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 31 January 2011

this earth which is a star

‘La Terre qui est Un Astre’
after Prévert

Maybe it’s true that we only
know one song. It’s late
afternoon, a moment of winter,
and in an instant the mind’s
plates slide out of juncture
on this earth which is a star
and this is that park in Caen

where you talked of my face
gazing out from your mirror,
where I walked away from you
one berry-ripe afternoon the far
side of summer, where I
kept walking, and, as you’d
asked, didn’t look back.

Roselle Angwin (from All the Missing Names of Love, forthcoming from IDP)

Sunday 30 January 2011

inner city Totnes and the Shamen

The night is cold. The fire crackles. Hairy Mutt's eyes have been completely fixed on me for the last 30 minutes.
  'Nice to be adored as a minor deity,' I say.
  'She might have a big heart,' says The Man, 'but all her grey matter's on the outside.' (See first post photo.)

My mother-out-of-law (I call her my mother-in-kin), Eileen, an exceptional, unusual and very politically-informed 89 year old, is in a tiny cottage hospital with a broken hip. The Man is just back from visiting. 'How is she?' I ask, lifting my eyes from cruising my viewing statistics whilst pretending I wasn't ego-surfing. 'Fine,' he says. 'Composing another letter to the coalition – foreign policy, education, health cuts. And by the way' – looking over my shoulder – 'she had more visitors today than you did.'

There was a Green Party benefit gig in Totnes last night. For those of you who don't know, Totnes is the small but, as they say, perfectly-formed Alternative Capital of Britain. Think Glastonbury, concentrated. We're right-on in Totnes. We are saving the world with our affirmations. We believe in going on marches, buying Palestinian olive oil and eating tofu. The Mystic (half-)Mile up the High Street has more psychics/healers/mediums per cubic molecule than a clairvoyants' convention. Everyone is an Ascended Master and/or a Reincarnation of Ramses/Cleopatra/Merlin/Boudicca. Walking up the High Street you trip over buskers, chakras and shamanic ear-candle aura cleansers. Where else can you order, in every café, decaff organic gluten-free Fair Trade rainforest-friendly locally-sourced soya milk cappuccino on the LETS scheme or with a Totnes Pound and no one bats a purple dreadlocked eyelash that you asked?

The sublimely funny Totnes poet and satirist Matt Harvey, of the Wondermentalist Cabaret, gave his services at the benefit. He concluded the evening with  a delivery on the current cultural exchange between Torquay and Totnes. (I need to tell you that Torquay, a few miles away, is everything Totnes is not, plus some.) And I can't in any way do justice to Matt's stories or his delivery; check him out online (and in Britain currently on Radio 4 on, I think, a Tuesday evening late - 11pm?). But a brief paraphrase goes something like this:

Saturday evening, late: a gang of Torquay toughs turn up in town. The shout pierces the sleepy villages for a ten-mile radius, as the Vikings' berserking howls must have done a few hundred years ago :
'Torquay boys  – we are here  HEY! / Shag your women and drink your beer HEY!'
 The Totnes men quietly drift inside, says Matt; make a salad, sprout some beans, do a bit of Tai Chi to centre themselves.
 Decide to form a men's group to deal with the issue.
 Go up to the Castle, take the moral high ground, send out healing white light to the Torquay Toughs.
 Decide to learn to swear. ('It was bloody good fun!')
 Meditate first.
 Listen to each other.
 Sharing feelings is encouraged.
 'Not sure about the beer,' someone says. 'I don't really like alcohol.'
 'Yes, I'm only drinking carrot juice and kombuchu' (a disgusting fermented healthy non-drink) 'at the moment,' says another.
 'I have a problem with the notion of shagging the women, too,' says a third. Everyone nods. 'I believe in equality. AND I can't just do it with someone I don't know. Do we have to say that bit?'
 Decision is taken. Go to Torquay on Sunday, early afternoon. Stroll along the front, quietly, inoffensively.
  Someone's brought Tibetan flags and singing bowls.
  Chant goes up.
 'Totnes men, we are here / respect your women and drink your kombuchu...'
  Then they drift quietly home...

Saturday 29 January 2011

an imagined life: 1

Saturday evening. This is a work towards a work-in-progress – maybe – set in St Ives. It's in short sections, and maybe you'll guess the model for the protagonist's identity. I stress that it's fiction. Kind of. Mostly. More to follow, possibly at weekends.

She lifts the coffeepot off the ring, pours herself a black mugful. Kicks the studio door open. The first cigarette – inhaling – of the day’s the best. The first’s the best, she scribbles, swift neat cursive, in her journal. Smiles. This craving for the first of anything, need to experience it over and over. Though there are some firsts I shall surely give up this year. One or two.
            Nodding over the wall the dracaena’s already in flower, and it’s a week into January. What is it, she writes, bold black ink, to be alive at this time?

She lifts her head from the drawing board, sniffs the air through the open door as an animal might. The sky is closing in. Stepping into the garden: Godrevy eclipsed by cloud and bands of rain. Is that a sail on the horizon? A black sail – on, off, on, gone. She lights another cigarette. Imagination. She thinks again of the piece she’s working on, its fluid curves and scarps under her hands.
            ‘Ben!’ she calls. And again, impatient. The mist tickles her skin.
She stubs the cigarette, kicks it under a bush, steps back into the studio, leaves the door open. A gull, mournful; and another, more distant.

She lifts the coffeepot off the ring, pours herself a black mugful.

 © Roselle Angwin 2011

Friday 28 January 2011

facing both ways: abellio and boa

Janus (Abellio & Boa?) from Boa Island

As we move towards the end of January I have been thinking of Janus, the Roman god who lends his name to this month. He's a god of thresholds, doorways, beginnings; and, having two faces, also of endings. He looks towards both what might be and what has been. He guards the past and the future, the inner and the outer worlds and the threshold between them. 

If we take the archetypalist's view that external gods represent inner psychological constellations of energy and processes, Janus as January is associated with Saturn, symbolised by lead (which was a necessary component of the alchemical process of transformation – again, seen as an inner process, making one's dross into gold, rather than the crude more usual external interpretations). He is also associated with time, and with timing.

I've been reflecting on what this might mean in terms of my own life: the opportunity to look at the patterns that run me, at the limitations I impose on myself, on what restricts me and what I cling to; where I'm resisting growth – or forcing it, like hyacinths budding in our kitchen, ahead of their natural time. And I have been looking, too, towards Imbolc (candlemas), that time of new beginnings and snowdrops, here in Britain, soon to arrive; a Celtic fire festival sitting, traditionally, exactly between the winter solstice and the vernal equinox, and presided over by Brigid, the fire goddess.

And how different is the quality of energy symbolised by Saturn from that of Uranus – god of change and innovation, uranium-carrier. I say this because the earth has recently moved in its annual cycle around the sun in the heavens from Capricorn, whose 'god' is Saturn/Janus, god of the concrete and the limitations that imposes, god of boundaries, into Aquarius, ruled by Uranus, who doesn't give a toss for boundaries, pulls the rug from under our feet and asks us to question all that we thought we knew, shoves us from behind or drags us by the hair into newer paths... The image that comes is that of the blade of grass that can break through even concrete, and will.

On Boa Island in Lough Erne in Co Fermanagh, Northern Ireland, in the graveyard, is an extraordinary and ancient two-faced figure, nicknamed the Janus figure (poet Seamus Heaney wrote his 'January God' on this sculpture). The two faces may well represent a god and a goddess; the god might be Abellio, the Celtic god of apples, the 'green and growing god'. It's been suggested that the goddess is Boa, usually known as Badh, and associated with war; is it not possible etymologically, however, that she is Boann, the Great Goddess of Irish mythology, she who sprang the Boyne, that great Irish river, and presides over the pool of inspiration, knowledge and wisdom in which the mythic salmon swim under the hazel trees?


In the wet gap of the year,
Daubed with fresh lake mud,
I faltered near his power –
January God.

(Seamus Heaney)

Thursday 27 January 2011

sennen cove

Sennen Cove

This is not the colourless season
of margins and absences
This is the black and white time
Sharp in the dawn this one pure note.

Thorn Tree
Wind, monoliths, salt on my lips
This high hinterland furrowed
by plough, waves of lapwing and fieldfare
Me, resilient, gale-swept.

January’s first day, and everything
yet to be broken
Washed, untrodden sand; deep sky;
this wave, caught at its curl’s apex.

Kelp, green weed, boulders like seals
Everything always the same, and forever changing

I am the tether
of this moment’s kite.

There is the white sand
and there my welling footsteps
There is the prowling tide

and then only water.

Roselle Angwin
(Published in Looking For Icarus, (bluechrome 2005)

Ardnamurchan Point, Wester Ross

Ardnamurchan, oilbars Roselle Angwin 2008

This was a really boring post so I've deleted it. Thought I'd leave you with my Scottish painting though. Ties in with the shipping forecast (correction by The Man: 'the inshore waters forecast').

Wednesday 26 January 2011

now and forever flowing: the Zenrin

There are three books that live next to my bed. The first is Jon Kabat-Zinn's wherever you go there you are; the second, Phil Cousineau's Soul of the World; and the third I came across when I was 16, and it triggered and is largely responsible for shaping the path I have been on since. It's called The Gospel According to Zen – beyond the death of God; and in it is an exquisite translation of an older text, the Zenrin. This translation's not attributed, but I think it was by John Daido Loori, abbot of the Zen Mountains and Rivers monastery in the US (he died last year. I can't recommend highly enough his book Zen and Creativity.).

This morning, I give you some couplets from the Zenrin.

There is no place to seek the mind;
   It is like the footprints of the birds in the sky.

Sitting quietly, doing nothing,
  Spring comes, and the grass grows by itself.

Ride your horse along the edge of a sword;
  Hide yourself in the heart of the flames.

Perceiving the sun in the midst of the rain;
  Ladling out clear water from the depths of the fire.

Entering the forest he moves not the grass;
  Entering the water he makes not a ripple.

Meeting, they laugh and laugh –
  The forest grove, the many fallen leaves!

Tuesday 25 January 2011

the precise timing of a sideways glance: Jennie Osborne

This post is not really about language in the sense in which I've been mulling it over lately; the Tuesday blog is to post a poem from our recent anthology, Confluence (see previous posts). I'm using the book sequence to determine the 'running order' of the poets; how gratifying, then, to find that the poem I've posted this week, at its end, fits so well with parts of yesterday's blog.

And before I move on to that, I want to add a rider to yesterday's post: I mentioned, in passing, a poem by Robert Hass – 'Meditation at Lagunitas'. The poem deserved a great deal more than a passing reference, as Hass speaks very directly to the questions of language and the ground behind language in this poem. If you have Staying Alive, it's in there; otherwise it's available online from There is an excellent essay online that explores this poem in insightful depth and teases out what Hass is saying about the limits of language:

On another note, and forgive the plug here: there is still time – just – to sign up for the next 6-month 'Elements of Poetry' correspondence course that I teach. You need to be already reading and writing contemporary poetry, and it's an intensive course with reading and reflection as well as writing required. I've had excellent feedback from the first two. Details from my website, (go to 'Courses', hover until 'Correspondence Courses' shows up, and then there should be an option of 'novel' or 'poetry').
Today's poet is Jennie Osborne. Well-known on the Southwest England poetry circuit, Jennie also facilitates workshops throughout England on the 'Alternatives to Violence Project'. Jennie is both Quaker and dancer, and burns with a quiet Celtic fire. Her poems in Confluence are a sequence of five; this is the second. Look out for her collection How To Be Naked from Oversteps Books.

On the Island

This is my own country. It may
seem tight, lacking adventure
and smelling always of lavender.

It’s on a smaller scale. Look at the leaves.
See how every leaf is patterned
with a dozen smaller leaves, each patterned...

Its colours are mostly soft to touch,
the lightest blue you can drown in
and the green spring uses to wake trees gently.

Creatures slip past like shadows,
are sparing with advice, but leave
shy footprints shaped like smiles.

Learning their friendship does not need words
only slight thumbprints left on corners,
the precise timing of a sideways glance.

Monday 24 January 2011

beyond the gloss of things

'With language as our lens, we perceive the world as a collection of separate things that interact with each other in objective space and time... we separate things from each other by labeling them, giving them names... those words aren't just labels, they are functions... when I know that something is a pen, I know what to do with it.' 
David Loy, Money, Sex, War, Karma


I need to confess that, as a new blogger, at the moment I still shamelessly and rather addictively ego-surf my viewing stats. It's a source of continual amazement to me, the whole notion of communication in general and the enormity of the potential of internet communication in particular. Here I am sitting at a small desk in a tiny corner of rural Britain, my only constant and immediate companion (other than my dog, the fire, the wildlife out of the window, and my partner after a day's work) the assemblage of thoughts (etc) that makes up some sense of 'self'. Yet the words that arise from that process connect with others' thoughts all over the world potentially almost as fast as the speed of light (assuming a synchronicity of timing re posting and reading of this blog).

My posting on quanta and qualia last week, before I went away, had a record number of hits from all over the world, from tiny and obscure nation states to Russia – and South Korea. How disappointing for them, perhaps, to find a poet's ramblings instead of the latest particle-theory breakthrough; how disappointing for me to find that no one's offered me a fellowship in a particle accelerator, nor even an opportunity for espionage...! Ho hum, back to the wordsmithery, such as it is; and the almost-equally-unbelievable fact that my publisher's just written to say that yes, he hopes to have Imago, my novel, out by the end of March. This is a Very Big Deal, for reasons which I'll explain in another blog.


For now, I want to think a bit more about language and L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E. A friend, Susie, has just sent some clear and coherent thoughts in response to that post of mine; I'm encouraging her to post them under 'comments'  – as anyone is welcome to, unless it gets out of hand, at which point I shall do something about it – as the dialogue set up could be very fruitful.

So I'm now going to be true to an aspect of my nature symbolised by my Libran sun (more about the philosophy of all that: 'as above, so below' – another time): 'on the one hand; on the other hand'.

So actually, where I think that the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E theorists might get it right is by demanding that we question the ways in which we unthinkingly use language, and construct our worldview according to how we use language. Wittgenstein, Derrida, Barthes, all have things to say about this philosophically.

'The word is elegy to what it signifies', says Robert Hass in his wonderful poem 'Meditation at Lagunitas' (not a L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poem by any stretch of the imagination, and in fact the poem addresses the question of language); and this may be a key. We relate to a word, a name, and in doing so isolate it somehow from the whole of what it signifies AND WHAT LIES BEHIND ITS PARTICULARITY; that is, its relationship to the whole. Put simplistically, we relate to the symbol as an identifier-of-singularity, and break its connection, and ours, with its ground of being. There's so much to say about this, but I want to try and be brief and focused here.

The act of naming is such a symbolically potent act. It's a way of bringing the world into being. (Not for nothing does the Bible say 'In the beginning was the Word'.) It's a way of navigating the world, too. When you first meet someone, there is a charge to the fact that that person uses your name as they address you. It's a compliment – they remember your name; in as much as one identifies the 'self' with one's name it's also a sign that they are actively engaging with you, forming some kind of relationship. It's a wake-up if you drift, or seem not to be paying attention. It's interesting to notice how often you do or don't use the name – to them, I mean – of an intimate. And then there are birth names and 'given' names: studies show that couples who have pet names for each other are more likely stay together than couples who don't. (And the names of course say so much about one's perception of the other: I loved being called 'sweet pea' by my lover of a decade ago; wasn't quite so keen on 'my little nest of vipers' from a previous lover!) And it can give you, as one-who-names, power: there's the fact that in fairy tales, knowing a person's name gives you a hold over them (eg Rapunzel). Naming's important in magic: abracadabra; open sesame (others?); and in a deeper magical sense you use names as intentions: you focus the thought form, put out the call, and it comes.

As I walk the dog, I love knowing that the squabbling voices beyond the hedge belong to a flock of starlings; that the bird just landed on my peanut feeder is a great spotted woodpecker, that those little high voices attached to the thistledown bodies mark out long-tailed tits. It increases my intimacy with them. AND – for we live in an and/and universe, not an either/or – it also objectifies them.

So at what point does the act of intimacy become an act of alienation? One danger is that I will start to relate to the label and assume that because I can label it I know the bird, and will therefore stop looking to perceive its essential nature. It's akin to seeing the pointing finger and not noticing the moon, or confusing the map with the territory.

A bigger and related danger, philosophically speaking, is the objectification: that in naming we underline a sense of otherness. It is other than me, different from me. It is not-me. Then we inhabit a universe of disparate and apparently unconnected objects, neglecting to see the underlying unity, the interconnectedness of being. ('Because of our neglect the world is strewn with unrelated objects' says psychologist James Hillman.) But this, of course, is the true reality of essential nature – unity. The new physics is merely reiterating and 'proving' what mystics have been telling us forever, and what the Buddha's teachings gave us millennia ago. There is nothing that is 'not-self'. According to Buddhist thought, our tight identification with our ego as if it were separate, enduring and changeless is the cause of so much suffering: our own, and others'. It's disastrous, neglecting underlying unity; it seems to me there's a direct and obvious connection between a perception of difference, of otherness, and our desire to do harm to that 'other', from fear of that otherness. Other than greed, isn't it the fear of the other's 'otherness', and our own associated egoic certainty that our truth's the right truth, that take us to war?

'When we do not cling to name and concepts, we can experience things as they are,' says Loy.

So then I think about slipping names in order to wander undifferentiated in the world, unnamed, part of the greater whole. It's rather like the way I take my dog's collar off at night: giving her back to herself, to wild nature, to the night in which separateness is less marked.

John Burnside expresses something of all this so very beautifully in his poem 'Septuagesima' (prefaced by a quote in Spanish from Jorge Guillen, which in my inept stumbling through it seems to say that 'names are simply the gloss on things'):

'I dream of the silence
the day before Adam came
to name the animals,

the gold skins newly dropped
from God's bright fingers, still
implicit with the light...

as we are sometimes
haunted... by the forms

we might have known
before the names,
beyond the gloss of things.'

Wednesday 19 January 2011

quanta + qualia = 'me' (or 'you' 'him' 'her' 'us')

- where a quantum is a unit of mass/energy and a quale a unit of consciousness/subjective experience (seems like an elegant equation to me, but since I failed my maths O level [GCSE] twice, I wouldn't believe me if I were you).

So let me get this right. The particles of 'me' as I know 'me' are in a continual process of exchange with Everything That Is, meaning that 'I' am a mere surface ripple, tenuously holding together; the larger part of me extending way beyond my physical boundaries, the density of which are mere illusion. 'I' exist in many places and times at once.

What's more, they (the particles) are in a continual process of being waves as well as particles. This is why I can be in more than one place at once (and presumably my thoughts take wave forms rather than particle form, and may – or may not – manifest physically – or otherwise – elsewhere simultaneously perfectly easily. So if my waves-as-thoughts migrate to say the high Andes, or the rainforest, or a little Scottish island, in true 'reality' they could cohere into some kind of particle-mass too.)

So I'm somewhat disappointed to find that, skiving off yesterday afternoon into our gentle sunny pretend-spring day – near-full-moon rising baby-faced over the hill, wash of pale crimson lake flooding in – the being that was me as I knew her, she who had been briefed to sit at my desk and finish the outstanding (as in still due) work, had clearly bunked off too and trailed me. Damn.

This was an experiment to see if, when I'm away for the next few days bringing creative writing into the curriculum in a Wiltshire school, she could be trusted to sit at home at the computer and enter a blog or two for me. Clearly not. See you at the end of the week – unless, that is, I can manifest a few versions of virtual reality from there.


Later quick update: refinement to my Unified Theory (CERN I hope you're looking; poet-in-residence in the Large Hadron Collider?):
quantum (unit of mass/energy or particle/wave) + quale (unit of subjective/intersubjective experience) = consciousness...

OK off to work. They may not realise they've booked a particle physicist in the guise of a poet (I wish!).

Tuesday 18 January 2011

a squall of grief or wonder: Elisabeth Rowe

Early – mango sorbet sunrise – no wonder our ancestors were in awe of the cycles of seasons and times and phenomena from the diurnal sunrise/sunset to the waxing and waning moon to the spookier eclipses – no one around except me and the dog – sodden fields, fieldfare and finches, a small skein of wild geese – northerly clarity in the wind – up high, so I can see the moors (first time in ten days of thick rain and heavy fog) – can ALMOST see the sea; if I were about 100 metres tall...


Today I have for you a poem from the first poet in our new Two Rivers ('2R') anthology Confluence. Elisabeth Rowe is a long-term member of the 2R group. Elisabeth has that rare ability to both amuse and move: an insightful and quietly wry observer of human nature, she can make us laugh out loud on a 2R day (I recommend to you 'Soul Mates', from her first collection Surface Tension, and 'Periodic Tale' from the anthology) but much of her poetry is profound and wide-ranging. It seems to me that this range illustrates the Elisabeth who is in love with both Tobago and Finland; but the bedrock is the same little island that inspires so many of us: Iona, in the Hebrides. She's a frequent prize winner in international competitions; though even those of us who know her don't usually find out till long after the event. Look out for her new collection Thin Ice.


arrive like a squall
of grief or wonder
a blizzard of ash
from the bonfire of day
a net flung wide
in the lemony dusk
a sky-shoal swimming
in dizzying millions
a mass affirmation
of life before nightfall
such confidence this is
their time and their place
the great wide-openness
suddenly dark with
a whiplash winging
of aerial instinct
each individual
streamlined assembly
of feather and nerve
in synchrony with
its seven neighbours
each swerve and dive of
their starburst patterning 
staggered a fraction
stopping the heart
this fermentation
this gifted fly-past
heavenly recklessness
teaching the intimate
of one with the many
the many with one

© Elisabeth Rowe 2010

poetry's not a narcotic

Yesterday I wrote, very restrainedly, I think, considering how passionately I feel about poetry in the life of a culture, about L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry and the cerebral approach.

Poetry is not a narcotic; but as a mind-altering 'substance' it does have qualities in common with certain drugs; notably that to get the headrush you have to inhale.

Monday 17 January 2011

'language' poetry & the shipping forecast

I've belonged to a rigorously intellectual poetry discussion group for more than twenty years now (this is not the group of poets I tutor under the name of Two Rivers, in my posting about our anthology Confluence). Our discussions are very lively, and I'm extremely fond of many of the poets there. I admire the poetry of two or three of them in particular, and I really enjoy the breadth and depth of our discussions. But these conversations bring up potentially deep rifts in the meaning and 'purpose' of poetry – not irreconcilable, but difficult.

I should start by saying that my own position on poetry is complex (more anon!), but for me, while it can and indeed should be 'political' – challenging social mores and unthought responses, drawing attention to eg the environmental crisis – poetry for me is also more than that, and speaks to more than the cerebral. It is also a medium for integration, insight, conveying depth and meaning, and can be uplifting and transformative as an experience. I'm with Adrienne Rich: poetry can save your life.

In this group, we are all broadly speaking left wing (whatever that means nowadays in eg Britain and the US). But we fail to agree on what makes a poem successful. Many of these guys – and interestingly they're almost all men – subscribe to the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E school of poetry, an important and largely academic movement that challenges, for instance, the lyric poem and the use of images; in brief, and crudely, the core idea here is that language is a sociolinguistic tool that determines how we see the world, and its unthinking use needs to be questioned. As far as that last clause from 'the core idea' goes, so far, so good – more or less.

The idea is that by placing complete emphasis on the language of the poem rather than the ascribed meanings we bring to that language, a reader can be brought to see the world differently. Lyn Hejinian says in her key text The Language of Enquiry: 'Language is nothing but meanings, and meanings are nothing but a flow of contexts. Such contexts rarely coalesce into images, rarely come to terms. They are transitions, transmutations, the endless radiating of denotation into relation.'

I have a big 'but' though. Sure, a good poem can/should stimulate a reader into thinking differently; even into deconstructing his/her previous views of the world. But for me, I would suggest that we actually a priori 'think' in images, that context arises from relationship between images, and language grows out of that image-laden (even archetypal) context as an attempt to convey our experience of being alive. For that reason, I want my poetry to be more than a cerebral manipulation of words; I want it to be also a way of expressing – attempting to express – the full range of human experience; to fumble towards truth; to transcend the hollowness of a purely mechanistic and material view of reality, and I need it to work on more than my intellect alone. I want an 'aha!' moment. Indeed, I know that I've read a good poem when my heart, gut and mind all sing simultaneously. In fact I feel it as a physical and heartful experience a microsecond before my intellect kicks in to comprehend and appreciate it.

To a L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poet this is a reactionary position. Last session, we had a long and diverting conversation about the shipping forecast. For readers outside the UK, I guess I should say that this is an iconic posting on the airwaves, twice daily in the early hours of the morning, of storm warnings via a litany of place names that have become part of our national collective inner furniture. Some very good poets have used these names and the idea of the shipping forecast successfully and movingly in their work; for instance Seamus Heaney and Carol Ann Duffy (sonnets in both cases). The L poets in the group felt that the shipping forecast is not only a deeply conservative institution but it that it also encourages and reinforces nationalistic and even patriotic attitudes – and such a response to it is also deeply sentimental.

Well, I can see their thinking on all this, and I'm very well aware of the dangers of an exclusive nationalism. But I come from a very long line of seafarers (my great-grandfather on my father's side skippered the last tea-clipper, the 'Water Witch', out of Falmouth harbour over 100 years ago; my mother's grandfather was a trawlerman from Newlyn [both in Cornwall, in the far southwest of the UK; very dangerous coastline studded with wrecks, and tales of pirates, smugglers and wreckers] and was also on the lifeboat). We're an island nation, and it seems to me that in a country where you are never more than 125 miles from the sea, its movements are relevant. How much more so if you depend on it and its moods for making your living; and if you know that a flash storm can spell death?

detail from 'Many Waters', oils, © Roselle Angwin, 2010

In addition, I was brought up by the sea. And I believe too that the sea is a major archetype for us all; a source of inspiration, a source of awe, a source of terror, quite apart from all its material gifts. Its tides mirror – some would say cause – physical and emotional cycles; and water is also a symbol, as I've already said, for the feeling nature and the feminine principle. So when Carol Ann D speaks of the shipping forecast as a prayer, we feel that litany and resonate with it: 'Darkness outside. Inside, the radio's prayer – Rockall. Malin. Dogger. Finisterre.' And when I hear of storms in Viking, Biscay, North Utsire I'm only too well aware of what that means for trawlermen too far from home; and how glad I am to be here 'in the lamp's glow'...

And that wasn't at all what I was going to write about today. But hey.

Friday 14 January 2011

holy wells & the Celtic tradition

I have been thinking a lot lately about the 'anam cara', the 'soul friend' (not to be confused with 'soul mate' – though if those two coincide, then you are truly blessed).

The late Irish poet and philosopher John O'Donohue was at least in part responsible for bringing that Celtic concept to modern attention; but the passage I was looking for in his book of that title could not be found (actually I couldn't find the book either). So I shall leave that for another time.

Meantime, in his book Eternal Echoes – exploring our hunger to belong (in many ways, I feel, a stronger book), I was waylaid by a reminder of my at-the-moment-latent (ie not actively active) passion for holy wells.

As a teenager with my first boyfriend and a car we'd bought for a tenner – was it a little Austin A40? A30? – it ended up as a duckhouse! – we travelled the leylines and holy wells of Exmoor, Dartmoor and my native West Cornwall, mapping them and, more importantly for me, cleaning them out. I saw this rather vaguely as 'practice' – though I wouldn't have used that word then; but I guess now it was a symbolic gesture towards care of the earth and spiritual awareness of the importance of the waters of the world, on many levels.

Later,  in my studies of the Grail legends both at university (often stumbling through the original mediaeval Welsh!) and in my later training in transpersonal psychology, which is rooted in aspects of Jungian thought, I started to realise the true symbolic significance of water and wells (we already know about the material significance). In the Grail legends (which are a Christianised version of much older pagan truths), from this perspective, water represents the 'feminine' principle and 'heart', as opposed to 'head', values: the importance of the feeling nature, of soul, of the imagination, and of the sense of relatedness, cooperation and belonging, crudely put. In the legends, the land has been laid waste and the well maidens raped; and what is needed is a restoration of counterbalancing qualities to pair with those of reason, personal achievement, the sense of a separate self,  and 'forging ahead', 'progress', no matter what the cost. (Again, crudely.) There is much information on all this in many Jungian and post-Jungian texts, and some novelists, like Lindsay Clarke, speak of the restoration of this part of human nature alongside our restoration of relationship with the earth. (In my first book, Riding the Dragon – myth and the inner journey, I devote some space to all this.)

And a well is a healing place.

You may know that in parts of the UK – often of course the Celtic parts, but not exclusively (eg Derbyshire) – well-dressing is alive and – well, well. Going to some of the holy wells in West Cornwall, of which a couple are very dear to my heart, one goes to a shrine that is clearly loved and tended by many people. This is heartening. It's also an exchange. And still, sometimes, I find myself making a small pilgrimage to a lost or forgotten well, clearing it, sitting by it awhile. How would it be for more of us to do this? – And quite possibly there are already many who do, quietly, on their own. Clearly, this will not solve the world's problems; but it might go some way towards adding to an attitude of working with, rather than against, the natural world.

I leave you with some thoughts from J O'D: 'The Celtic tradition recognised that we need to invoke blessing on our suffering and pain. It is wrong to portray Celtic spirituality as a tradition of light, brightness and goodness alone; this is soft spirituality. The Celtic tradition had a strong sense of the threat and terror of suffering. One of the lovely rituals was the visit to the holy well. These wells were openings in the earth-body of the goddess... It is quite a poignant thing in a bleak, stolid [mountain] landscape to find these little oases of tenderness bedecked with personal mementoes, where people have come for centuries to the goddesses of the earth looking for healing...'

Coda, a bit later: walking the long way home (about 8 miles!) on lanes, footpaths and byways from dropping the car at the garage, I thought I'd check out for the first time in about a year the ancient Leechwells in the old part of Totnes, so took a diversion. I'm delighted to report that they are being cared for: there were three little scented red candles (tealights) burning on the lip of the main well.

This in itself, of course, was also a diversion from work, so back to it...

Thursday 13 January 2011

a note for Charles Wright

'First light in the east last light in the west and us in between...
Leaning against the invisible...' Charles Wright

All night rain on the skylight
the courtyard at seven still creased with darkness
hauntings of owls and bats
and unbelievably (winter, big wind shaking the hillside)
the first blackbird starting up speaking of spring

on the news that young boy in Brisbane
saving his brother from flood water
at the cost of his own life

yesterday with C in the Law Courts (by the river
where the sand barge has been rusting forever
estuarine tide depleted, quicksand lolling innocent and pale) 
she too ill to fight for what was rightfully hers
but the judge restoring it anyway 

(murmurs from the mudflats' resident geese, a trio of swan, gulls
the black and white avocets in their equivocacy)

the earth rolls on
our cycles of life and decay
just as it is, has been –
and the sums of our attachments breaking
our hearts, both enabling and keeping us from

and what might save us
perhaps only the faith that what has been lost
may find its way back, in time
to where it belongs

Roselle Angwin

Monday 10 January 2011

a triad for lovers

As I'm sure you'll know, the number three is a sacred one in most spiritual traditions worldwide. Our native British tradition is no exception: the bardic/druidic wisdom teachings were often carried in triads.

Here's a triad of mine. (It is, of course, one thing to know it – quite another to live it! I say this ruefully, after a week in which those qualities have not been terribly prominent in myself at times.)

Three practices for friends & lovers
Speaking & listening from the heart
Cherishing essential nature
Extending oneself beyond egotism, prejudice & fear.

Here's to a loving year for us all.


Sunday 9 January 2011

love letters from the universe

'Day after day, priests scrutinise the teachings
and chant endless complicated texts.
First, though, they should learn how to read
the love letters sent by the wind and the rain,
by the snow, and by the moon.'

Ikkyu (C15th) (my version)

Saturday 8 January 2011


There's a fingernail moon and after all the recent rain the earliest stars (and planets – Venus, the evening/morning star, she of the Hesperides) 'are flickering out', as Yeats said in his shamanic poem 'The Song of Wandering Aengus'.

Today is the first meeting of my Two Rivers poetry group; both of the new year and since the arrival of our debut poetry anthology Confluence.

Two Rivers anthology; image © Mary Gillett

This group of poets who meet with me once a month has played a significant part in my life for more years than I can keep track of. We started – I think – at the Wharf Arts Centre in Tavistock on the edge of Dartmoor, in Devon, back in the early ’90s, and migrated eventually to my cottage overlooking the confluence of the Tavy and the Tamar, hence our name. (Since then I’ve moved, and technically we should add the Dart to our list of rivers, but ‘Three Rivers’ hasn’t stuck as our name.) Some of those original poets still form the nucleus of Two Rivers, and new poets have occasionally joined us. One or two have left, but their presence continues in some way as a dynamic in the group.
There are a number of things that hold us together. Most of us take at least some influence from the Devon land- and seascapes. Also, although we don’t work within any one poetic tradition, I suppose we all draw on lyric poetry. 
   In addition, when you work over many years with the same group of people in the context of poetry something alchemical happens, and what is shared in the group is often deeply intimate stuff for which there may be no other room anywhere in the busy outer world. We may not know everything about each other’s daily lives, but we do now know each other in some important ways; poetry requires this opening. So another significant aspect of the work we do together is something to do with deepening; by which I mean deepening our relationships with ourselves, with each other, and (hard – and necessary – to say in an age of commodification) with soul; as well of course as with language. I think we all recognise that our monthly days are much more than ‘simply’ poetry days.
Since our beginning, several of the group have brought out individual collections of poetry (or a novel or play). Here, for the first time, though, we are all collected together between two covers. Hearing these poems read out around the room in the dying light, lifted by the glow of the woodburner, in my simple study/studio, I'm so moved by these people who've entrusted the sharing of their lives and their dreams with me and each other over so many years now.
How grateful I am today
            for these people who
give themselves to this
                        over and over –
listening for one true word.

Thursday 6 January 2011

Indra's Net, the 10,000 things & neonicotinoids

A blackish brackish damp January dusk. ('Drear and dreech', they would say in Scotland.) Paragraphs of lapwings chequering the air. A flight of small finches or larks, unidentifiable in the twilight (dimpsey, as we say in the Westcountry), lets drop sweet bubbling threads of conversation as the birds skim my head.
   In the dusky light separateness dissolves. 'I' am everything and nothing, no thing. 'I' am present in all time and no time. 'I am here / Or there, or elsewhere', as the man says. 'In my beginning.'

In Buddhism and Hinduism there's a wonderful image of Indra's Net: the web that contains, holds and connects all beings. At each intersection of the mesh glitters a mirror-like jewel. A ripple in the net anywhere affects all other beings; equally the mirror-jewels reflect each other reflecting each other, on and on into eternity.
   This is a subtle and beautiful metaphor for interbeing, the interconnectedness of everything. Interbeing plays out on all levels of existence, from the more subtle to the dense material. Nothing happens to the being I call 'me' that doesn't happen to the whole, and vice versa. Every being, no matter how apparently insignificant, is essential to the whole; remove one, and the net is shaken, torn and weakened; maybe even destroyed.
   An ecosystem works like this.
   You will, I'm sure, know about the plight of the bee worldwide. They're in big trouble: cold and wet winters, more intensive farming methods, more concrete and tarmac, viruses, immune weakness, and the use of pesticides, especially the neonicotinoid group. Their numbers are diminishing frighteningly fast. I find this deeply distressing. And – of course – we're reliant on them for our crops, for pollination. The ramifications for us and for every other sentient being that depends on plant life are immense.
    I have been told (but don't take my word for it, check it out) that much, if not most, of Britain and other European countries' vegetable and flower seed grown by conventional (ie not organic) methods is already coated with neonicotinoids, which 'infect' the whole plant, including the flowers and seeds tended or consumed by bees and birds.
   A medic once said to me 'It's the pharmaceutical companies who really pull the strings of economics and politics'.

Anthropologist Margaret Mead said: 'Never doubt that a group of committed citizens can change the world; indeed it may be the only thing that does.' The wonderful environmental and political campaigning group has had much global success in bringing about change, and their current campaign is intended to ensure the banning of the toxic pesticide largely responsible for the bees' demise.
   I hope you'll forgive me for posting the Avaaz email below; you might wish to sign the petition, and spread the word, if it seems important to you.

'Silently, billions of bees are dying off and our entire food chain is in danger. Bees don't just make honey, they are a giant, humble workforce, pollinating 90% of the plants we grow.
   'Scientists increasingly blame one group of toxic pesticides for their rapid demise, and bee populations have soared in four European countries that have banned these chemicals. But powerful chemical companies are lobbying hard to keep selling this poison. Our best chance to save bees now is to push the US and EU to join the ban -- their action is critical and will have a ripple effect on the rest of the world.
   'We have no time to lose – the debate is raging about what to do. This is not just about saving bumble bees, this is about our survival. Let’s build a giant global buzz calling for the EU and US to outlaw these killer chemicals and save our bees and our food. Sign the emergency petition now and send it on to everyone and we’ll deliver it to key decision makers:
   'Bees are vital to life on earth – every year pollinating plants and crops with an estimated $40bn value, over one third of the food supply in many countries. Without immediate action to save bees we could end up with no fruit, no vegetables, no nuts, no oils and no cotton.
   'Recent years have seen a steep and disturbing global decline in bee populations – some bee species are now extinct and others are at just 4% of their previous numbers. Scientists have been scrambling for answers. Some studies claim the decline may be due to a combination of factors including disease, habitat loss and toxic chemicals. But new leading independent research has produced strong evidence blaming neonicotinoid pesticides. France, Italy, Slovenia and even Germany, where the main manufacturer Bayer is based, have banned one of these bee killers. But Bayer continues to export its poison across the world.
   'This issue is now coming to the boil as major new studies have confirmed the scale of this problem. If we can get European and US decision-makers to take action, others will follow. It won’t be easy. A leaked document shows that the US Environmental Protection Agency knew about the pesticide’s dangers, but ignored them. The document says Bayer’s "highly toxic" product is a "major risk concern to non target insects [honey bees]".
   'We need to make our voices heard to counter Bayer’s very strong influence on policy makers and scientists in both the US and the EU where they fund the studies and sit on policy bodies. The real experts – the beekeepers and farmers – want these deadly pesticides prohibited until and unless we have solid, independent studies that show they are safe. Let's support them now...'

Tuesday 4 January 2011

fossils, from tales of wonder

I've been cleaning up my desktop (ha ha – what that actually means is shifting stuff around, procrastinating from working out how on earth I'm going to continue to make a living, and being diverted and distracted by interesting files).

In the process of being distracted, I've just come across a copy of a chapter from my book Writing the Bright Moment. I want to share with you an excerpt from it. (I should add that it's my writing; only the epigraph comes from Snyder.)

Tales of Wonder

from What you should know to be a poet

all you can about animals as persons
the names of trees, flowers and weeds
names of stars, and the movements of the planets and the moon

your own six senses...
Gary Snyder

As humans, we need mystery. As writers, we also need bottomless curiosity, the capacity to be astonished, a passion to carry on learning, and a sense of wonder. These all help to keep inspiration alive, and resuscitate a flagging imagination. This is also, clearly, quite a good recipe for life, too; and as a prescription an inquiring mind is as likely to be both cause and consequence of a spirited old age as anything else...
As you’d expect, most writers I know love learning new things. We have acquisitive natures, and you never know which little bit of tinder will ignite a conflagration. What I do know is that my creativity is often born in the place where a detail excites me.

If I analyse what inspires me personally, much of it is probably universal: music, art, literature, friendship, love, walking, good conversation and new ideas. Human achievements and human acts of courage and compassion. Also for me colour, places, gardens, being outside, dramatic or wild landscape, the ocean, the winds, travel, and so on. Animals, birds,  plants, trees, stones.  Prehistoric cave art. Esoterica, mythology, philosophy, mysticism. Old manuscripts: the Books of Hours; the Celtic holy books such as Kells; sources like the Mabinogion. Stories. Poetry, of course. Metaphor. Language and languages inspire me, and etymology – finding connections between things. (Connection is a very important one for me.)
What I’ve only realised recently is just how much scientific discovery inspires me, especially in the categories of cosmology and new physics, in addition to subjects I already knew inspired me: history, natural history, geology, archaeology and anthropology; and the way in which things are made – glass, for instance. I have only recently realised how fascinating The New Scientist is for non-scientists!
So I have started to keep yet another notebook – this one just for astonishing facts. I know, just know, that one day I’ll use this snippet from Radio 4: in Italy, in what’s known as the Botticelli Gorge, is a single stratum of clay just one centimetre thick in between layers of limestone. This layer has a much higher concentration of iridium than would be expected for such a thin layer of clay, even given that it has been compacted by successive layers of limestone. (At White Scar Cave in Yorkshire there is, apparently, a similar layer of clay in amongst limestone.) Physicists agree that this suggests extraterrestrial activity, such as the impact from an asteroid. So 65,000,000 years ago, apparently, that little seam of clay was laid down as a result of the meteor that, we think, took the dinosaurs. ‘So looking up at the layers,’ said one of the radio presenters, ‘you can see and move through time...’ I am astonished and excited. Inspired.
Looking back over what I’ve just written, I see that it’s very simple. What inspires me is the universe, but especially the earth. The earth moves me to awe. ‘In reality, the earth is the centre of mystery in our lives,’ says artist Daniel De Angeli. ‘Despite the thick layers of civilization and mobile phones, we are still not very far away from our origins, and nature has the power to take you back to the elemental, to a state of surprise and silence.’

I’m at the Cotswold Water Park, one of a team of artists working on a project there. Today we’re learning something of the history and prehistory of the park, which is, we’re told, part of the old Thames floodplain. ‘Wherever you go here, you’re walking on water,’ says Dr Simon Pickering, the Park Biodiversity Officer, a fact that is already inspiring me.
The Water Park contains probably the least known but one of the biggest and most exciting fossil sites in the country. Fossilised remains of crocodiles, giant squid, one of the world’s largest sharks and of such creatures as woolly mammoths and woolly rhinos have all been found here.
Most of these fossil beds are being exposed – and destroyed – as they are excavated for aggregate from the limestone beds. The ‘spoil’ heaps (not accessible to the public, but we are accompanied by an ‘official’ geologist) contain ammonites bigger than a man’s fist, cannonball-sized. We stumble over each other in our excitement. Then our guide, the geologist, lifts a large lump of ordinary-looking clay from a heap and gives it a sharp crack with his hammer. It splits, but he hands it to me without separating the two halves. I open it and gasp. The interior is solid with ammonites of varying sizes. The central one, larger than the others, has a hollow right at the heart of its spiral, and in the hollow is a drop of water. ‘Taste it,’ he says. ‘That’s seawater that’s been locked away in darkness for 160 million years. No one’s seen it before, ever.’ I dip my finger and taste salt.
He’s right.
I’m speechless (no mean feat).

That experience blew me away; and several years on I’m still overawed by it. 160 million years that secret drop of water has kept its salt taste! And needless to say I wrote about it; and wrote about it; and… And it has inspired me to new heights of enthusiasm for researching fossils, and the ages of the earth. The more I discover, the more I’m enthused, and the more I’m kicked sideways to write about new things.


Monday 3 January 2011

leaf sutra

how many years did it take, how much rain
and bone and sun, how much loss composted
into black peat to make this leaf, just this one
new leaf flickering green in the January ditch?

from my new prose/poem collection Bardo (Shearsman Books, May 2011)

Sunday 2 January 2011

tabula rasa

– except of course that it never really is. 'Wherever you go, there you are', as wise mindfulness teacher Jon Kabbat-Zinn titles one of his books. And January 1st is fundamentally a calendrical quirk – not related to the natural cyclical 'turning points' of the year, such as the more obvious date of the winter solstice, the point of maximum darkness/minimum light in the Northern hemisphere, before we turn back towards the sun; or New Year in the Celtic calendar, which is samhain (pronounced 'sowen'), 31st October/1st November, the time (Allhallows) when the veils between this world and the Otherworld are thin, a 'cross-quarter' date, the midpoint between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice.

I realise I only assume, I don't actually know, whether the year's beginning on January 1st was a result of the Gregorian calendar's introduction, adopted in 1582, to deal with the fact that the old Julian calendar assumes that the time between vernal equinoxes is 365.25 days, when in fact it is about 11 minutes less, which, in accumulation, throws things out big time.

Anyway, in terms of New Year, I celebrated the solstice, and Samhain, and we accidentally adopted a kind of 'so what' attitude to this New Year's Eve (which was nothing at all to do with the fact that this year we weren't invited to any parties), and thus I have been silent. It's such a big deal, if you let it be, the first blog of the year – what can one say that will be meaningful but non-platitudinous?– But I had a fabulous 3-mile walk, each way, on my childhood beach, with my oldest friend. So let the new year begin!

But to the tabula rasa: the important thing is the notion that we can symbolically wipe the slate clean and begin again. And, as for many people and the world at large, the last year was a hard one for me and my family and friends. I don't ever wish a year away – every moment brings something unique and precious, but it's been hard, and something in me quickens at what the new year seems to offer – another chance, another opportunity to move closer to what is, and away from the patterns that keep us stuck.

EASE is my word for 2011 (thank you, Susie). I spend my life, like the salmon, swimming upstream, leaping near-impossible obstacles. It's only today I realise that the salmon only does that to create new life, in a fraction of the year; the rest of the time she swims at ease in the wide ocean, letting the currents take her. (The salmon, in Celtic mythology, is a symbol of wisdom.)

Sheng-yen says: 'Be soft in your practice. Think of the method' (or the dharma, or the Way) 'as a fine silvery stream, not a raging waterfall. Follow the stream, have faith in its course... Never let it out of sight. It will take you.'

Melody, who runs a transpersonal psychology site ( to which I subscribe, posted this quote from Abraham Maslow to kick off the new year: 'If you deliberately plan on being less than you are capable of being, then I warn you that you'll be unhappy for the rest of your life.' I don’t think we deliberately plan to be 'less', do we; we just don’t always take the steps – through fear, inertia etc – that we might, to grow into the potential size of our lives...

And I have been thinking about my friend (a different friend) whose husband has recently had a frightening diagnosis. How does one live with heart, at the stillpoint of the turning world, despite illness, mortality, fear, despair – not to mention the world's burden of warfare, cruelty, ignorance, greed, poverty, privation, despoilation – and so on? And I remembered a quote I heard from Satish Kumar: 'There is never enough darkness to extinguish a single candle'. 

I leave you with this, and the catkins, and the earth's predictable cycles. And I remind you of the solar eclipse, visible in the UK at 8.52 on the morning of January 4th - at the same time as a meteor shower from the Quarantids. 

And I wish you all you would wish yourself for this next year. 

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