Friday, 3 December 2021

RECENTLY PUBLISHED

My poem 'October' is published in the November edition of ARTEMIS POETRY (issue 27). Yes, I know, but be fair - the magazine only comes out twice a year! Artemis is published by the hugely encouraging poetry organisation, Second Light. See www.secondlightlive.co.uk

Monday, 29 November 2021

BACK FROM THE EDGE

Storm Arwen has thrashed everything. The lane is littered with leaf debris, twigs and small branches. The battered gorse bushes release their scent which fills tha air. The landscape has changed - now that all the leaves have been stripped from bushes and trees I can see the mountains more clearly - the bold outlines of Garn Fadryn, Cadair Idris, Yr Wyddfa (the latter two with a scattering of snow). Bracken has died back to yellow and rust brown. Yet even on this late November day there are a few flowers on the grass verge: grubby-looking cow-parsley flowers yet to catch up with the sculptural umbelliferous seed heads of their summer counterparts. Red campion bravely showing some faded pink blooms. And the gorse - random bushes with vivid yellow flowers. Not a lot, but enough to lift the heart on a cold damp morning. Berries are emerging on ivy. A wren flits across my path and into a tangle of brambles. Blackbirds and fieldfares are flyting over the few remaining haws. The verges and the high banks (cloddiau) are a precarious refuge for nature, not given much of a chance in the adjacent fields. Nature driven to the edge. I walk for an hour and only see one other person - a farmer on a tractor, checking on livestock which he keeps in these fields a couple of miles from his house on the other side of the village. I've been reading Sheri Benning's new work, FIELD REQUIEM, a lament for the disappearance of family farms in Saskathchewan and a howl against intensive agriculture. The back cover reads: she 'bears witness to the violence inherent in the shift to industrialised farming in prairie Canada'. I'm thankful that we are not there yet, but .... I look over the valley and see the big fields, in one of which is a digger - idle for the weekend - waiting to drain a watery field. Part of nearby Cors Geirch is a National Nature Reserve and a Site of Special Scientific Interest ('Cors' is Welsh for a bog). But outside the reserve boundary the edges are being nibbled away by agriculture. When I was a child my family and I stayed for several years on a farm at Llangwnnadl. The farm consisted of small fields enclosed with high banks which were ablaze with wild flowers in spring. There was no mains electricity and the couple who rented the farm milked a few Welsh black cows by hand twice a day and left the milk in churns on a stand at the gate to await the lorry collection. Memories trapped in the time's amber. What a difference today! A farmer who has recently bought a large field (about 50 acres) opposite my house told me that his 400 milking cows will all be dried off soon and will all calve in February. The numbers are relatively small - at least one local dairy farm numbers their cows in four figures. James Rebanks in his second book ENGLISH PASTORAL makes a strong insider argument (he is a farmer) for a more environmentally sympathetic way of farming, avoiding the twin poles of re-wilding and industrialised agriculture. It is not difficult to catalogue the losses in the natural world but rather than dwelling on 'guilt and misery', as Jane Austen said, I am encouraged by a project to restore and expand the coastal strip of the peninsula where in a few decades nature has been driven to the edge. Our local wildlife film-maker and photographer, Ben Porter, has made a beautiful film about the coastal edge and the ongoing work to expand and restore it. Go to https://www.ecomuseumlive.eu/videos and click on Coastal Connectvity/Cysylltedd Arfordirol. Just 6 minutes of beauty and hope for the future.

Wednesday, 27 October 2021

NEWS

I'm very pleased to have been shortlisted in the Second Light Poetry Prize 2021 for my poem 'Beirut'. Hawk-eyed followers of my blog will have noticed that at the moment I'm having a wee bit of a problem with formatting (despite an updated browser and an updated virtually everything else - thanks, Alan). So in case you're wondering what I've been reading lately: KERRY HARDIE Where Now Begins (Bloodaxe 2020), GERRY CAMBRIDGE The Light Acknowledgers and other poems (Happenstance 2019), KAREN SOLIE The Caiplie Caves (Picador 2019), JOHN BURNSIDE Feast Days (Secker and Warburg 1992). I bought the early John Burnside from Oxfam, Keswick. They have a good bookshop with s separate poetry section. I also bought a couple of Les Murray's collections to give to a friend. Recommended browse!

Tuesday, 26 October 2021

FROM THE ARMITT TO THE HEBRIDES

What to do on a wet day in Ambleside? I've wondered about this since my first visit to Ambleside when I was in my teens. I mean wet - torrential quasi-monsoon wet. The answer, I recently discovered, is to visit the Armitt - the wonderful independent library, museum and gallery founded by the Armitt sisiters, Sophia and Mary Louisa, in 1909 and rehoused in a fine slate and stone building in 1997. There is so much to see - examples of the work of Beatrix Potter and Kurt Schwitters, many fascinating objects (including artefacts from the Keswick School of Industrial art) and a wonderful collection of (mainly Lake District) books. My friend was soon lost in a history of her old school written by one of her former teachers. I discovered the wonderful and extensive Fell and Rock Climbing Club collection of books, permanently housed in the Armitt library. I spent a happy hour browsing and reading. There are books about mountaineering of course but also about wild places in general. I was delighted to discover books by the Scottish naturalist, walker and prolific author, Seton Gordon (1886-1977). I settled down with Hebridean Memories, first published in 1923. I've visited several Scottish islands so it was fascinating to be transported back in time almost a century ago. The books are not for lending so when I got home I bought second-hand copies of Hebridean Memories and the almost equally fascinating, Afoot in the Hebrides (1950). Seton Gordon, especially in his earlier books, records a way of life that was disappearing in the first half of the twentieth century and influenced poets such as Sorley Maclean and Iain Crichton Smith. It was a simple way of life but hard and poor. Seton Gordon first visited St Kilda archipelago when the main island of Hirta was still inhabited and he wrote a scary account of landing with the islandmen on Boreray. He visited again after the evacuation, mentioning that a few islanders returned every summer to work at weaving the St Kilda tweed. Robert Atkinson's classic book Island Going goes into more detail about the way the summer islanders picked up the threads of their old way of life. But the threads were fragile - the Second World War ended their summer visits. Past classics of island literature tend to have been written by men in the past, but now we can add women writers such as Kathleen Jamie and Madeleine Bunting to the list. I visited the St Kilda archipelago in 2010 and wrote a sequence of poems which were later published in North Words Now. At the Armitt in Ambleside I spent a happy morning revisitng the Hebrides - and sheltering from the rain. www.armitt.com Seton Gordon Afoot in the Hebrides (Country Life 1950) and Hebridean Memories (1923, reprints 1995 and 2011 Neil Wilson Publishing. Robert Atkinson Island Going (Collins 1949; reprinted Birlinn 2008) Kathleen Jamie Findings (Sort of Books 2005)and Sightlines (Sort of Books 2012) Madeleine Bunting Love of Country (Granta 2016)

Thursday, 2 September 2021

MAKE THE JOURNEY - CELEBRATING DOROTHY WORDSWORTH

Having a birthday on Christmas Day is unfortunate - it tends to blur into the Christmas celebrations and skinflint relations think that one present fits all. Dorothy Wordsworth was born on Christmas Day 1771, a younger sister for William Wordsworth who arrived into the world on April 7th the previous year. But the 250th anniversary of her birth will not be forgotten. The celebrations began in July this year and will continue until July 2022, straddling her Christmas Day birthday. My friends Amy, Helen and Juliet, of Eden Poets have made a film and launched a challenge - MAKE THE JOURNEY - and the Shriders (cyclists) have a suppporting role! The film is produced by John Hamlett whose excellent camera-work follows the beautiful scenery of the journey. This short 7 minute film is a wonderfully enthusiastic celebration of Dorothy Wordsworth (especially her diaries which are so direct and observant and have become classics of Romantic prose writing). As Juliet says in the film, Dorothy writes 'through each day as it presents itself'. The journey is 30 miles from Wordsworth House in Cockermouth to Rydal Mount at Rydal, via Dove Cottage. And the challenge is to travel the route and create something along the way. It's already on my 'To Write' list. Thank you to Eden Poets for the inspiration! Here's the YouTube link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ky7-cf3dgJo

Monday, 26 July 2021

SUMMER

Puffins whirr past us like wonders
on stubby clockwork wings

some, all orange legs and nonchalance,
stand sentinel beside the burrows

others bob in flotillas near the boat -
little sea parrots
with beaks of many colours.
                                              

Just before the heatwave struck I went over to Ynys Enlli (Bardsey Island) for a day with eight friends from my Welsh class. It was my sixth visit but none of my friends had been there before.  The island cast its spell over them and as we waited by the slipway for the boat back they all said how much they had enjoyed the visit.   But a special treat awaited us on the return across the Sound.  Colin took the boat close to the steep cliffs of the mountain to see the sea birds - razorbills, guillemots, shags, kittiwakes and the showstoppers, puffins.  He cut the engines and we floated amongst them, so close we could see their colourful striped beaks.  'There are more puffins this year than I can ever remember', he said and he assumed that the high numbers were the result of favourable weather in the spring.

About a hundred pairs of storm petrels and over 20,000 pairs of Manx shearwaters nest on Enlli.  Like the puffins these species are truly pelagic - living on the ocean - only coming to land to breed.  The shearwaters nest in burrows on the island and the petrels in crevices in rocks and banks.  The parent birds come ashore at dusk to avoid predators.    The nesting season is full of risks for birds which are so strongly adapted to life at sea.

In my first collection there is a poem 'Storm petrels at Mousa Broch', written after a dusk visit to see the thousands of storm petrels which nest in the ancient broch on the uninhabited island of Mousa (Shetland).   I describe a petrel's eye as 'black as the moon's absence'.  A dark moonless night is safest for the returning birds which are so unsuited to life on land: 

... birds so frail
they shuffle on crippled legs.

                   *                                        *                                        *

Would I have used the word 'crippled', even though referring to a bird, if I had read Karl Knights' recent hard-hitting essay, 'The Face not Seen'?  Knights attacks the 'ablest' bias of the poetry establishment where disabled poets are too often invisible or excluded.   He talks of compiling an alternative 'canon' of disabled poets, including the Japanese haiku master Masoaka Shiki, W E Henley (best known for his 'Invictus' poem), and more recently, Raymond Antrobus and Jillian Weise.   

I started to think about disability in poetry.  The blind Milton famously dictated Paradise Lost to his daughters and is the subject of a painting by Eugene Delacroix.  Milton's sonnet on his blindness is one of the great English sonnets and his verse drama Samson Agonistes is a tragedy about the weak, blinded Samson, captured by his enemies ('Blind among enemies, O worse than chains').  Centuries later the Cornish poet, Jack Clemo, became blind in childhood and deaf in young adulthood.  Ilya Kaminsky's The Deaf Republic was published in 2019 to great acclaim.  

Knights quotes Virginia Woolf's statement that it is strange that 'illness has not taken its place with love, battle and jealousy among the prime themes of literature'.  When I opened the current issue of Poetry Wales magazine I found a poem by Hannah Hodgson, a young poet from Cumbria, who is living with and writing about a serious life-limiting illness (her first collection is due out from Seren soon).    And searching in my memory for poetry about illness I thought of Philip Gross's The Wasting Game, a collection concerned with anorexia.  Dementia is a subject tackled by several poets, usually with the agonising theme of watching a parent decline with this terrible condition.  

Knights' article raises some important questions for readers, writers and editors of poetry.

                   *                                        *                                        * 

Make hay while the sun shines  

I've been watching the contractors working the field opposite my house.  A first sileage crop was taken earlier in the year .  The aftermath denotes this second flush of grass which was cut at the weekend and later turned into windrows.  Now a large forage harvester is scooping up the grass and shooting it into a trailor being pulled alongside.  The breeze winnows the dust from the chopped grass.  Crows and rooks strut proprietorially where the grass has been cleared and stab their beaks into easy pickings. 

Between my study window and the field is a traditional field bank, studded with purple hardheads (knapweed flowers).  About twenty Large White butterflies flicker over the flowers, alighting for nectar and performing intricate flight dances.  


* 'Puffins' © Mary Robinson 2021

You can read Milton's sonnet on his blindness at
https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44750/sonnet-19-when-i-consider-how-my-light-is-spent
and W E Henley's 'Invictus' at
https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/51642/invictus

Karl Knights' essay 'The Face not Seen' is in the current summer 2021 issue of the poetry magazine The Dark Horse.  

More about Hannah Hodgson https://hannahhodgson.com/author/hannahwritesablog/