Monday, 30 July 2018

Emily Bronte bicentenary

Today marks 200 years since the birth of Emily Bronte.

 

It seems strange to reflect that six months ago I had planned a whole raft of activities to commemorate this prestigious bicentenary, from live talks to library events,  publications to radio recordings.  I did indeed begin the year with a talk about Emily including some readings from her poems, at Morley Library.  But 2018 has not turned out the way I had hoped, with the death of my father, and a subsequent tally of losses, family illnesses and personal troubles casting one shadow after another as the months have racked up, all of which have put paid to my initial hopes.  So it has happened that my marking of this momentous birthday has happened more privately, less ostentatiously, than originally envisaged.  Nonetheless, I shall still pay a visit to her birthplace, and the famous Haworth home at which Emily Bronte's great novel Wuthering Heights was written.



















Both Thornton, the Bronte birthplace, and Haworth Parsonage, have been regular haunts of mine, as I have visited in the course of making my film about Branwell, or simply for interest, and have for one reason or another become like places of pilgrimage through my last few years - as has the moorland pinnacle of Top Withens, a ruined farmhouse reputed to be at least one of the inspirations for Wuthering Heights.

Ruins of the church  where Patrick Bronte preached 1815-20, at Thornton, West Yorks, birth town of Emily Bronte
St Michael and All Angels Church, Haworth
Top Withens


 There have been many celebrations and commissioned works to acknowledge and celebrate Emily's bicentenary.  But with all of the above in mind, my own tribute to Emily Bronte takes the simple form of reproducing the following three poems, three of my personal favourites which I often read and quoted from in delivering my talks about the Brontes with Caroline Lamb, and which over the years have brought me considerable fulfillment and comfort.  Happy birthday, Emily.

HIGH WAVING HEATHER

High waving heather, 'neath stormy blasts bending,
Midnight and moonlight and bright shining stars;
Darkness and glory rejoicingly blending,
Earth rising to heaven and heaven descending,
Man's spirit away from its drear dongeon sending,
Bursting the fetters and breaking the bars.


All down the mountain sides, wild forest lending
One mighty voice to the life-giving wind;
Rivers their banks in the jubilee rending,
Fast through the valleys a reckless course wending,
Wider and deeper their waters extending,
Leaving a desolate desert behind.

Shining and lowering and swelling and dying,
Changing for ever from midnight to noon;
Roaring like thunder, like soft music sighing,
Shadows on shadows advancing and flying,
Lightning-bright flashes the deep gloom defying,
Coming as swiftly and fading as soon.


 

IT WAS NIGHT, AND ON THE MOUNTAINS 
 It was night, and on the mountains
Fathoms deep the snowdrifts lay;
Streams and waterfalls and fountains
 
Down the darkness stole away.

Long ago the hopeless peasant
 
Left his sheep all buried there,
Sheep that through the summer pleasant
 
He had watched with tend'rest care.

Now no more a cheerful ranger
 
Following pathways known of yore
Sad he stood, a wild-eyed stranger,

 On his own unbounded moor. 


REMEMBRANCE

Cold in the earth — and the deep snow piled above thee,
Far, far removed, cold in the dreary grave!
Have I forgot, my only love, to love thee,
Severed at last by Time’s all-severing wave?


Now, when alone, do my thoughts no longer hover
Over the mountains, on that northern shore;
Resting their wings where heath and fern-leaves cover
That noble heart for ever, ever more?


Cold in the earth – and fifteen wild Decembers
From these brown hills have melted into spring:
Faithful, indeed, is the spirit that remembers
After such years of change and suffering!


Sweet Love of youth, forgive, if I forget thee
While the world’s tide is bearing me along;
Other desires and other hopes beset me,
Hopes which obscure, but cannot do thee wrong!


No later light has lightened up my heaven,
No second morn has ever shone for me;
All my life’s bliss from thy dear life was given,
All my life’s bliss is in the grave with thee.


But when the days of golden dreams had perished,
And even Despair was powerless to destroy,
Then did I learn how existence could be cherished,
Strengthened, and fed without the aid of joy.


Then did I check the tears of useless passion –
Weaned my young soul from yearning after thine;
Sternly denied its burning wish to hasten
Down to that tomb already more than mine.


And even yet, I dare not let it languish,
Dare not indulge in memory’s rapturous pain;
Once drinking deep of that divinest anguish,
How could I seek the empty world again?



Sunday, 1 July 2018

Stitching Time - in the Poetry of Sudeep Sen








Its twenty five years since I last traveled by aeroplane, yet the powerful sensations of change, of migratory transitions, of a widening, or shrinking, sense of one's own place in the context of an enormous planetary jumble, is still a very clear memory, evoked acutely by a recent re-reading of Flying Home,  a poem by Indian writer Sudeep Sen.

Flying Home contains both memorable images of flying its self - the unpredictable lumps and hollows of a sky and the patchwork quilt of aeroplane lines - with a testament to the emancipation of flying free and leaving the phenomenon of alternate time zones and realities.

I meticulously stitch time through embroidered sky, the poet tells us, explaining how:

I am going home once again from another 
home, escaping the weave of one reality into another.




 In my case, the flight was across the short stretch of the Atlantic separating England from Ireland, while for Sudeep Sen, the journey described is a much longer one, from England to India, yet, having found myself, for various reasons, lately undertaking different journeys back into my own past, retracing former steps and having reason to revisit the sites of former schools, I feel a sense of connection with Sudeep's exchanging of realities, his nod to how the past gently reminds and stalls to confirm: my body is the step-son of my soul.

In the above lines, Sen suggests that our outward appearances convey only a semblance, second-hand, of our truer, inward feelings, located, for the poet, in the soul.  He goes further:

But what talk of soul and skin
in this day and age, such ephemeral things,

that cross-weave blood and breath
into clotted zones of true escape.

What talk of flight time and flying
when real flights of fancy are crying

to stay buoyant, unpredictably in mid-air
amid pain, peace and belief: just like thin air

With its distinctions between formalities with the strength of natural instincts emphasized in clotted zones of true escape, the poem sketches a beautiful evocation of true freedom: of feelings and "flights of fancy" and the liberation of life above the world, where, free as a bird, the soul is unconstrained by human time zones and finds deliverance where another home is built / in free space vacuum.

The poem's strength lies in its metaphorizing of realities into aeroplane lines, with all of the ephemerality implied, and its author's neat yet somehow loose fitting arrangement of the lines into couplets, whose phrases hang over into the next, and whose brief descriptions of a drift through time perfectly distill the subjective nature of overlapping realities, time zones and the idea of places, roots and "home."








Tuesday, 12 June 2018

Small Moons Glowing - Deer in Mythology and Poetry

Originally published Janaury 2014, on Ryburn Ramblings.

Anyone who has seen wild deer will recognize the rustling shuffle, the momentary partings of overgrowth, the startled eyes as a surprised animal stops short, regarding its human observer with something of the child’s startled curiosity. These wordless meetings are like momentary trysts.




The Cervidae family, which we know as deer, evolved from muntjac-like animals originating in Europe around thirty million years ago. They are pictured in heraldry, having appeared on flags and Heads of Arms for centuries, and play a major role in literary symbolism. Deer are not uncommon sights where I live, and benefit from the combination of open grassland and forest. You will see them darting through the trees at Rough Hey, or grazing fruit-rich hedges around former quarry lands at Brighouse. One sighting sticks in my mind more than any. On a sunny afternoon in June, 2012, glimpsed from the towpath where the Rochdale Canal threads its way into the Calder and Hebble Navigation, the Sika doe almost seemed to float along the slope, its head dipping in and out of sight as it wove through low-hung branches It was an understated meeting. But for a number of reasons it was highly significant.

In The White Doe of Rylstone, Wordsworth relates how:

The presence of this wandering Doe
Fills many a damp obscure recess
With lustre of a saintly show;
And, reappearing, she no less
Sheds on the flowers that round her blow
A more than sunny liveliness


and casts the gentle, unassuming creature as a kind of emblem of peace, bringing comfort to the mind of a girl whose soldier brother is killed and buried near the family’s ancestral home: the doe acts as faithful companion, visiting the brother’s grave even of her own volition. Wordsworth’s poem - felt by the poet to be “in conception the highest work” that he produced - frames the deer in a spiritual imagery recalling its traditional mythology: throughout history, the symbolism of deer has denoted kindness, loyalty, compassion.


 Greek mythology features the Cerynian Hind, associated with the Goddess Artemis, and whose temporary capture is set down by the monarch Eurystheus as one of the Labours of Hercules, punishments imposed on him for the crime of having slain his own children while suffering from madness.
Nordic sagas depict four stags consuming foliage, said to reflect environmental and climactic symbolism. In 1886, English banker-scholar Benjamin Thorpe (1782 - 1870) translated the long poem Grímnismál (Sayings of Grímni), a mediaeval rendition of folkloric myth, recounting:

Harts there are also four,
which from its summits,
arch-necked, gnaw.
Dâin and Dvalin,Duneyr and Durathrô


Fifty years on, American scholar Lee M. Hollander (1880 - 1972) produced the section as follows:

Four harts also
the highest shoots
ay gnaw from beneath:
Dáin and Dvalin,
Duneyr and Dýrathró


In a rare example of the deer as antagonist, Norse mythologists portrayed a hart permanently biting into the flesh of Yggdrasil - the World Tree whose roots sustain the Nine Worlds - to add to the suffering the tree endures from sundry other natural sources in its efforts to maintain the existence of the world(s).

In the Talmud, the giant stag Keresh inhabits Bel Ilai, a magical forest, apparently without influence on the outside world, and in Oriental spirituality deer are messengers to the gods, while in South American cultures deer are taken as representational rather than playing active roles in legends. In Celtic mythology, fairy cattle were nocturnally milked by giantesses who could transform themselves into deer; the animal is also a popular choice of transformation for those escaping persecution. The Christian legend of Saint Hubert conveys upon the deer restorative, revolutionary powers. Drawing together historical elements of varying accuracy, the tale - first attributed to Hubert in the 15th Century having been adapted from similar stories since around the 8th Century - describes the life of a son of the Duke of Aquitane who, in common with his 7th Century contemporaries, habitually hunted deer. However, whena deer he is pursuing turns to face him, revealing a crucifix between its antlers, Hubert then hears a voice, which warns him: "Hubert, unless thou turnest to the Lord, and leadest an holy life, thou shalt quickly go down into hell," whereupon the erstwhile hunstman resolves to abandon his former ways and lead a peaceful life of charity and preaching.

Eight years before The White Doe of Rylstone, the 1800 volume of Lyrical Ballads opened with the poem Hart-Leap Well, which takes its name from an actual spring at Richmond, Yorkshire, and in which Wordsworth presents a more celestial vision of a deer, albeit one burdened with the misery of “a remarkable Chase” as, shifting between past and present tense, the poet describes a solitary knight pursuing it up a hill ("at least nine roods of sheer ascent"):

The poor Hart toils along the mountain-side;

I will not stop to tell how far he fled,
Nor will I mention by what death he died;
But now the Knight beholds him lying dead.

Remarkably, though, the deer has transfixed his assailant who witnesses an extraordinary scene, as the deer appears to descend the hill in just three leaps:

Sir Walter wiped his face, and cried, "Till now
Such sight was never seen by human eyes:
Three leaps have borne him from this lofty brow,
Down to the very fountain where he lies.


The creature’s life, of course, could not be saved by its miraculous abilities, for the poet has already made clear how:

Upon his side the Hart was lying stretched:
His nostril touched a spring beneath a hill,
And with the last deep groan his breath had fetched
The waters of the spring were trembling still.


Walter resolves upon witnessing this feat to commit himself to a goodlier life, or at least - in a blatant nod to Coleridge’s Kubla Kahn - "to build a Pleasure-house upon this spot."

In the poem’s second part, the hart’s death scene has ceased to be a place of joy and, the Knight long since deceased, has dwindled into grimness and decrepitude. We encounter a classic Wordsworthian technique, as the interpretation of nature is left not to a sage or scholar, but a humble shepherd, whose anthropomorphic reflections on the hart are harrowingly poignant:

What thoughts must through the creature's brain have past!
Even from the topmost stone, upon the steep,
Are but three bounds—and look, Sir, at this last—
O Master! it has been a cruel leap.

"For thirteen hours he ran a desperate race;
And in my simple mind we cannot tell
What cause the Hart might have to love this place,
And come and make his death-bed near the well.

"Here on the grass perhaps asleep he sank,
Lulled by the fountain in the summer tide;
This water was perhaps the first he drank
When he had wandered from his mother's side.

It is thus the image of suffering, rather than fantastical redemption, that is most powerfully asserted as we near the poem’s conclusion. As if in consolation, we are reassured that

This Beast not unobserved by Nature fell;
His death was mourned by sympathy divine

As the unnamed narrator insists

The Being, that is in the clouds and air,
That is in the green leaves among the groves,
Maintains a deep and reverential care
For the unoffending creatures whom he loves.



    American poet Jane Hirshfield shines a light on the subtle miracle of the deer, casting it as an almost transubstantiative enigma:

The quiet opening
between fence strands
perhaps eighteen inches.

Antlers to hind hooves,
four feet off the ground,
the deer poured through it.

No tuft of the coarse white belly hair left behind.

I don’t know how a stag turns
into a stream, an arc of water.
I have never felt such accurate envy.


Not of the deer—

To be that porous, to have such largeness pass through me.


(The Supple Deer)

And in Standing Deer, she paints the creature in a more transient light, seeming to suggest the elusive, fleeting nature of happiness and human certainty:

A root seeks water.
Tenderness only breaks open the earth.
This morning, out the window,
the deer stood like a blessing, then vanished.


From the days of Saint Francis to the age of Heraldry, through their favourable depiction as messengers of magic in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, or as the loveable Bambi in Felix Salten’s children’s stories, later screened as Disney cartoons, to their position in modern literature as woodland heroes and heroines, as in Colin Dann’s The Animals of Farthing Wood, in which The Great White Stag protects the animals of the promised land of White Deer Park, deer have enjoyed respectful, affectionate, even reverential treatment. In a poem brilliantly capturing the awful realisation of death, Jon Loomis describes in chilling detail the step-by-step horrors of car and deer collision:

You're seventeen and tunnel-vision drunk,
swerving your father's Fairlane wagon home at 3:00 a.m.

Two-lane road, all curves
and dips—dark woods, a stream, a patchy acre

of teazle and grass. You don't see the deer
till they turn their heads—road full of eyeballs,

small moons glowing. You crank the wheel,
stamp both feet on the brake, skid and jolt


into the ditch. Glitter and crunch of broken glass
in your lap, deer hair drifting like dust. Your chin

and shirt are soaked—one eye half-obscured
by the cocked bridge of your nose. The car

still running, its lights angled up at the trees.
You get out. The deer lies on its side.

A doe, spinning itself around
in a frantic circle, front legs scrambling,

back legs paralyzed, dead. Making a sound—
again and again this terrible bleat.

(Deer Hit)




Aside from unintended deaths, deer have been stalked and killed in Britain since the Middle Ages, and in Wordsworth’s time the “sports” were rife. In As You Like It, Shakespeare decried the cruelty of the hunt:

A poor sequester’d stag
That from the hunter's aim hath ta’en a hurt
Did come to languish. . . . .
. . . . And the big round tears
Coursed one another down his innocent nose
In piteous chase


Against this backdrop of disregard for the suffering of their kind, England’s deer are at threat. On the 14th November, 1843, in her beautifully written Stanzas, Emily Bronte expressed sympathy with the timid deer whose limbs are fleet with fear, while in her 1914 poem Two Kinds Of Sport, American writer Calla L Harcourt, describing a pair of hunters, reports:

They blotted out lives that were happy and good,
Blinded eyes and broke wings that delighted to soar,

They killed for mere pleasure, and crippled and tore
Regardless of aught but the hunger for blood.

Did they dream that night as they sank to their rest
How poor little Broken-Leg out in the field

All nurseless and doctorless, fever possessed,
Felt all of the torture that battlegrounds yield?


This is contrasted with the exploits of a photographer who carried a Kodak instead of a gun. Unlike the victims of the hunters, The deer that he "shot" never dreamed of his aim and Yet rich were his "trophies" and varied his "game."
Calla L. Harcourt’s photographer was clearly cut from the same cloth as contemporary Scottish poet Kenneth C Steven, author of the wonderful short poem The Deer:

Come December they click at nightfall,
When the hills are ghostly with snow,
Flint-hoofed into a town led by moonlight.

They are whittled from wood;
Sinews of strength sewn together,
Their hearing honed to catch the slightest falls in the forest,
Or know the click of a gun.

Their mouths soften the grass of gardens
Before dogs nose them, bound out barking, big-voiced,
Send them no louder than a scattering of leaves
Back into the huge night.





Sticky Pearls - Earthworms in Ecology and Poetry

Originally published August 2013, on Ryburn Ramblings.
STICKY PEARLS - WHY EARTHWORMS ARE IMPORTANT

“It may be doubted whether there are many other animals which have played so important a part in the history of the world as these lowly organised creatures.”Charles Darwin, The Formation of Vegetable Mould Through the Action of Worms, With Observations on Their Habits, 1881.



Synonymous with death, worms gradually devour the bodies of the dead, provide an ironic twist to the food chain, thrive on carrion.  Let’s talk of graves, of worms and epitaphs, Shakespeare’s Richard the 2nd grimly urges in the midst of war. Hamlet, musing on mortality, observes how humankind might fatten and consume other creatures only to end as the food of worms.  Your worm, he tells us, is the only emperor in diet.

For William Blake, the worm  represents corruption, something dissolute and nullifying.  In The Sick Rose, though his worm is metaphorical - no earthworm would fly, by night or any other time! - he nonetheless selects this species to destroy the rose with his dark secret love.

Sylvia Plath at least pours some balm on the depiction of worms, comparing them to sticky pearls, yet this description comes in the context of death: the worms have gathered on the body of the briefly expired Lazarus, imagined in female form.  Worms appear again, in The Fearful, where this time they are more ambiguously referenced:

This man makes a pseudonym
And crawls behind it like a worm…

The mask increases, eats the worm…

worms in the glottal stops.

In the poem, death is mentioned three times.

Earthworms have wound their way into my own poetry. In my debut collection Little Creatures: Poetry of Insects, Small Mammals and Micro-organisms, I tried to shed light on the wonders of the worm, yet, motivated by Blake, have inevitably veered towards its darker nature:


CONSIDERING THE EARTHWORM

To rake the muck,
sift silt, and crawl mud-miles,
slurping sods awash with phosphate,
like rubbery trowels, creeping
through a jungle of bacteria,
these are the virtues of the worm.

Needling through nitrogen,
soft-bodying through clods,
he’ll twist himself, contortionist,
squeezing through earth's pores,
swivelling and corkscrewing
under moorland, mire,
heathland blotted by burnt cars,
broken dry-stone walls and ling fire,
ferreting through mole tunnels
and warrens, penetrating underground
beneath a battery of rain.

Amazingly, this boneless wire can regenerate,
a resurrected miracle
as twin lives germinate.
This is the wonder of the worm
his brute adaptability, and love
of all things life-giving,
his quest to poke himself into the open
at the brilliant incision of jawbones -
badger’s staple, blackbird’s catch.

NIGHTCRAWLER

Disturbed in earth
a parody of exile
braving
hard necrotic
frosts and re-submerging
ostrich-like, at the sheer
invasive skim of metal.

In a dark oblivious
universe of loneliness,
worms mine alkaline
and acid, burrowing
to the soil's blood.

That rust-flesh vein
of plated circularity
stabbing
structured interface
conceals a long digestive tube,
trawls mineral miles
scenting dark decrepitude
and feasting

on the crimson joys
of bursting birth,
consuming death:
teeth pinned on roots,
like embryonic babies
whose intestines slowly grow
and coil themselves
into life.


Throughout literature and mythology, worms have served, engagingly, as reminders of the morbid and macabre.  Vikings pictured them coiled around the Universe, biding their time before strangling the world; many Norse legends filtered into the folklore of areas that fell to Viking plunder, so that in the North East, for instance, “The Worm’s Den” is a secret hollow inhabited by The Linton Worm, a serpent who nocturnally emerges to gobble crops and livestock.  Innumerable similar legends abound.  More recently, in the Star Wars trilogy, the carnivorous Sarlacc is a worm-like monster embedded in the sand below the palace of Jabba the Hutt, and one of many horrific Hollywood creatures inspired by the idea of slithering, mysterious below-ground worms.In reality, worms are neither monstrous or dangerous.  Indeed, it is hard to see how the earthworm, an umbrella bracket for an internationally profuse distribution of species of which six occur in Britain, could be seen to do anything but good.







Breathing through their skin, worms live principally below ground, in the soil (the layer of earth they naturally occupy is known as “the drilosphere,”) and as they move through it in search of food and in their daily lives, they help to aerate and break it up, easing access for roots, aiding drainage and nutrient access for the roots of plants.  They also consume soil and organic matter in large quantities, excreting soluble, pH balanced nutrient-rich "casts" rich taken up by plant roots, and play a vital part in the ecosystem as prey for other beneficial animals such as birds.  They can number up to around 3 million per hectare in productive pasture, and live for around ten years.  Worms interact symbiotically with bacteria, soil fungi and other organisms which form associations with plants, benefiting worms, which in turn benefit us all.  Yet these facts, which seem self-evident to gardeners today, were largely unknown until just over a century ago.



A young Charles Darwin took pains to observe earthworms in their natural environment, before his excursions into the radical world of Evolutionary Biology …only to return to his youthful fascination a few years after On The Origin of Species.  This time, he performed experiments, and recorded the results.  Convinced that their turning of the soil and periodic appearances above ground must serve some beneficial purpose(s), he deposited chalk and coal stones in a field, returning to them twenty years later to assess the depths to which they had sunk, thanks to the actions of the earthworms.  At Stonehenge, he noted sunken monoliths absorbed into the Earth via the impact of earthworm castings.  Darwin received help from relatives, letters of advice from as far-a-field as India, and even soil samples from the sites of Roman ruins.  

It will be difficult to deny the probability, Darwin wrote, that every particle of earth forming the bed from which . . . old pasture land springs has passed through the intestines of worms. His research exploded the myth that worms were essentially pests, and the resulting book actually sold more copies in the author’s life time than the famous  Species - with a thousand copies purchased in its first few weeks of publication.  It was to be the author’s last.  Having, at the apex of his incredible career, finally returned to his childhood curiosity, and in doing so once more altering the attitudes and perspectives of his peers, Darwin died the following year at the age of seventy-three.


Thanks to Darwin, the earthworm’s virtuoso role in the natural landscape and environment is well known and respected.  Far from being an unwelcome guest, the worm is integral to the health of our planet.  It is a great provider of aeration and soil management, and in its own peculiar, surreptitious way, a very interesting animal, like a wriggling mole, a subterranean smuggler dispensing innumerable nutrients, and in its humble, understated manner, cementing the mechanics of the soil into a  functioning, congenial whole.  Without worms our eco-system would be fatally imperiled.  Or, as Darwin put it, Without the work of this humble creature, who knows nothing of the benefits he confers upon mankind, agriculture, as we know it, would be very difficult, if not wholly impossible.



Worm photograph: Ann Brundinge


Diluting the Darkness - Poetry of Alice Taylor



















The brief, sensitive verses of Irish poet Alice Taylor's collection The Journey (The O'Brien Press 2010) offer indirect but empathic responses to loss, framed in glances at the natural world. Discovering them three months after my father's death, I have found many of the poems to make subtly therapeutic reading, while others pull no punches in their commentaries on grief.

Uprooted

From my inner grove
A deep-rooted tree
Has been dragged up
A gaping chasm
Remains.
Where I once stood
Beneath sheltering branches,
A weeping hole
Pours black tears
From my morning
Down through my day.

Comprising poems written and published over several decades, The Journey is thus a sort of Selected Poems, but they seem to have been sequenced in such a way as to sketch an honest representation of the poet's losses, being both stark and subtle, dark and quietly restorative, but ever sentimental:


Shawls of Silence

Let me creep down
A brown burrow,
Down into the
Quiet womb of earth.
Deep down there
Is only silence.
Down, down,
Where velvet darkness
Clothes the ragged mind
In a shawl of gentle stillness.

Born in County Cork, Alice Taylor grew up on a farm, and much of her work is underscored by observations of agricultural life, the ways of the countryside, and the workings of nature, which are somehow reflective without seeming passive - indeed, one really gets the sense of a poet of whom that over-used accolade, "at one with nature," is entirely just:


Extraction time,
The pregnant combs
Release their ripened treasure,
Golden liquid pouring
into sparkling jars 

(From Storing Summer)

There is something Heaney-esque in the lines above, outlining the mechanics of physical activity, while in poems like Morning Cobwebs a reverence for the mysterious charms of the wider environment is distilled:

Early morning
Pools of silver,
Each tree a halo
Of webbed stars
Holding hands
Of shimmering chains
Shrouded in veils
Of silver mist
Reflecting the nature
Of the night.

Alice Taylor's poems often seem to take place at night or early morning, those times of day when we are most alone, or free from the constraints of everyday responsibilities, when the mind might wander, on the margins of time.  The onset of a day brings shimmering reflections on the wonders of the wild world; the night in these poems is strangely comforting, a time for solitudeIt can also be a time when hidden hurts emerge, as in the acutely visual Dark Crevices:

Night weaves
A grey cobweb
That nets
The morning mind.
Overnight
Old pain creeps out
Of dark crevices.

This time around, however, the poet does not seek to further "burrow" into the seclusion of the dark.  The "quiet womb" which offered security in Shawls of Silence is not escaped to at the conclusion of this surprisingly cathartic, story-like poem:


In the morning
I must crawl
Out from under
A black blanket,
Let the light
Into my mind
And the sun 
Dilute the darkness.

In its understated way, the poem reminds me of Ecclesiastes. It is not a detailed story of recovery or the process of healing. It offers no practical solutions or suggestions.  It does not venture to suggest any sort of permanence. It is simply a straightforward, but beautiful, account of gentle resilience, with a grain of hope.



Alice Taylor's poems are unpretentious, simple without being simplistic, minimal without feeling cold, and softly charged with a powerful current of understanding, empathy, and compassion.
 

Wednesday, 9 May 2018

Wild Geese

Sometimes I hear them, honking through the dusk.  A look outside my window reveals a long line in the sky, a hooting, tooting caravan of black-and-white, slanting upwards over the canal, above the grey-blue twilight mists clinging to the spindly rags of winter trees, or through the calm, honey-coloured sunsets of a summer evening, spearing forwards, upwards, pilgrims aiming for the light.

By day, I watch the Canada Geese gliding over the Calder, or spooling over water like swans. I watch their streetwise cousins, the white geese, waddle over the stony riverbank, or colonize the verges and pavements of Sowerby Bridge. Geese are in my life daily, and have been an increasingly visible yet gentle presence in recent weeks and months, drifting into the poetry I read, sewing a snow-white, feathery hem of inter-species kinship as they appear at every corner, float into my daydreams and flaunt their signs of life outside my window.


The Sowery Bridge Geese are famous, treat the town like its their own, have become a landmark.  Established here as long as anyone can remember, they set up camp down by the river under the viaduct, beneath the bridges straddling the Calder and the Ryburn, in the overgrowth fringing the canal.

 

 But they are most well known for their incursions into human territory.  Gangs of them front the entrance to the leisure centre, or amass in the yard of the taxi rank; in wobbling bunches threes and fours they stroll the pavements, they will even wander through an open doors.

 

In her debut collection Light After Light (Valley Press 2018) Ryburn Valley poet Victoria Gatehouse describes the geese patrolling the High Street and:
 
ganging up on the corner by The Long Chimney, 
intimidating passers-by with a show 
of downy muscle, a half-lift of wings, 
causing tail backs when they choose 
to cross the road, a twenty-strong gaggle 
impervious to hoots

These Northern European, Emden geese are part of the furniture, an expected presence in the town.  Interesting and often amusing in the day, by night they represent a reassuring familiarity.  Disembarking the train on returning late, I have wandered down the lonely hill beside the station, flanked by the cavernous dungeons of the old coal drops, the scrapyards and the battered arches, and the railway bridge that was the scene of murder in Sally Wainwright's Happy Valley, to see them gathered, yapping, like a gossipy, gaggly night watch, at the foot of the street as the town begins, and felt at home.

.
In the small hours, the town is theirs, and I wonder at the secrets spiraling in their Anserinae brains; how they view the town that lends them their colloquial name; how they view us, as bigger birds, as ominous presences, as strangers, friends, a grounded, landlubbing, collective anomaly?


 In the winter, the waterways of Calderdale are quieter, and the geese seem more prevalent in the post-migratory exodus.  Padding through the frost, they jerk their heads quizzically through the depleted larders of the fruitless canalsides,  descend like icy mermaids into the river's silent freeze.  At a distance, the Emdens almost merge into sleety mists, bobble like pearly ghosts through the half light in the early morning snow.


 In spring, the geese are joined by goslings, as they guide their babies over the chilly quilt of the river to find food in the tangled shallows. It is always a familiar and yet strangely unexpected moment, to see these eager, nervous, unsteady babies scrabbling through the ripples, hungry for life. 








The Emdens and the Canada geese coexist, and weave a watery ballet along the green, wet edges of Sowerby Bridge, are my neighbours (too cautious to be "friends", they sidestep close proximity and regroup into a tribal safety- in-numbers if approached by foodless human hands) as I walk through the town.  


As I write this, my thoughts are diverted by that well known exclamation, somewhere between the whistle of a steam train and a wild bird's cry.  What awaits beyond the window on this spring day - a single filed platoon of geese bulleting through the hazy afternoon air; a lone goose lifting himself above the hazel trees and blossoms to seek out the bounty of the wharf; or floating forlornly as she slowly climbs the skies in an aimless stray over the chimney tops and antique factory stacks?

I'm not sure what I read in the sad songs of the geese, in their glassy mysterious eyes, their moonlit wanderings, their essence of unhindered calm - the reassurance of evolution, reminders of our own, aquatic lineage, the promise of rebirth, the energy and atoms of the recently deceased?  I only now that they have played, are playing, their own quiet part in my efforts to regain some sort of footing,  some better knowledge of myself, some kind of understanding of the world.  


Wild Geese, by Mary Oliver

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.















Saturday, 5 May 2018

Black Combe, Cumbria, in the Poetry of Branwell Bronte and Norman Nicholson

Coming across Norman Nicholson's Sea To The West (Faber 1981) at Hebden Bridge Library, I was reminded that it is just over a year since I was in the district to which most of the book's poems pay homage.  In late April 2017 I was with Ayelet Mckenzie, launching her collection Small Bear (Caterpillar Poetry 2017) at Barrow Library.


The day before the launch I was given a tour around the town and its vicinity, including a trip to Walney Island and a walk along the edges of the Walney Channel.


Splayed beyond the entrance of Barrow Museum, the Walney Chanel its self begins lethargically, a threadbare fray of patchy puddles blotching a shore of dark, wet sand and chunky pebbles.  The plateau stretches out into a desert of bumpy, rocky ridges; further across the bay there are modern vessels, pleasure boats, and a sense of calm somewhere between seaside jollity and some picture-postcard riverside.  The channel is defined by crossings and the remnants of crossings, from the thin bridge with its rickety railings, to the bridge which spans its northern edges, built in 1908 for the benefit of shipyard workers crossing to and from the yards and factories, now dotted by traffic and stretching almost incongruously against a backdrop of sand and water like the body of some huge amphibious predator. As you stroll along the pier, turn your head towards the slate-blue waters, and you notice a dark, damp, sloping sandscape of abandonment: the hulls of long-forgotten ships, wrecked boats, a bicycle slowly sinking into earth.
















Further on, you are met by the imposing mass of Black Combe, rising over the Duddon Estuary nearly two thousand feet and formed four hundred and sixty million years ago.  Like a glacial goddess of black ice, the Combe looms above the Irish sea, and is visible across the entire district, the views from its summit stretching from the Irish coast, to as far as Wales and Scotland.  Wordsworth wrote that, from the Combe, the amplest range of unobstructed prospect may be seen that British ground commands, while his enthusiastic celebrant Branwell Bronte, who lived and worked as a tutor at nearby Broughton-in-Furness, was moved to write a sonnet in honour of the fell.

 The relationship between Branwell Bronte and the Combe has significance for me, as I have made a film about Branwell's Calder Valley Years, which were preceded by his ill-fated time at Broughton, cut short due to the early signs of an alcoholism which would lead him towards ruin. I can see why the formidable entity, almost Volcanic - Norman Nicholson called it the dynamited Combe - held such magnetism for the romantic Branwell. I want to look at both Branwell's poem, and the Black Combe poems of Norman Nicholson, to see how both poets were influenced, directly but differently, by this unforgettable natural landmark.


Far off, and half revealed, 'mid shade and light, begins Branwell Blackcomb half smiles, half frowns; before comparing the stoicism of the Combe to the vulnerability of humanity:

...he smiles,
While many a human heart to pleasure's wiles
Can bear to bend, and still forget to rise,
As though he, huge and heath clad, on our sight
Again rejoices in his stormy skies,
Man loses vigour in unstable joys.

Undoubtedly influenced by the Lakeland poets and Romantics, Branwell nonetheless injects a strain of pessimism into his sonnet, which, while awed by the huge and heath clad Combe, owes perhaps more to Keats' notion of Negative Capability than to Wordsworth's lyrical grandeur.  In fact, it reminds me of Houseman to a point, though rather than disappointed love it is perhaps the "unstable joy" of debauch that sees the poem's human subjects irredeemably defeated.  Branwell uses the phrase "pleasure's wiles" in another poem, and this repetition is revealing, perhaps illustrating the subconscious way in which he regarded his own descent into instability as  a snare that he was lured into by circumstance as much as a temptation to which he chose to yield.  Ultimately, it is the rock-solid invincibility of Black Combe, simultaneously omniscient and non-interventionist, that prevails , with menacing triumph, and seals the externally descriptive poem's status as an internalized, brooding prophecy against the black clouds of the Combe.


Far off, and half revealed, 'mid shade and light
 Blackcomb half smiles, half frowns; he smiles, his mighty form
Scarce bending in to peace; - more formed to fight
A thousand years of struggles with a storm
Than bask one hour, subdued by sunshine warm
To bright and breezeless rest; yet even his height
Towers not o'er this world's sympathies - he smiles,
While many a human heart to pleasure's wiles
Can bear to bend, and still forget to rise,
As though he, huge and heath clad, on our sight
Again rejoices in his stormy skies,
Man loses vigour in unstable joys.
Thus tempests find Blackcomb invincible,
While we are lost, who should know life so well!



 There is a sense in Branwell's poem of the Combe's presence as an anchored constant, not unlike his earliest poem to the Pole Star, contrasting with the vagaries of human experience, and the poet's own troubled life.  Unlike the Pole Star poem, Blackcombe (Branwell conflates the two words) expresses this fixity with unhappy irony.  It could almost, in its colouring of sable black, be a metaphor for the Haworth Parsonage, the childhood home to which Branwell increasingly found himself returning in the shade of adult misadventures, a place perhaps of reproach and repentance.  Perhaps more than this, it could be a foreboding image of the God-fearing faith of his Parson father, which the pleasure-seeking Branwell would abjure.  We know that this diversion from his father's path caused disturbance in his family. Branwell's own use of religion in his poems is so often blasphemous or Hellish.  Did Black Combe represent for him a sort of subconscious fear of Providence, a shadow of his formative beliefs, a kind of Hell?
Whatever its connotations, the Combe, for Branwell, was a constant in a life of change.  But Branwell was only in the area for a few months, and will have seen the Combe only through one winter and spring, so his analysis is inevitably borne of brief association.  For an in depth poetic study of this 460-million year old feature of the Cumbrian landscape, we need to turn to a more recent poet, who, unlike the itinerant Branwell, lived within sight of it for most of his life.


Born in Millom in January 1914, Norman Nicholson enjoyed a considerable reputation as a poet in his lifetime, and his work continues to gain acclaim both for its sensitive evocations of everyday working class life in his iron-mining town, and its sense of the natural and primeval - a poetry which delves deep into the long history of the earth and is rooted in the dunes of the Cumbrian coast.  Black Combe features prominently. Indeed, it is a key element in the natural heritage and folk history of his area.  In The Shadow of Black Combe, he explains how:

In wise, proverbial days they used to say
That everybody born
Under the shadow of Black Combe
Will comeback there to die

and movingly delivers a sing-song like refrain, urging the spirits of the deceased:

Come
Back Arthur, come back Andy, come back Will.
Come home, 
While there's still time.

And all you who were shot in France,
Drowned in the Great Lakes,
All exiles and dole-day migrants,
Who swallowed influenza, took T.B. like snuff-
Get ready to come back. 

For Nicholson, who was of course born in the year the First World War broke out, the legacy of those shot in France, this epitaph casting them as murdered martyrs, victims, must have been a kind of primal permanence, not unlike the Combe its self, which - just like Branwell's Pole Star or Nicholson's Rock-pie of volcanic lava that is Scafell Pike, England's highest mountain - is a continual presence on the poet's horizon.  In the poem Black Combe White, he describes how:

From each rise in the road, each break in the hill's barrier,
Comes glimpse after glimpse of the nearing Combe, first white,
Then patchy, and then streaked white on black,
Darkening and sharpening every minute and every mile.
(Black Combe White)


and this image of the colouring of the Combe betrays a deeper understanding of its features, based on many years of observation. Its lower reaches heavy in Ordovician black, the Combe lightens near its peak to a heathy green or brownish tinge, depending on cloud cover or the angle of the light, like a polar bear whose fur glistens white only by means of reflecting the sun:

Slick fingers of wind
Tease and fidget at wool-end and wisp,
Picking the mist to bits.
Strings and whiskers
Fray off from the cleft hill's
Bilberried brow, disintegrate, dissolve
Into blue liquidity-
Only a matter of time
Before the white is wholly worried away
and Black Combe starts to earn its name again.
(Cloud on Black Combe)



There is, in contrast to Branwell Bronte's powerful image of immovable solidity, a delicious sense of fluent movement in Nicholson's hymns to the hill, a feeling of the evolving cycles of time. I also feel there is an acknowledgement of the inter-connectedness of things - like a sweeping, symbiotic ballet,the elements, the atmosphere, the flora of Black Combe and its environs are woven in a misty tapestry of changing seasons. The poet once remarked in a radio interview:

The universe is not just a huge mechanical coffee‐grinder, ticking over and over without aim or purpose. It works to a pattern; it works to a plan. And part of the sheer enjoyment of being among mountains comes from our sometimes feeling swept up in the plan, where every end is a new beginning and every death a new birth.

With its strings and whiskers, its mist pulled to bits, its personified rain "clocking off" for the day, reminiscent of mill workers and his region's declining industrial life, Cloud on Black Combe is the work of a poet deeply connected with both his natural environment, and the human history surrounding him.  



 CLOUD ON BLACK COMBE

 The air clarifies.  Rain
Has clocked off for the day.

The wind scolds in from Sligo
Ripping the calico-grey from a pale sky.
Black Combe holds tight
To its tuft of cloud, but over the three-legged island
All the west is shining.

An hour goes by,
And now the starched collars of the eastern pikes
Streak up into a rinse of blue.  Every
Inand fell is glinting;
Black Combe alone lies still hides
Its bald, bleak forehead, balaclava'd out of sight.

Slick fingers of wind
Tease and fidget at wool-end and wisp,
Picking the mist to bits.
Strings and whiskers
Fray off from the cleft hill's
Bilberried brow, disintegrate, dissolve
Into blue liquidity-
Only a matter of time
Before the white is wholly worried away
and Black Combe starts to earn its name again.

But where, in the west, a tide
Of moist and clear-as-a-vacuum air is piling
High on the corried slopes,a light
Fret and haar of hazy whiteness
Sweats off the cold rock; in a cloudless sky
A cloud emulsifies,
Junkets on sill and dyke.
Wool-end and wisp materialize
Like ectoplasm, are twined
And crocheted to an off-white,
Over-the-lughole hug-me-tight;
And over Black Combe's ram's-head, butting at the bright
Turfed and brackeny brine,
Gathers its own wool, tucks shadow out of shine.

What the wind blows away
The wind blows back again.