Tag Archives: women

Windows on Jordan

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Before I travelled to Jordan I became slightly obsessed with Lee Miller’s Portrait of Space, taken when she was in Egypt in 1937.  I pinned a copy on my kitchen wall and later, after visiting her exhibition at the Hepworth, propped a postcard on my mantelpiece.  It was thrilling to discover my very own version in the bathroom of my flat at the CBRL – the same torn fly screen and sense of an unknowable beyond (literally in my case, with the opaque glass and shadowy Islamic curves) – uncanny as well as affirming to find this significant view had travelled east with me.  I took it as a good sign.

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One of the events I participated in in Amman was a session with English Literature students from Jordan University – all wonderfully well-read, enthusiastic and attentive young people. In the Q & A after my reading, one of them enquired about my position as observer in my poems – always looking rather than doing.  We’d already discussed Blake’s ‘doors of perception’ and Keats’s ‘negative capability’ so I was sorry that I perhaps hadn’t expressed clearly enough how active I believe looking and listening are, how much they demand of us – often far harder than talking or doing.

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It was a reminder of the risk that looking and listening, both happening in silence, won’t be seen, acknowledged or valued in our hectic, cacophonous world.  What is slow and reflective must be as important and transformative as more visible engaged energy.  Don’t we need both – as individuals and collectively?

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Spending time in Jordan gave me plenty of opportunities for observation – spiced with the exciting freshness of surprise – but also to connect, communicate and play.  Moving between being alone and with others, I was able yet again to interrogate my ideas about folk (of all tribes) who appear different from me – how we might occupy the space together.  It also took me to a place where I could re-acquaint myself with all the ‘others’ I carry inside me, my own warring factions and scapegoats.  There is never simply looking or listening: alone or all-one, we are always thoroughly implicated – and knowing that, changes the quality of our various modes of perception.  This is the space a writer (or an artist, like Lee Miller) must climb through and create from, making something invisible visible.

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So that is my task now – assimilating and tentatively transforming my experience, notes, reading and images into some new writing, mindful of 19thcentury traveller to the Levant, Isabella Romer’s warning that trying to find anything new to say is ‘like squeezing a squeezed lemon’ (1846).  I think maybe she was guarding her own threshold too jealously.  Better to keep in mind the TLS’s review of Gertrude Bell’s The Desert and the Sown, her compelling (though not unproblematic) account of a journey through Syria, published in 1907:

Women perhaps make the best travellers, for when they have the true wanderer’s spirit they are more enduring and, strange to say, more indifferent to hardship and discomfort than men.  They are unquestionably more observant of details and quicker to receive impressions.  Their sympathies are more alert, and they get into touch with strangers more readily.

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I stayed in Amman during September as part of ‘Alta’ir: Durham-Jordan Creative Collaboration’, a partnership project between Durham Book Festival/New Writing North, the Council for British Research in the Levant (CBRL), St Mary’s College, Durham University, Dr Fadia Faqir and the British Council.  

You can read an earlier post from Amman on the Durham Book Festival blog.  There will be an ‘In Conversation’ event with my Jordanian exchangee Mofleh Al Adwan chaired by Fadia Faqir on Sunday 14th October, 12 – 1pm.  All are very welcome.

 

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On Lindisfarne

 

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Portrait of the Artist as an Island Flower

 

However much it loves history, a poem

is not an interpretation panel, in a frame.

 

There are many things it cannot do in a time

at odds with itself.  Gather up, as she did –

 

field garlic, brookweed, sea campion, beaked parsley,

water plantain, knotted trefoil, tufted centaury.

 

Pluck them where they hide on whin or dune to take

home (imagine crossing the sea-soaked causeway

 

by horse-drawn carriage) then paint – purple and white,

yellow and pink, the common language of green.

 

Not scented or seductive, each one’s a modest plant,

at risk from slipshod steps, or simple disregard.

 

Conjure the woman in a watercolour mirror

of flowers as tenderly as if from her own bones

 

sealed in a box; her secrets – thank god – encrypted.

Heed the silence, most eloquent against the tide.

 

  

In 1874, Margaret Rebecca Dickinson made seven watercolours of plants found on Lindisfarne, many rare and endangered.  These images are among the 468 botanical paintings in the Margaret Rebecca Dickinson Archive in the Natural History Society of Northumbria’s Library at the Great North Museum, Newcastle.  2018 marks the centenary of her death, aged 98, at Norham on Tweed. To our knowledge, no portrait of her exists.

 

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I wrote this poem for Newcastle Poetry Festival’s Waves & Bones project, based on Lindisfarne, tying it in with my PhD research.  In my critical essay, I’m connecting various threads and Margaret Rebecca Dickinson is one of them.

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One flower she didn’t paint is the Lindisfarne Helleborine, which I’m going in search of next month.  Also a good chance to see the 650 sweet peas coming into bloom they’d just finished planting in Gertrude Jekyll’s garden last time I was there.  

 

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Poem for a Birthday

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Poem for a Birthday

 

I am the single bluebell

In the mowed lawn.

I am the clusters of buds

On the British Library apple.

I am forget-me-not

Self-seeding where it will.

I am water hyssop transplanted

From India, Ayurvedic.

I am a hellebore’s nectaries

Fleshy with pollen.

I am dewdrops beading

Lady’s mantle leaves.

I am dandelion and dock,

Goosegrass and nettle,

Never say weed.

I am honesty, in love

With my faithful moon.

I am the new clematis,

Alba, kissing its trellis.

I am so many yellow keys

Of cowslip, jangling.

I am the different yellow

(Buttery) of marsh marigold.

I am these violas on the step

And their blue music.

I am narcissi –

Pseudopoeticus – still at it.

I am this garden, here, flowering

Against the odds, catching

Every last gram of wind.

 

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I sometimes feel that I have lived two hundred and fifty years already and sometimes that I am still the youngest person on the omnibus.

Virginia Woolf, Diary, 1931

 

 

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Earth, Earth, I cried

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At times I was even sure the garden and I were made of the same substance, sand and earth rubbed my bones, mosses, ferns, violets and strelitzia sprouted from my skin, stretched out my limbs.  In springtime I let the caterpillars stride over me, in rusty soft processions, and when they made moving rings around my spread fingers, my skin had the stiffness of bark.

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In the old days I’d have been scared.  But now I knew it was me the garden.  I was the garden.   I was inside, I was made of priceless diamonds and I had no name.  Earth, Earth, I cried.

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From Hélène Cixous, A Real Garden (1971)       Translated by Beverley Bie Brahic

Images by Francesca Woodman

 

(The Portable Cixous

Edited by Marta Segarra

New York:  Columbia University Press 2010)

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COMPASS/NO COMPASS

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You’re always more unreal to yourself than other people are.

Marguerite Duras, ‘Practicalities’ (1990)

This is the epigraph to Deborah Levy’s new book, The Cost of Living (Hamish Hamilton 2018), the second instalment of her ‘living autobiography’.  It’s a compelling account of her attempt to create a new life for herself and her daughters outside the strictures of a long (middle-class) marriage.  Her reflections are multivalent – practical (the value of an electric bike), philosophical (re-reading Simone de Beauvoir) and psychological (grief at the loss of her mother around the same time).  The writing is unpredictable, playful and ultra-cool.

Just as when I read Things I Don’t Want to Know (her first memoir/instalment), my breath came in little bursts as I recognised so many things I felt about female experience but hadn’t quite been able to articulate.  This doesn’t happen for me very much these days and I am grateful for it – one of the deep delights of reading, helping clarify thoughts and grow a little.  It felt like one of those books that keep you pointing in the right direction, not not-saying.

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I’m very lucky to have been chosen as one of the Featured Poets in Issue Six of The Compass Magazine.  It is a fine online space for poetry, sensitively edited by Lindsey Holland and Andrew Forster.  There are two fascinating interviews – with Sinéad Morrissey and Pascale Petit – as well as lots of exciting new work by a wide selection of poets.

I had the chance to include poems here that were written since my last collection was published (two years ago) and before I embarked on my new PhD project.  With hindsight I can see it is the place I sprang off from (somewhere along the Whin Sill).  A sequence called ‘Soil’ looks at the small patch of Northumberland where I live through the battles it’s become known for and shaped by.  The more time I spend looking at the past, the more things seem to have stayed the same.  Military intervention, power struggles, righteousness, xenophobia – these offer no sort of compass.

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Two shorter poems, Her Voice and Tattoo, look at the whole business of trying to speak the truth, finding the right words and knowing what’s worth writing about.  There’s another page (‘Poetics’) where I attempt to review my position as a writer.  I could write a different piece on this subject every week – it turns with the world and the light.  It seems to be changing apace as the PhD process rolls on – doing strange things to one’s sense of ‘audience’ – mostly walking in the dark.

But the last words here are Deborah Levy’s last words:

When a woman has to find a new way of living and breaks from the societal story that has erased her name, she is expected to be viciously self-hating, crazed with suffering, tearful with remorse.  These are jewels reserved for her in the patriarchy’s crown, always there for the taking.  There are plenty of tears, but it is better to walk through the black and bluish darkness than reach for those worthless jewels.

The writing you are reading now is made from the cost of living and it is made with digital ink.

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Christmas Cactus

fullsizerenderWinifred Nicholson

Christmas Cactus, 1979

Oil on board, 46 x 56 cm

The world is white, deep snow, the sky is deep blue, the mountain Old Man Tindale is blinking sleepy eyes of silver blue white, and I would like to be a squirrel and sleep until my flowers come out from deep under the snow.

Winifred Nicholson

Letter to Ben Nicholson, Bankshead, late 1970s

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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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