from BARDO

The stars are in our belly; the Milky Way our umbilicus.

Is it a consolation that the stuff of which we’re made

is star-stuff too?

– That wherever you go you can never fully disappear –

dispersal only: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen.

Tree, rain, coal, glow-worm, horse, gnat, rock.

Roselle Angwin

Monday, 18 July 2011

a book blog: Jason Kirkey; and A Printmakers' Poetica

Once in a while you come across a writer who hits the heart; with whose emphasis and values you resonate. As you'll know if you've been following my blog, Jim Perrin in his book West has been one such.

Another, in a different and quieter way, is Jason Kirkey. I'm not sure how I first came across Kirkey's work; but I think it was in connection with some druidic study. Kirkey wrote The Salmon in the Spring – the ecology of Celtic spirituality; this is a wide-ranging, erudite and inspiring (if occasionally over-wordy – but who am I to speak) book that combines scholarly knowledge with Kirkey's exploration of the esoteric Celtic shamanic tradition, in which he interweaves his interest in Buddhism (both of which inform my own spiritual path).

Kirkey is frighteningly young to have developed such depth of wisdom and insight; but if I say that he has been pursuing for many years various studies in consciousness at both Naropa and the California Institute of Integral Studies (and I am sick with envy at this!) it will become obvious that this guy is unusual and his field of vision not that of the mainstream. 

I found on the internet, looking for Salmon, his 'Earth House Sutras' (accompanied by some exquisite photographic images). I was rather blown away by them (and synchronously had been writing my own series of landscape sutras). 

Now Kirkey's brought out Estuaries (the cover image is my own scan and is of a comparatively poor quality; the book's colour reproduction is very good, and yet the cover price is reasonable). 

Accompanied by James Liter's fine photographs are a number of Kirkey's poems, among them the Winter sutra:

I am ready
to live with the wrens
and the cedars
to slough off 
my mind
on the mountain.

There is nothing but stillness here –
stillness and wind.
They flirt like squirrels
among the branches. 

As happens in the best books where text and images are combined, the photos don't 'illustrate' the text, but add to and enrich our depth of immersion through speaking to our senses.

Kirkey's concern is with the discovery of a common language with which to speak to and with, as well as the more common 'of', mountains, rivers, forests – the whole non-human (and fast disappearing) world. He manages to combine a driving passion for the non-human and an awareness of the acceleration of loss of wild without himself losing the felt experience of being part of, rather than apart from, this natural world of which his poetry is a celebration. There are passages in the book in which Kirkey speaks with that voice, so redolent of Buddhist teaching or the mystic's experience, that transcends the dualism of the separateness of 'self and other', or 'here and there': 'A single cicada is singing / from everywhere / on the branch of a maple tree.'

Anyone who is tuned in to wilderness will be aware of Thoreau, that great nature-writer. One of my favourite poems in this book is 'Thoreau's Cabin':

Walked into Walden Pond –
really into it.
The body upright among its
lapping tongues and eddies,
dragonflies in the sun like flames
to light a fire in the waves.
I stand with minnows,
"in wildness the preservation
of the world."'

The book's blurb says: 'Too often poetry is thought of as the domain of human creativity with its source in the depths of the imagination... The poems in Estuaries suggest that speech and poetry are fundamentally rooted in the ecosystem – the detritus of fallen leaves, the curvature of a river bend, and the sound of rain on a heron's wings. All this might be regarded as the speech of the earth. When we speak or write poetry that engages these voices we become participant in the patterns of the watershed.'

This, I would say, is a pretty good manifesto for Kirkey's work, which also includes the founding of Hiraeth Press ('hiraeth' is the Welsh word for a longing or craving, usually applied to the longing after a kind of soul-home), and editorship of a new and wonderful eco-journal Written Rivers; originally an e-journal, this has just become available as printed copy; not cheap, as it again lavishly and skillfully incorporates photography, but it's the kind of work of art all too rare in the non-commercial world of literary magazines. (I'm proud to say that a couple of my own poems appear in the current edition.)


Completely different is A Printmakers’ Poetica. I felt as nervous as a mother holding someone else's newborn baby lifting and turning the pages of this exquisite limited edition several-hundred-pounds'-worth handmade book (the word 'book' feels too pedestrian for this work of art).

This is a huge project. The brainchild of Jenny Pery, who coordinated it, the brief was for a selection of Devon printmakers to pick favourite poems and make work in imaginative response to those poems. Each book contains a number of individual prints, each with its relevant poem-inspiration, and is entirely handmade. Printmaker Joanna Radford was largely responsible for making the books, with the help of the individual printmakers who did some of the sewing and sticking. Most of the poems are by 'household name' poets – both dead and alive. I'm privileged in that Mary Gillett, one of the artists, who also comes to my Two Rivers poetry days, chose 'Bavarian Gentians' by D H Lawrence, and 'Coming to Shiant Island', by myself (not in any way suggesting I'm a 'household name' poet!), as her sources of inspiration.

Here's her print, and below it my poem.

etching by Mary Gillett, for 'Coming to Shiant Island'

 Coming to Shiant Island

The sea thins. The birlinn’s bows
part the fog like a finger through milk.
Below, the blue underworld of the Minch
still churns and roils, clutches at your keel.
The wind keens. What you were
peels away astern. No journey
worth making is easy. Here what you
learn will come from winter gnawing
the shingle, the play of cloud on sea,
the fires you succeed in igniting;
from the endurance of turf and granite,
the puffins’ lack of fear. You will make
your home in light and storm and rabbit-
scat, in the arms of the four winds.
The keel grinds on the shoreline.
You step out. The future begins.

Roselle Angwin


  1. I will definately check out the Kirkey guy. And I love your peom at the end. Lovely.

  2. veronica I always enjoy your comments. thought your words about living on east coast/west coast were insightful - still pondering.


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