Thursday, 21 December 2017


I am out early with the dog and my head-torch lights up thousands of tiny water droplets - 100 per cent humidity,  There are beads of water suspended on stock fencing.  Mae'n niwlog.  There's a kind of geographical amnesia when walking in mist - the familiar becomes strange and it is possible to lose one's way, even on familiar paths.  There is a sense of being enclosed, like being on a small island.  The thick fogs of my Midlands childhood were legendary ('pea soupers').  My father would walk the eight and a half miles home from work because public transport had been cancelled.

Gradually the landscape comes alive.  A blackbird sets off its jincking alarm call, rooks start having a conversation in the sycamores at the edge of the field, in the distance I can hear wood pigeons - cooroocoo, cooroo.  Small brown birds flit ahead of us keeping close to the cover of the hedge.  The cockerel at the muddy farm has woken up - insistently.  Now the mist starts to lift - slightly.  Despite the murk I can see bright pinpoints of yellow on gorse bushes along the banks of the lane.  The lower slopes of the hills start to appear, and the low cloud just smirrs the top of Moel y Penmaen at 153 metres.

Traditionally the Winter Solstice is when we welcome (entice) back the light, just a few days before  we celebrate Christmas.


Sunset flaring the winter sea
Crescent moon and evening star
Candle flame in a small window.

© Mary Robinson 2017

Sunday, 10 December 2017

Birding the landscape

The fickle British weather has proved me wrong (again).

In my last post I wrote 'There is no snow on the mountains' in my 'Little Egrets' poem.  Very soon afterwards I looked out of my bedroom window and saw that Yr Wyddfa (Snowdon) had turned a glittering white overnight.

Yesterday all the surrounding hills and mountains were clothed in snow.  One of the most prominent from this direction is Moel Hebog.  Reading A Journey through Birds by James Macdonald Lockhart I was reminded that hebog is Welsh for a hawk.  This has puzzled me - did this mountain have more hawks than its neighbours?  Then I realised that of course it's because of the shape - its rounded shoulders are like a hawk mantling its wings.  Another name for Snowdon is Eryri.  Eryr is an eagle.  The dramatic triple-peaked ridge that reveals itself when the clouds part is like the outline of a soaring eagle.

In the back of an old Welsh dictionary I found a list of birds' names.  A coot is iâr y gors - 'bog hen', a jay (which I see frequently round here) is sgrech y coed - 'shriek of the wood'.  My favourite is  the dipper aderyn du'r dwr - 'blackbird of the water'.  I like the way the birds' names place them in the landscape.

By happy coincidence the Picador Friday Poem was Kathleen Jamie's 'The Dipper' set in 'winter, near freezing'.  She writes of the bird's 'supple, undammable song', that it 'knows the depth of the river / yet sings of it on land.'  Yes, blackbird of the water.

[You can read the whole poem if you google Picador Friday Poem 8 December 2017.
Apologies to those who know dwr should have a circumflex on the w - and advance thanks to anyone who knows the correct short-cut keys to get it on a Mac!]

Thursday, 30 November 2017


What is the first word that comes into your head in response to the phrase ‘All Change’?

This was the question posed by Moniza Alvi at her recent Second Light workshop (see previous post).  We went round anti-clockwise at speed.  I found myself going second after ‘revolution’.  I proffered ‘restoration’.  I confess it was the sound association not the sense.

I thought of the great Scottish poet, Edwin Morgan, whose motto was ‘Change Rules’, and Rebecca Solnit’s ‘Never turn down an adventure without a really good reason’ (in her wonderful book The Faraway Nearby).

I remembered a conversation I overheard in a supermarket -
            Child:     Why are we buying this?
            Parent:  Because we always buy it.
            Child:     If you do the same things all the time you become boring.

Then there was the famous 70s book, Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock, about ‘too much change in too short a period of time’.

Moving from Cumbria to Penllyn has been a big change in my life, but it has also been a restoration, a coming back.  In the harbour at Pwllheli I have been delighted to see little egrets   they have come back too.  Centuries ago these small white herons (looking from a distance like gawky pullets) were so common that a thousand were killed for the banquet celebrating the enthronement of the Archbishop of York in 1465.   Hunted to extinction they were absent from our shores for centuries, but twenty years ago the first little egrets bred in the south of Britain and since then they have been gradually moving back to coastal habitats. 

Little Egrets

In the years when I wasn’t watching
the egrets returned.

They leave claw-prints like hallmarks
in a patch of silvery mud.

There is no snow on the mountains
reflected in the harbour stillness,

only the whiteness of these elsewhere birds
which have made this place their home.

© Mary Robinson 2017

Sunday, 19 November 2017


I walked the pavements trodden by Virginia Woolf and T S Eliot, I stayed at the Penn Club (where John Wyndham - he of Triffids fame - lived for several years) and I went to the Second Light Poetry Festival.
As winner of the Second Light Poetry prize (short poem category) I was invited to take part in an  evening reading, so, on Saturday night I read my winning poem, 'Six Studies of Pillows' (based on a Durer pen and ink drawing), my commended poem, 'Clustog Fair' (set on Bardsey Island) and a few other poems in the elegant Georgian surroundings of the Art Workers' Guild in Queen Square (a bust of Ruskin on the stairs kept an eye on everyone).  I enjoyed the reading very much - a relaxed and intimate setting and an enthusiastic audience.
The reading was the culmination of the two day poetry festival.  The whole weekend was a literary feast! Myra Schneider, Penelope Shuttle, Kate Foley and Moniza Alvi led workshops over the two days - full of good things to inspire and provoke.  On the first evening Penelope and Kate gave a reading followed by an open mic.  Aa Myra had started her workshop with Les Murray's '1960 brought the electric' I read 'Girl with a lamp', the poem I might have started in the workshop if I hadn't written it already!
Thanks are due to Dilys Wood and Anne Stewart who organised and ran the weekend so smoothly and made sure that there were enough cakes, biscuits and hot drinks to fuel our brain cells.  I picked up my new edition of Artemis and was delighted to find my winning poem and the commended one printed in the magazine.
I came back to Wales, dogged by the lack of organisation of the railways.  All went smoothly until Chester.  Then there was an hour's wait for a rail replacement bus (Sunday maintenance work) to Llandudno Junction, then another hour's wait for the Bangor train.  But we were compensated by a spectacularly beautiful autumnal view of the Vale of Clwyd when we went over Rhuallt Hill on the A55.  All the metallic colours of the not yet fallen leaves - gold, platinum, bronze, copper.  I thought of Gerard Manley Hopkins at St Beuno's, his love of this wide valley and the way the landscape and  the Welsh language fed into his poetry.  A long way from London.

Sunday, 12 November 2017


Now the starlings are gathering in big flocks over the stubble field.  They make patterns against the sky.  I stand and watch them, fascinated by their rapid shape-shifting.  They divide, unite, swirl in ever changing directions, sometimes making a dark inner nucleus thick with birds.  Ornithologists say that these murmurations are a way to defy predators or to exchange information (there is certainly a lot of excited chattering going on!) but I wonder if the starlings experience a sense of sheer exhilaration in being part of this vast movement of birds.

I was thinking of patterns - or rather the apparent lack of them - when I visited the current Gillian Ayres exhibition at Oriel Plas Glyn a Weddw yesterday.  Gillian Ayres is described in the gallery information as 'one of the most important and original abstract artists in Britain'.  My interest was aroused when I learnt that she lived and worked at the Old Rectory, Llaniestyn for about 7 years until 1987.  I was surprised that I knew nothing about her, although I had spent a lot of that time at our cottage only a mile away from the village.  It was a particularly happy and productive time for her.

There were only four large pictures in the exhibition - 'thickly painted, with the surface manipulated into gestures and patterns using brush, fingers and paint squeezed directly from the tube.  The texture became just as much a vital component of the work as the colour.'  The paintings were enormous.  At the time they seemed - dare I say it? - 'daubs', but afterwards I found myself thinking about the vibrant colours and random shapes.  They expressed an exuberance which seemed very positive.

Earlier in the week I went to Ensemble Cymru's contemporary chamber music concert at Neuadd Dwyfor in Pwllheli.  The concert included a clever witty piece, 'Block', by Claire Roberts (she was in the audience).  The piece was described as exploring 'deliberately the boundaries of tonality ... the music is pushed to the limits.'  A very different take on patterns in music.

I'm still working my way through the bumper summer edition of The North poetry magazine (blame the move) and read the review of Anne Carson's Float.  The poet describes her work as often seeming to turn into 'a few flakes of language roaming near the margin, looking as if they want to become an art of pure shape.'

Randomness and pattern - I've been tossing these ideas around in my head with no definite conclusions as I watch the starlings from my study window.  Julia Blackburn catches something of the fascination of the 'murmurations' of starlings:

'Starlings help.
The way they pull between a celebration of living
And an intimation of things unseen,
The sound of them rustling the air
The flickering sound of them.'

(from Murmurations of Love, Grief and Starlings with photographs by Andrew Smiley - Full Circle editions, 3rd printing, 2016)

Tuesday, 7 November 2017


'... A hill lights up
Suddenly; a field trembles
With colour and goes out.'

How R S Thomas captures the patterns of weather in 'The Small Window'.  This poem speaks to me so clearly of the rapid changes of sunlight and cloud in the landscape of Penllyn.  Here we are in the back end of the year reluctantly accepting the early darkness now the clocks have gone back, but rejoicing in those sudden transitory moments of light amongst the scudding showers of rain and hail.  And there have been rainbows this week.

Winter bird flocks are gathering.  A party of long-tailed tits came foraging along the banks of the lane outside my kitchen window one day.  On the telephone wires large numbers of starlings assemble, making a feathered abacus between the each pair of poles.  The winter thrushes - redwings and fieldfares - are back, flying up urgently from the trees if disturbed.

The stubble field next to my garden (it was fairly disastrous as a crop after late sowing and very late combining) has attracted flocks of pigeons, yellowhammers and bramblings.  Most noticeable of all is the daily convention of corvids that gather in the middle of the field.  Restless black flutterings that are finding plenty of food.

Patterns of flight - endlessly changing.

Saturday, 28 October 2017


Five hundred years since Martin Luther struck the spark that ignited the Reformation and changed the course of history.  Traditionally the date when Luther posted his Ninety Five Theses on the door of the Castle Church at Wittenberg was 31 October 1517.

My poem, ‘Martin Luther and the Swan’, is based on a visit to the Mariakirchen, the Lutheran church in the old Hanseatic city of Bergen.  The church is exuberantly decorated, endowed by the rich Hanseatic merchants, but I was intrigued by the portrait of Luther which seemed oddly out of place.

Martin Luther and the swan
(In the Mariakirchen, Bergen)

No guide – just a silent cleaner
working hard at God’s house-keeping,
her rubber gloves flesh-coloured pink
as she dusts the glitzy altar.

Those Hanseatic merchants were
shameless: all around the pulpit
cavorts a cornucopia
of bare-breasted Bergen hussies.

You were an embarrassment, faith’s
token portrait in the shadows –
black robed, the white bird at your side.

The swan was your feathered familiar –
he would take the bread from your hand
but his wing beats could stop your heart.

©Mary Robinson 2010, 2107

(from The Art of Gardening Flambard 2010)

When I visited the church Luther’s full length portrait was tucked into a corner.  What struck me most was the swan standing next to him.  I discovered that one of Luther’s predecessors, the Bohemian Reformer, Jan Hus, who was burnt at the stake in 1415,  is reputed to have prophesied Luther’s coming by saying, ‘You are roasting a goose [hus is Czech for goose] but after me will come a swan’.


This is the first post I have typed in my study in my new house.  The carpet went down last Monday and I am slowly unpacking my books.  The cardboard packing cases are piled up by the window.  The postman keeps asking me, ‘When are you going to finish emptying all those boxes?’

Friday, 13 October 2017


Significant events 

(Working backwards) - my son's wedding in Cumbria on 7 October, the first family get together at my new house in Wales, a writing week in Italy with Blake Morrison.

Small things
Waking early just as dawn was breaking in Tuscany and seeing three (roe) deer; waking early in Cumbria and hearing the tawny owls continuing their night-time conversation until first light.

I read the TLS on the train back to Wales from Carlisle (we were the last, very slow train through on Wednesday morning when the main line was badly affected by flooding).  Pamela Clemit's review of Coastal Works: Cultures of the Atlantic Edge (eds Nicholas Allen, Nick Groom, and Jos Smith) caught my attention.  The book includes an essay on Cumbrian Poet, Norman Nicholson.  To me this was a new angle on Nicholson.  I had not thought of him as being a poet of the Atlantic Edge before. "His terrain is narrow - the coastal strip bounded by the Solway Firth in the north and the Duddon Estuary in the south, and hemmed in by the mountains - but he digs deep.  Nicholson's vision, as described by Andrew Gibson in a superb essay, is of a coastal wasteland devastated by generations of industrialists, entrepreneurs and governments, to which he (a devout Christian) gave a spiritual dimension."

I've been away for 2 weeks so it's good to by back and to tackle some of the boxes which haven't been unpacked yet.  The workmen have nearly finished.  I thought I had decluttered before I moved but now I find things I haven't looked at since June and ask myself, do I really need them?

Monday, 18 September 2017


At the beginning of this month the swallows were getting fidgety and lining up on the overhead wires.  Now the skies are bereft.  They left early this year – does this mean they sensed bad weather coming (Storm Aileen) or had the older adults (who tend to leave later) not survived the Welsh summer?

I noticed today the dark red of a hawthorn tree against a rare deep blue sky.  Flocks of rooks are gathering in the fields.  Beyond my garden several acres of late spring-sown barley has turned a pale straw yellow but has yet to be harvested.  My next door neighbour has had a bonfire going all afternoon.

Like the squirrels (grey on the peninsula, though Anglesey has reds) I’ve been doing some autumn foraging.  Here are some of my gatherings:

The Scottish Poetry Library has honoured its founder, Tessa Ransford, with a blue plaque.

She founded the Callum MacDonald Memorial awards.  The publishers’ section was won this year by the tiny Dumfries-based Roncadora Press (for Sheep by Hugh Bryden and Hugh McMillan).  I’ve been to two of Hugh Bryden’s workshops on handmade poetry pamphlets – they are inspirational.

Dave Coates (on his blog Dave’s Poems) has researched poetry reviews.  He concludes: “Even a preliminary study of British and Irish poetry magazines and prizes shows how ingrained is the culture of structural racism and misogyny.”  I would add that the paucity of poetry reviews in mainstream print publications is abysmal. 

But it was good to see a Kenneth Stevens’ poem as the Guardian on-line poem of the week recently. It was taken from his version of the Irish legend of Deirdre of the Sorrows.  Stevens writes in a way not unlike George Mackay Brown.  His work is rooted in the Scottish countryside and Celtic tradition.

I recently had a conversation with a man who writes Welsh poetry.  He told me he was composing an englyn.  I did a quick google and discovered an intricate verse form of rhyme and cynghnnedd.  Each language is different.  It would be hard to do in English (perhaps Hopkins and Dylan Thomas have come nearest) without seeming forced and artificial.  But it works in the musicality and flexibility of the Welsh language.  Don’t get me started on the way Italian (an inflected language) has influenced the use of rhyme in English.

Enitharmon Press have announced the autumn publication of The Heart’s Granary, an anthology to mark the 50th anniversary of the press.   “This momentous publication marks the end of a much cherished poetry list”.  I fear the worst.

Carcanet covers are changing.  I’m used to glossy colourful covers usually with a large contemporary painting.  I’ve just read Sinéad Morrissey’s On Balance and I have Gillian Clarke’s Zoology and Thomas A Clarke’s The Farm by the Shore on my teetering To Read pile.  What they all have in common is a pale matt cover with a simple understated image and folded-in “wings” front and back (like a dust cover).  They look remarkably like a Cape poetry publication!

The large barley field next to my garden was the swallows’ insect-hunting space.  How I miss their purposeful curving flight.  I’m conscious of the approaching equinox when day and night are poised equally and the surise and sunset are aligned due east and west.  Then the balance of light will shift and autumn will have arrived. 

Tuesday, 12 September 2017


I'm delighted to have won first prize in the Second Light 2017 poetry competition (short poem category) with my poem 'Six Studies of Pillows' based on a Durer pen and ink drawing.

My poem 'Clustog Fair' was placed in the commended section.

One of those buses moments.

Monday, 28 August 2017


After my taste of rye bread in my previous post -

Black bread

 On the shelf at Aldi rye bread schwartzbrot
bread that will keep in wooden chests for weeks
bread you can eat at dawn and do a day’s labour.

The sour-sweet taste of it – a snatched lunch when
we biked through July cornfields to the coast
on old Third Reich tracks, concrete white in the heat.

An ear of corn split with my thumbnail, flour
soft on my tongue.  Wind turbines flailed the air.
The A of a granary’s great brick gable,

tented with rye brown thatch, swept the ground.
A peg-mill, redeemed from fire, the whole mill-house
dancing to catch the eye of the wind.

the tracks ran on, resolute, determined,
as if the crew-cut stubble had no choice.
At Schönberg the Baltic hazed the horizon,

little whispy waves nibbled white sand
drifting against breakwaters (nicht betreten).
The drift of things: rye grains carried in carts,

in desperate sacks, in pockets, across
the settlers’ ocean to turf roofed dugouts

to rise as prairie sourdough. 

© Mary Robinson 2010, 2017

from The Art of Gardening (Flambard 2010)