Friday, 12 October 2018

PASTORAL

Upper Close, Lower Close, Cank Hill, Middle Cans, Park Close, Far Close.

Those were the names of the fields on my parents' small-holding in Warwickshire.  The names were on a plan in the deeds and they were in daily use.

'I'm going to move the cattle onto Cank Hill.'
'Can you help with the potatoes in Lower Close?'

Upper Close had an old marl pit in one corner where the cattle would shelter in bad weather.  A stream ran along one side of three of the fields, weaving in and out of our neighbour's property so that livestock on both sides of the fence could have access to fresh water.  Middle Cans had a side entrance to a badger set (the main part of the set was further up the hill behind our land).  Cank Hill was too steep to mow but it had a gate onto the road, a useful short cut when walking up to the village.  Far Close was always boggy and meadowsweet flourished there in the summer.  Park Close was only separated from its adjoining field by straggly overgrown pear and apple trees.  The humps and hollows in the grass may have been a remnant of medieval ridge and furrow cultivation.

When I moved to Cumbria I noticed that one large agricultural estate had nailed numbers to gateposts - no fancy field names for their contract tractor drivers.

I've been reading Jim Carruth's collection Black Cart (Freight Poetry 2017).  The book is beautifully designed and has footers running along each page.  In the first section the footers are the names of the fields of High Auchensale, Jim's family farm.   In the second they are the names of types of grasses (no mention of the ubiquitous rye grass) and in the third the names of farms which have given up dairying and sold their land.

The book is part record, part celebration, part lament for a farming generation.  Jim Carruth grew up on the family farm near Kilbarchan, not far from Johnstone, Renfrewshire, and Glasgow's outer edges.  There are similarities with the rural backgrounds of Seamus Heaney, Gillian Clarke and Les Murray.  Jim Carruth (born 1963) writes about mechanised farming but is also aware of post-war changes (Clydesdales superseded by tractors) and more recent events (the foot and mouth outbreak).

The book is truly pastoral [to do with flocks and herds], in a tradition that goes back to classical times (epigraphs from Virgil preface each section).  A quote from Les Murray on the back cover states 'It is the hope of Jim Carruth to restore agricultural writing and the depth of its detail'.  I like that phrase 'agricultural writing'.  It avoids the romantic and idealistic overtones that have accrued to literary concepts of pastoral over the centuries.

 The front cover flap of Black Cart describes the book as 'a love poem to a rural community'.  The collection is not nostalgic but elegiac - 'a moving testament to a lost generation of family, friends, farmers and farms.'

What comes across to me most strongly in Black Cart is the poet's bond to the people of the land and their bond to the land itself (field names included).

Monday, 1 October 2018

TOO MANY MADONNAS

Perugia, Galleria Nazionale dell'Umbria

I found it in a basket of eggs.

I struggle with religious art: the repetitive subject matter, so many pictures in which the only women are Madonnas or Magdalenes, so much iconography I don't understand.  I feel like an alien in a strange land.  I need something that can connect me to this world so many centuries before my own.

I think of Dante, contemporary with some of the paintings I am looking at in the gallery.  He wrote from the viewpoint of medieval Christianity but was strongly critical of individual popes and clerics and of the abuses and hoarded wealth of the church.  This doesn't help me relate to the paintings with their lavish use of expensive pigments and gold.

But then I notice a small narrow panel, depicting the Nativity.  it was painted in 1425 by Rossellio di Jacopo Franchi.  The Madonna is standing, looking serious.  Joseph is seated with a puzzled expression on his face.  It is as if both of them are struggling with the shock of parenthood for the first time.  They appear to have had words - hardly surprising given their inadequate accommodation.

The ox and the ass put their heads above the manger, from which the infant Jesus seems to have slipped.  The animals' portraits are as realistic as those of the human figures.  I imagine a farmer fondling the hair on their foreheads as he shuts them in the stable after a day's hard work.

To the right of the scene two shepherds have turned up.  They wear knee-length tunics and tights, a functional fashion so everyday in the 15th century that it has become today an instantly recognisable cliche of amateur pageants and plays.

The brief (? too brief) description beside the panel states that it is a predella, that is, a painting along the horizontal frame at the bottom of an altar-piece.  Originally it would have been dominated by the important, now absent, middle part of the painting.  But, being at a lower level, the predella would catch the eye of the worshipper going to receive the sacrament.

One of the shepherds is carrying a wicker basket, a present for the Christ child.  I look closely and see that it is a basket of eggs.  Perhaps the eggs were destined for the next day's market and the shepherd had grabbed them impulsively, feeling he should bring something and that was the only thing he could think of.

What a wonderfully practical gift.  The holy family - no room at the inn - would have been forced into self-catering, Mary had to keep her strength up and there were all those visitors to feed.  Soon they would have to flee into Egypt - there might be a few boiled eggs left to take on the journey.

No doubt there is some iconographic significance that I have missed - the eggs as a symbol of the resurrection maybe?  But I like to think that a woman kneeling to receive the host on her tongue in 1425 would have been as charmed by that basket of eggs as I am so many centuries later.


Wednesday, 12 September 2018

POEMS ARE LIKE ROSES

' ... the roses
Had the look of flowers that are looked at'
     (T S Eliot Four Quartets: Burnt Norton)

The poems were the same - I felt that they were all clamouring Look at me!   They were like the flowers in Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass, 'all shouting together' until the air seemed full of their voices.

How to choose?  I felt honoured and a little daunted to be asked to be the guest poetry editor of a respected literary magazine.  Four large envelopes (total weight just under two pounds) thumped through the letter box.

What to consider?  Basically two things - form and content.  This could be subdivided into sound, rhythm, rhyme (if used), imagery, language, tone, mood, feeling - I could go on and on (line breaks, visual shape, factual correctness etc etc).  I was sounding like an English teacher and still the flowers were  clamouring for attention.

I gave all the poems a preliminary first reading.  At this early stage there were three poems that made a strong impression on me.  I marked them with a star.  I gave another three a cross as rejects.  But I wanted to avoid (to mix my metaphors) a sheep and goats approach.  I was looking for poems that managed to rise above the others and that rise is not always apparent at first reading.

The vast majority of the poems were of an acceptably high standard (the flowers were blowing in the breeze - Choose me! they cried).

A second read-through of the poems.  This time I asked myself: would I miss the poem if it wasn't there?  Would poetry be slightly impoverished if this poem didn't exist?  Would the poem slive (another mixed metaphor here) into my affections like a stray animal?  However good the technique there is a subjective element to selecting poems.  I wrote brief comments on the poems as if I was workshopping them.  By the end of the second reading I was up to ten definite poems. But I needed 17 to 20 poems and five reserves.

A third reading found me putting question marks on quite a few poems (maybes), but at the end I had sorted the pages into the requisite number of poems.  Then I made a quick fourth reading to makes sure I hadn't missed any of the best roses.

It was time to peel off the post-it notes that had kept the poems anonymous.  To my surprise I'd twice chosen two poems by the same writer and once chosen three (by someone whose name was completely new to me).

I didn't want duplicates and certainly not a triplicate - it's hard enough to get poems published and I wanted to give as many people as possible the chance.  Back to the possibles.  They were all good poems - it was hard to choose.  The deciding factor in the end was the theme of the poems - I wanted variety.  Finally I had the right number of poems.

Sorry, roses, I couldn't choose all of you.  But you are still beautiful.

Friday, 24 August 2018

MORE PAW-PRINTS

'I should never be a Frenchman, never be one of them' (Daphne du Maurier The Scapegoat) quotes Adam Thorpe in Notes from the Cevennes: Half a Lifetime in Provincial France.  

Enjoying this very readable memoir about living in France has sent me back to the poems in Thorpe's excellent collection Voluntary.  Several of the poems are set in France including - 'Impression', 'Fuel', 'Underground', 'Spring Class', 'Second Homes', 'Posy', 'Neighbour', 'Panic' [another IKEA poem] and 'In Court'.  The prose fills out the background to the poems, but the poems show how all this can be condensed into a few lines.

Writing about 'Voluntary' in the Poetry Book Society Spring 2012 bulletin Adam Thorpe said:

'I was badly stuck for an opener : the main leit-motifs ... seem to be roads, animals' otherness and time, but none of the relevant poems quite worked in pole position.  "Sutton Hoo" with its image of standing on a rostrum helplessly surveying the past, felt like a reasonable compromise.  The day before sending off the final draft of Voluntary, I happened to glance at the paw-embedded tile by my study door and the first two lines of "Impression" welled up, with the dim shape of the rest behind, the world "jobsworth" gleaming in the tail.  The collection was done.'

It's a lovely poem, only 19 lines, imagining the making of the clay tile and how the dog's paw-prints became embedded in it.  In his memoir Adam Thorpe devotes a whole chapter to the clay tile, telling us in fascinating detail about the 2nd century tegula.  'Two slightly overlapping paw-marks showed, with each of the four toe-pads like a large oval petal'.  Questioning the local vet and knowledgeable
friends reveals the gait of the dog so that the writer discovers 'how this far-off moment galvanised an animal, bunched its muscles, fired its brain, traced its intention ... I feel close to the dog, so close I can touch its bristly flank, sense it muzzling my hand with its cool nose, smell the slightly foetid stink of poor drains on the air.'

Adam Thorpe Notes from the Cevennes (Bloomsbury 2018)
Voluntary (Cape 2012)

IMMORTAL PAW PRINTS

Concrete road, Mynydd Mawr

Are they still living,
these men in their nineties,
retelling their war?

Stripped to the waist,
shoulders blistering,
piecing together

squares, oblongs, triangles,
placing the forms,
churning the mix like butter,

throwing in gravel,
a broken bottle
(which glints in the sun),

pouring, tamping,
cheering the farm dog
who runs to greet them

his paw prints
immortal
on the wet track.

Chough and peregrine,
heather and gorse,
eight decades of concrete.

I will always be younger
than this road
but it will outlive me.

© Mary Robinson 2018

A steady stream of visitors have made their way to my house this summer.  It's been lovely to have so many friends here.  The family have been to stay too and it's been a delight to see my young grandchildren doing 'Fourth generation' things (my parents first visited the Peninsula in the early 1950s) - playing on the beach at Morfa Nefyn and Aberdaron, going on the Ffestiniog Railway and having tea and cake in the Gwalia Cafe in Pwllheli.

One of the places I often take visitors is Mynydd Mawr on the tip of Penllyn.   There are still small fields surviving from the centuries-old smallholding economy of Lleyn.  Mynydd Mawr is an excellent viewpoint for Bardsey Island and if it is clear enough we can see across Cardigan Bay and right down the coast of Wales.  At the summit are the remains of the old coastguard station with a small display inside.  To reach the summit we can either scramble up through gorse and heather or walk up the zig-zag concrete road built by the army during the Second World War when the hill was an important look-out station for sea defences.  Apart from the coastguard station the other buildings have been demolished, leaving flights of steps leading nowhere and flat platforms in the grass.

But the road was built well and has lasted - complete with the footprints of an inquisitive farm collie.

Tuesday, 31 July 2018

ROWAN

The rowan berries have turned orange in the copse where the buzzards nest.  It's the last day of July.

I always associate rowans with a solitary tree on a rocky hillside or near an isolated mountain farm, so that when I see them in a different place - around a supermarket car park, for example - they take me in my mind to a wild elsewhere.  This is a kind of 'Innisfree' moment - Yeats pounding London's 'pavements grey' but still hearing 'the lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore.'

The last day in July.  Gorffennaf in Welsh.  The word literally means 'the end of summer', from gorffen to finish, and haf summer.  I always think that's a glass half-empty way of looking at the seasons, but, now that the heat wave has dissipated into the usual school holiday mix of heavy rain, strong winds and sunny intervals, July is at last living up to its Welsh name as it exits the calendar for another year.

The orange rowan berries sum up the sense of change in the air.  The breeze makes a subtly different sound as it fingers the leaves, dry and brittle from the drought.  The birds (except the buzzards) are largely silent now that they have finished nesting and are starting to moult.

Norman MacCaig's 'Rowan Berry' says:

Tomorrow, or tomorrow's tomorrow,
a flock of fieldfares
will gobble our whole generation.

Friday, 27 July 2018

BLAENAU VOICES

What do Dylan Thomas, P G Wodehouse and Aneurin (a 6th century poet) have in common?

Not a lot, but on thursday afternoon I listened to excerpts from each of their writings - and more.  I was at the monthly meeting of Blaenau Voices (Lleisiau'r Blaenau) held in one of the upstairs rooms of Siop Llyfau'r Hen Bost, the lovely independent bookshop in Blaenau's main street.  Downstairs there are new books and cards, upstairs - under the low sloping ceilings - there is the second-hand section.  

From where I was sitting I glimpsed titles such as Reincarnation and Home Decorating and Design and there was that slight aroma of old books which makes me think of Victorian novels and Georgian poetry.  Is it the fraying bindings, the glue hardening back to brittle horn and hoof, the musty damp of pre-centrally heated libraries?

For the July meeting (my first time) it was an open choice - people brought a mixture of poetry and prose, their own and that of other writers.  

Amongst the excerpts brought in were poems by Longfellow, Langston Hughes and Frank O'Hara.  The convener of the group read from her own novel in progress.  I particularly enjoyed the three Welsh poems.  The first was by the 6th century Aneurin - an extract from The Gododdin (the Gododdin were a British tribe who lived in South East Scotland) - even the English translation was chilling:
'Fresh mead was their feast, their poison too'.
The other two Welsh poems were by the renowned Gwyn Thomas, 'Enwau Lleodd' ('Place Names') and 'Tomen Fawr yr Ocli' ('The Great Oakeley Quarry Tip).  Two of the group live near this huge slate spoil tip which dominates the town: 
'Mae swn llechi'n crafu'r nos'
('Sounds of slate - they scrape in the night')
They said that sometimes they can hear the slate rubble shifting.  The Oakeley Quarry closed several years ago but it leaves an uneasy legacy.

I had been invited to come and read some of my poems.  They were on the theme of reading and writing.  I read a poem each from my Alphabet series and from my Shakespeare sequence, as well as 'Transcript' (see my blog of 24 Nov 2012) about my mother's occupation as a shorthand typist.  

There are two things one should never do in this situation - put in an extra poem and read a brand new poem.  Alas, I did both.  The extra poem 'A unicorn in the Book of Psalms' bumped up the time too much and in the middle of reading the new poem about the Brontes I realised the imagery in the middle didn't work very well and could do with re-writing (Must do better).  

I framed the selection with Seamus Heaney's 'The Conway Stewart' and Naomi Shihab Nye's 'How do I know when a poem is finished?' (a bit of irony there!).  Then I got everyone to read a verse from 'Summer Lane' - that seemed to go down well and the ghosts in the last verse were a good link to a prose piece someone had brought about Gwydir Castle.

We read and listened for two hours, apart from a break in the middle for tea and cake.  It was good to meet people with a passion for words and I found the diverse range of literature very stimulating - ideas spark ideas.

And now I must revise that Bronte poem.


Wednesday, 18 July 2018

TO THE HAIKU UNIVERSE AND BEYOND



spring
the insistence
of a wren

This perfect miniature poem is by John Rowlands who lives at Tremadoc, just a few miles away from the National Writers' Centre of Wales (Ty Newydd, Llanystumdwy) where I spent last weekend. John Rowlands kindly donated a copy of his book knots of sand (Alba 2017) to each of us on the course.

When I told a friend of mine I was going on a haiku weekend she said "primary school poetry", but I'm pleased (and relieved) to say that I discovered from our tutors, Philip Gross and Lynne Rees, that there is much more to haiku than the juniors' classroom.

I had always thought of haiku as being in the 5/7/5 syllable format. This came into English from the classical Japanese form of 5 characters followed by 7 characters followed by 5 characters.  But Lynne pointed out that the characters were written vertically and they were not necessarily single syllables.  As well as words they could represent punctuation or instructions in how to speak the poem.

The weekend was titled Journeys into Haiku in Verse and Prose. Haiku provided a spring-board for our writing, rather than a straight-jacket.  We didn't have to stick to syllable counting or to three lines - we were aiming for that elusive moment conveyed in very few words.

We began with Lynne's "haiku generator".  We were given two pages of found phrases from poems and invited to combine them in pairs and see what emerged:

the room reflected in a window
homesick now for middle age

I knew that at some point there would be a renga - a kind of verbal tennis with two or more participants (in our case three - maybe a different sport would be a better analogy?).  I started off with 

captured in a moment
the hare
trapped in wood

inspired by the hare carved on a wooden beam in the Ty Newydd dining room.  Our poem travelled a circuitous route via river, sea and slate, children and old men, to end with Philip Gross's final couplet:

the hare set running in the wood
is running still

Haiku can be opened out into a longer poem - we were given the example of Billy Collins' poem "Japan", a meditation with variations on Buson's 18th century haiku

on the temple bell
a moth has settled
and is sleeping

We were encouraged to experiment with combining haiku and prose (haibun) - a form in which the distillation of the poetry and the clarity of prose can complement each other.  An afternoon walk down to the Dwyfor estuary was a great time to gather material (both linguistic and physical - wool, driftwood, feather, stone).  This is my first draft:

gate
path
pebbles
sea

blue gate
path
pebbles
sea

open gate
path to the shore
blue pebbles
sea

step through the gate
follow the blue path
pebbles lie on the shore
obstinate
sea

The stock fencing divides the landscape into little postcards of blues and greens.  Earth square makes me think of the carousel of colour charts in a paint shop where they will mix any shade as requested.  The fence has smaller squares near the ground to keep in the lambs and larger squares to keep in their mothers.  Stands of wool catch on the wire and spiders thread nets over the airy spaces.  In winter the sea flings storm-fulls of bladderwrack against the wire.

And that's as far as I got.

On Saturday night we had the usual participants' reading.  I read my traditionally formed Shetland haiku, entitled "Island" (we never discussed whether haiku should have titles).  (I should point out that "boost" is a place to draw up a boat out of the water.)


stone boost by the shore
boat's bow across earth's fiddle
sea in a man's eyes

salt water hones stone
sound-washed air blows in the sun
a woman leaves home

As there were twelve of us it was a good opportunity to read round my "Kalends" haiku.  Here is July:


as you climb the path
heather purples the hillside,
clothes the lonely stones

A most inspiring and enlightening week-end at Ty Newydd.  Thank you, Lynne.  Thank you, Philip.

On Twitter Lynne has tweeted some lovely pictures of the weekend together with her exquisite prose fragments: go to @hungrywriting






Sunday, 1 July 2018

A FESTIVAL BETWEEN SKY AND SEA

I have crawled out at last
far as I dare on to a bough
of country that is suspended
between sky and sea

R S Thomas "Retirement"

This weekend I attended the festival held (mainly) in Aberdaron to celebrate the life and work of R S Thomas and his painter wife, M E (Elsi) Eldridge.  It is this westerly tip of North Wales that is most associated with the poems of R S Thomas.  As you drive down the steep lanes which lead to the village which ends at the sea, it is indeed a place suspended between sky and sea.  The festival went very well, thanks to the excellent organisation by Susan Fogarty (thank you, Susan!).  Here are some of my highlights.  (This is not an exhaustive list - there were a few events I couldn't attend).

Day 1:Thursday

The festival started with a fish and chip supper and an open mic poetry evening.  I'm not a great fan of open mics but I enjoyed this fairly low key one (that's a compliment) - no one tried to do a star cabaret turn!  Having been asked over the salt and vinegar, "Who were the Miss Keatings?" I read my Mirehouse "Beech Trees" poem and followed it with Gillian Clarke's "Fires on Lleyn" for its R S Thomas allusions and local geography.  Other participants read a good selection of poems, including Michael Longley's "Ceasefire" which echoed Clarke's allusion to The Troubles.  It's always interesting to see the apparently random connections which come up at open mic nights!

Day 2: Friday

The morning started with a visit, in the company of Llifon Jones, to Sarn Cottage at Rhiw (where R S Thomas wrote many of his later poems).  Llifon is the National Trust head gardener at Plas yn Rhiw.  The garden has been much neglected in recent years but now there are plans to restore it - with a light touch to provide good habitat for wild flowers and animals (the subjects of some of Elsi's paintings).  The views of the wide bay at Porth Neigwl were spectacular and I thought of R S Thomas's poem "Sea-watching":

                " ... There were days,
so beautiful the emptiness
it might have filled."

In the afternoon the sailing club meeting room was filled with an attentive audience listening to the American academic, Daniel Westover, speaking on the unusually titled "R S Thomas: Poetic Astronaut of God Space".  He spoke for two and a half hours (including 10 minutes questions).  I was most impressed with his meticulous scholarship which looked in close detail at the craft of  R S Thomas's poems (an aspect of his work which I have always admired). and how it reinforces and illuminates their meaning.

He gave an example from "The New Mariner".  The first line of the poem is

"In the silence"

and the line ends with silence - no following words on that line just the silence of the white paper.  Further down the poem are the words

"But there is the void
over my head and the distance
within ..."

The line breaks and white space after "void" and "distance" enact the meaning of the words and the void is visually "over my head" in the lineation of the poem.

In the evening Glyn Edwards shared his appreciation of R S Thomas's poetry in the atmospheric story-telling space of Porth y Swnt.  It was good to hear Jack Rendell, a young Aberystwyth graduate student read some of his work.

Day 3: Saturday

It was back to the sailing club on Saturday afternoon for Sam Perry's lecture on the relationship between the work of Ted Hughes and that of R S Thomas.  Two aspects that emerged were that both poets were rewriting creation myths (or myths of the fall?) and both did not shy away from the problematic subject of violence in the natural world.

In the evening there was standing room only in St Hywyn's church, Aberdaron, for a concert by Cor Meibion Carnguwch and harpist Morfudd Parry Roberts.  Cor Meibion Carnguwch grew out of a small group of Young Farmers singing for a competition.  They are now a fine young male voice choir with a varied repertoire of Welsh music.  They clearly enjoyed singing and were very good at it.  The applause at the end said it all - they had touched our hearts.

[You can hear my poem on Youtube by googling Mary Robinson reads Beech Trees]

For more about the R S Thomas and M E Eldridge Society go to
www.rsthomaspoetry.co.uk
or check out the Facebook page
https://www.facebook.com/groups/RSThomas/

Monday, 25 June 2018

BEYOND THE SUNSET

The Great Exhibition of the North was launched last Friday from the Newcastle/Gateshead quayside on the banks of the Tyne.  I hope it's going to a be a celebration of the North of England, and not just the North East.  The only mention of Cumbria I found in the media coverage was about the animation of Postman Pat (the stories' setting is based on Longsleddale).

Not all reaction to this latest creative industry razzmatazz event has been positive.  "The money the government has given the Great Exhibition is a drop in the ocean compared with the cuts local councils here have had to make as a result of Tory austerity". (Frank Styles, reported in The Guardian "Look North: Festival evokes long history of innovation and ideas" 23 June 2018).

In a somewhat perverse train of logic I found myself thinking of the idea of West.  West is the direction of sunset, of another world.  Facing his last voyage, Tennyson's Ulysses declared:

    "Tis not too late to seek a newer world
     ... for my purpose holds
     To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
     Of all the western stars, until I die"

Here on Penllyn, itself a finger of land pointing south-west, the sunsets can be spectacular.  Sometimes the whole sea is a blaze of magenta, reflecting the colour of the sky.  Norman Nicholson's poem, "Sea to the West", looks west from Cumbria.  It begins:

    "When the sea's to the west
      The evenings are one dazzle
                      .......
      Waves of shine
      Heave, crest, fracture,
      Explode on the shore"

and ends:

      "Let my eyes at the last be blinded
       Not by the dark
       But by dazzle."

From the British Isles West has been the direction of emigration - those driven by poverty, eviction, famine, discrimination or adventure to board ships crossing the Atlantic in the late 18th and 19th centuries.  Now, in the 21st century there are still people heading Westwards across Europe driven by the force of terrible circumstances.

The West has been a place of pilgrimage - Bardsey Island, Whithorn, Iona, The Skelligs.  John Donne's poem "Good Friday, 1613, Riding Westward" is a meditation on the poet's turning his back on the East, the place of the rising sun.  Paul Muldoon adapts  Donne's title in his "Good Friday, 1971, Driving Westward", a poem in which "all might not be right with the day" and going from East to West in that part of Ireland is also going from North to South.  Amy Clampitt's poem "Westward" describes her slog to Iona from London ("Iona an indecipherable/blur" in the rain) and ranges widely from St Columba to the Prairie

     "rimmed by the driftwood
      of embarkations, landings, dooms, conquests,
      missionary journeys, memorials".

There is a distinctiveness about the rocky Atlantic edge of the British Isles - it's where the strands of Celtic language survived in Irish and Scottish Gaelic, Welsh, Manx, Cornish.

Gwyneth Lewis in "The Flaggy Shore" writes "Even before I've left, I long / for this place" and says the ephemeral landscapes in the clouds "make me homesick for where I've not been."  Her poem is in part a response to Seamus Heaney's "Postscript" (from his collection The Spirit Level):

     "And some time make the time to drive out west
       Into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore".

This is a place where

     " ... big soft buffetings come at the car sideways
       And catch the heart off guard and blow it open."

Friday, 15 June 2018

AT THE EDGES OF THINGS

It is often at the edges of things that the most innovation - or emergence - occurs. *

Last week I spent a day on Ynys Enlli (Bardsey Island), the island in the current, just off the tip of the Lleyn Peninsula.  The sea was calm, the sun shone.  From the boat I could see guillemots lined up on the cliffs and a few puffins over the water. 

I arrived in time to go to the Bird and Field Observatory for the daily opening of the moth trap.  I love the litany of names - yellow underwing, broom, carpet, plum tortrix, common pug, buff ermine - they are a poem in themselves.

I climbed the mountain, ate my sandwiches on the top and walked a circuit of the island, checking that the heart-shaped rope set into the grass on the west side was still there.  I met the poet, Christine Evans, who told me she was taking part in an event at Plas Glyn y Weddw art gallery.  It sounded interesting.

It was.  A few days later I went to the Llanbedrog gallery for Celf yw Natur/Natur fel Celf or Art is Nature, Nature as Art.  Hmmm ... I wasn't sure what to make of this nebulous title.  The day centred round art and ecology with talks by conservationist and artist, Ben Stammers (who has recently done a collaboration with poet Zoe Skoulding), naturalist and photographer Peter Howlett and artist Morag Colquhoun (whose project Trofannolismo is exhibited at the gallery at the moment).  Repeatedly Ynys Enlli became a focus for ideas and images.

We watched Moholy Nagy's short film Lobsters, an early marine documentary (1936) which ends surreally with a lobster tearing through a menu.  The day finished with a solo dance performance by the talented Simon Whitehouse.  The concentration was electric - both Simon's and the audience's.

In between each session Christine Evans read one of her poems.  She is an excellent reader and I admired the way the poems fitted in so well with the talks, for example "Enlli" -
     "We get to it through troughs and rainbows".

Ben Stammers presented some challenging ideas.  He said that unfortunately some people are "illiterate" about nature or suffer from "Nature Deficit Disorder".  He threw in the provocative idea that wildlife films, despite excellent content, have become entertainment.  Morag Colquhoun was uncomfortable with outsider third person narratives about people living or working "on the edge".  She showed her film of Colin Evans, the Enlli boatman, in which he voices his own opinion of Enlli life.  He said that the island has often been at the forefront of using technological innovation thanks to the lighthouse.

So many ideas and impressions - ecology, science, politics, history, art - all intermingling.  The day went too quickly - I wanted more time to discuss everything.

And a little postscript - today I called in at the Inigo Jones slate workshop near Caernarfon.  There's a giftshop with everything you might need made of slate (and some you never knew you needed - ?slate buttons).  But it also had an excellent selection of books.  Welsh publishers, Seren, had a bulging stand including a large amount of poetry.  I ended up splashing out on In Her Own Words - Women Talking Poetry and Wales, edited by Alice Entwistle.  It's a book I've been wanting to read for a long time.

* Morag Colquhoun, quoted from publicity for her Trofannolismo   
   project.

Wednesday, 6 June 2018

A TRAIN WALKS ON WATER

The train hesitates as if to pluck up courage to make its long crossing of the Barmouth Bridge over the Mawddach estuary.  The wooden viaduct looks precarious against its mountain backdrop.  The bridge was built over 150 years ago by Victorian engineers who sunk iron piers into the estuary's shifting sand and gravel to support the timber trestles which carry the track.  I look down and see footprints on the sandbanks.  The incoming tide is swelling the pewter-coloured water of the Mawddach river.

Suddenly I have a sense of recognition, not just of the physical presence of the place (I've crossed this bridge by train three times before) but also of a passage in W G Sebald's Austerlitz.  

Austerlitz is recollecting memories of seeing Barmouth Bay when "the separate surfaces of sand and water, sea and land, earth and sky could no longer be distinguished".

I look out of the window and see the wooden pedestrian walkway which runs alongside the railway bridge.  Austerlitz recalls a specific memory of walking out one evening along this footbridge.  He describes the incoming tide "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.  We all four sat together in silence until the sun had set ... large numbers of swallows were swooping through the air."

It's a beautiful lyrical description but it's also a poignant memory of a lost time in Austerlitz's life.  The swallows seem to emphasise the ephemeral, and the brevity of existence.  "It was the very evanescence of these visions that gave me, at the time, something like a sense of eternity," says Austerlitz.

The poet Lee Harwood often visited this area of north west Wales.  He wrote in "Cwm Nantcol" of those

" ... Seeming timeless moments
when stood here in the sweep of the mountains."

[W G Sebald Austerlitz (Penguin paperback 2011edition) p 135-6]

Wednesday, 30 May 2018

ON CLOUD NINE

'Those clouds aren't natural - they're man-made,' said the taxi-driver, glancing towards the horizon, 'they're all doing it, we're doing it, and the Russians, and the Americans'.  For the whole of the ten minute taxi ride I listened to his tirade against cloud engineering.  At the end of the journey he gave me his card and wrote a link to a website on the back.

At the time he seemed to be at the cranky end of science, akin to the observers of UFOs, but I remembered that one-sided conversation recently.  I've been reading the Richard Hamblyn's book Clouds.  The last chapter of the book is entitled 'Future Clouds' and uncovers a long catalogue of cloud engineering.  This includes American military aircraft covertly seeding clouds in the hope of causing flash floods along the Ho Chi Min Trail during the Vietnam war, and China seeding clouds in the run-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics to keep the Olympic Stadium rain-free (it was).  In 1977 weather modification for military purposes was banned by an international convention of 40 countries, but cloud seeding is still being used, for example, for crop irrigation and to induce early snow in ski resorts.

More (worryingly) uncertain is the effect on climate change of anthropogenic clouds - created by industry, shipping and aircraft (that solitary contrail scrawled across a blue sky is only the tip of the anthropogenic cloud).

I can't claim to understand all the science in Hamblyn's book but I was impressed by his knowledge of clouds in art, music and literature.  He prefaces his introduction with words from Wordsworth's Prelude (Book 1):

   'I look about and should the guide I choose
    Be nothing better than a wandering cloud,
    I cannot miss my way.'

(It makes a change from the famous first line of 'Daffodils')

On a clear day I can see Snowdon from my kitchen window and love Wordsworth's description of emerging onto the summit above the clouds at or just before dawn:

   '... at my feet
    Rested a silent sea of heavy mist.
    A hundred hills their dusky backs upheaved
    All over this still ocean,'   (Prelude Book 10)

Hamblyn quotes Gerard Manley Hopkins' letter (to the journal Nature) beginning, 'The sky was striped with cirrus clouds like the swaths of a hayfield.'  There are several cloud quotations from 20th century poets.  Philip Larkin's 'high-builded cloud/Moving at summer's pace' ('Cut Grass') is an example of cumulus cloud.  Luke Howard, the man who in 1802 classified clouds under the names we still use today (cirrus, cumulus, strata) has inspired several poets, including Carol Ann Duffy ('Luke Howard: Namer of Clouds'), Billy Collins ('Student of Clouds') and Lavinia Greenlaw ('What We Can See Of The Sky Has Fallen: Luke Howard 1772 - 1864').

I was amazed to read about artificial clouds created by artists for art installations, including Antony Gormley's 'Blind Light'.  Timothy Donnelly's futuristic (or is it?) poem sequence The Cloud Corporation describes how

   'Fans conveying clouds through aluminium ducts
    can be heard from up to a mile away, depending on
    air temperature, humidity, the absence or presence

    of any competing sound'

and goes on to ponder why manufactured clouds produce more of a response than 'clouds occurring in nature'.

The appeal of clouds to poets is aptly stated by Alexandra Harris (Weatherland): 'Like a much redrafted poem there is no single authoritative version of a cloud.  The cloud-form is constantly revised and never finished' (see 'Is it nearly ready?' my blog of 28 May 2015).

Richard Hamblyn's Clouds: Nature and Culture (2017) is published in a lavishly illustrated paperback by Reakton Books.

* As for being on Cloud Nine - it comes from the Hon. Ralph Abercromby's 1896 cloud ranking.  It's the ninth (highest) cloud, the cumulo-nimbus.

Saturday, 19 May 2018

WRITING WHITE

The Ordnance Survey shows the slate quarries as blank spaces, white paper.  The land has dropped out of the map.

I’m on a short writing retreat in Cwm Teigl in North Wales.  I’m staying in a log cabin owned by Elin, who runs the bookshop (Yr Hen Bost) a few miles away in Blaenau Ffestiniog.  She has lent me Trwy Ddyddiau Gwydr (Gwasg Careg Gwalch 2013), a collection of poems by Sian Northey.  They are contemporary free-verse poems in Welsh, including a poem for Elin’s daughter.  They are short poems (fortunately!) and I read them, falteringly, and try to piece together the words.  The poems sound wonderful and the poet uses alliteration to great effect.  I am hoping my knowledge of the language will progress so that I can understand more of the words!    

Elin has a beautiful semi-wild garden – at this time of year it’s a riot of leafy green with splashes of colour from wild, cultivated and feral flowers.   I’ve brought a jumble of notes, my laptop and a stack of white paper.  I plan to get some writing done but this evening the outdoors is distracting.

I go for a short walk up the valley, following the Afon Teigl which chatters in the companionable voice of an upland stream tumbling over small rocks.  An occasional swallow swoops after flies and the sun is low on the horizon turning the water pewter.  Growing along the banks are tall spindly sycamore and ash trees, newly leaved (the oak before the ash this year).

The road is unfenced and ewes with lambs stare at me, or stamp their feet before making their way up the steep hillside.  Cwm Teigl has a different smell from the lush flowery lanes of Llŷn.  Perhaps it’s a combination of the short-grazed mountain grass, the new shoots of rushes, the acid soil.  It’s an upland smell of spring which reminds me of family picnics on the Berwyns, breaking the journey from Warwickshire to Llŷn when I was a child.  The ancient cars my father drove (an Austin 7 and later a converted Ford van named Noah’s Ark from its registration latters NOA and its variety of two and four legged passengers) always overheated at the top of the Tanat Valley.  We would pile out of the car for a picnic lunch while the engine recovered.

Cwm Teigl shows little evidence of the slate industry whose huge waste tips are so obvious a few miles away at Blaenau Ffestiniog.  The cwm is a quiet valley – in half an hour’s walking I meet one walker and a cyclist.   A solitary car passes me.  The driver gives me a wave.   If I were to follow the road as it climbs up the slopes of Manod Fawr, whose screes and cliffs dominate the north west side of the valley, I would eventually reach the Manod and Graig Ddu slate quarries, the cartographer’s blank white paper. 


But for the next few days I hope that at least some of my white pages will be filled with words.

Sunday, 6 May 2018

'TO RHYME AND CHIME FOR A CHAIR'

Great to hear poet Twm Morys on today's Sunday afternoon poetry slot on Radio 4 today.  His programme explored and explained the intricate art of Cynghanedd in Welsh poetry and its origins as far back as the sixth century.  Basically Cynghanedd refers to the complex patterns of rhyme and alliteration in various poetic forms in Welsh literature.  Mererid Hopwood was one of the speakers - in 2001 she became the first woman poet to win the Bardic Chair at the National Eisteddfod (after all those centuries!).  Both Dylan Thomas and Gerard Manley Hopkins used the techniques of Cynghanedd in their work.

A fascinating programme - you can catch it on BBC Radio 4 next Saturday night at 11.30pm or listen again on the BBC website.

Saturday, 5 May 2018

THE ROOF OF THE WORLD

Welsh slate roofed the world.

This was no empty claim in the nineteenth century.  Look at rows of Victorian terraces and villas in most of our major cities and you will see them roofed with dark purplish-grey slate from North Wales. 

Yesterday evening I went to Blaenau Ffestiniog.  The pavements are slate, the buildings are slate, the roofs are slate.  Blaenau's fortune and decline were built on slate and the huge screes surrounding the town are the evidence.  Now the narrow gauge railway which once took slate to the harbour at Porthmadog is a major tourist attraction (run by paid staff and volunteer enthusiasts).  

But I was in the town for a book launch at Yr Hen Bost, a gem of a little indie bookshop, run by Elin. There are two floors of new and second hand books: books in Welsh, books in English, children's books, local books, novels, poetry and more.  So few bookshops stock poetry magazines these days so it was good to see the latest issue of Poetry Wales for sale.

Blaenau (or more accurately nearby Tan y Grisiau) is also the home of Cinnamon Press, which publishes some fine poetry and fiction, as well as Envoi poetry magazine.  I was at Yr Hen Bost for a double Cinnamon book launch.  There were over 30 people squeezed into the small downstairs room of the bookshop.  It was good to meet Cinnamon's proprietor, Jan Fortune, who introduced the two writers.  Adam Craig read from his novel In Dreams the Minotaur Appears Last.  The first long-sentence extract was a tour de force of stream of consciousness style writing while the second extract was a deliciously satirical description of a party in Paris in the 1970s.  

Michelle Angharad Pashley read from the prologue of her crime novel The Remains of the Dead.  The prologue had an edge which was almost unbearable - the kind of writing where you are 
frightened to read on but feel you have to in order to find some kind of explanation.  The second extract she gave us was about the discovery of a body which must have been the one buried in the prologue . . .

I had time to explore the streets of Blaenau Ffestiniog and discovered that the town has a rich literary history, now celebrated in the poetry, prose and sayings carved into pieces of slate.  There is information about writers who came from the town, including Gwyn Thomas, the National Poet of Wales (2006-8).

I stayed overnight and came back this morning on the train on the Conwy Valley line (another railway that had its origins in carrying slate).  The Saturday morning train was crowded with young teenagers on a day out, locals off to the shops at Llandudno and a few tourists.  The mist hung over the mountains surrounding Blaenau as we left and I took out my book to read.  The train plunged through the Ffestiniog Tunnel and emerged into brilliant sunshine in the high valley.  I closed my book.  The upland birches were tinged with green, there were splashes of bright yellow gorse, Dolwyyddelan Castle looked down from its imposing vantage point.  The clear blue sky was reflected in the water of the river.  As the train slowly made its way down the steep gradient the valley widened and became the Conwy estuary with acolourful shelduck out on the mud flats.

At Llanrwst - a large modern building near to the line was inscribed Gwasg Carreg Gwalch, publishers of Welsh interest books in Welsh and English (and publishers of the book I hadn't read because the spring morning was so wonderful).

www.cinnamonpress.com
www.blaenauffestiniog.org 

Wednesday, 25 April 2018

BETWEEN LAND AND OCEAN

Ceremony

My mother,
     who could not swim,
would walk

to the water's edge,
     dip her fingers
in the waves

and touch the sea
     to her forehead
like a blessing.

© Mary Robinson 2015


I walk down to Porth Ysgo early on Saturday morning.  Does the heart slow down when watching the waves on the shore?  The tide is coming in, almost at the flood.  Water breaks in spray making little runnels on the cliff as it drains back into the sea.

There is something hypnotic about the relentlessness of each incoming wave, the way a large wave consumes a smaller wave, or the way a crest begins to tear until the water collapses and spills on the shore.

I'm relieved to see that someone (? National Trust) has done a tidy up.  There's hardly any plastic on the beach but there is a big heap at the bottom of the wooden steps (above high tide mark) that provide access from the top of the cliff.  Plastic containers, big plastic drums, fish crates, the inevitable drinks bottles; bits of fishing net, lengths of dayglo coloured rope, even a gas cylinder.  There is little that is useful - just a few planks and a wooden pallet. I wonder how/when/if this lot will be disposed of - removing it in a small boat would probably be easiest.

On the beach there's a line of seaweed deposited by the winter storms - long brown ribbons with stems ending in suckers.  Part of a chain-sawed tree trunk has washed up.  The grain is twisted and contorted (Spanish chestnut?).  The russet inner core of the trunk is rotten.  It reminds me of the 'Wooden Boulder' which the sculptor, *David Nash, filmed on its journey down the Afon Dwyryd to the sea.

The edge of the land, the beginning of the ocean; the fresh water of the waterfall dissolving into the salt water of the sea.  I am drawn to this in-between place where earth and water are in perpetual conflict and flux.  And for an hour on this bright spring morning I have the place to myself.


*David Nash's beautiful film of the boulder is on permanent display at Plas Glyn y Weddw art gallery at Llanbedrog. https:www.oriel.org.uk
or google David Nash and Boulder for information and pictures. 

Tuesday, 10 April 2018

AT LAST I CAN SMELL SPRING

It seems almost obscene to be writing about the Welsh spring when the news is so appalling each day and terrible events follow one after another in dreadful succession.  But to write about life and beauty is to take a stand against 'man's inhumanity to man' (and to woman and child).  To write about nature is a reminder, as the poet Michael Longley said in an interview with Jody Allen Randolph, that 'We share the planet with the plants and the other animals'.

At last I can smell spring - a compound of warm earth, crushed new grass, a difference in the air from winter's cold mineral breath.  Down the lane I discovered a patch of wood anemones (a slight musky smell) by the side of the road.  Or wooden enemies as my family called them when I was a child.  My botanist friend says they are an indication of relict woodland.  I try to imagine what the Peninsula would have been like when it was covered with trees (Samuel Johnson complained about the lack of trees when he visited Lleyn with Mrs Thrale in 1774).  How long ago were the trees cleared?  Millennia, I suppose.  There was a stone axe factory on Mynydd Rhiw - the spoil heap is still there.

A few days ago I went for a walk at Dinas along a rough track which I remember as being thick with huge clumps of primroses.  There were only a few plants dotted here and there.  I met a man with a beautiful brindled greyhound and we walked along slowly, discussing the dearth of primroses.

'Perhaps it was the cold wintry weather,' I ventured.

'No,' he said decisively, 'it's the unpredictability of the seasons now.'

Recently I re-read an essay* by poet and academic Harriet Tarlo - 'we cannot fail but find beautiful acre on acre of small plants'.  She includes some lines of her beautifully spaced poetry: 'new green on Black Hill / bilberry bright / against heather / celandine flash / between cloughs ...'  She then comments ''except often it's not acres but yards.  The acres are in the historical or future imagination.'


*  in Peat Matters: Locating Climate (Change) at the Interface of Art and Science (Northumbria University Department of Geography 2017) 



Friday, 30 March 2018

LEBANON - COUNTRY OF CONTRASTS

What do you associate with the word Lebanon?

Perhaps a photograph of Jackie Onassis on a luxury yacht in Beirut harbour, or the blackened ruins of the Holiday Inn (a bleak symbol of the Civil War 1975 – 1992), or news bulletins of refugees who have fled into the country from Syria.  I think too of Phoenician traders on the Mediterranean coast thousands of years ago and the ‘Cedars of Lebanon’ which are mentioned in the Bible and which still grow here – even the national flag has a cedar on it.

In a short visit I experienced a small part of this fascinating country of contrasts. 

On the plane from Heathrow I read in the i the obituary of the Lebanese novelist, Emily Nasrallah, whose honours included German’s Goethe prize.  She was born in 1931 and refused to leave Lebanon during the Civil War, despite losing her family’s home and possessions.  She described herself as ‘a village farmer from South Lebanon’ and rose to be an international writer.

Beirut is a centre for art and literature.  I visited the Sursock Museum of modern art and was impressed by Abed Al Kadiri’s thought-provoking mixed media exhibition of paintings, sculpture and film all centred round a tree and an abandoned house.  There are some beautiful old buildings in Beirut but too many of them are dilapidated or even derelict, and are being swamped by modern high-rise blocks.

Of course I went to some bookshops, despite having little extra space in my suitcase.  Aaliya’s Books is a small well-curated bookshop with a café.  I browsed an anthology of Lebanese women’s poetry.  The café was quiet and the waiter brought out a box of toys for two fidgety small children – and then sat down on the floor and played with them, giving their mother time for conversation with friends.  By contrast, Librarie Antoine, is more like a Waterstones – a big glossy shop with books laid out over three floors (I found the glass stairs slightly unnerving and felt like my father’s old sheepdog who wouldn’t go up steps if he could see through them – after the second floor I resorted to the lift).  It is a sobering thought that in both bookshops there were books in Arabic, French and English – many people in Beirut are trilingual. I’ve never managed to master a second language fluently – I’m still working on my Welsh.

Just a short distance from Librarie Antoine I found some verses of Arabic (mainly), French and English set into the pavement.  Here are the two verses in English –
     How can we build a Lebanon without the participation
          of the youth and the new generation,
     while their opinion is still ignored?
and
     When is the killing of the dreams of the youth going to end?
          When is the endless flow
     of departing immigrants going to stop?
These were modern inscriptions but Emily Nasrallah recalled her grandmother saying ‘Lebanon is a land that does not hold its people’.

But on a lighter note, I was just there visiting family and doing touristy things.  As well as mooching round Beirut I visited Chateau Kefraya and Chateau Ksara wineries in the beautiful Bekaa Valley, went to the impressive limestone caves of the Jeita Grotto, and was fascinated by the layers of history of the ancient city of Byblos (inhabited continuously from about 8000 BC) .  At Byblos the Palm Sunday service was broadcast on loudspeakers from the church (there were too many people for them all to fit inside).  When the service had finished loudspeakers started up again – this time broadcasting the call to prayer from the nearby mosque. 


So many contrasts in this small country where on the same hot sunny day I paddled in the Mediterranean and saw snow on the mountains.