Saturday, 21 December 2013


" … And the ivy"

A wren
farthing brown
trills grace notes
from his ivy bothy
among midwinter leaves.

Mary Robinson 2013

Tuesday, 10 December 2013


Late-night shopping seems less pressurised than day-time shopping at this time of year - not that I am much of an expert as I loathe shopping and do as little as possible.  But I have ventured into Carlisle in the early evening recently.  Carlisle's Christmas lights are always quite artistic and this year the lights on the slender town-centre trees caught my attention and inspired a tanka.

Carlisle late-night shopping

     Midnight velvet bark
and not a twig out of place.
     Diamond lights sparkling
on the elegant branches
of these Audrey Hepburn trees.

Mary Robinson

Friday, 6 December 2013


A week-end book review led me to the prose writer, Rebecca Solnit.  Reading her most recent book The Faraway Nearby led me to her earlier Wanderlust: a History of Walking which led me to the American poet, Gary Snyder.  I asked the Scottish Poetry Library for something to give me a taster of Snyder’s poetry and they sent me Axe Handles.

Two things struck me immediately about these crafted free-verse short poems: the scarcity of metaphor and the everyday subject matter.

In “I:VI:40077” Snyder observes
                  “Kid coming out of the outhouse
                       at dusk in pajamas
                           still tucking them in,
                                    ‘how many eggs?’”
Then the next verse
                  “Last night, the first time,
                        racoons opened
                        the refrigerator.
                                    You can’t slow down

“Strategic Air Command” centres on a camping expedition.  Someone, perhaps a child, asks
                  “How many satellites in the sky?
                    Does anyone know where they are?
                    What are they doing, who watches them?”
Meanwhile “Frost settles on sleeping bags” and the campers have a last drink by the dying fire:
                  “The cliffs and the stars
                    Belong to the same universe.
                    This little air in between
                    Belongs to the twentieth century and its wars.”

The cumulative effect of these poems is to emphasise the values of family, practical work and the environment, in contrast to those
                  “ ... who know how to
                    Twist arms, get fantastic wealth,
                    Hurt with heavy shoulders of power,
                    And then drink to it!
                                    they don’t get caught
                                    they own the law”
(“Money Goes Upstream”)

The recording of the everyday and the ordinary language of the poems reminded me of William Carlos Williams’ famous poem, “The Red Wheelbarrow”.     

Reading Snyder’s poems has made me see the apparently ordinary in a new light.  Simplicity? No.  Clarity? Yes.

Saturday, 30 November 2013


The leaves still copper and gold in Henrietta Park behind Great Pultney Street.  A chill in the air, and the light dwindling earlier each afternoon.  I’ve been spending a few brief autumn days in Bath, staying with my son in his top floor flat in one of Bath’s old Georgian houses.

On a bright frosty day we tramped round Dyrham Park and watched the fallow deer.  Some of the older males had magnificent antlers like elaborate headdresses.  We wondered if their heads felt unbalanced.

I checked out two of Bath’s indie bookshops:  Mr B’s Emporium (where I bought a novel) – great atmosphere and full of tempting marketing ideas, and Topping and Company – huge stock and an autumn literary festival in progress.  I was delighted to find (and buy) a signed copy of Philip Gross’s virtuoso sonnet sequence “I Spy Pinhole Eye”.

Just five minutes’ walk from the flat is the Holbourne Art Museum, where I discovered a micro-exhibition of Christmas engravings by Simon Brett.  One engraving particularly caught my imagination.  I jotted down a few ideas in my notebook.  A couple of hours later my Christmas poem emerged from the notes – not quite ready to fly but certainly drying its wings.  I had a brilliant idea – I could put a link with my poem to an image of the engraving on the internet.  Alas, I can’t find it anywhere on the internet.  No image, no ekphrasis.  No Christmas poem.

I met up with a friend who has moved down to Somerset.  We were thwarted in our attempt to visit the highly recommended Buildings of Bath Museum.  It was unexpectedly closed (possibly to rehearse Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead) so we went to the Fashion Museum instead.  Plenty of Jane Austen here of course but also, more unusually, an exhibition of 16th and 17th century courtiers' gloves.  They were exquisitely embroidered, some with religious iconography such as Jonah and the whale or the pelican feeding her young.  The oldest pair were contemporary with Shakespeare.  My friend told me about glove marriages.  And I thought of Larkin’s “Broadcast” with “One of your gloves unnoticed on the floor”.  That’s why pairs of gloves are such rare survivals.


Saturday, 16 November 2013


I read The Divine Comedy in an English translation a couple of years ago.  I found it fascinating in many ways: the close relationship between Dante and his guide, Virgil, the beautiful epic similes, the breadth of Dante’s knowledge, the synthesis of the classics and Christianity, the attacks on the abuses of the Medieval church, and the sheer imaginative inventiveness of it all.

I’ve recently read A N Wilson’s Dante in Love which gave me an excellent introduction to Dante’s life and world.  The last chapter is called “Dante’s afterlife”.  It’s a brief excursion through the ways Dante’s work has been interpreted.  I turned to the 20th century: “The two great Modernist poets in English, T S Eliot and Ezra Pound, were both – slightly
disastrously for Dante’s later reputation – determined to read him as a proto-fascist and a proto-modernist.”  Oh dear.  It seems a long way from medieval Italy.  Robert Lowell was a Dante enthusiast, as is the Nobel prize-winning West Indian poet, Derek Walcott.  Walcott sees the genius of language in Dante when he writes of his desire to do a similar cross-cultural synthesis in the 20th century.  Geoffrey Hill gets a mention as does one of my favourite poets, Amy Clampitt.   In “At a rest stop in Ohio” Clampitt brings together the Greyhound bus and Dante’s greyhound from the beginning of the Inferno.

 And now there is another name to add – Clive James’s recently published translation of the Inferno.

Dante, like Shakespeare, lives on in every generation.

Monday, 28 October 2013


When I visited the Orkney island of North Ronaldsay a few years ago I saw an armchair in the middle of a shallow loch (an unfashionable velveteen armchair in a faded what might have once been pink).  It’s an image of my island experience this year.  I’ve been becalmed at home or at my father’s house but I’ve had more time than usual for books.  My prose reading has included Fraser Darling’s Island Years and Island Farm.  I’ve enjoyed plenty of poetry including R S Thomas’s Uncollected with its Bardsey Island poems (“Ynys Enlli” and the “Island Boatman” elegy) and Andrew Greig’s Found at Sea. 

Writers and islands – George Orwell and Jura are the most famous pairing I suppose, but there are many others, dead or alive: Sorley Maclean - Raasay, Jen Hadfield and Sheenagh Pugh - Shetland,  Kathleen Jamie - North Rona (and other islands), George Mackay Brown - Orkney, Thomas A Clarke - the Outer Hebrides.  And loads more which no doubt someone will remind me about.

When I read a rather lacklustre review of Andrew Greig’s Found at Sea I knew I would love it and ordered a copy at once on the weakness of the review.   I heard Andrew Greig read his poetry at one of the Grasmere poetry readings a year or two ago.  Read?  No, it was more like listening to a master story-teller. 

Found at Sea is the account of an Orcadian mini voyage from Stromness to the now uninhabited island of Cava and is illustrated with panel artworks by Mike MacDonnell of Yell, Shetland.  The poetry sails along with few definite articles:
                  “Swell under strakes, these rollers lifted
                                    smooth broad glossy snouts – oh man,
                                                      dolphins bore us aloft
                                    as we tore down the sea-roads!”  (“Dolphins”)

A journey is one of the oldest metaphors of life – “That trip became myth / long before we beached” (“The boat reflected”).  So when Andrew Greig begins “A small emergency” with the lines
                  “In the middle of life, half way over
                    we find ourselves
                     on a dark and gurly sea”
as well as admiring the words scunnered and gurly I think of the famous opening of Dante’s Inferno ("Midway this way of life we're bound upon ...") But I also think of Andrew Greig himself whose life was not just scunnered but almost scuppered a few years ago by a brain tumour – an experience he wrote about in Preferred Lies (the best and only golf book I have ever read).

Greig tells of two fascinating Cava islanders, Miss Woodham and Miss Peckham.  They decided one day in the 1950s to pack up their belongings and walk from Cleveland in Somerset to the North of Scotland.  After a while they settled on Cava and lived there for many years.  I was delighted to discover them in the book.

I may be stuck in the armchair but I’ve had some great island sailing this year.   And it’s been cheaper than the ferries.

(not the review I mention above)