Friday, 12 October 2018

PASTORAL

Upper Close, Lower Close, Cank Hill, Middle Cans, Park Close, Far Close.

Those were the names of the fields on my parents' small-holding in Warwickshire.  The names were on a plan in the deeds and they were in daily use.

'I'm going to move the cattle onto Cank Hill.'
'Can you help with the potatoes in Lower Close?'

Upper Close had an old marl pit in one corner where the cattle would shelter in bad weather.  A stream ran along one side of three of the fields, weaving in and out of our neighbour's property so that livestock on both sides of the fence could have access to fresh water.  Middle Cans had a side entrance to a badger set (the main part of the set was further up the hill behind our land).  Cank Hill was too steep to mow but it had a gate onto the road, a useful short cut when walking up to the village.  Far Close was always boggy and meadowsweet flourished there in the summer.  Park Close was only separated from its adjoining field by straggly overgrown pear and apple trees.  The humps and hollows in the grass may have been a remnant of medieval ridge and furrow cultivation.

When I moved to Cumbria I noticed that one large agricultural estate had nailed numbers to gateposts - no fancy field names for their contract tractor drivers.

I've been reading Jim Carruth's collection Black Cart (Freight Poetry 2017).  The book is beautifully designed and has footers running along each page.  In the first section the footers are the names of the fields of High Auchensale, Jim's family farm.   In the second they are the names of types of grasses (no mention of the ubiquitous rye grass) and in the third the names of farms which have given up dairying and sold their land.

The book is part record, part celebration, part lament for a farming generation.  Jim Carruth grew up on the family farm near Kilbarchan, not far from Johnstone, Renfrewshire, and Glasgow's outer edges.  There are similarities with the rural backgrounds of Seamus Heaney, Gillian Clarke and Les Murray.  Jim Carruth (born 1963) writes about mechanised farming but is also aware of post-war changes (Clydesdales superseded by tractors) and more recent events (the foot and mouth outbreak).

The book is truly pastoral [to do with flocks and herds], in a tradition that goes back to classical times (epigraphs from Virgil preface each section).  A quote from Les Murray on the back cover states 'It is the hope of Jim Carruth to restore agricultural writing and the depth of its detail'.  I like that phrase 'agricultural writing'.  It avoids the romantic and idealistic overtones that have accrued to literary concepts of pastoral over the centuries.

 The front cover flap of Black Cart describes the book as 'a love poem to a rural community'.  The collection is not nostalgic but elegiac - 'a moving testament to a lost generation of family, friends, farmers and farms.'

What comes across to me most strongly in Black Cart is the poet's bond to the people of the land and their bond to the land itself (field names included).

Monday, 1 October 2018

TOO MANY MADONNAS

Perugia, Galleria Nazionale dell'Umbria

I found it in a basket of eggs.

I struggle with religious art: the repetitive subject matter, so many pictures in which the only women are Madonnas or Magdalenes, so much iconography I don't understand.  I feel like an alien in a strange land.  I need something that can connect me to this world so many centuries before my own.

I think of Dante, contemporary with some of the paintings I am looking at in the gallery.  He wrote from the viewpoint of medieval Christianity but was strongly critical of individual popes and clerics and of the abuses and hoarded wealth of the church.  This doesn't help me relate to the paintings with their lavish use of expensive pigments and gold.

But then I notice a small narrow panel, depicting the Nativity.  it was painted in 1425 by Rossellio di Jacopo Franchi.  The Madonna is standing, looking serious.  Joseph is seated with a puzzled expression on his face.  It is as if both of them are struggling with the shock of parenthood for the first time.  They appear to have had words - hardly surprising given their inadequate accommodation.

The ox and the ass put their heads above the manger, from which the infant Jesus seems to have slipped.  The animals' portraits are as realistic as those of the human figures.  I imagine a farmer fondling the hair on their foreheads as he shuts them in the stable after a day's hard work.

To the right of the scene two shepherds have turned up.  They wear knee-length tunics and tights, a functional fashion so everyday in the 15th century that it has become today an instantly recognisable cliche of amateur pageants and plays.

The brief (? too brief) description beside the panel states that it is a predella, that is, a painting along the horizontal frame at the bottom of an altar-piece.  Originally it would have been dominated by the important, now absent, middle part of the painting.  But, being at a lower level, the predella would catch the eye of the worshipper going to receive the sacrament.

One of the shepherds is carrying a wicker basket, a present for the Christ child.  I look closely and see that it is a basket of eggs.  Perhaps the eggs were destined for the next day's market and the shepherd had grabbed them impulsively, feeling he should bring something and that was the only thing he could think of.

What a wonderfully practical gift.  The holy family - no room at the inn - would have been forced into self-catering, Mary had to keep her strength up and there were all those visitors to feed.  Soon they would have to flee into Egypt - there might be a few boiled eggs left to take on the journey.

No doubt there is some iconographic significance that I have missed - the eggs as a symbol of the resurrection maybe?  But I like to think that a woman kneeling to receive the host on her tongue in 1425 would have been as charmed by that basket of eggs as I am so many centuries later.


Wednesday, 12 September 2018

POEMS ARE LIKE ROSES

' ... the roses
Had the look of flowers that are looked at'
     (T S Eliot Four Quartets: Burnt Norton)

The poems were the same - I felt that they were all clamouring Look at me!   They were like the flowers in Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass, 'all shouting together' until the air seemed full of their voices.

How to choose?  I felt honoured and a little daunted to be asked to be the guest poetry editor of a respected literary magazine.  Four large envelopes (total weight just under two pounds) thumped through the letter box.

What to consider?  Basically two things - form and content.  This could be subdivided into sound, rhythm, rhyme (if used), imagery, language, tone, mood, feeling - I could go on and on (line breaks, visual shape, factual correctness etc etc).  I was sounding like an English teacher and still the flowers were  clamouring for attention.

I gave all the poems a preliminary first reading.  At this early stage there were three poems that made a strong impression on me.  I marked them with a star.  I gave another three a cross as rejects.  But I wanted to avoid (to mix my metaphors) a sheep and goats approach.  I was looking for poems that managed to rise above the others and that rise is not always apparent at first reading.

The vast majority of the poems were of an acceptably high standard (the flowers were blowing in the breeze - Choose me! they cried).

A second read-through of the poems.  This time I asked myself: would I miss the poem if it wasn't there?  Would poetry be slightly impoverished if this poem didn't exist?  Would the poem slive (another mixed metaphor here) into my affections like a stray animal?  However good the technique there is a subjective element to selecting poems.  I wrote brief comments on the poems as if I was workshopping them.  By the end of the second reading I was up to ten definite poems. But I needed 17 to 20 poems and five reserves.

A third reading found me putting question marks on quite a few poems (maybes), but at the end I had sorted the pages into the requisite number of poems.  Then I made a quick fourth reading to makes sure I hadn't missed any of the best roses.

It was time to peel off the post-it notes that had kept the poems anonymous.  To my surprise I'd twice chosen two poems by the same writer and once chosen three (by someone whose name was completely new to me).

I didn't want duplicates and certainly not a triplicate - it's hard enough to get poems published and I wanted to give as many people as possible the chance.  Back to the possibles.  They were all good poems - it was hard to choose.  The deciding factor in the end was the theme of the poems - I wanted variety.  Finally I had the right number of poems.

Sorry, roses, I couldn't choose all of you.  But you are still beautiful.

Friday, 24 August 2018

MORE PAW-PRINTS

'I should never be a Frenchman, never be one of them' (Daphne du Maurier The Scapegoat) quotes Adam Thorpe in Notes from the Cevennes: Half a Lifetime in Provincial France.  

Enjoying this very readable memoir about living in France has sent me back to the poems in Thorpe's excellent collection Voluntary.  Several of the poems are set in France including - 'Impression', 'Fuel', 'Underground', 'Spring Class', 'Second Homes', 'Posy', 'Neighbour', 'Panic' [another IKEA poem] and 'In Court'.  The prose fills out the background to the poems, but the poems show how all this can be condensed into a few lines.

Writing about 'Voluntary' in the Poetry Book Society Spring 2012 bulletin Adam Thorpe said:

'I was badly stuck for an opener : the main leit-motifs ... seem to be roads, animals' otherness and time, but none of the relevant poems quite worked in pole position.  "Sutton Hoo" with its image of standing on a rostrum helplessly surveying the past, felt like a reasonable compromise.  The day before sending off the final draft of Voluntary, I happened to glance at the paw-embedded tile by my study door and the first two lines of "Impression" welled up, with the dim shape of the rest behind, the world "jobsworth" gleaming in the tail.  The collection was done.'

It's a lovely poem, only 19 lines, imagining the making of the clay tile and how the dog's paw-prints became embedded in it.  In his memoir Adam Thorpe devotes a whole chapter to the clay tile, telling us in fascinating detail about the 2nd century tegula.  'Two slightly overlapping paw-marks showed, with each of the four toe-pads like a large oval petal'.  Questioning the local vet and knowledgeable
friends reveals the gait of the dog so that the writer discovers 'how this far-off moment galvanised an animal, bunched its muscles, fired its brain, traced its intention ... I feel close to the dog, so close I can touch its bristly flank, sense it muzzling my hand with its cool nose, smell the slightly foetid stink of poor drains on the air.'

Adam Thorpe Notes from the Cevennes (Bloomsbury 2018)
Voluntary (Cape 2012)

IMMORTAL PAW PRINTS

Concrete road, Mynydd Mawr

Are they still living,
these men in their nineties,
retelling their war?

Stripped to the waist,
shoulders blistering,
piecing together

squares, oblongs, triangles,
placing the forms,
churning the mix like butter,

throwing in gravel,
a broken bottle
(which glints in the sun),

pouring, tamping,
cheering the farm dog
who runs to greet them

his paw prints
immortal
on the wet track.

Chough and peregrine,
heather and gorse,
eight decades of concrete.

I will always be younger
than this road
but it will outlive me.

© Mary Robinson 2018

A steady stream of visitors have made their way to my house this summer.  It's been lovely to have so many friends here.  The family have been to stay too and it's been a delight to see my young grandchildren doing 'Fourth generation' things (my parents first visited the Peninsula in the early 1950s) - playing on the beach at Morfa Nefyn and Aberdaron, going on the Ffestiniog Railway and having tea and cake in the Gwalia Cafe in Pwllheli.

One of the places I often take visitors is Mynydd Mawr on the tip of Penllyn.   There are still small fields surviving from the centuries-old smallholding economy of Lleyn.  Mynydd Mawr is an excellent viewpoint for Bardsey Island and if it is clear enough we can see across Cardigan Bay and right down the coast of Wales.  At the summit are the remains of the old coastguard station with a small display inside.  To reach the summit we can either scramble up through gorse and heather or walk up the zig-zag concrete road built by the army during the Second World War when the hill was an important look-out station for sea defences.  Apart from the coastguard station the other buildings have been demolished, leaving flights of steps leading nowhere and flat platforms in the grass.

But the road was built well and has lasted - complete with the footprints of an inquisitive farm collie.

Tuesday, 31 July 2018

ROWAN

The rowan berries have turned orange in the copse where the buzzards nest.  It's the last day of July.

I always associate rowans with a solitary tree on a rocky hillside or near an isolated mountain farm, so that when I see them in a different place - around a supermarket car park, for example - they take me in my mind to a wild elsewhere.  This is a kind of 'Innisfree' moment - Yeats pounding London's 'pavements grey' but still hearing 'the lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore.'

The last day in July.  Gorffennaf in Welsh.  The word literally means 'the end of summer', from gorffen to finish, and haf summer.  I always think that's a glass half-empty way of looking at the seasons, but, now that the heat wave has dissipated into the usual school holiday mix of heavy rain, strong winds and sunny intervals, July is at last living up to its Welsh name as it exits the calendar for another year.

The orange rowan berries sum up the sense of change in the air.  The breeze makes a subtly different sound as it fingers the leaves, dry and brittle from the drought.  The birds (except the buzzards) are largely silent now that they have finished nesting and are starting to moult.

Norman MacCaig's 'Rowan Berry' says:

Tomorrow, or tomorrow's tomorrow,
a flock of fieldfares
will gobble our whole generation.