodhi:

Pope Francis reminds us that climate change poses not only a policy challenge but also a call to the moral conscience. If we continue to burn fossil fuels to empower unbridled economic growth, the biosphere will be destabilized, resulting in unimaginable devastation, the deaths of many millions, failed states, and social chaos. Shifting to clean and renewable energy can reverse this trend, opening pathways to a steady-state economy that uplifts living standards for all. One way leads deeper into a culture of death; the other leads to a new culture of life. As climate change accelerates, the choice before us is becoming starker, and the need to choose wisely grows ever more urgent.

More from him here.

Then this popped in my inbox.  I can’t go as I’ll be away on retreat but if you’re down that way, it might be worth taking a look and supporting them.  There’s no more pressing issue.

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And this eery poem by Alice Oswald from The Guardian:

Vertigo

May I shuffle forward and tell you the two minute life of rain

Starting right now lips open and lidless-cold all-seeing gaze

When something not yet anything changes its mind like me

And begins to fall

In the small hours

And the light is still a flying carpet

Only a little white between worlds like an eye opening after an operation

No turning back

each drop is a snap decision

A suicide from the tower-block of heaven

And for the next ten seconds

The rain stares at the ground

Sees me stirring here

As if sculpted in porridge

Sees the garden in the green of its mind already drinking

And the grass lengthening

Stalls …

Maybe a thousand feet above me

A kind of yellowness or levity

Like those tiny alterations that brush the legs of swimmers

Lifts the rain a little to the left

No more than a flash of free-will

Until the clouds close their options and the whole melancholy air surrenders to pure fear and … falls

And I who live in the basement

one level down from the world

with my eyes to the insects with my ears to the roots listening

I feel them in my bones these dead straight lines

Coming closer and closer to my core

This is the sound this is the very floor

Where Grief and his Wife are living looking up

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Under Glass

photoVery good yesterday to be back in Durham again – a perfect sort of Monday.  It was a bit chilly in the Botanic Garden so I took refuge in the glasshouses with the orchids and insects.

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One of the tarantulas was looking very strokable, almost cuddly – safely behind glass.

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I’d gone down to hear Philip Ball’s lecture on the Cultural History of Invisibility – The Dangerous Allure of the Unseen, which was fascinating – and not unconnected with the notions of camouflage and disguise I’d been pondering looking at the stick insects.  His line was basically that the Invisible has always been a metaphor for the Unknown, Otherness – and freighted with issues of moral responsibility.

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How many can you spot among the brambles, their favoured food?  My research tells me that stick insects reproduce by parthenogenesis.  Many species consist only of females.  One of their defence mechanisms is thanatosis – playing dead.    In North America they call them walking sticks, which is strange as, being nocturnal, it’s rare to see them move at all; so playing dead is hardly difficult.  Who knew a stick could be so clever and interesting?  But definitely not cuddly.

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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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The Elephant in the Room

IMG_6731The life of one day is enough to rejoice. Even though you live for just one day, if you can be awakened, that one day is vastly superior to one endless life of sleep. . . . If this day in the lifetime of a hundred years is lost, will you ever touch it with your hands again?

Zen Master Dogen

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IMG_6708I see your argument about horses, the World Spirit, and about tomfoolery and disrespect, as well as why and how all these elements are so connected to each other.

Pussy Riot did turn out be a part of this force, the purpose of which is criticism, creativity and co-creation, experimentation and constantly provocative events. Borrowing Nietzsche’s definition, we are the children of Dionysus, sailing in a barrel and not recognising any authority.

We are a part of this force that has no final answers or absolute truths, for our mission is to question. There are architects of apollonian statics and there are (punk) singers of dynamics and transformation. One is not better than the other. But it is only together that we can ensure the world functions in the way Heraclitus defined it: “This world has been and will eternally be living on the rhythm of fire, inflaming according to the measure, and dying away according to the measure. This is the functioning of the eternal world breath.”

We are the rebels asking for the storm, and believing that truth is only to be found in an endless search. If the “World Spirit” touches you, do not expect that it will be painless.

 Nadezhda Tolokonnikova of Pussy Riot writing to philosopher Slavoj Žižek

IMG_6744 2When there is understanding and a set of values that encourage sharing, then the limitations, the needs, and the lacks of any given life can be acknowledged and effort can be put into using material supports with compassion. This is also true in cases of deprivation; surely a major contributor to this is the greed and exploitation of others, which has its source in identification with material prosperity. If we could all accept the experience of limitation on our resources and comforts, if affluent people’s standard of living were not so high, there would be fewer people who felt, and actually were, “poor.” Maybe with more sharing, there would be less severe physical deprivation. Instead of creating golf courses in the desert, or seeing air-conditioning, two cars, and countless television channels as necessities of life, we could try to accept limitations to our material circumstances and acknowledge that there is suffering.

This acknowledgment doesn’t require that everyone should feel wretched; rather, it’s a matter of learning to know and accept that this earthly realm is one of limitation. When we wake up to how human life on this planet actually is, and stop running away or building walls in our heart, then we develop a wiser motivation for our life. And we keep waking up as the natural dukkha [suffering] touches us. This means that we sharpen our attention to catch our instinctive reactions of blaming ourselves, blaming our parents, or blaming society; we meditate and access our suffering at its root; and consequently we learn to open and be still in our heart. And even on a small scale in daily life situations, such as when we feel bored or ill at ease, instead of trying to avoid these feelings by staying busy or buying another fancy gadget, we learn to look more clearly at our impulses, attitudes, and defenses. In this way dukkha guides and deepens our motivation to the point where we’ll say, “Enough running, enough walls, I’ll grow through handling my blocks and lost places.”



Ajahn Sucitto

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Creepers

At Durham Botanic Garden last weekend a group of us  gathered in the glasshouses for a writing workshop while the rain fell outside.  It was a perfect spot for letting the eye and the imagination take a walk together.

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I was very aware we were not alone – a fine assortment of creatures keeping us company, thankfully behind another layer of glass.  I liked the proximity of human, plant and animal – just part of the way we’re all tangled up together.

IMG_6569Brazilian Birdeater Tarantula

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IMG_6530Cockroaches – Death’s Head, Madagascar Hissing and Mottled Leaf

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Even the cafe couldn’t escape its share of creeping things – the outside attempting to come in from the cold…

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Under the Toffee Apple Tree

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At Durham Botanic Garden yesterday I enjoyed my second autumn of the year (although this one more sure of itself and familiar than in Sydney in March) and the sweet, slightly burnt fragrance of the Katsura tree.  For some people it evokes the smell of candyfloss – definitely something Bonfire Nightish about it.  Cercidiphyllum japonicum – the leaves are like heart-shaped spoons, pale gold, veined with green.  Rising here from a five-stemmed trunk, the branches are whiskery and tentative, but generous.  It is pleasing to discover that the wood is often used to make boards for the game of Go.

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