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

Thursday, 14 June 2012

swans, black and white

How I love the BBC. Eddie Mair's 'PM' programme on radio 4 last Tuesday was both excellent and inspiring (and punctuated by the little personal asides: 'I am 46' – a kind of repeating thread re his forgetfulness. 46 isn't so old! Perhaps he's in love?).  A little piece of information with far-reaching effects was that the Global Peace Index for the last year has actually shown decreasing levels of violence, globally, hard though that might be to imagine. How cheering; and how unexpected; and how our perceptions are skewed by the media.

Another joy was the lovely Emma-Jane Kirby's report on the new French dance production 'Swan', which has dancers improvising with live swans with whom they've been establishing a rapport of 'reciprocal imprinting' since the cygnets hatched two years ago. We heard how part of the set involves dancers improvising in relationship to the swans, sometimes in glass water-filled tanks and/or huge rose bowls. 'They adapt to us of course but we also try to adapt to them,' said a dancer. 'We have done a lot of imitation process – like spending hours imitating them and just being there and listening and looking at them – and they look at us. We just spend time with them, feeding, sleeping, playing, swimming, some of us also slept with them. This was not so comfortable!'

I have reservations about 'using' animals, but there is clearly no coercion here; just curiosity on the part of the swans, and response on the part of the dancers. There's a charming clip here:

I believe that some of the swans are black (and the clip which shows cygnets seems to suggest that too).

This had me thinking about the white swan, and its untouchability: they crop up a lot in poetry and myth, where the white swan stands for a kind of spiritual virginity, as well as symbolising purity, and the soul. Here in the UK all (white) swans belong to the Queen, and it used to be pain of death to kill one. Swans supposedly mate for life, so there is some imagery there around loyalty and fidelity. Swans can also be aggressive.

Lindsay Clarke's extraordinary novel Alice's Masque opens with the protagonist accidentally and dreadfully hitting a swan on the motorway, which it had mistaken for a waterway; a gruesome reminder of Clarke's preferred territory: the symbolic destruction of soul/the feminine principle and the associated wasteland of our time.

This then brought me to thinking about how in our post-Judeo-Christian society we annex the white, the 'spiritual', the 'pure', and demonise the black, the darkness, to which we ascribe, consciously or otherwise, malevolence. In Jungian thought the only way to transcend the opposites is not by elevating the one and shunning the other, but by recognising and granting due respect to both in our psyche (and culture) in order to integrate them into the whole that they actually are, and which we forget at our and the world's cost.

And I remembered the utterly magical event of seeing a single black swan at Lopwell Dam near Tavistock, once; and how there is a little colony at Dawlish, on the Devon coast. The sight of anything unexpected can make the heart leap, of course; and that little glimpse has remained with me.

When I was doing some work as poet-in-residence at a school in Wiltshire a year or three ago, I decided to take the Black Swan concept into a maths class as prompt for creative writing.

This is what I used as a basis (not sure where I found this info; on the web, I imagine): ‘Black Swan Events were described by Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his 2007 book, The Black Swan. Taleb regards almost all major scientific discoveries, historical events, and artistic accomplishments as "black swans" — undirected and unpredicted. He gives the rise of the Internet, the personal computer, World War I, and the September 11 attacks as examples of Black Swan Events.

‘The term black swan was a Latin expression — its oldest reference is in the poet Juvenal’s expression that "a good person is as rare as a black swan". It was a common expression in 16th century London as a statement that describes impossibility, deriving from the old world presumption that "all swans must be white", because all historical records of swans reported that they had white feathers. So a black swan was something that was impossible, or near impossible and could not exist. After the discovery of black swans in Western Australia in 1697 the term metamorphosed to connote that a perceived impossibility may later be found to exist.’

Identifying a black swan event (based on the author's criteria):

   1. The event is a surprise (to the observer).
   2. The event has a major impact.
   3. After the fact, the event is rationalized by hindsight, as if it had been expected.

Clearly, the starting point was to identify these 'black swan' events in the students' lives in order to write about them. What I hadn't allowed for was the Muslim girl who said that such events simply never ever happened in her family life. I said: 'What about something simple, like someone buying you a new dress unexpectedly, or a surprise visitor, or phone call, or small gift?' She was adamant that such spontaneities never would or could occur in her household. I guess that's a kind of black swan event in itself, for me, anyway...


  1. If I may add - Swans on the Thames are owned also by the Dyers and the Vintners Companies - hence the 'Swan upping' ceremonies seen on the river each year.

  2. Interesting bit of info, Roz! The origins of that sound fascinating! Thank you! Rx


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