Tag Archives: writing

On Uhod Street

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It’s not easy being a flaneuse in Amman  – the city’s built on a series of hills and steep valleys.  Dusty red limestone is never far away and pavements are consistently unreliable – often not there at all, and if so, broken and disconcertingly high, planted with trees right down the middle.  The dry heat and constant traffic adds to travelling by foot’s lack of appeal.  But after four days here, getting around by car, I feel the need to know where I am from the ground up, so this morning the air’s a little cooler and I venture out for a gentle stroll round the neighbourhood where I’m staying.

It’s hard not to feel self-conscious when no one else is out walking.  Taxis keep tooting at me – a signal they’re available.  I try looking both nonchalant and purposeful but probably just appear more and more strange as I keep stopping to inspect plants growing in the front gardens and along the roadside.  While I’m photographing a mat of tiny red daisies creeping beneath a decapitated palm, a man who looks like he might be a gardener comes to see what I’m doing.  He talks away to me in Arabic and I talk back at him in English, asking questions about the flowers of course he can’t answer.  After a while, we part with smiles and nods, making peace with our mutual incomprehension.

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Not far down Uhod Street the land to the west falls away and right there in the heart of this densely populated suburb I can see a flock of sheep – brown-wooled, semi-somnolent and fat – although it’s not clear what they might find to eat with not a blade of grass in sight.  They really couldn’t be any more different from the sheep I see every day back on Stagshaw Fair – making me feel closer to home and impossibly distant at the same time.  An encampment of cardboard shacks is perhaps where the shepherds live – urban bedouins.  Another sort of flock – of construction workers – are perched on one of the many half-finished or abandoned buildings, clambering over great blocks of concrete, sprouting rusty iron rods, without the aid of scaffolding.  ‘Luxury Homes’ says the sign.

Pretty flowers spill out from the railings of those luxury homes that are finished – plumbago, jasmine, bougainvillea.  Hollyhocks, native here, have seeded themselves beneath olive trees and telegraph poles.  Some of the grander houses have topiaried cypresses dissecting their stretch of pavement.  The ‘pavement’, private rather than public space, speaks in many languages.

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On the rougher patches of ground between housing lots the involucrate carline thistle and other prickly plants I’ve still to identify are well-adapted to take their chances with the rubbish, cigarette butts and random building materials.  My feet get dustier and dustier and the coolness quickly dissipates giving way to more familiar relentless heat.  Even though this part of Amman, Tla Al Ali, is one of the highest spots in the city (nearly 1000 metres – the same altitude as Scafell Pike) only the occasional breeze relieves the weight of the sunlight so close to the land here.

Over the course of an hour, I pass only one other person on foot –  a man carrying a yoke on his shoulders strung with clusters of shocking pink candyfloss bagged in plastic.  Later, back in my room, I hear him blowing a whistle like the Pied Piper to announce his presence and tempt the children.  Today, Saturday, is the equivalent of our Sunday – the weekend, traditional family time, after Friday afternoon prayers.  I lean over my balcony watching him climb the hill again with his vivid featherlight load, still whistling, but no one comes to buy.  High as a bird, my arms are cooled by the smooth red-veined limestone beneath them.  I have landed at last in this wondrous city of many layers.

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

CBRL website is http://cbrl.org.uk/

CBRL’s British Institute in Amman accommodation: http://cbrl.org.uk/british-institute-amman/accommodation

There’ll also be posts on the Durham Book Festival blog and an event with my fellow Jordanian exchangee Mofleh Al Adwan on Sunday 14th October, 12 – 1pm.  See Durham Book Festival website for booking details.

 

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Digitalia

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Spending so much time in the 19thcentury lately, I’ve been thinking a great deal about our relationship with time and history.  Not just because the present is so confounding, although that is undeniable. I’m struck by how little we seem to have learned from the past, every day faced with so many instances of collective amnesia.

But context is all and we must keep re-visiting history, our own and our shared inheritance, to re-view it in the light of the present.  Only then can we orientate ourselves in the direction of the most helpful choices, for our own individual and the common good.  Frequent pauses are necessary.  Moving slowly also makes it easier to see what is really needed.  Change is subtle as well as cataclysmic.

The most powerful new element affecting the way we relate to the quotidian and the longer view is digital technology.  My very first emails were sent back home from Internet cafés in India while I was away for six months, travelling there and in Sri Lanka, Nepal and Sikkim, in 2001-2. When I got home, I bought my first mobile phone and gradually the way I (and the rest of the world) communicated changed.  Happy to admit my ambivalence to our current dependence on the digital, I’m still resisting acquiring a smartphone but have plenty of other portable gadgets to keep me connected and distracted.

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This is a SLOW introduction to letting everyone know that I have a new website (thanks to New Writing North and Creative Fuse’s recent DigiTransform programme).   At the same address as my old one, you can visit it here – and I’d be very happy to hear any thoughts you may have about it.  I now have the skills to update and amend it myself, something that wasn’t possible with my old site.

 

On another digital note, you might like to check out the Poem of the North, an exciting Northern Poetry Library initiative for Great Northumberland 2018.  It also does strange things to Time and Space, creating something new from the shared compass of the imagination.  My own contribution has just been added and you can learn more and watch it unfold here.

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So, after all that clicking and coding, I feel the need to go back, a long way back and see things from the perspective of one of our most ancient plants – Equisetum.  A living fossil, which once dominated the understory of late Paleozoic forests, it is also known as horsetail, snake grass or puzzlegrass.

 

This poem by Joanna Boulter is worth spending some time with:

Horsetail

(Equisetum)

We live in droves.  Memory herds back

to a time before there were horses or pasture

 

when soil was hardly soil, inhospitable.

You ask why we still grow, abandoned here

 

after thirty million years,

left clinging out of our time

 

by brittle toeholds

to a past you can’t conceive of.

 

Our roots reach so deep

we can grow anywhere,

 

have done and will, in marshes or sand dunes.

We cannot be dug out.

 

Think of the silica spicules

that scaffold our stems –

 

part organic, part inorganic

things could have gone either way

 

for us, you could have been

the beached ones.

 

But we are still at the crossroads,

and you need us.

 

You need to think sometimes of sparse

harshness, of glassy grains without humus,

 

your world returning to that.

 

(from Collecting Stones, An Anthology of Poems and Stories inspired by Harehope Quarry, Vane Women Press, 2008)

 

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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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Touch

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If you are passing Hexham Hospital over the next few months, do make a point of swinging by the Atrium (next to the HVS shop) to see Touch, a beautiful exhibition curated by Matilda Bevan.  I’m very happy to have a poem included, written specially for the show – printed by Christopher Bacon in Allendale and embellished with watercolour details by Matilda.  It sits well alongside work by Mathilda Hornsey, a QEHS student who was invited to participate.

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The other artists whose work, using a range of different media, is on display are: Jo Aris, Enrique Azocar, Pauline Gibson, Sheila Martin, Claudia Sacher.  All the pieces are delicate but strong, inviting close attention and reflection, resonating in unusual ways with each other and within the hospital context.  It’s really worth a look.  You will be touched.

 

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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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Tenderness

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The American poet Galway Kinnell wrote: The secret title of every good poem might be ‘Tenderness’.

And so begins Jane Hirshfield’s ‘Late Prayer’ –

Tenderness does not choose its own uses.

It goes out to everything equally,

Circling rabbit and hawk.

Look: in the iron bucket,

A single nail, a single ruby –

All the heavens and hells.

They rattle in the heart and make one sound.

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In ‘Ars Poetica?’ the Polish poet Czeslow Milosz wrote:

The purpose of poetry is to remind us

How difficult it is to remain just one person,

For our house is open, there are no keys in the doors,

And invisible guests come in and out at will,

(trans. Czeslaw Milosz and Lillian Vallee)

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On yet another snowy day, I have been enjoying sitting by my fire and re-reading Jane Hirshfield’s wonderful essay ‘Writing and the Threshold Life’, from Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry (1998).  These quotes come from that book and the images are from The Heart of the Matter at Great North Museum: Hancock, an exhibition by Sofie Layton et al. ‘Heartland’ is my own contribution.

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The Gate

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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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