Tuesday, 9 January 2018

THE OTHER SIDE OF THE OCEAN

My first visit to America.  For almost two weeks I swapped the western edge of the Atlantic for the eastern edge.

I went to Providence, Rhode Island, to visit my American daughter in law's family.  Rhode Island is the smallest state with the longest name (Rhode Island and Providence Plantations).  It's not an island but it has more coastline per inhabitant than any other state.  Rhode Islanders joke that it's 3 per cent bigger at low tide.  And, yes, it's where the hens come from.

My main impressions were that most of my knowledge of America comes from literature and that everyone I met had a story of origins.  And the Cold.

I flew into Boston and as we travelled along the freeway from to Providence I spotted a U-Haul depot.  It brought to mind Amy Clampitt's poem 'Real Estate' with its striking opening lines
'Something is that doesn't
love a Third Avenue tenement'.
The poem describes the run-down area and the demise of a pawnshop -
'... Finally a U-Haul
truck carted everything off somewhere'.
When the conversation turned to baseball I envisioned the poet Marianne Moore in her big hat attending the Brooklyn Dodgers games.  A visitor from Florida made me picture the long Pan Handle ending in Key West, the setting of Wallace Stevens' great poem, 'The Idea of Order at Key West'.

Novels too, came to mind.  Talk of slavery was illuminated by my reading of Toni Morrison's novels and mention of the Civil War and its aftermath conjured up scenes from Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury.

We visited Newport - in the late 19th century the playground of rich New Yorkers who built huge holiday houses on the edge of the ocean.  We went round the Vanderbilts' opulent mansion, The Breakers.  It was pure Edith Wharton - think The Age of Innocence.  The book Wharton co-wrote with the architect Ogden Codman (The Decoration of Houses) was on display, and Codman had been commissioned to work on The Breakers.

The clapboard houses in the snowy streets of Providence had a Scandinavian look and would not look out of place in Oslo or Bergen.  I  was reminded of the Scandinavian immigrants mentioned in Willa Cather's My Antonia.   In the same novel Cather describes the turf dugout that the Shimerda family lived in during their first winter.  During my visit it was cold in Providence - colder than in Alaska.  Bone-searingly cold, relentlessly cold.

*              *                *

I was struck by the way that almost everyone I met had a story of an 'elsewhere', either in their own lifetime or in earlier generations.

My daughter in law's family on her father's side had been Christian weavers in Aleppo and had settled in Patterson, New Jersey.  Her mother's family traced their ancestry to English and Irish immigrants.    I met a man who had been born in Seneghal and a woman whose mother had fled from the Ukraine in the time of Stalin.  The wide variety of restaurants in Providence reflected wave after wave of immigrants from different parts of the world.

But the voices of those who had inhabited Rhode Island before the settlers came were silent, preserved only in place names (we were staying in East Side very near to Pawtucket) and in the 1643 book written by Roger Williams, the founder of Providence.  The book was A Key into the Language of America, longly subtitled 'An help to the language of the natives in that part of America, called New-England.  Together with brief observations of the customs, manners and worships of the aforesaid natives in peace and warre, in life and death.'

On Thursday the storm came, shown on the weather map as a seething mass of bright blue, green, yellow and orange.  The blizzard raged all morning and afternoon - fine sifting powdery snow that blew like flour from a mill, muffling everything, rapidly covering footprints and tyre marks.  White seeped into everything, even finding a crack in the attic window frame and laying its trail on the steep stairs.  We were in 'lock-down'.  All flights were cancelled (including my return flight), schools and work places were closed, even the Seven Stars Bakery on Hope Street was shut.  Someone coined a new meteorological term for the storm 'bombogenesis'.

The car was deposed from its rule of the city and the Providence streets belonged to those pedestrians who were brave/foolhardy enough to venture out and to the grey squirrels.   One night the temperature went down to 2 degrees Fahrenheit (-17 Centigrade).

It was the kind of bitter cold Edith Wharton captured in her novella Ethan Frome.  Wales seemed balmily warm when I finally got home - three days late.





Thursday, 21 December 2017

WINTER SOLSTICE

I am out early with the dog and my head-torch lights up thousands of tiny water droplets - 100 per cent humidity,  There are beads of water suspended on stock fencing.  Mae'n niwlog.  There's a kind of geographical amnesia when walking in mist - the familiar becomes strange and it is possible to lose one's way, even on familiar paths.  There is a sense of being enclosed, like being on a small island.  The thick fogs of my Midlands childhood were legendary ('pea soupers').  My father would walk the eight and a half miles home from work because public transport had been cancelled.

Gradually the landscape comes alive.  A blackbird sets off its jincking alarm call, rooks start having a conversation in the sycamores at the edge of the field, in the distance I can hear wood pigeons - cooroocoo, cooroo.  Small brown birds flit ahead of us keeping close to the cover of the hedge.  The cockerel at the muddy farm has woken up - insistently.  Now the mist starts to lift - slightly.  Despite the murk I can see bright pinpoints of yellow on gorse bushes along the banks of the lane.  The lower slopes of the hills start to appear, and the low cloud just smirrs the top of Moel y Penmaen at 153 metres.

Traditionally the Winter Solstice is when we welcome (entice) back the light, just a few days before  we celebrate Christmas.

THE CONSOLATION OF LIGHT

Sunset flaring the winter sea
Crescent moon and evening star
Candle flame in a small window.

© Mary Robinson 2017




Sunday, 10 December 2017

Birding the landscape

The fickle British weather has proved me wrong (again).

In my last post I wrote 'There is no snow on the mountains' in my 'Little Egrets' poem.  Very soon afterwards I looked out of my bedroom window and saw that Yr Wyddfa (Snowdon) had turned a glittering white overnight.

Yesterday all the surrounding hills and mountains were clothed in snow.  One of the most prominent from this direction is Moel Hebog.  Reading A Journey through Birds by James Macdonald Lockhart I was reminded that hebog is Welsh for a hawk.  This has puzzled me - did this mountain have more hawks than its neighbours?  Then I realised that of course it's because of the shape - its rounded shoulders are like a hawk mantling its wings.  Another name for Snowdon is Eryri.  Eryr is an eagle.  The dramatic triple-peaked ridge that reveals itself when the clouds part is like the outline of a soaring eagle.

In the back of an old Welsh dictionary I found a list of birds' names.  A coot is iâr y gors - 'bog hen', a jay (which I see frequently round here) is sgrech y coed - 'shriek of the wood'.  My favourite is  the dipper aderyn du'r dwr - 'blackbird of the water'.  I like the way the birds' names place them in the landscape.

By happy coincidence the Picador Friday Poem was Kathleen Jamie's 'The Dipper' set in 'winter, near freezing'.  She writes of the bird's 'supple, undammable song', that it 'knows the depth of the river / yet sings of it on land.'  Yes, blackbird of the water.

[You can read the whole poem if you google Picador Friday Poem 8 December 2017.
Apologies to those who know dwr should have a circumflex on the w - and advance thanks to anyone who knows the correct short-cut keys to get it on a Mac!]

Thursday, 30 November 2017

CHANGE RULES

What is the first word that comes into your head in response to the phrase ‘All Change’?

This was the question posed by Moniza Alvi at her recent Second Light workshop (see previous post).  We went round anti-clockwise at speed.  I found myself going second after ‘revolution’.  I proffered ‘restoration’.  I confess it was the sound association not the sense.

I thought of the great Scottish poet, Edwin Morgan, whose motto was ‘Change Rules’, and Rebecca Solnit’s ‘Never turn down an adventure without a really good reason’ (in her wonderful book The Faraway Nearby).

I remembered a conversation I overheard in a supermarket -
            Child:     Why are we buying this?
            Parent:  Because we always buy it.
            Child:     If you do the same things all the time you become boring.

Then there was the famous 70s book, Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock, about ‘too much change in too short a period of time’.

Moving from Cumbria to Penllyn has been a big change in my life, but it has also been a restoration, a coming back.  In the harbour at Pwllheli I have been delighted to see little egrets   they have come back too.  Centuries ago these small white herons (looking from a distance like gawky pullets) were so common that a thousand were killed for the banquet celebrating the enthronement of the Archbishop of York in 1465.   Hunted to extinction they were absent from our shores for centuries, but twenty years ago the first little egrets bred in the south of Britain and since then they have been gradually moving back to coastal habitats. 

Little Egrets

In the years when I wasn’t watching
the egrets returned.

They leave claw-prints like hallmarks
in a patch of silvery mud.

There is no snow on the mountains
reflected in the harbour stillness,

only the whiteness of these elsewhere birds
which have made this place their home.


© Mary Robinson 2017

Sunday, 19 November 2017

WEEKEND IN BLOOMSBURY

I walked the pavements trodden by Virginia Woolf and T S Eliot, I stayed at the Penn Club (where John Wyndham - he of Triffids fame - lived for several years) and I went to the Second Light Poetry Festival.
As winner of the Second Light Poetry prize (short poem category) I was invited to take part in an  evening reading, so, on Saturday night I read my winning poem, 'Six Studies of Pillows' (based on a Durer pen and ink drawing), my commended poem, 'Clustog Fair' (set on Bardsey Island) and a few other poems in the elegant Georgian surroundings of the Art Workers' Guild in Queen Square (a bust of Ruskin on the stairs kept an eye on everyone).  I enjoyed the reading very much - a relaxed and intimate setting and an enthusiastic audience.
The reading was the culmination of the two day poetry festival.  The whole weekend was a literary feast! Myra Schneider, Penelope Shuttle, Kate Foley and Moniza Alvi led workshops over the two days - full of good things to inspire and provoke.  On the first evening Penelope and Kate gave a reading followed by an open mic.  Aa Myra had started her workshop with Les Murray's '1960 brought the electric' I read 'Girl with a lamp', the poem I might have started in the workshop if I hadn't written it already!
Thanks are due to Dilys Wood and Anne Stewart who organised and ran the weekend so smoothly and made sure that there were enough cakes, biscuits and hot drinks to fuel our brain cells.  I picked up my new edition of Artemis and was delighted to find my winning poem and the commended one printed in the magazine.
I came back to Wales, dogged by the lack of organisation of the railways.  All went smoothly until Chester.  Then there was an hour's wait for a rail replacement bus (Sunday maintenance work) to Llandudno Junction, then another hour's wait for the Bangor train.  But we were compensated by a spectacularly beautiful autumnal view of the Vale of Clwyd when we went over Rhuallt Hill on the A55.  All the metallic colours of the not yet fallen leaves - gold, platinum, bronze, copper.  I thought of Gerard Manley Hopkins at St Beuno's, his love of this wide valley and the way the landscape and  the Welsh language fed into his poetry.  A long way from London.

Sunday, 12 November 2017

MORE PATTERNS - OR LACK OF THEM

Now the starlings are gathering in big flocks over the stubble field.  They make patterns against the sky.  I stand and watch them, fascinated by their rapid shape-shifting.  They divide, unite, swirl in ever changing directions, sometimes making a dark inner nucleus thick with birds.  Ornithologists say that these murmurations are a way to defy predators or to exchange information (there is certainly a lot of excited chattering going on!) but I wonder if the starlings experience a sense of sheer exhilaration in being part of this vast movement of birds.

I was thinking of patterns - or rather the apparent lack of them - when I visited the current Gillian Ayres exhibition at Oriel Plas Glyn a Weddw yesterday.  Gillian Ayres is described in the gallery information as 'one of the most important and original abstract artists in Britain'.  My interest was aroused when I learnt that she lived and worked at the Old Rectory, Llaniestyn for about 7 years until 1987.  I was surprised that I knew nothing about her, although I had spent a lot of that time at our cottage only a mile away from the village.  It was a particularly happy and productive time for her.

There were only four large pictures in the exhibition - 'thickly painted, with the surface manipulated into gestures and patterns using brush, fingers and paint squeezed directly from the tube.  The texture became just as much a vital component of the work as the colour.'  The paintings were enormous.  At the time they seemed - dare I say it? - 'daubs', but afterwards I found myself thinking about the vibrant colours and random shapes.  They expressed an exuberance which seemed very positive.

Earlier in the week I went to Ensemble Cymru's contemporary chamber music concert at Neuadd Dwyfor in Pwllheli.  The concert included a clever witty piece, 'Block', by Claire Roberts (she was in the audience).  The piece was described as exploring 'deliberately the boundaries of tonality ... the music is pushed to the limits.'  A very different take on patterns in music.

I'm still working my way through the bumper summer edition of The North poetry magazine (blame the move) and read the review of Anne Carson's Float.  The poet describes her work as often seeming to turn into 'a few flakes of language roaming near the margin, looking as if they want to become an art of pure shape.'

Randomness and pattern - I've been tossing these ideas around in my head with no definite conclusions as I watch the starlings from my study window.  Julia Blackburn catches something of the fascination of the 'murmurations' of starlings:

'Starlings help.
The way they pull between a celebration of living
And an intimation of things unseen,
The sound of them rustling the air
The flickering sound of them.'

(from Murmurations of Love, Grief and Starlings with photographs by Andrew Smiley - Full Circle editions, 3rd printing, 2016)