Tag Archives: writing

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

 

steepness

a water world

wagtail

 

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

 

flowers

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

return

 

 

 

*

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.

 

Participants:

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

1-1276781550UFzXDaffodils

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’

 

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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.

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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.

 

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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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Transparency

IMG_7397

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.

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

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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.

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Extracts from Michael Longley Interview in Poetry Review, 2006.

Images from Linn Botanic Garden, Cove, Scotland.

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At Cove Park

Installed in the beautiful setting of the Writer’s and Artist’s Retreat Centre at Cove Park, overlooking Loch Long, to work undistracted by anything but the scenery.

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Lots of wild flowers growing on the hillside – one new to me – Red Bartsia.

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And a striking purple Wild Angelica.

photo copy 2That we find a crystal or a poppy beautiful means that we are less alone, that we are more deeply inserted into existence than the course of a single life would lead us to believe.

John Berger

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Touchstone and Compass

Another stimulating and nourishing day last week for a small group of us at Moorbank, writing and painting…Knowing that a meeting to decide the garden’s fate was going on at the same time was hard to ignore and crept into my own early draft.  I was also influenced by recent newspaper reports of further species extinctions.  IMG_5748Already a very special place, the thought that it might not continue in its present form after November made the garden feel even more precious.

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After the Petition

The day of the meeting no sun shone
in the sky, no one could find anyone else,
everything running behind time.

A handful of gardeners carried on
regardless, weeding and planting, corralling
a home for the family of hedgehogs.

We all had one foot in the garden,
the other elsewhere, still unimaginable.
This naturally involved some wobble.

News had already reached us the conifers
would be the first to go, eaten away,
if not by feral goats, by diseases

with names that sounded as if they longed
to be trees themselves; or just felled and split,
casualty of another meeting,

the city trickling ever wider, milk spilt
from a plastic container. Top of the list
was the Atlas Cedar, touchstone

and compass, old friend. We were in danger
of being locked out of the garden, looking
the other way, forgetting what we used

to call life without offending the god
of irony; distracted by square plots
cultivated inside our houses

we learned never to be without, tucking
them in our pockets, close to our hearts,
where they pulsed on our behalf. In the end

the meeting left many things undecided,
except the date of the next meeting.

photo copyBirtley Aris and his Croton, painted in the Tropical House.

photo copy 2There will be a NGS Open Day at Moorbank next week on Sunday 21st July, 2 – 5pm.  I would encourage those of you who live in the North East to go along and make the most of this sanctuary almost hidden in the heart of the city.  It’s looking beautiful and summery just now.

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Translation from the Tulip

The most interesting things in life often happen by accident.

The opening sentence of The Tulip by Anna Pavord (Bloomsbury, 1999)photo copy

Perhaps it’s because I’m on the brink of a birthday but recently I’ve been thinking about how memory works and noticing my changing relationship with it.  I used to think that memory and imagination occupied different compartments of my brain – particularly in relation to the making of a poem.  Lately I’m more inclined to think they’re aspects of the same impulse – our need for assimilation and understanding.  Memories aren’t fixed – they evolve over time and there’s always more to uncover than you think there is.

IMG_4593 Since I became more thoroughly aware of that, I’m less interested in writing about ‘the past’, which feels like a slightly skewed concept – much more intricately stitched into our present experience than is always comfortable.  If it’s true that we are the sum of our thoughts, words and actions, the past, present and future can be seen to work in parallel –all with the potential to be changed by our making different choices.  I’ve often thought of this as manifest in the process of choosing the next word (and the next and the next etc) when writing a line of poetry.  None of it is inevitable, although we might persuade ourselves it is so.

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Today I have been looking at a friend’s gift of tulips (a gorgeous variety called Angélique).  They’re just getting blousy – that knack tulips have of dying so very beautifully.  Over sixteen years ago I must have looked at another gift of tulips and wrote Still Life (from Storyville, Bloodaxe 1997).  Re-reading it is like looking at an old photograph of myself, a historical translation.  A great deal of my experience and how I would choose to express myself has changed but I recognize the almost physical impact of the flowers’ beauty, the pleasure that goes in through the eyes and touches something in the belly.

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Isn’t this how memory and imagination works?  Not in the brain at all but somewhere in the gut, all those nerve endings stimulated into communicating a sense of perception, of relationship and intimacy.  How we choose to respond to that moment of recognition and connection affects what the future looks like.  And today, how my new tulip poem might unfold and what the coming year may bring…

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