Monday, 26 May 2014

WASHING LINES

A line of washing drying in the wind seems a classic picture of domesticity.   Somewhere there must still be those who wash on Mondays.  Traditional rhymes provide a whole list of chores to be done 6 days a week (ostensibly by women) including ironing on Tuesdays, mending on Wednesdays and (if you keep a cow) churning on Thursdays.  Those of us with washing machines forget the sheer drudgery and poverty associated with laundry.   I once saw a photograph of rags snagged on a dead tree at an African refugee camp.  It took me a few seconds to realise this was a washing line.  It said far more to me about the state of the refugees than precise statistics.

I have been thinking about (but not doing) washing because my Bank Holiday reading has been Washing Lines (selected by Janie Hextall and Barbara McNaught).  It’s an attractive illustrated anthology of poems about – unsurprisingly – laundry.  There are 60 poems in the book – but do not think trivial domestic task.  There is Vicki Fever’s angry (at least at first) “Ironing” and Michael Longley’s “War and Peace” with the Trojan housewives caught up in the horrors of war.  Moniza Alvi’s “Arrival 1946” describes with perplexity and wit the response of a new arrival to Britain.  From the train he sees “an unbroken line of washing” from Liverpool to London.  “It was Monday, and very sharp”.   There is Robert Fitzgerald’s translation of the Nausicaa episode from The Odyssey and Gillian Clarke’s “Laundry” set in Mumbai “Outside the shacks by the Tulsi Pipe Road”.  There’s a lot more to washing than I thought.

I started to think of other poems not included in the book, for example, “Ritual” from The Anatomy of Structures by Rebecca Goss – a list of the washing basket’s contents ending
            “... Odd perhaps, to be fond of this ritual,
              ankle deep in the compost of my family.”
Then there is laundry as metaphor in Joseph Brodsky’s “Brighton Rock” from his In England sequence :
            “The horizon’s clear-cut clothes line
              has a single cloud pegged out upon it, like a shirt.”
                        (translated by Alan Myers)

From a practical point of view, drying the washing does have its hazards.  Industrial pollution, living in apartment blocks or (in rural north Cumbria) the stench of slurry-spreading may make it impossible at times to peg clothes on the line to dry.  But there’s a political side to doing the washing which I had never thought of.  There are places where hanging washing outside is a transgressive act because of laws motivated, I suppose, by civic tidiness or public morality.  Then there is the environmental issue of energy consumption.  Alexander Lee writes at the back of Washing Lines “line drying could save more than ten per cent of the electricity consumed domestically in the United States.” 

Oh dear, how easy it is to get hung up about washing! 

One of my adult education students once gave me, after a poetry class, some very thin cloth made out of old flour bags stitched together.  I take it out and look at it again.  The faint red lettering reads SPILLERS EXTRAS.  The closely woven cotton has been washed so often it is tissue thin.  When I hold it up to the light I can see the trees through it.  

I turn back to the book and read the best laundry poem of them all: Seamus Heaney’s fifth sonnet from his “Clearances” sequence.  It is about the simple act of folding sheets off the line with his mother, and ends:
            “Coming close again by holding back
              In moves where I was X and she was O

              Inscribed in sheets she’d sewn from ripped-out flour sacks.”

Monday, 19 May 2014

MOVING LANDSCAPES

Driving to Keswick on Saturday was pure pleasure.  Queen Anne's Lace and hawthorn blossom spilled over the verges and hedges.  There were clumps of cowslips growing on the limestone strip that runs in a semi-circle north of Skiddaw.  On the lower slopes of Binsey a walled enclosure was covered in a mass of bluebells growing so thickly that my passenger could see them at least a quarter of a mile away.  The field was a rich azure blue as if it was reflecting the colour of the sky.

My destination was a meeting of the Cumbria Literary Group where we discussed W G Sebald's Austerlitz.  What a rich, complex and moving book this is, and what a remarkable literary tour de force.  The way Sebald builds layer upon layer of allusions and his use of repeated images can only be admired and envied by writers of prose and poetry alike.

Sebald has some beautiful lyrical descriptions in the book, for example the time when Austerlitz, Adela, Gerald and Toby the dog sit on the railway viaduct over the Mawddach estuary:
     "And in the evening light the tide came in, gleaming like a dense shoal of mackerel, flowing under  
       the bridge and up the river, so swift and strong that you might have thought you were going the  
       other way, out to the open sea in a boat."

Austerlitz himself (like Coleridge's Ancient Mariner), needs a listener.  The unnamed narrator who initially approaches Austerlitz in the Salles des pas perdus in Antwerp Station becomes the person to whom Austerlitz must tell the story of his life.  Surprisingly, in a book which is full of inter-textuality, I have only been able to track down one overt poetic reference.  The narrator is remembering his childhood in the Alps:
     "the opening lines of one of my favourite poems came into my mind ... And so I long for snow to   
       sweep across the low heights of London".
It is a line from "Fragment" by Stephen Watts.

W G Sebald wrote poetry as well as prose.  There are several overlaps between the prose of Austerlitz and the poetry of Across the Land and the Water - the same themes of journeys, landscapes, time, memory and history.  There is the same elusiveness too.  The short poem "Somewhere" describes a winter landscape:
     "a spruce nursery
       a pond in the
       moor on which
       the March ice
       is slowly melting"
but the opening words "behind Turkenfeld" give a context to these simple lines.  The significance of Turkenfeld is never revealed in the poem but the plaee has a dark history.  It was the location of one of the sub-camps of Dachau and it had a station on the notorious "blutbahn" railway line (the blood track).

Looking through Sebald's poetry again I found echoes of Austerlitz in places (Brussels, Marienbad), people (Napoleon, Schumann) and inevitably railways ("Day Return").  The first "poemtree" in Across the Land and the Water captures the experience of Austerlitz in a few lines:
     "For how hard it is
       to understand the landscape
       as you pass in a train
       from here to there and mutely it
       watches you vanish."







Monday, 12 May 2014

HEART POEMS

My wild garden goes through colour phases.

Today it is blue with forget-me-knots, alkanet, birds' eye and bluebells.  Not long ago it was white with wild cherry blossom, so prolific that when the petals started to drop I thought it was snowing.

A few weeks ago when fellow-poet Rebecca Goss asked me for a poem the garden was yellow.  Rebecca invited a group of us to contribute a poem each for her blog - the brief was simply that the poem should be short and contain the word "heart".

If you've read Rebecca's book Her Birth (and it is on my list of 12 poetry books you must read!) you will know that this beautiful and moving collection of poems was written about the death of her first daughter to a rare heart condition and the birth of her second daughter.  This week, Children's Heart Week, 12 - 18 May, Rebecca is devoting her blog to Heart Poems by contemporary poets.  She hopes to raise awareness of the work of the Children's Heart Federation and also to share some poems with a wider audience.  

My poem "Cordate" is one of the poems posted today - to read it and the other Heart Poems go to http://rebeccagoss.wordpress.com

And you'll see why I started this post in the garden.

Wednesday, 7 May 2014

WARMING YOUR RINGS

Last Saturday my son David married his lovely wife Bella.  

I was asked to write a poem for the wedding and they told me about having a ring-warming ceremony as part of the service.   My poem is reproduced below with their permission.  Fortunately no one dropped a ring and the whole day was a wonderful celebration.


WARMING YOUR RINGS              

for Bella and David 3 May 2014


Handfast in the circle of our love
your rings are heart-warmed

passed palm over whispering palm
in kindred blessings:

a ceremony of touch
to gift you devotion and joy and steadfastness

as at this moment we stand together rejoicing

steadfastness, joy and devotion our gifts -
a celebration of welcome

in whispered blessings
passed palm over kindred palm

and hand-warmed, your rings
heartfast in the circle of our love.


© Mary Robinson 2014