from BARDO

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

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

is star-stuff too?

– That wherever you go you can never fully disappear –

dispersal only: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen.

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

Roselle Angwin

Thursday, 3 February 2011

a fox on a leash

Someone told me that a blog needs to be no more than a paragraph. What, then, an extended soundbite? Do blog readers all suffer from ADHD? And as you will have noticed, brevity's not my strength. And what I want to speak of today has so many ramifications and convolutions that to pick out the heart of it is going to be challenging.

But here goes.

Wild. Again.

In my childhood village, a frequent sight was a man walking a fox on a lead. I must have seen them both for eight or nine years. I don't know the story, but it seems the guy acquired the fox as a cub. In all the time I saw it, it had never learned to walk on a lead. It ran, frantically, in circles at the end of the leash, distressed by people, distressed by traffic. I was distressed by this.

About twenty years ago, myself and then partner and some acquaintances of his went to walk at Charmouth, near Lyme Regis on the Jurassic Coast of southwest England. This area is noted for its fossils. It was a particularly low tide that winter day, and the water had exposed a huge ammonite, bigger than any of us had seen before; maybe 60 cm across. I was, as they say, blown away. To my incredulity and horror, though, two of the friends fell on it with hammers and chisels in an attempt to lever it from the bedrock. 160 million years that ammonite had been intact, mostly hidden from human sight. The ammonite didn't survive the attempt (and neither did the friendship).

You remember those pebbles you see at the sea's edge, licked by the tide, that glimmer and glow like jewels, babble with life? And how when you bring them home they turn out, tamed, to be dull and unspeaking...

OK so I'm talking about creative fire. I'm also talking about love; and about all that is wild, and our human need to tame it, possess it, have it conform to what we expect, to denature it, to find it where we left it in the shape we need it to take, because of our fear. 'Wild' doesn't do that. And yes creativity can disrupt a life (indeed will, and should, if that life is over-constrained by habit, routine and expectations); and yes fire does need to be contained, with care, lest it burn up all that we value; and yes if we want to grow our veg some wildness needs to be sacrificed, I guess.

And sometimes that which has been tamed becomes savage. Robert Bly and Clarissa Pinkola Estes both speak of this. Bly suggests that the 'wild man' knows he's wounded and tends to the wound. The savage man, he says, doesn't even know he's been wounded; simply acts out.

In terms of writing, the line between something that leaps off the page, or enters the ears, and lights a fire in the head – or not, is so fine as to be almost invisible. As writers, especially poets, we need to be able to find a way to bring that flame home intact, and not over-domesticated. ‘As the wild duck is more swift and beautiful than the tame, so is the wild – the mallard – thought...’ said H D Thoreau. And we need to be able to tend the fire we've brought home, to keep the flame alive, while shaping, too, the poem to best convey that mallard thought. It's a surprisingly difficult practice, and most of us veer one way or the other: leave the poem as it's 'received', god-given; or work it to death. A good poem, as John O'Donohue says, is barely contained on the white space of a page: 'if it behaved according to its true nature it would be dancing on the seashore, or rinsing out the secrets of the mountains'.

Bards in ancient Ireland not only went through a rigorous twelve-year training to be a poet, but were also feared and respected. The bardic tradition speaks of it being 'death to mock a poet, death to love a poet, death to be a poet'. Caitlin Matthews explains that this is because a bard was one who'd partaken of the inner mysteries, had been transformed. The bard walks partly in the Otherworld, partly in this. He, or she, has the power to curse, bless, initiate and transform with his or her words.  

Tread lightly, poets, lovers, wild ones; and keep the fire, and don't let anyone strip you of wildness.

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