Saturday, 15 February 2020

WHAT POETRY WOULD YOU RECOMMEND TO A SCIENTIST?


I have occasionally been asked this question.  I’ve no idea is my answer.

Behind the question there seems to be the assumption that scientists will only like poems about science.  Perhaps there’s even the ancient ghost of C P Snow’s the Two Cultures (the sciences versus the humanities) rattling around in the background.  The question may in reality mask a different and more personal one – how do I get my partner/relative/good friend, who happens to be a scientist, interested in poetry?

It’s like asking, what poetry would you recommend to a builder, or a farmer, or an accountant?  It all depends …  Despite decades of teaching literature (including a considerable amount of poetry) to adult students, I’ve always been amazed at the varied ways people respond to the same text, how they notice different things in structure and content, and how, when exposed to contemporary poetry, they surprise themselves by liking it.

I thought of this question again recently when I read Katrina Porteous’ new book Edge, the poetry which emerged from her collaboration with research scientists, a composer and an artist.

I have always thought of Katrina Porteous as a poet who captures the distinctive character of the Northumbrian landscape and its inhabitants.  But this book throws time and space wide open and explores the world of astrophysics.  In 2017 in Keswick I heard Katrina perform excerpts from ‘Sun’ – part of a collaboration with Professor John Woodward of Northumbria University and artist Helen Schell.

The new book Edge is a wonderful expansion of the poetry in ‘Sun’.  I am full of admiration for the way Katrina has engaged so deeply with contemporary science.  It’s a meaty volume – 125 pages, of which 13 are introduction and acknowledgements and 12 are notes which explain the scientific principles behind the poems.   I started off by reading each poem or section separately with its accompanying note – and made slow progress.  It was almost like reading Paradise Lost and reading every footnote.  So I read the poems straight through – and loved their liveliness and originality.  The poems are full of surprising and varied metaphors.  Here are a few lines from ‘Titan: second rising tide’ –

     ‘Out of the stuff of stars –
      Gas, dust, ice –
      Someone is painstakingly

      Threading a necklace.’
Sometimes the only way to explain science is with the use of metaphor.  When the first image of a black hole was published last April, science writers resorted to metaphor: a fiery doughnut of red and gold, a halo of dust and gas, an image created by an algorithm which stitched together data, capturing the image was the equivalent of photographing a bagel on the moon and so on.   (These examples are from a Guardian report 13 April 2019).

Metaphor brings poetry and science together in this fine body of work by Katrina Porteous.  Would I recommend it to a scientist?  I’m not sure but I would like to hear a scientist’s response to the book.


Thursday, 6 February 2020

THE SMELL OF NEW SHINY BOOKS


There’s nothing quite like the smell of new books straight from the printer and when the books are your own it’s even better!  Thomas McCarthy described the excitement of opening the parcel of new books: ‘It’s thrilling to hold a new collection in your hand for the first time.  There’s a birth feeling about it, and a birthday feeling, or a wedding cake feeling.’ (Carcanet blogpost 2019/03)

My new collection, Trace, (Oversteps Books 2020) has arrived in pristine condition from the printer.  At last, after a lot of nurturing, the collection is out into the world.  Trace, and my recent pamphlet, Alphabet Poems (Mariscat Press 2019), represent a body of poetry written over more than five years. 

I look afresh at these poems bound between their new green covers (by coincidence both books have green covers).  Somehow the poems look different in the pages of a book, although I’ve revised and proof-read them on the screen several times.  I send out a few copies straightaway and I’m eager to hear what people think of them and to which poems they particularly respond.

I’m looking forward to sharing the poems at different events over the coming year – so far I’ve readings booked in Cumbria, Wales, and Devon.

Go to the publishers’ websites to buy copies or contact me directly for a (much nicer!) signed copy: LMERobinson [the usual at sign] gmail.com

www.overstepsbooks.com

Talking of new shiny books I was at a friend’s book launch in Kendal last Saturday.   The Will to Succeed (Unicorn Press 2020) by Christine Raafat was launched in Abbot Hall Art Gallery.  This historical novel is based on the fascinating life of the 17th century Lady Anne Clifford.  Abbot Hall exhibits a large triptych, attributed to Jan van Belcamp, illustrating Lady Anne’s life.  Christine had hoped to hold her launch in the same room as the painting but when 90 people turned up we had to move to a bigger space – a nice problem to have.  It was a lovely occasion and those of us who have followed Christine’s research and writing over the past few years are delighted at her achievement.  She has very kindly included one of my poems as a preface.  I’m very much looking forward to reading the novel.


Thursday, 23 January 2020

SPHINX REVIEW


'The poem hits deep, laying out the landscape of the heart'.

I was delighted to see a most perceptive reading of 'H' from my Alphabet Poems in a Sphinx OPOI review
https://www.sphinxreview.co.uk/index.php/opoi-reviews-2020/905-mary-robinson-alphabet-poems

OPOI stand for one point of interest and the reviewer found a lot to say about this one poem, including the words quoted above.

Sphinx has been championing pamphlet poetry for years - the OPOIs are well worth browsing.

Sunday, 19 January 2020

ANOTHER TWELVE BOOKS YOU MUST READ

A month past the solstice.  A robin lingers a few yards away as I get out of the car at Plas yn Rhiw.  The snowdrops are coming out, trimming the edge of the track with their white petals.   Wrens quick-flit in front of me and disappear into cracks between stones.  As I climb the hill the coconut smell of gorse fills the air.  Last night's frost (or last week's rain and gales) has released the scent strongly.  A buzzard spirals upwards only to be harried by two gulls who drive him off course.

There's a sense of the year turning.  Now it's time for my annual task of providing my subjective, opinionated, biased list of twelve books you must read.  These are chosen from the poetry books I have read over the past year.  Here they are in true list-maker's fashion - alphabetical order by author.

Wendell Berry The Peace of Wild Things (Penguin 2018).  A wide selection of American rural poetry by the environmental activist and writer, Wendell Berry.

Moya Cannon Donegal Tarantella (Carcanet 2019).  The latest (and very impressive) collection from an Irish writer who has that gift of poetic alchemy to turn ordinary life into something magical.  The poems are perfectly pitched and show that you don't have to have exotic subjects for poems to fly!

Nick Drake Farewell Glacier (Bloodaxe 2012).  Nick Drake travelled to the Arctic to explore climate change on the 2010 Cape Farewell expedition.  The resultant poems are in the voices of previous explorers and in non-human voices (eg, mercury, DDT, polychlorinated biphenyl, pteropods).  This book is one of so many climate-change wake-up calls - 10 years on from the expedition what are we doing about it?

Rebecca Goss Girl (Carcanet 2019).  A most accomplished collection - I particularly enjoyed the ekphrastic poems responding to Alison Watt's paintings. 'The poems interrogate and celebrate female identity and eperience, and the dynamics of family and friendship' (back cover blurb).

Mimi Khalvati Afterwardness (Carcanet 2019).  There is a personal dislocation at the heart of Iranian-born Mimi Khalvati's experience, a sense of loss - of people,  language and culture.  Perhaps this is what has driven her into poetry.  Her latest collection consists of 55 beautifully crafted sonnets.

Zaffar Kunial Us (Faber and Faber 2018).  Zaffar Kunial was poet-in-residence at Grasmere when he was just starting out on his poetic career.  This is his first full collection.  Thoughtful, detailed poems, influenced by his upbringing (English and Kashmiri parents) in the Midlands.

L Kiew The Unquiet (Offord Road Books 2019).  An excellent debut poetry pamphlet from a gifted Chinese-Malay writer.  The back blurb describes the poems as being written out of 'the possibilities in the transcultural experience.'  I especially liked the poems which explore the interface between languages.

J O Morgan The Assurances (Cape Poetry 2018).  A worthy winner of the Costa Poetry Prize 2018.  Wow, this powerful book blew me away!  A very serious theme  - the Cold War, the nuclear stalemate, 'the deterrent that is still in place today'.  The scarily close balance between two sides who could blow us to kingdom come.  A variety of forms, using repetions, variations, fragments.

Paul Muldoon Frolic and Detour (Faber and Faber 2019).  Another example of Paul Muldoon's virtuosity with words and ideas - he tosses them up in the air, juggles them and then catches them back in perfect order.  I admire his amazing abiltiy to handle several parallel themes in one poem.

Mary O'Malley Playing the Octopus (Carcanet 2016) - intelligent, musical, moving poems by one of Ireland's finest poets.  A rich volume with a wonderful sweep of subject matter and allusion.

Jeremy Over Fur Coats in Tahiti (Carcanet 2019) - playful, surreal, perplexing. It was a privilege to be a member of the Cumbrian Poets workshop with Jeremy.  His poems never let you fall asleep!  And if you're puzzled by the multiple and apparently random occurence of the letter O (p73-84) read Jeremy's 'Kenneth Koch Uncorked' on the Carcanet blog.

Sheenagh Pugh Afternoons go Nowhere (Seren 2019).  Interesting subjects, accessible language, eminently re-readable.  I liked the historical poems, the Shetland poems - in fact I liked the lot.  No nonsense.

Now read on!
(Scroll down the right hand column to see the list)

Sunday, 5 January 2020

NEW YEAR: HONOURS AND SYMBOLS

20 C + M + B 20

The priest takes the chalk and makes these marks above the church door.    It is Epiphany Sunday.  The numbers signify the new year and the initials are those of Casper, Melchior and Balthazar (the traditional names of the three wise men - or the three kings - who followed a star from the East to Bethlehem to pay homage to a new royal child).  Prayers are said for those who pass through the door of the church and the doors of our homes.

This is a Polish custom, but today it was re-enacted in Egwys y Groes Sanctaidd, the parish church of Llannor, on the Lleyn Peninsula.  The door is significant - the symbols represent a prayer that the door will be wide enough to receive all who need love and compassion, but narrow enough to keep out evil.

When Poland was under the control of the USSR, the custom came to be seen as an act of resistance against the Soviet regime.

                             *                       *                        *

The poet, Lorna Goodison, describes another new year custom in her poem 'To Become Green Again and Young':

In Rio de Janeiro  
they go at midnight 
to welcome the new year.

Fresh in white garments
bearing white candles
they assemble by the sea

to toss old year's errors
griefs and mistakes
into the accepting waves.

I was delighted to read recently that Lorna Goodison is to receive the Queen's gold medal for poetry.  A worthy new year honour.

Several of her poems have stayed with me.  'Reporting back to Queen Isabella' is on the beginning of Spanish colonial rule (the afterthought reported in the last line - 'Yes, your majesty, there were some people'). 'The Woman Speaks to the Man Who has Employed Her Son' is chillingly relevant - think of child soldiers., gun crime. The woman reports what her son has told her -

... that he is working
for you, that you value him so much
you give him one whole submachine gun
for him alone.

There is much warmth and compassion in her poems.  'The Domestic Science of Sunday dinner' starts off with instructions about soaking the dried peas overnight but this not just a recipe poem.  Rather it is a family history, and now, when her 85 year old mother is ill in hospital (served 'bland food'), the poet writes:

Over and over I watch for signs

that hearts are softening,
that hard things are breaking open
that in the end it will all come together
like the Sunday dinner rice and peas.
As I pray for your soul's safety, Mother,
as I pray for your blessed release.

In a radio interview* Lorna Goodison spoke of her love of George Herbert's poetry and her admiration of his 'kindness'.  In the same programme Kei Miller described Goodison as 'a poet of love, heart, soul, spirit and light.'  Dzifa Benson has written of her work as being 'rooted in an intimate connection to the land of Jamaica and its people', and, like many great writers, the local provides the springboard for the universal.  Her work is lyrical, generous, thought-provoking.

And in all the photographs I have seen of her she is smiling.


 More about Lorna Goodison at https://www.carcanet.co.uk/np108.shtml

*BBC Radio 3 The Verb on 3 January 2020 rebroadcast a programme on Lorna Goodison and Jorie Graham.

An excellent article written by Dzifa Benson on Lorna Goodison and her work was published in The Poetry Review: 'Never to be extinguished flame: the "many chambered heart" of Lorna Goodison' (vol 107:4 Winter 2017)

Monday, 23 December 2019

SEASON'S GREETINGS


ONCE MORE

Once more
but new again

a robin sings his territory
holly flaunts red berries          
the scent of pine needles fills the air

and look – from bare twigs
there’s all the year to come

© Mary Robinson 2019  

With best wishes for Christmas and the New Year,
Mary