Wednesday, 7 July 2021

THE SOUND OF SILENCE

I attended a Zoom poetry workshop on silence last Saturday.  It seems a contradiction in terms - words and silence.  

But we were in the hands of an experienced poet, Philip Gross, who has written, amongst many other things, a 26 poem sequence entitled 'Specific Instances of Silence'.  

We thought about encountering different languages of silence, that there are as many languages of silence as there are of speech.  I was brainstorming ideas and had soon filled a couple of pages with random words and phrases (which we later shared in small breakout groups).  

Perhaps, growing up as an only child, I became acquainted with silence at an early age, but I had to learn its value.  When I was a very small child I often walked with my father through Clowes Wood, an ancient remnant of Shakespeare's Forest of Arden near our home in Warwickshire.  One day he gently reprimanded me for shouting loudly all the time.  'Listen, there are so many wild creatures to see and hear if we are silent.'  And there were.  The white flash of a jay flying up into an oak tree, the drumming of a greater spotted woodpecker, the songs of great tits and chiffchaffs, a squirrel doing acrobatics through the trees.  'Deer live in this wood and if we are very quiet we might see one.'  We never did.   But I had learnt an important lesson about silence.  

Friends who come to visit me here in Wales often remark on the silence when we go for a walk.  'How quiet it is' they say, noticing the absence of people and traffic.  Silence is often thought of as an absence.  People talk of 'filling the silence' as if it is an emptiness.  I only feel I know someone well if there is no need for small talk.  We can sit or walk in companionable silence.

I realised I'd already been writing poems about silence:

     'We are
silent, as if love could start
on the last day of summer
       (part of a two verse poem in tanka form 'The last day of summer')

'Grieg at Troldhaugen' ends with 'beyond the lake, the other side of silence' and in 'Shore lines' 'sea birds rend the gauze of silence'.   

There is a special quality of silence I have experienced at the end of a performance of a particularly moving piece of classical music.  Instead of the immediate hand clapping and cheering, there is a complete and precious silence filled with the emotion felt by the audience.  Bach's Mass in B minor or the eighth string quartet by Shostakovich or in this case Beethoven's 'Grosse Fuge':

'... after the final chord we wait,
longing to hold the music in our hands.'
    'Grosse Fuge'  

Then I thought of the terrible irony of Beethoven, the great musician, losing his hearing.

That's the trouble with poetry workshops, my brain goes into overdrive and I rapidly write several pages of amorphous stuff.  

Philip gave us a wise piece of advice - use a specific instance (eg, making a cup of tea!) and stand the poem on it.  'Head for the tiny exact detail and expand the poem from there'.  Then he read us Jaan Kaplinski's poem beginning, 'I could have said ...' with its wonderful phrases:
   'I leapt into silence'
   'silence, the inland sea'.

As usual the afternoon was free for us to write something to read aloud to the group in the evening, and, as usual, I agonised for ages and produced something I was not happy with - I am a slow writer so a few hours is hardly ever enough (two months would be fine!).  But I have salvaged one phrase from the other side of silence:
   'Let us sit together, sharing the silence like bread'.  
And I've all those notes to work on in the future.

Poems mentioned:

The 26 poem sequence 'Specific Instances of Silence' by Philip Gross is published in A Bright Acoustic (Bloodaxe 2017)

My poems 'The last day of summer', 'Grieg at Troldhaugen' and 'Shore lines' were all published in The Art of Gardening (Flambard 2010) and 'Grosse fuge' is published in Trace (Oversteps 2020)

You can read Jaan Kaplinski's poem beginning 'I could have said' at
http://www.estlit.ee/elis/?cmd=writer&id=46378&txt=8066

Sunday, 27 June 2021

ALONG THE STRAITS

 mist
across the straits
Anglesey
isn't
and
is 

Wednesday was not a good day to meet up with friends at Porth Aethwy (Menai Bridge on Anglesey) to explore Llantysilio church and the Belgian Promenade.  We parked in the car park just down from Waitrose (yes, in North Wales - said to be a result of the 'Wills and Kate' effect of Prince William being stationed at RAF Valley on Anglesey a few years ago).   We assembled under the dripping leaves and took a short path through Coed Cyrnol down to the water's edge - the Afon Menai in Welsh.  Afon - river - is a misnomer of course though here this quiet tree-fringed stretch of the Menai Straits looked more like a river.

We crossed a low stone causeway to visit St Tysilio's church on its ancient island site.  Groundsmen were strimming the graveyard.  The early 15th century church (on a seventh century Christian site) was locked.  From outside we admired its stone walls and the wooden door fitted into a huge oak frame which has split and twisted over the years like a David Nash sculpture.

On the highest point of the island is the war memorial.  It was moving to read the names of those who had died in two world wars listed carefully against the names of the places where they had died, hundreds and sometimes thousands of miles away from this little island, this quiet memorial.  Sometimes place names were replaced with 'lost at sea', a poignant reminder of the tradition of men from Welsh coastal communities serving in the navy.  Despite the steady drizzling rain the view opened out along the Straits and we were able to see the rocky islets nearby.  

Back across the causeway and onto the Belgian Promenade.  Forget candy floss and fish and chips, this promenade is a peaceful surfaced route alongside the edge of the water.  It was built during the first world war by some of the sixty three refugees who fled from the town of Mechelen in 1914 and were given a warm welcome and refuge in Menai Bridge.  

How peaceful the path looks with a photogenic boathouse jutting into the water and the valley framed by the elegant Telford suspension bridge.  But the water itself had a swirling oily-looking surface, indicative of the powerful currents at this, the most narrow part (the Swellies) of the Straits where competing tides from opposite ends battle it out and shift large amounts of sediment in the process.  The constant changes in the sea bed make it a most hazardous passage for boats. 

We walked through the modern bardic stone circle built for the national eisteddfod on Anglesey in 1965.  A few yards further on was an abstract sculpture - a large curved boulder engraved with lines like contour lines on a map.  We had to touch it, run our fingers along the grooves and wonder why there was no indication of the name of the sculptor.  After a bit of googling I discovered that this attractive sculpure was created by Peter Randall-Page in 2013.     

Then we were at the foot of the arches supporting the approach to the suspension bridge and were able to appreciate Telford's magnificent combination of engineering and elegance.  Hungry and damp we sheltered in a bowling green pavilion to eat our soggy sandwiches before heading home.

niwl trwy'r dydd
byw'n unig
yn y blaendir

mist all day
living only 
in the foreground

Poems at the beginning and end of this post from John Rowland's cylymau tywod/knots of sand (Alba Publishing 2017).

More about Peter Randall-Page's sculpture
https://www.celfwaith.co.uk/location/menai-bridge



 


Saturday, 5 June 2021

CLAY

June.  Officially summer, according to the Meteorological Office, and we're hurtling towards the solstice.  

The bluebells which filled the grass verges and field banks with a blue haze all through May are going to seed.  Red Campion and Queen Anne's Lace give the lanes a festival feel and everywhere there is lush green growth.  

The arable field next to my house is sprouting serried ranks of maize seedlings.  Soon the footpath which cuts diagonally across the field will be impassable until the maize is cut for autumn sileage for feeding a large milking herd.  During the months when the field is bare I walk the footpath and pick up pieces of broken crockery: Willow pattern, some blue and white striped Cornishware, and a few unidentifiable fragments of pink or mauve patterned china.

Recently I've been listening to 'De Waal's Itinerant Pots', five talks in The Essay series on BBC Radio 3 by the ceramicist Edmund de Waal (the man who wrote The Hare with the Amber Eyes).  His theme was migration - of people, objects, ideas and language - all told through stories of pots and of his own experience as a potter.

I've learnt that the word kaolin for the white clay ('China clay') used in the manufacture of porcelain came to us from the Chinese, via the published letters of Père Francois Xavier d'Entrecolles who went to the city of Jingdezhen in China at the end of the 17th century.  

In the next century Josiah Wedgwood asked Captain James Cook to bring back samples of white clay from his voyages.  In 1767 Wedgwood commissioned Thomas Grifiths to go to America to source clay from a rich seam in the Appelachian Mountains.  Griffiths, in a notorious act of betrayal, stole six tons of the valuable clay from the Cherokee inhabitants who owned the land, loaded it on pack horses and then shipped it back to England in 1768.   

Seven years later Wedgwood started to manufacture of his famous Jasperware with figures and designs in white relief on an unglazed background (often blue - hence 'Wedgwood blue').  The inclusion of Cherokee clay was a selling point.  Among the artefacts produced in Jasperware were Cook commemorative medallions.

When I visited the House of Skaill in Mainland Orkney some years ago I was amazed to see a display case with the label 'Captain Cook's dinner service'.  It was a set of 'Oriental Lowestoft', white procelain with a design of dark pink flowers and a gold rim.  It was a type of porcelain from China made specifically for export and had travelled thousands of miles round the world on Captain Cook's voyages.  

How did the dinner service end up in the house of an Orkney Laird?  I don't know the details but a clue is that, after Captain Cook's death in Hawaii, his ships Resolution and Discovery made their first British landfall at Stromness, Orkney, in 1780, under the command of Captain John Gore.   My poem below is in the voice of Captain Gore.

Captain Cook's dinner service

Each evening, as the sky bloomed with stars,
dinner was served.
Red roses on white china
plates rimmed with gold, the edges crimped
into }s bringing together
Resolution and Discovery,
skirting the continent's shore -
the fractured ice by day,
by night the aurora's emerald and ruby.

It was not meant to end like this - 
two ships putting into Stromness
with their cargo of grief and loss.
I could smell peat smoke
as we entered the harbour,
fish curing, and late haymaking.
There was linen drying on sandstone walls
and high up a skein of geese
sailing across the sky.

Jetsam or salvage?  I gave them away -
those bowls, ice cracked, dirt glued.
They kept too many memories -
blood and bone gilded with sand,
our captain's death on a Hawaiian shore.
Now, where the slope of the hill hides
the ocean, they sleep,
safe in a glass case in the House of Skaill.

© Mary Robinson 2010
from The Art of Gardening Flambard Press 

Monday, 10 May 2021

PAST AND PRESENT

 There is something ceremonial, even celebratory about walking through an avenue of trees, even if they don't lead anywhere in particular.  Yesterday afternoon I took the opportunity to walk along the Lôn Goed [wood lane], the subject of my blog of 5 November last year ('Imagination walking'). 

The sea is a misty blur and the hills are obscured by low cloud, giving the Lôn Goed a secretive feel, accentuated by the glorious canopy of new green leaves of oak and beech opening overhead.  The lôn is well-made, about fourteen yards wide, with drainage ditches on either side and lined with trees.  It has become famous through R Williams Parry's poem 'Eifionydd' and I think the poet (who came from the busy slate village of Tal y Sarn) would have appreciated the work that went into the making of it. 

Intriguing tracks and paths go off the Lôn Goed to houses and farms.  Felds are edged with yellow gorse and blackthorn which looks a grubby grey now the white flowers are fading.  Between the trunks of the trees there are glimpses of the uses (or not) of different fields - sheep and lambs, cattle, arable, 'improved' grass, marshland plashy with reeds.

It's a surprise to come across the isolated Capel Engedi, (named after a fertile oasis on the Dead Sea).  The chapel is scarcely visible through the trees. The chapel house is still inhabited but ivy covers the gable end of the abandoned [Calvinistic Methodist?] chapel with a green wall of foliage.   It used to be said that you were never more than a couple of miles (reasonable walking distance) from a chapel or a shop round here. In the past more people lived and worked on the farms but it is difficult to imagine that such a large building in this relatively remote location was often full.  

What I notice most is the soundscape of birdsong which accompanies me all afternoon - blackbird, chiff-chaff, robin, great tit, wren, pheasant, rook and the bird whose Welsh name of ji-binc enacts its call, the chaffinch.  Built for the utilitarian purpose of bringing lime and coal inland from the coast at Afon Wen, the Lôn Goed has become a wild-life corridor and a peaceful place to walk, even on this dull cloudy day.

                            *                    *                    *                    *

'Here are poems about the elements, and the presence of the past in what it leaves behind.'  These words by Louis de Bernières are on the cover of The Book of Belongings by Brian Johnstone, a collection I am re-reading after hearing of Brian's recent death.  He was a fine poet and well-known in poetry circles as one of the founders of StAnza, the long-running St Andrew's poetry festival in Scotland.   He was the director from 2000 to 2010 during which time the festival achieved the national and international recognition which it retains today.



Tuesday, 27 April 2021

A GARDEN AND BLUEBELLS

 Chiff chaff, chiff chaff - the first sound I hear when I open the car door.  Then the garrulous gossipping  of the jackdaws in the old trees.  

Looking down from the car park at the wide sweep of Porth Neigwl I notice it is a very low tide, the sea far out, the beach a mixture of sand, gravel, pebbles, clumps of muddy earth from the crumbly cliffs.  The old shop looks more precarious.  Only a week ago a sudden landslide at Nefyn left  houses in Rodfar Mor  dangerously near the cliff edge.  In the past two landslides have occurred in front of Sarn Cottage (where R S Thomas lived in retirement) necessitating a new road behind the cottage. 

Behind the bright bird song is another sound.  The sound of the waves gently (on this calm day) gathering up their white lace skirts and breaking on the shore.  The sound is like a rythmic breathing.  If this was Baroque music it would be the ground bass beneath the melody.  This sound will accompany me all afternoon.  

I walk past Bryn Foulk then up through the woods.   The unmistakeable sound of a great spotted woodpecker drumming.  Primroses, herb robert, daisies on top of a moss covered wall, honesty - all in flower, taking advantge of the light under the as yet open canopy.  The silver birches are still bare, hawthorn is starting to shoot its little 'bread and cheese' bunches of green.  Sycamore leaves are beginning to open

The garden at  Plas yn Rhiw is beautiful at any time of year but my first visit in the spring is special.  I particularly appreciate it today because the garden was closed to the public all last year.   Last week I successfully negotiated the hoops of the National Trust's central covid booking system to book my slot for today.  

I can smell the rosemary bush by the side gate - glossy green leaves and a mass of purple flowers.  Then through the gate and into the dense profusion of flowering shrubs which perfume the air.  Honora Keating, who planned the garden in the 1940s, was an accomplished painter (she had trained at the Slade).  Not so much planting as painting with plants.  I remember how eaagerly she would show us the plants in flower and point out how spectacular the blossoms looked against the blue backdrop of the bay.  Today I notice a big blowsy pink rhododendron next to scarlet, cream and pink camelias; a vivid red azaelea.  The art of gardening is to leave something for the future.

I love the feel of the sea pebbles under my feet in the cobbled courtyard and the sound of the stream splashing over the rocks.  The elegant mauve flowers of the wisteria are starting to open. The old stone wall is festooned with 'mother of thousands' with its hluish flowers.  There are several native wild flowers which Horora loved.  'Leave the primroses' was a frequent instruction to us when weeding.  Herb Bennet pops up between the wall and the cobbles.  Yellow barriers keep visitors away from a place where the stones of part of the retaining wall have collapsed.   This retaining wall is probably centuries old.

The house is not open to the public at the moment but the semi-circular lawn in front of the verandah is like a small stage with its view over the sea.  The garden is divided up by box hedges into 'rooms'.   There is a magnificently tall Magnolia Mollicomata tree.  I've never seen magnolias growing so tall nor having such showy flowers.  It flowers in March and the petals have dropped - those pale pink ballet shoes on the grass.  Sadly the trees are past their glory days (it was planted in 1946) - now it looks scraggy and bristles with lichen.  There is so much detail at my feet - triangular stemmed garlic, blue periwinkles going feral at the first opportunity, forget-me-nots.  I find a bashful white hellebore in flower.  A great tit sings its swinging-rusty-sign song.

Beyond the garden the woodland daffodils are almost finished but a wild cherry tree is at its best.  A robin pokes in the grass which has been cut short round the picnic tables.  A rowan is showing new leaves and tiny buds of flower heads.  Red campion flowers grow next to a patch of violets on an old stone wall.  There are two footbridges over the stream and I notice now the water makes a plopping sound when forced between stones and a rippling sound above and below them.  Harts' tongue fern is uncurling.  

The orchard, perllan, is starting to look quite well-established.  It was planted ten years ago by children from Botwnnog Primary School and consists of 140 Welsh fruit trees of 30 different varieties, including the Bardsey apple (rediscovered on the island in 1999). The trees are at different stages - some are still bare twigs with tight buds, others are showing leaves, a few are in blossom.  I notice the moles have been  busy (though not as busy as in my garden).  In the grass there are hundreds of narrow leaved plantain flowers and the geodesic gossamers of dandelion 'clocks' . This is the highest point of the land behind the house.  From here the bay is the colour of royal blue ink.  A thick black line at the base of Cilan headland marks the tidal variation.   

Walking back along the woodland track the ground is a mass of bluebells.  At this time of year the peninsula's field banks, roadside verges and steep hillsides are a haze of blue - remnant plants which denote previous woodland and forest.


Bluebells

pulse of blue light, electronic glow,
ground burning with blue flame, steel blue, the shock of it -

Hopkins drew them, ink blue-black scratching on paper
the precision of their distinctiveness

their inscape, a bell's unlettered beauty with steel nib
faint honey smell and in the mouth the sweet gum when you bite
                                                                                              them

pick them and they loop, loll, lank over a glass jar, pine for the
                                                                                  forest floor

how long ago were the woods felled, burnt?

they will not let us forget, forging their white bulbs underground for
                                                                                            millennia,

flowers bleaching to brittle stems, rattling the lead shot of their
                                                                                  black seeds

astringent, concentrated, each year re-fined, distilled in the earth's
                                                                                                 retort


            © Mary Robinson 2020 from Trace (Oversteps 2020)





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)