Sunday, 17 February 2013

"BREATH HELD LIKE A CAP IN THE HAND"

In serious need of some walking therapy I take the dog up to Nether Row for one of my favourite “Back o’ Skidda” walks.  At Potts Ghyll the snowdrops are showing white but are not quite open.  The Gill Beck, which oozes out from the soggy lower slopes of High Pike, slithers and skitters under the new wooden footbridge. 

Out on the open moorland it still smells of winter.   The tattered remnants of last week’s snow stick stubbornly in north facing gullies.  The rushes are dry and brown - sere that onomatopoeic word the Romantic Poets would have used.  Last year’s grass is pale like winter hay.  The wind tangles a strand of wool, caught on the rusting fence.  But there are no sheep on the fell – they are overwintering somewhere on the Solway Plain.

The hillside sounds different today – it is so quiet.  The breeze is blowing from the south west, down from the summit, so there is no traffic noise – not a tractor, a car, not even a brace of RAF planes on a training mission.   Muffled sounds are live, not mechanical – a dog barks at a distant farm, far down in the valley jackdaws chack in the bare trees.

It’s the quietness that makes me think of R S Thomas’s miniature masterpiece, “The Moor”, a poem I learned by heart years ago:
                 “I entered it on soft foot,
                   Breath held like a cap in the hand.”
I’ve always read this as a sign of reverence – the moor as sacred space – but now I realise there is another layer of meaning as that image is picked up in the penultimate line of the poem where the poet describes himself as “simple and poor”.  A poor countryman holding out his cap for whatever he is given.  I would say he is a beggar but that word has too much derogatory baggage attached to it (like the word peasant which R S Thomas in a pre-PC age used elsewhere).

It’s February.  Fifty years ago Sylvia Plath committed suicide in that cold snow-bound seemingly endless 1963 winter that has passed into weather mythology like the Great Storm of 1987.  February is not a good month for our emotional well-being.  I once asked an inhabitant of the remote island of Foula how she coped with the long dark Shetland winters.  “I go on holiday in February to somewhere hot and sunny” she replied.

But today’s walk has lifted my spirits.  It’s half past three and I’m on my way back down to the valley where I’ve left the car.  I pause where a dry stone wall marks the boundary between open grazing and enclosed fields.  The apparently randomly placed rocks of the wall are a found poem in stone.  Where I stand, the sun, for perhaps the first time since the solstice, is still visible above the dark outline of High Pike.  The low westering light brindles the hillside’s humps and hollows.   I’ve had a good walk and so has the dog – even if he is a rather muddy.

Sunday, 3 February 2013

POETRY READER

As soon as the dog barks in the morning I know the post has come.  On Saturday, amongst the clutter of junk advertising, there was a large brown envelope – a mailing from the Scottish Poetry Library (SPL), containing the latest issue of Poetry Reader.   Good - something worth reading.

This newspaper-style publication from the library is always interesting but this one is the best ever.  The theme is nature, a theme which the Scottish Poetry Library (whose motto is "By leaves we live") will be celebrating during 2013.  The front page opens with Thomas A Clark’s lines “In the half-light of dusk” taken from one of his walking poems, “At dusk and at dawn”.  It’s published in The Path to the Sea, one of my favourite poetry books – ideal reading for my summer jaunts to the Scottish islands.

Jennifer Williams (SPL’s programme manager) leads with “Translating nature”: “It is important work, this translating of nature.  The poet’s job is to be attentive.  For arguably we will treat nature, and ourselves, with more respect if we recognise that it is not an other, a thing apart – but rather the thing we are.”

Lizzie MacGregor (SPL assistant librarian) writes about Nan Shepherd, whose wonderful prose response to the Cairngorms, The Living Mountain, I discovered last year.   It was good to learn more about this little-known author, including the fact that she wrote poetry as well as prose.

Poets can get a bit defensive at times.  The reprint of Christian Wiman’s  “A defence of poetry” from Mastery and Mystery is one of the best arguments for the importance of poetry I have read for a while.  He includes an illustration from the Arctic.  Why not exploit this remote environment for oil?  Well, it’s a National Wildlife Refuge.  “The breeding ground of the porcupine caribou, what the hell is a porcupine caribou?  Drill, baby, drill.”  But there is such a thing as “quantum entanglement” – a succinct phrase for the web of interconnections that rule the planet.

It’s the same with poetry – “who knows what atomic energies are unleashed by a solitary man or woman quietly encountering some arrangement of language that gives their being – shunted aside by chores and fears and who knows what – back to them?”  Now I see why there’s a photograph of a spider’s web on the Poetry Reader front page.

If you are in Edinburgh pick up a free copy of Poetry Reader Issue 12 Winter 2013 at the Scottish Poetry Library (Crichton’s Close, just off Canongate)  http://www.spl.org.uk
If you are elsewhere I'm sure the good folks at the SPL will post you a copy if you send them an A4 SAE with a large letter stamp on it.

Last word from Mark Tredinnick: “Nature’s the story, I keep saying, and we’re in it.”