Tag Archives: memory

What Is Is?

Lately I have been enjoying dipping into Michael Donaghy’s delightful anthology 101 Poems about Childhood (Faber, 2005).  His brief introduction is full of insight and provocation.

In one sense, all poetry is kids’ stuff.  What makes us recognise a piece of writing as a poem is often a ‘technique’ whereby poets imitate children’s thinking.

…Perhaps poetry is our way of using the power of language against itself so that, however briefly, we see and feel the world afresh, with all the intensity of infancy.

…we expect wisdom from poets, as we expect it from philosophers and cosmologists.  In fact, we expect them all to pose the very same questions children ask:  What is is?  Why is there anything?  And why doesn’t it all happen at once?  Like children’s art, children’s speculative thought shows a resourcefulness and curiosity missing from most adults.

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The anthology is arranged chronologically and I felt the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end reading Alexander der Wilde’s poem from the 13th century When We Were Children.  In David Ferry’s elegant translation, it is beguilingly fresh.  I am fascinated by what people remember of the natural world from childhood, how those memories lay down a blueprint for our relationship with the earth and what grows and lives on it (including ourselves and others).  There is often an aura of innocence, nostalgia, paradise lost.  This poem, nearly eight centuries old, captures the sorrow of our fall into adulthood, its default, though illusory, certainty; all of us ‘left standing in the field’, ‘stripped naked’.  A better fate perhaps than being shut inside the castle with the king?  At least outside we have the chance to learn how to enjoy the art of toiling and spinning, asking and living our questions.

When We Were Children

I remember how, at that time, in this meadow,

We used to run up and down, playing our games,

Tag and games of that sort; and looked for wild flowers,

Violets and such. A long time ago.

Now there are only these cows, bothered by flies,

Only these cows, wandering about in the meadow.

I remember us sitting down in the field of flowers,

Surrounded by flowers, and playing she loves me not,

She loves me; plucking the flower petals.

My memory of childhood is full of those flowers,

Bright with the colors of garlands we wore in our dancing

And playing. So time went by among the wildflowers.

Look over there near those trees at the edge of the woods.

Right over there is where we used to find

Blueberry bushes, blackberry bushes, wild strawberries.

We had to climb over rocks and old walls to get them.

One day a man called out to us: ‘Children, go home.’

He had been watching from somewhere in the woods.

We used to feast on the berries we found in that place

Till our hands and mouths were stained with the colors of all

The berries, the blackberries, strawberries, and the blueberries.

It was all fun to us, in the days of our childhood.

One day a man called out, in a doleful voice:

‘Go home, children, go home, there are snakes in that place.’

One day one of the children went into the grass

That grows high near the woods, among the bushes.

We heard him scream and cry out. He came back weeping.

‘Our little horse is lying down and bleeding.

Our pony is lying down. Our pony is dying.

I saw a snake go crawling off in the grass.’

Children, go home, before it gets too dark.

If you don’t go home before the light has gone,

If you don’t get home before the night has come,

Listen to me, you will be lost in the dark,

Listen to me, your joy will turn into sorrow.

Children, go home, before it gets to be dark.

There were five virgins lingered in the field.

The king went in with his bride and shut the doors.

The palace doors were shut against the virgins.

The virgins wept left standing in the field.

The servants came and stripped the virgins naked.

The virgins wept, stripped naked, in the field.

 

Alexander Der Wilde

Translated from the German by David Ferry

(from Dwelling Places, University of Chicago Press, 1993)

N.B. The poem is divided into six-line stanzas but the formatting has eluded me here.

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Not a handful of earth

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For when the traveller returns from the mountain slopes into the valley,

he brings, not a handful of earth, unsayable to others but instead

some word he has gained, some pure word, the yellow and blue

gentian.  Perhaps we are here in order to say: house,

bridge, fountain, gate, pitcher, fruit-tree, window –

at most: column, tower?…but to say them you must understand,

oh to say them more intensely than the things themselves 

ever dreamed of existing.

From Rilke’s 9th Elegy

It’s over a week ago that the garden at Moorbank closed its gates and I’ve hesitated to write about it, unable to find the words.  The place was still being ransacked even as we held our final fling amidst it all.

IMG_7116I felt as if I was at a funeral, the funeral of someone I loved, my legs hollow and shaky, stomach fluttery and taut.  I still can’t quite believe we won’t be able to go back but whatever happens, depending on the course the Freemen decide to take, it will never be the same.

IMG_7109I’m pleased I have so many full notebooks and photographs to return to and summon the garden, its plants and trees, from a mixture of memory and imagination, what I’ve managed to salvage from close observation and what I hope is a reliable, authentic notation.

IMG_7113The Director of Moorbank, Dr Anne Borland, made a wonderful speech celebrating the Garden’s significant legacy.  Here’s a small but striking extract, highlighting the University’s shortsightedness in deciding to cut such a valuable resource:

Moorbank has been an important resource for Plant Science research at the University since 1923. Trevor Walker amassed a unique collection of tropical ferns and the discovery of a new pathway of photosynthesis in the 1950s by Drs Ranson and Thomas relied on plant material raised and maintained at Moorbank.  Whilst the number of plant scientists employed at Newcastle has declined over the years, Moorbank has continued to support the work of postgraduate students from countries as far apart as Thailand and Nigeria as well as undergraduate project students on a whole range of topics from bird behaviour to plant genetics, important research on Alzheimers (the work of Elaine Perry) and on a personal level Moorbank has been home to my collection of the tropical trees of Clusia, probably the most diverse collection of the genus in Europe, a genus which is now at the centre of a $15 million dollar research program funded by the US-DOE to improve drought tolerance in tree species used for biofuel production.

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Translation from the Tulip

The most interesting things in life often happen by accident.

The opening sentence of The Tulip by Anna Pavord (Bloomsbury, 1999)photo copy

Perhaps it’s because I’m on the brink of a birthday but recently I’ve been thinking about how memory works and noticing my changing relationship with it.  I used to think that memory and imagination occupied different compartments of my brain – particularly in relation to the making of a poem.  Lately I’m more inclined to think they’re aspects of the same impulse – our need for assimilation and understanding.  Memories aren’t fixed – they evolve over time and there’s always more to uncover than you think there is.

IMG_4593 Since I became more thoroughly aware of that, I’m less interested in writing about ‘the past’, which feels like a slightly skewed concept – much more intricately stitched into our present experience than is always comfortable.  If it’s true that we are the sum of our thoughts, words and actions, the past, present and future can be seen to work in parallel –all with the potential to be changed by our making different choices.  I’ve often thought of this as manifest in the process of choosing the next word (and the next and the next etc) when writing a line of poetry.  None of it is inevitable, although we might persuade ourselves it is so.

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Today I have been looking at a friend’s gift of tulips (a gorgeous variety called Angélique).  They’re just getting blousy – that knack tulips have of dying so very beautifully.  Over sixteen years ago I must have looked at another gift of tulips and wrote Still Life (from Storyville, Bloodaxe 1997).  Re-reading it is like looking at an old photograph of myself, a historical translation.  A great deal of my experience and how I would choose to express myself has changed but I recognize the almost physical impact of the flowers’ beauty, the pleasure that goes in through the eyes and touches something in the belly.

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Isn’t this how memory and imagination works?  Not in the brain at all but somewhere in the gut, all those nerve endings stimulated into communicating a sense of perception, of relationship and intimacy.  How we choose to respond to that moment of recognition and connection affects what the future looks like.  And today, how my new tulip poem might unfold and what the coming year may bring…

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