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.
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.
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
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
layer upon layer
my companions are painting light
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
A 14-verse Renga at Allen Banks,
on 6th September 2017.
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.
What the land says
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
fluid hardness of wood
leaning into, leaning on
a steady place to start
bones and barks both bend
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
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
in an auditorium of green fire
furious and ferocious me
I lie down and rest
bliss – a line
need and no-need
sun-grown leaf, grain, fruit
this stone below me, slow
this light on my face
a constellation of solar systems
the dandelion meadow
sleepy cushion after lunch
furnace of microbial life
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
a chance to listen to air
my mother’s bloodroot
a wave of tiny combustions
the wave arranged in patterns, rhythm
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
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,
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
preoccupied by the thinking
we forget the knowing
delusions like crows on a fence
arthritic old thorn
to sapling ash, oak, gean
ten thousand green eyes
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,
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
Letter to Ben Nicholson, Bankshead, late 1970s
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.
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.
in invisible ink
on invisible paper
…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.
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.
Even 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.
Extracts from Michael Longley Interview in Poetry Review, 2006.
Images from Linn Botanic Garden, Cove, Scotland.