Tag Archives: poets

Spring Forward, Fall Back

Beaty Rubens has woven a wonderful tapestry of sound and voices out of the NCLA’s  recent project based on Lindisfarne.  I’ve just listened to it on Radio 4 and it should be available to ‘listen again’ (and is repeated next Saturday evening at 11.30).  Although our last visit in April seems a very long time ago, hearing the words, the sea and the general hubbub brought it all back – in the way only a recording can.

Twelve poets were commissioned to write a poem marking this summer’s return of the Lindisfarne Gospels to the North East.  I wrote mine in response to the gift of a photo of some Silverweed growing on the sea shore from Ajahn Sucitto, a monk in the Theravadin Buddhist tradition.  His discipline, although less austere than St Cuthbert’s, is still impressive in its rigour and integrity.  I find such counter-cultural commitment and restraint very moving – a good model but hard to follow.

Aren’t we all pilgrims?  One step forward, two steps back?

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Silverweed

Argentina anserina

You send me a pilgrim-monk’s-eye view –

our lord’s footsteps, cinquefoil – gold and silver

sprung out of the sand, leaves like feathers, spray.

Crimson runners are lines on a manuscript,

join what needs to be joined, arteries

of earth and heart: the shudder of the sea

not far away; a sadness in the stretch

and snap of the waves, the way they suck themselves

back, sadder.  You steer your course with such grace,

a brother’s footsteps I try to follow,

asking for nothing – amazed when what blooms

in the imprint of each carefully planted heel

and toe is a sudden illumination

of silver and gold, home for the mutual,

that amniotic salt we’ve been berthed in

over and over.  All I need to do

is open the book of my heart and keep on

looking.  Here, traveller – goosewort, richette

tuck some fresh leaves inside your shoes

to leaven the crossing, our long walking.

 

You can hear more – live – later in November…

Antiphonal

A talk and poetry reading

Location: St Edmunds Chapel, High Street, Gateshead
Time/Date: 15th November 2013, 19:15

There will be a talk by Professor Clare Lees, King’s College London, about the Antiphonal project, a performance by poets involved and a chance to experience the installation created by sound and interaction artist, Tom Schofield. A published pamphlet of the specially commissioned poems, Shadow Script, will be available to buy on the night. The exhibition runs from 15 to 21 November.

Tickets for this event are free, but should be booked in advance from the NCLA site.

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Tales of the Riverbank

IMG_5724Today, while my car was in the garage, I picnicked among the long grass on the riverbank at Corbridge and caught up with Saturday’s Guardian Review.  As well as enjoying watching a very hairy caterpillar add the flourish of its own signature to the page, I found myself initially pleased, then provoked by Steven Poole’s consideration of the current ‘fashion’ for ‘nature writing’ – a category of creative non-fiction he suggests is ‘a solidly bourgeois form of escapism’, offering an idealised and xenophobic view of the countryside and what grows and roams there.  His tone rings with familiar critical one-upmanship – just another aspect perhaps of old ideas about power and hierarchy contemporary authors are attempting to unravel? Environmental challenges have opened a door onto the exciting possibility of radically re-interpreting historical narratives about class and gender.  Poole asks ‘who should really be in charge?’  This is surely the wrong question, which can only lead to yet another unhelpful answer.

IMG_5728In his article Poole imagines a largely urban readership seduced and distracted from their usual concerns by these books – the texts themselves substitutes for nature.  People who live in the countryside like to read about it too!  And aren’t we all in this together, asking questions about what constitutes ‘the natural’ and where we fit in amongst it?  Trying to figure out how to limit the damage for ourselves and future generations? Surely the time for looking at things in terms of male/female, working/middle/upper class, urban/rural is past – such divisions a luxury we can no longer afford?

By now we’ve seen enough evidence to acknowledge the interdependence of living organisms.  This is simply pragmatic, rather than what Poole, rather sneerily, calls a ‘flirt with panpsychism’.  Whatever happens from hereon in, whether we live in the city or the country, there is no doubt that we are implicated.  On Radio 4, Monty Don’s Shared Planet has been offering a very balanced consideration of where things currently stand with regard to the pressures on species and space.  I’ve really appreciated his calm, measured tones – a pointed contrast to the quickfire delivery of most presenters.

IMG_5732Poole picks up on the implications of Otherness in relation to plant and animal species – seen as either ‘native’ or ‘invasive’ – and gives it a political spin, as if nature writers were no better than fascists, intent on keeping out ‘illegal immigrants’; his critique tending to be more rhetoric than fact.  In another enlightening radio series, looking at trees in particular, Richard Mabey made an attempt to redress the bad reputation of the sycamore, suggesting we should be grateful that such a robust, well-adapted species exists to fill up the gaps left by our failing elm and ash.  Landscape is not static.

The impulse towards a Thoreau-type immersion in natural environments that Poole criticises as romantic and elitist is so widespread it seems to reflect a deeper need in society than one reserved for a privileged few.  As the population approaches the 9/10 billion mark, it’s hardly surprising it’s not just writers who have an inkling for more silence, solitude and spaciousness, a corrective to the clamour of so much indiscriminate social and media input.  However the writer concerning herself with ‘Nature’ has the potential to unearth welcome and necessary insights out in the field that will benefit us all in the midst of our current ‘transition’ conversations and choices.

IMG_5726And like the caterpillar making itself present to the argument, the contribution of the writer seemed to be made clear on the next page  – where the poet David Constantine introduces his ‘Hero’ Albert Camus by saying:

I suppose most writers believe, with Camus, that ‘saying things badly increases the unhappiness of the world’. And that they are duty-bound, therefore, to say things accurately; that is, to tell the truth.

Fiction and poetry will help in this struggle (against the ‘hell’ of the world) by dis-illusioning; but also…by embodying a love of the earth and the enjoyment of its gifts and by making works which are fit to be seen in it; which is to say, by making and asserting beauty in the teeth of ‘a world that insults it’ (Camus)…an assertion of individual freedom…brings you into a recognition of common human suffering and of the common need to lessen it and enliven the lives of all.

This isn’t a definitive ‘answer’ but it is a way of living and working that does no harm  – saying things well, saying things true – one I am profoundly appreciative of my fellow writers’ risking and sharing.

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In searching for the links for this post, I found a very long thread of comments taking issue with Poole’s article online and a particularly persuasive counter-article from today’s Guardian by George Monbiot (who came in for a lot of stick on Saturday).  He reminds us of the dangers of upsetting the delicate balance of the ecosystem:

Exotic invasive species are a straightforward ecological problem, wearily familiar to anyone trying to protect biodiversity. Some introduced creatures – such as brown hare, little owl, field poppy, corncockle and pheasant’s eye in Britain – do no harm to their new homes, and are cherished and defended by nature lovers. Others, such as cane toads, mink, rats, rhododendron, kudzu vine or tree-killing fungi, can quickly simplify a complex ecosystem, wiping out many of its endemic animals and plants. They have characteristics (for example, being omnivorous, light-excluding, toxic or inedible to any native carnivore or herbivore) that allow them to tear an ecosystem to shreds. These aren’t cultural constructions. They are biological facts.

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Olive Pink

Last night on the Band Lawn, after a day of celebrations in the Botanic Gardens to welcome in the Autumn, we watched The First Garden, a play about Olive Muriel Pink (1884 – 1975).  The backcloth shows Mount Gillen in the Northern Territory, one of her favourite views.

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Born in Tasmania, a botanical illustrator, anthropologist and gardener, Olive Pink dedicated the second half of her long life to campaigning for Aboriginal rights.  In the late ’40s and early ’50s she lived in Alice Springs, mostly in an ex-Army hut, making a small income from selling cut flowers from her garden, exhibiting her artwork and cleaning the courthouse.  She wrote countless stern letters to politicians on behalf of the Aboriginal people.  Eventually in 1956 she was granted 20 hectares of land nearby to curate as an Australian Arid Regions Flora Reserve.  Her vision was to create a botanical garden using only native plants, with the, fairly paid, assistance of the local Aboriginal community, and one man in particular, Johnny Tjampitjinpa.  Between 1956 and ’58, at the age of 72,  she lived in a tent on site, with no water or electricity, during a time of severe drought, where she would serve visitors Bickford’s lime cordial or a glass of sherry and a slice of madeira cake.  After her death the garden was renamed in her honour and opened to the public in 1985.

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At one point in the play Miss Pink says to Johnny ‘The world began with a garden.  Let’s hope it ends with one.’  It was a powerful story of one woman’s inspiring life, committed to the preservation of the land she loved and the people who’d been its caretakers for so long, before the arrival of the European invaders.  I keep hearing stories here of white folks, often women, who devote much of their time and energy to the ongoing restitution.  The poet Judith Wright (1915 – 2000) was one of them.  Towards the end of her life she stopped writing poetry to devote more time to the causes of environmentalism and social justice, inseparable in this country, that were so close to her heart.

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a la mode

Even the insects in Italy are stylish…

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Even the shops sell dreams…

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Even the crickets poetic…

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This one spotted on the wall of Petrarch’s house in the Euganean Hills, just outside Padua.

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Home & Gardens

When I get home I want to do everything at once – listen to the radio, read the Sunday paper, watch my new DVD (David Attenborough’s Kingdom of Plants), eat, drink, write, go into every room to remind myself of what I’d left behind, text my nearest and dearest, read my mail, edit my photos etc etc etc.  A terrible burst of simultaneous desires after sitting behind a wheel for three hours.  In the end I settle for unpacking before having a cup of tea and some crackers while I listen to Simon Armitage’s play The Torch Bearers on Radio 3 (part of this year’s FreeThinking Festival at the Sage which I missed, being away).  I say I listened but it didn’t really go in (apart from his recurring motif of Lunaria annua  – Honesty – which did make me prick up my ears).  My mind was just too full of motorways and trees and gardens and all the different beds I’d slept in while I was away, all the friends I’d stayed with.

Jackie Hardy, haiku mistress, in Sheffield, who reminded me that Basho (1644 – 1694) was named after the banana plant that his disciples planted outside the hut he’d moved into to live a more solitary life.

 by my new banana plant

the first sign of something I loathe –

a miscanthus bud!

Jan in Oxford (whose key I’ve managed to bring home with me…), who left on Friday morning to spend the weekend at Alice Meynell’s (1847 – 1922) house in West Sussex with her friend, the poet’s great-granddaughter.

Alec Peever, my longtime friend and collaborator, who lives in Ducklington in a house almost as old as the Botanic Gardens in Oxford (1621).  I collected the slab of sandstone I’d found in my garden some years ago that he’s carved for me: my translation of the name of this place – ‘Stanley’.

My namesake in ‘rural Bolsover’ (currently in need of protection from various plans for development – supermarket/garage/housing), with whom I took the horti out of culture and went to see A Taste of Honey at Sheffield Crucible (raw and compelling, spiced up with a live jazz trio) and visited Harley Gallery – Wendy Ramshaw’s wonderful poetic Room of Dreams.  Ramshaw designed the gates at Mowbray Park in Sunderland, where Alec and I worked together in 2000.

At this time of year it’s always the trees that leave the strongest impression and I’ve been ‘woodbathing’ as much as possible, breathing in all their goodness (particularly at Harcourt Arboretum), whilst mourning the loss of the ash trees in Denmark and possibly soon Kent and the threat from the dieback fungus spreading further (52 cases reported nationwide so far).

That’s the last of my travels for the next few months.  Now I just have to find the words to describe all these different Botanicals, the wonders that I’ve seen…

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