Sunday, 29 May 2016


There's an ambient noise of birdsong - not the excitable, testosterone-fuelled first light spring sounds, but a general mid-afternoon almost summer twittery chunnering of the birds that frequent my garden.

I'm writing this in my summer house/think box.  On Friday night BBC Radio 3's "The Verb" (a programme that fills me with pleasure and irritation in unequal measures) concentrated on dawn and birdsong.  There was a recording of the dawn chorus - shrill, cacophonous, competitive - the kind of dawn chorus that some years ago would wake me early and cause me to close the bedroom window if I wanted a lie-in.  Do they still make them like that somewhere?

Alex Preston spoke on "The Verb" about the work he is doing for a new book - a literary ornithology.  He read from a section on Swallows and described a relative of his who lived in France.  In the summer swallows flew in and out of her house and nested in her bedroom.  She would wake to see them swooping above her head or flitting to a picture rail.  Where had I heard this before?  Alex Preston supplied the answer for me by reading Kathleen Jamie's poem, "Swallows", in which he had discovered an almost identical habitation -

     "they twitter and preen
      from the picture frames ...
      and in the mornings
      wheel above my bed."

I am looking forward to reading the book when it is finished.

When I last visited Prague a friend took me to see the Olsany Cemetery, the last resting place of the remains of Jan Palach, the student who set fire to himself in Wenceslas Square in January 1969 after the Soviet Union's occupation of Czechoslovakia the previous year.  His memory became a focus for Czech nationalism and anti-Communist protests.

It was early spring and the well-treed old cemetery was full of the sound and sight of birds.  The transmigration of souls - Plato's metempsychosis (a word Molly Bloom had trouble with in Joyce's Ulysses).

Metempsychosis in the Olsany Cemetery

What would Plato think of this?
- dry crumbs in a home-made bird feeder
knocked up from wire and scraps of kindling ...

Perhaps he would smile an aftershock of recognition
when something that was a careless might be
becomes is.

Jays are gate-keeping in the trees,
chaffinches and sparrows bathe on the dusty path
and somewhere Jan Palach's soul takes wing

as light as a burning feather

© Mary Robinson 2010

(First published in Envoi 160 October 2011)

Sunday, 22 May 2016


On Saturday I drive out to the coast.  Through West Newton where a stream runs parallel to the road and the houses have little bridges to link them to the village street.  Then on to Allonby where I park by the shore and look over to Criffel on the Dumfries side of the Solway - only it isn't there because the mist has obliterated it.  Charles Dickens walked to Allonby when he was staying in Wigton with Wilkie Collins (Collins was recuperating after twisting his ankle on an ascent of Carrock Fell).  Percy Kelly painted it (he lived here for 12 years).  Meg Peacocke wrote a poem about it.  She included the road sign which reads "Allonby Please d  i  e carefully).

The wind churns up the incoming tide.  Beige-coloured sea water heaves itself onto the sandy strip between beach and road.  Beery froth crests the waves.  The houses at Allonby hunker down, crowding together for shelter against the next storm.  A gaunt dark brick building keeps a lonely vigil by the shore.   It's been derelict for years but I'm pleased to see that at last the Old Reading Rooms are being renovated and converted into a house.

I continue north towards Mawbray.  Soon there's nothing but sea on the left side of the road.  At Dubmill Point the land thrusts out a defiant rocky fist against the tide.  A black and white bird with bright orange bill flies low across the road and over the fields near Salta - an oystercatcher.  At this time of year oystercatchers come inland to nest - not just in fields by the Solway but further eastward, even to the Eden Valley (see my post of 23 February 2016).

At Mawbray the weather is even wilder.  The wind blows rain (or is it salt spray?) in my face.  The white horses are jostling for position as they race towards the dunes where a single line of cottages wisely have their backs turned to the sea.  But the rest of Mawbray is in retreat from the coast.  The village street runs at right angles to the beach as if the houses are trying to escape from the Solway Firth.

I still can't see Scotland.

  there is nothing
  to show there's land
            across the sea"

Mavis Gulliver
from "Looking South from Islay"
(Envoi issue 156 June 2010)

Tuesday, 10 May 2016


“The days run away like wild horses over the hills” wrote Charles Bukowski.   What beauty, fear and wistfulness in those words.  I’ve been away over the hills for a busy few days in Edinburgh and it feels as if the time has galloped away.

On Thursday I spent the day with friends exploring South Berwick (where we saw the new Forth road bridge under construction) and watching the gulls, eider duck and mute swans on the firth.  In the evening I went to the Scottish Poetry Library for a German translation workshop ably led by the translator and academic, Anne Stokes. 

Anne teaches translation studies at the University of Stirling and one of her recent books is a translation of the poetry of Sarah Kirsch (Ice Roses).  She gave us three poems in German and alongside them a literal English translation.   I have minimal German (I can apologise for being late and ask for the bill) but that didn’t matter in Anne’s supportive and relaxed workshop.

We tackled one of Sarah Kirsch’s poems, “The Last of November”, from 1989.  Anne encouraged us to look at the repeated vowel sounds in the original German to see if we could in some way replicate them.  She said that we should try to think of synonyms for the literal when translating.  We should also consider word order.  Each language has its own syntax so we may not want to retain a literal word order.

Translating makes you look at a poem in detail – that was what I appreciated most from the evening.   We noticed how Sarah’s apparently surface descriptions conveyed a deeper meaning.  Exchanging money, the blotches on a wall, turrets, nervous creatures, the word “registieren” (register) all had political associations which might be missed at first reading.  As the evening went on we also worked on Jan Wagner’s “Small Town Elegy” and G√ľnter Eich’s “Where I Live”.  It was good to be introduced to three very different poems in the original. 

During the course of the workshop various theories inevitably arose.  Anne spoke of Michael Hoffman’s idea of translation – “This is what I think the poet would write if he was writing in English”.  We talked about the difficulty of translating poetry for both form and meaning.  This led to the word “Compensation” where a translator may not be able to follow the original exactly but might do an equivalent .  An example might be the alliteration and rhyme used in the phrase “Wir fuhren und flogen” (we drove and flew).  Two of us translated that as “driving and flying”, not strictly a present participle in the original, but retaining a rhyme which we would have lost with the strictly literal “we drove and flew”. 

One evening was not enough – even with three short poems.  The next morning I was back at the Scottish Poetry Library to browse the latest poetry magazines and to pick six books to borrow for the next month.  Then it was off to the National Library of Scotland for The Celts, the exhibition which has come up from the British Museum.  Celts is an umbrella term, the introduction told me, covering a wide span of time, people, places and religions.  Yet here was the art I have come to associate with the Celts: interwoven patterns, stylised designs of birds and animals (real and mythical – I liked the dragon on a brooch from Portugal), the carefully illuminated Gospel books, the warrior culture of decorated shields, scabbards and swords, the beautiful jewellery and the fine gold torcs which have been found in several places.  Pride of place was given to the splendid silver cauldron from Gundestrup in Jutland (c. 150 – 50BC).  I remember seeing this magnificent object in the museum in Copenhagen when I visited the city in 2014.  At the end of the exhibition were a few displays showing how we have interpreted the Celts.  In Ireland the Celtic revival was harnessed to Irish nationalism.  In Wales there was an important cultural dimension with the national Esiteddford’s Welsh druids and the importance of what has been seen as a Bardic tradition in literature.  Each year the Bardic chair is awarded for poetry (written in the form of cynghanedd).  In 1917 the Bardic chair was awarded to Hedd Wyn.  The chair was draped in black – the poet had been killed at Passchendale six weeks earlier (an award winning film Hedd Wyn was made about the poet’s life in 1992).  More recently Mererid Hopwood became the first woman to win the chair.

     On Saturday I was back at the Scottish Poetry Library for an all day symposium on the work of Thomas A Clark.  The poet was there in person to read his work and be interviewed.  But much of the day was taken up with papers by various academics.  In between we had a variety of (non-Clark) poems read by Iain Morrison and some beautiful violin playing.  These intermissions lightened the atmosphere because we had to concentrate hard on the academic papers – perhaps putting the most abstract of these in the session after the excellent lunch was not a good idea.  I thought the most interesting and listen-able to speaker was Harriet Tarlo (reader in creative writing at Sheffield Hallam University).  She is a poet herself and I couldn’t resist buying her behind land: poems and paintings, an artist’s book collaboration with Judith Tucker.  The book is wide and narrow (think of an A4 piece of paper folded length-ways). 

One word which kept coming up over the course of the day was “attention”.  “Pay attention in order to notice”, said Simone Weill.  The words of Dominic Smith was quoted with a music analogy – “playing attention”, “composing attention”.  One of Clark’s works on display embodied this attention: the words “Anyone who goes in the quest of the ordinary should carry a stone” accompanying a little straw lined square box in which was placed a pebble, like an egg in a nest.  It was good to be celebrating the work of Thomas A Clark, whose poetry I have admired for some years.  I first bought one of his books at the gallery at Lochmaddy on a wet day on North Uist. 

More days running away like wild horses.

Scottish poetry library

The Celts runs at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh until 25 September