Thursday, 22 January 2015


"Sir Nicholas Winton" - I was half listening to BBC Radio 4's Midweek when I heard his name.  His daughter, Barbara, was speaking about her biography of her father If It's Not Impossible.

I did a quick mental calculation - he's 105!  I heard about Nicholas Winton in 2010 on my first visit to Prague (where he is held in great esteem).  A few months before my visit his statue had been unveiled in the city.  Last October he flew to Prague for the award of the Order of the White Lion (the Czech Republic's highest civilian honour) by the President at Prague Castle.

Nicholas Winton was only 29 and was working as a broker in the City of London when he organised the Czech Kindertransports to evacuate mainly Jewish children from Prague.  Also on the Radio 4 programme was Lord Alf Dubs who, at the age of 6, had been on one of those trains.  He had found it a confusing and bewildering experience but he remembered the older children cheering when the train crossed the border from Germany to Holland.  He arrived in London with his rucksack on his back - just like W G Sebald's Austerlitz.

Later in the day I picked up a leaflet at the library for Holocaust Memorial Day (next Tuesday 27 January - the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz).  The leaflet is a reminder not only of the Holocaust and the Nazi atrocities but also of the genocides in Cambodia in the 1970s, Rwanda in 1994 and Bosnia in 1995.  (By coincidence I've just finished reading the novel The Last Hundred Days by poet Patrick McGuinness about the fall of the Ceausescu regime in Romania in which he describes a visit by a Bosnian Serb delegation from a Yugoslavia on the point of collapse.)  Most chilling of all the accounts in the booklet was the page headed "Genocide in Darfur 2003 - Present".  No end date.

There are other places in the world today where people are persecuted for being from the "wrong" race or tribe or religion, or the "wrong" branch of the same religion.  The message of the booklet is that we must remember the past and speak out in the present.

On the day (23 July 2008) Radovan Karadzic was arrested for the massacre of at least 7500 Bosnian Muslims in the forest of Srebrenica I wrote a poem called "As the grass of the field"  I couldn't get the news out of my head.  I watched a contractor cut round and round the hay field next to my garden.  I seemed to be watching an allegory.   I wrote

   " ... a crow scans the long grass under siege
    the tractor advances swathe
    by felled swathe
    on the field's bestiary ... "

The small creatures of the field have no escape from destruction.

    " ... all I can think of are the places
    (mute on my atlas
    - sixty miles to the inch)
    snared between capital letters
    of non-existent states ... "

When Nicholas Winton saw persecution (and feared worse) he decided to do something.  There was "no permission from the British government and they had no financial means to get out the children.  So I merely said if it was possible I would do it."

(The title of this post "The Power of Good" is taken from the 2002 Czech-Slovak film on Nicholas Winton and the Prague Kindertransports)

Thursday, 8 January 2015


Congratulations to Carol Ann Duffy who was made a Dame in the New Year's Honours List. It is well-deserved, rewarding the tireless energy of England's first female poet laureate in writing and promoting poetry.  She fulfils her role as  the public voice of contemporary poetry well.  Her generous response was: "We have many wonderful poets in this country and it is a privilege to represent them."

One of the sections in Carol Ann Duffy’s collection The Bees is entitled “What will you do now with the gift of your left life?”  That quotation is to me a goad, a challenge, an encouragement for my writing life.  Interrogative rather than resolute.  Although taken from the last line of “Snow” it is a sentence that can stand alone, as Stephen Raw’s fine calligraphic rendering of the words shows.

I’ve chosen four New Year poems -  by William Carlos Williams, Sylvia Plath, David Constantine and Liz Lochhead.  “Burning the Christmas greens” by William Carlos Williams has long been a favourite of mine.  It shows how imagination can transform an apparently trivial task into a poem of ritual and renewal, full of colour.  I think of it every year when I take down the decorations on Twelfth Night. 

Sylvia Plath’s delicate “New Year on Dartmoor” is addressed to her toddler daughter on a day when ice coated everything.  It ends “You are too new to want the world in a glass hat”.  It is beautifully performed on youtube by Giga Gray of Radio Theatre Group.

By contrast David Constantine’s “New Year behind the asylum” is enigmatic and disturbing.  The poet and his companion (for whom the asylum seems to have a mysterious attraction) wander out into the fields, beyond the sound of the town’s “bells and cheerful hooters”, and hear the asylum inhabitants “singing or sobbing their hearts out for the New Year”.  “He gripped me fast and kissed my hair / ... I’m sure that what he meant was this: / That I should know how much love would be needed.”

But New Year can be a hopeful time too, even if the hopes are short-lived.  The Scots Makar, Liz Lochhead, begins “View of Scotland/Love Poem” with her mother sprucing the place up for possible New Year visitors:
                  “Down on her hands and knees
                    at ten at night on Hogmanay
                    my mother still giving it elbowgrease
                    jiffywaxing the vinolay.”
You can find this poem on the Scottish Poetry Library website – if you google liz lochhead hogmanay it should come up as the first result. 

If you are disillusioned by all this New Year palaver here is the epigraph to John Burnside’s “The entering of the New Year” –  a quotation from American baseball player, Yogi Berra:  “The future isn’t what it used to be”.

Thursday, 1 January 2015


A happy new year!

It's that time of year when I change my prejudiced and highly-subjective list of 12 poetry books you must read.  They are selected from my reading over the last twelve months and all come highly recommended.  Two are shortlisted for the T S Eliot prize (the books by Michael Longley and Ruth Padel) - results 12 January.

Having compiled the list I find there is a slew towards the Celts (by birth or adoption) - four Welsh, 2 Irish, and 1 Scottish.  By contrast Lorna Goodison injects some much needed internationalism.

The pamphlet choice was difficult - I've read excellent pamphlets this year by Jim Carruth, Malcolm Carson, Zaffar Kunial and Blake Morrison.  Zaffar was a strong contender as he is a young poet just starting out, but in the end I decided I needed some humour in this somewhat serious list so it had to be Blake.  At the other end of the size scale my big omission was the fine translation of Dante's Divine Comedy by Clive James - but it would have unbalanced the list.  Now, having had my cake and eaten it, here are the crumbs that remain.

Eavan Boland (A Woman Without a Country) writes intelligent, tender, thoughtful, feminist poetry, and her syntax compels re-reading.  A book to celebrate the Irish poet's 70th birthday.

Thomas A Clarke is a walker's poet.  Yellow and Blue is like a good long day's walk.  It reveals it emotional impact when read at length, rather than in short hops.  Here is poetry to bring peace to the soul.

Menna Elfyn's Murmur is my translation choice.  She was the star of the Dorothy Wordsworth Festival of Women's Poetry at Grasmere last year.  I bought her book on the strength of her very moving poem "Oh father" and I was not disappointed.

"What is the rare quality that has gone out of poetry that these marvellous poems restore? Joy".  That's Derek Walcott's response to Lorna Goodison's Oracabessa.  Impossible to argue with him.

It's a special day when I discover a fine poet who was previously completely unknown to me.  Angela Leighton's Sea Level was a revelation.  An accomplished and original collection based on the theme of the sea.  If you liked Philip Gross's The Water Table you will enjoy this book too.

Michael Longley is a firm favourite of mine.  One of the Irish greats - I had to include his latest collection The Stairwell.

Patrick McGuinness has said in an interview that he only manages to write because of his long weekly commute between Caernarfon and Oxford.  Jilted City is an inventive and rather Sebaldian collection which includes a suite of railway poems and "translations" from a spoof Romanian poet.

Robert Minhinnick's New Selected Poems give a great sweep of this Welsh writer whose poetry is contemporary, wide-ranging, deeply-thought and full of brilliant imagery.

Blake Morrison's pamphlet This Poem shows that poets have a sense of humour.  It's a mini-satire on modern life.  "Call centre" should become a classic.

Ruth Padel's Learning to Make an Oud in Nazareth gives the lie to Jeremy Paxman's criticism that poetry has "connived at its own irrelevance".  She writes of Muslims, Jews and Christians in the Middle East and about things that matter to our common humanity - life, death, conflict, music.

Sheenagh Pugh revels in her poetry being accessible (good for her!).  Short Days, Long Shadows shows her writing at her best.  Poems which are accessible at first reading but whose depth and craft is shown in subsequent re-readings.

Finally, Stephen Watts The Blue Bag.  Stephen was a friend of W G Sebald (I discovered his poetry via Austerlitz).  His work is lyrical, wide-ranging and like no one else's.  I particularly enjoy his audacious line breaks which work against the syntax like musical syncopation.

Monday, 22 December 2014


I'm just back from a week in Oslo.  In the days leading up to the solstice there were candles on almost every available flat surface, indoors and out, willing the sun to return and lengthen those precious few hours of Norwegian daylight.

There were many Christmas trees, bringing the ever-green inside.  At the Askershus Fortress (little changed from the time of King Christian IV, one of the main characters of Rose Tremain's Music and Silence) I visited the excellent Resistance Museum which reminded me that each year Norway provides the Trafalgar Square Christmas tree in memory and gratitude for Britain's support during the Second World War.

Several buildings had little sheaves of oats hung outside their front doors or tied to gateposts.  This is the Julenek, an old custom of giving a gift to the birds at Christmas (perhaps its origins lie in an offering to Odin or a pagan fertility symbol).  The birds were certainly grateful - small flocks of finches clustered like bees on the sheaves and any seeds knocked to the ground were quickly snapped up by the hooded crows which patrol the streets and parks of Oslo in their sleek grey and black uniforms like a supernumerary police force.

Christmas customs blur into the past, age-old folk traditions morphed into Christmas celebration.  My Christmas poem this year takes a line from a carol as its starting point - "The running of the deer" from The Holly and the Ivy.  Deer are part of our Christmas iconography - think: Christmas card of snowbound landscape, deer venturing out from small copse and in the distance village with church; then add a sprinkling of glitter.

Why deer?  (not the reindeer of Santa Claus - a relatively recent invention popularised in the 19th century by Clement C Moore's "The Night before Christmas").  In winter the deer's normally effective brown/grey camouflage is blown and they stand out against the snow.  Perhaps hunger makes them more adventurous in seeking food.  "Our hunting fathers" would have been out on the chase at this time of year.  The medieval alliterative poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is structured round a series of hunts, deer being the quarry of the first hunt, a noble prey symbolising Gawain's initial innocence and purity.  Deer have a good press in the Bible - in the psalms they are an image of piety and devotion: "As the hart panteth after the water-brooks, so panteth my soul after thee, O God" (Psalm 42:1).  The stag has been portrayed as a symbol of Christ trampling the devil.  Shakespeare in As You Like It alludes to a pagan symbolism in the Forest of Arden:

Jaques Which is he that killed the deer?
First Lord Sir, it was I.
Jaques Let's present him to the Duke like a Roman conqueror; and it would do well to set the deer's horns upon his head for a branch of victory.

And they all sing lustily "What shall he have that kill'd the deer?" (As You Like It Act IV scene 2).  It takes me back to the village where I grew up in the real Forest of Arden (or what is left of it) - the village had a great singing tradition and each Christmas we sang a wide variety of carols, some of them fairly obviously adapting pagan customs for Christian purposes.

A couple of years ago on my after-Christmas-dinner dog walk I startled three roe deer on the field path along the ridge. Roe deer are the secret inhabitants of the Cumbrian countryside where I live.  An encounter with them is always a special moment. 

“And the running of the deer”

  The deer come like memories –
  unbidden, tentative,
  on the edge of sight,

  grey-brown shadows slipping
  through the glittering frost –
  winter’s grace, heart’s leap.                                                       

 © Mary Robinson 2014

Happy Christmas!

Thursday, 4 December 2014


Walking and writing have often gone together.  William Wordsworth (and Dorothy with her notebook), WH Auden, Laurie Lee, Patrick Leigh Fermor, Thomas A Clark are just a few examples.  

Walking was the reason for a week-end in Gibraltar recently.  A friend of mine has spent the last four months walking there from Lincoln, so a group of family and friends went out to welcome him back to British soil and to celebrate his achievement (and his 60th birthday).

I found that we had just missed the Gibunco International Literature Festival (including an impressive line-up of Jacqui Dankworth, Butterfly Wing and Maureen Lipman reading from jazz poet Jeremy Robson's new collection).  But the weather was too good to spend indoors.  Of course we went up the Rock and saw the apes (Barbary Macaques) and the military tunnels.  I was hoping to see Africa but for the whole week-end a misty haze stubbornly obscured the Moroccan coastline.

Because of its strategic importance Gibraltar abounds in history and there are many reminders of its military past, from the Moorish castle to the 100 ton gun from the First World War.  We visited Europa Point and saw the ships entering the Mediterranean.  I thought of the troop ships which went through the straits in the Second World War, including one carrying my father who sailed this way en route to the Far East.  As I watched the numerous vessels passing Europa Point I was reminded of W H Auden's "Look, stranger, on this island now" with the ships on their "urgent voluntary errands".

We walked back from Europa Point along the quiet shore roads and tunnels which took us to Rosia and back into the city.  We explored La Alameda Gardens (Gibraltar's botanical gardens), marvelling at a free-flying Monarch Butterfly (bigger than a wren) and the colourful bird of paradise flowers.  

The last thing I expected to find in the gardens was a statue of Molly Bloom from Joyce's Ulysses.  I had forgotten that Molly, daughter of Major Tweedie, grew up in Gibraltar.   Her memories of Gibraltar form part of her famous reverie at the end of the book - including "the fig trees in the Alameda gardens".

"Each walk moves through space like a thread through fabric, sewing it together into a continuous experience ... this continuity is one of the things I think we lost in the industrial age - but we can choose to reclaim it." (Rebecca Solnit Wanderlust, a History of Walking)  I am full of admiration for my walker-friend.  Four months and over 2000 miles on the path.

Monday, 17 November 2014


"I do like my own wildly inaccurate translations" wrote John Ashbery of mid twentieth century French poetry, but went on to add "but not the originals".

I am not in a position to judge the original poems by Maciej Woźniak but they sounded wonderful in the original Polish.  Last week I wrote about the excellent Scottish Poetry Library translation workshop.  This week I thought I would post my English versions - I hesitate to use the word translations (it sounds too dependable!) - but I hope I have kept the spirit and some of the form and content of the originals. 

Some background

Maciej said he wanted to describe in the first poem a little epiphany which came to him on a dreary wet day while chopping wood to feed the large tiled wood-burning stove which heats the house he shares with his partner. 

The second poem was a list of startling metaphors to describe the paradoxical nature of the poet's heart.  It was a real challenge to find English words for the taut contradictory tensions.  There was a great subtlety in the Polish words used.  For example, the adjective describing the midwife in the first line was literally translated as "hazy" or "muddled", but Maciej said it was like Shakespeare's use of "rosy-fingered" to describe dawn.  That made me think of those straight rays from the sun which are called the fingers of God.  So I translated the word as "divine-fingered" - something you wouldn't expect a midwife to be.  "Lord of the Flies seaside rock" was my version of Maciej's "Wuthering Heights candy" - the latter sounding too much like the souvenir shops of Haworth to be sharp enough.

English versions of two poems by Maciej Woźniak

Mandala z kropli i szczap

Creating a mandala from drops and scraps

Damp down the nape of my neck.  Splitting wood.  A log crushes my foot
and pain runs back up my spine.  That’s the moment
I pick up the signal from home.  Drizzle all morning, but now by the shed roof
a message in a shoal of raindrops.  Love doesn’t do anything.  It just is.

Piosenka do serca

Song: for my heart

Pert waitress with your new moon tray, divine-fingered midwife,
wet-nurse madam with no make-up, my return key, my control + x,
my clutching at razor-edged straws, Fonteyn in a boxing ring,
Rita Heyworth in Bergman films, Baader Meinhof aspirin,
Lord of the Flies seaside rock, ping-pong on a pool table,
a Castrol tear for a star’s dynamo, all muck and no roses,
a funeral cheerleader, Thumbelina lured to the mole’s bed,

my Hildegarde from nowhere, in the rear-view mirror my Euridice.