Tag Archives: Eden

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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More Light

IMG_6761Open the second shutter so that more light may come in.

Goethe’s last words

Every year the Institute of Advanced Study here in Durham adopts a theme to provide a focus for the interdisciplinary conversation and this year’s is Light so the Lumière Festival was a wonderful reflection of the various subjects we have been discussing in the past few months, connecting the history, science, philosophy, paleobiology and politics of light.  My contribution is an angle on the poetry of light, via my current work on plants, gardens and ecology.  I have a sense that making a poem is, like the germination of a seed, an act that takes place in the dark, leaves and language reaching for the space to open into that light makes possible.

IMG_6780 Boswell: Then, sir, what is poetry?

Johnson: Why, sir, it is much easier to say what it is not.  We all know what light is; but it is not easy to tell what it is.

From Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson

IMG_6808When a friend sent me a link to an online word frequency counter, I discovered that light was the fourth most frequent noun in my new collection-in-progress (after garden, home and tree).  Other frequent nouns, in descending order, are flower, flowers, earth, love, leaves, heart, dark and world.

IMG_6896Light plays itself out in various layers of my recent investigations.  The simple fact of it is reflected in the difference between the Northern and Southern hemispheres and suggested my itinerary – from North East England to Sydney, visiting Singapore en route.  I wanted to experience summer in winter, an up-ending associated in my mind with the disorientation of so-called certainties in relation to place, climate and culture.  Always drawn to examining the nature of polarities – north/south, city/country, male/female, home/away, self/other, static/dynamic – I was keen to explore the possibility of writing from that queasy spot experienced as insecurity, tension, paradox, groundlessness.  It’s definitely been a case of Be careful what you wish for as I have indeed found myself occupying this open zone and – surprise, surprise– it is not entirely comfortable.  Maybe that is the concentrated point of risk and inquiry (a certain degree of darkness) that poetry arises from.  I’ve appreciated the support of this small tribe I’ve become part of in Durham while I continue my navigations.

IMG_6798We’ve never, no, not for a single day,

pure space before us, such as that which flowers

endlessly open into.

From Rilke’s 8th Duino Elegy

IMG_6819Light occurs implicitly in these new poems, acknowledging the biological process of photosynthesis, without which we would literally have no air to breathe.  No plants, no life on earth: something most people take utterly for granted, instead of remembering to celebrate the joy of interdependence and exchange.  There is great intimacy and compassion in this deep sense of ecology, which has the potential to change the way people choose to live.

Joy and wonder are inevitable consequences of an awareness and appreciation of the natural world.  Sometimes I think I am just ‘singing the flowers’, like an Ethiopian herdsman sings the praises of his cattle, one by one, his greatest wealth.  This year I have been fortunate enough to have seen so many wonders, such delightful and astonishing plants and trees, how can I not bring back traveller’s tales, share the fruits of my explorations?

IMG_6811On this journey of discovery, light has given me access to the unknown, otherness.  Through the light of awareness, I have begun to penetrate the historical (and contemporary) darknesses of exploitation, prejudice, exoticisation, colonialism and capitalism.  Close observation, reflection and articulation shed light on these areas that thrive in shade and silence.  Light contains within it its opposite – and so my work also inevitably touches upon grief and melancholy; within the cycle of life, there is death, loss.

Human beings have always harnessed the healing, regenerative properties of light.  In relation to plants, this medicine is both literal and metaphorical.  It also pertains to the transitional – the time of necessary change in which we find ourselves where we are being encouraged to consume more and more of less and less to redress the balance of decades of over-consumption.  The gesture is one of letting go, shedding – particularly relevant perhaps for those of us getting older and needing to move more in tune with the time, the season of our lives, as well as the time of the increasingly burdened planet.

IMG_6944Imagine a walled garden, the hortus conclusus, as a vessel of light.  It is the body of the Virgin Mary, a mythic Eden or Paradise (honouring birth and death), the blessings of light held safe within its boundaries.  I have opened a door in this garden, letting the light spill out, making a track to follow and see by, illuminating the ground to be covered and creating a sense of path or journey.  I was amused to learn that the ‘random meander’ strategy I instinctively evolved (of having no fixed goal or destination and responding to whatever I encountered along the way) is an accepted ‘scientific’ research method.

IMG_6913Light has been part of my methods in other ways relating more directly to poetic technique.  I see it in my consideration of the white space around the individual poems, allowing the form to mirror the diversity of plant physiology I find so fascinating.  Achieving this degree of ‘engineering’ requires clarity of mind, incisiveness and discriminating awareness (what to cut? where? how to create an authentic texture of light and presence, absence and shadow?).  A poem also needs a lightness of touch in the voice and address to persuade the reader it is worth reading or listening to at all.  I am keen that these new poems with their ecological concerns should never be worthy, in danger of putting a reader off rather than making a connection with (and for) her.  Doesn’t every poet want to be able to direct their own light, illuminating their ‘subject’ for a reader, and so leave her changed by it?

IMG_6878I am pursuing a line of investigation around the Nine Muses as sources of inspiration – Art, Science and Culture, and their mother, Memory (and ‘stepmothers’, Earth and Harmony).  Ralph Waldo Emerson claimed that the first muse was Health and there seems no reason to contradict him.

IMG_6890These final thoughts have led me to start thinking of my collection-in-progress as something growing, a healthy, vibrant, though unfinished, garden, with the working title Heliconia.  This is a reference to one of my favourite plants I first ‘met’ at Moorbank and followed across the globe, beyond the limits of glass, to Singapore and then Sydney (you can see an example of one variety in the banner at the top of this blog), as well as pointing to that mountain in Boeotia, traditionally home of the Muses, surely a source of all manner of light.

What is to give light must endure burning.

Viktor Frankl

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Irresistible

Not every soil can bear all things.

Virgil (70 – 19 B.C.)

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