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 30 June 2011

Elements of Poetry Part 1: poetry & the heart

I'm about to start the exciting and rewarding process of working with a new group of poets on my correspondence course. What I know, but they might or might not yet, is the scale and compass of the journey to the heart of poetry, which mirrors of course the journey of poetry to the heart, if you get what I mean.

I know I keep promising you some words about books I'm reading. It's just that my lit-crit braincell is a little in hiding at the moment so I have doubts about my ability to speak with any degree of intelligence and cogency from a more analytical place right now. So I thought I'd prefer to write a little bit, over three posts, about the fundamental components as I see them of a poem.

Before I go on, apologies for the density of the text below - blogger for some reason is not allowing line breaks – swear words at technology! Might try and tweak it later but right now dogwalking and supper cooking is calling...

Poetry, for me, draws together the heart, the soul and the mind.  
Plus every time one starts to write a poem, an act of discovery is involved. This is the same whether you’ve written two poems, or two thousand. 
Poetry has been described as the laboratory, or the workshop, of language. It seems to me that a poem grows as if in a Petri dish outwards from the original droplet, seed, or idea born in the heart, through the meaning towards which it's stretching via feeling/imaginative expression (content) mediated by the shaping powers of the intellect (execution). 
In this post I want to speak a little of the heart aspect of poetry. Before I do that, I want to add here John O'Donohue's beautiful and visionary words about poetry (and if I've posted them before, well – a reminder's always useful).
  ‘Poems are some of the most amazing presences in the world. I am always astounded that poems are willing to lie down and sleep inside the flat, closed pages of books. If poems behaved according to their essence, they would be out dancing on the seashore or flying to the heavens or trying to rinse out the secrets of the mountains… When you read a great poem, it reaches deep into regions of your life and memory and reverberates back to you forgotten or invisible regions of your experience… lost or silent territories of feeling or thought… A poem can travel far into your depths to retrieve your neglected longing.’
  The territory of the heart      Poetry speaks the language of the heart in a way that no other literature does, and many people come to reading and/or writing poetry at a time of deep personal feeling – maybe the tenderness and sensitivity of adolescence, or maybe after a time of heightened emotion – after a loss, or when falling in love – when one feels as if something inside oneself has broken open. In this way poetry may be cathartic: both expressive, and a means of healing or coming to terms with what is being expressed. One’s early poetry then is likely to be full of feeling – and that’s how it should be. Poetry needs to register in and feed the heart – a kind of counter to the thin diet of Western materialism, for instance. 
Looking back on our early poetry we can feel excruciating embarrassment; but in fact that early work is a gift, allowing something that is pushing at the surface to erupt into our lives. Starting as it so often does with the raw, the deeply personal, it has its roots in authentic experience which cannot be contrived. However, great feeling is not in itself great poetry. After that initial outpouring of feeling comes the time to shape and refine it. With experience comes a greater degree of sophistication, where one learns to use original imagery, a keener structure, and more subtle language instead of the usual over-emotional or sentimental expression or clichéd phraseology and self-consciously ‘poetic’ words with which, often, one starts. Nonetheless, to my mind poetry needs to express some level of emotional literacy if it's to speak to more than our intellect.
Poetry then is a meeting point between the heart and the head; in other words, it requires both the image-making feeling nature that is associated with the right hemisphere of the brain, and the more linear, analytical speech-based functions of the left brain.
And then there is the mysterious indefinable quality that breathes into it so that it becomes a living thing with its own identity; and which is more than a synergy of heart and head. More on that soon.

Tuesday 28 June 2011

the bird of paradise

The lanes now here, a little over the cusp of midsummer, seem to have lost just a little of their fresh crispness – or maybe that's me, or the weather. The colours shift throughout the growing season – have you noticed? – and now in the hedges, although there is the yellow of St John's Wort, what predominates is white or off-white: bedstraw, convolvulus, the umbelliferae, yarrow, bramble flowers, lesser stitchwort, moondaisies (ox-eye daisies), and the purple end of the spectrum: tatters of purple vetch, mallow (and the almost-all-year-round pink campions). 

Walking without fail restores connection, meaning and equilibrium for me, no matter what.

As I was walking my mind was wandering over the field of 'peak experiences', and what one might characterise as those threshold moments that divide our lives, somehow, emotionally, into a 'before' and an 'after'. We don't usually experience them as such at the time, I think; it's usually with hindsight. They are often associated with moments of external change – changing jobs, relocating, getting married, having children etc. Sometimes they're to do with loss; sometimes with significant meetings. Sometimes they are an encounter with Place. There is an element of touching a spiritual or metaphysical/existential experience often, too. Sometimes they take place simultaneously on the outer and inner planes; sometimes just on the inner. They almost always involve a deep resonance, felt at the time or in retrospect.

One such moment came for me on being taken into the Pech Merle prehistoric painted caves in the Lot, in France. (When I came out I was literally speechless for quite a long time – I have to say that that is unusual for me...!) It's hard to talk about that experience in brief, in a blog; I can't do it justice. (I have written about it elsewhere.) But many images remain with me, and the felt response to them is still resonant; a child's footprint side-by-side with its mother's, laid down and preserved in clay thousands of years ago by flesh and blood people long gone, is something I shall take with me to my death.


'...something glimpsed in those oxide  
hands, the bear’s face and horses  
half a mile under the limestone, 25,000  
years ago drawn with love and deep  

knowing as if pets, as if yesterday, 
their carbon and manganese fixed, though 
the artist has long since meshed atoms 
with everything there is...' *

When I came out I was not the same person as she who went in. The 'doors of perception' were not simply cleansed but blown right out of the house.

I'm thinking about this partly because I hope to be revisiting those caves in August; and partly because I'm still reading Jim Perrin's wonderful book West. Within this he speaks of psychotropic experiences with pure LSD from a small 'factory' in Wales in the 70s; an experience I too had. Here he quotes R D Laing on the nature of such peak experiences:

'I have seen the Bird of Paradise, she has spread herself before me, and I shall never be the same again.
  There is nothing to be afraid of. Nothing.
  The Life I am trying to grasp is the me that is trying to grasp it.' **

I didn't know that's what I was going to write about today. Back soon to those books I promised, I promise...

* (from All the Missing Names of Love, forthcoming from IDP in 2012)
** The Politics of Experience and the Bird of Paradise

Monday 27 June 2011

the buzzard's feather

This morning I found a buzzard's feather in the lane, freshly shed (and smelling, as I said before, of old books and ancient libraries). It's one of a couple of dozen I've come across over the last decade or two. Last summer I went up through the orchard pulled by a sense of a freshly-dropped buzzard feather, and as I came to the brow of the hill, at exactly the spot I was making for, that happened – a buzzard lifting off from the tall ash tree dropped a primary down to me.

The world is a resonant place for a poet, or an artist. It's a resonant place for a human, generally. It's a symbolically resonant place, in that everything can be viewed both as itself and as a symbol of a quality of energy that lies behind the physically-manifest form. In a poem, what we're trying to achieve is the conveyance of that quality of energy, and the impact of experiencing it, through the use of concrete detail to create a sensory picture to communicate with the thinking, feeling and intuitive faculties in a reader or listener.

Everything, in other words, is also a metaphor.

Shamanic and druidic thinking operates in part at this poetic and symbolic level. Things are things-in-themselves and can also be signposts to other more subtle realities.

In some shamanic work I did in my early thirties, I had a significant visualisation experience where I 'felt' myself to be lifted from the ground by a strong wind, and as, in my inner world, I opened my eyes to see myself miles (well, a couple of hundred metres) above the ground, I noticed that I was 'wearing' buzzard's wings. Even now, twenty years on, I can feel as a physical sensation the updraught of air in my armpits, the pull to flight, my fingers primaries filtering the wind.

Since that time, the buzzard has become very important to me. There's a resurgence of buzzards in the UK, gratifyingly, given the drop-off in numbers of wild bird species generally, and there are a number of residents in our valley; frequently they soar just yards above the roof of my study, or above the courtyard. Buzzards prey on rodents and even small chicks, but mostly they feed on the ground, on slugs and worms and small reptiles. I never tire of watching them, and I have learned a lot from the way they deal with their pretty continual mobbing by the corvine family: they don't fight back, despite being predators; they simply flip and wheel and yield to the air to avoid the (sometimes vicious) attacks without any apparent impulse to retaliation. There's something I find very moving about this attitude, and the aerial Tai Chi. Good medicine.

And a quality that I choose to take notice of is their ability to pick out, from great height, what is significant to them in a landscape; by viewing the whole picture from a distance, they notice the truly important detail and focus on it.

So this morning's feather was a little reminder. Boy, could I do with some of that perspective sometimes, when the minutiaie of life detail threaten to eclipse my perspective of what really matters!

Sunday 26 June 2011

poem: at the edge of the clearing

Sun, just after midsummer
grasses at their zenith
and the sky's blue
noisy with the ghost of pigment
intensity of photons

wind in the east
jostling the shrubs in the courtyard
tweaking the flowers' ears
jinking in my hair

ahead of us on the track
a couple of small hazy clouds
pretend to stand tall
on the horizon

at the edge of the clearing
our future and possible selves linger
waiting to see
what path we notice

and what would it take then
for us to crack and peel back
these ingrown carapaces
that we might stand whole
and bright before the Other

to recalibrate the curtilage
of the heart
that it might become a meadow

for us to trust that we might
enter that meadow, lie down
for as long as we need to
maybe even forever?

Roselle Angwin

Saturday 25 June 2011

Morning Poem

Now that he's gone
you've started to sit in that chair
the one that becomes his
for those few days each year
and which we don't use –
mine, with its creaking wicker seat
and the Persian throw
of tribal kings on steeds
and the carmine and orange cushions.

It is morning, it's misty,
the courtyard hazed over
and the skylight above the chair
glazed with a thin skin of rain.

Outside, day starts;
the tits and chaffinches
come to the feeder,
and the plants' million mouths
open themselves to moisture
and the transformation of light,
unconcerned with ideas
about loss, or approaching dark.

Roselle Angwin

Friday 24 June 2011

'the wind one brilliant day'...

What shall I tell you, lovely people, today, when my mind feels tired and dry and my heart is too full of all the complexities of this being-human business to sort out individual coherent threads?

I guess I start with where I am: and that is in thinking about relationship. And I'm thinking about being awake to the world; what that means.

Just now I was going through a favourite book of poems, Robert Bly's translation of Antonio Machado's Times Alone. Flipping through I came across this little poem; I know it so well, but had forgotten it came from Machado; it seems so Zen in its compass that I'd kind of misremembered it as being from one of the Buddhist teachers:

Beyond living and dreaming
there is something more important:
waking up.

How perfect is that for what preoccupies me, which is how we do our journey here, and how we do relationship. I don't just mean a primary love relationship, except in the widest possible sense – that everything is relationship; it's an inescapable fact of being alive; and our relationship to the world and all the other beings in it will be as good as our relationship to ourselves, and 'whatever I do, let there be love in it', as I think Jefferson Starship sang... (And how hard is that, hey??)

Tempting though it might be at times (certainly for me) to go off and be a recluse, I know that it's through our relationships that we grow, and what we learn of love is through doing the work of love. Love is an active verb, not a cosy state (it was a shock coming across that concept for the first time in my very early thirties, in Scott Peck's book The Road Less Travelled). I don't just mean relationship to humans, whether intimates, friends or the world at large; but certainly that's where most of the challenges to extend ourselves beyond old patterns of behaviour occur, isn't it? Someone in the psycho-spiritual world many years ago said (I paraphrase): 'It may well be that the path of conscious relationship is the most significant spiritual path for our current age.' Seems spot-on to me. I'd add that it's possibly also the most rewarding; and surely one of the hardest paths, being met face-to-face with, and owning, my blind spots, my weaknesses, my ignorance, my unskillful and even destructive habits, my 'delusions and evasions of the ego', as my Zen teacher Ken Jones puts it. But if we can reclaim that stuff, or even a little of that stuff, we must surely be adding to the sum of good in the world...

So as a human being, and a woman, and a friend, and lover, and daughter, and mother, and sister, and eco-organism, and gardener, and lover-of-the-wild, what do my relationships say about me? What are the impulses that express themselves through me? What is my understanding; who and what are my mirrors? How can I enlarge myself beyond the boundaries of egoic self-seeking? What gives my life purpose and meaning? Am I willing to challenge my patterns over and over and over? How might I be the best friend I can be, the best friend I'd like, to myself and to others? Ho yes – answers on the proverbial p/c please...!


Thinking about all this, writing about all this, I notice that the work of tending the garden is a metaphor that is around for me a great deal. I've spoken of this several times in this blog; and written about it in various of my books, in various forms, consistently over the years. The garden is such a potent image, isn't it, from Babylon to Eden, to the alchemical hortus conclusus within which magical and transformative work can occur. A contained space, safe and secluded. It's the work of the soul to make and tend this place. We're not doing such a good job of it, are we, collectively, in this early part of the C21st?

I wonder if you've come across that poignant little poem by Antonio Machado in Robert Bly's translation (and arrogantly I've tweaked some of the wording here):

The wind one brilliant day called
to my soul with the fragrance of jasmine.

"In return for this jasmine perfume
I'd like the fragrance of all your roses."

"I have no roses," I said. "All the flowers
in my garden are dead now."

"Then I'll take the waters of your fountains,
the yellow leaves, the dried-up petals."

The wind left. I wept. I said to my soul:
"What have you done with the garden entrusted to your care?"

There's a beautiful version of this on a Jackie Leven album ('the mysteries of love are greater than the mysteries of death'); and on this album Bly speaks poems over the music. And now, rereading Bly's translation of Machado in Times Alone, and his intro, I am so inspired all over again that I want to share it all with you!

But more on that, and all of this and that, another time. I'm not, by the way, miserable; just reflective (and tired! And wanting time out from being conscious, dammit!).


And by way of light relief for us all, I have some lovely books to tell you about (I mean by other writers, not by me). But that'll be the next post (probably – unless something else grabs my attention first).

Light relief now is the literal garden, where the squirrels are causing a certain amount of havoc (not such a relief). (Can't help but see them symbolically: aspects of the mind and its scamperings – little tricksters who need to be out-tricked! Am working on that.) That's three birdfeeders they've wrecked in as many – or fewer – months, between the five of them (two parents and three youngsters). One birdfeeder declared itself to be squirrel-proof: it foiled them for nearly a fortnight, then they worked out how to simply unravel the metal mesh, having already worked out how to get up the 'squirrel-proof' shepherd's crook-type pole, which incidentally was also greased. They have the guts to come in through the door of my study (in the 'shed' in the garden) if I leave it open, and even prise off the lid of the heavy-duty dustbin at the foot of the stairs where I store the birdfood. The (also trickster) magpies are just as bad (six of them now), swooping down to shoo off all the other birds, and they too have evolved to cling to the mesh feeders, which technically they're not supposed to be able to do, either.

Our veg are all a bit behind this year, except the ones we over-wintered: the onions, which are massive; and the fat red-skinned garlic. I planted the latter on the winter solstice and harvested the first on the summer solstice. Our potatoes are finally flowering, so I guess we'll dig the first earlies soon. And at last the beans and sweetcorn are growing.

Today, in the neighbouring field where a roe deer lifted her head and stared at the dog and me, then dropped it and carried on grazing, I found some wild field mushrooms – very early. They'll go into the pot tonight. My current experiment is using barley instead of rice – for 'food miles' reasons, as it's grown here, and it also seems in keeping with holistic health ideas to eat as much as possible food that grows on the same soil as we do. I have to say though that barley is a rather poor rice substitute.

And meantime my heart medicine is to keep taking the strawberries (see previous post): in my case the hundreds of juicy little sweet wild ones on which I breakfast in the lanes.

Thursday 23 June 2011

the greenwood

Finally you open your eyes. The meadow's tall grasses curtain you; beyond, the blue hills rise. Emergent sun hazes their summits. You sit up. There ahead of you is the little path, and at the stone wall a small wooden gate.

You stand. Below in the valley swallows and martins skim the mist from the morning river. You stretch. The conversations of birds; the song of the water. Your hand lifts the old wooden latch. You step through. You slip into the green of the woods as into a silk dress. There is no room for thought.

The path rises gently, sprinkled with light. It's May; the wood swims with the scent of bluebells; the air is lilac with it. A thousand wild bees drone. You're alone and it's the first day.

In the green glade pass the ruins of the hermit's chapel with its green dreams, the short walls grassed and blackbird-capped; the spring bubbles and chatters.

Follow the path in and out of sunlight. Oaks and ashes season the woodland; first bursts of honeysuckle; and look! – in the shade of this larch a host of goldcrests, a corona around your head.

Your feet firm on the good earth. Here there's no need for shoes, you can shake out the creases in which you hide; the truth is as it is, all around you, spread out.

The trees thin out, a little. In the undergrowth of campion, stitchwort, bramble there are rustles of lives going about their daily cycles. A wren skitters out; a bluetit. In the distance a woodpecker knocks.

Soon, you will arrive. The green glade in the green day; summer still to come; and you are young, you are now, you are always. The threshold waits; and its guardian; and question and response will spring and be answered simultaneously, with no words. You pass through. And there it is – waiting all your life for you, there before questions, before answers. You knew, and forgot that you knew.

Wednesday 22 June 2011

Catholicism, transmigration, goats and Le Quattro Volte

As an ex-Catholic, I can spot another across 100 paces. And the saying goes that one is never really an 'ex', but a lapsed Catholic.

My family converted when I was 11, after a year of huge family tragedies, one after the other. The parochial Roman Catholic Church of those days (the late sixties) was a very black and white institution: deeply patriarchal, of course, whilst still giving a place of honour to the feminine principle in the shape of the Virgin Mary (with emphasis on the 'virgin' bit). We learned a lot about mortal sin, and that we are all guilty without even knowing we are ('original sin'); we learned that if a man takes to the Church his wife and children had to too (I believe that has changed since);  we learned that since men weren't able to control their urges at the sight of our loose hair we as women were duty-bound to wear mantillas in church to protect them from themselves (mantillas are lace head coverings; also abolished, thank goodness). It has taken me nearly 40 years to recognise that my inculcated sense of guilt and over-responsibility is in part in thrall to that early heritage, and the Confessional.

The priest who 'converted' us was a larger-than-life, funny, compassionate and intelligent Irishman. We all loved him. Nonetheless, I remember still the sense of deep shock when he answered my 11-year-old's question about whether animals have souls with a negative. My life had been steeped in animals, was and is deeply intertwined with the animal kingdom. Even then people brought me wild animals that had been injured to tend, as they did my sister, later. I aspired to the life of St Francis of Assisi, and could not swallow that animals were 'lesser', somehow inferior. (I have a lot to say about our notions of our 'right' to use the natural world as we desire to; this view being as I see it directly related to our sense of anthropocentricism, and the assumed superiority that goes with that, and therefore our related view that the rest of the planet is ours as a 'resource', but I'll resist that for now.)

At 16 I left the Church. It was not for me; plus I'd discovered Zen Buddhism, and the nature-based spiritualities that I learned later came under the loose titling of 'pagan', 'druidic' and 'shamanic'. I read up a lot on Celtic christianity, with its roots in the natural world, and its sense of interconnectedness. Later I came across the ex-Dominican monk Matthew Fox, erudite and inspiring champion of the natural world, the feminine principle, green creativity and the notion of 'original blessing'.

And by then I had become very inspired by so-called heresies, amongst them the Cathar path (I've written several blogs about the Cathars, who underpin my first novel, earlier this year, maybe February or March – can't get out of this post to check).

Common to many of these paths, including the Cathar, is the notion of transmigration; which is another way of speaking of interconnectedness. Crudely put, this is connected with the Platonic idea that the soul migrates from mineral to plant to animal to human. Some teachings suggest that the migration continues through ever more subtle realms of being (some name these the 'angelic' realms).

Where this post is going is that my daughter and I went to Dartington to see a film last night. One of the great things about living here is the arts scene and the beautiful gardens at Dartington (and the White Hart, where we had a small and delicious supper afterwards).

(Blogger's not allowing me to upload photos. I'll try again later.)

The film was Le Quattro Volte. Without spoiling the content for you (if you haven't seen it), the film by Michelangelo Frammartino explores the idea of transmigration (or at least that's how it's billed). It explores with no sentimentality the utter simplicity of the fact of our living, the fact of our dying; and our place in the cycles of things.

Frammartino has taken some cinematic risks with this film. It's a concept film; there's no dialogue, no plot, no exploration of inter-human relationships; little characterisation. The film's an exquisite example of 'showing not telling' ('mimetic not diegetic', as my daughter-the-researcher-into-learning insists is the correct phrasing for that). It's a visual long meditation on synthesis, on conjunction, on the continuity of life and our place as one more living species in this cycle. Nothing 'happens' – and yet within it everything happens, as long as one is not looking purely through the usual lens of human expectations.

To my delight, a great deal of the film includes goats, a favourite animal of mine (when I was 19 I spent a blissful week or two in the Pyrenees taking goats with their bells to the top of the mountain in the morning, bringing them back down at night. My daughter and I both are also 'goat' people in the Chinese calendar.).

Set in a rural mountainous hamlet in Calabria – which might equally have been Pyrenean – it opens and closes with a charcoal-burning structure – a beautiful sculptural piece. The film cycles always between beginnings and endings, births and deaths. There are recurrent visual and sonic motifs to mark the four 'turnings' of the title. The elision of scenes mirrors the smokiness of the charcoal-burning which, we find, is the link. There are moments that are metaphysical, moments that are magical, moments that are gently very funny – including the village Easter procession dogged (literally) by the goatherd's mutt, with the charcoal-burners elaborate get-ups as Centurions, recurrent moments with the goats' antics.

And somehow the film is very moving: despite the emotional distancing risked by zero portrayal of human emotional interaction, the visual impact of the film without the distraction of dialogue means that we are immersed in the experience of being a sick old man at the end of his life, being a young goat kid from birth (which we see) to a solo acceptance of the possibility of death, even into being a fir tree in the wind and snow, and carried seamlessly through the ways in which those lives intertwine, and are ultimately inextricably interdependent.

Monday 20 June 2011

merrivale at the summer solstice (poem)

moor 3 - acrylic, © Roselle Angwin 2006
Zenith of a solar cycle, and the completion of a cycle of Ground of Being days that I lead on Dartmoor at the year's quarter turning dates.

It's the month of the oak god, 'he who sets the head aflame with smoke' (of inspiration, visions and imaginings). The grain is swelling to ripeness, all the trees are in full leaf, and there's a pause, stillpoint, before the light sighs, and the fall away to harvest and the waning. 

Soon the beacons will be lit in the old lands' high places.

Four Winds car park: the old schoolhouse with its beech-topped stone walls has been annexed by the army on training manoeuvres, and the walls are guarded by soldiers

rifles trained
on the untamed reaches
of the moor

'Evocative of my childhood', says R, brought up in the Troubles of Nothern Ireland.

wind a little west of north
steady murmur of June traffic
the leat's insistent chatter

water crowsfoot cinquefoil dwarf bedstraw restharrow 

feathers of bog cotton opening like prayerflags

clear against clouds
the trickle of larksong

eight of us finding a way
to speak to the day
through silence

and in it
our lives

Merrivale stone row (Robbie Breadon)

damp chill
the wind in the reeds
passing through
and between 
the voices of silence 
these stones

We walk the horizontal, through time and through space, this land – four thousand years and more of footsteps beneath ours on this processional way between the pairs of opposites; and we walk the vertical, between the above and the below. Despite the chill H takes her shoes off, walks the way barefoot.
This threshold to the temple’s ancient heart
where the pairs of opposites – lingam, yoni –
dance their slow stone dance, in songlines
as they have forever, towards horizons

we can barely dream of, towards the circle
where dyads find both zenith and resolution –
constellations spun in their stone orbit.

Standing here with you, faint tang
of fox and the day still damp
in its newness, for a time the clouds
that keep us shouldered inwards

seem to lift towards that fold of trees,
towards the home that might at last
be edging into view, if we could let it.

And beyond, that finger of stone pointing to the sky. Above, on King Tor, one small figure – lightning conductor. Someone said that's what a poet needs to be, to catch fire from the gods to continue to light our way

an exuberance of lark
the wings in my chest

and this emergent sun
calling to the same in me
through thin rain

And then the reminder that the raven too needs to be present at the feast: this dying lamb; my distress, my helplessness

having again to meet full-on this intense need to save everything from suffering
and I can't

this the Wicked Stepmother, the Bad Fairy, the Loathly Lady: uninvited one
('because we have dismissed the dark / we cannot bear the light')

But now we put on the green of the drovers' track like a cloak, cross the little bridge into another land

the water, boulders, dwarf oaks, the lichen beards, the soft embrace of the grove

shadows of grass blades
legging it across the land
like lizards

R opens his hands
out leap two exclamations

and me here
one more summer grass
in this flower meadow of the present moment


(for more on the megalithic site of Merrivale, see my post from December 19th: Merrivale & the moor's white winter grasses)

Friday 17 June 2011

Radio 4's Poetry Workshop and 13-line sonnets

On a Sunday at the end of July (more anon) Radio 4 will be presenting a new 4-part series called Poetry Workshop. Hosted by Ruth Padel, each session will be offered from a different part of the country.

Last night we recorded the first one, where members of ExCite, the Exeter Poetry Society Stanza group, were the pioneers/guinea pigs. Lawrence Sail was co-hosting this one, and I was one of the four Westcountry poets to have a poem workshopped by Padel, Sail and an invited audience of about a dozen poets.

Our session had as its focus landscape poetry (and we aptly met in the C14th White Hart hotel, where W G Hoskins, he of the landscapes of the English countryside fame, used to drink); and opened with a poem by Alice Oswald, who lives near Totnes, which we all discussed.

My own poem was a 13-line sonnet (I call it the fibonacci sonnet form). The chosen poet wasn't allowed to speak about their own poem until after the feedback. It was an interesting process, and the poets were quick to see the areas in the poem that I was hesitant about myself, which confirmed the accuracy of my hesitation. I wasn't sure how many people realised it was a sonnet form I was using; but since hardly anyone (anyone?) writes in a 13-line sonnet form that wasn't all surprising.

As I've assigned rights on that poem to R4, I can't reproduce it here yet, but I want to mention two brilliant essays on the sonnet by Don Paterson (including his thoughts on the 13-line sonnet, which I find very inspiring given my seduction by the Fibonacci sequence ['phi' in terms of its mathematical formula], and the sense that it underpins as a harmonious pattern so much more than we already know that it does, as in eg music, art, architecture, natural forms like pine cones, sunflower seed patterns, nautilus and snail shell spirals and so on and so on). One essay prefaces his 101 Sonnets, and the other is an afterword in his versions of Rilke's Orpheus. If you are interested in poetry and the relevance, at least in terms of knowing about it, the sonnet form, I can't recommend those erudite essays highly enough.

I'm not generally very keen on formal poetry, but there is something unique about the sonnet form, and something very dynamic and pleasing in the 13-line one with the usual volta after 8 lines, and the 5 rather than 6 lines in the second stanza corresponding so beautifully to the sequence.

Anyway, more about all that another time.

Thursday 16 June 2011

cornwall, shark, blue scabious and poetry

With the warming global waters you expect to see more marine life coming into inshore waters off Britain, and Cornwall has long been a spot for basking shark, killer whales, porpoise and dolphins, with regular sightings in the far West. It seems there've been fewer sightings of these creatures this year, although no one quite seems to know why. However the Western Morning News reports sightings of a serious predator a mile off St Ives: the whitetip shark, apparently one of the most vicious sharks in the world. There are frequent hoax shark sightings, but this was reported by two separate trawler crews (thank you R for this info). That'll panic us, then... The Wild always does.

Let's get this into perspective. I took a group of Swiss students into the National Marine Aquarium in Plymouth one year for an environmental writing session. I learned that a shark is killed I believe every three seconds, day and night, somewhere in the world, whereas humans killed by shark each year only amount to a dozen, and many of these killings are apparently either in self-defence (struggling on the floor of a fishing boat having been landed) or by accident – mistaking a human for a seal (they usually let go once they realise). And I was touched (hard to imagine, isn't it, being engaged by a shark with anything other than trepidation or fear, or at most curiosity) by young Enzo – a little shark (can't remember what type) who was so 'scared' of the dark that if they switched the tank lights off at night he invariably threw himself out of the water into the 'deck'.

At Gwythian, above, I spent a truly blissful afternoon. A little flock of (I think) sanderling was scurrying as one, as they do, back and forth at the tideline, and two seals were lazing parallel to the beach in the shallows, just metres away from me, clearly visible.

One of the things I love on the coasts of the Cornish landscape is the miniaturisation of everything. The thorn trees are small and windskewed. The blue scabious is just a few cms tall. Wild thyme is tiny; the milkworts almost so small you barely see them.

And the micro-worlds on rocks and stone-walls are magical (as you can see I've replaced my bottomest-of-range mobile with one with a camera).

J and I spent much of our time walking the cliffs. Yesterday evening we were above Rinsey cove, between Penzance and Porthleven, where the landscape is dotted with carefully-rebuilt tin mines, and a few little human-made recent cairns.

J's lithe greyhound-type lurcher, she of the Egyptian face and pale amber eyes, who can be quite manic out watching for rabbits, kept apparently throwing herself off the cliff-face, to our heartlurches, before reappearing. My own She-who-wears-her-grey-matter-on-the-outside is much more sedate; but she took herself off to a high rock over a precipitous drop right on the edge of the cliffs, and stood looking elegantly iconic and deerhoundy nosing the wind. (I was too slow to get out and work the camera.) Uncharacteristically and for no reason we could discern she set up a little whiny whimper.
'Existential angst and melancholia at the landscape,' said J.
'Speech bubble?'
'Is this it?' 
'To jump or not to jump?'
'What's it all about?'
'Is there a God? And if so is there a God for dogs?'
'And if not is it worth carrying on?'
Then I tried to work out how I could photoshop all that, before remembering that I had no photo to -shop.


Two nice things in the post when I got back: two new pamphlets from the Word Hoard and Keith Jafrate, who contributed to my Writing the Bright Moment. I'll speak more of those in a few days.

The other was Being Human, a present from S, the third anthology in Neil Astley's series for his publishing house, Bloodaxe. If you want to buy just one anthology of good poetry in English (many poems are here in translation),  go for any one of these, maybe starting with the first, Staying Alive. I don't know how he keeps doing it with the follow-ups, but they all contain an eclectic range of poems from the last century or so (mainly contemporary), and almost without exception the poems fit the criteria I like: they move my heart, resonate in my body, engage my intelligence and offer depth of field behind the words. He groups the poems thematically in each anthology.

I find in here, marked by S's postcard, a poem by Thomas A Clark which I know and like but don't (didn't) have: 'In Praise of Walking'. Given all that I speak of about journeys, here are a couple of lines:

'Walking is a mobile form of waiting.'

'A journey implies a destination, so many miles to be consumed, while a walk is its own measure, complete at every point along the way.'

Tuesday 14 June 2011

notes from Prussia Cove

Sometimes a girl's got to have a break; even, or maybe especially, from the continual pressure of trying to work out how to keep one's head above water as a poet in what Robert Bly might dub an age of the jingles of the advertising agency. And whenever there's pressure an image that comes closer and closer into focus for me until it eclipses everything is that of the sea washing the feet of the cliffs down here at the edges of the land; and invariably, no matter what, if I give in to that, the walking and the sea and the wind and the sun restore equilibrium and the knots are gently teased out.

So I've come southwest, homing instincts finely tuned, for two days down by the sea in my beloved Kernow (Cornwall, if you want to be English about it), staying with one of my oldest and closest friends who's just back from a big round-the-world trip. Back on Thursday because – ahem – I'm recording with the BBC for a Radio 4 Poetry Workshop (walk-on bit part really that might be edited out anyway – more anon.)

Last week I should have been running a course in France, in the Languedoc area, special to me for many reasons, and underpinning my novel Imago (see earlier posts about the Cathars). As many people are finding, courses are not filling at the moment, so we had to cancel.

So in the torrential rain of the Devon Monday morning I drove west, sure that, on this occasion as every other occasion I can remember leaving in rain and fog, by the time I was within sight of Hayle and St Ives there would be sun splaying on the chapel on the 'Island'. And so there was.

I was looking through my folder for one of the many poems I've written down here. I'm going to post you three: the first two prose poems from the opening sequence, 'West', in my 2005 poetry collection Looking For Icarus. The other I had completely forgotten; it originates in the early days of my marriage, when my then-husband and I, and later with our daughter too, followed the surf in our van like water gypsies initially in Devon and Cornwall (Sennen Cove was a favourite) and then down the Atlantic coasts of France and northern Spain each winter. (By the way, the poem is not a metaphor for my marriage – it really is about what it says it's about!)

St Ives
Today, paradise. Synaesthesia: everything is everything else. Sensory overload; no space for emotion. Sea-light. Lichen-roofed houses, Island chapel, soft gold sand, parabolas of mussels. Herring gull stalled in the air above you, yellow eyes scanning. Tall latte in a glass. Garlic bread, hummus, olives, roast aubergines and peppers with goat’s cheese. Two seals in the shallows. Sun. Hot. Sun.
...and for a long space of that day you were voyaging in the Sea of Clear Glass, a sea of such purity that the gravel and sand of the sea were clearly visible through it; and you saw no monsters or beasts therein among the crags, but only the pure gravel and the green sand...

St Ives
Night - opalescent. Towards Lyonesse. Godrevy blinks.

The legend’s black and white sails. To arrive too late, or never to arrive at all? We create the habit of forgetfulness 

and back to the dying fall. This is not what I wanted to say / this is not it at all. The sea lapping and lapping; something misplaced, forgotten at the margins of your mind. Human voices wake you. All those lost lands.
And then the sea that is thin like mist that seems as if it will not support your boat.*

To My Surfboard
after Kenneth Koch

Strung out on that long blue line
That still, resonant moment
That promises freedom
At the changing nexus of sea and sky –
It is hard to know now
Which was more pronounced,
Spending time with you:
The feeling of having died
Or of not having yet been born;
The weight of water beneath me
Or the weight of light above.

I have lived with promises
Before and since; I am no stranger
To maybe. I have learnt
That promises are no substitute
For freedom; that one wave
Doesn’t make an ocean. What’s more
I no long care that I never
Really ‘got’ you; maybe
The vertical’s more my plane -
That depth below, the endless sky
Above. But with you, at least,
I learnt that neither success
Nor failure are what we think
They are; I learnt to see;
And I learnt how to be alone.

- Roselle Angwin
* The quotes in italics are from the C13th Celtic Book of the Dun Cow. You'll recognise phrases from T S Eliot; and the black and white sails are a reference to the Tristan and Isolde myth – tragic turning of events on just a handful of words.

Saturday 11 June 2011

poem: not in our name

For the last two or three months I've been posting poems by my Two Rivers group from our anthology, Confluence. We've come to the end now; I'm the last poet in the book. I shan't give you a spiel of stuff about me – you can find that elsewhere on the blog, and if you've been following this then you'll have heard plenty anyway!

I guess this little poem is just as valid, sadly, for our time now (Libya etc) as it was when I wrote it early in this new century – already so many wars; and that goes, I guess, for all time (substitute 'horse' for 'tank' maybe...). When will we ever...?

Not In Our Name

The day the news came we walked
in the Burrows back of the dunes
in the faintness of the breakers’ roar.
What I remember now are the inscrutable
eyes of the viper’s bugloss flowers,
their celestial blue almost but not yet
utterly crushed in the relentless tracks
of military trucks at practice in our name.

Roselle Angwin

Friday 10 June 2011

the quiet revolution

I still believe in civil disobedience. I still believe in passionate though non-violent protest. I still believe in (peaceful) anarchy if the otherwise-option requires moral compromise. I still believe, passionately, that we have a responsibility to stand up and speak – shout if necessary – for those who cannot when wrong is being done to them. I believe we have a right to have our voices heard; all our voices, and true democracy depends on our freedom, and willingness, to speak up and know that all voices count in this family of beings, human and non-human.

I also believe as strongly as I ever did that we need to resist control by money-driven corporate identities (multinationals, oil and pharmaceutical companies, centralised governmental bodies working against the good of people and planet in service to their god, Money). And now, as I'm still idealistic but older, I'm looking too at smaller-scale quieter ways of addressing these issues in our own backyard. (Not instead of, note, but as well as. 'In here' as well as 'out there'.)

You will perhaps know, and certainly if you live in England, of the transition town movement pioneered by Rob Hopkins here in Totnes. There's a great deal to say about this movement, and a great deal already written on it. For now what's relevant here is the delivery of power back into the hands of a small community.

And on the back of this – don't laugh – I want to mention gardening. If it makes you think of something dull and worthy carried out by your ageing grandparents – well, I understand. But it occurs to me that although the organic movement is growing hugely, as is the 'local food' movement in GB, the power of this is still largely untrumpeted and overlooked in the mainstream. The growing of your own food, and the personal health benefits plus the low-carbon-impact aspect, plus the omission of the use of pesticides and herbicides is an exponentially big move towards taking power away from the supermarkets and multinationals (and makes a difference to the planet). Determining what you put in your own mouth – and not exploiting others to do it – is an empowered and empowering act.

OK, not everyone is lucky enough as to have a garden – I know that. But even a windowsill can produce salad leaves much of the year. I have read that you only need a square metre to grow a significant amount of your own annual requirement of veg at least. Grow in boxes. Grow in old containers. Grow in buckets or cut-down old bins or cast-off 5L tins of eg food oil (ask at a restaurant what they do with their old containers) – check they haven't contained toxic chemicals, clearly! You can grow upwards in 'stacks' – old planks and bricks. Grow against walls. You can intercrop (eg salad between beans; beans among sweetcorn). Companion-plant and save space too: intercrop carrots with leeks and the leeks will put off carrot fly, carrots will be harvested first and the leeks will have room to grow on. You can grow continually-cropping things like spinach or chard or salad leaves in windowboxes. You can grow tomatoes and runner beans in pots, and soft fruit too. You can plant potatoes in used plastic bags on your own doorstep. Learn about wild food if you have access to the countryside. Queues for allotment spaces? Group together and demand more food growing space from your local council. You can post an ad to use some garden space owned by someone who can't manage it and share some of the produce in exchange. You can save the seed (and swap it). (One of the worst things I think done by Monsanto was to monopolise the African market and sell them only F1 hybrid seed – this doesn't produce fertile seed, so the small growers have to buy seed each year instead of saving their own. I'd be interested to know if anyone knows whether this is still happening? Comments box below.)

And of course the deeper quieter revolution is tending the garden of your own thoughts. Don't let anyone sell you the used-up collateral of our hybrid F1 collective (corporate) thought-police.

Wednesday 8 June 2011

The compass of the heart

Something lovely's beginning to happen here. I have been blogging for a few months now, and am aware that real people are actually reading this blog – it's very humbling to see on my map of audience that people from all over the world are finding it, though goodness knows how! Some of you I know, and it's heartening to know that you will be reading my words; and some of you write to let me know. Some of you I don't know, and that's intriguing. But as the words in the Comments box below the blog build up I have a real sense of companionship on the journey, this cyber-camino; and it touches me. Thank you.

And I hear from the editor of MsLexia that some of you have also written to her bewailing, as she put it, the loss of my regular column from the magazine. Whoever you are, thank you so much for that too. Not that I think it will change her redesigning-the-mag mind! – but still.

And a third round of thanks to Beatrice Grundbacher, who sent me this scallop from France, a photo she took while staying last year near the French camino.


I think a lot, and have for many years now, about the kinds of places and people with whom we each resonate. It also seems to me that we each have our own geology, too – I suspect, for instance, that my natural resonance is with granite, coming as my family does seemingly forever from the far west of the UK, the granite tip of Land's End, and having lived on or near the granite mass of Dartmoor for almost all my adult life. The places I'm deeply drawn to are usually granite places. Granite is durable, micaceous, hard to cut and work, formed in fire I believe (is it metamorphic or igneous? Can't remember; but both involve fire, and one involves intense pressure.). It's not porous. It's also radioactive in the fissures.

How different would it be to be a limestone person – all that erosion, the drip of water, the underground caverns; or a millstone grit, or clay, person? We may disbelieve it in these scientifically rigorous days but it seems to me that as well as the psychic resonance with a particular place or places that we each have there is also a psychic correlate with the bedrock of that landscape (are you reading this, sis, oh you of the rocks and erratics?? – runs in my family, this obsession with rock! My father used to speak of it too, and another sister married a geologist/mineralogist. I wonder if it's the Cornish mining heritage in our history? Did you know that all the Cornish mines in the far West were located by dowsing? And a great grandfather of ours was dowser for Cornwall County Council.).

So different bedrocks... I have to say that the sand- and clay-type soil of East Sussex, where for many years I led poetry workshops at Emerson College at Forest Row in the summer, offered me a depth of relaxation and soothing that I don't find on granite. I slept so well there; slowed right down. But at the end of a week I couldn't write. My naturally granite-sympathetic nature needs the uplift and charge (for of course there is an electrical current conducted in granite, through the crystals which both receive and transmit – she says as a non-scientist: the piezo effect) of this rock and its landscape for inspiration, even though it also keeps me slightly edgy.

And my compass is definitely west (or maybe westsouwest). The joy of travelling by train as a student down from the flatlands of Cambridgeshire to where the land around Reading started to push up into thoughts of hills; the delight when somewhere around the Wiltshire border if I was hitching a lift, or later driving, homewards on the M4 the sign 'The West' first appeared. I still feel that bubble of delight.

And for me west was pretty much always southwest, whether here in the UK (mainland and Eire) or Europe: the Atlantic coast of Brittany, France and Spain has always drawn me, and indeed before and in the early days of my marriage, and after the birth of my daughter, my (now ex-) husband and I and later Eloise too with us travelled in our camper van along these coasts in the winter, living simply, often off the land (nuts, berries, mushrooms, shellfish for husband and daughter), picking fruit or taking other casual labour for income as needed, following the surf and the pull of the compass.

And it took meeting my friend fellow poet and author and Celt Ken Steven to teach me the possibility of northwest being as important. As a Scot, Ken's compass is north, and he spends quite a lot of each year in Scandinavia. For nine years he and I co-led a retreat on the northwesterly Isle of Iona, another partly-granite place (and also made of some of the oldest stone on the planet, Lewisian gneiss), and we used to banter about our differing compasses ('Why on earth would anyone want to go southwest when they might go further north?' 'Well why would anyone want those long dark cold winters when they might go southwest?')

These days, though, I have to say I know for certain (and it did start actually way back in my twenties) that the northwest places of Scotland (and I'm sure Ireland, should I make it) offer a heart home for me as much as the southwest.

Uhoh once again not a short post. Hope you're still with me. That was all intended to introduce the book I'm reading at the moment: WEST – a journey through the landscape of loss by Jim Perrin. So far it's a beautiful, moving and erudite account of Perrin's coming to terms, partly through landscape, with the death of his wife and his son. It's also erudite, literary and eclectic in its range. Perrin has a depth of knowledge about the natural world, and appears still to live, as far as the book shows, as close to wildness as is possible in the UK; an exemplar of the non-insulated kind of simplicity I was speaking of yesterday. It's also about love; because even the loss of love is still of course about love. And he's very wise.

And what's more in reading him I'm reintroduced to some words of Thoreau's:

'...There is a subtle magnetism is nature, which, if we unconsciously yield to it, will direct us aright. It is not indifferent to us which way we walk. There is a right way... which is perfectly symbolical of the path which we love to travel in the interior and ideal world... My needle is slow to settle, varies a few degrees... but it always settles between west and southwest.'


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