Sean Scully, Untitled, 1967
Like many of us, I’m looking forward to this year’s Newcastle Poetry Festival, Crossings 2nd – 5th May. A sweet little taster came in the form of an interview with Sasha Dugdale on the Festival blog. She will be chairing a session at the Translation-themed Symposium at the Sage (3rdMay) and also give the Royal Literary Fund Lecture on Pushkin at Northern Stage (Saturday 5thMay). It will be an exciting few days with lots to think about. Do come along to listen and enjoy – and spread the word to folk who may be interested.
Further excitement in the Translation Dept – the cover of my new Selected Poems from Bulgaria – blue and beautiful. For those of you whose Bulgarian is a touch rusty, it is called Simultaneous Dress and translated by the wonderful poet Nadya Radulova. The book is now published but I have yet to hold a copy in my hands. They are itching.
When I stayed in Sofia a couple of years ago I wrote several new poems. This is one of them – seen from the balcony of my apartment on Kyril and Methodii Street.
The Screaming Party
Every evening they come darting across
the skyline dots and dashes of high-pitched morse.
Who knows what they’re screaming for static
in their throats white noise plucked from the day’s havoc
and flung back into blank air. Hypnotic drifts.
As if auditioning for Hitchcock these swifts
carry the contraband pressure we must
scatter before we can capitulate
to the dark tucked inside us and sleep. Strident
cries industrious wings are hooks to rest
our shadows on watch them soar our own fall
mouths agape. Each burst of piercing calls
silvers a key to unfasten the doors
to dreams so greet greet our night visitors.
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.
Microscopic image of skin cells
Ben Freeth’s sound and light installation
Ahren Warner’s scrolling prosimetrum
Tom Schofield’s interactive ‘skin-covered’ construction
Kate Sweeney’s photographic Still Life
My new prose poem bound as a book
(an extract on the left hand side of the first image here)
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.
I 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.
I’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.
The 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.
Last night I gave a reading of some of my new poems at the Lindisfarne Centre, St Aidan’s, Durham University, where I am currently Fellow at the IAS. This year’s theme is ‘Light’ and it felt ironic to be revisiting Moorbank which has been so illuminating for me while the gardeners are preparing to clear out the glasshouses in readiness for the Freemen taking back ownership at the end of the month.
The deadlock continues in terms of any possibility of creative dialogue between the Friends and the Freemen so it remains to be seen what will transpire. Meanwhile here are some updates from Moorbank’s Facebook posts. Yet more irony – all this happening when it’s just won a much deserved Award…
We are thrilled to announce that Moorbank Botanic Garden has been awarded an Outstanding rating in the RHS – Royal Horticultural Society ‘It’s Your Neighbourhood’ Awards. We were presented this award last night at the ceremony and we’d like to thank the BBC’s Marian Foster for nominating us for this award. You can read all the information about how we were marked in the photos, but we’re thrilled with this news!!
This week marks the date when Newcastle University are starting to rehome plants from Moorbank Botanic Gardens. They are being forced to do this as the Freemen have not revealed their plans for what will happen to Moorbank once the University depart. The University offered to leave the entire collection, minus the research plants, but the Freemen have not suggested how they will care for Moorbank once the University leave, so the concerns were with the tropical and desert plants. There were no suggestions that the heating and watering systems would continue, which would mean that there would be total loss of plants in these glasshouses. Homes have been found for the most important plants in our glasshouses with other botanic gardens across the UK, including Sunderland Winter Gardens, Ventnor Botanic Garden, Glasgow Botanic Garden and Cambridge University Botanic Garden. However, many mature plants cannot be moved due to their size or intermingled roots. Cuttings are being taken from these plants, but there will still be significant numbers of plants left in the glasshouses after the University departs. We still haven’t been given any information about whether the Freemen will care for these appropriately, or whether they will switch off the heating and water.
Check Moorbank out on Look North from last night. You can scroll to about 11 1/2 minutes in to see the article about Moorbank and hear what the Freemen have to say. Not that we’re biased, but our independent survey of the site told us we needed to find £120k over 5 years to restore Moorbank. The Freemen haven’t yet mentioned to us what they think will cost “several hundred thousand pounds” to fix let alone the “million” that they are now claiming.
There was also a good summary of the situation in The Journal – you can read it here.
On my last visit to Moorbank a few weeks ago I was delighted to see the Strawberry Tree (Arbutus unedo), that had suffered so badly in the heavy snowfall of 2010, springing back into life. Surviving against the odds, reflecting the cyclical nature of things, it’s always been a strong symbol of the spirit of Moorbank for me. Let’s hope its strong new shoot is a good sign for what the future may yet bring.
We abuse the land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.
The latest update from Moorbank popped in my inbox this morning. I wanted to share it here, hoping that you might help spread the word. This is more than a good cause – saving Moorbank is an important way to help keep Newcastle green. It’s such an valuable resource for us all, whether we live in the city or not. Please give what you can – money, skills, energy, ideas, contacts etc.
Thank you for your continuing support of Moorbank. Since our last update, we have presented our feasibility study and project proposals to the Freemen of the City. Feedback has suggested that the site has a significant level of dilapidation, and as a result of this we are looking to raise capital to correct any issues. We have decided to carry out an independent survey of the buildings and glasshouses, and are in need of a surveyor who would be willing to carry this work out in the near future. Does anyone have any experience in this area, or perhaps knows a surveyor who could help with this? Please get in touch with us if you can help with this aspect by Thursday 23rd May as there is some urgency for this work to be carried out.
In addition, we are currently in partnership negotiations with a local College, and we are optimistic of the result. Unfortunately neither the college or the Friends have capital to spend on the upgrade of the site, so we intend to launch a campaign to raise funds to enable the ‘dilapidation of the site’ to be addressed. We have already approached some local Businessmen to ask for support, which has been favourably received, although as yet we do not know the level of investment that will be made. We will also be seeking funding from a range of trusts who offer funding to restore buildings. We are also hoping members of the public and Moorbank supporters might be willing to offer donations, and if you can help, we will have a donations box available on our forthcoming open days; as part of The Late Shows on Saturday 18th May (7pm-11pm) and as part of the National Gardens Scheme on Wednesday 22nd May (4pm to 8pm). If you are not able to make it to our Open Days, please send cheques payable to the ‘Friends of Moorbank’ to: Moorbank Botanic Garden, Claremont Road, Newcastle, NE2 4NL.
The Friends are in the process of setting up the Moorbank Botanic Garden as a limited company and we are hoping to involve a professional fundraiser to assist us in our cause. We will also be registering as a charity in the next few weeks which will allow us to claim tax back, and we will be eligible for a wider range of funds.
Finally, we are in the process of constructing a website and are interested in hearing from people who might be interested in helping provide content for this, along with content for our social media pages on Facebook and Twitter and our quarterly newsletter. If you are willing to carry out some writing and/or take photos about updates in the garden, horticultural news and other things linked to Moorbank, please get in touch.
Once again, thank you for your continued support of Moorbank in this difficult time. We hope to see some of you at our two Open Days over the next week and to hear from you if you can help with the above queries.
Moorbank Botanic Garden Executive Committee
Please see our Facebook page for up to date news: www.facebook.com/moorbank
and our Twitter feed: www.twitter.com/growingmoorbank
I look forward to seeing as many of you who can make at the Open Day on Wednesday 22nd May.
Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.