Thursday, 2 September 2021
Monday, 26 July 2021
Puffins whirr past us like wonders
on stubby clockwork wings
some, all orange legs and nonchalance,
stand sentinel beside the burrows
others bob in flotillas near the boat -
little sea parrots
with beaks of many colours.
Just before the heatwave struck I went over to Ynys Enlli (Bardsey Island) for a day with eight friends from my Welsh class. It was my sixth visit but none of my friends had been there before. The island cast its spell over them and as we waited by the slipway for the boat back they all said how much they had enjoyed the visit. But a special treat awaited us on the return across the Sound. Colin took the boat close to the steep cliffs of the mountain to see the sea birds - razorbills, guillemots, shags, kittiwakes and the showstoppers, puffins. He cut the engines and we floated amongst them, so close we could see their colourful striped beaks. 'There are more puffins this year than I can ever remember', he said and he assumed that the high numbers were the result of favourable weather in the spring.
About a hundred pairs of storm petrels and over 20,000 pairs of Manx shearwaters nest on Enlli. Like the puffins these species are truly pelagic - living on the ocean - only coming to land to breed. The shearwaters nest in burrows on the island and the petrels in crevices in rocks and banks. The parent birds come ashore at dusk to avoid predators. The nesting season is full of risks for birds which are so strongly adapted to life at sea.
In my first collection there is a poem 'Storm petrels at Mousa Broch', written after a dusk visit to see the thousands of storm petrels which nest in the ancient broch on the uninhabited island of Mousa (Shetland). I describe a petrel's eye as 'black as the moon's absence'. A dark moonless night is safest for the returning birds which are so unsuited to life on land:
... birds so frail
they shuffle on crippled legs.
* * *
Would I have used the word 'crippled', even though referring to a bird, if I had read Karl Knights' recent hard-hitting essay, 'The Face not Seen'? Knights attacks the 'ablest' bias of the poetry establishment where disabled poets are too often invisible or excluded. He talks of compiling an alternative 'canon' of disabled poets, including the Japanese haiku master Masoaka Shiki, W E Henley (best known for his 'Invictus' poem), and more recently, Raymond Antrobus and Jillian Weise.
I started to think about disability in poetry. The blind Milton famously dictated Paradise Lost to his daughters and is the subject of a painting by Eugene Delacroix. Milton's sonnet on his blindness is one of the great English sonnets and his verse drama Samson Agonistes is a tragedy about the weak, blinded Samson, captured by his enemies ('Blind among enemies, O worse than chains'). Centuries later the Cornish poet, Jack Clemo, became blind in childhood and deaf in young adulthood. Ilya Kaminsky's The Deaf Republic was published in 2019 to great acclaim.
Knights quotes Virginia Woolf's statement that it is strange that 'illness has not taken its place with love, battle and jealousy among the prime themes of literature'. When I opened the current issue of Poetry Wales magazine I found a poem by Hannah Hodgson, a young poet from Cumbria, who is living with and writing about a serious life-limiting illness (her first collection is due out from Seren soon). And searching in my memory for poetry about illness I thought of Philip Gross's The Wasting Game, a collection concerned with anorexia. Dementia is a subject tackled by several poets, usually with the agonising theme of watching a parent decline with this terrible condition.
Knights' article raises some important questions for readers, writers and editors of poetry.
* * *
Make hay while the sun shines
I've been watching the contractors working the field opposite my house. A first sileage crop was taken earlier in the year . The aftermath denotes this second flush of grass which was cut at the weekend and later turned into windrows. Now a large forage harvester is scooping up the grass and shooting it into a trailor being pulled alongside. The breeze winnows the dust from the chopped grass. Crows and rooks strut proprietorially where the grass has been cleared and stab their beaks into easy pickings.
Between my study window and the field is a traditional field bank, studded with purple hardheads (knapweed flowers). About twenty Large White butterflies flicker over the flowers, alighting for nectar and performing intricate flight dances.
* 'Puffins' © Mary Robinson 2021
You can read Milton's sonnet on his blindness at
and W E Henley's 'Invictus' at
Karl Knights' essay 'The Face not Seen' is in the current summer 2021 issue of the poetry magazine The Dark Horse.
More about Hannah Hodgson https://hannahhodgson.com/author/hannahwritesablog/
Wednesday, 7 July 2021
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:
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.'
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.
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
Sunday, 27 June 2021
across the straits
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
yn y blaendir
mist all day
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
Saturday, 5 June 2021
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
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.