Wednesday, 25 April 2018

BETWEEN LAND AND OCEAN

Ceremony

My mother,
     who could not swim,
would walk

to the water's edge,
     dip her fingers
in the waves

and touch the sea
     to her forehead
like a blessing.

© Mary Robinson 2015


I walk down to Porth Ysgo early on Saturday morning.  Does the heart slow down when watching the waves on the shore?  The tide is coming in, almost at the flood.  Water breaks in spray making little runnels on the cliff as it drains back into the sea.

There is something hypnotic about the relentlessness of each incoming wave, the way a large wave consumes a smaller wave, or the way a crest begins to tear until the water collapses and spills on the shore.

I'm relieved to see that someone (? National Trust) has done a tidy up.  There's hardly any plastic on the beach but there is a big heap at the bottom of the wooden steps (above high tide mark) that provide access from the top of the cliff.  Plastic containers, big plastic drums, fish crates, the inevitable drinks bottles; bits of fishing net, lengths of dayglo coloured rope, even a gas cylinder.  There is little that is useful - just a few planks and a wooden pallet. I wonder how/when/if this lot will be disposed of - removing it in a small boat would probably be easiest.

On the beach there's a line of seaweed deposited by the winter storms - long brown ribbons with stems ending in suckers.  Part of a chain-sawed tree trunk has washed up.  The grain is twisted and contorted (Spanish chestnut?).  The russet inner core of the trunk is rotten.  It reminds me of the 'Wooden Boulder' which the sculptor, *David Nash, filmed on its journey down the Afon Dwyryd to the sea.

The edge of the land, the beginning of the ocean; the fresh water of the waterfall dissolving into the salt water of the sea.  I am drawn to this in-between place where earth and water are in perpetual conflict and flux.  And for an hour on this bright spring morning I have the place to myself.


*David Nash's beautiful film of the boulder is on permanent display at Plas Glyn y Weddw art gallery at Llanbedrog. https:www.oriel.org.uk
or google David Nash and Boulder for information and pictures. 

Tuesday, 10 April 2018

AT LAST I CAN SMELL SPRING

It seems almost obscene to be writing about the Welsh spring when the news is so appalling each day and terrible events follow one after another in dreadful succession.  But to write about life and beauty is to take a stand against 'man's inhumanity to man' (and to woman and child).  To write about nature is a reminder, as the poet Michael Longley said in an interview with Jody Allen Randolph, that 'We share the planet with the plants and the other animals'.

At last I can smell spring - a compound of warm earth, crushed new grass, a difference in the air from winter's cold mineral breath.  Down the lane I discovered a patch of wood anemones (a slight musky smell) by the side of the road.  Or wooden enemies as my family called them when I was a child.  My botanist friend says they are an indication of relict woodland.  I try to imagine what the Peninsula would have been like when it was covered with trees (Samuel Johnson complained about the lack of trees when he visited Lleyn with Mrs Thrale in 1774).  How long ago were the trees cleared?  Millennia, I suppose.  There was a stone axe factory on Mynydd Rhiw - the spoil heap is still there.

A few days ago I went for a walk at Dinas along a rough track which I remember as being thick with huge clumps of primroses.  There were only a few plants dotted here and there.  I met a man with a beautiful brindled greyhound and we walked along slowly, discussing the dearth of primroses.

'Perhaps it was the cold wintry weather,' I ventured.

'No,' he said decisively, 'it's the unpredictability of the seasons now.'

Recently I re-read an essay* by poet and academic Harriet Tarlo - 'we cannot fail but find beautiful acre on acre of small plants'.  She includes some lines of her beautifully spaced poetry: 'new green on Black Hill / bilberry bright / against heather / celandine flash / between cloughs ...'  She then comments ''except often it's not acres but yards.  The acres are in the historical or future imagination.'


*  in Peat Matters: Locating Climate (Change) at the Interface of Art and Science (Northumbria University Department of Geography 2017) 



Friday, 30 March 2018

LEBANON - COUNTRY OF CONTRASTS

What do you associate with the word Lebanon?

Perhaps a photograph of Jackie Onassis on a luxury yacht in Beirut harbour, or the blackened ruins of the Holiday Inn (a bleak symbol of the Civil War 1975 – 1992), or news bulletins of refugees who have fled into the country from Syria.  I think too of Phoenician traders on the Mediterranean coast thousands of years ago and the ‘Cedars of Lebanon’ which are mentioned in the Bible and which still grow here – even the national flag has a cedar on it.

In a short visit I experienced a small part of this fascinating country of contrasts. 

On the plane from Heathrow I read in the i the obituary of the Lebanese novelist, Emily Nasrallah, whose honours included German’s Goethe prize.  She was born in 1931 and refused to leave Lebanon during the Civil War, despite losing her family’s home and possessions.  She described herself as ‘a village farmer from South Lebanon’ and rose to be an international writer.

Beirut is a centre for art and literature.  I visited the Sursock Museum of modern art and was impressed by Abed Al Kadiri’s thought-provoking mixed media exhibition of paintings, sculpture and film all centred round a tree and an abandoned house.  There are some beautiful old buildings in Beirut but too many of them are dilapidated or even derelict, and are being swamped by modern high-rise blocks.

Of course I went to some bookshops, despite having little extra space in my suitcase.  Aaliya’s Books is a small well-curated bookshop with a café.  I browsed an anthology of Lebanese women’s poetry.  The café was quiet and the waiter brought out a box of toys for two fidgety small children – and then sat down on the floor and played with them, giving their mother time for conversation with friends.  By contrast, Librarie Antoine, is more like a Waterstones – a big glossy shop with books laid out over three floors (I found the glass stairs slightly unnerving and felt like my father’s old sheepdog who wouldn’t go up steps if he could see through them – after the second floor I resorted to the lift).  It is a sobering thought that in both bookshops there were books in Arabic, French and English – many people in Beirut are trilingual. I’ve never managed to master a second language fluently – I’m still working on my Welsh.

Just a short distance from Librarie Antoine I found some verses of Arabic (mainly), French and English set into the pavement.  Here are the two verses in English –
     How can we build a Lebanon without the participation
          of the youth and the new generation,
     while their opinion is still ignored?
and
     When is the killing of the dreams of the youth going to end?
          When is the endless flow
     of departing immigrants going to stop?
These were modern inscriptions but Emily Nasrallah recalled her grandmother saying ‘Lebanon is a land that does not hold its people’.

But on a lighter note, I was just there visiting family and doing touristy things.  As well as mooching round Beirut I visited Chateau Kefraya and Chateau Ksara wineries in the beautiful Bekaa Valley, went to the impressive limestone caves of the Jeita Grotto, and was fascinated by the layers of history of the ancient city of Byblos (inhabited continuously from about 8000 BC) .  At Byblos the Palm Sunday service was broadcast on loudspeakers from the church (there were too many people for them all to fit inside).  When the service had finished loudspeakers started up again – this time broadcasting the call to prayer from the nearby mosque. 


So many contrasts in this small country where on the same hot sunny day I paddled in the Mediterranean and saw snow on the mountains.

Sunday, 18 March 2018

SNOW, WATER AND WORDS

There were still grubby snowdrifts by the side of the road last week when I went up to Cumbria for the annual Words by the Water literary festival at Keswick.

I enjoyed meeting up with friends old and new and having the opportunity to hear some brilliant speakers.

Some highlights included Jenny Uglow on Edward Lear (a relative of the wife of my father's half-brother!) and the naturalist John Lister-Kaye not on the lives of wild creatures but on his own life.   The talk by popular linguist David Crystal was full.  His topic was the history and sociology of pronunciation and as usual he entertained and enlightened us.  My favourite talk was by the gently-spoken Christopher Nicholson  and was on the elusive summer snows of Scotland's mountains.

The Poetry Breakfast was a sell-out and all the croissants were eaten.  It's a strange phenomenon that open mics and workshops always seem to have a subtext or a hidden agenda - in this case it was elegies.  I resisted the temptation to read a poem about my  mother (being a switherer I had brought a handful of poems to choose from).  Instead I read a poem about the 'lollipop coloured gifts' we find on the shore - the plastic that gets washed up everywhere.  Not exactly a sea elegy but ...

Elsewhere there were few poetry sessions - the Write to be Counted anthology reading, William Sieghart (founder of the Forward prizes for poetry) talking about prescribing poems, and Adam Feinstein comparing translations of the Chilean Pablo Neruda's poetry before the showing of the remarkable and unnerving film Neruda (2016).  Blake Morrison, an accomplished writer of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, talked about his new novel The Executor which includes poetry written as if by one of the characters.

Adam Feinstein judged the biennial *Mirehouse Poetry Prize.  Congratulations to Alison Carter for her winning poem 'Topiary'.

As I packed up the hire car yesterday morning snowflakes were falling again.

*The winning poem and the commended poems are up on the Mirehouse website  www.mirehouse.co.uk  (go to The House and then click on Poetry Prize and 2018 Poetry Prize Winners).  



Wednesday, 7 March 2018

WRITING AND MUSIC IN PEACE AND WAR

Peter Scupham was 85 on 24 February.  PN Review  celebrated his birthday with a bumper thirty three page celebration of the poet, teacher, book dealer, publisher, house restorer and "genius of activity".

The magazine printed a selection of his decorated envelopes which show a man with a keen sense of humour and a love of cats.  I was amused by the satirical cartoons drawn round postage stamps of Harold Wilson and Margaret Thatcher (the latter sporting a pinny and a handbag labelled "Blood and treasure").  A large fluffy cat on an orange rug adorned a letter to Dr Jane Griffiths at Wadham College ("College cats: series one").

Reading the contributions from friends and colleagues (including Anne Stevenson, Peter Davidson, George Szirtes and Grevel Lindop) I was struck by how much Peter Scupham is a great encourager.  Ex pupils praised an inspiring English teacher who refused to be limited by the curriculum.  John Mole wrote about the Mandeville Press, which he ran with Peter Scupham:
"Our editorial principles ... approaching poets who we felt had been overlooked or undervalued and publishing them alongside familiar 'names'.  We used the best quality laid paper and card that we could find".

The magazine included a selection of Peter Scupham's poems.  I thought at first that his work was unfamiliar to me, then I realised that some time ago I had copied into my notebook a quotation from "Prehistories":
"Ghosts are a poet's working capital.
  They hold their hands out from the further shore."

Robert Wells wrote "Peter told me that he has never begun a poem without finishing it".  That seems good advice, even if the finishing might take a some time.  I must tackle that little heap of half-abandoned poems in the wire tray on my desk.  Finish them or scrap them.

                                 *                       *                       *

A few days ago I heard on Radio 4 Douglas Adams' statement that 'Any fool can write, only a writer can cut.'  All that editorial fiddling is worth it.  I remember reading in Lyndall Gordon's biography of T S Eliot that the poet (an air-raid warden and fire watcher in the Blitz) bewailed the fact that while there was a war on he spent hours messing about with a few words. But the few words became Four Quartets.

The recent blizzards and extreme wind and cold have taken up much of the news but like a running sore the horrors of besieged Eastern Ghouta have refused to heal.

On the last day of February Syrian composer and qanun musician, Maya Youssef, featured on BBC Radio 4's "Front Row".  She has lived in the UK for five years and has written "Syrian Dreams" in response to the Syrian Civil War.  I was moved by her simple statement: "Before the War, there was music".

                         *                          *                          *

Thursday 8 March is International Women's Day.  Thanks to Kathleen Jones who has posted my poem, "The Women" on her blog "A Writer's Life".  You can read the poem at http://kathleenjonesauthor.blogspot.com

Wednesday, 28 February 2018

GREY AND GOLD

A long grey train journey through the Welsh borders gave me a chance to catch up with my reading, including a recent copy of the poetry magazine, Stand.

I was particularly impressed with the poem, 'Van Gogh's Windmill', by the late Ron de Maris (a highly respected American poet and teacher whose work I had not encountered before).  The poem opens:

'Skies grey, clouds billowing black and in the tilted
      Field the grey slatted wood of a windmill,

      A crow perched on the blade, the blade wob-
bling as it turns, the post sunk in the mud of false
Spring.'

Then the artist appears - an unnamed 'he', laden with the  'weight of canvas and stretchers ... brushes and oils', his clothes 'spotted with colours'.  With consummate craft Ron de Maris welds detailed descriptions of the scene, the artist, the creative process.  He moves from the monochrome opening of the poem to the 'gold' (remember the sunflowers?) of the ending.

[You can read the opening lines of the poem on the Stand website www.standmagazine.org.  Go to the current issue 217 (volume 16 number 1) and scroll down the contents until you find Ron de Maris.  You can access the first five verses but after that you will have to subscribe to get the rest of the poem.]

                             *                   *                    *

I was reminded of this poem today as I watched the farmer ploughing the stubble field next to my garden.  As if from nowhere birds flocked to a newly opened food source:

      'Under a cascade of seagulls
Tumbling, blue clouds, buds of low trees sky

Blue'.

As well as the seagulls there were crows, rooks, a couple of buzzards and a handful of plucky lapwings who endured constant harassment from the herring gulls.  And the gold was a little patch of flowering daffodils under a hedge in a corner of the field.

                              *                    *                    *

My local paper (which comes out on a Wednesday) carried a feature on the forthcoming 90th birthday celebration of the renowned harpist, Dr Osian Ellis CBE, illustrated by a picture of the musician with Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears.

I once sat next to Osian Ellis at dinner at Gregynog.  I was a naive 20 year-old student and he was (I think) musician in residence.  I remember asking him incredulously - 'Do you actually manage to make a living by playing the harp?'  He graciously replied that yes, it was possible to do this.

Now he is living a few miles away from me in Pwllheli, the market town of the Lleyn Peninsula.  The celebratory concert in Caernarfon will feature a celebratory poem by Mererid Hopwood, the first woman poet to win the Bardic chair at the National Eisteddfod of Wales.