Monday, 31 October 2016


As the nights have been drawing in I’ve noticed the tawny owls having their noisy conversations again.  Last night they came in right on cue – I was setting out for an All Souls service.  In folk lore owls are considered spooky and associated with death but I love hearing the tawny owls, the traditional and adaptable to whit to who owls.  They are probably establishing territory or a calling pair but I can easily anthropomorphise them – they sound as if they are having fun.  One sets up in a tree a few yards from my house, the other is in the wood a field away and then they have a competition as to who can make the most noise and have the last word.  That quaver in their voice sounds to me like ironic laughter at their own wit.  Before dawn at this time of year (when I am often out early walking the dog) they are still at.

When I was a child Guy Fawkes’ night, not Halloween, was the significant date on the calendar – though I do remember a blisteringly failed attempt to carve a lantern from one of my father’s rock hard home-grown turnips with a blunt kitchen knife (as with many things in childhood it was the making that appealed to me rather than the end result).  This was in the innocent days when no child in the Warwickshire village where I grew up had heard of trick or treat. 

Halloween has grown hugely in commercial importance over the years.  I noticed a shop in The Lanes in Carlisle devoted to Halloween tat.  No doubt as soon as November comes it will morph into a Christmas decorations and 2017 calendar shop.

I’d never been to an All Souls service before.  It was quiet and thoughtful and we were all self-controlled but it was actually extremely emotional.  We each lit candles for the dead we wished to remember and then the minister read out the list of names of those who had died in the last five years and any other names requested.

For a small rural community there was a large number of names.  As we listened in the stillness they became a kind of litany, a chant of familiar names from families who had lived here for generations.  I thought that it must have been like this (only worse) after the First World War.  Afterwards my next-door neighbour told me of one of his aunts whose fiancé had been killed in the last week of that war.  Edward Thomas wrote earlier in the war of hearing the cry of an owl (species unspecified):

   “... the bird’s voice
    Speaking for all who lay under the stars,
    Soldiers and poor, unable to rejoice.”
    (from The Owl)

2015 and 2016 have not been good years in this part of Cumbria.  So many families who have lost loved ones.  So many familiar names – people I had talked to and walked with along our quiet lanes.  Five and a bit more years of names.  I had forgotten that death had undone so many.  How important it is to remember.

I was in Prague a few years ago just before All Souls Day.  It is called Památka zesnulých (the remembrance of the deceased) or Dušičky (little souls).  I was told that it is the custom for people to go to the cemeteries on that evening, take flowers and light candles at their relatives’ graves.  Atheist or believer, it doesn’t matter.  It is the remembering that is important.   The cemeteries are full of little flickering lights.   

Tuesday, 18 October 2016


Instructions for writing a poem:
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.

Mary Oliver wrote these words about life, rather than writing, but I thought about them last Friday night when I heard Helen Farish read from her new collection, The Dog of Memory.  The imperatives could apply to the content of several of Helen’s poems – a monkey novelty clock, a page from a calendar, an old stool, a road sign.  She pays attention to these apparently insignificant things, finds astonishment in them and spins from them beautifully crafted poems.  She even uses the word ‘astonishment’ in the opening lines of ‘The glow’:

‘Finding the crab apples, my astonishment
I’d gauge as being on a par with pilgrims
seeing a tear build in the corner
of the Spanish Virgin’s powder-blue eye.”

Several of her poems have rural, Cumbrian settings – for example, ‘Complimentary calendar’ is set in an aunt’s farmhouse at Crummock,  ‘Low Lorton ¼  High Lorton ¼’ in the Lorton valley near Cockermouth.  She pays attention to the details of local life – the Fox’s red and white mobile butcher’s van – and the words of local speech.  She remembers a school debate on the county name:

‘I argue for the old,
the one that belongs
with hoolet, clarty, slape ...
with door snecks and byres’
                       (‘Cumberland 1974’)

But there are other poems in the book that take us further afield.  Helen read ‘Missing the rain’ (Tess Gallagher in Arizona) and a love poem from the first section of the book, ‘Palermo da capo’. 

Helen went back to her A level set texts (the evening was chaired by Steve Matthews who had been her A level English teacher before he came to preside over Carlisle’s multitudinous second hand bookshop, Bookcase).  There is a sequence of poems in the voice of Jane Eyre (and one in the voice of ‘the cat Jane never had’), a poignant little poem in which ‘Tess has a word with Hardy’, and a poem on Doctor Zhivago.  This last poem is the longest in the book and when Helen read it she advised us to concentrate hard.  Perhaps it is a poem about snow.  We follow the snow in chapter after chapter, except chapter five – to which the poem returns at the end.

The collection is called The Dog of Memory.  Because of the pathos of memory, the sense of someone or something now lost (where is the monkey clock? ‘what does he see now?’) the book has an elegiac tone, or rather it has a quality of ‘belatedness’ in the sense that Peter Davidson uses the word in The Last of the Light (see my post of 25 September).  His book is a ‘meditation on twilight’ and I noticed the dusk settings of some of Helen’s poems (‘ A borrowing’, ‘Pastoral’,‘Tea time at my Aunt’s’, ‘Tess has a word with Hardy’, ‘The glow’).

But for those of us who went to hear Helen’s reading at Bookends’ Cakes and Ale cafe in Carlisle on Friday night there was no sense of coming too late.  Steve Matthews managed to coax Helen to read a few more poems, even when she thought she had finished and when she asked the audience if she should end with just one poem the audience demanded Two!  We had been paying attention.

Monday, 10 October 2016


I walked out of Carlisle railway station on Saturday night and heard, above the noise of the busy streets, a frantic twittering of starlings.  Pedestrians looked surprised and tried to catch sight of the birds, which must have numbered several thousands, but in the twilight they were hidden by the trees around the Citadel.

I had just arrived back from a writing week in Tuscany where our tutor was Julia Blackburn, whose book-length poem Murmurations of Love, Grief and Starlings is published alongside Andrew Smiley’s dramatic photographs of starlings at Walberswick in Suffolk.

When I arrived a friend gave me a copy of Grief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter.  It was a tough read but made me understand why Ted Hughes wrote Crow after the death of Sylvia Plath.

Every day I went for a walk through the village of Lippiano where I was staying.  There is a lovely fountain in the middle of the Piazza Umberto with a little statue of a heron which gargles rainbows when the sun shines on the spray of water.  I was disappointed to find it was being repaired and was dry this year.  I followed some of the old tracks out into the surrounding countryside.  Kyaa, kyaa cried the buzzards circling on the thermals above the wooded hillsides – I hear the same sounds at home in Cumbria.  They are a noisy lot at this time of year as they establish territory and generally sort themselves out after the nesting season.  There were pigeons flapping and fluttering over the village rooftops and blackbirds setting off alarm calls in the bushes.  Jays were busy foraging for acorns.

It’s not hard to find subject matter for new poems in these surroundings.  A tour of the Castle at Lippiano  prompted me to write about ostriches after seeing them in a panel in a striking 16th century frescoed ceiling.  Two birds were depicted bridled, harnessed and drawing a man in a chariot.  Amphorae were strewn on the ground.   It seemed like a scene from the Colosseum in the days of the Roman empire.  I wondered if it illustrated some mythical story.  A quick google search showed that ostriches are still being abused today – in Arizona ostrich racing takes place, with chariots made from old oil drums.

My room was in an elegant large house, the Palazzo Regina.  It was a beautifully quiet place to write and my window looked out over the valley to the surrounding hill villages.  One day I saw three roe deer (the same kind I see at home in Cumbria).

The weather was quite cool so every day Francesca lit the old clay stove in the entrance hall.  The heat rose up the stairwell and spread into the rooms.  Coming back through the front door in the evenings there was a comforting warmth in the palazzo and the smell of wood smoke from the oak logs of the fire.  I have never seen these stoves anywhere else.  They consist of a clay box at the bottom in which the fire is lit, and then a series of clay boxes stacked above through which the warm air circulates.  As each box hots up it radiates heat.  The smoke went up a very long iron chimney.

The clay stove

All summer the stove has stood cold and silent,
its terra cotta chambers stacked like catacombs.
I carry in twigs, armfuls of logs from the yard,
feel the oak bark grazing my skin.

I lift the latch of the iron door,
sweep soft moth-wing ash from the fire box.
I scrumple newsprint – ink on my fingers –
lay kindling in its clay lair.

Before the sandpaper strike of the match
I hesitate.  On this one day
I would like to dwell in the stillness
before the first flames.

© Mary Robinson 2016