Tag Archives: Mary Oliver

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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Even in the Leafless Winter

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As a counterpoint to Christmas I’m very happy to post this piece and accompanying video by Malcolm Green, bird lover and storyteller.  His captivating collaboration with Tim Dalling, Shearwater, has this year toured the length and breadth of the country and will be returning to Orkney for next year’s Festival.

I like the idea that the starlings are putting on a show for those with time to stand and look in North America too.

Reed (Phragmites australis) is the species in the Celtic Tree Calendar for October 28th – November 23rd.

Starlings at Lambley

I first noticed the starlings on a walk with Pat on November 10th (2013).  They were in the reed beds of the Lambley water treatment plant; the reeds alive with their pre-sleep twitter as they found their best perch for the night.  Sometimes five or six excited birds clung to one stalk so many had collapsed.

Then another night from a distance, a ball of them flew through the sky – in turn visible and invisible, expanding and contracting, like a breath.  Breath-taking.

Again on December 8th, I went to the same spot with Paul and we stood beside the reed bed from three o’clock in the afternoon. We watched them assemble; one little flock after the next joining the gathering cloud – a ballet of birds that whipped and whooped through the sky, round and round our heads.  How many were there? Perhaps 20,000 or so individuals that joined together to become a single gyrating organism.

I read on Google that it is possible to understand the movement of the flock mathematically.  It’s also easy to project all sorts of meanings onto this extraordinary dance. But the experience seems to defy rational explanation and this, in a way, is its power. The sight and sound transcends our mental murmurings and busy calculations to simply set our cells aflutter with excitement and awe. A reminder that there is a real, living world away from the desk and the screen.

I believe they have left the little reed bed now.  Perhaps they flattened all the available stalks and it is no longer a refuge.  Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps…

Malcolm Green

Starlings in Winter

Chunky and noisy,

but with stars in their black feathers,

they spring from the telephone wire

and instantly

 

 

they are acrobats

in the freezing wind.

And now, in the theater of air,

they swing over buildings,

 

 

dipping and rising;

they float like one stippled star

that opens,

becomes for a moment fragmented,

 

 

then closes again;

and you watch

and you try

but you simply can’t imagine

 

 

how they do it

with no articulated instruction, no pause,

only the silent confirmation

that they are this notable thing,

 

 

this wheel of many parts, that can rise and spin

over and over again,

full of gorgeous life.

Ah, world, what lessons you prepare for us,

 

 

even in the leafless winter,

even in the ashy city.

I am thinking now

of grief, and of getting past it;

 

 

I feel my boots

trying to leave the ground,

I feel my heart pumping hard, I want

to think again of dangerous and noble things.

 

 

I want to be light and frolicsome.

I want to be improbably beautiful and afraid of nothing,

as though I had wings.

 

Mary Oliver

 

 

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