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.
Tuesday, 28 October 2014
The path to the orchard is littered with ladders of cast-off ash leaves; between the trees is a web of songlines woven from the night-lives of hare, badger, fox. I add mine to them.
Dog scrabbles at the compost heap after a ghost-rat; beech leaves rain in the half-light – shower of bronze paper-thin coins.
The town is barely awake. Pumpkins, real and plastic both, grin from windows. A sprawl of delivery vans, a spraddle of gulls in the street. Two jackdaws narrowly miss an undignified end under the single front wheel of a Robin Reliant. Behind the litterpickerman an old black Lab just makes it up the hill.
'This is the house in which lived Anne Ball, who in 1586 married Thomas Bodley, founder of the Bodleian Library, Oxford.'
And there's the Brutus stone: Brutus, not as in 'Et tu Brute', but as in the son of Aeneas, Prince of Troy who fled after Agamemnon sacked Troy, and who, legend has it, founded Totnes (Totnes appears in the Lais of Breton Marie de France from the early Middle Ages; and we do have a fine Norman castle, cousin of the one in Launceston, but Brutus as founder in around 1300 BCE?).
In the café, open early, Bamboo in Japan, One Brief Shining Moment, The Stormrider Guide and Classic Scooters lean together companionably on the bookshelves. The coffee's good. I just about remember a time when I did come into town on occasion to sit and write, as all writers should; now it's a rare treat.
In the hospital, they'll be checking his tubes, his meds, his bloods.
Who is the 'I' who dreams all this, who records and names the moments of each ordinary extraordinary day?
Thursday, 23 October 2014
Tuesday, 21 October 2014
One of the things I love about my work, in addition to working with wonderful people in stunning locations, is the way in which exploration of our relationship to the world and the expression of that through writing come together. When it's the kind of depth-sounding that comes with poetry, there's a special buzz for me in the synergy and symbiosis generated.
The two recent workshops were intensive poetry days. The Glastonbury day, 'Breaking New Ground', explored how we might disrupt our normal patterns of thinking and writing in poetry in order to create more exciting poems which might move our working practice and what we create on.
I don't know if it's how it is for everyone, but I certainly find myself stagnating in what I say (write) and how I say it at times. Easy to write in what I think of as self-parody: same old same old. Then, it's easy to fall into a minor despair ('minor' in comparison with how war and environmental degradations affect us all); to imagine I'll never again write a good poem.
Thursday, 16 October 2014
So at last brief time in the Mists of Avalon ('isle of apples'), once again.
Me and Glastonbury: we go back a long way. Many years ago, in my previous life as a shoemaker and occasional creator of ceremonial incenses largely made from locally-foraged wild herbs, barks and resins, I'd go up to Glastonbury every few months.
This was in the spirit of a pilgrimage, and I'd take my young daughter off school for the day, on the grounds that her spiritual education was at least as important as her formal learning. We'd go via the tannery on the Levels which supplied the wonderful colourful leathers which I used to custom-make shoes to order (to post off around the world). Then we'd call by the shop to which I sold the incenses, and spend the rest of the day in Chalice Well Gardens, with sometimes a walk up the Tor.
I also went up a few times when a friend, a professional musician, was composing and recording music for me to use on my cassette Source (soon to be made into a CD) in the early 1990s. There's a great deal to say about Glastonbury, and I have elsewhere, and will, more and again.
In those days, the Gardens were open basically dawn till dusk, and had no commercial element. Like most other visitors, I'd fill a bottle with water from the Red Spring. The gardens have had new owners since then, and there's now a shop. I'm not sure I've been back in the whole 23 years I've been earning my living as a writer.
I also had one of my most significant experiences in those gardens, visiting alone. In another time, it would have been called 'a vision', and elements of it have shaped my life since.
Now, so many years on, on a wet October dusk, I draw up in the campervan to spend the night at the foot of the Tor. In 1994, my daughter and I were at Glastonbury Festival during the time when the Criminal Justice Bill with its hundreds of clauses was being passed through the House of Commons. A nasty and insidious bill-become-act, it was barely registered, it seems, by most people. Within it, though, was embedded a clause that prevents people from wild-camping in vans (or even from living in a caravan on their own land without planning permission). This is how our freedoms are removed, one by one: with stealth, by subtle force. Of course, this law is not usually enforced by police, but it does make it harder (along with the absence of wild places), to simply park up in a campervan in England, so I've booked a tiny campsite.
It's sheeting down; the drive up was filthy, and it turns out that my gas has run out – that last cup of early-morning tea by the sea in Southern Brittany! It also turns out that the shower on the campsite has been closed down. Nonetheless, I have a wonderful deep sleep on this south-facing spot, rain hammering on the van roof, and me making a triangle with the Tor and Chalice Well, each with its dreaming fruiting apple orchard.
I'm here to run a poetry workshop organised by a friend, and we spend a lively and fruitful day, the 13 of us, with an outpouring of sometimes-breathtaking writing, initially sparked by my theme of apples. Some of the best things were meeting people whom I've known remotely from the writing world; meeting old friends coming back to another workshop; meeting new 'voices'.
I have a strange experience arriving at and walking the Tor. If you're a writer, you might understand what I mean when I say that characters you live with, as in writing a novel, become as real as the places in which you set that novel. So I'm thinking, in the morning before the workshop when Dog and I walk up the lane towards the Tor: 'Oh, this is where Tamar parked when she went to scatter the ashes. Here's where she broke down afterwards; here's the gateway where she crouched and sobbed.'
Then the workshop at the Camino Centre (I've lost count of the number of timex the Camino has presented itself to me this year). The day is invigorating for me; the group is dynamic and talented; and Rachael and I take the dog up the misty Tor at dusk. Later, I fill my bottle with water from the White Spring outside the Chalice Well walls, as the gardens are now shut.
And suddenly my summer-long drought in the writing field has shifted. (This has been longer than ever before, and it's been hard not to panic.)
The filling of the bottle is clearly not just literal. I've broken my writing-fast – paying attention to these underground sources is crucial. My dreams have been rich, and – yes! – I wrote two poems before I even got out of bed this morning, in the damp half-light of more rain, at some unconscionable hour.
She's come back, the Muse, in her feminine form this time (sometimes she is clearly a he; and what interests me is that in my last night's dream, where dolphins became horses, my male companion morphed into a woman).
I wish you all a regular sip from the well, wherever and whatever yours may be.
Saturday, 11 October 2014
I love Jo's work – her voice is truly unique. I'm delighted to post that poem here:
Speaking and answering with occasionally looking up
What did you find?
Two vowels in the centre of a word
The way the spine curves, one to another
And in a wood, sunlight in places
An arrangement of moss on stones
What did you give him?
A colour inherent in silence.
What did you see?
Words whispered from a mouth
Thin as moths' wings.
What did you hear?
The metre of a rhyme
Salt moving in an ocean
A gesture on a face change.
What did you accept?
A small bird's wings behind glass
Lamplight filling a street
Another tongue entirely.
What did you lose?
A life full of regret
The deceit of skin
Afterwards when we looked out
A light snow had fallen.
What was said?
It is enough
© Jo Cornwell
Thursday, 9 October 2014
I'm driving back across the moor with Tavistock behind me, and behind the town the valleys of the Tavy and the Tamar; behind those, in turn, the hills and tors of Bodmin in their shades of slate and grey. Brown Willy, Bronn Wennili ('hill of swallows' in the Cornish tongue), one of the higher tors of Bodmin Moor, is visible in my rear view mirror as a larger ripple under the sheet of sooty pewter that is the sky in the West.
Ahead of me, eastwards, huge thunderheads in every shade of bruise tower upwards. From behind me, curtained shafts of late-afternoon sun pick out flakes of gold, splinters of neon-green from the moorland shoulders.
As I look at them, something new comes on the radio: the space forecast. This is I believe the first ever, just ahead of the 6 o'clock news, and the contents will become, surely, as iconic as the shipping forecast (which TM has reluctantly had to give up as I flatly refuse to be woken, much as I too love it, half an hour earlier than I otherwise need to be, at 5.15am).
My imagination immediately goes into overdrive at the list: coronal mass ejections, solar flares, geomagnetic activity (and 'aurora borealis sightings: few'). A poem, surely?
Or maybe a rap:
'outa / in tha / sola / system /' ... or maybe not.
I'm coming back, via my ailing father who is at least out of hospital now, from the exuberance of a walk in this wild wet elemental weather down to Lydford Gorge, and the dramatic White Lady waterfall.
One of the things I'm loving about getting older is how much joy I find in the extraordinary fact of the existence, the being, of small, ordinary things. Once, it would have been adventure, or travel, or a passionate love affair that triggered this kind of wild joy. Now, it's simply the world: this weather, that leaf-fall, this river, this buzzard's mew, that charm of goldfinches, this sound of rooks and jackdaws playing with the wind, this precious time with a friend, the fact that Dog, elderly, a little arthritic, and slower now, has still managed a couple of steep miles in heavy rain with delight. As soon as I step outdoors these days I'm struck with a kind of minor ecstasy: to be here! To be alive! To have (the rest of) the natural world wrapped around me!
And, what's more, being self-employed, to be free too to take time out during the working week; though it is also, after all, for me the writer and my friend Anne the artist, not just 'time out' but also inspiration. We also choose to make the walk in a kind of meditational silence, followed by a much noisier lunch.
Undeniably, this is sharpened by the poignancy of knowing how very fortunate I am, in this England, to be here, free from jihad, or air-strikes, or abduction, or torture. I imagine many of us find that we are accompanied much if not most of the time by the images from newspapers, TV or radio of the terrible events unfolding all the time elsewhere.
And there's the environmental downward spiral, with the actuality of climate change, with the reality of animal cruelty, with the devastating news that we've lots 52% of our wildlife, due to human agency, since 1970 (I think I wrote about that the other day).
And what is the 'right' response to all this? What response can there be? How do we live with despair and hope, what actions can make a difference, no matter how tiny, how do we not give up? This question has arisen in groups I'm involved in, or friends I talk with, over and over recently. I'm not sure there is an answer, but we do keep needing to ask the questions.
In amongst the welter of disaster and horror, one thing I keep reminding myself of is gratitude; the practice of gratitude in the midst of a sense of hopelessness and helplessness. How blessed we are here, how blessed. At the risk of sounding a Pollyanna, whatever else we can or can't do, we can remember this. It could be otherwise.
In honour of the White Lady, here's a poem. I'm not sure if I posted this before (blogger is still not letting me use the search function); I wrote it about exactly this walk a few years ago.
© Roselle Angwin, from Bardo (Shearsman)
Tuesday, 7 October 2014
It prompted a few responses, and I posted them here. Seems it's still tickling people's imaginations.
Here's a contribution from one of my monthly group members, poet, painter and printmaker:
Monday, 6 October 2014
There's much to say about the apple, and I've said some of it elsewhere on this blog. (Blogger is currently doing its idiosyncratic thing and not letting me search for apple posts, so I can't link.) This is not where I'm going, though.
Autumn. Each season can offer us an opportunity, in its mirror, to look at where we have come since the last transition, what we have sown and tended, what we have reaped – or not.
Over the last few days I've been thinking about how, psychologically speaking, in addition to what 'good' crops we know we've harvested metaphorically, there is always a shadow harvest, too: the psyche seems to be ordered in pairs of opposites, one of which is usually an unconscious compensation.
You remember the tale of Sleeping Beauty? The 'wicked godmother' or 'wicked fairy' who ensured that Sleeping Beauty pricked her finger on the poisoned tip of the spinning wheel can be taken to represent an energy, a complex, in our psyche which, if not given full entry into our conscious life, will subvert and poison from the shadows.
The 'poison' is neutralised by its being brought into consciousness: once we become aware of a complex, or a pattern, that is tugging our strings from our unconscious we are in a position to do something about it.
I have been thinking about the meaning, too, of taking a bite from the poisoned apple, a central motif in Snow White.
This has an echo in another fairy story, that of The Red Shoes. There's much to say about this one, too (and see Clarissa Pinkola Estes for more on how this plays out in a woman's psyche), but what's relevant to what I've been reflecting on is how we sometimes sacrifice a path that we know to be ours, 'hand made' and true, for something that looks appealing, or looks as if it will offer us an easier ride.
In the case of Snow White, despite her initial hesitation, she takes a bite of the poisoned apple held out to her by a farmer's wife, who is, of course, the jealous stepmother in disguise. Her hesitancy is the voice of intuition, which she ignores in favour of the sight of the juicy apple. Here, her 'weakness', if you like, is her appetite (though looked at through the lens of archetypal psychology, what happens is what's necessary as a wake-up call to the psyche), which overrides what she knows deep down is the right thing to do (or not).
In the Red Shoes, I see a similarity in the motif of the old woman in the gilded carriage, who offers the little orphan girl respite from her life of hunger and poverty. She holds out a 'poisoned apple' in the form of what looks like an easy ride; and as Estes points out, there's no reason why one shouldn't choose an easier ride.
The issue is the cost; the sacrifice of one's own passionate authentic life, hard though it might be at times, in favour of someone else's path, someone else's needs, or someone else's ideas and suggestions about how you might or should live.
I have done that a few times in my own life – thrown over a tough, financially-impoverished but soul-rich, fulfilling and rewarding path when someone or something has presented me with a facsimile, if you like, an opportunity, with the promise of more money, or a bit of security, or an easier time, or an opportunity to do something 'big', and failed to see the cost to myself and the occasionally darker motivations of the person offering (as well, of course, as my own neediness that is driving me).
Sometimes, this person is, for reasons of their own poverty, needing to siphon off a bit of your light and vitality. We could say that about the old woman in her gilded carriage. (And it's useful to remember too that these dark aspects that we meet 'out there' are also likely to be split-off aspects of ourselves: ones that we haven't integrated into consciousness.)
The last significant juicy apple held out to me that I bit into against my better judgement I was badly burned; or rather, it turned out later to be poisoned – a toxic experience for me, despite initial rewards. And I learned something from it. I could have listened to my intuition and remembered that our motives are so often mixed, under the surface, both others' and our own; and been willing to look at the undercurrents ahead of time.
I have come back, as always, to knowing that my path is to reap my own harvest, and to be aware in advance that all that glitters is not gold, and of course its converse is true.
We have much to thank our temptations and our 'opponents' for: not least the fact that they make us face our own demons and weaknesses, the way that we can be bribed off our true path, the way that we can ignore intuition because we're blinded by the look of a 'reward', the way that we can be naïve, trusting, foolish, inflated, egotistical.
And so we can also turn around and collect in and neutralise our own dark crops, by making more conscious our own demands on others, our own less-than-selfless motivations, the way we might also play on another's weaknesses, the way our own needs show up.
Thursday, 2 October 2014
Someone on the Today programme was reminding us of the potency of memorising poems, and the fact that so few people do now. The same Someone is, I think, part of a study researching the benefits of this, and the role poetry has to play in, say, Alzheimer's. I do know how my mother lit up in the later stages of Alzheimer's when I went to visit her at the care home, and read poetry for an hour to her and anyone else who wanted to hear it. When I read the W B Yeats poem 'Down by the Salley Gardens' my mother would remember it as a song, and her face would light up, and she'd sing it in her sweet voice.
There's a whole raft of research into this, actually: poetry as therapy, or bibliotherapy. Unsurpassed.
I only know one poem by heart, also a Yeats poem; or so I thought. Then I remembered that I know that wonderful poem by Tolkien in Lord of the Rings:
- All that is gold does not glitter,
- Not all those who wander are lost;
- The old that is strong does not wither,
- Deep roots are not reached by the frost.
- From the ashes a fire shall be woken,
- A light from the shadows shall spring;
- Renewed shall be blade that was broken,
- The crownless again shall be king
I also remembered that I know a rather beautiful little poem from ELP's version of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, entitled 'The Sage'. 'I carry the dust of a journey / that will not be shaken away...' etc. Not sure whether Mussorgsky wrote the lyrics, or ELP; but you can check it out here:
... and in fact any number of part-remembered poems. Autumn resolution: learn another poem by heart.
The relevance of all this? Well, it's National Poetry Day, isn't it?
I've been leaving the house very early each morning this week to cross the moor to inspire what feels like a vast number of schoolchildren, back to back, to write poems that they don't necessarily want to write about subjects of less moment to them, perhaps, than writing about rugby, or their pets. What's more, today we've (by which I mean 'they've') had, with my help, to create, draft, peer-edit, learn and rehearse those poems (on place, home and the environment) for tomorrow's slam, involving a number of local primaries and several sets in the secondary school. And, er, I'm the judge, apparently instructing the principal of the college and various other notable figures in how to judge a slam. And – well, I don't know that I approve of competition. How to award them all a first prize for being the best they can be, themselves, right now?
A bonus is the incredible and dramatic drive over Dartmoor – at its most beautiful, perhaps, in the changing skies and flaming palette of fox-reds, siennas, terracottas, ochres, golds that autumn brings amongst the gorse and heather. The towering clouds, the fierce shafts of light, the blue-on-blue of Bodmin Moor in the distance, the rusty amber of the beeches, the fat knotted strings of river-mist hovering at the treelines ahead, the thumbprint of smeary silver at the edge that is the Tamar River – heartstopping moments at every turn. Not a bad commute.
What devastating news that the world has lost 52% of its wildlife since 1970 due to human agency. What more can one say about that, except how hard it is to live in a world with such high levels of destruction and ignorance, and fear that we can't turn it around.
Well, the local badgers may be in for it again, if the NFU has its way. But good on the National Trust for has standing up to the NFU bullies for its policy on vaccinating at the Devon HQ at Killerton; you can read it here: http://www.ntsouthwest.co.uk/2014/09/badger-vaccination-project-at-killerton/
And speaking of destruction, my hero the iconoclast George Monbiot wrote a piece this week, 'Bomb Everyone': 'Barack Obama has now bombed seven largely-Muslim countries, in each case citing a moral imperative. The result, as you can see in Libya, Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan,Yemen, Somalia and Syria, has been the eradication of jihadi groups, of conflict, chaos, murder, oppression and torture. Evil has been driven from the face of the earth by the destroying angels of the west.' (http://www.monbiot.com/2014/09/30/bomb-everyone/)
What to think about our current involvement in Iraq – the new one – other than arriving back over and over at a deep sense of fear, unease and despair that our current initiative is unlikely to help, only to fuel the rage. Two people who know the situation intimately but from quite different perspectives were adamant on R4 this morning that this is not the way to go: that diplomatic talking and negotiating, quietly, behind the scenes, has ultimately brought about the change needed in so many situations, from the IRA to the Taliban. (Sorry to be vague as to the 'whos': I was driving so couldn't jot down the names that I didn't know.)
OK, I'm going to finish on a bright note: a local Devon farmer said to me once: 'Our very survival depends on two inches of topsoil and timely sun and rainfall.'
Well, we and the weather got it right this year: we've had one of the best harvests ever, due to the wonderful sun and our locally-sourced horse-muck and seaweed fertilisers (apart from the potatoes, which normally see us through almost to the next year's first earlies, and this year, to TM's despondency, we lost half to the slugs which live in the soil).
So in between huge numbers of workshops and a little of my own writing, this autumn much of my energy is going into picking, preserving and storing the sweetcorn, pea beans, squashes, onions, artichokes, and apples. (Anyone know good ways of storing an ocean of kale? Anyone made kalekraut successfully?)
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