Monday, 20 March 2017

Independent Soul - The Songs and Poetry of Gail Warning

Since discovering her music in 2011, I have been enchanted by the songs of American recording artist Gail Warning, who has produced a significant body of musical work which I feel deserves more exposure, and who, as Gail Sherman Johnson, has also written some fine and perceptive poetry and prose. 

I would like to focus here on two of Gail's recordings and on several of her poems in order to alert readers to the quality of her music and her poetry.

Come along with me now, and you'll never be blue , urges Gail on the opening track of her magnificent album Season of the Soul (2008).  In a resplendent exaltation of Universal beauty, Gail shines her lyrical candlelight upon the spectrum of the seasons - from the crystalline chill of a cold winter freeze, to the breath-taking palette of autumn's display, Gail invokes the colours and contours of our planet's mysteries and majesties, inviting us to explore, to tender the Earth and nourish the seed, and assuring us that we will witness purples and greens, and persimmons and sharp truths, that we will.  The human soul is the song of a soul full of possibilities, and we are drawn into its shimmering sounds of enchanted melodies with a heartfelt exhortation to Wear your heart on your sleeve, like its Valentine's Day - If you can't make believe then get on your knees and pray.

Gail's music and poetry is a bewitching tapestry of timeless meditations, of international influences and of lyrics of pure poetry.  Fusing the sacred and the esoteric, and demonstrating international influences, it takes me to a place where the beauty of life is gloriously envisioned, and where the hardships and pains might be faced from a new, enlightened level of understanding.  Gail's poetry combines these Yin and Yang perspectives, these twin orbits of the painful and the beautiful, and depicts, in deft, economical but vividly colourful images, the restless energy of existence:


These flames never dance

They swagger in burning up

The floor between us

while also illuminating the hope and redemptive sense of peace that seems to underpin the worldview apparent in so much of her material, as in these lines inspired by my re-laid tales of visits to the grave of Sylvia Plath:

For Simon

Dreams of blackened rain
How does one find forgiveness
In the well of pain

Strew blood red petals
On the cold grey stone in the rain
Remind her that her life was not in vain

Undoubtedly, the oft-present warm colours evident in Gail's work - Glistening ruby / Liquid crimson promises (Fake Jewel) - stem in no small way from her Californian background and current life amid the sunlit glow of Miami Beach, but Gail's musical career could be said to have begun amid the New Wave scene of New York, which is where many of the songs on her album Independent were recorded or first written and performed.

Independent, a retrospective of songs from the 1980's, is a brilliant record, full of unexpected twists and turns and swinging evocatively between reggae, punk and Blondie-esque melodic influences, with Cheers to the Nightlife sounding like a nostalgic Cyndi Lauper song, and the deliciously dark Welcome to LA, has a Princey electro feel - yet it is hard to compare the album overall to anything, its so original. If you like uplifting soft pop-rock, tracks like Talk to Me, with its elegantly imploring vocal and its slightly New Orderish lead guitar, and the thumping, stomping, chugging Love Protection are a must, while the wise, tongue-twisting humour of songs such as Expectations, Maybe, and Who'll Be The Next One? is irresistible. It is an album of songs that sound raw, well crafted and intelligent, with a cast of eclectic musicians,and Gail's voice is wonderful; sometimes sharp and energetic, sometimes gloriously deep-edged. A truly independent record with a genuinely independent sound!

Season of the Soul is a lush dream, beginning with its author beckoning the listener to join her on a journey of escape and sing the season of the soul. There follow songs of lunar meditation, goddesses, and bittersweet love. The style and tempo are full of ornate fluctuations, such as in the haunting Echo, whose trippy drumbeats and melancholy vocals are backed by mournful strings and a lyrical piano, and in Words, with its tribal sounding instrumentation, and with its haunting question, posed to the listener like a philosophical quid-pro-quo:

Words like a kiss can comfort and soothe 
Words like a fist can batter and bruise;
What's it gonna be, kindness or cruelty?

The contributions of David K Salih add another layer of spiritual searching (listen for the revolution / the galaxies within) as he urges us to hear the consciousness in every molecule sing, and as the two vocals overlap we are greeted to a Pantheistic, Eliatic vision of the essence of all that is and will always be.
At other times Gail marries together the otherwordly and the recognisable, lambasting the "demands" of calendars and clocks, and rejoicing in the pastoral naivety of the silken caress of a soft summer breeze, and a mystic mountain, evergreen.

Gail Warning's music is diversely styled, highly original, and hard to compare, though if you like Sade, Sigur Ros, Enya, the more atmospheric elements of Erasure, and music that is poetic and internationally flavoured, then you will adore Seasons of the Soul.

Gail Warning is song writer of artistry, integrity and verve, and as I say, her music is greatly deserving of wider recognition. Some of her recent recordings include the Mediterranean-themed Gypsy Sunset, the elegiac Lagrimas, and the inspirational Look For That Rainbow.  I am a huge fan of almost every kind of music imaginable, but whenever I am asked who is my favourite singer, songwriter or musician, I answer without hesitation: "Gail Warning!"

Correspondence with Gail Warning has revealed her own musical influences and favourites to span a rich panorama from the traditional greats of the Beatles and Bob Dylan, to contemporary international music, and especially jazz.  But I would like to finish with a closer look at another area of Gail's artistic talents: poetry. 

One of the poems on display at Morley Library as part of our marking of UNESCO World Poetry Day 2017 is Gail's Picking Blackberries, a poem she wrote after spending time on an organic farm in Oregon, where blackberries grow wild and plentiful, but where one of her more daunting tasks  was having to remove a blackberry bush at the root.  I have published this poem on Caterpillar Poetry before - on a page devoted to Gail's poems:
and for me it is a piece that is oozing with symbolism, and also a very straightforward story of getting closer to the earth.  And it is this journey from the spirit to the soul, and into the embrace of the glorious, all-providing earth which encapsulates the enduring philosophical raison d'etre of Gail's diverse, eclectic, emotionally enriching body of work.  She is a poet of the cosmos and of the earth, a bard of stars and mountains, moons and holistic self-awakening, a songwriter of perception and compassion, and a poet whose delicately balanced metaphor and memories acutely conjure the sensations of life in the great outdoors, with a spiritual sensibility and an ethos and tenacity deeply rooted in the planet.

 Picking Blackberries

She's a purple kind of girl

she's got violets in her hair

she lilac's ambition

she's black & blue berry aware

she's grown tired of the red game

dodging flags and ground to halt

always madder than a hatter

building shelters on the fault

she's been wary of the verdant

forest stripped of all its trees

and the blinding green awareness

of her petty jealousies

whiter than the avalanches

blacker than the ashen soot

grayer than all the confusion

covering her head to foot

sweet and succulent and tempting

glistening blackberry fruit

gnarled and twisted, deep and stubborn

that same thorned blackberry root.

© Gail Sherman Johnson

Sunday, 19 March 2017

Nature's Social Union - Burns and the Poetry of Mice

On Thursday just gone, as part of a raft of events building up to UNESCO World Poetry Day, I hosted a talk and informal discussion about poetry for the Morley Golden Days group, who meet monthly at Morley Library. Poems had been selected, including works by Yeats, John Masefield, Kipling and Roger McGough, which I had been tasked with researching and talking about - in most cases fairly famous poems which over the years I had assumed to know well. But in fact, the exercise was revelatory - forcing me to re-read, and re-appraise apparently well-trodden ground, and in the case of one poem in particular - Robbie Burns' To a Mouse - reach a whole new level of appreciation.

Supposedly composed after the author accidentally disturbed a mouse's nest, To a Mouse was first published in 1786, in Burns' volume Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect - and we were lucky at Morley to have the poem read for us by a Scottish group member, far more accurately than I could have managed!   Indeed, one of the joys of Burns' poetry is surely the addictive jamboree of colloquialisms, as evocative of time as they are of place:

"Weasucks!" as an 18th Century "alas," sounds like it has burst from the pages of Shakespeare, while the profusion of agriculturalisms  reveal a whole lexicon of extinct terms - mailens, mashlum, melder, pattle, plews, parritch, thraves  ...
To a Mouse its self features a raft of words sufficiently multitudinous to contain a new vocabulary:
of  bickerin' brattle (to run noisily)
O 'foggage green - (green moss)
cranreuch cauld (hoar-frost)
and of course, the well known phrase The best laid schemes a' mice an' men Gang aft agley (The best laid schemes of mice and men, often go awry.)
While these terms  share regional origins, they are unlikely to be heard tripping from the tongue of any of Burns' Ayrhsire descendants today, and his unaffected use of the everyday language his time and background place him in a particular era and social setting.  Burns' poetry is often cited as archetypically Scottish, while Burns the man (who wrote in standard English complimented by light Scots, and whose Scottish Dialect volume in which the poem concerned appeared was printed in order to finance a desired move to the Caribbean) has been posthumously co-opted into a untidily defined pigeon-hole in order to suit the shifting purposes of political nationalism.  Yet, while poems like To a Mouse make use of colloquial terminology and words, they do so in a way that connects them amid conventional language, serving to sharpen the regional significance of their setting - dialect in poetry without it being purely "Dialect Poetry."  Robert Burns' body of work, and To a Mouse in particular, conjure up for me a sense of the poetic rather than political, and, as I shall explain, manifest an invocation of common humanity, compassion, and alertness to the natural world.

Wee sleekit, cow'rin, tim'rous beastie, the poem famously begins, O, what a panic's in thy breastie!
"Sleekit" in this instance has sometimes been assumed to imply "sly or cunning, but in fact means sleek coated, as in shiny fur, while the image of the mouse as cowering or panicked immediately provides for the ensuing demonstrations of empathy and self-reproach.  Indeed, with words like "cozy" and his descriptions of the nest as the mouse's wee-bit housie, the poet frames his subject in a warm hug of affection, and sets the mouse up for us as a creature to be fond of.  Envisaging the nest as a house is an early hint of a theme Burns will develop in this poem - that of "mice and men" sharing a common thread of experience - but his whimsical "housie" makes it clear that what he is referring to is not a house in the human sense, but rather something house-like, the architects of the human and non-human world having reached simultaneous if independent conclusions about the need for protection from the elements and a place to put one's head down.  With this extremely simple, clever, almost unnoticeably subtle "house" extension, Burns levers the poem from anthropomorphic mirroring towards a suggestion that humans and non-humans are indeed different in lifestyle, if similar in predicament and needs. 

For centuries, of course, there had been a tradition of assessing the human condition through animal metaphor, and of presenting human-like traits in animals, and vice-versa. But Burns goes further, as I will explore. It is worth noting first, though, that it is not in theme alone that To a Mouse can be said to have broken the poetic mould, but also in form.  To a Mouse is structured, like fifty or so of Burns' poems, in "Standard Habbie", a form dating to 11th Century French love poetry, popularised in Middle English and in Mediaeval Miracle Plays, and later embraced and perfected by the 17th Century Scottish poet Robert Sempill, whose lament for the famous Kilbarchan town piper Habbie Simpson is the first significant example of the form in English.   The classic Habbie stanza, then, comprises six lines, being an Iambic sexain in which the first and third lines rhyme, while the fourth rhymes with the last.  To quote directly from Sempill's elegy:

He counted was a wall'd wight Man,
And fiercely at,Foot-ball he ran ;
At every Game the gree he wan,

For pith and speed
The like of Habbie was not then,
But now he's dead

As in the above excerpt, the traditional Habbie contained several pregnant pauses emphasized by full-stops. Though its earlier practitioners tended to place the pause only following the first two lines - creating a kind of prologue for a more substantial quatrain -  by the time Robbie Burns began to try his hand at it, the Standard Habbie had matured into a complex structure.  Sempill's poem varies in its use of pauses, and the stanza above reads to me more like a ticked-off list of attributes, with the last line abruptly blunted by a kind of, surely unintended, bathos.  But later in the poem, he raises the form to a more compelling rhythm and structure, asking:

Or who shall cause our Shearers shear              
Who will bend up the Brags of Weit?                      .
Bring in the Bells or good play Meir,
In time of need.                                         
Hab Simpson could what needs you spear   
But now he's dead

In enacting pauses every two lines, making the stanza read like a series of rhyming sentences, but by retaining the following lines within the same sexain, the poet is able to build up a narrative and tell the story in an almost song-like way.  In his poem, Burns is not averse to structuring his stanzas around the traditional prologue-like opening couplet, as he does in the verse immediately preceding the poem's moral pivot, assessing the position of the mouse just post the wrecking of its nest:

That wee-bit heap o' leaves an' stibble,
Has cost thee monie a weary nibble!
Now thou's turn'd out, for a' thy trouble,
But house or hald,
To thole the Winter's sleety dribble,
An' cranreuch cauld!

but elsewhere, the poem is built around a much more consistent rhythm, regular pauses emphasizing each snapshot of the situation:

Thy wee-bit housie, too, in ruin!
It's silly wa's the win's are strewin!
An' naething, now, to big a new ane,
O' foggage green!
An' bleak December's winds ensuin,
Baith snell an' keen!

So expertly did Burns adopt the Habbie that it came to be known as "The Burns Stanza."  In his use of it, the poet is experimental and unorthodox, and unafraid of breaking rules: in the second stanza of To a Mouse, he writes without full-stops so that the pauses are couched between commas which lend a flowing, musical feel and in any case connect the lines into a thematic narrative which gradually sharpens in its picture of a conjunction between poet and mouse.  Burns' second stanza also presents an early, but significant, juncture in the poem:

I'm truly sorry Man's dominion
Has broken Nature's social union,
An' justifies that ill opinion,
Which makes thee startle,
At me, thy poor, earth-born companion,
An' fellow-mortal!

To begin, Burns chooses to express regret at his clumsy ploughing, seeing in his accidental demolition a reflection of the whole destructive impact of humanity on nature - and this a good forty years before the Industrial Revolution.  But this regret is both Universal and personal, the latter evidenced by both the "truly" which Burns uses as if to assure his mouse and readers that the contrition is genuine, and to some extent by the informal "I'm" which starts the stanza: such a seemingly casual contraction drags the statement back from an apology on behalf of other people, and, by means of sounding like a snatch from a real life conversation, into the realms of individual reflection. 
But the opening statement is interesting also in its reversion to formality.  Nature's social union is an apparently out-of-place, neo-Classical, English sounding phrase, seemingly less likely to be found in poetry, and more in philosophy.  It suggests a kind of metaphysical, moral contract built on natural balances, a phrase that might just as easily have been owed to the writings of John Locke, or indeed of great Scottish philosophers such as Adam Smith, or David Hume.  Indeed, Burns concludes the stanza with the commiserating, but comparative, declaration of himself as the mouse's poor, earth-born companion, / An' fellow-mortal.  This is a groundbreaking poetic move, as Burns goes further than a simple comparison - he is bridging the gulf between human and animal, comparing with empathy and inserting himself into the mouse's predicament and vice-versa.

But Mousie, thou are no thy-lane,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes o' Mice an' Men,
Gang aft agley,
An' lea'e us nought but grief an' pain,
For promis'd joy!

It seems strange that Burns, on the cusp of a long-wished move to the West Indies, which promised to be life-changingly lucrative, should feel the future might hold nothing more than grief and pain.  What subconscious or suppressed self doubts might his grim complaints reveal, that he felt himself in a position to envy that of a mouse whose fragile abode he had so easily destroyed?  He expands on this perspective in his closing lines:

Still thou art blest, compar'd wi' me
The present only toucheth thee:
But, Och! I backward cast my e'e.
On prospects drear!
An' forward, tho' I canna see,
I guess an' fear!

In re-discovering this historic poem, I have found To a Mouse to represent a sea-change in the attitudes of poetry towards the plight of wild animals, and the roles of humans in maintaining the delicate balances of nature.  Heaven knows what Burns would make of today's industrialized plunder of resources, the erasure of wild habitats to carpet evermore and more of our green spaces with housing, supermarkets and roads, the trashing of the environment which seems to characterize so much modern behaviour, from the greedy profiteering of corrupt ministers to the vandalism of those who smother gardens and green spaces with poisonous chemicals. 
A few years after the publication of this poem, Burns would turn to the suffering of an injured hare, mangled by a hunt, and give even fuller vent to his disgust at the relentless assault on nature:

Inhuman man! curse on thy barb'rous art,
And blasted be thy murder-aiming eye;
May never pity soothe thee with a sigh,
Nor ever pleasure glad thy cruel heart! 

before once again engaging empathically with the animal its self:

Go live, poor wand'rer of the wood and field!
The bitter little that of life remains:
No more the thickening brakes and verdant plains
To thee a home, or food, or pastime yield.

Since I first began researching To a Mouse, echoes of other literary mice began creeping into my memory - most notably the unexpected visitor in Isaac Bashevis Singer's story The Letter Writer, in which a man's worldview is transformed in connection with the arrival of a mouse into his apartment one winter while he convalesces from a life-threatening flu, impelling him to become a vegetarian:

What do they know - all these scholars, all these philosophers, all the leaders of the world - about such as you? They have convinced themselves that man, the worst transgressor of all the species, is the crown of creation. All other creatures were created merely to provide him with food, pelts, to be tormented, exterminated. In relation to them, all people are Nazis; for the animals it is an eternal Treblinka.

The above seems cut from the same cloth as Burns' impassioned anger at the wounding of the hare.  And yet, my final thoughts on Burns and his unlucky, lucky mouse stemmed from a very different place - and a poet almost wholly different to Burns in background and legacy.  Philip Larkin is rarely remembered for any advocacy of animal rights, yet in some of his strongest poems, Larkin - who in his will left a substantial donation to the RSPCA - was to portray the world of animals in sympathetic, loving terms. Throughout my work on To a Mouse, Larkins's lines kept coming back to me, and the thought of one poem in particular - though not about a mouse - would not leave me.  The Mower, which Larkin published in The Hull Literary Club magazine in 1979, describes his accidental killing of a hedgehog while cutting his lawn. The poem was described by Tom Cook as "a late elegiac masterpiece" and, like To a Mouse, transposes the positions of the animal and human worlds within an inter-species equality.  It feels especially appropriate to consider this poem in the context of my UNESCO activities.  They continue on Tuesday with an evening of international poetry and art, bringing together poets and performers from across the globe, including those currently embroiled in terrible, seemingly intractable, conflict.


The mower stalled, twice; kneeling, I found
A hedgehog jammed up against the blades,
Killed. It had been in the long grass.

I had seen it before, and even fed it, once.
Now I had mauled its unobtrusive world
Unmendably. Burial was no help:

Next morning I got up and it did not.
The first day after a death, the new absence
Is always the same; we should be careful

Of each other, we should be kind
While there is still time.

Friday, 17 March 2017

Gothic Gods - The Poetry of Cormorants

Dark sphinxes spearing chill morning air, ranged like sentries among the rickety spines of ever-so-slightly budding branches, the cormorants, their stiff, gilly wings outspread to dry, stud the logs that perch above the lake like the planks of pirate ships.  Black as bats and shaped not too unlike them - save for their fancy, fan-like feathers, elongated necks, peachy jaws and bright, candle-white beaks - the birds are poised above the water in unruffled, patience, wings trembling in the wind. 

Late February.  I am on a bridge in Birkenhead, Merseyside, gripping my camera with freezing fingers but feeling warmly relaxed by the Zen-like peace of these meditative birds.  They paint rich pictures in my mind, pictures from the stories of Edgar Allen Poe, prehistoric pictures of pterodactyls, myths and birds of Scandinavian seas, or the steel and copper Liver birds across the water above the docks, iconic symbols of the city of Liverpool. 
The cormorants, whose folkloric identity interweaves the beloved and the monstrous, known for sea giants, Christs and spirits of the dead, have featured vividly in art and literature.  I see the not infrequently - especially suspended on the old, disused iron bridges hanging over the River Calder, peering over treetops and chimneys, sentinels reflected in the sea-green current glimmering below, their bluish- feather tips glistening in the evening sun.  I want to take a look at how cormorants have been approached in poetry, and at how these ancient birds have played their part in Britain's eco-system, and in my own life.

In a former life among the suburban environs of north Leeds, I would walk through Roundhay Park, almost daily taking in at least one circuit of the large, curving lake which bulges out at its centre like a fat slab of dazzling glass.  I would jog or walk around these calm waters early on a morning, watching shoals of fish glittering beneath, or on a summer evening, as coots drifted the ripples with their black, bun-like feathers and chalky white beaks, Canada geese extending rubbery black necks to nibble bread, occasionally a greedy grebe would cast its wide eyes around the waters and take a sudden, bolting dive, only to re-emerge moments later gobbling a large fish.  One such June evening in 2008, I walked along the lake's south flank, as the verdurous horizon was slowly swallowed by the purple blood of the setting sun, a thin, feathery rain tickling my face.  I saw the frozen smudge to my immediate right, clipped to a log extending from the water.  Considering the qualities of friendliness and joviality I would come to decipher in these unorthodox birds, my first feelings were quite nervous.  Like a Mediaeval knight, he looked immovable and powerful.  At first, absurdly, I took him for a huge bat.  I had been to see the latest Batman movie, The Dark Knight, and the sight of this brooding bird, dark against the sunset, reminded me of the anti-hero, the sinister romance of the caped crusader. The cormorant's silence, his arrogant majesty, evoked a sort of antediluvian emotion, like a fear inherited through Millennia.  This was my earliest sighting of a cormorant, and I felt him watching me like a determined predator.  My poem Cormorant, written not long afterwards, records my awe at the bird's shadowy significance, and how the restless rootless immigrant / is a Gothic God. 
The poem concludes my 2014 collection Random Journeys, and blends various reflections on cormorants, but is rooted in that first encounter, when I watched the cormorant patiently absorbing the tingling rain -

He feels the spray
suggest its self against his talon
like a snake shedding skin

I stood and gazed at this cormorant, transfixed.  Every evening I went back, and every evening he was there - my peaceful, threatening shadow, the bird which stood, defiant and stoic, simultaneously yogi-like and poised like a coiled spring:

imperially austere
with wings outstretched
statuesque and blackly startling
staring out across the mists.

His pin-prick eyes are poison darts
as fine rain scintillates
transparency of water;
sunset blots the vapour of a lake
into the glasslike mile that meets his eyes.

Never once did the bird fly.  It were as though his stubborn inactivity underlined his freedom, stationed as he was in the centre of a lake and far from the reach of human interference.   Indeed, it felt as if the cormorant were in control - each evening I felt hypnotized and caught in the frame of his omniscient glare. 

In his poem A Cormorant, Ted Hughes responds to this inescapable sense of being watched:

The cormorant eyes me, beak uptilted,
Body-snake low - sea-serpentish.

He's thinking: "Will that stump
Stay a stump just a while?"  He dives.

There is something in the way Hughes' species-twisting presentation of the "sea-serpentish" bird which reminds me, conceptually and linguistically, of the poems of DH Lawrence, and this metamorphosing takes on an acuter, symbiotic edge as predator "becomes" prey, in a passage slickly summarizing much of Hughes' neo-pagan concept of the natural world and its life cycles:

He sheds everything from his tail end
Except fish action, becomes fish,

Disappears from bird,
Dissolving himself

Into fish, so dissolving fish naturally
Into himself.  Re-emerges, gorged,

Himself as he was, and escapes me.

That bony potbellied arrow, begins Amy Clampitt's poem The Cormorant in its Element:

wing-pumping along
implacably, with a ramrod's rigid adherence,
airborne, to the horizontal, discloses talents
one would have never guessed at.

In Book 4 of Paradise Lost, Milton presents Satan disguised as a cormorant, and it is not hard to see why such the devil might choose such a bird for an alter-ego: raven-like, mysterious, yet imbued with a certain mischievousness.  The thick white beaks, which lend these shadowy creatures the jovial expressions of unlikely comedians, seem clamped into a grin slightly reminiscent of another vivacious villain - not Batman, but his jocular antagonist, The Joker.  Showy and flamboyant, cormorants are born exhibitionists.
With words like "potbellied," and "ramrod", Amy Clampitt certainly places her cormorant in more humorous territory than Hughes - or indeed John Milton - though as she depicts him Plummeting waterward, the poet pays tribute to the cormorant's aquatic acrobatics, noting with wonder how:

the cormorant astounding-

ly, in one sleek involuted arabesque, a vertical
turn on a dime, goes into that inimitable

deep act

I feel this description neatly conjures up the dance-like lethality of the cormorant's predatory leap, and provides a picture-perfect image of the bird in its natural element.  The lifestyle of cormorants, though, also takes in various other distinctive behaviours.

The cormorant family - the Phalacrocoracidae - actually comprises some forty different species, and collectively they are found across the world, with two found regularly in Britain - Phalacrocorax aristotelis, and P. carbo - the Great Cormorant.  Their habitats include coastal areas, estuaries, lakes - but also urban areas: I have seen more cormorants by the docks in Liverpool than in any area of countryside. 

Cormorants nest in colonies - sometimes among other avian communities - and also tend to hunt in groups, their diet taking in most available food sources including fish, eggs, amphibians and small birds.  The colonies can range from handfuls or fewer, to several thousands, and their nests may be pitched up anywhere near water - above ground on rocky cliffs, in treetops, and even among scaffolding and disused buildings.

Further from the coast, and closer to the Calder Valley, I have also watched cormorants on the wetlands of Lancashire. 

The reservoirs outside Blackburn are large, isolated gulfs of water nestling between steep, clayey hills and deep sweeps of coniferous woodland.  On a wet winter's morning, I was resting up by Entwistle Dam, the first in Britain to exceed 100ft above ground level when it was built in 1832, and found my attention drawn to a stationery black speck punctuating the jutting beam of an abandoned boat. Like a sullen pirate, the cormorant tilted her head slightly upwards, keeping watch over a flapping gaggle of seagulls.  Transfixed, I stared for some minutes at the restless gulls, bouncing on and off the bars, and their solitary observer, shrouded in silence.  With each side keeping a safe, consistent distance, this asymmetric, inter-species stand-off - or was it a communion - and was reminded of my first cormorant sighting nearly ten years earlier.  Then, as now, it had been the stillness of the bird which awed me, its wintry, stygian fixity against a moving world of water.  How the steely overseer seemed to me now to embody the harsh but tight-lipped disapproval of some Victorian schoolmaster, or the silent condemnation of some mute, God-fearing nun: her sable-cloaked form unmoving and defined by self control, looking on in contempt at the ribald crew of noisy gulls, as if they represented something threatening to the social order.  But also as if she, the cormorant, were somehow untroubled, unaffected, and secure. The squawking, gulls played out their jostling, chaotic anti-ballet, the sharp winds cut through the trees in blasts of punishing cold.  The waters rolled, slashed by jagged slants of February rain, jabbing and elbowing the battered boat into a tilting sway, yet all the while the cormorant stayed steadfastly pinned there like a tough black mast, a flag of fortitude and gutsy composure in a turbulent and changing world.

Through the now driving rain, I walked into the wooded hills, across the flat, narrow, sandy pathways that lead into the quiet, steepled villages of Turton, Entwistle, and Edgeworth, their curling rows of cottages and old English pubs, past farms and fields of horses, graveyards, and long, descending roads that trailed off into blurry morning mists. 

It was mid afternoon by the time my trek had taken me full circle, and brought me back to the battlement-like dam, and save for the soft, slow patter of a few remaining raindrops, almost dry.  I walked along the water's concrete lip, stopped to focus on the bobbing boat, whose metal skeleton still held a shifting cast of pearly white gulls. The cormorant, coal-black, stoic and unswerving, was still there, casting her impenetrable glare across the crystalline waters like a shadowy, dark star.

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

Taking Stock - Reflections at the Winter's End

I moved to the Calder Valley in the winter of 2012, and on my first birdwatching wander I was delighted to notice a green woodpecker.  Dazzlingly, it seemed to bounce on the icy air halfway up a hillside on the edge of the Copley woods, wending its emerald way in and out of the ragged hedgerow, skimming the stream trickling bumpily over miscellanies of stones.  I followed the bird's course with my binoculars, as it dodged and meandered through dark overhanging branches, torpedoing over rocks and floating into misty invisibility.  I had been in the valley only a matter of days, and this January morning was my first opportunity to go walking and birdwatching in the local countryside. I had never seen a green woodpecker before. To do so now seemed a good omen.

In the time I have lived in the area, woodpeckers - green and otherwise - have been a not infrequent sight.  Their green speckled coats, wild eyes, patient habits, long thick beaks and the bright, red stripe that daubs their heads like a jester's hat, all combine to reveal a collage of contradictions - a bird which seems at once stately and frenetic, both stylish, and irascible.  These unique birds have certainly, as I shall demonstrate, played their part in my poetry over these last five years.  But before I focus on the green woodpecker and its relations, I want to turn to a few other examples of local, and not so local wildlife, that have featured in my rambles and scribblings over the last few weeks.

This is the evening of my final day of a month away from my usual day job(s) in libraries.  Having accumulated a month's leave, such an absence presented its self as a necessity were I to avoid losing the entitlement before the end of the financial year, and so came upon me more by luck than judgement.  This unexpected stretch has given me time to develop various professional and personal projects, to reconnect with the world outside my window, and reflect on things that matter.  I have also found myself missing the libraries I work at. Between Wednesdays and Saturdays I might usually be found skulking among the shelves of certain of these places, singing songs with three year olds and secluding myself within the hidden haven of a local history room, and to have withdrawn completely would be senseless - so it was rather fitting that part of my time away has been spent either reading, or working in libraries closer to home, devising and delivering the next stage of a collaborative project called Exploring the Brontes.

My collaborators on this three-person show are Berni Byrne and Caroline Lamb (above R and L respectively.)  Its format consists of a presentation by myself, including quotes and poems by and about the Brontes, and interspersed with beautiful musical offerings by Berni on the Irish harp. Berni has won the All Britain Harp title in all ages, and to hear her play the majestic instrument pictured above is a truly wonderful privilege.  Our second half features Caroline Lamb, of Dangerous to Know theatre company, who performs her monologue The Cold Plunge, a Bronte-inspired play told from the viewpoint of their friend and correspondent Mary Taylor.  In 2015, Caroline's play The Dissolution of Percy, which details the tumultuous life of Branwell Bronte, debuted in Salford, and she has been a key part of my work towards the completion of a film about Branwell, which I have been making with Alan Wrigley and which features elsewhere on this site.  Caroline has been both a valued co-researcher as well as interviewee, and her monologue is a further demonstration of her knowledge of the Brontes and their work. 
Exploring the Brontes first surfaced at last October's Morley Arts Festival, and we were very happy to bring it to Todmorden Library this February, with further instalments planned this spring and summer, before appearing for the opening of the new Halifax Library in September. 

Each performance of Exploring the Brontes covers different territory, and February's included a good deal of information about the family's connections to that town, including the former church at Cross Stones, whose incumbents included the Reverend John Fennel, friend of Patrick Bronte. Fennel may have been preceded at Cross Stones by the notoriously "fire-and-brimstone" preacher William Grimshaw (who also preceded Patrick Bronte at Haworth) but his own tenure at the church was no doubt a good deal cheerier:  Fennel had lost a previous job as a schoolmaster for spending too much time organising picnics for his niece Maria and her fiancĂ©e - Patrick Bronte.   Cross Stones was to become a familiar place to all the Brontes, the siblings holidaying there as children, and to various other figures who would play a part in the life of Branwell Bronte, such as the curate Sutcliffe Sowden, and local geologist John Nowell, friend of Reverend Fennel who discovered a rare species of moss, Zygodon gracilis, while in the Yorkshire Dales.
The Brontes had been known to take walks as far as Todmorden when conditions permitted, and wandering across the craggy, knolly hills and winding paths of Todmorden, heading out into the foreboding fogs and steep reaches of Stoodley Pike and Blackstone Edge, the desolation of Todmorden Moor or the heather-rich hills of Cragg Vale and its deciduous slopes of warm, fresh greenery, it is easy to imagine the young Brontes embracing the seemingly infinite landscapes and their strange, raw romance.

Later in February I was to host a celebration of the music and poetry of Leonard Cohen, at Mythomroyd's Blue Teapot - as described on this page
which brought together the poetic talents of Jessica Lawrence, Atar Hadari, Turner Cockcroft and of course the great Leonard Cohen, with the musical offerings of our friend Razz.

My winter wanderings, though, have taken me beyond the Calder Valley and encompassed a variety of environments and sights.

When I told Calder Valley poet Bob Horne about my plans for a restorative four week break, he told me he expected I would be spending as much of it as possible out of doors.  Bob and I have often shared sightings of birds and other wildlife - indeed one of the standout poems in his Caterpillar Poetry collection Knowing My Place is the startling White Tailed Eagle, which records a view of this "eagle of the sunlit eye" glimpsed above Cape Wrath:

Like a sheet of white shadow
close enough to disconcert
it climbs from the cottongrass

and over the last few weeks, the last of the winter frosts slowly subsiding into the flowers of early spring, I have been thrilled to lay eyes on a dizzying diversity of bird life, both in the countryside and in the middle of busy towns. 

and writing about it has helped to contextualise my thoughts and feelings on the plight of the natural world, and the brilliant beauty which so often lays in unexpected corners.

This brings me back to the starting point of these reflections, and my unexpected sighting of a green woodpecker, that cold winter morning in 2012. 

I knew you writes Hampshire poet Denise Bennett in her 2005 poem Green Woodpecker, by your / green carpenter's apron,/ your red-crested head - / and watching you chisel bark / with all the care of a craftsman

The "chiselling" sound the poet so deftly conjures up was familiar to me in the woodlands outside my old home in north Leeds, where I would watch the erratic progress of one particular woodpecker - Dendrocopos minor (the lesser-spotted woodpecker) - as it hammered away for all it was worth against the increasingly hollow sounding oaks!  I have continued to see - an indeed to hear! - woodpeckers (mostly Dendrocopos major, the great spotted woodpecker) here in the Calder Valley, but nowhere else have I encountered the green woodpeckers, Picus virdis, which, the higher up one goes into the moorland or farmlands outside Sowerby Bridge, seem to increase in size and number. 
Like thick sparks, I scribbled in my notebook earlier this month, they explode from the bush in a fountain of curved green, arched arrows.

Bewick names P. virdis as the largest of Britain's woodpeckers, stating that as adults, they are thirteen inches in length. He explains that the smooth-feathered bird, documented by Linnaeus in 1758, is seen more frequently on the ground than the other kinds, particularly where there are ant-hills. It inserts its long tongue into the holes through which the ants issue, and draws out these insects in abundance. Sometimes, with its feet and bill, it makes a breach in the nest, and devours them at its ease, together with their eggs. The young ones climb up and down the trees before they are able to fly; they roost very early, and repose in their holes till day.

The green woodpecker has achieved further fame due to its appearance on international postage stamps, and as the insignia of the traditional English brand Woodpecker cider, and has been known as Rain Bird and Weathercock, since their presence has been thought to imply oncoming rain. Another name is Laughing Betsey, owing to its laugh-like call, which has also given rise to titles such as uffle, hefful, hickle, icwell, eccle and - a personifying development - Jack Eikle. Yuckel is a further variation, as is Yappingale, and perhaps even more imitatively, Yaffingale - which may be familiar as the source of the name Yaffles. Stiff, stern but loveable, Professor Yaffles, with his spectacles perched atop his beak, is the wise old bookend in Bagpuss, the children’s television series in which assorted puppets and ornaments - not least the eponymous cloth cat himself - interacted among the shelves of a cluttered toyshop.  Perhaps I had these jumbled toys in mind last week when I penned my rather jovial poem Green Woodpeckers, in which I describe the birds flying from a hedgerow in a crackling cascade of jagged jack-o-lanterns, and end with the following rather far-fetched simile:

...drill-beaked baize blades,
parroty splash of sharp
fluorescent arcs, erupting
like a bag of flying tricks.

I'm not sure exactly how I would define "a bag of flying tricks", but I think anyone who has seen green woodpeckers can probably recognise that sense of their fast, chaotic ballets and their swift dispatches into thin air. 

It has always seemed strange to me that I had not committed my thoughts on that first green woodpecker to poetry.  Yet anyone who writes must surely know that so often, the inspiration behind a poem may require many months or even years before it is distilled into coherent thought, and only when the Muse, and a heavy dose of self-discipline, happen to strike in unison do the strands of thought that feed this inspiration coalesce into something recognisably poetic.  Over the last few weeks, though, I have found myself thinking back over the last five years and longer that I have been in the valley, comparing then with now, weighing up the past, taking stock of the present and planning for the future - and during much of this time the poetry I've been writing has been largely drawn from the past.  So it was that, without even thinking about it beforehand, I was writing about the birds described above, and shortly afterwards the solitary green woodpecker whose bumpy, swerving journey up the hillside so entranced me on that vein-chillingly frigid Sunday morning - my red-hatted host, introducing me to the valley's bird life in its own inimical, jouncy, jolting, jolly way.  And so, I end my four week spell of reflection, exploration and rediscovery by remembering a beginning.


Up the muddy hill, flitting
among bordering blackthorn,
hazel, skittering
inch by drizzly inch
along a stone-choked stream,
an aerial climb,
you skim the rim of farmland
like an acid-dappled laser-beam,
lime light-sabre scintillating
in a neon gleam of feathered fire,
blood-coloured beak
creeping over hedgy wetness
in a thin mirage
diving through the morning mist.