Tuesday, 13 April 2021

SWEEPINGS FROM STAR FACTORIES

THIS CRAZY TIME OF YEAR

when weather's tossed up, mixed and scattered,
we're all out there, looking for firsts -
lambs, violets, a peacock butterfly
faded from the flight through winter
but giving life another go.

It's a rickety spring - meltwater,
mudwater filling the hoofprints,
yet everything jostling for the start.

Trees limber up for another season -
try out a few bobbles of buds,
sallows mist over with pollen,
blackthorn lingers in monochrome flowers
near abandoned farms.
Hail scums a pond like blossom.

A raven glides and with a feathered flick
flips claw to claw then tumbles for a mate,
Wagtails tap-dance on the garage roof,
narcissi and jonquils strumpet
unnatural colours in the garden,
a magnolia discards its ballet shoes
in pink petals on the grass.

Like the helicopter which checks the pipeline every Tuesday,
a bumblebee manoeuvers round the flowering currant.
Coltsfoot clapperclaws its way through tarmac
before it fizzes with a froth of seeds
and starts again for next year.

For a moment it's all glitter and mirror
and I watch the sky craving
a returning swallow or martin.

Hedges green over, eager to heal
the slashed split ends of winter,
gorse, with careless irony, shows gold.
And underneath are drifts of wood anemones
like sweepings from star factories in the sky.


© Mary Robinson 2021
    revised from The Art of Gardening Mary Robinson (Flambard Press 2010)  

Monday, 5 April 2021

CENNIN PEDR

Easter weekend.  Blackthorn showing white on the hedgebanks but not yet in full blossom.  Gorse a vivid chrome yellow.  I can see right down the Peninsula to Y Rhiw, Anelog, Mynydd Mawr.  Beyond there is the grey outline of what looks like another hill but is Mynydd Enlli on Bardsey Island.

I'm walking along a rough track across marginal land.  Bright sunshine but a chill breeze whips off the Irish Sea.  The air smells of gorse and moorland grass.  There is a little scattering of long-empty cottages perched on the spring line.  They are roofless ruins, half-hidden beneath ivy, brambles and hawthorn bushes.  Their stones are falling back into the land from which they came.  

But I've come at the right time to see the daffodils.  Here they have multiplied and gone feral - flourishing their yellow hallelujahs incongruously against a backdrop of the rocky slopes of the Garn.  The cottages must have been abandoned before the second world war but the flowers are a kind of cheerful haunting.

Daffodils in Welsh are Cennin Pedr, St Peter's leeks.    I wonder about the name.  Leeks apparently because of the resemblance of the leaves to leeks, the traditional plant of Wales (Shakespeare mentions the Welsh soldiers 'wearing leeks in their Monmouth caps' at the battle of Crecy).  But why Peter?  The saint's day is 29 June, well after the daffodil season.  Perhaps it was because the daffodil flowers during Easter time and people would have heard Peter's name in the gospel readings.  In Victorian times it was Peter's leek rather than the more pungent vegetable that became the flower of St David's day.

I drop down from the open moorland and follow the steep narrow path lined with high banks and the shadows of leafless trees.  There are celandines, violets, wood anemones, honeysuckle leaves opening on twining stems, the companionable sound of a stream tumbling down the hillside.  And all along the valley clumps of primroses.

anyone who comes 
to yellow wants
more

from Thomas A Clark Farm by the Shore (Carcanet 2017)

Saturday, 20 March 2021

SWITHERING

A pale pink and apricot colouring to the clouds.  Last night's sunset due west, between Garn Fadryn and Garn Boduan, aligned with the lane, which is on an east-west axis.  The eve of the vernal equinox in the Northern hemisphere when the earth's poles are perpendicular to the sun's rays.  The astronomical beginning of spring.

But this morning swithers between two seasons.  A pale lemon hint of sunrise in the east, light cloud and haze.  The cloud becomes heavier and the mist thicker.  I walk to the top of a hill behind Mynytho, variously known as Foel Felyn Wynt (windmill hill - National Trust), Foel Fawr (big hill - OS map) or the Jam-Pot (locals).   

The summit windmill was never very successful - the  proximity of other hills makes the  swirling winds unpredictable.  But the hill's jam-pot outline makes it an easily identifiable landmark from a distance.   The derelict tower topped with its circle of sky is popular with children who run in through the doorway and climb out through the window.  In bad weather the tower is a shelter, a place to eat sandwiches out of the rain and wind.  It's a popular place in the summer, a short family-sized climb with a good view and something interesting at the top.

Today the weather continues swithering.  The mist distorts proportions - the nearby hills of Mynytho and Carneddol loom large.  The St Tudwal's islands are just visible and look far away.   All the time I am out walking I only see one other person - a man driving a muddy tractor.   There are lambs in the fields and cheerful splashes of daffodils.  Some of the gorse along the banks is flowering profusely, some of it looks tired and wintry.  Celandines have already decided to pack up for the day - they  huddle together with their yellow stars tightly folded and only tiny streaks of colour showing in the green.  A flock of starlings flies over - migrating birds on their way to spring breeding grounds.  I look up at hearing the cries of herring gulls - the hazy outlines of a few birds circling indecisively in the low cloud.  

When I get to my front gate a blackbird is singing loudly on top of a telephone pole and more faintly I hear answering notes from the far side of the garden.  No swithering for him - he ignores me and continues with his spring song.  

I thought of the blackbird in Irish poetry, first recorded in a 9th century Irish Gaelic fragment of only eight lines:

The little bird
that whistled shrill
from the nib of
     its yellow bill.

Blackbird over
Lagan water
clumps of yellow
     whinburst.

[Translated - first verse by Ciaran Carson, second verse by Seamus Heaney]




Monday, 1 March 2021

HAPPY ST DAVID'S DAY


 Or Dydd Gwyl Dewi hapus!

Here in Penllyn the sun is shining and daffodils (cennin pedre) are in flower in gardens, on roadside verges and along the edges of farm tracks.  I've put a jug of daffodils on the kitchen window sill to celebrate the day.

There are thousands of varieties of daffodils from the modest wild daffodil to big showy colourful specimens planted in parks.  Old houses round here often have a variety of double daffodils.  I've noticed them ever since I was a child and I even see them growing round derelict cottages in the middle of nowhere.  I imagine a rep with great sacks of bulbs selling them from house to house one autumn generations ago. 

I decided to take the idea of daffodil flowers as trumpets and run with it.  The result is a jazzy poem with lots of wind intruments and musical allusions.  The names in italics are popular varieties of daffodil.

daffodils da capo

     performance

chrome blare
     municipal trumpets
parks     fanfare/fair
          in spring
such brash
     music     brass
          -y licks
big band     James Last

     trad
garden favourites
     housewives' choice
          colours
     segue
into pheasant's eye
     cheerfulness
          car horn toots
bugles     cornets

     odd ones
turning/tuning up
     toneburst     trombones
          busk
on forgotten riffs
     accident of birth
in whatever
               earth

     apologetic
that melody again
          fain-
ter
          folk songs
               played
on a tin whistle
     damp earth     breath
          beside the lake

     dance

© Mary Robinson 2020 from Trace (Oversteps Press 2020)




Monday, 22 February 2021

'ONE WHOSE NAME WAS WRIT IN WATER'

 The poet John Keats died 200 years ago in Rome on 23 February 1821.  His unnamed gravestone is inscribed, as he had instructed, with the enigmatic sentence, Here lies one whose name was writ in water.

The river Gade rises in the Chilterns, flows through Hertfordshire, joins the river Colne and flows on into the Thames.  In the early nineteenth century John Dickinson set up two water-powered paper mills on the Gade using former corn mills.  He was an innovative paper-maker who in 1809 patented a mechanised process to produce a continuous flow of paper.  Paper-making became quicker and cheaper.

For taxation purposes all paper carried a water-mark to identify the printer and the date.  Keats' first volume Poems 1817 was printed on paper marked 'John Dickinson 1813'.  I've not been able to find out about the paper used in his two later publications but I think it's likely to be Dickinson's paper.  I like the fact that the paper was made in a former corn mill.  I think of 'To Autumn' with the corn harvest personified

     '... sitting careless on a granary floor
        Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind,
     Or on a half-reap'd furrow sound asleep.'

My favourite edition of the poems of Keats is my ancient (1915) Oxford edition of Keats' Poetical Works, which I bought some years ago in a second hand bookshop behind the Parade in Cheltenham.  The introduction has a list of Keats' publications with 'The measurements of a single leaf in an uncut copy' beginnng with

     Poems 1817        6 7/8 x 4 1/8 inches

I think it is safe to assume that 'uncut' here refers to what book specialists call 'unopened'.  When I was a student I remember borrowing obscure tomes from the university library and having to slit the folds with a kitchen knife before I could read them.  Occasionally today a faulty book may slip through with a few folded pages that have escaped the mechanical trimmer at the printers.

To make a book large sheets of paper were printed and then folded to make the individual pages.  A folio format was folded in half once, a quarto was folded twice (in half, then half again - the fold at the top) and octavo was folded three times (the folds at the side and the top).  I've tried the foldings with a sheet of paper - it's much easier to understand in practice.  In the past books were sold unopened and a paper knife was essential for readers to slit the pages.

One of the gifts Fanny Brawne gave Keats before he left England for Rome in September 1820 was a paper knife.  Keats was seriously ill and his doctor had advised him that another English winter would kill him.  Did Fanny's gift symbolise her hope against hope that he would read many more books, that he would return to her in the spring and perhaps have another publication of his own?

                                *                            *                            * 

I re-read Moya Cannon's poem 'Keats lives on the Amtrak', the title poem of her 2015 collection Keats Lives (it was one of my 2016 'Keep up' recommendations).

     'Today on the clunking, hissing silver train
      between Philly and New York,
      the African-American conductor squeezes himself
      into the dining car seat opposite.'

He observes that her book is full of page markers and she explains that she's teaching it.  He tells her he's going to get a 't-shirt with Keats lives on it' because of Keats' words

     'A thing of beauty is a joy for ever,
      Its loveliness increases, it will never
      Pass into nothingness, but still will keep
      A bower of quiet for us.'

She says that twenty years ago a Dublin taxi driver told her that Keats' only certainties were 'the holiness of the heart's affections / and the truth of the imagination.'  The conductor says

      'That is a bombshell ...
       I'm going to give it to my little girl tonight -
      Oh light winged dryad.'

The conductor says at 'this time of year' when trees are 'blurring into bud' and 'everything starts coming green again' he thinks of Keats.  

In Moya Cannon's poem people in very different times and places respond to the poetry of John Keats, 'one whose name was writ in water.'


Sunday, 14 February 2021

'WHAT WILL SURVIVE OF US IS LOVE'

The last line of Philip Larkin's almost love poem 'An Arundel Tomb'.  

It's St Valentine's Day (though we celebrated the Welsh equivalent on 25 January, Dydd Santes Dwynwen - St Dwynwen's Day).  

'Love - what will survive of us' was the theme of Wenlock Books' Poetry Breakfast 21 a few days ago when I read two love poems which speak to each other across the years.  The poems are Edwin Morgan's 'Strawberries' a powerful, sensual love poem and Jackie Kay's 'Strawberry Meringue' which recounts a 'wee tea party' with Edwin and the love of friendship.  The older poet was Scotland's first Makar (poet laureate) and Jackie Kay is the current Makar.

You can read 'Strawberry Meringue', listen to a recording of Edwin Morgan reading 'Strawberries' and see my comments about the poems on Wenlock Books Poetry Breakfast 21, together with much, much more poetry on the theme with guest poet Paul Henry.  Go to

https://wenlockbooks.co.uk/poetry-breakfast-21/