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 28 February 2011

Gannets in the Sound of Mull

a day of sudden rainbows

against the Ross with its forelit wolf-grey squalliness
the buds of gannets burst pure creamy-white
like punctuation

here where ankle-deep in green water
mountains cluster like cattle

the bird in me wheels
dips for fish
rises again and again
like a white flame


the air holds its own trace of me
though the ground I walk on is


answers are a dereliction, for – look –
we are bathed in the slough of dead stars


when ‘I’ am no longer here
still forests will rise and decay
still oceans fill and vaporise

the atoms of me will be distilled
into stamen, bark, shark-tooth


something of me may linger
in a grand-child’s first steps
the way he smiles
the way she loves to watch
the birds


these friends, this light rain at dusk
this life!


it's not words that will
save us

– Roselle Angwin

Sunday 27 February 2011

fungus and dereliction

Nothing like a sparrowhawk arriving on the roof of the birdtable to clear 50-odd small birds from the courtyard and kitchen garden in the flick of a wing... I know they have to eat too, but please not snacking on my little familiars, sentimental and hypocritical though that might be.

I've been collecting the tangy leaves of sheep sorrel from the hedges here all winter; a welcome hit of fresh greenery in salads and soups. On Friday I gathered the first batch of wild garlic, and made leek and lentil soup and grated-carrot-and-beetroot salad to add it to. Spring!

Yesterday I drove up onto Dartmoor to lead a poetry workshop. I love the tiny twisting lanes with their rounded mossy granite boulder banks, and the wide flanks of the moor stretching to each side. The birch, trees of the uplands (and a 'threshold' tree in the Celtic shamanic tradition) start here; they're just beginning to sport their springtime magenta tips. (I love the phrase for the fat about-to-burst budding tips of trees: 'apical helispheres'. My friend Pat tells me that they are also called 'meristems'.)

Buckland-in-the-Moor is one of those almost painfully pretty moorland villages: rushy streams, wooded valleys with their rosettes of primroses, thatched stone cottages – and the little lemon-and-gold wild daffs in full flower, further advanced than ours here in the supposedly softer South Hams. I saw the first blackthorn of the year dressed in its froth of white blossom, and a garden magnolia was just opening out its goblets. A butterfly. A bumble bee. The tiny church is part C12th, part C15th (stupendously intricate rood screen), and the church clock, presumably from the sentimentality of the Victorian age, displays, instead of numerals, the words 'MY DEAR MOTHER' around its dial.

I have been thinking a lot lately about the balance of the abstract, or conceptual, in ratio to the concrete, in a poem. Yesterday, although this wasn't my original intention, we spent a lot of time talking about this (more in a minute).

Another difficult balance is that of the personal/subjective with that of the universal/objective. I kicked off the day with a phrase from poet and farmer Wendell Berry, about which I also think a lot. Berry says that 'so much of the poetry I read has the speaker present and the world absent, or the world present and the speaker absent'.

These two subjects are interlinked in some ways. It's easier perhaps to start with Berry's words. One way of looking at this is through examples of two common kinds of poems.

One is the 'confessional', perhaps the 'broken heart' poem, where the poet's focus is entirely on the small emotionally-focused world of the ego, with no reference to the bigger picture, no attempt to situate the poem in a wider, universal context. This closes the poem down for a reader, and can come across as narcissistic, as its remit is the self-referential. (This is not to say in any way that one shouldn't write about one's broken heart; it's just that it's more effective if not bedded entirely in one's emotional reactions.)

The opposite is the poem where the focus is overly general, overly abstract or intellectualised, so that the content is largely cerebral/conceptual. When any expression of feeling response or the particular is absent, the poem will have a strangely detached quality.

In both cases, what is missing is that crucial bridge between the personal and the universal which the strongest poems contain. (Through skilful expression of personal perceptions and responses, a universal truth might be glimpsed, in other words.)

The abstract/concrete dyad, considering how simple it is in theory, seems to present a lot of problems to beginning poets, both conceptually and actually (I mean as in how to do it).

In the spirit of poetry being a lifelong apprenticeship, and 'beginner's mind' always being relevant, we explored this further yesterday, practiced and novice poets together. An abstract sentence, I said, in simplistic terms is one in which no sensory detail appears. We could describe it as a statement that consists of a concept, eg: 'Obsolescence is inherent in everything and everything must pass', offers my sister today (sitting beside me, also blogging, on a rare touchdown between here and Scotland) as an example of an abstract sentence. We then discuss this: but, says R, there's that word 'everything'. And if you write a sentence that contains a subject, since a subject implies the existence of an object, you are surely then speaking of the external and concrete world? No, I say; what about grief? There's nothing concrete about grief, no matter how deeply you feel it. It's an abstract noun. And 'everything' is far too vague and general a word to conjure any concrete object into one's imaginal world.

What we remember  from a poem will be the images. OK, it may also be the feelings and thoughts it conjures in us, the moments when it touches our own experience; but those feelings and thoughts, I think it's true to say, will have been planted and then anchored in our imaginations through the images: the sensory detail that the poet has used to convey/stand in for/represent those abstractions. You can't touch, taste, smell, hear or see grief (though you may be able to hear, see, touch a grieving other, and you'll perceive their grief through their sensorily-expressed responses, as well as through your imaginative/empathic powers). But a well-observed detail about the decaying ribs, for instance, of an old wooden boat might serve to symbolise grief.

So, I say to the poets, trust the concrete world to do the work for you. Show the reader the scene and let them have the experience. Populate your poems with acutely-observed objects and resist the desire to unpack them, to tell the reader what you're thinking and feeling. So we go out into the little moorland churchyard and note the way soggy fungus blackens along the broken ash branch, the way the wind bends the daffodils horizontal, the tidelines of lichen on the tombstones, the offkey peal of bells from the church tower, and consider what aspects of human experience these concrete objects might be co-opted to symbolise.

I ask them, for a warm-up, to note concrete nouns in one column, possible abstract correlates in another, and a strong related verb in a third (eg black fungus/dereliction/deliquescing; catkins/optimism/proclaiming; spiky-leafed dandelion/obliviousness/selfing). If you want to convey a mood of dereliction, or desolation, I say, what a reader will remember is the rotting wet fungus, not the word dereliction, probably. Don't tell us you set out for a walk feeling optimistic; give us the image of catkins and allow us our response to the catkins.

'Oh, I get it,' says Phil. 'I was on a public speaking course, and the leader said that the audience will remember the story better than they'll remember your words about the story.' 'Exactly,' I say.

And yet, and yet. 'A poem just about nature isn't enough either,' I add. 'If it's simply a descriptive poem, no matter how well-observed, you may still evoke the "so what?" reaction in your audience. It needs to add something of what it is to be human – by which I mean I guess an abstract and/or personal note – to that descriptive picture. That's what might invite the head/heart/gut response that allows me to recognise a good poem.' 'Like what percentage of concrete to abstract?' asks Phil. I make a stab at it. 'Well, maybe one or two well-chosen lines in a 10- or 12-line poem? Depends on the poem, of course.'

We look at James Wright, who's hard to beat in getting the balance exactly right. So 'Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy's Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota': 12 lines of specific and detailed sensory observations (in which I include the less concrete 'Into the distances of the afternoon'), and then that simple last line: 'I have wasted my life' – a blow to the solar plexus that sends you back up to the beginning. Perfect; and if the poem had not included that last line it would have been (just) another pleasing nature poem. And if the poem had consisted only of concepts, like that last line, it would have had little impact; there would have been no hooks, no anchors to the physical world to which we might attach our own felt experience of being human.

And, what's more, 'the world' is clearly present in his careful attention to the natural surroundings; and so is he as speaker. And because of the way he puts together the poem, and the clarity with which I can picture William Duffy's farm, and the simple unadorned and unsentimental statement from the heart at the end, I as reader am in there too, pondering his experience of wasting his life, and inevitably considering my own relationship to that statement.

Friday 25 February 2011

islands of the heart

What is it about islands? I can't imagine I'm alone in seeing them as significant places, in themselves, and also symbolically. In terms of human resonance, we could see them as units of consciousness both separated and connected by the same perpetually fluid sea (something here about relationship, and about qualia, and about the way energy coheres in matter for a short space of time – whether that's the single day of the mayfly, the season of the butterfly, the span of a human life or the long dreamtime of a rock – before the quanta recycle themselves into everything) (maybe).

You know how it is that there are significant events, times, people, places which/who mark a turning point in your life? So we might say: 'That was before/after I met X/got married/divorced/had children/moved house/wrote that play/took that job/went to Machu Picchu –', and so on, dividing our life up through moments of great significance. Sometimes these are also connected with peak experiences: those moments out of time in which we transcend the 'normal' limitations of human mundane consciousness with its constraints and tight boundaries, encounter something more enduring, maybe more numinous.

But that's not really what I was going to write about, except inasmuch as I'm going to speak of one of those major turning points in my own life.

Twenty-five years ago, at a really difficult and painful time in my life, a friend who has since died took me to the Scottish Hebrides for the first time. There are, of course, for most (all?) of us, I assume, places, like people, with whom we resonate. When we meet that place, or that person, something in us that might not even have registered an absence before suddenly and sometimes dramatically falls into place, feels complete, whole, reconnected. I experienced that on the northwest coast of the Isle of Mull, dramatically and completely. And then again, as so many thousands of people do, in a deeper, quieter and much more serene way when I stepped off the ferry onto the tiny Isle of Iona. And I am lucky enough to be able to make that inner shift as I make the outer journey, annually.

traigh ban nam manach - roselle angwin

Iona has been a sacred place, a site of pilgrimage, for thousands of years, and it is, I imagine, almost impossible not to feel that sense of the numinous, no matter whether or not you consider yourself religious, and no matter what you might call it as soon as you step ashore, despite the newish horrible digital display of the ferry times at the slipway. (It's harder perhaps if you come in high summer, accompanied by hundreds of others; nonetheless on this tiny isle – about three miles by one and a half ish – there are many places to hide yourself away, and simply be still with the island.)

Iona was a teaching isle of the druids long before Christianity; it seems that there would have been a great deal of interchange between here and other centres of learning abroad in the ancient world. There are the remains of a processional route, still partly marked by standing stones – certainly used to carry the royal dead of Scotland but probably truly ancient – from Grasspoint on the east coast of Mull near Duart Castle, home of the Macleans, across to Fionnphort, opposite Iona, 35 miles. 

The name, Iona, probably comes from the Gaelic name of the island, which was simply 'I'. This in Gaelic is the third person feminine pronoun: 'she', or 'her'. It is also the eighth letter of the Celtic tree alphabet, and the tree for this letter is the yew, a sacred tree to Celts and druids alike. So Iona may be 'isle of the yews' (incidentally the World Tree, Yggdrasil, normally denoted as World Ash, is actually, according to scholars, the World Yew).

And if you have read my post on Imbolc, it won't surprise you if I mention here that the isle (which incidentally, is composed largely of Lewissian gneiss, one of the oldest rocks on the planet) was, it seems, dedicated to and presided over by Bride/Brigid/Brigantia (later St Bride to the Christians), who was the daughter of Anu, mother goddess of the Tuatha de Danaan, the gods of Ireland. Bride was a fire goddess as well as the goddess of knowledge, inspiration and fertility.

There's much more to say on the spiritual, and also political, history of the island, but I shall restrain myself today.

For ten years, I think it was, I co-led a writing retreat on Iona every April with my friend Scottish poet and author Ken Steven. We called the retreat 'Into Blue Silence'. People came from all over the world, and we have grown a small but warm transient community with shifting frontiers as people come across the course and sense that there's something that pulls them here. Some come every year, without fail; some come occasionally; each year a few new people join us.

As of last year, I am running this retreat solo, and have called it 'Islands of the Heart'. It is focused on writing, but is about something much deeper, too, of which writing is an outward expression; here on this island through words, through silence, through poetry, through walking, through the close companionship of others who 'get' the spirit of the place (and helped by the voices of the sea and the air, and it has to be said the fine Argyll Hotel food), something in us is restored, transformed, set free. 

One of the highlights is a boat-trip on Davy Kirkpatrick's wooden Iolaire ('eagle') to Staffa, that astonishing columnar island that is part of the underwater basalt seam that emerges off Ireland as the Giant's Causeway. This was the inspiration for Mendelssohn's Fingal's Cave, of course.

staffa, fingal's cave (roselle)

Davy the boatman knows everything there is to know about the island, the wildlife, the geology, the history. And last year, he landed us on Staffa after a natural history lesson on puffins, and several of us had the magical experience of an hour or so on top of the island, with puffins strolling about on the grass around our feet, close enough to touch.

On Staffa

At first they come singly, specks of dark spume
kited up from their rafting on the tranquil
green-glass sea; then in their twos and threes.

We hold our breath, let the slow
swell of the great Atlantic stretched to all
the directions breathe us.

On the western horizon a speck of dust
is a trawler; and below, the wooden boat rounds
the bows of the island and vanishes.

They crashland like parachutists with
their orange feet, webbed as penguins’,
asplay; rattle their wings in April air,

and one by one saunter closer, clumsy,
comic, their airborne elegance absent
here among the blond grasses.

On the cliffs, above the plaint of fulmars,
the puffins’ low chuckles creak like
antique hinges. They gaze at us

where we lie inches away, we who cannot
fly; they gaze from their strange exotic triangles
of eyes beneath gelled quiffs, black brows

crowning white cheeks; they with their stubby
rainbow beaks against our landbound drabs.
None of us moves. It’s in these moments

that we remember the truths behind
words; and recover an ancient longing;
and our kinship, our covenant, with wild.

– Roselle Angwin

This year's Islands of the Heart runs from 2nd-8th April. The course is filling but at the moment there are still places available. See my website ('Courses', hover until 'Course Details' appears). The course takes place at the wonderful Argyll Hotel on the water:; there are alternative options for accommodation.

Wednesday 23 February 2011

surfing 2: surfing for writers

When you know what's happening in Libya at the moment, with air strikes and machine guns turned on the people, or when you can imagine the wreckage of lives post-earthquake in Christchurch NZ, it's hard to know how to respond. There is something exceedingly superfluous, indulgent even, it seems to me to carry on blithely with a blog, as if nothing has happened. And yet – tending the fires of attempting to live creatively, wisely, kindly, just carrying on, may be all we can do; the only sane response to the horrors.

'My religion is kindness,' says the Dalai Lama.

So, although this is not a post about kindness, it is about carrying on. I am going to carry on, and post another extract from a chapter in my Writing the Bright Moment that uses the metaphor, again, of surf. This is from 'Catching the Wave'.


Years ago I was learning to surf. I love water, but my preference is to be on or near it. Being in it, though exciting, holds a bucketful of fear for me if it’s deep and wild water (which, it being the North Devon Atlantic coast on which I was brought up, it was). I also love waves; but being tossed and thrown by big breakers a long way out of my depth, with my head continuously thrust underwater, is a terrifying experience.
So since surfing involves – in my experience! – a great deal more immersion than buoyancy, you can imagine how I was pushing my fear threshold every time I carried the seven feet of fibreglass which represented my notional terra firma down over the sands. And, though the exhilaration of catching a wave is unlike anything else, and worth all the duckings, I found it quite hard to get myself to the stage where I could let go into it. I’d shiver on the shoreline, dig my toes into the sand, allow myself to be distracted by shells and pebbles – anything rather than notice how the undertow pulled at my ankles, and just how many hundreds of miles and billions of gallons of water swayed deeply and horribly between me and America, with only the three miles of Lundy Island to break it... (The procrastinations, of course, were a precursor of my life as a writer.)
Slowly then you edge towards the water, wading until the surf is beginning to break against your knees, then creeping up your thighs, and you’re raising yourself on tiptoe or jumping to avoid that first cold slam of water against your lower belly. By this time you’re far enough out to launch yourself belly-down on your board and paddle out past the waves. Then you meet the first serious breakers roaring towards you, enormous as you’re lying prone, mountainous glassy walls about to crash; and either you breast them into a moment’s stillness the other side before the next one towers, or they pour their icy weight over you. And you paddle and duck, paddle and duck until finally, eyes stinging, arms tired, you turn, pausing in the quieter waters, keeping an eye out over your shoulder for a promising swell. It’s tempting to stay here, where it’s calm. This is where the waves are born, first as gentle undulations, then rollers, then the fearsome elemental breakers, which charge the shore and dissolve, before sliding back home to start the cycle again.
The aim is to catch a wave just before it breaks. As a likely looking swell rolls towards you, you paddle like crazy towards the shore to be travelling at the right velocity to catch the wave just as it peaks. If your timing’s off, you will be thrown, tossed under like flotsam, separated from your board and tumbled, flailing in cubits of opaque choppy water; of no more note than the bladderwrack with which you might share this tumultuous break of water. You’re trying to catch your breath and the board before the latter catches you; ribs can be broken, temples smashed, eyes taken out, even, by the hooked fin that stabilises and steers the board. You wonder – in between fighting for air and desperately struggling to get your head above water – why you ever thought this might be fun. You wonder whether you’ll drown.
But if you catch it, you’re borne in like a bona fide part of this watery world towards the shore, sweeping in like a sea god(dess) on this flimsy piece of board. And – like after childbirth – you forget the terror.

Writing’s like that. Every time it’s an assault on the unknown, a venture into exciting and potentially terrifying territory. You may float; you may get knocked back; you may catch a wave; you may not. You may lose your board. You may go under. You may not come up. You’ll fall off the board over and over. You may only catch damp squibs: little waves that break up just as you are about to stand up. You may catch one and live, briefly, in another world. Sometimes you break through into a calm, still place with the ocean rippling beneath you. All the time it’s just you and the sea. 

Tuesday 22 February 2011

the white lady

Our farming neighbour has ploughed his fields, burying the good horse-muck. These fields are a haven for the currently-endangered skylarks, who nest in little ruts on the ground. They're still there, this morning, above me, dropping down their chains of song. I so hope that they hadn't started nesting; and that the farmer will plant sooner rather than later so as not to disturb their nesting; and that he will resist spraying the pesticides and herbicides that destroy the essential components of their food chain.

We're lucky here on the whole in this little valley; there are now a number of tiny holdings owned and worked by like-minded people, organically. A lot of us are doing very small scale forest gardening, or at least fruit and nut tree planting. Simon manages his acres with a very light touch, 'steeping' (laying) his hedges beautifully, carefully; coppicing his hazel and willow on a ten-year cycle; and he gave me another verb – snedding? stenning? (or is that what you do with a gun?) – have forgotten – for stripping the side branches from long slender stems which will be used for hurdle-making. He makes nest boxes, bird tables, hedgehog boxes for Christmas presents.

In the courtyard now, with spring beginning to do its thing, I notice that birds are coming mostly in pairs, including the newly-arrived nuthatches and marsh tits, and also the spotted woodpeckers. I love this cycling between solitude, flocking (those birds who do flock), pairing and rearing the young who will start again the new cycle of solitariness...

It seems to me that humans too need these cycling waves of solitude, intimacy, bringing forth the fruit of that closeness (which of course is not necessarily a 'real' baby, so much as the 'third thing' that emerges from and holds together any real meeting, any union of depth, even while it has its own life), and the submersion of the individual in the community. It also seems to me that many of us resist some aspects of this natural cycle; finding intimacy difficult, or fearing solitude, or the 'drowning' of the ego in a larger collective perspective. I guess this is why love is so often confused with dependency, or co-dependency; very different from the mutual empowerment of recognition of interdependency.

Yesterday my friend Anne and I met for our two-or-three-times-a-year silent walk to the White Lady waterfall in the wonderful Lydford Gorge, on the edge of Dartmoor – thirty metres of white pouringness, a spell that binds, the kind of white-noise silence that takes you both out of and further into yourself, stilling the little voices.

this white lady
pours her whole self
the dragon of her
like white fire
through the forest gorge

long after we leave
her dark moist places
her thunder
roars through my cells

(from 'Lydford Gorge' in Bardo)

Afterwards, in the pub, we caught up on the months apart: monitoring the internal and external shifts that happen in our lives, in the world at large. Anne is a textile artist, and her current project consists of huge tapestries that explore the persecution of witches in Europe. Strangely – or not – her latest piece is called, like my book, 'Imago' – which, I learn (in addition to signifying both a psychological state and the process of transformation from chrysalis to butterfly, both of which are relevant to my novel) is also a kind of spell; by which I assume the term means the holding in one's mind of an image of what one wants to achieve, or manifest, through the imagination, in the outer world (this after all is what 'magic' is, in essence).

And then later I meet Mary, a painter and printmaker. Like me, she spends much of her time facilitating the creative process in others; we too meet periodically to remind each other to nurture our own creative needs.

These are artists' dates, as described by Julia Cameron in The Artist's Way; they have been so helpful to me in feeding my process and keeping inspiration alive.

The Red Poppy: Susie Shelley

Today's poet from the Two Rivers anthology Confluence is Susie Shelley. What to say about Susie? I guess one of her most striking characteristics is how at home she is on the earth; and how equally at home in the water (she is a diver). And more recently she has been having flying lessons; so that now, like the best kind of waterbird, she is at home in three elements.

Some of the things I like about the poem of hers I've chosen: the powerful simplicity of its passion; the abundance of concrete detail which allows us as reader to conjure the scene; the lack of capitalisation and punctuation, and especially end-stopping, that allows the poem to run off the page and into that wet meadow, and we follow it.

The Red Poppy

So today it rains

there is nothing so beautiful
as summer rain
when you stand, hot-blooded
your back against a tree
with your lover pressed hard against you
turn your lips up to his kiss
and feel the gentle trickle of water
stroking your face
feel his breath
on your forehead
as he caresses your damp hair

and when the storm increases
how being soaked to the skin
makes stripping his drenched shirt and peeling your blouse
even more sensational
the hot charge of his flesh
the rain stinging his back, your face

how your small fingers slip easily into his wet hands
how you must stay this close, forever
or until the sun breaks through

then to lie in the long grass
steaming in the sudden heat
your cheek resting on his bare shoulder

the red poppy stunning
against a blue sky
Susie Shelley

Saturday 19 February 2011


The courage of the human heart. Butterfly wings against bars. Sunlight slipping through cracks. The Arab world: on the cusp of genocide, a bloodbath – or breakthrough, revolution. (This is my body, this is my blood; what happens to one happens to us all.)

What use is poetry, I wrote, if you're starving, or a refugee / squeezed between torture and war, or bleeding alone / in some dark alley...

And yet, and yet. Imagine a world without the means, and the faith, to praise the heart and its holding to older, stronger, deeper truths that transcend the worst that we can do to each other; that can speak of the best we can do.

'And still the light comes,' says my friend Jo. In the space between breaths everything we know can be upturned, poured out, transformed. A butterfly stamps and suddenly everything's changed. 'Never doubt' says Margaret Mead, 'that a group of committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it's the only thing that ever does.' (Have I written this before?) We can give up; or we can carry on. We can curse the darkness of fear, or we can light a candle to see us through. ('Never enough darkness to extinguish a single candle.')


And still, and still, we live in paradise. This moment. This small night-deep violet hidden in the muddy bank. This day, warm enough to shed coats, to sit outside. The swelling-bud-tipped trees. The redgold stems of willows throwing their light across the stream. Even the plane's pink contrail is beautiful. Now, dusk, the owl alighting near my head. The something beyond words.

The untamed has no words.
The unwritten pages spread out on every side!
I come upon the tracks of deer's hooves in the snow.
Language but no words.

– Tomas Transtromer

What liberate
are these correspondences:
ocean mind, heart speaking to heart,
to be intimate with

To travel

beyond the names of things.

– Roselle Angwin

Friday 18 February 2011

The Pyrenees, the Cathars and Imago: part 2

The Cathars
I find it hard to write about, or perhaps I mean know when to stop writing about, the Cathars. For over thirty years now they've been an important and private area of study for me, with a very strong philosophical and psychological draw for me personally, and it's really hard to attempt to do them justice in a blog. I also recognise that they won't interest many people. (However, in the last three decades, I have bumped into an astonishing number of people for whom Catharism has a magnetic pull in some way.) And since they underpin Imago, I'd like to say a little about them.

I need to say first of all that I'm not an historian. I know a little about three or four specific periods in history, and shockingly little about the rest (The Man is incredulous about my inability to connect names, dates and historical/political events of note). What I'm about to say is largely from memory; having just arisen from my sickbed I have no energy for seeking out exactitudes from books right now.

What I do know is that C13th Southern France was a hotbed of political and religious turmoil. In many ways it was a very advanced culture, artistically and politically: for instance, women were recognised as legitimate landholders in their own right; and there were, of course, under Eleanor of Aquitaine, the Courts of Love – a much more radical innovation than most people are aware, as it is from this period (and courtesy of the Moors, oddly enough, given our popularised views on Islam's attitudes to the feminine) that our European cultural relationship to the concept of romantic love, and any notion of seeing women as other than servants of expediency in terms of the material acquisitions that governed marriage choices, emerged to shape and dominate our current views and expectations. The itinerant troubadours, connected with this time and its emphasis on romantic love, were probably relaying ancient spiritual wisdom about transcendence beneath the surface of their 'lays' (tales/songs/poems).

But that's another story. (My daughter posted a very funny blog on her Facebook site that included a brief analysis of our export of capitalism to the Arab world, and our import of romantic love from the Arab world: 'two of the Trojanest horses ever', she said.) (Which reminds me of my father saying, only half-jokingly, that 'those men in baggy trousers have a lot to answer for'. No doubt I shall pick all this up in another ranty blog on romantic love and projection some time!)

I am not a Christian. I also subscribe to Buddhist views on non-dualism. Yet the impact of dualistic Christian Catharism on me has been marked, and continues to resonate. I want to leave the personal on one side, though, and simply say a little about the 'facts', as far as we have them.

The Catholic church of that time was wealthy, corrupt and very threatened by 'heresy'. What we know of the Cathars, a quiet gnostic sect whose teachings are firmly in the original word of Christ but whose roots go back further, is largely from the clearly deeply biased Inquisitorial documentations. The Inquisitors were under Dominican orders to stamp out Catharism altogether; they were fervent in their creation and application of methods of torture. (Famously, at the siege of Beziers in 1209, when Simon de Montfort, the commander of the crusade, asked how one would know the Cathars from the rest of the Catholic population, a monk who was actually present at the siege recorded the answer of the Papal Legate to the Crusaders, Arnaud-Amaury, the Abbot of Citeaux, as 'Kill them all. God will know his own.')

What we do know amounts basically to this: the Cathars, known in the region as Bonshommes and greatly respected, lived a very simple unmaterialistic life with few if any personal possessions. They did not have a religious hierarchy, believing, rather like the later Quakers, that one's relationship to God did not need mediating through a churchly elite. They did have a priestly caste, called (not by themselves) Perfecti, or Parfaits; these were individuals who had chosen to entirely dedicate their life to the spiritual. Women as well as men were Perfecti. They were vegetarian, dedicated to a life of non-violence, believed both in reincarnation  and the transmigration of souls, and felt that our purpose here is to be of service. Their raison d'etre was the evolution of love, in its truest sense. In all of this they resemble Buddhism, and some scholars have suggested common spiritual roots (not surprising).

They were, first and foremost, healers. They had a rigorous training in meditation and healing. They had no sacraments other than the Consolamentum, a very deep and ultimate form of initiation. The Perfecti were celibate, and the Cathar faith did not believe in marriage. They were known as dualists because of their belief that the world was created by two different forces: the material world by the force of the negative (described as 'evil' in some texts, but I am suspicious of a too-easy interpretation of relationship to the matter/spirit question); the spiritual by the force of 'good'. They felt, supposedly, (same caveat) that we are trapped by matter. (I have a whole book's worth of commentary on this, but will hold back!)

Needless to say, such a low-profile and simple faith was of great threat to the conspicuously consumerist hierarchically-driven power-machine that was the Catholic church of those days. The Church spared nothing to stamp out the Cathars.

The final overt triumph for the Church in Southern France was the siege of Montsegur. This story is incredibly moving. In brief, the chateau on its high bleak pinnacle held out for two years against the Inquisitorial army. Finally, though, ill, weak, starving, they were overcome by the mercenaries on Church business. The Cathars were given the option of recanting, or being burnt. Unusually, once it was clear that no one was going to recant, they were given two weeks' grace, on their request. We think this is so that they could celebrate the rite of Bema, which seems to have a connection with the spring equinox (again I have thoughts on this, but shall hold them). On 14th March 1244, the protecting garrison, Cathar sympathisers but not Cathars, and drawn from local people, were given leave to march out as free men, leaving the two hundred-odd Cathars alone to their fate. One of the most moving things is that several of the garrison opted to stay, and be received into the Cathar faith, thus ensuring their death on 16th March that year. (Another detail that I find almost unbearably moving is that, contrary to all expectations of the Gascon mercenaries who herded these people to their death, the Cathars went with no resistance into the flames.)

This conquest was seen by the Roman church to be an unqualified success; the 'dragon's head' of Catharism had been cut off. What I saw, though, in the mountains of C20th Languedoc, is that the central tenets of Catharism have not been forgotten; the movement merely went underground, as all 'heresies' or esoteric spiritualities tend to in times of persecution or ignorance.

Thursday 17 February 2011

If you are broken

even if you don’t believe, lay your body
like a prayer on the moist dark earth

be bathed in the tongues of water
springing like woodflowers 

from the rocks around you. Feel the hands 
of sun, of moon, radiant on your brow.

And night too will come, ‘dropping slow’ –
allow this. Allow this birth –

star in the eye of the universe
cell in the body of earth.

– Roselle Angwin

Wednesday 16 February 2011

The Pyrenees, the Cathars and Imago: part 1

The Pyrenees
I want to tell you now about the genesis of my novel Imago, due out any day.

The first time I went to the Pyrenees I was 14, and travelling with my French penfriend and her family. We were crossing to stay in a village by the sea in the foothills in Spanish Catalonia.

I remember three things from that trip: a sense that this hauntingly beautiful mountain range was in some important way significant to me; a day's ride into the mountains on big grey (white) Spanish horses, just me with my penfriend's gorgeous and rather awe-inspiring older male cousins; and a severe and acute mystery illness, where I was delirious for several days, and couldn't even keep down water. This is the first time I remember having what would have to be called an out-of-body experience. The doctor (I have no memory of this) was apparently completely baffled by what was going on with me; my penfriend's grandmother sat vigil at my bedside for three days and nights. They felt I was too ill to go home. I remember with total clarity my return to 'normal' consciousness: I distinctly heard the piano piece 'Fur Elise' being played close by, and it 'brought me back'. I also remember vividly the taste of a peach, the first thing I'd eaten and kept down in nearly a week. What was interesting is that there was no piano anywhere near the house in which I was staying; but I discovered when I returned to the UK that my younger sister had played exactly that piece of music, on the day and yes the time when I'd heard it, in Braunton Village Hall, in England, for the WI.

In my late teens/early twenties I spent some months on each of two separate trips in the French Pyrenees. The first of these two trips I stayed in a friend's mother's little house in the hills behind Ceret. This was an impulse trip: he'd turned up in Devon from Cambridge and simply asked if I'd like to go and spend the summer there. I'd recently taken my driving test, and my father trustingly lent me his car, so I drove to Wales to pick up a passport, and then left with J with a tenner in my pocket and no date for return except in time for uni in the autumn. It was an idyllic time of reading, hanging out in the sun, walking in the mountains and harvesting fruit from J's mum's orchards surrounding the house to sell in the market when we needed money.

The next time was quite different. There were wild boar who hounded me up an apple tree, a brief abduction (yes really – but only for about 30 minutes), smuggling over the border, bumping into a fellow-student on a tiny boar-track in the middle of unpopulated mountains, and meeting an Italian whom I would marry, the father of my daughter. And the ever-present Cathars, whose lives have shaped mine in some indistinct way since.

The mountains are, I think, one of those 'thin veil' places.

It's a very long story, so in outline only, I ended up in the high mountains beyond Albi in a small commune right on the Spanish border (but still in France). Albi was the centre of the Cathar, or Albigensian, 'heresy', and here, for the first time, I learnt something of the Cathars, their beliefs and their tragic story. This area is the Languedoc, from the Langue d'Oc, Occitania being the old name of the region. Everywhere are Cathar and Occitanian symbols – or at least I started to see them everywhere. The region is studded with Cathar castles on their high peaks ('puigs' or 'pogs'), and somehow, increasingly, I felt myself moving between times.

It was a profound and disorienting time; and once again I became ill (I'm normally a fit and healthily active person). This time it was a kind of semi-paralysis: my legs and lower back simply refused to hold me upright. I'd had a couple of riding accidents so at first I put it down to an old childhood spinal injury; but it went on and on. I was immobilised for a couple of weeks with no sign of improvement. Then a couple of the guys from the commune made a makeshift stretcher and carried me down the hill (the nearest track for a car stopped a couple of miles away) to an old man, a healer, who lived in a house called Les Cerisiers (surrounded by cherry trees). 'It's being here', he said. And I knew it.

He asked me to turn over onto my stomach, lifted my shirt, put his hands on my lower back, and ten minutes later I walked back up the track unsupported.

Tuesday 15 February 2011

only a guest: Maggie Clark

It's Tuesday. If you've been paying attention, you'll know that this is the day when I post a poem by one of the writers in our new Confluence anthology. Sorry it's late – have been feeling sorry for self under the covers much of the day; my flu has returned with a vengeance (I'll blame it on my daughter's cold damp house in the certain knowledge that she won't be reading this as – understandably – her mother's writings make her cringe, especially if the word 'poetry' is mentioned! There again, it's probably more likely to be my getting up and doing stuff, especially wet cold stuff in the garden, on Saturday, 24 hours in, thinking I was better... OK, enuff. I shall be womanly.)

Today it's wise woman Maggie Clark. I first met Maggie on her 60th birthday (quite a – in fact a very – long time ago. I hope when I'm her age I have half of her guts and spirit.) She'd rolled up at the Dartmoor pub in a pony and trap. She'd not long come back from riding across Tierra del Fuego. I learned too that in addition to farming and caring for her own huge family, and later running a centre for inspirational courses, she'd offered farm breaks to troubled adolescent city boys. Since I've known her, she's also trekked in the Himalayas, published a novel, and written and had performed three plays. She is still a hill farmer on the moor. When lambing allows it, she joins us on the Isle of Iona retreat, and the first little poem was written there (I'm sure you'll remember what happened in Feb 2003). Because it's so tiny, I shall let her have a bit more space, too.

Iona February 2003

How may I celebrate in this holy place
now all that slaughter
stops me dancing?

Only a Guest

We could hardly wait for the bread to rise
the garlic to finish its simmering
the wine to trickle down our throats
hardly wait yet
holding on
the pleasure of our appetites

we made it last there
in that warm kitchen

forever I thought
my eyes resting on you

then the champagne
your good luck
no time for slow food

I’m going to clear everything out you said
flinging wide the windows knocking down walls
bright steel kitchen

I tried to keep up
my fingers longing to knead bread in a slow kitchen

when you emptied the sitting room and painted it a sort of beige
‘nothing to distract my creative thoughts’ you said
my protests, weak with realisation, came quietly rasping from my dry mouth

after all it is your house

and I

am really

only a guest

– Maggie Clark 

Monday 14 February 2011


towards early sun
frost, gorse, the river's white roar
chalice of the day

Sunday 13 February 2011

take away the number you first thought of

The last time I intercepted, as opposed to boarded, a train at Totnes station would have been back in the 80s, I suppose (actually it wasn't an interception so much as a witnessing; silent on the day I was there, but more vocal I gather on other occasions). Then, we – and 'we' were mostly mothers of young children – were protesting at the transportation of spent uranium rods through our small town, in the early hours, from Devonport in Plymouth where, unbelievably, several nuclear reactors (as the Trident refitting project) co-habit with 250,000 people.

Yesterday's interception was entirely peaceful and personal. I dragged myself off my sickbed (moan groan hack cough) to pass to my daughter, travelling through to Newcastle, presents for two of my closest friends who share a birthday; E is staying with them while attending a conference.

E lives in the most fabulous place in the middle of Dartmoor, and I'm staying here horse-sitting while she's away. Her (rented) cottage is a dream, and not too dissimilar in atmosphere and type of location to one on the north edge of the moor in which I lived when I was her age (31), in a similar style: working hard in the arts field and living very simply: stunning views, sparse population (other than wildlife), veg garden, spring water, no central heating and everything working off the Rayburn for which I used to drag in and saw up fallen timber from the surrounding woods. (However, where I used a bow saw, E has progressed to a chainsaw. And I had a daughter where she has horses.) She is as broke as I've always been, too. For us, the conditions, though admittedly challenging, are in tune with how we envisage living simply. (Others would call them primitive. Depends what flies your kite, I guess.)

'Oh mum really sorry but the house is a bit cold. The Rayburn's not going because there's no dry wood, and so no hot water, either.' (There's no other heating except the woodburner, and the same applies.)
 Not the best news when you're feeling like I am. It gets worse.
'You could put the immersion on but it shorts out. What you have to do –'
 My commitment is wavering a little.
'... is – you know outside my bedroom door, if you look behind the set of shelves, and pass your hand behind the top one – find the trip switch and switch the whole power supply off. Do you need to write this down?'
 Hope what she's seen in my eyes is glazed flueyness, not a senile inability to follow and retain info. 'NO!' I answer robustly. Anyway I have a coffee in one hand, a Guardian in the other, and the parcel for F and H under my arm.
'You need a torch (the battery's on the way out, but it'll probably be OK), and then as long as you can twist yourself 45 degrees to the left, then 180 to the right, then climb on top of the wardrobe and take away the number you just thought of...'
 No, no, that can't be right. I try and picture where the fuse box might be. Pay attention.
'If you climb up there, with a torch, oh and you need a sharp edge, or a screwdriver or something to take off the black cap – have a feel for a tiny button, really tiny, like a watch-winding mechanism. You probably won't be able to see it, but it's red. If you manage to do it right it'll click. Might need a few goes.'
'Maybe I'll take some wood with me and light the Rayburn,' I say.
'Oh well you could, but you shouldn't have to provide your own wood. But it's not switched over to the Rayburn anyway. You'll need to do that if you want hot water. What you'll need to do –'
 The guard is making closing-door gestures. I've already decided I'm going to forgo a shower or washing dishes. The train's pulling out.
'Mum, thanks so much. I've emailed you horsefeed instructions. Oh the wireless hub's switched off; do you know where it is? Do you know what password it needs? Oh and don't worry about the slight leak from the water tank or the wet patch on the ceiling; I'm on the case...' And the train pulls out.

And here I am.

last night in the dusk
the small wild spotted stallion
left his herd to visit

all night wild rain drums
the skylight, calls to the wild
in me        no sleep

This morning the track is a river. The tiny elderly grey (that means white, in horseworld speak) mare, E's childhood pony, the alpha of this two-pack, keeps Horse, the huge young black stallion, definitely omega, in order, as I slosh through knee-deep mud to dole out hay. You can't flail around getting your balance when your feet are mudstuck and your arms full of hay and two horses are grumping at each other behind your back. It's good practice in mindfulness, staying with each mud-pulled step. I remind myself too often of Mr Duffy in James Joyce's Dubliners: 'Mr Duffy lived a short distance from his body'; but not this morning.

Walking the dog. The brook has stormed its banks, taking trees with it, and the whole valley echoes with its roar.

the land is fluid
shifting       Little Wonder Bridge 
stands firm as always

The thorns, hazels, miniature oaks are bearded and baubled with lichen. There's an occasional grin of chrome-yellow fungus. Everything's washed clear. The colours are intense enough as to suggest that the land really is awakening. The honeysuckle's leafing, and whortleberries (bilberries, wild blueberries) are flaunting fresh green growth. Will we forget, once again, to collect their fruit in July, or early August?

Now. Do I feel strong enough to grapple with the Rayburn and wet wood and/or the thermostat mechanism for the immersion heater, or shall I just be pleased I found and worked the wireless hub and sit by the not-really-a-fire-in-the-woodburner with yesterday's Review section?



lags of river-mist
ticks of rain     owl starting up
everything renewed

Saturday 12 February 2011

an imagined life: 3

Later in the Sloop the music’s a relief from the intractability of the unrealised image, the unforgiving stone. Music, she writes in her head, flows and joins and connects players with players with audience in a way that visual art cannot mimic. 
   It’s jigs and reels, the repeats a cycling that the transitions between the two forms seem to throw into confusion like currents and eddies around the little stony outcropping headlands on these coasts, before resolving into a new continuity.
   The opposing currents fight against each other until one of them surrenders, and something new becomes possible for both. 
   She thinks of the lump of stone. 
   She thinks of Ben.
   She takes a pull of her Guinness.

She lights up, sits back, crosses her legs, taps a foot.


Whether you have been reading the previous 'an imagined life' posts or not, perhaps I should say here that these are excerpts from a draft of a fictionalised life of a famous Westcountry sculptor. I also need to tell you that the story – my version – stops abruptly after the 4th/next excerpt. I had just begun this, alongside another novel set also in West Cornwall, when my father had a stroke. My mum had not long been diagnosed with Alzheimer's when that happened, and the ramifications on the family have been huge and much of my own work has been set to one side. So I haven't yet picked this thread up; maybe I will, although the other novel has progressed a lot further. Meantime, as you will know, Imago, my first novel is due out any day now (actually it arrived and had to go back, as the cover was wrong and a section was missing); and The Burning Season has been accepted by the same publisher.

Friday 11 February 2011

dancing on the edge of the void

this morning poetry
this afternoon shovelling dung
curlews’ song
glimpses of sky
everything bears us
the river’s scintilla
no words for the way
the shimmer
breaks up the forest
see how the wind skips
against the falling tide
lightly runs fingers all up
the river’s wide back
across the water     voices
I want to dance
on the edge of the void
and not mind falling
I love these faded hydrangeas –
their aqua, mauve, plum –
in this scuffed blue jug
more than I ever loved
their pristine pink in spring
you know you’re real
once you’re worn ragged, threadbare
and love is like rain
washing everything clean
    after all

Thursday 10 February 2011

one foot in front of the other

The miracle is not to walk on water.
The miracle is to walk on the green earth,
dwelling deeply in the present moment
and feeling truly alive.
Thich Nhat Hanh

I have been thinking, again, about the three conditions that I consider crucial for a writer (actually for a human being) to develop (I'm sure there are many others, but these three occupy me). The first is the cultivation of mindfulness; the second, the practice of living more deeply; and the third, walking.

Mindfulness, in the way in which I use it here, means the practice of paying attention, of noticing, of awareness; of being with the whole of oneself in the present moment: alive to how it – everything – is, and also alive to all the undercurrents, invisible qualities and imaginative possibilities of which ‘now’ consists. It’s a constant movement and exchange between inner and outer worlds.

Mindfulness is an end in itself: to me, the practice and the process are more important than any notion of ‘arriving’ somewhere – although for a writer the chances are that the more this quality is cultivated the better the creative ‘product’ will be.

It is also a vehicle for writing more deeply. This, in turn, will reflect my willingness to engage with, and courage in, living deeply – my emotional capacity for being with every aspect of how things are; my acceptance of shadow as well as light, loss as well as love; the cycles of things, their ebb and flow; what Clarissa Pinkola Estes has called the life/death/life nature.

There’s something here about being fully human requiring us to embrace all the paradoxes and pairs of opposites in our lives and the world around us. When I am in the rain, can I fully stand in the rain without sacrificing my ability to recall sun? When I am in summer, am I willing to remember winter without that thought shaking me out of myself, out of my life, out of the present moment? In the middle of an argument, can I be with my anger without losing love? Can I love without looking ahead to its potential loss?

It seems to me that both these qualities – of mindfulness and of deep living – are brought together in the act of walking.

At a certain stage in the creative journey, I find myself instinctively getting up and going out for a walk; a freeing process that comes prior to sitting at the table putting pen to paper or cursor to screen. It happens when I’ve ‘gone into labour’, so to speak: when an idea is pushing below the surface but has still to emerge. Suddenly I find myself standing up abruptly and turning away from writing implements at just the point where words are starting to form themselves. It’s as if something in me turns away, paradoxically, from language and into the body to free the words.

Below (and some of the above) is an excerpt from a chapter in my book Writing the Bright Moment.

Today is a wild April day with torrential rain storming at the window, and a wind that has more than a bite to it – clawed and fanged. I’m in a remote spot on a Hebridean island, and it’s been cold enough throughout the day for me not to want to wander far beyond the front door. Besides, I’m up here to work on this book, so I’m quite pleased that the weather isn’t especially seductive. Yesterday in sunshine I had an especially inspiring day in the lochs – otter-watching – and mountains, finishing with a visit to a gallery, a sculpture garden and the green waters of the local bay, so I should be well fuelled-up. I need to make the most of that store of inspiration.

However, at the edges of my consciousness there is the glimmer of an impending poem. I have been pushing it away, as there are only a few days here and I have much other writing to do. I am also aware that it is time I found a new poetic voice – the old one is becoming husky with repetition. This poem promises to deliver more of the same – landscape and landscape. And landscape alone – even this wild dramatic landscape with its Neolithic sites, its bardic overtones and its rugged, sad and tumultuous history of Clearances – is not enough in itself to make the threatening poem interesting. So I resist it.

But I need to go out. Just before dusk there’s a small break in the clouds; a scrap, too small to make even a patch on the Dutchperson’s trousers, but just enough to remind me how immense the sky is here over the ocean; immense and purple and black and indigo, save for a small brilliance blazing away in the west.

So I huddle into jumpers and scarves and waterproofs and squelch up the track, setting a flock of redwings up from the mud, and a single buzzard. A hooded crow on a fence post eyes me. I can hear the sea crashing on the point ahead of me; below at the foot of the cliffs to my right the breakers churn. It feels good to be upright and moving, the rhythm of walking.

I stand at the point and do nothing. I’m not thinking – for once; just watching, paying attention, looking at the land, and the sea, and the sky.

Walking the mile or so back I’m thinking about supper; realising it’s hours since I ate – a good sign. I’ve been immersed – a satisfying feeling.

As I’ve been walking I’ve occasionally let my mind dwell on the next chapter, in between watching the wheatears and hawks, and the way the light is winking on wet rocky outcrops on the hillside or catching the water fanning out on the boulders in the burn. As far as I know I haven’t thought about the poem that’s pushing at the door. However, as I turn the corner to the front of the cottage two lines suddenly spring complete into the forefront of my awareness. And they’re two lines that will lift the poem – whatever it is – out of the ‘landscape groove’. As I walk in through the door the rest of the poem slides into view – rather like a ship entering harbour stern-first and turning out to be fully-rigged and ready to go. Five minutes later I have the first draft down.

It’s the walking that released it; and while my conscious mind was busy with what I was experiencing outside, and the material for the book, my unconscious was being primed by the physical rhythm and mental freewheeling of walking.

Writing the Bright Momentinspiration & guidance for writers, Roselle Angwin and others (Arts Council//FITH 2005)

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