Friday, 17 April 2015

A CUCKOO'S FOOTWEAR

The calendar on my study wall is by Caroline Davey.  Each month has a painting of a quiet location in North Wales and a seasonal flower.  April shows the derelict water wheel at Melin Ty Fair and Bluebells, Bwtsias y Gog.  I was intrigued by this.  I know bluebells in Welsh as Clochau'r Gog, which translates as Cuckoo's Bells. Bwtsias y Gog is the delightful Cuckoo's Boots.  I imagine a Beatrix Potter illustration with the blue petals curling jauntily over the cuckoo's legs like the tops of jester's shoes.  I'm not sure how the claws fit in.

Unfortunately cuckoo numbers in Britain have halved in the last two decades.  I haven't heard the cuckoo in this part of North Cumbria for several years.

R S Thomas wrote a poem called "Abercuawg" in which he asked "where is Abercuawg, that / place where the cuckoo's sing?"  It is very difficult to find the place where the cuckoo sings - he is heard rather than seen.  Abercuawg, the place where the cuckoo sings, is an idealised, mythical place, which we seek but do not find.  "Abercuawg/ is not here now, but there."  It is an image of the seeking but not finding in life that is so embedded in the thought and poetry of R S Thomas.

On Monday I am off to North Wales for 2 weeks.  The first week I will stay at the National Writers' Centre for Wales at Llanystumdwy for a poetry masterclass with Gillian Clarke and Maura Dooley.  The second week I will be staying at Rhiw within walking distance of R S Thomas's old home, Sarn Cottage.  I hope I will hear the cuckoo and see his boots.

Monday, 6 April 2015

POETRY FROM OLD JUNK

It's Easter week-end.  I think of the Christian monastic tradition of being without possessions. I'm the exact opposite.  I have too much stuff.

I've been triaging furniture in my father's house - stuff to keep, stuff to go to charity and stuff that's going on a one-way journey to the skips at the recycling centre.  It's a sad task, clearing my father's furnishings before new people move into his house.

I am under strict instructions from my two sons to keep various items for them.  Their earliest memories of my father are of sitting with him in his big farmhouse kitchen with the oak table and the three-decker dresser.  But unfortunately one of my sons has a top floor flat with limited space and the other works abroad.  So, for a while my house is going to be seriously over-furnitured.  Maybe I should put a time-limit on how long I'm prepared to live in a self-storage facility so that I don't turn into a batty old woman whose house is so crammed with stuff that she has to sleep in the coal-shed with the cat.

But while I'm discovering buttons, pins and bus tickets in the corners of old cupboards I encourage myself by thinking of poems whose existence depends on stuff/junk.

Adam Thorpe's moving sequence in memory of his father, "Clearing Your Study", in his collection Voluntary, begins
     "Private realm of ...  typed letters;
      ...  unused Green Shield stamps."

Josephine Dickinson's "The White Scrap" (Scarberry Hill) is about finding torn-up paper:
     "... For some days
      I find scraps of paper, first one then a-
      nother, fluttering in the weeds beside the
      road ..."
(Notice the torn-up line endings.)

At my lowest ebb I feel as if the meaning of life consists in moving objects from one place to another.  Stuff conforms to a law of physics, the Conservation of Matter, illustrated by Amy Clampitt's "Real Estate" about a Third Avenue tenement that is getting redeveloped:
     "... One gelded
      pawnshop, until last week, still brooded,

      harbouring among tag ends of pathos,
      several thirty-year-old umbrellas."
The proprietor
     "... advertised a sale.
      Still nothing moved.  Finally, a U-Haul

      truck carried everything off somewhere.
      Hail, real estate!  Bravo, entrepreneur!"
            (from What the Light was Like)

But magical transformations are possible.  Scrap metal can become striking sculptures, as in the art created by Helen Denerley.  Michael Longley has written as series of sonnets for her in his collection Snow Water:

     "... Translations, Helen, metaphors.
      The mare and stag you made from scrap metal
      Are moving in low motion across your land"
            ("Woodsmoke I")

I look at my father's furniture.  In The Art of Gardening I wrote about the cabinet maker who constructed the carved bureau which has been passed down the family for generations:

     "There is a dialectic to cabinet making -
      outside the beeswax surface of satin sweetness
      inside the paler wood, natural, undressed
      a new dimension of intimacy
      secret enclosure
      memory shelter
      like a house within a house.
      The dovetailed drawers he made
      join him to me
      as I open the chest
      and begin to write."
           (from "The Poetics of Space after Gaston Bachelard: 3 Chest")