Monday, 28 May 2012

Angelic nudity

Spoiler alert - I'm going to write about the hot weather, so if you're the slightest bit superstitious turn away now.  Yesterday my father, who still thinks in Fahrenheit, recorded a daytime temperature of 80 degrees.  That's seriously hot for this corner of north west England.

There is really only one poem for this kind of weather.  It's Les Murray's "The Dream of Wearing Shorts Forever" (from The Daylight Moon 1987 and also in the old 1991 Selected).  You can listen to the poet himself reading a truncated version of this poem with superb visuals on youtube   A pity about the background music but it is a tourist board promo I think.

The full version runs to 19 verses in a typically baggy Les Murray fashion - a tour de force of variations on the one idea of the title.  Here's a mid-poem extract:

"Unlike public nakedness, which in Westerners
 is deeply circumstantial ...

 shorts and their plain like
 are an angelic nudity,
 spirituality with pockets!"

You can read the whole poem at

Thursday, 17 May 2012


To be a Persian poet is to write of loss, exile and love.

                “If my heart grieves
                  for Kabul,
                  it’s for Leyla’s sighs of
                  ‘Oh, dear God!’
                  and my grandmother’s heart
                  set pounding.”

(from Shakila Azizzada’s moving elegy, “Kabul”)

It was a great privilege to hear Shakila Azizzada, Reza Mohammadi and Azita Ghahreman read (or rather, recite) their poetry in Persian on Tuesday night at the Wordsworth Hotel in Grasmere.  Of course most of us didn’t know a word of the original but we did understand the emotional power of the poems.  The music of the Persian poetry with its syllables so unusual to Western ears was pure magic.  All three poets were brilliant communicators – as if they were willing us to understand their writing beyond the limits of language.  After each poem a translator read us the English version of the poem.

Reza Mohammadi was born in Kandahar and moved to Iran when he was four.  He began by reading one of his most celebrated poems, “Drawing”.  I will not forget the way Reza started this poem so quietly and hesitantly and slowly built up to an emotional climax and then gradually drew back to the quiet hesitancy of the opening.  With such a powerful original it was a pity his English translator did not convey more.  At times the English versions were inaudible and there was clearly a height ratio problem with the reading desk and microphone.  The English reader seemed to have little interest in the poetry or the audience.  Was he unwell?

Azita Ghahreman’s poems spanned life in Iraq (“With a red flower” about love and a hidden relationship) and exile in Europe (“The boat that brought me” about her new life in Sweden).  “Glaucoma” (“The corn poppies came first”) was a poem about the poet’s experience of loss of sight but also, by the end of the poem, about her society.  Beneath the ordered language of her poetry was a sense of great emotional turmoil.  I would have liked a little more oomph in the reading of the English versions but perhaps the fact that Azita had come at short notice meant there had been little time to rehearse the English translations.

By far the best pairing of translator and poet was Mimi Khalvati (who used to live in Tehran) and Shakila Azizzada.  Shakila herself said that she and Mimi are very much on the same wave length – and it showed.  Mimi conveyed to us in English the way Shakila’s language (like Azita’s) shaped and controlled the powerful emotional content.  There was a quietness and directness about Mimi and Shakila’s readings that went to our hearts.  “A feather” was a tender poem about Shakila’s small daughter climbing into bed with her early in the morning – it begins

                “Just as my dream
                  hears the sound of your steps,
                  that’s when you enter
                  quietly, quietly on tiptoe.”

By contrast “Recitation” conveyed the unbearable grief of Afghan women whose daughters had been killed in war.

A big thank you to the Poetry Translation Centre who organised Persian Poets on tour and who have published pamphlets of the poets’ work in Persian script on one side with the English version on the other.  My copy of Shakila’s poems is one to re-read and treasure. 

There is more information on the Poetry Translation Centre’s website
You can read English translations of the poems by all three poets:

Wednesday, 9 May 2012


On Sunday I went to the Garden of Cosmic Speculation.  That’s not a phrase I often drop into conversation because the garden is only open once a year.

The garden is at Portrack House, just north of Dumfries.  The lakes were designed by Maggie Keswick Jencks (whose parents originally owned the house) and the landscaping and art works are by her husband, Charles Jencks.

The focal point of the garden is the mounds reflected in the curving lakes.  Despite the crowds of visitors it was a special experience to walk along the narrow path between the pools – the therapy of water.
There’s a good view of the mounds from the Rail Garden beside the railway line (the slow line to Glasgow).  It has an Auden feel of grassed over mine workings, but along the boundary are quotations from Scottish writers, cut as metal stencils.  Two poets were included among these Scottish worthies – Burns (of course) and Joanna Baillie.

The garden at Portrack house is the only garden I have visited where ideas from contemporary science have played an important part – there were two fractal bridges, a Quark Walk with installations representing elementary particles and string theory, a Comet Bridge and DNA sculptures in the Garden of the 6 Senses (a modern take on a physic garden).

More disturbing was the Birchbone Garden.  The beauty of the circle of white-barked birches just opening their translucent green leaves was in stark contrast with the bone sculptures within the circle.  White birches are indigenous to Eastern Europe.  A sinuous path make of black and white cables incorporated words from atrocities of the 20th and 21st centuries – all summed up in “Exterminisms Words that kill”.  Very black and white – that was the point.

But there were life-enhancing words in the finely cut calligraphic stones which I encountered in different parts of the garden.  “Synthesis” could relate not just to the physic garden where I found it but to the garden as a whole.

What about flowers? you may be wondering.  The first week-end in May was (almost) perfect.  There were rhododendrons in lovely pastel shades, some particularly classy hellebores in striking colours and a few elusive blue poppies (even more elusive than usual after Friday’s late frost).  There were plenty of wild flowers too – marsh marigolds on the stream’s edge, primroses, red campions, and a bluebell wood in the Garden of Taking Leave of Your Senses.  

Taking Leave of Your Senses included a Nonsense building designed by James Stirling.  The building incorporated a babel frieze of words in different languages beginning with LANATURE and ending with REGARDS.

The Octagon on the lawn was the envy of many visitors.  It is an elegant 18th century stone lodge rescued from demolition a few years ago and re-erected here where it is used as a library.  What a wonderful place to read and write.

The Garden of Cosmic Speculation is an ambitious design which embraces literature, history, philosophy, mathematics and science in a holistic way.  Everywhere the observer is challenged to think and interpret as well as to admire.  With so many visitors it was difficult to find any peace and quiet for cosmic speculation, but what is certain is that the open day will have raised thousands of pounds in support of the Maggie Cancer Caring Centres charity.  If Maggie’s ghost was taking a look at the visitors to her garden on Saturday I hope she was pleased.