Tuesday, 12 June 2018

Small Moons Glowing - Deer in Mythology and Poetry

Originally published Janaury 2014, on Ryburn Ramblings.

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




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

In The White Doe of Rylstone, Wordsworth relates how:

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


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


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

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


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

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


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

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

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

The poor Hart toils along the mountain-side;

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As the unnamed narrator insists

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



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

The quiet opening
between fence strands
perhaps eighteen inches.

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

No tuft of the coarse white belly hair left behind.

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


Not of the deer—

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


(The Supple Deer)

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

(Deer Hit)




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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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





Sticky Pearls - Earthworms in Ecology and Poetry

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

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



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

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

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

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

The mask increases, eats the worm…

worms in the glottal stops.

In the poem, death is mentioned three times.

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


CONSIDERING THE EARTHWORM

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

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

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

NIGHTCRAWLER

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

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

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

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


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







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



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

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


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



Worm photograph: Ann Brundinge


Diluting the Darkness - Poetry of Alice Taylor



















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

Uprooted

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

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


Shawls of Silence

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

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


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

(From Storing Summer)

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

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

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

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

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


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

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



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

Tuesday, 29 May 2018

Mytholmroyd Tree, by Suzi Szabó



 
















Suzie Szabó is a Calder Valley poet whose writing I first discovered at the Fox and Goose poetry night, Pencilvania, in Hebden Bridge, last year.  She says, "I write a lot of nature poetry. I'm thinking of making a collection of nature inspired poems along with photographs of weird and wonderful trees." The following is Suzie's poem, Mytholmroyd Tree, inspired by a tree on the way out of the town. It is a tree which, judging by its apparent age, would no doubt have been there in Ted Hughes' day.  He didn't write any poems about it, though, so thank goodness we have Suzie's with which to celebrate its strangely distinctive, quiet beauty.


Mytholmroyd tree


I have long since admired

your bare beauty

Naked and proud

unlike the others

huddling together

for comfort


You stand alone

Unafraid

With apparent death mask

of unequalled beauty

An almost white against the blue

is how I most enjoy your company


If you could talk

what would you say?


Keep writing,   
the roots are still alive!



Wednesday, 9 May 2018

Wild Geese

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

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


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

 

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

 

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

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

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


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


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








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


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

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


Wild Geese, by Mary Oliver

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















Saturday, 5 May 2018

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

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


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


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
















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

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


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

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

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


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



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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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



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

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

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



 CLOUD ON BLACK COMBE

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

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

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

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

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

What the wind blows away
The wind blows back again.















Saturday, 28 April 2018

Raising a Smile - Keith Hutson's "Troupers"

Some of my fondest memories of my dad are of the stories he would tell about old-time comic and Music Hall turns who, back in the days of Vaudeville and variety, would "tread the boards" up and down the country, from the West End to the theatres of provincial seaside towns.  One-line gag specialists, oddball virtuosos, contortionists, clowns, some of them famously terrible, others who would go on to become household names.  Some he had seen, some he had met, many he had simply heard about, as the routines of these heroes and heroines of the stage became the stuff of legend. A galaxy of stars like Jimmy Clitheroe, Frankie Howerd, Hylda Baker - all three of whom are celebrated in Keith Hutson's latest collection Troupers (Smith/Doorstep 2018), his second foray into the wonderful world of Music Hall and more.


Like the funniest of men, he had that look: begins the opening poem, Revival, chosen as a Poem of the Week by Yorkshire Times, bad health crossed with indestructibility. Right away, then, we know that we are in the reading presence of somebody who has seen it all - observed the best in the business and knows by instinct who and what to watch out for.  Indeed, Keith Hutson has a rich and varied background in the world of performance and comedy, having worked not only as a script writer for Coronation Street,  but also as a joke writer for many famous comics, including Les Dawson.  The book is actually prefaced with a joke from Dawson:

We were so poor, my dad couldn't afford homing pigeons
- he had a budgie on elastic. 

The poet's professional history is brought to the fore in the poem Street Cred, in memory of Coronation Street creator Tony Warren, who died in 2016.  We read of how the scriptwriter's first ventures into television met with little acclaim:

Future? Fallow at first. Children's Hour, a script
for Biggles and, expelled from acting class,
a spot of choreography in strip
cubs - hardly Moulin Rouge, but ready cash.   

but of how, Later, sleeping on a slow train home from / Thanks, but no in London, you awoke - and how!  I'll write about Florizel Street!

And so, the street's name inspired by a painting featuring the mythical Prince Florizel, reflecting on his own youth in the Salford town of Pendelbury, the lippy, witty, out-and-proud before / it was allowed Warren drew on his past to create character chiselled from the wartime tough backstreets in which he had grown up:

Mams, aunties, grans, the famin' neighbours - 
warriors with nowt, who'd never ration
what they were: gossip, stoic, glamour puss;

grafter, scrubber, put-upon.

We learn how Warren was dissuaded by a a tv tea lady from his original choice of name, and so Florizel (Sounds like a disinfectant, son) became Coronation Street, and history was made.

 

There is room, in this vividly biographical poem, for some mentions of actual Corrie characters, as Warren begins to take / those matriarchs and make them Elsie, Ena, / Annie ...


and also:

Ken?  Wrong gender, kid, but maybe
he was you: bright boy, back-alley dreamer.
Light of Manchester.



But another strength in this collection stems, as with its author's debut effort on the same subject, Routines (Poetry Salzburg 2017), from more than a professional interest or insider observation. It stems from the love of a genuine fan of comedy and its performers, from the wide-eyed joy of Beyond Belief (i.m. Sid Field 1904-50):

He talked a goood trapeze act - in his tights,
hands white with chalk - the best we never saw:
I might even change my mind, mid-air!
Sid had us gazing at those dizzy heights,
and he was there, all swing and sweep, above us,
never mind he hadn't even climbed
the pole, set foot inside a circus
or off terra-firma, ever.

- to the wide-eared innocence of The Call of the Wild, which commemorates animal impersonator Percy Edwards, and the radio shows, films and records in which he carried off the voices of dogs, pigs and lions - or the gentler example of this lovely memory:


I recall his coos, plump as a dove's,
on David Nixon's Magic Box; and um's LP
played as she helped me shepherd plastic sheep
across the rug.

Elsewhere, the human voice and the powers of impersonation are again revered, as the talents of Ephraim Barraclough (1853-1906) are described:

Tell him three traits, and he'd impersonate 
your dad.  This chip off everyone's old block
possessed, let's say, a patriarchal knack
to take a parent's essence, flesh it out
- the full Monty, Tom, Albert, Harry, Dick.

The emotional power of this act is hinted at, as:

offspring whose hurt returned took flight in tears;
beloveds got a flash of hero back.
 ...and in the bizarre The Man With The Xylophone Skull, we are presented with a prematurely bald headmaster who, in the early 20th Century, could play music by hitting his head with a brass handle.  This improbable routine is not recommended - for as the poem recounts, the unfortunate musician went on tour, / six years - concussion, mild first, getting worse, till / memory went with his pension

But perhaps it is mainly, then, in the area of sound, of artistes as famous for their vocal skills and words as their physical stage presences, that Troupers most differs from its predecessor.  Certainly, this book follows on from Routines in the generality of its subject matter, and the quality of the writing is on a par with that fantastic tribute to the stars of yesteryear, but Troupers is a noisier affair - from the the mournful music of radio show Sing Something Simple:

Sunday afternoons gave up the ghost
to this: a lone accordion
held little comfort as the theme tune
faded into half an hour of shadow

and Songs of Praise:

the tender preface could have been
Why not lie back
and ponder ways to end
it all without alarming others.

to the beauty of brass bands - Seconds into Sailing I'm in tears.  This poem, one of Hutson's finest, is simply entitled Brass Band, and I remember him delivering it at readings to an almost reverential atmosphere:


Two bars, as a rule, before
the waters break and all my sorrows
drown into church hall, 
assembly room.  

I don't care, he explains, if you hit me with The Stripper or Hey Jude / who else takes air to make compassion / hospitals have targets for?

The poem, for one defined by its championing of sound, has a wonderfully visual quality, as the author recalls the many places he has watched brass bands:

I've seen you seated, standing, on the march:
in junior schools fresh and lamentable;
as engineers all male and overweight; Welsh Asians
adding spice to Bread of Heaven - and always
I'm delivered back, a boy of four, found on the prom
in Bridlington

Elsewhere, it is not so much sound as its opposite that is greeted with awe.  In The World's Greatest Whistler (i.m. Ronnie Ronalde 1923-2015) we read of how:

this man sent shivers down 
Sinatra's spine. Marilyn Monroe
spoke of a state of grace.

while the majestic Here's Looking At You pays homage to an artist I had never heard of, Alice Wolfenden (1861-1913) who, in her silent stage routines, could: 

distil a lifetime's liveliness - 
the ducks and dives, embraces, feints; compress
every advance, retreat, escape,into
one concentrated stare directed through
the theatre's gloom

Completely still, she'd throw
her gaze across the footlights. Those who 
held it were transported - felt again
all that had lifted, stirred or broken them.

Similarly, the story of Hylda Baker (1905-86) is recorded, in Hylda, where the fortunes of this Lancashire lass are compared and contrasted with those of many of her mill-working contemporaries:


Nine was the age when the likes of her learnt
how to lip-read at the mill;
to flap their silent mouths in turn. 

But Hylda found her voice inside this act,
talent that kept her in pink gins for years

We read of her troubled personal life, her struggles with drink, and her lonely death, in a poem woven with wordplay and associations, a fitting tribute to a complex, brilliant, sad figure.



 Troupers certainly addresses the darker, bleaker side of the performing life. The hardships, the knock-backs, the failures. Romantic only in its unabashed adulation for the stalwarts of the stage, it paints a picture of survival rather than glamour, of trials more than thrills and spills.  Even the well loved, if unlikely, Macauley's Leaping Infants, who graced the stage between 1856 and 1866, are depicted as a troupe who struggled to make ends meet.  Devised by Lance Corporal Macauley - Alive, but both legs left at Balaclava - this acrobatic company were recruited by virtue of infirmity:

His plan 
was martial: muster local urchins lame
from twisted, short or withered limb, club foot,
rickets 

as the battle-scarred Lance Corporal, determined to avoid starvation or the penury of begging, took his infant retinue, like Fagin with his squadron of street kids, on the road:


The Times claimed it could never last,
yet England's Most Unlikely Acrobats
toured ten years without praise: laughter, instead,
kept both Macauley and his army fed.

Less successful is the pantomime dame depicted in Widow Twankey a profoundly funny, painful poem, perfectly evoking an image of the down-at-heel has-been, hungover mornings on the promenades of decaying coastal towns, and of pathetic, faded glory:


Daybreak kills the lights along the pier.
Mist at the deep end lifts
and there the Playhouse hangs - that wreck
where last night was the deadest yet: a dozen
plus a seagull on the follow-spot
that took a dislike to his wig,
drawing blood for a finale.

The poem reads almost like a story, as Hutson brings into focus the inward despair of the defeated performer, the blunt brutality of matter-of-fact authority, and the harsh reality of thwarted ambition:


Sea weeps into the dame-shaped crater
made when he lost consciousness,
sometimes after they'd paid him off
and said they'll not be wanting him next winter
'cos you're shit, love.  Had he thought it might be time
to hang his frock up? B&Q take people on
who haven't got a pension.

 

As a counterweight, consider the example of JD Plummer (1846-1901), whose one-man success story came about entirely by accident, and serves as a triumphant riposte to misfortune, and an inspirational example to any of us - within or without performance and the Arts - what can be done / by one who stands, delivers, falls, alone.

The poem's explosive opening asks

Do your colleagues call you a control freak?
Fuck 'em.  

and proceeds to detail how:
 
Abandoned on the first night
by his cast, JD played every character
himself: Dick Turpin, victims, inkeeper
and black-eyed daughter Bess Dick's worn-out horse
also called Bess, and black (this did cause 
confusion), Tom the Ostler who betrayed them,
weeping Widow Shelley, Tyburn hangman.

 It is a fabulous, stirring story, told in the rhythmic musicality of Hutson's typically tight-packed stanzas, which reminds me of one of the first shows I ever saw, taken by my father at the age of six to watch not a one-man but a one-woman performance of Jack and the Beanstalk, delivered in a church hall in suburban Leeds, but magical in it transportation to another reality.  The dogged persistence of Plummer, his absolute refusal to admit defeat, is a perfect testament to that tenacity and fortitude that typifies so much of the theatrical spirit.  It is a spirit evoked beautifully in the poem I quoted from at the start of this piece, Revival, whose heroic protagonist, having weathered several heart attacks, assures us that Treading boards is my best exercise! , a personification of "the show must go on."  The poem is a loving, respectful, unsentimental ode, to a particular time in British cultural history, a class of person, and a way of life:

And people like him, whose fathers

died in harness, whose mothers bore silent,
determined lives, they never bow out barely used.
One way or another they sweat buckets,
under stress, and make that state hilarious.

That's why we wet ourselves when they collapse
at the Palladium.  And why its only right
to raise another smile, to bring them back.

And this is exactly what Keith Hutson has done with this memorable book. He has brought back to life a cast of characters whose unusual, crazy ways of making a living have seen them play a part, however minor or major, in the tapestry of theatre, comedy and music, brightened up dark wartime years, and cheered up a nation.  And with his wry, tenderly comedic, acutely human poetry, Keith has pulled off the same kind of effect. I came across his book when I badly needed a lift in spirits. And I'm very glad I did so.  Because it raised a smile.



By Troupers: http://www.poetrybusiness.co.uk/shop/966/hutson-troupers