Tuesday, 18 October 2016


Instructions for writing a poem:
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.

Mary Oliver wrote these words about life, rather than writing, but I thought about them last Friday night when I heard Helen Farish read from her new collection, The Dog of Memory.  The imperatives could apply to the content of several of Helen’s poems – a monkey novelty clock, a page from a calendar, an old stool, a road sign.  She pays attention to these apparently insignificant things, finds astonishment in them and spins from them beautifully crafted poems.  She even uses the word ‘astonishment’ in the opening lines of ‘The glow’:

‘Finding the crab apples, my astonishment
I’d gauge as being on a par with pilgrims
seeing a tear build in the corner
of the Spanish Virgin’s powder-blue eye.”

Several of her poems have rural, Cumbrian settings – for example, ‘Complimentary calendar’ is set in an aunt’s farmhouse at Crummock,  ‘Low Lorton ¼  High Lorton ¼’ in the Lorton valley near Cockermouth.  She pays attention to the details of local life – the Fox’s red and white mobile butcher’s van – and the words of local speech.  She remembers a school debate on the county name:

‘I argue for the old,
the one that belongs
with hoolet, clarty, slape ...
with door snecks and byres’
                       (‘Cumberland 1974’)

But there are other poems in the book that take us further afield.  Helen read ‘Missing the rain’ (Tess Gallagher in Arizona) and a love poem from the first section of the book, ‘Palermo da capo’. 

Helen went back to her A level set texts (the evening was chaired by Steve Matthews who had been her A level English teacher before he came to preside over Carlisle’s multitudinous second hand bookshop, Bookcase).  There is a sequence of poems in the voice of Jane Eyre (and one in the voice of ‘the cat Jane never had’), a poignant little poem in which ‘Tess has a word with Hardy’, and a poem on Doctor Zhivago.  This last poem is the longest in the book and when Helen read it she advised us to concentrate hard.  Perhaps it is a poem about snow.  We follow the snow in chapter after chapter, except chapter five – to which the poem returns at the end.

The collection is called The Dog of Memory.  Because of the pathos of memory, the sense of someone or something now lost (where is the monkey clock? ‘what does he see now?’) the book has an elegiac tone, or rather it has a quality of ‘belatedness’ in the sense that Peter Davidson uses the word in The Last of the Light (see my post of 25 September).  His book is a ‘meditation on twilight’ and I noticed the dusk settings of some of Helen’s poems (‘ A borrowing’, ‘Pastoral’,‘Tea time at my Aunt’s’, ‘Tess has a word with Hardy’, ‘The glow’).

But for those of us who went to hear Helen’s reading at Bookends’ Cakes and Ale cafe in Carlisle on Friday night there was no sense of coming too late.  Steve Matthews managed to coax Helen to read a few more poems, even when she thought she had finished and when she asked the audience if she should end with just one poem the audience demanded Two!  We had been paying attention.

Monday, 10 October 2016


I walked out of Carlisle railway station on Saturday night and heard, above the noise of the busy streets, a frantic twittering of starlings.  Pedestrians looked surprised and tried to catch sight of the birds, which must have numbered several thousands, but in the twilight they were hidden by the trees around the Citadel.

I had just arrived back from a writing week in Tuscany where our tutor was Julia Blackburn, whose book-length poem Murmurations of Love, Grief and Starlings is published alongside Andrew Smiley’s dramatic photographs of starlings at Walberswick in Suffolk.

When I arrived a friend gave me a copy of Grief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter.  It was a tough read but made me understand why Ted Hughes wrote Crow after the death of Sylvia Plath.

Every day I went for a walk through the village of Lippiano where I was staying.  There is a lovely fountain in the middle of the Piazza Umberto with a little statue of a heron which gargles rainbows when the sun shines on the spray of water.  I was disappointed to find it was being repaired and was dry this year.  I followed some of the old tracks out into the surrounding countryside.  Kyaa, kyaa cried the buzzards circling on the thermals above the wooded hillsides – I hear the same sounds at home in Cumbria.  They are a noisy lot at this time of year as they establish territory and generally sort themselves out after the nesting season.  There were pigeons flapping and fluttering over the village rooftops and blackbirds setting off alarm calls in the bushes.  Jays were busy foraging for acorns.

It’s not hard to find subject matter for new poems in these surroundings.  A tour of the Castle at Lippiano  prompted me to write about ostriches after seeing them in a panel in a striking 16th century frescoed ceiling.  Two birds were depicted bridled, harnessed and drawing a man in a chariot.  Amphorae were strewn on the ground.   It seemed like a scene from the Colosseum in the days of the Roman empire.  I wondered if it illustrated some mythical story.  A quick google search showed that ostriches are still being abused today – in Arizona ostrich racing takes place, with chariots made from old oil drums.

My room was in an elegant large house, the Palazzo Regina.  It was a beautifully quiet place to write and my window looked out over the valley to the surrounding hill villages.  One day I saw three roe deer (the same kind I see at home in Cumbria).

The weather was quite cool so every day Francesca lit the old clay stove in the entrance hall.  The heat rose up the stairwell and spread into the rooms.  Coming back through the front door in the evenings there was a comforting warmth in the palazzo and the smell of wood smoke from the oak logs of the fire.  I have never seen these stoves anywhere else.  They consist of a clay box at the bottom in which the fire is lit, and then a series of clay boxes stacked above through which the warm air circulates.  As each box hots up it radiates heat.  The smoke went up a very long iron chimney.

The clay stove

All summer the stove has stood cold and silent,
its terra cotta chambers stacked like catacombs.
I carry in twigs, armfuls of logs from the yard,
feel the oak bark grazing my skin.

I lift the latch of the iron door,
sweep soft moth-wing ash from the fire box.
I scrumple newsprint – ink on my fingers –
lay kindling in its clay lair.

Before the sandpaper strike of the match
I hesitate.  On this one day
I would like to dwell in the stillness
before the first flames.

© Mary Robinson 2016

Sunday, 25 September 2016


Last Thursday was the autumn equinox.  A fulcrum, the day when the balance of light poises for a moment then shifts to shorter days and longer nights.  A turning point.  A personal turning point for me too after the last few months. 

I was hoping for a bright start, for the rising sun to illuminate the sandstone gable of the church with the pinkish light of dawn, but instead the day began cloudy and grey.  Despite the day “fairing up” for a few hours, sunset was equally murky.

There were autumn poems on BBC Radio 4.  What distinguishes this time of year for me is not “the brown creeping up on us” (Tom Stoppard) – that will come in a few weeks’ time – but a sense of everything on the move.  The swallows that nested in the church loft disappeared earlier in the week.  Large parties of rooks, crows and herring gulls have assembled to forage on the stubble fields.  I catch the distant sound of migrating geese.   Flocks of small birds are silhouetted against the light.  There are a few house martins still around but they will be gone soon.  Buzzards are vocal over the wood – establishing territory.  Fluffy seeds of dry thistles and willowherb drift in the air. 

I’ve been reading Peter Davidson’s book The Last of the Light, a “meditation on twilight”, including “the melancholy of smoky English autumn evenings”.  A word he often uses, and which seems appropriate to these days following the equinox, is “belatedness”.  He writes about the paintings, photographs, music and literature which exemplify this belatedness.  His quotations from poetry are quite extensive and include Virgil, Andrew Marvell, AE Houseman, Louis MacNeice and contemporary poets such as Sean O’Brien (the “evening-afternoon” of autumn twilight), Simon Armitage, Geoffrey Hill, Helen Tookey.

Walking over the slopes of High Pike today the bracken was dying back and the seeding grasses had turned a light beige colour.  Scuds of rain drifted over the summit.  A rainbow arced over to the east. Nearly all the flowers had turned to seed except for some yellow hawkbit flowers in a field bank and a patch of herb Robert growing in the lichen-encrusted stone wall beside the track.  Then I saw a solitary patch of harebells remaining:


That first syllable of breath
trembling in the azure wind.

© Mary Robinson 2016

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.