Tag Archives: writing

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

Tagged , , , ,

Writing ‘Reading the Flowers’

 

RTF

 

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.

fritillary

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.

 

IMG_0663

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.

 

Tagged , , , , , , ,

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.

IMG_7393

Tagged , , , , , , ,

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.

IMG_6162

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

IMG_6140

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.

IMG_6142

Extracts from Michael Longley Interview in Poetry Review, 2006.

Images from Linn Botanic Garden, Cove, Scotland.

Tagged , , , , ,

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.

photo

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

photo copy

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

Tagged , , , , ,

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.

photo

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.

photo copy 3

 

Tagged , , , , ,

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.

IMG_4599

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.

photo

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…

photo copy 2

Tagged , , , , , ,