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

Sunday, 1 May 2016

keeping still on the move

How I – we – do the transition from small but significant island, and island time, and intimate depths with place, poetry, and the people with whom we share such things with such intensity, is important.

This year I did weep, just a little, on the early ferry waving goodbye to the island, and all it holds for so many of us of a depth of meaning hard to encounter in the 'outer world', sailing back through the veils to our habitual lives; waving too to the people from my second retreat group who'd got up early to wave off the four of us leaving at 7am.

For me, I had been there three weeks this time. For the others it was 'just' a week, but a week steeped in a brew that doesn't recognise the normal constrictions of time, where mutual trust and a willingness to be seen in all our shames and glories arrive early and stay late, and where our imaginations take all the routes less travelled.

And then there was all the laughing. And some tears. And some pretty fabulous and moving writing.

The taxi driver was a gentle unintrusive island man who allowed us to come back slowly to life beyond the thin veils of the Otherworld as we drove through the snow-blanketed hinterlands of Mull, with its herds of red deer come down from the hills, to Craignure ('a most wretched walk of 37 miles', I believe the poet John Keats called it) for the boat to Oban.

Because I had another severe attack of labyrinthitis that left me unable to lift my head without the threat of throwing up the day before I left for the islands early in April, and because my campervan had sprung a leak, I wobbled, hoping not to vomit (luckily I succeeded in that) via the trains booked last minute to Glasgow, where I met a good friend and participant in the first course.

I'm so glad to have taken the trains. Apart from the environmental aspects of train travel, there is a sense within the freewheeling relaxation of train travel that one's soul can keep up with the changing landscapes and pace that driving doesn't usually allow and flying not at all (not that I ever have flown within GB).

At Carlisle my two very dear friends from Northumberland came to meet me, and we travelled just south of Hadrian's Wall through the lushness of a cusping northern spring, all wild garlic flowers, bird cherry blossom, and birch and sycamore leaves, to where F had cooked us a curry and H had bought a bottle of fizz.

Now, plump bullfinches and delicate goldfinches are perched on a massive birdfeeder. Beyond us, hills and moors roll northwards. Soon, we'll walk; another way of bringing myself to here in the shifting light of exterior movement rooted in interior stillness.

And I'm too full of the experience of the weeks to write about them, and trying hard to be present, here now, rather than dreaming of my return. (To my delight, half the places on both 2017 Iona weeks are now filled so I have more than a fortnight guaranteed on the island.) After all, the place I'm returning to, and the other places I'll be working in this year, are each in their own way as beautiful.

F and H are people who really know how to do breakfast. So I do it with them in about 5 stages, and then the staying-with-stillness is aided by spending another two hours, to lute music, talking about poetry translation generally (a significant part of F's work), and the translations of Rainer Maria Rilke's Duino Elegies in particular, via two different translated versions. Between us, as a poet, a linguist, and an educationalist who each have some German to greater or lesser extents, we rewrite the very different versions so that they meet in the middle. (Sorry, Stephen Spender, Martyn Crucefix.)

I open the Saturday Guardian to, of course, the usual bombardment of bad news. I find it hard enough to cope with generally, but it would be easy to be so porous to it all after the Island Experience that the lightness I've brought back would easily succumb to emotional gravity.

I've been following Jenny Diski's writings about her experience of living with – dying with – terminal cancer. I'm sad to read her final column, prefaced with the fact of her death last week; funny, witty, spiky, insightful, erudite, uncompromising, she was adept at bringing her black humour to the dark stuff of life and death.

A student of mine years ago recommended Diski's novels. I hated them.

But on a week's writing retreat in a converted linhay in an old Dartmoor manor a few years ago the first title that caught my eye on the shelves was Diski's memoir On Trying to Keep Still. I devoured it instead of writing for the first day and evening. I fell in love with that book: her honesty, her sharpness, her ability to poke fun at herself and therefore humankind. I followed that book with her Skating to Antartica; equally engaging, equally caustic, essay-like in its focus on moments and incidents and encounters in the frozen south while holding it all together with the binding medium of her reluctance and resistance to what she was actually doing while, I believe, secretly loving every minute of it.

RIP Jenny Diski.


  1. Thanks, Roselle, for the Jenny Diski link to On Trying to Keep Still. Yes, we've also been following her beautifully eloquent, poignant journal and are sad to hear the news. And yet, I feel, confident that expressing her feelings in that way might have helped her to face the great inevitable which we all face once it was there. I feel consoled by her writings about death and afterwards, the fact that we were all in that place before we were born. And yet, as she says in the Guardian article, there's not getting away from the the sadness you feel when death is imminent. (Strange – that for a moment I almost wrote immanent ; both could apply, perhaps?) Anyway, I could go on and on about this subject, as some of us did on Iona, without any resolution of course. That will come in time, I suppose, I hope! But that stillness in movement came to me after we'd moved here in 1994. We'd spent all our money, it seemed, on this place with a frighteningly big mortgage and smallish incomes. I was forced to be still and took up writing more seriously. I joined a group, subscribed to Mslexia and along you came! Like playing the piano in less rusty days, it's the best example I can thing of being still yet travelling, moving. The still centre of the turning world, maybe? (Excuse any mis-quote).
    Can't wait to read On Trying to Keep Still, so thanks, Ro. Like you, I love her memoirs, in particular, Skating . . . but haven't even read her novels.

    Your interlude in Northumbria sounds great!
    Love, Miri

    1. Thank you, M. I was glad to receive your comment - holding the thread after the Island. Lovely to share some of it with you both.

      It seems to me that we need to find a still centre if we are to create/write in any significant way – that in itself is a success, isn't it?

      Forgive brevity - big problems with both computer and internet, and masses of work undone! Will be starting with TWR soon, too.

      Love to you both



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