Wednesday, 29 November 2017

Poetry of Marko Vesovic

 
On 22nd November, former Bosnia Serb General Ratko Mladic was found guilty of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against Humanity, by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, bringing a degree of closure to a conflict which traumatized an entire region. The Balkan conflict of the 1990's stretched throughout my adolescence, a seemingly interminable tragedy played out nightly on the television news. The resolution of the conflict at the decade's end, and the subsequent removal from power of many of its architects  has enabled the area to develop and prosper, but this seemed all but unthinkable when the fighting was at its height, bringing to the political lexicon a range of macabre new terms, such as the chilling "ethnic cleansing," words which will forever be associated with the period's most infamous chapter, the Srebrenica Massacre of July 1995, which occurred towards the close of the 1992-95 Bosnian War.

One man who lived through the war was the Montenegro-born poet, essayist, translator and academic Marko Vesovic, who was born in 1945, in the Montenegrin village of Pepe, arrived, via family connections, in Sarajevo in 1963, and has remained there ever since - first studying, now teaching, at the city's University.  Having translated Baudelaire, Emily Dickinson, Joseph Brodsky, Anna Akhmatova, Marina Tsvetayeva and Aleksandr Pushkin into Serbo-Croat, Vesovic is a member of the Serb Civic Council of Bosnia-Herzegovina, and by the 1990's had become one of the country's most respected poets.  But, having been born when one enormous war was at an end, he would endure three and half years of living amid conflict, and emerge from them as a fierce opponent of Nationalism, with a sense that the city of Sarajevo, as he recently told Bosnian journalist Sergio Paini, "has unfortunately changed forever."


American poet Chris Agree has described how,  Suffused with an ironic, Rabelaisian wit, Vešovic´s poetry both mocks an imperfect world and celebrates the enchantments of childhood memory with gentleness and ardour. A striking feature of his oeuvre is the huge arc of its perspectives: from intimate conversations with his dead mother, through the harsh splendours of Pape, to the overwhelming pressures of the Bosnian war. In a language that is both richly imagistic and formally dextrous, one encounters everywhere in Vešovic´s poetry the eternal dialogue between the tenderness and cruelty of existence.

Summa Summarum (Latin: All in All)
The leaves of the ilex by the graveyard
Whisper prophetically.

And barley-corn ripens
Like those actors who
In the same role for the hundredth time
Stand forth before the audience. (1)


 

Indeed, there is much insight - and wit - in the works of this talented, somewhat don-ish in appearance, at times contrary, poet - who is stopped on the street by admiring fans, yet whose sense of humour is self-deprecating, and who recently told a magazine that, on being offered the chance of taking political office in Bosnia,  I responded that my students would laugh when they heard that, because I'm not capable of putting a classroom in order, much less a country. I can't imagine myself in a situation where I am commanding, giving orders to anyone.


In the early 60's, Vesovic, like many rising stars of the Sarajevo poetry scene, made the acquaintance of a charismatic, imposing, ultimately murderous poet, lawyer, and, almost unbelievably, children's author, who would come to international recognition as a war criminal responsible for murdering any of Vesovic's own countrymen - Radovan Karadžić .  This former association and the shock with which Karadvic's culpability for genocide would wreak on Vesovic and others, would form a pivotal moment in his thinking and world view, but during the war its self, Vesovic turned his skill towards encouraging his fellow citizens to resist the military onslaught. On the Poetry International website, Chris Agee explains how During the three-and-a-half-year siege of Sarajevo, Vešovic remained in the city and wrote over 100 essays for Oslobodenje ('Liberation'), Dani ('Days') and Slobodna Bosna ('Free Bosnia'). These writings, which exemplify the multi-ethnic defence of the Bosnian capital, were of immense importance to the morale of the city's besieged inhabitants. Vesovic also saw this material as a means of reaching out to many of his Serb contemporaries lured by the emotive, age-old tug of Serb Nationalism.  In 2014, Vesovic told Frontline magazine:
 I only know this - we were still hoping that the war would stop. As if a misunderstanding had happened - human consciousness could not possibly agree to evil, to a war. We thought it was entirely monstrous, that there was a war in Sarajevo, and Bosnia as a whole.
The poet's own experiences of military service clearly influenced his writing, which even when recalling times of long ago seems inevitably prophetic:

 I'm doing sentry duty.  At dawn.  Nearby is a house.  Actually,
a yellowish hovel.  Beside it--a poplar above a well.
The poplar is as tall, it somehow seems to me, as
the well is deep.  Above the house white smoke is unfolding
Like a baby's diapers.


In the house a child is crying. Long. For years already.

It seems: The shack would come down if the child fell silent.
Anything can come to mind when one is
Doing sentry duty. (2)


Later, I am reminded of Houseman's deceptively tranquil pastoral set among the balmy days immediately preceding World War 1, On the Idle Hill of Summer, as the calm before the storm is depicted in Mario Susko's skillful translation:

From a green meadow, wounded, was staring at the sky.
There was nothing for a million miles around.
Yes, miles, as if the immense void that
Roared around me was in fact the open sea.
Stark and boundless.   From everything, under the sky,
Only a blind starkness remained that roared brutally. (3)

 
I think the Houseman comparison may have been partly triggered by my coincidental recent reading of the journals of Paddy Ashdown, former Liberal Democrat leader, and later the Peace Implementation Council's High Representative to Bosnia and Heregovina,  in which his own first visit to the soon to be battle-scarred countryside of Bosnia evokes a memory of the poem.  The diaries depict in painful detail the impact of the war on the civilians of Bosnia, and provide snapshots of everyday life - the unease of which is captured by Vesovic, in an atmospheric, and moving, invocation of Tolstoy's War and Peace:

I, too, like Prince Andrey, before death,
suddenly felt that there was nothing
In the world but that immeasurable distance
Above me, and the still more immeasurable distance,
Inside.  As if the soul was looking upon itself
From an immensity
powerfully healing.
Or as if it were looking on its pain after a million summers.
Pain turned into a white waterfall roaring like the spring of the Bosna.

I, too, like Prince Andrey, realized
that nothing matters more
than those distances that multiplied with lightning speed.
Seventy-seven immensities, the soul
drinking from each like from the seventy-seven fountains of home,
The world was, all around, ground to powder,
and looked like that
Ruddy column of dust that surges upward
When a shell smashes into someone's house in Sarajevo.  (4)

I cannot imagine what it must be like to live in one of the most bitter warzones of the Twentieth Century.  A library colleague, who served in a NATO peace-keeping unit during the Siege of Sarajevo, has described some of his experiences, but also talks about the "gallows humour" and resilient attitudes among the military.  This sort of thing is suggested by Vesovic in his lighter moments, as in his poem
in which a soldier in an unspecified conflict is depicted as having found a blouse among his kit, a reminder of some amorous adventure:

Suddenly, because of all this—the wine-colored west,
the new moon with horns, the woman’s tiny blouse whose
scent, like a thread, can lead you out of hell—
suddenly, because of this, I feel my soul relieved,
more at ease with the world. (5)


 

But lurking beneath any happiness or calm, is an ever-present murmur of disquiet, of anxiety, of fear:

It is a stillness and solitude when you listen to a baby bird’s feathers
Growing, when you listen to an elder tree
Sprouting from human absence amid the ramparts,
And when rocks start looking, for a moment,
Like gigantic layers of police files
With the fingerprints of millions of vanished beings
Whose murmur is heard anew.   (6)

See how even the rocks remind Vesovic of "layers of police files."  This is, after all a poet who lived for most of three decades under a Communist dictatorship.


 

But Marko Vesovic will be best remembered for his poetry decrying the effects of the war which followed Yugoslavia's break up.  Perhaps Vesovic's most famous poem is the stunningly simple Signature, describing an incident in which he and his infant daughter were returning home during a period of fighting:

 I'm running home with my little daughter –
again, shells have surprised us on the street.
Shells have, for centuries, been falling every day,
and every time they surprise us.


I'm hurrying her on with angry words:
transferring my rage from the Serb gunners
to a child awaited ten years.
Let me write my name, she tells me, as we pass
a patch of virgin snow in the park.
Instead of scolding her,
I—God knows why—let her forefinger
break the delicate whiteness,
and then, around the Cyrillic IVANA VEŠOVIC
my forefinger describes a circle,
impenetrable.


Like in fairy-tales.   (7)

Looking back on the war today, Vesovic expresses little in the way of triumphalism.  Indeed, there is an element of the "stiff-upper-lip," or the militant machismo he has spoken of as inherent to his generation of Montenegrins:

We should lock it all up in the soul
and forget. But at least we shall, from now on
have a touch more self-respect, I hope,
like the fighter who takes a billion blows
but stays on his feet and his mangled face
in the mirror tells him who he really is.    (8)


Offering scant philosophy, Vesovic soberly attests that:

 We who passed through the siege of Sarajevo
shall, of course, gain nothing.
An experience that will serve no purpose:
as if you lost your arms and won a violin,
as Rasko would say. You can’t even tell
others about it. Can you reconstruct an ancient
jug from the lonely handle that made it to
our time?  
 To know how much you can bear, without
exploding—that is the only property that you
shall, if you survive, bring from this war,
endless like the handkerchief a magician pulls
out of his hat. This knowledge—a saber which
we shall not draw very often from the scabbard.
But at least I will keep my hand
on its hilt.    
(9)

 

Thankfully I have never experienced the kinds of horrors Vesovic and his generation lived through; nor, despite the current political and economic crises troubling Europe, is it likely that the Balkans will ever again face the anarchy and violence which characterized the dismantling of Yugoslavia. The book I am reading at the moment is an account of the crimes of, and subsequent hunt for, Serbian politician Radovan Karadžić - Nick Hawton's Europe's Most Wanted Man: the quest for Radovan Karadžić.  And it was his unlikely associations with this war criminal, currently serving a term of up to forty years for genocide and crimes against Humanity.  Remembering Karadzic as an egotistical presence on the 1960's literary scene, Vesovic has nonetheless explained how he and many of his fellow poets had an affection, or respect, for the future warmonger - who, while infamous for his role as a Serb Nationalist, was actually born in Vesovic's native Montenegro.  The friendship petered out in the early 1970's, when Karadzic was exposed as a spy for the Communist authorities by whom Vesovic had been reprimanded for some of his anti-government writings.  But even this betrayal did not overly taint Vesovic's view of his supposed friend: I'd rather have a have my own Montenegran inform against me, he told Frontline magazine, than someone from Bosnia who didn't know me at all, and he really knew me.

Over the years, Vesovic and his friends would watch their old associate assume national recognition through a political career, which did not surprise Vesovic in the slightest:

He's a born politician because of his absolute self-confidence. And because of his optimism. In my opinion, a politician is by definition a born optimist. He really did have these characteristics which would have made him a politician even in a different kind of time when butchering people and changing the borders wasn't a part of it. The point is, I have talked to his colleagues and I didn't know how to find the right description for him. But they did. He is a psychopath. You know, being a psychopath is a very dangerous illness.
In early 2012, Hague Tribunal prosecutors produced recorded evidence, in the form of audio recordings whereby Karadzic and others are heard authorizing mass slaughters, finally putting paid to any lingering revisionism propagated by their partisan supporters.  One of those for whom this evidence had an immense personal impact was Marko Vesovic:

The voice which said this shocked me. And it was forever engraved in my mind. Because for me, all I had known about Karadzic up to then, dissolved in one second. I only realized that it wasn't the same man; that weakling, that clay... He became someone who had control over the life and death of his own nation. 

With the chief protagonists of the Balkan slaughters now either dead or behind bars, the butchery of which Vesovic speaks is surely a thing of the past, and last week's the sentencing of Ratko Mladic does seem to indicate the closing of a chapter in the region's tragic history. But it is a chapter whose echoes resonate across the world today, and the age-old anxieties, emotions and pains bound up within its memory will never be erased.
Summa Summarum
The leaves of the ilex by the graveyard
Whisper prophetically.

And barley-corn ripens
Like those actors who
In the same role for the hundredth time
Stand forth before the audience.

Yet do not extol,
To the skies, your native land.
It ought to extol you.

Seen from this cloud
These meadows and fields
Are a stamp album;

And to the ant a smoke ring
Twirling from your cigarette
Is a whole new landscape!

And stop threatening for once
To return next time
To this handful of land without history
Only in the shape of a rider in bronze.

And before you leave
Stroke the bark of these trees
Which all the while have given you
Free lessons in standing tall!



Translations:
1,10 -  Chris Agee
2,3,4, 7-Mario Susko 
5,6 -  Omer Hadžiselimović 
8-Zvonimir Radeljkovic
9 -  Zvonmir Radeljkovic

Tuesday, 28 November 2017

A Spark Before Dark

This Saturday saw the third of my three readings devised to re-launch my pamphlet Little Creatures, at Legacy Art Gallery, Todmorden.
 The readings back in the summer have included, as documented elsewhere on this site, two other Calder Valley venues, The Blue Teapot vegetarian cafe, Mytholmroyd, and and the Fox and Goose, Hebden Bridge, and featured a wide range of poets from England, Ireland, Scotland, the USA and Israel.  The final reading took place at the onset of the Todmorden Lamplighter Festival, an illuminated street parade, and rather appropriately there were poems on the theme of lamplight on this final night.  This was especially significant as the subject of lamps happens to be the focus of a poem by one of the tour's previous guests, Atar Hadari.


Atar joined me last Tuesday to deliver readings from his 2013 Indigo Dreams collection Rembrandt's Bible, described by Calder Valley poet Char March as a dextrous and moving collection full of humour, tongue-in-cheek-ness, knowledge, superb imagery and beautiful ways in which they leave room for the reader and their interpretation.
 

Among poems about Biblical figures such as Samuel and Goliath, Moses, Maimonides, and settings as diverse as the Wailing Wall and contemporary Hebden Bridge, there are also deft snapshots of domestic life, family histories and remembered schoolday scenes.  One of these more personal stories is the gently powerful Lamp Gathering, which I first heard Atar recite at The Bookcase, Hebden Bridge, watching him deliver the poem against the glass backdrop of the shop's window, the spring night outside bathed in the crimson glow of street lamps.

I saw the first on top
of a book case, hiding, funereal
and black as a cenotaph
tucked behind my father's photo.  

The next was on the ledge
of the window and she showed it
- opening the tiny frame
in the heart that contained ten commandments.

 The poem develops into a dialogue between the narrator and his mother, who has begun collecting lamps found in junk shops as more and more Jews die / and their sons clear their house for scrap.  Perplexed, the poet ponders:

Why should she collect the lamps 
of the dead, who don't light their candles,
take them home instead and light
just her own one I could not say.

But she stands running her hands 
on the candle cups.  Her doctor mentioned:
"You can't just leave them.  Its a call."
And my mother agreed,

The sense of retrieval and conserving a past fading from the general consciousness is elucidated in the mother's reiteration:

"You can't leave them.  In shops
you have to rescue them."

...and the poem ends with a kind of conversion, the initially skeptical narrator now urging the reader:

If you find a lamp
please do not leave it-
somehow you'll find your way back
to when you were at home, and light was with someone
and a spark fell before dark.



At the third reading in the gallery on Saturday, Nuala Fagan was to visit the theme of lamplight with an as-yet unpublished, new poem, called Glow:

Electricity is a light that switches on things
that fly in the night
things that shift,
that tap
and breathe too close
is a reassuring miracle that keeps you alive
even after your heart has stopped

 As with Atar's poem, Glow illumines the personal and private through a prism of outwardly recognizable imagery, transfiguring the glow of electricity into a recollection of that time when the two of you / sat in the lamplight, and bringing to life the memory of light that:

lived on edges of china and brass
and on the contours of her hands
as they flickered in and out of the shadows.







Tuesday, 21 November 2017

Resounding Whispers - Zimbabwean Poet Ethel Kabwato

 

(Author's Note: Within hours of publishing this piece, I was delighted at the news that Robert Mugabe had resigned as President of Zimbabwe.)

Like many, I have found much of my attention in the last few weeks focused on  Zimbabwe, where the murderous reign of Robert Mugabe seemed, for a few days at least, to have been on the verge of expiry, thanks to what seemed to have been a predominantly peaceful coup.  As the chances of this appear to have ebbed, the country's future remains unclear, and having no history or family connections in that country, I can only imagine the unease many Zimbabweans must currently be feeling.  But, as described in previous posts, I have connections to Zimbabwe dating back to my days as a mental health worker, when a good proportion of my colleagues were Zimbabweans.  We would often discuss the barbarity of Mugabe and his hideous regime, but also the happier aspects of the country's cultural heritage, including its poets.

Unlike the other Zimbabwean poets featured on these pages, teacher, arts practitioner, and multiple prize-winning poet Ethel Kabwato, who was born in 1970, in Mutare, near the eastern border with Mozambique, is a writer whose work is virtually impossible to find beyond her native country.  This is both surprising - the poet has been involved with many cross-cultural poetry projects including with British Council Wales and at Lancaster University - and unfortunate: her magnificent writing, says Zimbabwean journalist Tinashe Mushakavanhu, tackles the difficult subjects that have come to define what has been dubbed the Zimbabwe crisis, subjects of land, violence, patriotism through an intelligent employ of irony and wit.

 Much of Ethel Kabwato's poetry centres on the situation in Zimbabwe, both obliquely and directly.  For example, in one of the few poems to have enjoyed an English translation (thanks to the website Poetry International) , Damgamvura, 1979,  she describes the transition of her country from the unrecognized state of Rhodesia, into the creation of modern Zimbabwe, via the Lancaster House Agreement in London:

Our fate hung in the air
As they sat down at Lancaster House
Our dreams of independence
Only a glimmer of hope. 


There is a palpable sense of detachment and alienation from the political process, as the future of the country is decided on by politicians thousands of miles away.  But despite - or perhaps because of - her awareness of the gulf between the powerful and powerless, the personal and political are inextricably linked in Ethel Kabwato's poetry.  Describing the birth of a child against the horrific backdrop of the so-called Gukurahundi, a series of massacres carried out by Mugabe's Fifth Brigade in the early days of his oppressive rule


Gukurahundi came to Dangamvura
Marking the birth of a new era
As we joined in the turmoil
The October rains
Pelting on the windows
Bullet fire drowning the downpour
Our laughter
Taking away the fear
And anxiety
As mother lay in hospital
Waiting for a child of war.


As many as 80,000 civilians were killed in the Gukurahundi, mostly belonging to the Ndebele minority, to whom Mugabe was hostile owing to the age-old rivalry between the Ndebele and the indigenous Shona, from which background Mugabe came himself.  The massacres began in January 1983, and lasted until December 1987, when  an agreement was signed by Mugabe and Joshua Nkomo, a Ndebele nationalist and former minister in Mugabe's government (who had been ejected on charges of plotting against the President.)  Pressed on the Gukurahundi in a 1999 interview, Mugabe described the entire period of 1983-87 as "a moment of madness," but refused to elaborate on his own responsibility for the killings.  Recently uncovered recordings and correspondence indicate strongly that the President was not only aware, but gave personal orders for the massacres.  Only recently have they attracted the attention of the international community.  In a small way, they are exposed in this unflinching poetry, in which the dryness of statistics is replaced by human faces.  We counted the victims, the poet recalls, and lists some of them, randomly remembered:


The bus driver at Raheen
The postmaster’s wife
Jarvis, the white farmer


In just three short lines, Ethel Kabwato acknowledges the humanity of black and white, tragically united in their shared suffering.  But elsewhere, the regime's non-physical violence is also highlighted, the yoke of censorship and the suppression of dissent given graphically metaphorical treatment:

Burial of An Activist

They buried him today
Lips and tongue
Cut out
As if to silence
Him
Even in death.

The necessity of free speech is a recurring theme in Kabwato's work.  In the Munyori Literary Journal, Beaven Tapureta champions how The willpower to speak and be heard as a woman is deeply expressed in one of Kabwato’s poems,  Echoes of Silence. In this poem the personae speaks of “scars hidden deep/deep within our hearts”, yet even though these and other mysterious forces attempt to silence them, they determinedly speak through “whispers”!

 Echoes of Silence

Our thoughts meander
Our suffering bravely borne
The scars are hidden deep
Deep within our hearts
We thought we could
Did not know we couldn’t
We thought it was crazy
The craziness was within
We searched.
The echoes of our silence
Reached their hearts
Unwinding the dark mysteries
Surrounding us;
Our voices;
Silenced,
Unheard
Became whispers . . . 
 

This spirit of quiet defiance characterizes much of Ethel Kabawto's charged but dignified style of writing, a manner which I would describe as patiently passionate, and which is mirrored by her selfless work outside of writing.  A mother of two children, she has found the time to launch and administer a range of educational initiatives, along with running the Zimbabwean wing of the international Slum Cinema project, which screens documentary films in the poorest areas of Africa.  Indeed, from the vantage point of her firmly rooted sense of Zimbabwean identity, Ethel Kabwato might be seen as an internationalist poet.  In 2010, she visited Wales as part of a British Council poetry project, and was inspired to write a poem which would serve as the foreword to the book which was produced by virtue of the visit.  Published by Cinnamon Press, edited by Welsh poet Menna Elfyn  Sunflowers In Your Eyes also contains poems by Blessing Musariri, and features Ethel Kabwato's A Tale of Cardiff's New Arrivals. The poet explained to BBC Wales: When I arrived in Cardiff I was inspired by the warmth of the Welsh people to write a poem, A Tale of Cardiff's New Arrivants. Some of the street names had a certain familiarity and reminded me of home in Zimbabwe.
"Cardiff is rich in culture. Art is on the street where you live, on the faces of the people you meet in shops, at the bay, in shopping malls and in places where we read our work. The Welsh people live art.

A Tale of Cardiff's New Arrivants.
They found a new home
Along Bute Street
And called the street
In the same way they
Used to back home
Before they discovered
The route number 6 bus
Which would take them
To St Mary's
And St David's
To the market
To the graffiti along
Christina Street
And to the basements
Along the narrow street
They call Lloyd George
They tasted
The addictive
Welsh cakes
On the little street
Behind the harbour
And forgot
About the boat ride
And the Number 6
They watched
As the sun shone
Over Cardiff Bay
And they dreamt
Allowed
And talked
To their shadows
While basking
In the warmth
Of its beauty
As it welcomed
Them in the summer
Croeso i Gymru
(Welcome to Wales)


Reading Ethel Kabwato, I have a strong sense of someone who is keenly aware of her own heritage and identity, while embodying an instinctive, entirely non-sectarian compassion transcendent of national borders. In one of her most moving poems, she draws on the tragedy of the 2011 Oslo massacre, an event which must have generated terrible memories of those documented in her poetry of the Gukurahundi nearly twenty years previously:


 Light a candle for her
Wherever you are
Lay down your wreath
On the stone cold pavement
When the sun has faded


 We will sing with you, Norway
Across the miles
And whisper a prayer
In our own language


(From After the Terror)

The evocation of human loss depicted above in macro, national level, is framed in close up by the painful Tariro, in which the cot-death of a baby (the poet's?) is described from the perspective of her parents.  Tariro is Shona for "Hope," and the poem begins with an explanation of how:

We called you Tariro
Our hope for the future
We dreamt on
Lifting dreams
Upon dreams

We watched you grow
A ray of sunshine
A promise of things to come
The joy that lit our lives


As the inevitability of death is made apparent, there is a curiously English, profoundly sad, moment, when:

Tea cups in hand
We sat by the window
Eyes on the road
Ears strained
Hoping


And the poem softly reaches a deeply sobering conclusion:

 The nights wore black
The heart listened
We could no longer hope
For a chapter
That had been closed
In our life
God had only lent us
A page of your life. 




Interviewed in 2016, Ethel Kabwato explained how Poetry is a means of expression. It allows me the freedom to be happy, sad, or inspirational. To me poetry is therapeutic. I like writing about socio-political issues. I live in the present, the here and now. I rarely revisit the past. However, womanhood is something I can never run away from. Most of my poems revolve around the central theme of womanhood. Poetry serves as social commentary. In the absence of freedom of expression or censorship; one can reach a wider audience by simply being subtle or satirical.  
There are probably a great many satirical elements in her poem The Witch's Dance, which those familiar with Zimbabwean history and culture may recognize but which I do not.  But the poem its self is nonetheless a fascination for me - dripping with inference, a mysteriously romantic reminiscence neatly woven around a mythical idea, a story of transitory, unfulfilled love, or perhaps a love majestically fulfilled but subject to the brevity of youth or those fleeting experiences of ecstasy which come so rarely, yet burn so brightly when they do:


 The Witch’s Dance
We walked on
Through the dust
The wind enclosing us
Our vision clouded with dust
Our dusty feet coated with red soil.

We walked on
the whirlwind
spiralling and dancing
The papers and the grass
Floating in the air
You called it
The witch’s dance
You closed my eyes
And held me close
You said she would come
And I waited
 But we walked on
The dust stinging my eyes
I felt the rhythm
Within your heart
Entrapping the blackness
Of my soul
You said she would dance.

I felt the beat
As you stamped your feet
The darkness enveloping me
The dust suppressing my breath
The witch’s dance
I heard you shouting
The witch has danced
She had danced
With the whirlwind
And gone with the wind.
It is greatly to be hoped that the reputation of Ethel Kabwato continues to blossom both within Zimbabwem and beyond.  Whatever the next chapter in the tortured history of her homeland, her future as a poet should assuredly be bright, and, while it is through her wider community and cross-cultural endeavours that she will continue to help those scarred by war and poverty, it is through the medium of her poetry that she has given testimony to the troubles of her country and her generation, and it is through the medium of this continent-crossing, empathic, deeply human poetry that she will continue to do so. Poetry heals me, said Ethel Kabwato in 2016.   It is my sincere hope that the poetry and prose will portray, in earnest, the lives of the people I have laughed and cried with, in their time of joy and need.
































Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Two Visions of Autumn, by William Blake and Philip Larkin

Its twenty years since I first encountered two poets who would come to exert influences on my life which would be hard to overstate. In September 1997, as part of the A Level cohort of the Leeds College of Art, I was introduced to a raft of poets by means of a sort of introduction to the course - among them Swinburne, Keats, Yeats, all of whom became firm favourites, but also to works by William Blake and Philip Larkin.





 

It seems odd to recall now that I had never heard of either of these people  - but such was my oblivious position as a sixteen year old who had only just survived a school where Class B drugs and flying chairs were in more regular supply than poetry.  the lure of studying writing and acting proved sufficient to lull me from this cultural prison, and in the direction of the city centre, then in a phase of burgeoning redevelopment, artistically as well as commercially.   So it was that, in the autumn of that year of great changes, I found myself cocooned in a room above the western edge of Leeds city centre, poring over the words of these two great poets, as wildly different as they are from one another in their writing, reputations and worldviews! Some of my contemporaries had heard of Blake, via his influence on the decadent rock star Jim Morrison, but it was left to our tutor to explain that Larkin - whom we would come, thanks to our studying of his famous Whitsun Weddings - to regard almost as an honorary classmate, due to the ubiquity of his poetry in that room over the ensuing couple of years, was "a poet who wrote mainly about everyday life in the North of England, in the 1950's and 60's."  The same tutor described how, when living as a student in Hull, where Larkin settled to work as a University Librarian, he and several fellow students would sometimes see the poet on his journeys to buy cream cakes at a local bakers, from where he would apparently scurry back to his high-windowed digs, presumably to listen to his beloved 78's of American Jazz, while scoffing cakes and avoiding anything connected with the literary or academic.


I was going to say that I had been thinking a lot of Blake and Larkin recently because the autumn colours here in the Calder Valley are absolutely splendid at the moment, and they both wrote poems, with decidedly different messages, about autumn. But the truth is, they are poets who are on my mind almost all of the time, and this autumnal connection really only serves as an excuse.  Nonetheless, it strikes me that the two poems concerned merit a juxtaposed reproduction, for they convey, more than a century apart, and in vivid, moving language, acutely contrasting, but equally incontrovertible truths, about the season.
None can doubt that autumn presents us with a colder, at times harsh landscape, as storm clouds gather and, as Philip Larkin put it, the leaves suddenly lose strength; at the same time, Blake's illustration of an autumn laden with fruit is demonstrated all across the valley that I walk through every day.


 William Blake's To Autumn was published in 1783:

O Autumn, laden with fruit, and stain'd
With the blood of the grape, pass not, but sit
Beneath my shady roof; there thou may'st rest
And tune thy jolly voice to my fresh pipe,
And all the daughters of the year shall dance!
Sing now the lusty song of fruits and flowers.

"The narrow bud opens her beauties to
The sun, and love runs in her thrilling veins;
Blossoms hang round the brows of Morning, and
Flourish down the bright cheek of modest Eve,
Til clust'ring summer breaks forth into singing
And feathered clouds strew flowers round her head.

The spirits of the air live in the smells
Of fruit; and Joy, with pinions light roves round
The gardens or sits singing in the trees."
Thus sang the jolly autumn as he sat
Then rose, girded himself, and o'er the bleak
Hills fled from our sight, but left his golden load
.


While Larkin's poem, unpublished in his lifetime and taking its first line as its title, was composed in 1961:

And now the leaves suddenly lose strength.
Decaying towers stand still, lurid, lanes-long,
And seen from landing windows, or the length
of gardens, rubricate afternoons. New strong
rain-bearing night-winds come: then
Leaves chase warm buses, speckle statued air,
Pile up in corners, fetch out vague broomed men
Through mists at morning.

And no matter where goes down
The sallow lapsing drift in fields
Or squares behind hoardings, all men hesitate
Separately, always, seeing another year gone -
Frockcoated gentleman, farmer at his gate,
Villein with mattock, soldiers on their shields,
All silent, watching the winter coming on.         
  
       
      
So from Blake, we have the freedom of fruitfulness, joy, and jolly voices, from Larkin lapse, hesitation, and decay.  The two poems read like opposing convictions, and neither is the falser for the other's authenticity.  They underline the duality of this most contradictory of seasons - heralding the end of the Georgian calendar, the commencement of the Jewish year; the exile of sun-seeking birds, and the appearance of rutting deer, ground-dwelling creatures and fungi, sprouting from trees like the colourful stuff of fairytales; the decline of much natural scenery, and the emergence of a multitude of flowers. Wild is the music of autumnal winds, wrote Wordsworth, amongst the faded woods.  It is indeed a time of wildness, as winds sweep newly leafless trees like cold fingers plucking icy harps; a time of  bounty, and of depletion, of harvests, fires and hibernations, of the farewell flights of birds seeking warmer shores and not to return until the sky's dark veils have lightened to a bluer glaze, many months from now. It is beautiful, it is painful.  It is the season when nature's powers are in manifest conjunction with Her cyclical mortality and the passing of time.





                                                    

Ice and Flowers - Bulgarian Poet Ivan Davidkov


The poetry of Ivan Davidkov, Bulgarian writer and artist, fuses balladic lyricism with philosophical and spiritual themes, and, according to Simeon Hadjikosev of Sofia University, The many images in his verse - landscape, to do with things - are built upon the principle of dematerialisation and disembodiment of the image.

The Mirror

The mirror is an abyss.  In it
images quietly sink
without our hearing a sound, without our seeing
the rippling of running waves.
There, on the bottom, lies hidden
the secret soul of our house,
where we are born, where others sometimes
lived before us.

No matter whether we cry or pray,
they won't float up again
out of the wordless depth.
And cracked by our wrinkles,
silvery like morning mist,
the mirror keeps its silence.


Davidkov was born in 1926, in the town of Zhivovtsi, in the Bulgarian region of Mihailovgrad, and is the author of many works of poetry and prose.  His translator, Czech chemist Ewald Osers, who died in 2011, was born a century ago this year, and in the preface to Davidkov's Fires of the Sunflower (Forest 1988) described Davidkov's published works as related by subject, by reflection and by memories, which combine to present a colourful picture of life in a kind of dialogue about happiness, beauty, and the meaning of human existence.  Characterized by a sense of detail, their pictorial elements are drawn from nature. It would be difficult to separate Davidkov the prose writer from Davidkov the poet.

 I'll go and see the chestnut trees in bloom
along the banks of the Berkovitsa,
their blossom-spikes like starfish on the coast of Brittany
lie, mother-of-pearl-like, on the sea-wet meadows
when winter's floods receded but its spume still gleams
among the mountain ridges.
(From Prelude and Fugue)

Osers goes on to explain how Ivan Davidkov is not only a writer but also a painter of some distinction - a fact that emerges from his diction, no matter whether he writes philosophically reflective poems, or love lyrics, or playfully aphoristic short poems suggestive of miniature paintings.

 
























Indeed, within the broader theme of a seasonal worldview, the details of natural imagery - real or imagined - pepper Davidkov's poetry with splashes of complicated colour - the suggestion of Cohen's poetry strikes me, in these lines from Prelude and Fugue:
 
I have received your letter from Babylon-
and as the lizards darted
before you over the fragments of granite and glory,
so do my eyes now dart about the roughnesses
of words.

Mirrors and reflections are prevalent:


I sought my image in the looking glass
and my glance wandered over its rim,
anxious that it should not spin off
to its yawning whirlpools.
I saw reflected there the vast blue sky,
I saw the eyes, too, that were piercing it
and birds were flitting through the slits,
I saw the golden cloudlets,
and the light was flashing from vast boundless meadows,
so clearly ready for the reaper's sickle.


as are portraits of fantastical folk, such as the unnamed artist in his threadbare scarf, whose simple lifestyle serves as an example of aestheticism:

In winter his little window was a murky patch.
And when outside he heard the blizzard raging
he'd light one sun upon his canvas
so it should warm not just his hands, but the trees.
Where had he got it from? The angry sky?
No, that  is black, an icy wind is dropping its needles.
He must have carried it hidden in his cap,
the way young boys do a fledgling sparrow
fallen from its nest.

and the tragic clown who ran at midnight to inform me that / the swallows had returned that evening, but of whom:

no-one rang at the hour when he walked
the narrow tightrope of his final breath
and when below his feet he clearly felt
not the brilliant vastness of the circus ring
but the infernal abyss in the eys of those
whom he was leaving behind.

The exchange of death and birth is one which occurs throughout Davidkov's work, and is often accentuated by the imagery of returning birds, as above and as in The Return of the Storks:



The storks arrived at early dawn
over our valley
not yet warmed by the sun.
From the purple Berkovitsa hills
the light was pouring
on their enormous flock.

The windows of the houses shone like fire.
People awoke and stepped outside
to see if they could recognize their storks.
Were they the same?
Even the telephone wires sang with joy.

This beautiful poem, almost Biblical in tone and symbolism,traces a homecoming through the eyes of both the birds:

The silver wreaths of wings
interweaving
above smiles
above poplars
above white paths -
and then two storks flew down;
they'd found their old nest.

and the villagers below, who witness the returning storks:

cap in hand
the people stood,
leaning on their ploughs,
leaning against young trees.
Until that day you'd never seen them
so radiant, so inspired.

The morning had entranced them with a magic
which lent their souls a splendour of their own.
The valley silently observed a liturgy
that no religious creed have ever known.


Avian imagery flows richly through the work of this poet highly attuned to the natural world, and also to a sense of magic.  Consider the titles of some of his books fro the 1980's: The Eyes of a Bird (1983)  The Flight of the Starlings (1987)  but also The Ruler of Nocturnal Suns.  Simeon Hadjikosev suggests that Davidkov's poetry is more magical than his paintings, and that many of his evocations recall the ghostly landscapes of the Symbolists:

The flowers of the sunflower fields are dead.
Crows are the black charcoal with which autumn draws
the portrait of the rain on barren limestone cliffs.

 

How much of Davidkov's darker poetry is reflective of the political conditions under which he lived, and how far its sombre imagery was drawn from somewhere deeper within the poet's psyche, cannot be known, but undoubtedly the strain of living under Communism must surely be a factor behind the Orwellian elements of lines like:


If you attempt to heat your house with thoughts
you'll hear the ice tinkling in your kettle.
If you attempt to light the walls with memories of sunshine
you'll see the spider's dream gently rocking
in all the corners.Clouds will walk
along the words you've written
between the blackbird's voice and the banshee's
howling over the chimney.

But at the same time, the sadness inherent in so much of Davidkov's verse seems rooted in the personal rather than political, perhaps in bereavements or the losses of relationships:

I'll make myself a Trojan horse 
from the pitch-covered planks of sunken ships,
from my grief over lost friends,
from memories of markets and of ports
which wound me with their jagged edges
like a splintered mosaic

and is sometimes cast in comic mould, with a painter's eye for satirical detail:


This then was the spring's goodbye to us?

I saw the gardener walking
among the flowering bushes, secateurs in hand.
A moment later the most beautiful rose
dropped under the merciless steel,
curly wig tumbling
like the head of Marie Antoinette
under the clank of the guillotine.

 

According to Hadjikosev, in the mature poetry of Davidkov, hovers the halo of an unconquerable nostalgia, arising from the consciousness of the brevity and unrepeatability of human life.  The poet is aware that he is drawing with frozen breath upon heavenly silk, that what is created by man is impermanent and precisely for that reason is so tragically sublime.  

That Night

That summer day sky was like a bosom of fireflies
that night when I loved you,
when we were holding hands,
and walking through the dark forest
seemed more like crossing a ford in heaven,
and underneath our feet, tottering, moved
Perseus and Andromeda - 

where now
the laundered clouds are hanging
on the line strung up by a vanished aircraft
and only the yellowed grass
gives out sweet perfume to the sky
which - or was it just a dream? -
is like a bosom full of fireflies.

The indefinable nature of love, and the deep pains of parting and distance, are articulated in poems like the beautiful If Sometimes in the Night, which, again, reminds me in its understated tenderness, of some of the early poetry of Leonard Cohen:

If sometimes in the night a late wind
awakes you and you hear my voice
like the deaf foghorn of a ship
lost in an infinity,
know then that you have not set out alone
from the bare shore of your night:
I'm looking for you
just to hear your breath-
and nothing more.

while elsewhere, Davidkov knits together the pathos of the human heart, its longings and losses, with an embrace of something Universal, a spiritual awakening which unites human love with an awareness of our place in the ecological and philosophical plane of existence.  As Hadjikosev says, Spiritual and physical, material - bodily and intellectual - continually flow together and change places in the colour-impressionistic amalgam of his poetry.  From this maybe comes the feeling of a deeply pantheistic sense of the world of the poet:

At the tormenting hour She will come to mould
our faces out of clay and out of ash.
And streams of rain will wash our eyebrows, eyes and lips -
and we'll resemble roadside stones 
or clods of earth turned over by the plough.

Ultimately, I find Davidkov a poet of joy.  There is always a hint that, whatever dark dawns might be depicted in his harsher illustrations of a closed or deathly world, other, brighter realities hover on horizon.  Whether etching the obituaries of imagined artists,  painting serene visions of the cathedral of limetrees in blossom, celebrating longed-for homecomings, or foretelling of redemption, and of new beginnings, there is an undercurrent of regrowth, love, and hope:


I've picked up all the ice-flowers
from the window - and in my vases they
now gleam like silver and peacocks' tails,
waiting for you to come. Send me
a message by a bird, by a sunray flashing
through bare-branched poplars








Many Mirrors - Romanian Poet Ana Blandiana

Some of my family were Romanian Jews, of whom records exist up until the 1930's and then evaporate.  The reasons for this are fairly obvious, and the history of the Jews in Romania is not a happy one, but of late I have begun to delve into the country's history and culture, and found much to embrace.  I am a newcomer to the poetry of Romania, but in all the anthologies and websites I have read, one name keeps resurfacing, of a poet whose work, translated by Paul Scott Derrick and Viorica Patea, impresses and affects me profoundly - Ana Blandiana.

I've never been self-sufficient, I know.
Always in the air, hanging – like a fruit from
Its tree, like an arrow from a bended bow,
Like a word from its etymology.

That sense I had, when I dreamed what I would be
Before I came to earth, altered long ago
Into hope forgotten



Ana Blandiana was born Otilia Valeria Coman, taking the name Blandiana in honour of her mother's home village, and would become a librarian at the Institute of Fine Arts in Bucharest.  The daughter of a priest and an accountant, she was a critic of her country's Communist regime, her father having been imprisoned and dying only a few days after his release.  Interviewed 14 years ago by Naomi Frandzen of Georgetown University, Washington DC for the website Lingua Romana, the poet would explain:

 Because he was a priest and because he held sermons that a lot of people came to, he was locked up on a number of occasions. My whole childhood was spent in this atmosphere. At any given moment my father was either in prison or we were waiting for him to be locked up, but our family wasn’t the only one that this happened to. It was pretty common for priests to have their bags packed and have warm clothes prepared in case he was arrested.

An apolitical poet by nature, Ana Blandiana was compelled by circumstance to focus on her position as a poet within a repressive State, and much of her work reflects the bureaucratic brutality and dehumanizing nature of her country under Communism.  The brilliant Totul lampoons the self-important paternalism of Ceausescu, the word "Totul" meaning "Everything," - a word the dictator used frequently in his speeches.  Published appropriately in 1984, Totul presents a stark inventory of everyday items and sights supposedly on offer in Communist Romanian, contrasting with the meager shabbiness of the reality.  Within hours of the poem's publication in the literary journal Amfitreatu, the edition in which it featured was withdrawn from sale under government instructions, and its editors removed from their posts.
  
 ... Leaves, words, tears
Tinned Food, Cats
Trams from time to time, queues for flour
Weevils, empty bottles, speeches
Elongated images on the television
Colorado beetles, petrol
Pennants, the European Cup
Trucks with gas cylinders, familiar portraits
Export-reject apples
Newspapers, loaves of bread
Blended oil, carnations
Receptions at the airport
Cico-cola, balloons
Bucharest salami, diet yoghurt
Gypsy women with Kents, Crevedia Eggs
Rumours
The Saturday serial, coffee substitutes
The struggle of nations for peace, choirs
Production by the hectare
Gerovital, the Victoriei Avenue Mob
The Hymn of Romania, Adidas shoes
Bulgarian stewed fruit, jokes, sea fish
Everything.


Each line has specific resonance to the contemporary situation too manifold to extrapolate on here, but despite its suppression by the Romanian authorities, translations did appear in print around the world, affording a certain underground, even cult status for the poem, including in its native land.


A more narrative driven, if surreal, exposure comes in the form of the chilling Selection, with scenes painfully reminiscent of the Holocaust:


Those who have no wings 
Bustle round the cloakroom to collect them. 
Those who do have wings 
Very carefully zip them up. 
In the present conditions 
It’s hard to know 
Who will be able to fly
 When the moment comes, 
When the earth 
Opens up 
To carry out both a tardy 
And useless selection.

While the poem Each Move depicts the poet's predicament in the context of living under a censorious regime, in Kafkaesque, Orwellian language and nightmarish visions of surveillance and self-censorship:

Each of my moves 
Is seen
Simultaneously in many mirrors,
Each look I take 
Meets with itself
Several times,
Until
I forget which is
The true one,
And who
Mocks me.
 
But Ana Blandiana's poetry was aimed against the regime in more colourful ways also, at times segueing into a rebuttal of social restrictions by celebrating natural freedom. In a 2011 piece for Mascara literary journal, Daria Florea, describes how:

Her early work and the poetry written after the 1989 revolution are characterised by nature and emotion as pure expressions of life. It resembles the youthful preoccupation with love, self discovery and romanticism in cultural desert produced by oppression and lack of freedom of speech. “Rain Chant” celebrates youth as it compares sexuality with nature:
           
I am the most beautiful woman because it’s raining

And I look good with rain’s locks in my hair. 
I am the most beautiful woman because it’s windy,
And the dress desperately struggles to cover my knees.

 

 At times, the warmth and humour veer into dry wit:

   I believe that we are a botanic nation
  Otherwise, where do we get this calmness

  In which we await the shedding of our leaves?
 (From I Believe
...and elsewhere there are flashes of self-realization, as the poet herself becomes the subject of the poem.   Commenting on the compliments she has begun to receive, the author depicts the situation as if the comments related to her attire, whereupon she confides in the reader:
...my poems aren’t my clothes,
But my bones – 
Painfully extracted 
And placed around my flesh like a shell, 
Following the example of tortoises
 That manage to survive that way
 For long and unhappy
 Centuries.


Ana Blandiana has been the recipient of many literary awards, including the Poetry Award from the Romanian Writers Union (1969), the Writers Union Award for Children’s Literature (1980), the Gottfried Von Herder Award (1982) and the Mihai Eminescu National Award for Poetry (1997), and has just won a Lifetime Recognition Award from the Griffin Trust for Excellence in Poetry - a magnificent profusion of acclaim for a writer who was officially banned from publishing by her own government for three separate periods, and who once believed that she would inevitably be outlived by Ceausescu.  Participating in the December 1989 removal of that leader, and subsequently affiliated with groups aiming to alleviate the effects of Communism in post-Ceausescu Romania, she has progressed through a literary evolution, from fearless rebel to wry commentator, to a poet whose work embodies a nation's emergence from oppression into an uncertain dawn. In her later work, there is something liberating in decay, a sense of personal progress thanks to, and against the backdrop of, ideological decline:

Old Angels

Old angels, stinking
With a rank smell in their humid feathers,In their thinning hair,Their skin peeling off in patches of psoriasis,Maps of terrifyingUnknown lands,Furrowed, scored, and scratched.Too sad to bring good news,Too thin to wield the sword of fire,They sink half-asleep into the earth,Like seeds being plantedIn the rheumatic joints of wings,Deeper and deeper in the ground,
Older and older, more and more human . . . 

...and at times purely transcendent:


I Glide, I Glide

I am the first of men to grow old
Beneath these burning skies.

 Alone I discover, 
With no one here to help me, 
The tremendous surprise 
Of a body that is mine  
But is being left behind, 
Like a devastated shore, 
While I glide 
On, glide on above the waves 
Until I see myself no more.




But I also detect a sense of personal loss in the poetry of Ana Blandiana, and of the timeless disconnection prevalent among poets or artistic people, perhaps at times of uncertainty or of not fully understanding the freedoms we enjoy for the brief times that we enjoy them, a feeling of confusion or of alienation, the loneliness which only increases in proportion to the numbers of people with whom one finds ones self, a sense of not belonging in a society one does not understand, with which I can myself identify, and which I suspect carries a great resonance for many other people.

A Young Horse 

I’ve never figured out what world I live in.
I rode on a horse as young and as happy as I.

 When he galloped I could feel his heartbeat 
Against my thighs 
And my heart pounded, unquenchable, with the speed. 
Everything flashing by, I didn’t even notice  
That my saddle was resting 
On the bones of a horse 
That was rapidly falling to pieces on the trailAnd that I was still riding 
On a young horse made of air 
In a century that wasn’t my own anymore.
 


Monday, 13 November 2017

Night at Daybreak - Alice Meynell

JS Sargent










Walking home form the Cenotaph at Crow Wood Park yesterday, I thought of the War Poets, and some of the lesser known poets of the period also came to mind. At home, I leafed through an anthology of First World War poetry, and was reminded of Alice Meynell (1847 - 1922), whose Summer in England, 1914, depicts with a chillingly deceptive calmness the last days of a fading innocence:



On London fell a clearer light;
Caressing pencils of the sun
Defined the distances, the white
Houses transfigured one by one,
The 'long, unlovely street' impearled.
O what a sky has walked the world!


In the second stanza, the poet's gaze is drawn from urban calm to a rural scene woven with pastoral motifs, evoking images of another England, in language reminiscent of Herrick, Crabbe, or even Clare:

Most happy year! And out of town
The hay was prosperous, and the wheat;
The silken harvest climbed the down:
Moon after moon was heavenly-sweet,
Stroking the bread within the sheaves,
Looking 'twixt apples and their leaves.


Before contrasting this prelapsarian serenity with the horrors of a war gradually unfolding:


And while this rose made round her cup,
The armies died convulsed. And when
This chaste young silver sun went up
Softly, a thousand shattered men,
One wet corruption, heaped the plain,
After a league-long throb of pain.


Alice Meynell, born to wealthy parents in Barnes, South London, and brought up in various countries around Europe, is one of those poets I turn to only occasionally, and even then only to tease out rare exceptions to her rhyme-bound rules.  In keeping with much poetry of its period, her pre-WW1 works in particular always strike me as conventional and unexciting, and mainly serve as a vehicle for her Catholic faith.  But, as in Summer in England, the poet was also capable of an elegant use of contrasts, and a great skill for personification, such as when she has the Moon address the Sun, the Day to the Night, or even A Letter from a Girl to her own old Age:

Only one youth, and the bright life was shrouded.
Only one morning, and the day was clouded.
And one old age with all regrets is crowded.
O hush, O hush! Thy tears my words are steeping.
O hush, hush, hush! So full, the fount of weeping?
Poor eyes, so quickly moved, so near to sleeping?
Pardon the girl; such strange desires beset her.
Poor woman, lay aside the mournful letter
That breaks thy heart; the one who wrote, forget her:

The rhymes could sometimes be ironic, or ingenious - to twin smog-spouting British factories with Mediterranean skies, as in the following lines in praise of a clear English breeze, is little short of sarcasm:

Unsmirched incredibly and clean,
   Between the towns and factories,
Avoiding, has his long flight been,
   Bringing a sky like Sicily’s


 As a poet of contrasts and unlikely evocations, Alice Meynell deserves renewed recognition.  She is also highly deserving of praise for her uncanny ability to draw out the lesser noticed, and her occupation of the shadows between things:


Darkness and solitude shine, for me.
   For life’s fair outward part are rife
The silver noises; let them be.
   It is the very soul of life
Listens for thee, listens for thee.
O pause between the sobs of cares;
   O thought within all thought that is;
Trance between laughters unawares:
   Thou art the shape of melodies,
And thou the ecstasy of prayers
!

Marrying the publisher Wilfred Meynell, the poet became an outspoken opponent of Colonial oppression, and a champion of suffrage and progressive causes.  The Meynells'  if not bohemian, then certainly liberal, household at 47 Palace Court, Bayswater, was a hub of artistic activity.  Alice's daughter, poet and novelist Viola Meynell, was an early promoter of DH Lawrence, and the family were friends and supporters of the tragic English poet Francis Thompson.  Her mother died on November 27th, 1922, and is buried at Kensall Rise Cemetery.  She remains an important English voice of the inter-war period, and is a writer I turn to at rare but salient moments of reflection - as much for the refreshing honesty and unapologetic nihilism which creep their way into her poetry as for her poems' ornateness, qualities which seem painfully resonant with the social and political morbidity coming to characterize our own time.

Song of the Night at Daybreak
All my stars forsake me.
And the dawn-winds shake me.
Where shall I betake me?
Whither shall I run
Till the set of sun,
Till the day be done?
To the mountain-mine,
To the boughs o’ the pine,
To the blind man’s eyne,
To a brow that is
Bowed upon the knees,
Sick with memories?