Tuesday, 17 October 2017

Hopeful Eyes - Poetry of Goosanders


Like svelte, swish-coiffed clowns, mysteriously delving underwater only to bounce up again at unexpected junctures, goosanders dot the cold canal, throughout the year.  Browsing solo, spooling by in couples, or clubbing together in small groups, like ragamuffin jazz bands with their fancy hair and long, kazoo-like beaks, they are instantly recognizable - Mergus merganser, the males with heads of polished green, looking sleek as snooker table baize, females eagle-eyed with snow-white breast and sludgy plumage, and tufty hair the colour of gingerbread.  Known in the USA as mergansers, these colourful, slinky birds have been resident in Britain since 1871, with the population spreading from Scotland in the 1970's and establishing strongholds across Northern and coastal areas ever since, the birds number around twelve thousand on these shores, and are described by the Wildlife Trusts as "gregarious."  I see them at the wharf at Sowerby Bridge, ducking and diving among the geese and gulls; I notice them occasionally patroling the wider waters of the Calder.  I catch sight of them on quiet patches of the Rochdale Canal at Brighouse, gliding through the twilight like shy Kabucci dancers, feathers glistening in gems of sun-dyed rain.

 Mergansers, wrote American science and nature writer Ann Zwinger in her 1975 book Run, River Run, a description of her travels by canoe along the Green River, Colorado, are fish-eating ducks and swim underwater after food.  When disturbed, mallards almost spring straight up, while mergansers make a long taxi on the water. Mergansers are long bodied, somewhat loonlike in aspect; both red-breasted and American mergansers frequent the upper river.

The ducks are aided in their diet of fish (largely trout and salmon) by the serrated edges of their bills, hence their nickname "sawbill," and will also feed on insect larvae, crustaceans,   amphibians and worms, and occasionally small mammals.  Another non-de-plume is "the Fish Duck."  The birds have even been compared, in their manner and posture, and especially their clumsiness on rare excursions on land, to penguins.  However, their actual physical appearance is distinctively Mersangian, especially the female's.  Ann Zwinger again:

The females of both are so boldly marked with a crested rusty-brown head that it is some time before I can identify one as a female American merganser rather than a male of some species that does appear in the guide book.

Goosanders first swam their way into the choppy waters of English poetry in 1612, courtesy of Michael Drayton's Poly-Olbion - though the poet prefers the traditional "Gossander":

 The Gossander with them, my goodly Fennes doe show
His head as Ebon blacke, the rest as white as Snow

...but their shiny-plumed presence has been largely lacking from the pages of English poets ever since. Across the pond, however, they have bobbed their heads above the water, in the form of the American merganser, M. m. americanus, and first surfacing in the work of Objectivist poet Lorine Niedecker (1903-1970), who imbued the birds with a river-like flow of consciousness:

        on their heads

Thoughts on things
  fold unfold
        above the river beds

... while in John Hennessy's poem In The Drink, they are a stand-out moment for the mythical Charon, boatman of the dead, who notes the iridescent green, / brilliantined, of a merganser’s spiky coxcomb, to the thrill of his expired passengers. But the merganser's joviality is not to the taste of the monstrous ferryman:

He swam right by, chasing red herrings

and cackling so happily I had to pull
a feather from his cap

But when not haunting the Stygian rivers, goosanders live, breed and nest right across the Northern Hemisphere, from America to Siberia, where they are thought to number around 50,000.

Sometimes when I watch them vanish underwater, then see the curved pinks of their lethal beaks jutting out again as they push up through the ripples, they remind me of cormorants. At other times, they could be drakes, strolling along, unhurried, not so much oblivious to their fellow birdlife, as insouciant, integrated, meditative.  For all the predatory prowess of these snap-happy, beaky birds, goosanders are a calming influence, relaxing to watch, and largely unobtrusive to their neighbours.

For Maine-based poet Rachel Contreni Flynn, the goosander - or, of course, the merganser -  plunges through cold water, small heart soaring,/mind clenched behind hopeful, topaz eyes, and I recognize that vision of resilience from my own sightings of the birds - their determination, the certainty of those forward-pointing, arrow-like beaks, and the grace with which they traverse their watery worlds, one minute tucking themselves beneath the flowing folds of river, the next returning to the open air, sailing slowly by with dignity and style.

Monday, 16 October 2017

Little Creatures Launch at The Blue Teapot, with Anne Caldwell

 Last Thursday my collection Little Creatures: Poems of Insects, Small Mammals and Micro-organisms was launched at The Blue Teapot, Mytholmroyd, as part of the 2017 Mytholmroyd Arts Festival, with poetry from myself and special guest Anne Caldwell, among many other poets.


 Anne read from her two Cinnamon Press collections Talking to the Dead and Painting the Spiral Staircase, and kindly obliged my request to read three poems specifically linked to our "Little Creatures" theme - The North American Wood Frog, Chinese Fire-Bellied Newt, and of course Slug Language.

 I will be writing about those poems in more detail in the coming weeks, but for now here are the videos of Anne's readings:




I am grateful to Kirstie and Pete at The Blue Teapot, and to Annie Harrison and Annie Lawson from the Mytholmroyd Arts Festival for organizing the evening.

Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Wounded Wings - The Poetry of Herbert Read (1893 - 1968)

Crossley Heath, a selective grammar school in Halifax, is not far from where I live, and overlooks Saville Park and much of the east of the Calder Valley.  Formed in 1985, as an amalgamation of two previous schools, its main building, whose slatey blue dome stands out on the landscape almost as dominantly as the nearby Wainhouse Tower, once housed the Crossley and Porter Orphan Home and School, among whose pupils was the poet, novelist and art critic Herbert Read.  

Born in North Yorkshire in 1893, Read, whose farmer father was described as an austere, inflexible man, who died in a hunting accident when Herbert was ten years old, was an influential figure in the Arts, a unique thinker, and a gifted writer.    As a poet, Read's traversed an eclectic spectrum of myth, Imagism, and fantasy, and believed that "true poetry is never speech, but always song."

Phoenic, bird of terrible pride,
ruddy eye and iron beak!
Come, leave the incinerary nest;
spread your red wings

And soaring in the golden light
survey the world;
hover against the highest sky;
menace men with your strange phenomena.

From Mutations of the Phoenix (1923)

Upon leaving school, Read worked - unhappily - for three years as a clerk, at the Skyrac and Morley Savings Bank on Bond Street, Leeds, my own home city.  I can picture Read, stifled by bureaucracy and oppressed by the daily drudgery of clerking life, spending his lunch breaks wandering disconsolately down Briggate, perhaps loitering in the library, or haunting, as he was known to do, the Art Gallery, where he formed friendships with the painter Jacob Kramer, and the gallery's curator Frank Rutter, who introduced him to the great works of European art. 


Eventually, Read began studying at Leeds University, and attended the city's Art Club, an avant-garde society that promoted liberal values.  With his ideological views largely shaped by his readings of Neitzsche, George Sorel, William Morris, and Kropotkin, Read soon established himself as an interesting counter-cultural voice in English writing, forging life-long friendships with poets such as Katheen Raine, who was to comment on his poetic development in a 1969 essay for the American journal Sewanee Review:

“Imagism was ... the first of several movements with which Herbert Read was to associate himself. From the regionalism which inspired his first and enduring poetic loyalty to Wordsworth he moved... into the American expatriate ethos which ... introduced into English letters that internationalism which changed, perhaps permanently, the course of its native current.”

The poetry of Herbert Read seems to me to emphasize a typically declinist, bleak vision of humanity, but one devoid of stringent morality, often outlining nihilistic scenarios in which past and future are blended, as in his poem September Fires, where a Doomsday scenario is given a Medieval backdrop, and told in a vocabulary hinting at its author's farmland roots:

Haulms burn
in distant fields.
Reluctantly the plumes of smoke
rise against a haze
of hills blue and clear
but featureless.

Our feet
crush the crinkled beech-leaves.
There is no other life than ours.
God is good to us this September evening
to give us a sun
and a world burning its dross.

Read's narrator apparently foresees the only future for humanity in somewhat Biblical, or perhaps post-Apocalyptic, terms:

we can expect no other fruit
until another year
brigs fire and fealty and the earth in barren stillness.

This tendency is further emphasized in the short but profound poem The Falcon and the Dove, where the predatory prowess of the former bird is depicted in brute violence against the complacent peacefulness of the latter - a playing out of the battle between Reason and Beauty (We have caught Beauty in a wild foray / And now the falcon is hooded and comforted away) in the form of an avian contest, where This high-caught hooded Reason broods upon my wrist, / Fettered by so tenuous a leash of steel, and where the inevitable is illustrated starkly, and with omissive description:

Over the laggard dove, inclining to green boscage
Hovers this intentional doom - til the unsullied sky recieves
A precipitation of shed feathers
And the swifter fall of wounded wings.

 Read served in the First World War, being  awarded the Military Cross (1917) and the DSO (1918), but was deeply disturbed by the experience.  For a time an avowed pacifist, his attitude would alter at the rise of Nazi Germany.  Believing Democracy worth defending, Read nevertheless encountered the mounting reality of World War Two with a strong sense of foreboding, as brilliantly evinced in his poem To A Conscript of 1940, where:

A soldier passed me in the freshly fallen snow,
His footsteps muffled, his face unearthly grey:
And my heart gave a sudden leap
As I gazed on a ghost of five-and-twenty years ago.

The poem takes the form thenceforth of a counsel given by its writer to the conscript:

`I am one of those who went before you
Five-and-twenty years ago: one of the many who never returned,
Of the many who returned and yet were dead.

We went where you are going, into the rain and the mud:
We fought as you will fight
With death and darkness and despair;
We gave what you will give-our brains and our blood.

Read then delivers his assessment on the achievements of his generation, the end results of their wartime sacrifice, in the following blisteringly hopeless verdict:

We think we gave in vain. The world was not renewed.
There was hope in the homestead and anger in the streets,
But the old world was restored and we returned
To the dreary field and workshop, and the immemorial feud

Of rich and poor. Our victory was our defeat.
Power was retained where power had been misused
And youth was left to sweep away
The ashes that the fires had strewn beneath our feet.

Scorning "heroes" and the "hollow victory" of the Old World, Read concludes:

But you my brother and my ghost, if you can go
Knowing that there is no reward, no certain use
In all your sacrifice, then honour is reprieved.

To fight without hope is to fight with grace,
The self reconstructed, the false heart repaired

As for so many of his generation, Read's life - and world view - was so moulded and defined by his First World War experience, that it is unsurprising to learn he searched in disparate directions for a sense of political direction.  Throwing in his lot with the Anarchist movement, he shocked many by accepting a Knighthood in 1953, admired Churchill, and ultimately came to identify ideologically with the Jungian and Existentialist schools of European thought.  As an older man, he joined sit-ins against the Vietnam War, opposed the machinations of the State, and addressed UNESCO on the subject of the Arts in education.  Read was a singular figure in British academia and writing; he was also a husband and father, and a man drawn back to his Yorkshire heritage , living out his later years in Stonegrave, and being buried in the same church where he had worshipped as a boy.  His poetry, when touching on the political, still retains an essence of the personal and poignant, such as his reflections on the death of Peter Kropotkin:

She said he had died in peace
and the eternal intelligence on his brow
had seemed like a light
in the dark unlit hut
And I imagined
steel-rimmed glasses on a side table
and eyes forever hidden.

and Read's prose works, mainly advancing his theories on Art and education, were widely praised for their positive encouragement of the transformational power of the Arts in learning.  
In 1943, he would write every child, is said to be a potential neurotic capable of being saved from this prospect, if early, largely inborn, creative abilities were not repressed by conventional Education. Everyone is an artist of some kind whose special abilities, even if almost insignificant, must be encouraged as contributing to an infinite richness of collective life, and nowhere is Read's flight from repression, in highly sensitized and imaginative style, expressed more exotically than in his 1935 novel The Green Child.

Inspired by a 12th Century legend, the novel tells of an encounter between the exiled dictator of a South American country, and a supernatural child, in a richly folkloric prose, at once deliciously naive, and endowed with deep thematic complexity.

Olivero began to feel faint, and sank to the ground. There he rested until 
he became accustomed to the atmosphere, the Green 
Child sitting by his side. When he had recovered, she 
told him that this was surely her native country, from 
which she and her brother had strayed thirty years ago. 

When they had rested there about an hour, they got 
up and made for that end of the grotto which seemed 
to admit light. The grotto gradually contracted, and the 
entrance, when they reached it, was not above four feet 
high. They proceeded in a crouching attitude and soon 
came out, but not into what we should call the open; 
for though the space that they now gazed into was 
much larger than that of the grotto they had left, never- 
theless a roof arched wide over them, higher and of 
greater span than the interior of any cathedral. The 
light in this space was still dim, like the summer twi-
light in England, but of a distinct greenish tinge. Olivero 
now perceived that it was emitted from the walls of the 
vast cavern, and must be of a phosphorescent nature. The 
rock itself was of a crystalline formation. 
At its finest, the writing of Herbert Read transports the reader into new dimensions 
of perception and thought, in poetry and prose simultaneously fantastical, 
and grounded in an sometimes cynical, often compassionate, reality. 
For me, his most memorable poems also evoke a pre-Lapsarian sense of enduring beauty 
and a faith in the creative spirit:

 The seven sleepers ere they left
the light and colour of the earth
the seven sleepers they did cry
(banishing their final fears) :

"Beauty will not ever fade.
To our cavern we retire
doomed to sleep ten thousand years.
Roll the rock across the gap.

Read once wrote that the characteristic political attitude of today is not one of positive belief, but of despair.  He might have been writing about our own times.  But in his passionate pursuit of education through creativity, his promotion of progressive ideas, and his own genre-defying, lyrical and thought provoking works, he might also be remembered for his observation that The worth of a civilisation is not valued in terms of its material wealth or military power, but by the quality and achievements of its representative individuals - its philosophers, its poets and artists.

Sunday, 8 October 2017

Harvest Moon

Wednesday's Full Moon - the so-called Harvest Moon - shines with a steely incandescence through the night and into the chill, autumnal dawn.  At midnight, it hangs above the hill like a huge, inflated golf ball, lathering the skies in a froth of icy white.  Outside my window, moonbeams slant like strobes, stroking the cool glass waters of the canal and brushing through the roofs and woodlands like a paintbrush dipped in snow.

My sleep is lit by dreams of moonlight.  In drifting, sepia-tinged scenes, I watch a thin moon slowly swing over meadows of frost, sail above an angry, blustered sea, reflect on the surface of the Calder in rippled rags of light, like an ice-coated cobweb.  I dream that somebody has unhooked the moon from its cimmerian firmament, hauled it through the window like a kite, and now we are carefully placing that same tired, shrunken moon between soft embroidered cloths, and sliding it into a drawer, tucked safely away. I awake to the soft flood of moonglow weeping through the window.

Shortly before 5, the skies thick-set in deeper darkness, the Valley is silent, still. Amid the bleak pitch-black the moon's silken sphere gleams like a ball of frozen champagne, radiating waxen rays of solid light.

By six, my train is sliding through the frost above Mytholmroyd and Hebden, rows of terraced houses lined up like the spines of bony dinosaurs, factories and football pitches spaced between expanses of leafless trees and farmland, old chimneys and black steeples tinted in the glimmer of the late lunar bloom.  As the dark night lifts, stars, like sprinkled dewdrops, twinkle above the streets and fields, and we speed on through the stony borderlands from Yorkshire into Lancashire.  The moon's glare dwindling, it hovers like a nervous ice cube, leaking, slowly melting.
Half past six. I step onto the platform, Rochdale laid out below the railings in a dim, grey cloak of autumn mist.  I can see the tram stop, its electric boards of amber neon listing destinations.  East Didsbury. Oldham Mumps.  Rochdale Town Centre. To the west, the silver zigzags of the railway lines twine into the distance like serpentine moonbeams.  Ahead, the dome of St John the Baptist Church is white against sooty sky, curved like a half moon, a green cross perched upon its zenith like a flag.

Soon, I am on board my tram, shuttling across the tracks, burrowing into the wooded fringe of Crompton Moor and towards my destination in the hills.  The lightening skies blush in a pinkish kiss of sunrise, its faint rays trickling over the hillside like the petals of red roses.  Passengers embark; cars begin to dot adjacent roads.  In the newly crimson sky, the last vestige of moonshine has been absorbed into the haze of milky cloud, wrapped around the heavens like a woolen scarf faintly smeared in blood.

Moon, Harvest Moon,
licking like a quartzy quill
the riverbanks 
and frost-robed hills,
olivine orb, 
glacial heart,
your silver tears illuminate
the lonely dark of dawn.


Thursday, 5 October 2017

Exploring the Brontes at Gildersome

Last night's Exploring the Brontes event for Morley Arts Festival at Gildersome Library and Meeting Hall was very successful, comprising as usual two halves - starting with a talk from myself featuring poetry by and about the Brontes, and culminating beautifully with The Cold Plunge, a monologue written and performed by Caroline Lamb.  

Despite the fact that I have worked solitary shifts at the adjoining library for more than two years, I have never performed in the spacious meeting hall, and yesterday's event was also Caroline's first time there - her very first visit to the village of Gildersome, in fact.

As we are still in the bicentenary year of Branwell Bronte, and as I screened my film on Branwell - A Humble Station? Branwell Bronte's Calder Valley Years - for the same festival very recently, I chose to frame my talk largely around him,contrasting for example some of Branwell's own poetry with that of his father Patrick Bronte:

My food is but spare, 
And humble my cot, 
Yet Jesus dwells there 
And blesses my lot.

Though thinly I'm clad, 
And tempests oft roll, 
He's raiment, and bread, 
And drink to my soul.


There is No God

I know there's none
Neither of spirit nor of stone.
No holy hill or idol shrine
Has ever held a power Divine.
Not heaven above,
Nor Hell below
Can minister to wail or woe .
I feel that when the body dies
Its memories and feelings die,
That they from Earth shall never rise.


but also the similarities, such as when both venerate the natural world:

Throughout the cloudless sky
Of light unsullied blue,
The larks their matins raised,
Whilst on my dizzy view,
Like dusky motes,
They winged their way
Till vanished in
The blaze of day.


 I'll turn my eyes unto the skies
and view the prospect there
where broad and bright the noonday light
sheds glory round the air
I see yon mighty dome of heaven
in deep cerulean blue
the white clouds oer its concave driven
til lost amid the blue
I'll turn my foreheadto the blast
and think upon the sea
the chainless boundless restless waste
which shines so gloriously.


I drew attention to the themes of social injustice present in some of Patrick's verse:

Where blinking embers scarcely glow, 
And rushlight only serves to show 
What well may move the deepest sigh, 
And force a tear from pity's eye. 
You there may see a meagre pair, 
Worn out with labour, grief and care.

...and how his son also touches upon such themes, addressing the concept of nurture vs nature, and reflecting on the possible origins of tyranny, in a remarkably modern sounding poem:

Increase of days increases misery
and misery brings selfishness, which sears
the heart's first feelings: mid the battle's roar
in death's dread grasp, the soldier's eyes are blind
to comrades dying, and he whose hopes are o'er
tuns coldest from the sufferings of mankind;
a bleeding heart oft delights in gore;
a tortured heart oft makes a tyrant mind.

On the same subject of suffering, and wanting to illustrate the hypocrisies of moralistic power, I read from Jane Eyre:

During January, February, and part of March, the deep snows, and, after their melting, the almost impassable roads, prevented our stirring beyond the garden walls, except to go to church; but within these limits we had to pass an hour every day in the open air.  Our clothing was insufficient to protect us from the severe cold: we had no boots, the snow got into our shoes and melted there: our ungloved hands became numbed and covered with chilblains, as were our feet: I remember well the distracting irritation I endured from this cause every evening, when my feet inflamed; and the torture of thrusting the swelled, raw, and stiff toes into my shoes in the morning.  Then the scanty supply of food was distressing: with the keen appetites of growing children, we had scarcely sufficient to keep alive a delicate invalid.  From this deficiency of nourishment resulted an abuse, which pressed hardly on the younger pupils: whenever the famished great girls had an opportunity, they would coax or menace the little ones out of their portion.  Many a time I have shared between two claimants the precious morsel of brown bread distributed at tea-time; and after relinquishing to a third half the contents of my mug of coffee, I have swallowed the remainder with an accompaniment of secret tears, forced from me by the exigency of hunger.

The above being followed by an excerpt featuring the school's benefactor, the bullying Mr Brocklehurst, and from which I moved from depictions of cruelty to children, to cruelty to animals, as depicted in Anne Bronte's novel Agnes Grey, which like Jane Eyre enjoys this December its 170th anniversary of publication - in which the eponymous Anne, in her capacity as governess, encounters one of her spoilt young charges preparing to set traps for birds.

  I observed, on the grass about his garden, certain apparatus of sticks and corn, and asked what they were.

‘Traps for birds.’

‘Why do you catch them?’

‘Papa says they do harm.’

‘And what do you do with them when you catch them?’

‘Different things.  Sometimes I give them to the cat; sometimes I cut them in pieces with my penknife; but the next, I mean to roast alive.’

‘And why do you mean to do such a horrible thing?’

‘For two reasons: first, to see how long it will live—and then, to see what it will taste like.’

‘But don’t you know it is extremely wicked to do such things?  Remember, the birds can feel as well as you; and think, how would you like it yourself?’

‘Oh, that’s nothing!  I’m not a bird, and I can’t feel what I do to them.’

‘But you will have to feel it some time, Tom: you have heard where wicked people go to when they die; and if you don’t leave off torturing innocent birds, remember, you will have to go there, and suffer just what you have made them suffer.’

‘Oh, pooh!  I shan’t.  Papa knows how I treat them, and he never blames me for it: he says it is just what he used to do when he was a boy.  Last summer, he gave me a nest full of young sparrows, and he saw me pulling off their legs and wings, and heads, and never said anything; except that they were nasty things, and I must not let them soil my trousers: and Uncle Robson was there too, and he laughed, and said I was a fine boy.’

‘But what would your mamma say?’

‘Oh, she doesn’t care! she says it’s a pity to kill the pretty singing birds, but the naughty sparrows, and mice, and rats, I may do what I like with.  So now, Miss Grey, you see it is not wicked.’

‘I still think it is, Tom; and perhaps your papa and mamma would think so too, if they thought much about it.  However,’ I internally added, ‘they may say what they please, but I am determined you shall do nothing of the kind, as long as I have power to prevent it.

Progressing - or digressing - from the cold-blooded violence of these scenes, to the wilder mayhem of Wuthering Heights, I quoted from a passage in which the drunken Hindley Earnshaw is pitted against the novel's narrator, the toughened housekeeper Nelly Dean, 

He entered, vociferating oaths dreadful to hear; and caught me in the act of stowing his son away in the kitchen cupboard.  Hareton was impressed with a wholesome terror of encountering either his wild beast’s fondness or his madman’s rage; for in one he ran a chance of being squeezed and kissed to death, and in the other of being flung into the fire, or dashed against the wall; and the poor thing remained perfectly quiet wherever I chose to put him.
‘There, I’ve found it out at last!’ cried Hindley, pulling me back by the skin of my neck, like a dog.  ‘By heaven and hell, you’ve sworn between you to murder that child!  I know how it is, now, that he is always out of my way.  But, with the help of Satan, I shall make you swallow the carving-knife, Nelly!  You needn’t laugh; for I’ve just crammed Kenneth, head-downmost, in the Black-horse marsh; and two is the same as one—and I want to kill some of you: I shall have no rest till I do!’
‘But I don’t like the carving-knife, Mr. Hindley,’ I answered; ‘it has been cutting red herrings.  I’d rather be shot, if you please.’
‘You’d rather be damned!’ he said; ‘and so you shall.  No law in England can hinder a man from keeping his house decent, and mine’s abominable!  Open your mouth.’  He held the knife in his hand, and pushed its point between my teeth: but, for my part, I was never much afraid of his vagaries.  I spat out, and affirmed it tasted detestably—I would not take it on any account.
‘Oh!’ said he, releasing me, ‘I see that hideous little villain is not Hareton: I beg your pardon, Nell.  If it be, he deserves flaying alive for not running to welcome me, and for screaming as if I were a goblin.  Unnatural cub, come hither!  I’ll teach thee to impose on a good-hearted, deluded father.  Now, don’t you think the lad would be handsomer cropped?  It makes a dog fiercer, and I love something fierce—get me a scissors—something fierce and trim!  Besides, it’s infernal affectation—devilish conceit it is, to cherish our ears—we’re asses enough without them.  Hush, child, hush!  Well then, it is my darling! wisht, dry thy eyes—there’s a joy; kiss me.  What! it won’t?  Kiss me, Hareton!  Damn thee, kiss me!  By God, as if I would rear such a monster!  As sure as I’m living, I’ll break the brat’s neck.’

...and from here managed to navigate back to the more spiritual side of Emily's writing, including readings of some of her more famous poems, and concluding with the following lines, which I often associate with the moorland wanderings and sad death of her brother Branwell:

It was night and on the mountains
Fathoms deep the snow drifts lay
Streams and waterfalls and fountains
Down in darkness stole away

Long ago the hopeless peasant
Left all his sheep buried there
Sheep that through the summer pleasant
He had watched with fondest care

Now no more a cheerful ranger
Following pathways known of yore
Sad he stood a wildered stranger
On his own unbounded moor.

The pinnacle of the event was Caroline's The Cold Plunge, a piece originally written for its debut performance at last year's Morley Arts Festival, and which last night was given its fourth rendition to a warm and appreciative crowd. 

Caroline, whose theatre company Dangerous to Know produced her play about Branwell - The Dissolution of Percy  - two years ago, appears in my film, and reads her poem Rest and Regret, which was written in response to one of Branwell's own poems, in which he apparently embraces the concept of an early death.  The poem is written in a 19th Century style, and the following excerpt is taken from its opening, in which the sorrowful scene is atmospherically set:

Do those dark walls embrace you as you dreamed?
Is death, in truth, the haven it once seemed?
No more to struggle, swaddled safe and sound
In real rest, trading atoms with the ground.

Another thought but one of just reward
Were one thy learned mind could ill-afford.
And yet in latter days, resigned to wrack,
Thy sickly soul wrenched thine ambitions back.

Caroline's monologue is delivered from the viewpoint of Mary Taylor, Bronte family friend and pen-pal, living at the time of the piece in New Zealand, where she emigrated with her cousin Ellen to run a draper's shop, and is told via the medium of letters sent to Mary by Charlotte Bronte in the 1840's.

The Cold Plunge explores the struggles for identity and independence which underpin many of the themes of Bronte novels, and the lives of the Bronte sisters themselves, and has proved very popular with audiences, who have responded positively to its messages of hope and resilience. Caroline's performance has been widely praised, and her depiction of Mary is full of compassion, humour and insight, and the response last night was wholly celebratory. In fact, we were treated to an Exploring the Brontes first - so blown away was one woman in the audience by Caroline's talents, that following the show, she asked for her autograph.

It was a privilege to share the presentation of this event with Caroline, and an honour introduce The Cold Plunge.  You can see an excerpt from the opening segment of her performance here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VPhJn07EptU and you join us for our next ETB performances at:

The Assembly Rooms, Brighouse, 10th October
Sowerby Bridge Library, December (date tbc)

What Says the Millipede?

As I limber up for the re-publication of my collection Little Creatures: Poetry of Insects, Small Mammals and Micro-organisms, I find myself thinking of the many animals which missed boarding this particular Ark, whose lives go un-remarked on in this particular zoological conglomeration.  My afterword, on the book's back cover, acknowledges:

...It has not been my intention to document all such life ... Thus, this collection marks only a beginning.

One of the creatures who slipped through my poetic net is the millipede. When writing poetry of animals, unless the poem is intended to be humorous, surreal, for children or to be taken as anything other than a realistic depiction of the creature, I prefer to wait until I have actually laid eyes on that animal, and as I had never seen a millipede by 2013, they remained, unlike their close relatives the centipedes, largely absent from my writing.  In recent years this invisibility has been rectified!  Yet, having seen the elusive creatures - which first appeared in the Silurian Period nearly five hundred million years ago -  the poetry I have composed in their honour has tended to be anything but realistically descriptive. Instead, I am drawn to daydream-like reflections on these unusual beings, as millipede memories crawl through my mind in slow, interweaving trickles:

A liquorice empire,
ringleted re-jiggings of real-life sightings,
now screwdrivering their sleet-soft bodies
through the nooks and crannies of the mind,
slick as quicksilver and shimmering
as shiny slime.

A times, they have even scurried into my dreams:


Like border-seeping oil-slicks,
they spool,
striped galaxies,
a living,
jungle of slivery silver,
viperish, leech-like,
slim slugs,
slender devils sliding
like poisoned quills
leaking streaks of indigo ink
across the blackboard of the mind.

And at other times, I have contemplated what might become of this planet if it were taken over by millipedes, if its geography and climate were contorted by a seasonal swivel into a millipedal element, even if only for a flicker of time:


A time of long dark days
and darker days,
where every body feels softened,
every mouth hungers for detritus,
dead leaves and delicacies of decay;
every foot feels the urge to scamper,
every waist the urge to twist
and curl in grooving spirals,
every soul the wish to be divided
into distinct sections,
and every eye sees the world in stripes.

I confess to a slight surprise on finding that I seem to be almost the only poet who has written about millipedes.  Surely others have been inspired by these many-limbed detritivores, of which we have a whole twelve thousand species to choose from!  Apparently not.  At least, this was my conclusion until I discovered the work of Cameroonian poet Simon Mpondo, in particular his wonderful 1975 poem The Season of the Rains - oddly similar in its season-denoting nature to my first offering on the millipede.  Needless to say, the animals play an integral part in the poem.  

The season of the rains
signs its name in a thousand fashions.
Those who want to read omens there
will find their signs
in the flowering beard of the maize
and in the black and red rings of the millipede. 

Perhaps a poetic prerequisite for writing about these burrowing, cylindrical Silurians, is that one must be called Simon?

I have been thinking much about Mpondo's poem of late, given the heavy rains we have encountered in the Valley.  Here, in this altitudinous enclave of West Yorkshire, where our precipitous hill are tinseled by an endless weave of streams, where our landscape is cleft by the broad flowing current of the Calder, where directly below y own window runs the sleek blue blade of the canal, winding through the Valley like a silver millipede, water is everywhere, and rains are regular - I write this on a rare afternoon when the day has yet been dry, though even now at midday the pavements still glisten with the residue of last night's stormy downpour.

Indeed, it might be said that in the Calder Valley, the whole year is a kind of "Season of the Rains."  But the heavy showers of late summer and early autumn are especially torrential, which is perhaps why I have been thinking of Mpondo's poem so much.   Drawing on themes as varied as African agriculture, legend, and the struggle for survival, he delivers a kind of microcosmic evocation of the rainfall's impact, while comprehensively rebutting suggestions of folkloric significance - managing to skillfully meld a modern skepticism with beautifully delineated myth.

Does the swallow's departure for the Margui-Wandala
announce many storms and floods along the Wouri?
Has the spider woven its web,
stored up insects and the sun's warmth
to vanquish a cold season of a thousand days?

What says the black millipede?
What says the red millipede?
They say what the omens say.
Yes or No, or even Perhaps.
But they tell mainly what happened in the dry season
and not what the rains will bring forth.
Plenty of labour in the dry days
translates itself as maize in the wet
and in food for millipede's colour

Born in 1955, in Cameroon's largest city,  Douala, the poet was a sometime lecturer at that city's Libermann College, published widely in magazines and co-edited several anthologies of African writing.


 As a son of Douala, he would have been well used to the country's "season of the rains," as the city is known for being the wettest in the whole of Cameroon. It seems that we have more in common, then, than our first names and a penchant for millipedes!

Although enjoying its poetry, its music - Bebe manga and Ggrace Decca among my favourites - and, of course, its football, I have never had the chance to visit Cameroon, but I remember when I first saw the country on the map one childhood Christmas, courtesy of an atlas that I still possess, and the great excitement of the country's unexpected surge to success in the 1990 World Cup, beginning with a shock victory over champions Argentina, and culminating in a famous evening in June 1990, when I watched with family and friends the dramatic Quarter Final between England and Cameroon - the latter sealing their place as second favourites in my own heart to the former from that night on.  The following day at school, we were charged with writing reports of the game, with the Cameroonian player's surnames providing much fascination for our almost entirely English class.  Kunde, Nkono, Ebwelle, Makinacky - the heroic superstar Roger Milla ... names and faces indelibly printed on my psyche ever since.  Indeed, I suspect for many of my generation, that emotional night in 1990 was the first they had heard of Cameroon, a country whose English name dates back to the Fourteenth Century, when Portugueese explorers, noting the profusion of shrimp in its rivers, named it Rio dos Camarões (Shrimp River), is bordered by many lands to the East, North and South, and the Atlantic Ocean to its West.

Climatically, Cameroon alternate between two seasons - the Dry and the Rainy.   The latter, pondo's "Season of the Rains," generally lasts from April to October, and as such must now be drawing to its close.  But Simon Mpondo's poem is perennially relevant, reminding us on dry days of the power of the rain, and reflecting on the many questions of survival and the struggles of life that are emblemized by its presence, or lack of presence, on the landscape and life of Africa.


The season of the rains
signs its name in a thousand fashions.
Those who want to read omens there
will find their signs
in the flowering beard of the maize
and in the black and red rings of the millipede. 

Does the swallow's departure for the Margui-Wandala
announce many storms and floods along the Wouri?
Has the spider woven its web,
stored up insects and the sun's warmth
to vanquish a cold season of a thousand days?
Does the plucked chicken speak of hard, or easy times?

What says the black millipede?
What says the red millipede?
They say what the omens say.
Yes or No, or even Perhaps.
But they tell mainly what happened in the dry season
and not what the rains will bring forth.
Plenty of labour in the dry days
translates itself as maize in the wet
and in food for millipede's colour,
and the largeness of its rings
which the sorcerer measures in his secret hut 
owe nothing to the season.
Those colours will always vary.
Some rings will always be huge
and some narrow.

Let each make of it what you will .
The signs of the rainy season
say exactly what everyone wants to hear.
Surely there will be plenty of water,
plenty of swamps and mud.
This is the message we read
in the season of the rains.

Tuesday, 3 October 2017

Snail's Lament

As I trawl back through the poetry which first prompted my own debut collection Little Creatures (Poetry of Insects, Small Mammals and Micro-organisms) I am reminded of two slightly surprising realizations.

One is that snails - like slugs - are not insects, small mammals, or even micro-organisms in the strictest scientific sense.

The other is that I had completely forgotten about the Malawian poet Albert Kalimbakatha, and his Snail's Lament:


Crumbled I die
Tortured I die
Out in the dark

Crumbled I die
Tortured I die
Out in the rain

Crumbled I die
Tortured I die
Away from green 
Grassland home

Crumbled I die
Tortured I die
On muddy roads

Crumbled I die
Tortured I die
In innocence.

Crumbled I die
Tortured I die
Under man's foot.

Kalimbakatha, who earns a living as a teacher for the Distance Education Centre, has been published widely in anthologiesI first read his work more than ten years ago, and although I had already written the opening poem of my collection, in which the plight of the book's eponymous creatures is epitomized by their being crushed beneath the passing feet, undoubtedly some essence of Kalimbakatha's poem must have stayed rooted in my mind, for when I began my first (and, surprisingly, so far my only) poem about snails, I would write:

They call me sloth, slime-sloper,

they curse me,
pour down chemicals
or crush my brethren underfoot,

joke of week-long journeys
crossing roads
      - spladge -

squashed and mangled under tyres.

The themes of Little Creatures began to surface in my mind in the late summer and early autumn of 2001, when, walking home from work, I found myself treading carefully to avoid treading on any one of the unexpected gluts of snail shells which seemed to have suddenly abounded on the rain-bleached pavements.  Albert's poem exemplifies the dilemma from the snail's perspective, and could be emblematic of all suffering, of the fate of all innocents Away from green  / Grassland home, whether out in the dark, on muddy roads, in the physical world or within the private tortures of the mind - and it also speaks to us of the plain, straightforward suffering of actual snails, crushed and crumbled, blameless and unlucky, out in the rain.