Tag Archives: writing

Snow Poem




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The Gate


Five bars of rusting iron hold nothing in,

apart from flattened brown bracken

before the mountain and its quick green rise.


You have to love a gate that keeps nothing out,

untethered by fence or railing,

jettisoning even the protocol of posts;


its sudden mystery – leading nowhere,

space and more space, with passing places,

a strong westerly, Loch Voil wild with breakers.











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Knowing Our Place


I had no idea that the Barbican had a Conservatory  – or a Library until a few weeks ago when I found myself there, reading at a launch of Issue 18 of Long Poem Magazine.  It was a friendly affair, surprising and happily sprawling like the unsung long poems and sequences the magazine does a wonderful job in drawing attention to.  We were tucked away in the Music Section, a niche of hidden delights.


I particularly enjoyed hearing Katharine Pierpoint read her poem Camelopard, trying (and succeeding) to catch the giraffeness of the giraffe and Anna Reckin’s graceful evocation of various emanations of Jade.  Also Alex Bell’s epistolary Dearest, lurking in the shadows of Victoriana, as did my own contribution – A Hundred Ways to Know Our Place.

When I was younger and a touch adrift I often read self-help books to check my bearings.  Most of them have migrated from my shelves now (apart from a few classics like Dorothy Rowe on depression and Buddhist angles on anxiety) but I was interested to trace a clear line of connection between those and the beginnings of the genre in the 19th century.


A Hundred Ways to Know Our Place is part of new work I’m writing for my PhD, an overture to a book-length piece.  If you’re interested in reading it and other longer poems and sequences, I’d point you in the direction of Long Poem Magazine, edited with passion and insight by Linda Black and Rose Hamilton.


Etiquette books also fascinate me.  It’s hard not to be braced by their arbitrary sharpness, like eating a particularly arcane olive.  Possibly after a long soak in a dirty martini.  Some Russian visitors I had once called that sort of snifter a ‘walking stick’, to be taken before leaving the house for any reason.  And in the right quantity (although this is hard to gauge) it can rinse the senses wonderfully.  Isn’t that what we want reading a poem to feel like?  To ‘take reality by surprise’, in Francoise Sagan’s phrase.

And so back to music (always)…My senses didn’t know what had hit them watching and listening to Ukrainian ensemble Dhaka Brakha perform at the Sage last week.   And it was a performance, highly choreographed and styled with stunning costumes riffing on traditional styles, as did the music that playfully transforms folk songs from their beleaguered motherland into something almost miraculous.  I was transported, utterly enchanted, and continue to be so listening to their latest CD the road.  Dhaka Brakha ‘know their place’ and invite us to spend some time there.  Foolish to refuse.

Down in London, I can sometimes feel like a bit of a country cousin.  Walking from the Tube station to the Barbican, I was very excited to see a plant breaking up the clean lines of the long tunnel of the Bridgewater Highwalk.  It wasn’t going to be told where it could grow and where it couldn’t, what freedom means.


Knowing our place is no easy matter – fierce, transgressive, and extremely quiet, it must take the risk of being there, doing it for ourselves.




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At Allen Banks


I’m spending a lot of time at Allen Banks these days – stepping out of the garden into the wild.  It’s the site for my current PhD research at Newcastle University and I’m looking at its history as well as its ecology towards writing a book-length sequence of poems.

As part of my endeavour to consider it as a collective site, it seemed natural to invite a group of folk to participate in a walking renga at the end of the summer, on the brink of my starting my second year of study.  We walked on the East side of the river, up through Moralee Woods to the tarn, stopping along the way to write and share our verses.


Here is the renga we made together:

The Landscape, Ourselves


Today’s truth –

the seventh month is our ninth

white river brown


a startled heron

wingbeat of silence


what is that sumptuous smell?

she only knows it

as ‘country’


a choice is made

to keep to the middle way



tripping on roots

my breathing quickens


through the ghost of a window

we gaze over the valley


mirror tarnished

by pondweed



layer upon layer

memories settle


my companions are painting light

collecting earth

gathering pollen


by the water

a stack of wooden bones


and so we lean

into the landscape



picture the moonlight

shadowing these branches


in a wild grove

between two fields

with all that’s unspoken



muttering, meandering.


A 14-verse Renga at Allen Banks,

Morralee Wood,

on 6th September 2017.



Jo Aris

Matilda Bevan

Holly Clay

Martin Eccles

Linda France

Malcolm Green

Sharon Higginson

Alex Reed

Eileen Ridley

Christine Taylor



Sound artist and fellow PhD student, Martin Eccles recorded the day and you can read his own renga here.  As well as writing our collaborative version, this time I encouraged everyone to keep all their verses and make their own individual renga, imagining them all as parallel shadows of our shared experience.


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Borderlands Renga

IMG_3645What the land says


Morning sun

warms crumbled earth

relief from frost heave


I hold it in my hands

it holds me


hills made overground

by velvet tunnellers

dark soil workers


home to the unseen

and the spectacular


a rusty horse-shoe, half-buried


O larch, cone

and whisker of you

nubs of dusted red


ash trees do it for me

sometimes, especially


fluid hardness of wood


leaning into, leaning on

a steady place to start

bones and barks both bend


hollowed, clothed

folding rock and living humus


the burn’s law carves a groove

divides a field

opens up earth’s skin




sunlit current between the banks

silent cross-currents within me


aching for the river’s touch

to be closer

to my open hand


telegraph pole floating down in the flood


the stream tumbling into my right ear

drifting from my left


glistening water

passes under the high bridge

carries thoughts downstream


shadow of a fish

playing with light



a water world



too thirsty to write a verse

above the river, I drink


above is below, flickering

skittish dipper flashes

stone to stone


today’s green umbrella

sheltering last week’s rain


earth route, sea bound


the water continues

sure in its course

holding to uncertainty





around the shadow of my hat

grass glows


in an auditorium of green fire

burning off

winter’s residue


furious and ferocious me

I lie down and rest


bliss – a line

scorched between

need and no-need


sun-grown leaf, grain, fruit


this stone below me, slow

this light on my face


a constellation of solar systems

scattered over

the dandelion meadow


red absorbed

sleepy cushion after lunch


furnace of microbial life



photosynthetic factories

forging the sward




feathers in my pocket

song in the air


crows – two in the uplift

corks on an unseen river

your wings, my home


take me up, thermals

so that I may see


the nothingness of being

that lives by breath


ripple in the pool, rustle in the tree


tickling my cheekbones

songs of blackcap, chiff chaff, jackdaw


drowsy afternoon

a chance to listen to air

sifting memories


my mother’s bloodroot


a wave of tiny combustions

the wave arranged in patterns, rhythm


cow-breath gorse-breath

blowing the flute

of the secret valley





where the skylark is –

even to the ten thousand galaxies


this pen settled in the saddle

of thumb and forefinger

widening to describe all this


space curves

there is a tree, a wall, a house


a network of human habitation


soft sow shape of Cheviot

stretches out asleep

over all those centuries


distant granite whaleback


in the distance

between thoughts – a space to fade to


sky full of bird paths

each flown invisibly

opened and closed


bear’s garlic, shepherd’s purse,

Persian speedwell


blue harvest


slip through

follow the fold of sky






the me that has no thoughts

the other quietly watching


a way to be back

along the boughs

a root home


with all the twists and turns

still there is the green


can we meet the tree?

sometimes I sense it

and so must she


tell me what I am

and through me sing


a group reflects

a hawthorn dances

I listen


preoccupied by the thinking

we forget the knowing


delusions like crows on a fence


arthritic old thorn

teaches silence

to sapling ash, oak, gean


ten thousand green eyes

turned skywards


what a day of embrace!

tree of heart’s desire

hold our grief, our trust, our uncertainty


alive to this place


tangled in and out of shadow

risk yes risk joy.



A walking renga

from Borderlands 3 at Burnlaw,

Whitfield, Northumberland,

on 23rd April, 2017.



Jo Aris, Melanie Ashby, Michael Van Beinum, Matilda Bevan, Neil Diment, John Fanshawe, Jane Field, Linda France, Kate Foster, Malcolm Green, Sharon Higginson, Geoff Jackson, Martha Jackson, Georgiana Keable, Virginia Kennedy, Linda Kent, Martin Lee Muller, Karen Melvin, Tim Rubidge, Geoff Sample, Torgeir Vassvik, Gary Villers-Stuart, Rosie Villiers-Stuart, Nigel Wild, Richard Young.


Borderlands 3 was a gathering of Northern Networks for Nature.  On Saturday we were mostly indoors, listening to excellent speakers, sharing thoughts (and fantastic food – thanks Martha!) and watching and listening to a ‘salmon fairytale’ from Norway.  On Sunday we went outside and walked down the valley as far as Bridge Eal, stopping along the way to consider the elements and write renga verses.  This renga is the fruit of that walk in that place on that day with those people.



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Happy Easter


They bring this hint of something startled in them –

the dreadful earliness of their petals

against dead earth, the extremity of their faces

suggesting a violent start –

dumb skulls opening, overnight, to vehemence.

Their lives are quicker than vision,

their voices evade us.  And as

water tightens its surface in vases

and sharpens its glass, slicing their sticks

in half, these funnels clatter on their bent necks,

like bells for the already dead.


Catriona O’Reilly

From The Nowhere Birds (Bloodaxe, 2001)


I’ve spent the past few weeks writing about what women poets are writing about when they write about flowers (snowdrops in particular) and now I look up, the daffodils are nearly over.  Never my favourite flower, I think Catriona O’Reilly has caught something interesting in them – that vehemence.  It seems to be the case that women poets (and possibly men too, but in a different way)  write about flowers either as a strategy for addressing an actual Other or approaching what they experience as Other inside themselves.  All flowers seem to lend themselves to reflections on death, they last so short a while.  A good place to consider impermanence.

My own wild daffodil poem from over ten years ago (part of a collaboration with the ceramicist Sue Dunne) was nudged into being by the death of Julia Darling.  It’s a different sort of grief when a friend dies – at least it was for me, tangled up with my own mortality, the sheer lostness of loss.  Those brave yellow flowers have some of Julia’s radiance about them.


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After all that Easterish death maybe it’s good to think about all the Easterish rebirth…so here’s some daffodil-inspired handiwork and humour in an installation in Hull, UK City of Culture – 1700 flowers made out of nearly 150,000 lego pieces.  I wonder what sort of poem might these be a muse for?


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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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Writing ‘Reading the Flowers’




Reading the Flowers began life as a small collection of poems written during a Leverhulme Residency at Moorbank, Newcastle University’s Botanic Garden, sadly now closed. Nine months in a garden isn’t even a full cycle of the seasons so it was natural to want to expand into a longer, more far-flung exploration of what happens in a Botanic Garden, a space where nature and culture meet.

The poems do not document or delineate the gardens I visited so much as put them under the microscope, zooming in on individual plants and processes. They also range beyond the walls of formal gardens, spilling into hedgerow and meadow, wild garden and island. The ‘landscapes budding inside us’ also draw my attention, psychological, social and spiritual concerns mirroring what is translated into botanical classification and horticulture. This thematic diversity is reflected in an abundance of formal strategies and multiple voices telling how their gardens grow.


As a garden is a managed, boundaried green space, so the collection opens with an invitation ‘to enter./Step across the carpet of petunias and fuchsias’, in a poem called ‘Cut Flowers’, immediately placing together the realms of plants and paper in a collaged ‘flora’, signalled by the book’s title. Similarly, the final poem enacts the dynamic of arrival and departure, entrance and exit, via the traditional turnstile gate.   This cycle is built into the poem’s structure, which uses the mirrored specular form. An earlier, simpler version of the poem gave its (then) title, Through the Garden Gate, to the pamphlet it introduced of poems from Moorbank. I’ve enjoyed the sense of evolution and adaptation in the six-year process of gathering this collection together.




The epigraph is from Iris Murdoch’s novel ‘A Fairly Honourable Defeat’:

People from a planet without flowers would think we must be mad with joy the whole time to have such things about us.

This clearly points to its opposite – how people on this planet fail to appreciate the beauty of the flowers that grow all around us and so miss out on a whole world of wonder and delight. Part of the poems’ intention is to encourage the reader (and the writer) to look more closely and not bypass the opportunity to ‘be mad with joy’ at least some of the time.



Joy is not the only response flowers elicit. They also inspire gratitude and appreciation, reminding us that we depend upon green growing things for the very air we breathe, by courtesy of the process of photosynthesis. Plants provide us (and other creatures) with food, shelter, medicine, clothing, artistic inspiration, spiritual illumination and hope. The natural world, a traditional symbol of renewal, is currently under threat; climate change, desertification and development, extinction, all shifting the emphasis towards that other symbolic association – impermanence. A flower’s beauty is enhanced by its short life. Although it comes and goes, part of us knows it will return the following year. This is becoming less and less of a certainty, making flowers even more precious, as are all the birds and insects with which we share our gardens.

A sense of ‘kin’, the glittering web of interdependence, is taken up in the poems capturing memories of family, nurture and roots. Love too is nourishment, offering the possibility of (re)generation.



Travelling ‘away’ to gardens across the globe, the concept of ‘home’ is investigated – a source of identity, presence, desire and nostalgia. Its dark side is revealed in poems triggered by the colonial agenda of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, reflected in the horticultural and botanical imperialism of plant collection and classification. War, violence and environmental disaster are also part of the garden’s story.



IMG_0670 (1)         Ultimately, however, the balance is tipped in the light’s favour, the therapeutic effects of time spent ‘reading the flowers’ undeniable. In many languages this has a double meaning of ‘picking the flowers’, recalling the origins of our word ‘anthology’, from the Greek meaning ‘a gathering of flowers’. The implication is that reading about flowers has a similar effect to closely observing flowers. Many gardeners write extremely well about the plants they spend so much time nurturing. Many others enjoy reading what these gifted writers have to say, particularly during the winter months when short days and harsh weather keep those of us in the northern hemisphere indoors.

Reading the Flowers follows the long line of poet-botanists/horticulturists such as Goethe, Erasmus Darwin, D.H. Lawrence, Vita Sackville West, Michael Longley, Louise Glück and Sarah Maguire. It is not a garden manual but, unlike the cherry blossom itself, a poem evoking cherry blossom will never lose its petals; absent loved ones live and breathe on the everlasting span of a page: both plants and poems naturally ‘our highest currency’. Looking at flowers is a lesson in transience, an encouragement to make the most of these small, brief miracles in our lives that are so easily overlooked.


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in invisible ink

on invisible paper

I write

all-seeing poems


…that thing you’re not meant to do: write poems about writing poems.  But this came unbidden yesterday, and I rather like the slightly unhinged quality of mind that comes when you have a cold, so I’m posting it here in the spirit of transparency.

Another reason for disorientation is the awareness that this time last year we were covered in snow up here and I was leaving for my big trip towards the equator and beyond, into the southern hemisphere and the orient.  I can’t believe how quickly the time has passed, how much world I’ve seen in between.  A very different winter so far this year – in all sorts of ways.


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Being Private in Public

The main problem is how to be private in public.  I try to lose myself by giving voice to the poems as straightforwardly as possible.

IMG_6138Even my earliest landscape poems sound anxious.  Now my so-called nature poems are prompted by despair as much as by delight.  We are making such a mess of everything.  In Ireland we are methodically turning beauty spots into eyesores.  I memorialise lovely places as they disappear.


Poetry gives things a second chance, perhaps now their only second chance.  John Clare says ‘Poets love nature and themselves are love.’


Poetry is communal as well as individual…I love Donald Hall’s definition of poetic tradition as ‘conversations with the dead great ones and with the living young’.  Poetry, even the most intensely lyrical, is unlikely to be a solo flight.

IMG_6134Diction, metre and prosody are far from being my main concerns.  It is all much more uncertain and improvisatory and risky than those terms suggest.


Extracts from Michael Longley Interview in Poetry Review, 2006.

Images from Linn Botanic Garden, Cove, Scotland.

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