Wednesday, 6 July 2016


“Europe muddles her dreaming, is loud
  And critical beneath the varied domes
  Resonant with tribute and with commerce.”

Not a response to the referendum result but Geoffrey Hill’s words from “Of Commerce and Society” published in 1959. 

Geoffrey Hill died a few days ago on 30 June.  He was one of the Great Names of twentieth century English poetry.  I have some of his work in anthologies, and reading “Genesis”, “A Prayer to the Sun”, “Requiem for the Plantagenet Kings” and excerpts from “Mercian Hymns” I encountered work that was stern and unflinching, poems which matched the violence of the present with the violence of the past (“By blood we live”), and included God for good measure:
“Jehovah’s touchy methods, that create
  The connoisseur of blood, the smitten man.”
But I felt a neighbourliness towards him when I learnt that he came from Bromsgrove, only a few miles from where I grew up in the Midlands.  In “Mercian Hymns” he wrote of his grandmother who worked from childhood in a nail-maker’s workshop.  Nail-making was a traditional and hard Black Country cottage industry.  “It is one thing to celebrate the ‘quick forge’, another to cradle a face hare-lipped by the searing wire.”  Hill’s imagination seized on Offa, King of Mercia, evidence of whose reign can still be found in his great defence along the Welsh border.

From the Welsh border to the Scottish border

Carol Ann Duffy’s work could not be more different from Hill’s (a few years ago there was a bit of a spat between them).  On Tuesday night I heard her read in Carlisle Cathedral along with Gillian Clarke, Jackie Kay, Imtiaz Dharker and specially invited local poet, Jacob Polley, on the Laureates’ Shore to Shore tour, in collaboration with independent bookshops (Bookends for the Carlisle reading).  Between each poet John Sampson provided cheerful fanfares and melodies on a variety of wind instruments.

Jackie Kay commented on how quiet we all were – we were listening, that’s why!  But several of the poems took on a sombre post-referendum atmosphere so I think we were a bit subdued too.  Jacob Polley read “The Ruin”, his translation of an unfinished Anglo-Saxon poem (“We don’t know what it says at the end”), and “The News” which began “Rooks don’t care”.

A more intimate occasion was Jacci Bulman’s Cumbrian launch of her first collection A Whole Day Through from Waking in Penrith on Friday night.  Jacci’s poems spring directly from her own experience.  Here’s a little flavour –
“In the midst of playing
  at getting life right
  I spend the afternoon
  for a phone call.”
Waiting for a significant phone call and all that “playing/at getting life right” implies – we can identify with those things.  It was lovely to be at the launch and see Jacci supported by family and friends.

What a lot of different poetry in one week – and I’m still trying to cling on to my inner serenity from Bardsey Island.

Monday, 20 June 2016


There is an island there is no going
to but in a small boat the way
the saints went.
   R S Thomas ‘Pilgrimages’

Always the sound of the sea, the singing of the seals, the wind in the grass.

We come over on Benlli III, Colin’s bright yellow catamaran , our luggage and food for the week double-wrapped in plastic. 

I am staying at Llofft Plas, a converted barn, on Ynys Enlli (Bardsey Island) with my friend, Kathryn.   We have a one room kitchen/living room with a steep ladder stair to the hay loft where we sleep under the eaves.    Photovoltaic panels run the fridge-freezer.  We cook on a calor gas stove.  We rely on torches for light when it eventually gets dark but it’s easier to turn in early.   A single self-closing push tap provides well water for drinking (we boil it, then filter it to remove the grit) but for washing we fetch rain water from the big tank in the cobbled yard and heat it on the stove.  A door from the kitchen leads down a dark corridor to the compost toilet – we have the only accommodation on the island with an inside loo!  Staying on Enlli means accepting that you have to empty your own compost toilet bucket every day.

No internet, no phone, no news(papers).

We explore.  There are about 150 seals around the shore – pale, dark or dappled Atlantic greys.  They swim languidly towards us, pop their heads out of the water and regard us curiously.  Others drape themselves over the rocks doing banana impressions.  They snort, belch and sing.  A giant black bull seal snarls at a rival who comes too close.  A nesting oyster-catcher, nerves on a knife edge, shrieks repeatedly as we walk over the short turf woven with pink thrift.  A small group of birds call chack, chack, rise and fall in a fluttery flight with black wing primaries splayed out like fingers – choughs with coral red beaks and legs.  We walk the one track south to north, from Y Cafn, where the slipway is, to the ruined tower of the old abbey.  Then up to the chapel and the chapel house.  I am fascinated by Lord Newborough’s model estate buildings (built in the 1870s): the semi-detached farmhouses and solid farm buildings.  Each walled farmyard has its barns, pigsties, hay loft, wooden threshing floor, and a chimneyed stone hut for boiling pig swill.   Swallows and house martins find shelter for their nests.

The night spirits of the island move in from the ocean: shearwater after shearwater cackled and laughed.
   (Brenda Chamberlain Tide-Race)

We go on a night walk with Steve, the Bird Observatory warden, to see the Manx shearwaters and storm petrels.  We leave at 11.30pm and walk with our torches to the valley at the North End.  To me the sound of the birds is more like a shed full of turkeys and the noise goes on through the darkness.  The “Manxies”,  like the whirring chirring storm petrels, only come in off the sea to their nests at night to avoid predators.  The birds are lit up by our torch beams as they swish through the air and crash down near their nesting holes.  Steve tells us there are an estimated 22,000 shearwaters on the island.  We watch the delicate process of ringing the birds’ legs and Steve invites us to smell a storm petrel.  Salty? Fishy? No, more like a vintage clothes shop.  It’s 2am when we get back to our hay loft.

The glamour of their names’s belied
by old-lady browns and sprinkled grey,
trimmings of tatty fur and faded
   Christine Evans “5: The Moth Trap” from Burning the Candle

Steffan carefully lifts the lid off the moth trap.  Inside are old egg trays.  He gently lifts out the top tray.  On it is a beautiful moth – white and furry and marked with dark patches, like the trim on a robe of state. “White ermine”, says Steffan.  In turn we each pick out an egg tray.  It’s like a lucky dip.  The names are a poem – yellow underwing, heart and dart, marbled coronet, plum tortrix, ingrailed clay, grey dagger, bright-line dark-eye.  Mark records the names in a notebook, drawing lines like little caterpillars by those names which occur more than once.   “Where do you get your funding?” asks one of the group.  Various sources, answer the field workers, including the Welsh Government and the European Union.  What happens if we leave the EU? “I’ll be out of a job” is the reply.

... The isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight, and hurt not.
    Shakespeare The Tempest

In the school room hangs a felt cloak, made from sheep’s wool by a former island artist-in-residence, Claire Barber.  It looks as if it is a magic cloak, Prospero’s cloak.   We are listening to writer Christine Evans, who lives on the island, telling us about the island’s history and its inhabitants and reading some of her poems.  Her enthusiasm and knowledge is evident and we are swept along by her words.   She tells us about settlement and depopulation, about Lord Newborough (whose relatives owned the island from 1538 to 1972), about the brief ownership by Michael Pearson and about the formation of the Bardsey Island Trust which managed to find £100,000 to buy the island in 1979.  In the audience is Dafydd Thomas, who was the first trust officer to run the island (1980-1999).  Christine emphasises that the island must not become a museum.  I realise what a delicate task it must be to try to balance different interests on the island: the bird observatory with its concern for wildlife recording and conservation, farming, preserving the archaeological heritage, Trinity House (the lighthouse), income from letting out the houses, the use of alternative technology, art (there have been several artists in residence over the years) and spirituality (pilgrims still come to the island). 

Is it time to call back
to the small field civilisation
begun in the small
people the giants deposed?
   R S Thomas ‘Minor’

What is the appeal of staying on Ynys Enlli? 
Landscape, wildlife, a sense of community.
Not escaping but re-connecting - with the natural world, with one’s own thoughts, feelings, creativity.
The gift of time – to think, talk, read, write, walk, observe.

My notebook is full.  A week is not enough.

Tuesday, 7 June 2016


Bardsey Island lies just off the westernmost tip of the Lleyn Peninsula in North Wales.  Its English name is derived from a Viking warrior, Bardr, but its Welsh name, Ynys Elli, which translates at the island in the current, is more descriptive.  The sea is squeezed through the narrow sound between the island and the mainland and crossing is impossible if the weather conditions are unfavourable.  There is no ferry service.  The island is off-grid though I've heard it is possible to pick up a mobile phone signal from Ireland.

The main (English) literary associations with the island are the artist and writer Brenda Chamberlain (author of the strange memoir Tide-race), the poet Christine Evans (whose beautiful book Bardsey - with photographs by Wolf Marloh - is outstanding and inspirational) and R S Thomas (allusions in poems, member of the island trust).  Many other writers from Wales and further afield have visited the island, or, in the case of Roy Campbell, claim to have done so (some cast doubt on his story of rowing the doctor over in a storm to attend a woman about to give birth).  Alas, I am ignorant of Welsh writing about the island.  I assume there is quite a bit as Ynys Enlli is in the heart of Welsh-speaking Wales.

I've been twice as a day visitor.  The first visit was when I was eight years old.  I was entranced and trace my fascination (?obsession) with islands to that day.  Afterwards I said to my mother that I would like to stay on the island for a week.  "Don't be ridiculous," she said,  "you'd be bored stiff."

My second visit was with my two sons who were eight years old.  We repeated the same walk I had done at their age - along the island track to the Abbey Ruins (where we ate our sandwiches) and back along the shore to the lighthouse.  When we got back to the mainland I gutted and cooked the mackerel the boatman had caught for us.  The cat enjoyed the remains.

But a week's visit has been on my "bucket list" for years.  On Saturday (weather permitting)  I'm going, leaving the dog and the husband to look after each other at home.  I do not intend to be bored.  But when I get back I will probably be boring everyone else with a detailed account of my stay.

Sunday, 29 May 2016


There's an ambient noise of birdsong - not the excitable, testosterone-fuelled first light spring sounds, but a general mid-afternoon almost summer twittery chunnering of the birds that frequent my garden.

I'm writing this in my summer house/think box.  On Friday night BBC Radio 3's "The Verb" (a programme that fills me with pleasure and irritation in unequal measures) concentrated on dawn and birdsong.  There was a recording of the dawn chorus - shrill, cacophonous, competitive - the kind of dawn chorus that some years ago would wake me early and cause me to close the bedroom window if I wanted a lie-in.  Do they still make them like that somewhere?

Alex Preston spoke on "The Verb" about the work he is doing for a new book - a literary ornithology.  He read from a section on Swallows and described a relative of his who lived in France.  In the summer swallows flew in and out of her house and nested in her bedroom.  She would wake to see them swooping above her head or flitting to a picture rail.  Where had I heard this before?  Alex Preston supplied the answer for me by reading Kathleen Jamie's poem, "Swallows", in which he had discovered an almost identical habitation -

     "they twitter and preen
      from the picture frames ...
      and in the mornings
      wheel above my bed."

I am looking forward to reading the book when it is finished.

When I last visited Prague a friend took me to see the Olsany Cemetery, the last resting place of the remains of Jan Palach, the student who set fire to himself in Wenceslas Square in January 1969 after the Soviet Union's occupation of Czechoslovakia the previous year.  His memory became a focus for Czech nationalism and anti-Communist protests.

It was early spring and the well-treed old cemetery was full of the sound and sight of birds.  The transmigration of souls - Plato's metempsychosis (a word Molly Bloom had trouble with in Joyce's Ulysses).

Metempsychosis in the Olsany Cemetery

What would Plato think of this?
- dry crumbs in a home-made bird feeder
knocked up from wire and scraps of kindling ...

Perhaps he would smile an aftershock of recognition
when something that was a careless might be
becomes is.

Jays are gate-keeping in the trees,
chaffinches and sparrows bathe on the dusty path
and somewhere Jan Palach's soul takes wing

as light as a burning feather

© Mary Robinson 2010

(First published in Envoi 160 October 2011)

Sunday, 22 May 2016


On Saturday I drive out to the coast.  Through West Newton where a stream runs parallel to the road and the houses have little bridges to link them to the village street.  Then on to Allonby where I park by the shore and look over to Criffel on the Dumfries side of the Solway - only it isn't there because the mist has obliterated it.  Charles Dickens walked to Allonby when he was staying in Wigton with Wilkie Collins (Collins was recuperating after twisting his ankle on an ascent of Carrock Fell).  Percy Kelly painted it (he lived here for 12 years).  Meg Peacocke wrote a poem about it.  She included the road sign which reads "Allonby Please d  i  e carefully).

The wind churns up the incoming tide.  Beige-coloured sea water heaves itself onto the sandy strip between beach and road.  Beery froth crests the waves.  The houses at Allonby hunker down, crowding together for shelter against the next storm.  A gaunt dark brick building keeps a lonely vigil by the shore.   It's been derelict for years but I'm pleased to see that at last the Old Reading Rooms are being renovated and converted into a house.

I continue north towards Mawbray.  Soon there's nothing but sea on the left side of the road.  At Dubmill Point the land thrusts out a defiant rocky fist against the tide.  A black and white bird with bright orange bill flies low across the road and over the fields near Salta - an oystercatcher.  At this time of year oystercatchers come inland to nest - not just in fields by the Solway but further eastward, even to the Eden Valley (see my post of 23 February 2016).

At Mawbray the weather is even wilder.  The wind blows rain (or is it salt spray?) in my face.  The white horses are jostling for position as they race towards the dunes where a single line of cottages wisely have their backs turned to the sea.  But the rest of Mawbray is in retreat from the coast.  The village street runs at right angles to the beach as if the houses are trying to escape from the Solway Firth.

I still can't see Scotland.

  there is nothing
  to show there's land
            across the sea"

Mavis Gulliver
from "Looking South from Islay"
(Envoi issue 156 June 2010)

Tuesday, 10 May 2016


“The days run away like wild horses over the hills” wrote Charles Bukowski.   What beauty, fear and wistfulness in those words.  I’ve been away over the hills for a busy few days in Edinburgh and it feels as if the time has galloped away.

On Thursday I spent the day with friends exploring South Berwick (where we saw the new Forth road bridge under construction) and watching the gulls, eider duck and mute swans on the firth.  In the evening I went to the Scottish Poetry Library for a German translation workshop ably led by the translator and academic, Anne Stokes. 

Anne teaches translation studies at the University of Stirling and one of her recent books is a translation of the poetry of Sarah Kirsch (Ice Roses).  She gave us three poems in German and alongside them a literal English translation.   I have minimal German (I can apologise for being late and ask for the bill) but that didn’t matter in Anne’s supportive and relaxed workshop.

We tackled one of Sarah Kirsch’s poems, “The Last of November”, from 1989.  Anne encouraged us to look at the repeated vowel sounds in the original German to see if we could in some way replicate them.  She said that we should try to think of synonyms for the literal when translating.  We should also consider word order.  Each language has its own syntax so we may not want to retain a literal word order.

Translating makes you look at a poem in detail – that was what I appreciated most from the evening.   We noticed how Sarah’s apparently surface descriptions conveyed a deeper meaning.  Exchanging money, the blotches on a wall, turrets, nervous creatures, the word “registieren” (register) all had political associations which might be missed at first reading.  As the evening went on we also worked on Jan Wagner’s “Small Town Elegy” and G√ľnter Eich’s “Where I Live”.  It was good to be introduced to three very different poems in the original. 

During the course of the workshop various theories inevitably arose.  Anne spoke of Michael Hoffman’s idea of translation – “This is what I think the poet would write if he was writing in English”.  We talked about the difficulty of translating poetry for both form and meaning.  This led to the word “Compensation” where a translator may not be able to follow the original exactly but might do an equivalent .  An example might be the alliteration and rhyme used in the phrase “Wir fuhren und flogen” (we drove and flew).  Two of us translated that as “driving and flying”, not strictly a present participle in the original, but retaining a rhyme which we would have lost with the strictly literal “we drove and flew”. 

One evening was not enough – even with three short poems.  The next morning I was back at the Scottish Poetry Library to browse the latest poetry magazines and to pick six books to borrow for the next month.  Then it was off to the National Library of Scotland for The Celts, the exhibition which has come up from the British Museum.  Celts is an umbrella term, the introduction told me, covering a wide span of time, people, places and religions.  Yet here was the art I have come to associate with the Celts: interwoven patterns, stylised designs of birds and animals (real and mythical – I liked the dragon on a brooch from Portugal), the carefully illuminated Gospel books, the warrior culture of decorated shields, scabbards and swords, the beautiful jewellery and the fine gold torcs which have been found in several places.  Pride of place was given to the splendid silver cauldron from Gundestrup in Jutland (c. 150 – 50BC).  I remember seeing this magnificent object in the museum in Copenhagen when I visited the city in 2014.  At the end of the exhibition were a few displays showing how we have interpreted the Celts.  In Ireland the Celtic revival was harnessed to Irish nationalism.  In Wales there was an important cultural dimension with the national Esiteddford’s Welsh druids and the importance of what has been seen as a Bardic tradition in literature.  Each year the Bardic chair is awarded for poetry (written in the form of cynghanedd).  In 1917 the Bardic chair was awarded to Hedd Wyn.  The chair was draped in black – the poet had been killed at Passchendale six weeks earlier (an award winning film Hedd Wyn was made about the poet’s life in 1992).  More recently Mererid Hopwood became the first woman to win the chair.

     On Saturday I was back at the Scottish Poetry Library for an all day symposium on the work of Thomas A Clark.  The poet was there in person to read his work and be interviewed.  But much of the day was taken up with papers by various academics.  In between we had a variety of (non-Clark) poems read by Iain Morrison and some beautiful violin playing.  These intermissions lightened the atmosphere because we had to concentrate hard on the academic papers – perhaps putting the most abstract of these in the session after the excellent lunch was not a good idea.  I thought the most interesting and listen-able to speaker was Harriet Tarlo (reader in creative writing at Sheffield Hallam University).  She is a poet herself and I couldn’t resist buying her behind land: poems and paintings, an artist’s book collaboration with Judith Tucker.  The book is wide and narrow (think of an A4 piece of paper folded length-ways). 

One word which kept coming up over the course of the day was “attention”.  “Pay attention in order to notice”, said Simone Weill.  The words of Dominic Smith was quoted with a music analogy – “playing attention”, “composing attention”.  One of Clark’s works on display embodied this attention: the words “Anyone who goes in the quest of the ordinary should carry a stone” accompanying a little straw lined square box in which was placed a pebble, like an egg in a nest.  It was good to be celebrating the work of Thomas A Clark, whose poetry I have admired for some years.  I first bought one of his books at the gallery at Lochmaddy on a wet day on North Uist. 

More days running away like wild horses.

Scottish poetry library

The Celts runs at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh until 25 September