Tuesday, 29 November 2016

Travelling Light: Remembering Leonard Cohen

Shortly after eight on a raw November morning, I arrive in the West Yorkshire town of Morley, trudge the frost-veiled park, along a roadside quilted in the crinkled ochre of fallen leaves, joined as usual by my friend Mario, a Romanian barber who commutes on the same train and who cuts hair, sometimes mine, in a salon behind my workplace. He shows me photos of his family on his mobile.  We laugh about our mutual need for hot strong coffee on this bone-chillingly cold autumnal morning, and when we part at the cross-roads, it is to the welcoming confines of the Oxford Coffee Club that I am bound. 
The walls are brightened by art, including one painting of multi-coloured splodges entitled "Hebden Bridge."  Hebden being not far from where I live, it is easy to feel quite at home.  The owner, also called Simon, greets me with his usual friendliness.  As I sit awaiting my coffee, we banter about football - he relaying facts and figures, me pretending to comprehend, when in reality, my footballing knowledge extends little further than who won and who lost.  Naturally, this does not matter. The point of friendly conversation of this kind is never to initiate complex discussion or debate - only to jog each other along, to have a laugh, to each play our part in helping the other to commence this Friday morning as harmlessly as possible.  After a few mouthfuls of piping coffee, I am ready for the day, feeling that whatever may be happening globally, the word is still turning and I am okay, wishing only as I glance up at the clock that a few extra minutes might remain before I need to head back out into the cold.  Focused on his mobile, a frowning Simon has gone unusually quiet, and the scrolling motion of his thumb makes clear that he is logged into Twitter or some other website of its kind.  He looks up and asks, almost apologetically, "Were you a fan of Leonard Cohen?"

It is the past tense of his question that hits me, and my expression must convey the answer, because his in response conveys sympathy.  And so another guest has joined the Sergeant Pepper pageant of Absent Friends which has swelled beyond the realms of decency throughout 2016, and this one is too much to take.  The fact that he has died at the not-young age of 82 is of course irrelevant to the instinctive pangs of grief which accompany the news of any loss.  For Cohen to die at this bitter end of a difficult and rather tragic year, seems the final straw.   Simon apologizes for being the bearer of bad news, and I feel like a part of me has also died, as we sit there in the café with the traffic pootling past the window and my coffee slowly going cold.

How does one answer such a question as "Were you a fan of Leonard Cohen?" How to condense the decades of esteem, respect, affection, love, with a simple affirmation?  Shall I plunge into the balm of treasured memories, wax lyrical and pour out tributes to the magic of the lyrics, the understated beauty of the voice, the majestic looks and impossible-to-fake sophistication?  Should I talk of my ecstasy at seeing him in concert?  Ought I to try and appear clever by speaking of his novels? 
Perhaps I should talk about my introduction to the work of Leonard Cohen - a slow, staggered, gradual path that began in the days before youtube, when you simply had to save up and buy one or two records every few months, ask for them for Christmas or strike on them in charity shops.

I first read about Leonard Cohen in 1994, in a magazine interview with his ex-partner Rebecca de Mornay.  The photograph of Cohen, immaculate in an almost-silver suit, immediately entranced me, although it was a full three years before I got round to listening to his music.  What can I say?  We were more patient in those days.  My eventual discovery of a worn and dusty Songs of Leonard Cohen LP, upstairs in a junk shop overflowing with oak furniture and kitchen utensils, was like stumbling on a diamond in the desert, only far more valuable.

It has often seemed to me that my fascination with Cohen lies fundamentally in his enigmatic persona, and the way in which everything about him, despite his Jewishness, has always seemed far removed from anything I have experienced, seen or known.  As a nervous and naïve teenager, I would gaze at his world-weary image, like that of a veteran of Decadence, and wonder precisely what kind of a life such a person must have had.  I would look into his eyes on the cover of Death of a Lady's Man and know he embodied a Byronic heroism to which I could never aspire; I would read of his periodic retreats from the blitz and glitz of cocaine-coloured hedonism to the sanctuary of Greek islands, or mountain monasticism above Los Angeles, and know that all of these things were emblematic of a lifestyle utterly different to my own. Of course, like all great songwriters, Cohen does sometimes make the listener feel that he is singing about them. When, in the summer between art college and University, I listened to him retell how Like a bird on a wire / Like a drunk, in a midnight choir / I have tried, in my way, to be free, I felt - as millions of others have - that he was simultaneously soliloquizing my own inner yearnings and articulating an exoticism far beyond my reach.  And I lean from my window sill in this old hotel I chose, crooned Cohen in 1968,
Yes one hand on my suicide, one hand on the rose.  He is a poet whose visions defy classification, whose words gleam a delicate hairsbreadth between tragedy and beauty.

Maybe I should answer this impossible but wonderfully inviting question with a nod to the nights of that long summer spent in the purple attic room of an artist friend called Anna, where anything from two or three to a dozen of us would converge on Indian rugs amid a swirling haze of tobacco, dope and incense, and where the older, rumbling voice of the middle-aged Cohen - live in concert - would tumble from the speakers like that of a stoned Barry White.   Or to another group of friends with whom I sat, drowsy in the bliss of wine, at the close of summer, deep in the green lilac park, Cohen's melodies blooming in my mind, all of us - English, Italian, Israeli, German - watching a dreamy August twilight slowly fade into the ebony of night, somehow knowing that these days of innocence would never come again.  The end of the Twentieth Century - what a time to be almost young.

Perhaps, as I reflect on the bittersweet, and sometimes sweetly bitter, influence of Leonard Cohen's presence in my life, I should dwell on the drizzled days of the fading Twentieth Century, when, struggling with the pressures of University life, I would traipse the terraced streets of Huddersfield in the autumn of 1999, going to the station to meet every train and repairing to a room which could almost have been Cohen's in Tonight Will Be Fine, were it not for the fact that not even a solitary prayer adorned my cell-like walls, listening to his sorrowful yet soul-warming psalms of Calvary and Cadillacs, gypsy thieves and thin green candles, Eskimos, saints and jealousy.

I was wandering wet and depressed through Huddersfield - a town I now love but which in 1999 I had only just met and had yet to get to know - and, taking shelter from a particularly torrential downpour, locked myself on a library shelf and was happy to hibernate within its sanctuary of books.  The town's 1930's library became my refuge from the noisy vulgarity of University, where I devoured books of almost every kind: taking myself there when I should have been at lectures, my illicit afternoon binge-reading was a fine education.  The music section overflowed with treasures, and I well remember returning for a visit home in Leeds with a clutch of Leonard Cohen albums, only to be discouraged from listening to them by my father.  Having through the years acknowledged my enthusiasm with detached lukewarmth, he had by now grown wary.  Fearing the music would push me deeper into a depression whose persistence and heaviness was becoming cause for considerable concern, my father urged me, almost pleaded with me, virtually forbade me, from indulging this obsession.  "He's extremely dark - he sings about graves and death," my father would insist.  "Its the last thing you need."  And yet it would be my father, nearly fifteen years later and after several failed attempts at embracing Cohen's music, who would present me with a ticket to see the great man live - on a warm September night in 2013.

In a crumpled suit, tipping his hat and beaming a boyish smile, the 79-year old had looked somehow fragile, and vulnerable, and a feeling of total love welled in me as he launched into the opening song: Dance Me To The End of Love.  The lyrics - Raise a tent of shelter now, though every thread is torn - could recall a love song from the time of the Exodus, and are actually inspired - for want of a better word - by the Holocaust.   When Cohen sings, Dance me to your beauty with a burning violin, his lines describe a real historical scenario -  musicians forced to play in the shadows of the crematoria: "(they were) pressed into performance while this horror was going on, those  people whose fate was this horror also. (The music became) the consummation of life, the end of this existence and of the passionate element in that consummation.

It is at this point, having seen how Cohen's lyrics have at times been drawn from Jewish history, that I should like to turn to the confluence of his lyrics with the heritage of Jewish poetry - the most obvious example being the 1974 song Who By Fire.

And who by fire, who by water,
Who in the sunshine, who in the night time,
Who by high ordeal, who by common trial,
Who in your merry merry month of may,
Who by very slow decay,
And who shall I say is calling?

Who By Fire is an adaptation of the 8th Century Unataneh Tokef prayer, recited in Ashkenazi synagogues at Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and in an essay for Mosaic magazine, Hebden Bridge-based poet Atar Hadari ascribes to it a touch of English Silver Age poetry with the allusion to Thomas Dekker’s “merry month of May,” and, at least when Cohen sings it, I find that words like “barbiturate” and “something blunt” and oppositions like “greed” and “hunger” have a biblical force to them. And it does also capture a sense of him as a boy in a synagogue in Montreal, listening to that prayer being recited.  That early autumn night, the songwriter stood downstage-left, hands cupped around the microphone in a penitent, imploring way, as this thousand-year-old song crept, then swept, upon us, it felt as though he were asking the questions for the very first time - yet asking on behalf of every generation past and future, posing the unanswerable to the unfathomable.

If Leonard Cohen's songwriting has been influenced by the poetry of antiquity, his actual poetry has also often drawn from historical example, and from the Classical and Biblical world.  As if to suggest this thematic territory, his debut publication is entitled Let Us Compare Mythologies, and begins with The Song of the Hellenist:

O Cities of the Decapolis across the Jordan,
you are too great; our young men love you,
and men in high places have caused gymnasiums
to be built in Jerusalem.
         I tell you, my people, the statues are too tall.
        Beside them we are small and ugly,
        blemishes on the pedestal.

The story of my love affair with the work of Leonard Cohen could well revolve as much around his poetry - and this chapter of my story begins in the early days of 2003 when I returned North from the oblivion of London - where I would walk the moonlit, tangled tapestries of East End streets and spend my evenings among the drunk and dispossessed, returning to my frostbitten flat to listen to his records while I overlooked the overcrowded sink estates and rotting blocks of flats.  Back in Yorkshire, picking up the pieces of my life, I dragged myself one doomy dark-skied evening up the sleety cobbles of a Bradford street, stumbling into the inviting clutter of a charity shop, crammed with cardboard boxes.  I picked my way through the hundreds of books, and among them found the slim back and white volume which lies open before me as I write: Leonard Cohen: Poems 1956 - 1968.  Over the years I would pore through it, consult it, read it backwards, reveling in the reverence, irreverence, the sex and violence, the Zepellins and insect suicides, horses' manes and waterfalls.  Sometimes I understood what I was reading, often not - and like some labyrinthine kaleidoscope of contrasted but interconnected images, the whole body of Cohen's poetry, with its provocative blend of the poignant and the picaresque, its cast of eccentric characters from Galileo to Nijinsky, has woven its self in and out of focus in my life, bewildering and delighting with equal emotional power.

The poems seem to strike surrealist poses which mask avalanches of anger or of pain:

The Flowers that I left in the ground,
that I did not gather for you,
today I bring them all back,
to let them grow forever,
not in poems or marble,
but where they fell and rotted.

 Yet elsewhere:

The reason I write
is to make something 
as beautiful as you are. 

The poetry of Leonard Cohen trembles with love, but it is so often a love built on fragility and insecurity:

May soft birds
soft as a story to her eyes
protect her face
from my enemies
and vicious birds
whose sharp wings
were forged in metal oceans
guard her room
from my assassins 

You do not have to love me
just because
you are all the women
I have ever wanted
I was born to follow you
every night
while I am still
the many men who love you
 ("You Do Not Have to Love Me")

And in poems like Saint Catherine Street, Poem and Warning, the nightmare visions of lost love form a fittingly grim backdrop for Cohen's wry brand of Jewish humour.  In Ballad (1956), an atmosphere of film-noirish Hollywood is conjured up in the grotesque parody of a murder investigation - the victim being the narrator's own beloved:

They promised me an early conviction.
We will eavesdrop on the adolescents
examining pocket-book covers in drugstores.
We will note the broadest smiles at torture scenes in movie houses.
We will watch the old men in Dominion Square follow with their eyes
the secretaries from the Sun Life at five-thirty...

Love its self is often underpinned by uncertainty and violence - in The Genius, we find the poet traversing every known Jewish stereotype in his bid to satisfy; in The Lovers, the eponymous couple consummate their relations in a death-camp.  And yet, as poet rather than politician, Cohen is able to tell us - more reassuringly than any ideologue: Whatever cities are brought down, I will always bring you poems.  And indeed he did.  The poems of Leonard Cohen, although coloured greatly by blood and war, are also at times deeply beautiful, nowhere more so than when he writes about women:

Like ages of weightless snow
on tiny oceans filled with light
her eyelids enclose deeply
a shade tree of birthday candles
one for every morning
until the now of sleeping 

Titles such as Disguises depict the world-as-stage predicament of the wandering bard ("wandering Jew"?) while poems with names like My Teacher is Dying, One of the Nights I Didn't Kill Myself ,The Only Tourist in Havana Turns His Thoughts Homeward and even All There Is To Know About Adolph Eichmann certainly do nothing to negate the "depressing" reputation of "The Godfather of Gloom", but also emphasize the tirelessly exploratory life which gave rise to these unusual, deeply moving works.  His is a poetry borne of uncertainties and questions of identity and purpose, of self-reflection steeped in history:

Claim me, blood, if you have a story
to tell with my Jewish face,
you are strong and holy still, only
speak, like a Zohar, of a carved-out place
into which I must pour myself like wine

It is a poetry which defies, at times even ridicules, the political:

Each man has a way
to betray 
the revolution.
This is mine 

And it is at times deliciously self-deprecating: in a recent poem, Cohen actually delivers a raft of quasi-heretical denials reminiscent of Gilbert and Sullivan's Am I Alone, and Unobserved?

I Have Not Lingered In European Monasteries
and discovered among the tall grasses tombs of knights
who fell as beautifully as their ballads tell;
I have not parted the grasses
or purposefully left them thatched.

I have not held my breath
so that I might hear the breathing of God
or tamed my heartbeat with an exercise,
or starved for visions.
Although I have watched him often
I have not become the heron,
leaving my body on the shore,
and I have not become the luminous trout,
leaving my body in the air.

I have not worshipped wounds and relics,
or combs of iron,
or bodies wrapped and burnt in scrolls.

I have not been unhappy for ten thousands years.
During the day I laugh and during the night I sleep.


It is a poetry which travels from Montreal to New York, Jerusalem to Ancient Greece, from the hordes of Mongolia to Miami Beach, reflecting the same internationalism as his music which would, long before the genre of "World Music" had been invented by journalists and HMV, bring together performers (and fans) from every corner of the globe, and continues to do so.  For all of its supposed cult value, there is something for everyone among the multi-layered totality of Leonard Cohen's work: when, in 2009, his arguably most famous song Hallelujah was covered on The X-Factor by Alexandra Burke, I refused then and refuse now to be cowed by the choruses of sanctimonious cynics who despaired at this "commercialization". I feel that she spectacularly captured its Gospel-inspired essence more beautifully than any of the Cohen copyists of the preceding twenty years.

Cohen's own latest offerings have again encompassed diverse styes and settings, and many have suggested that his final album, You Want it Darker was a conscious valediction.  I believe it is too early to make an assessment of this kind, and my personal interpretations of so much of Leonard's output have often taken years to assume concretion.  What seems to be indisputable, though, is the impact of our current global turbulence on the themes and lyrics.  From the telling title, to the faux nonchalance of Traveling Light, the sense of a pared-down sparsity is both bleak and elegaic:

I'm traveling light
Its au revoir
My once so bright
My fallen star.

While Leaving The Table may evince a sort of Learian liberation from the rigors of the system, the overwhelming sense is one of  honest realism. Some of the lyrics make painful listening, rueful laments which might be echoed by many of us who have made decisions we regret:

It seemed the better way
When first I heard him speak 
But now its much too late
To turn the other cheek

Sounded like the truth
Seemed the better way 
Sounded like the truth 
But its not the truth today 

The late writing of Leonard Cohen may embody an enormity of worldly disorder and despair, as amid bloody hills and devils, They whisper still, the Ancient stones / The blunted mountains weep, but there is, in language framed uncannily in the terms of both current international politics and Biblical Universality, a definite and unshakeable search for unity: 

I wish there was a treaty we could sign
Its over now, the water and the wine

I wish there was a treaty
Between your love and mine. 

During times of upheaval, the poetry, prose and music of Leonard Cohen have been constants in my life,  as I know they have for millions of others.  So rich and multi-faceted is his galaxy of words that my love of his work will only increase as every song or poem reveals further wonder and beauty on each revisiting. 

When I saw Leonard Cohen in 2013, the performance was theatrical and joyful: a band comprised of musicians and instruments from all over the world, The Webb Sisters backing him, and a glow of life-affirming vitality beaming from the stage.  Leaving the venue, as I threaded through the Saturday night streets of Leeds, I passed battalions of men and women amid their nights on the town, waving bottles in the air or yelling at each other from club doorways, noticing just how angry, aggressive and unhappy almost everybody seemed.  What a contrast to the buoyant euphoria I had left behind, but on whose wave I would ride all the journey home.  In these dark times of division and despair, it is to Cohen I so often turn, not to affirm my belief in any ideology or dogma, but to escape the chaos of a world I sometimes fear I no longer recognize.  It is to his words and familiar voice I have so often listened "through the nights of wild despair," and I know that as the terrain of an uncertain future unfolds, he will continue to be with me, like a friend, as I wait for the light to get in.

So yes is my answer, naturally. Yes I was - and forever shall be - a fan of Leonard Cohen. 

Monday, 31 October 2016

Tonight's poetry launch at The Blue Teapot: The Calder Valley Codex, by Steve Nash

Join us at The Blue Teapot, Mytholmroyd, for poetry by Steve Nash, whose new collection The Calder Valley Codex I am proud to be publishing.  Sadly Helen Mort cannot appear as advertised, but we have a stellar line up comprising Steve, Genevieve Walsh (also hosting) and Alan Wrigley - with a few poems from me as well, including from the Codex. With beautiful art work by York-based artist Nicole Sky, The Calder Valley Codex is a kaleidoscope of myth and folklore, crafted into poetry by the expert hand of 2014 Saboteur Award Winner for Best Spoken Word Performer, Steve Nash.7-9PM, The Blue Teapot, Mytholmroyd, HX7 5LL.

Wednesday, 8 June 2016

Fallen Stars - The Poetry of Dandelions

Scorned as a weed and resented by many gardeners for their invasive habit and deep taproots, almost impossible to eradicate from the well-trimmed, sensible garden, dandelions - whose leaves were once prized for their medicinal benefits - today are much-maligned, but in my opinion unjustly so, for the flowers that English poet John Clare (1793 - 1864) described as fallen stars in a sea of grass are beautiful and interesting, have a long, varied history - and have had a not inconsiderable impact on poetry.

Forth from its sunny nook of shelter'd grass, states the great 19th Century American poet Walt Whitman, innocent, golden, calm as the dawn, / The spring's first dandelion shows its trustful face.
Indeed, throughout this spring I have been enchanted to lay eyes on the gradual blaze of dandelions - first emerging as the frosts of winter began to grudgingly recede, peppering the avenues and verges through a chilly March, braving the unexpected carpet of snow which descended on my valley in the bittersweet spring.  I saw them as the snow melted, and the hedgerows and grass banks gradually twinkled with red campion, buttercups and periwinkles.  I saw them popping up in gardens, delighting the bees, colonizing hillsides and illuminating woodlands, and sheathing rich green fields in fiery gowns of star-like gold.   As John Clare's poem records:

Tis May; and yet the March flower Dandelion 
Is still in bloom among the emerald grass, 
Shining like guineas with the sun's warm eye on-- 
We almost think they are gold as we pass

The plants we group under the banner of the dandelions are generally those which are found within the Taraxacum genus - part of the aster (Asteraceae) family, native to much of the Northern Hemisphere and naturalized through most of the world.  They are found often in medowes neere unto water ditches, explained Gerard in his 1597 Herbal, as also in gardens and high wayes much troden.  And it is precisely this habit of springing up in gardens which has gained the dandelion its tarnished reputation - while its frequency in almost all environments and ability to survive the seasons - Gerard (who drew attention to the culinary practises by which dandelion leaves might be cooked into a broth to help with urinary problems, fevers and sores, as well as helping with rest) also says that it will floure most times in the yeare, especially if the winter be not extreme cold - that obstructs the plant from enjoying a more favourable reputation for its beauty: How like a prodigal doth nature seem, / When thou, for all thy gold, so common art! exclaimed the American Romantic poet James Russell Lowell - and how right he was - for surely if this sparkling, attractive flower were less regularly glimpsed, it would revel in shimmer of a sought-after reputation.  If dandelions were seen unexpectedly, if they were brought to these shores from exotic climes or cultivated in extreme conditions, sold as rarities at specialist nurseries, then I feel certain they would be spoken of the way we speak of the Star of Jerusalem or rare herbs like the cloudberry or Snowdonia Hawkweed.  Why?  Because they are both highly distinctive, and startlingly pretty.  

Although, as Gerard tells us, dandelions might weather out a mild winter, they are to most of us a sign of sunnier times, and seem to herald the coming of the spring as colourfully as daffodils.  The dandelion's seasonal salience is elegantly depicted by Emily Dickinson:

The Dandelion's pallid tube
Astonishes the Grass,
And Winter instantly becomes
An infinite Alas --

The tube uplifts a signal Bud
And then a shouting Flower, --
The Proclamation of the Suns
That sepulture is o'er.  

I would go so far as to say that dandelions are more lovely than daffodils - though no doubt William Wordsworth would disagree.  But stop for a moment and consider the spectacular nature of their appearance - like tiny explosions of glistening garnet, neon Catherine-wheels glowing in the grass, with all the delicious mischief of hopes refusing to be suppressed - and you will surely see that dandelions, far from being pesky or unpleasing to the eye, are plants to be admired.

Dandelions, with their legendary roots and irrepressible habit, are as persistent as they are eye-catching, and despite the best attempts of their determined horticultural assailants, they are difficult to remove from any garden in which they manage to become established. As Culpeper wrote in 1653:

The root growing downwards exceeding deep, which being broken off within the ground, will yet shoot forth again, and will hardly be destroyed where it hath once taken root in the ground. 

If the natural world is yet to withstand the unremitting assaults that humanity has waged upon it in the ways of pesticides, intensive agriculture, over-population, pollution, excessive destruction, "development" and the meat industry, it is surely to be plants like dandelions - who simply do not know when they are beaten and who refuse to give up their claims to the soils they embrace, which are most numerous among surviving species.

And, as we trudge through the embers of a world beset by problems, no doubt sometimes feeling something akin to an End-of-Days, we might glimpse something valedictory about the dandelion also.

Golden lads and lasses / must like chimney-sweepers come to dust writes Shakespeare in Cymbeline, a magical play in which a Classical Universality is distilled into the pastoral timelessness of a quintessentially English landscape.  We can visualize the dissolution of the dandelion in his withering "golden lads and lasses" just as acutely as in the more literal lines of Clare, who concludes his reflections on these fallen stars of flowers, deserving of so much more than the curt lack of appreciation with which they are habitually greeted by ungrateful gardeners, by observing how:

They shine in fields, or waste grounds near the town.
They closed like painter's brush when even was.
At length they turn to nothing else but down,
While the rude winds blow off each shadowy crown.

Yet even in the deathly pallor of this shadowy demise, the dandelion exudes a sylvan, melancholy beauty.  Take a look, close-up, at the minute magnificence of its silvery cloud of spherical seed-heads, like icy spiders' webs, slowly fragmenting as the frosty balls of seeds are dispersed by winds, drifting through warm air like calcite-coloured butterflies.  

Watch as the seeds of tomorrow's glimmering flowers are wafted this way and that on a summer breeze, and hopefully you will see the long-suffering dandelion in a kindly light, delighting like John Clare in its starry splendour, and agreeing that far from being an unwelcome guest, this radiant flower is a glittering gem, to be treasured and admired.

Tuesday, 31 May 2016

Wild Garlic

Beginning my exciting tenure as Poet-in-Residence at The Blue Teapot, Mytholmroyd, has inspired me to retrace my steps through some of my favourite walks and places in the locality, and as I continue to do so it is my intention to document many of my discoveries and observations here.  Mythomroyd and its surrounding environs are rich in history - not least poetic - but also in their natural scenery.  Some of the hills surrounding Mytholmroyd offer panoramic views across the Calder Valley, its peaceful village centre with an early 19th Century church and the River Calder flowing under the bridge, is flanked by sweeping vales and woodlands, climbing towards the chalky formr quarry lands, heather moorland and the lusher pastures of Luddenden and Brearley to the east.  But it was a patch somewhat nearer to the cafe its self which caught the attention of Blue Teapot owner Kirsty Fagan on a recent woodland walk - https://www.instagram.com/p/BFjhLXenLXe/

Wild garlic is certainly one of the loveliest discoveries to stumble on in the woods around Mytholmroyd, and its distinctive, tangy aroma is surely one of the most evocative indications of  spring, and as we turn the corner into summer, these profusions of glistening, candy-coloured flowers and their blade-like, velvety green leaves, will still decorate our watery and woodland landscapes for some time.

We have been lucky in the valley this spring, with the abundance of this unique, decorous, fascinating plant becoming, since mid-March, bit by bit more prevalent along woodland edges, parks and moist, canal-side soils, and it is a plant that I have noticed in many other areas of West Yorkshire.  In fact, hot-footing between one work place and the next, I have even taken the opportunity of gobbling a few of the edible leaves as a makeshift lunch!

Wild garlic, with its irresistible smell, tasty leaves and star-shaped flowers, has attracted us for centuries, and the sight of multiplying on a spring stream-side is a sure sign, just like the sturdy daffs, the fattening buds and the lambs in the fields, that winter is finally expiring.  It provides a backdrop to our country walks and city parks throughout the spring, and the clumps of tall, broad-leaved stalks and beautiful flowers will flower on into June, precursors for those of deciduous trees.  I have long been interested in wild garlic, its horticultural and culinary history, its relationship with animals, and its lesser known literary impact - including how it has provided inspiration in the world of poetry.

In Cornwall they form thick banks along the lanes, explained the late English poet Mary Macrae in her poem Ransoms, describing how the blooms of wild garlic  fill damp woods, making me long to be
propped on beds of amaranth and moly. 
The poet's skillful depiction of its preferred situations provides a superb mirror-image of the plant's natural habitats, and her references to other plants give us some clue to the friends and relatives of wild garlic - one of which is the "moly" that she mentions, these being a herbal variety whose small white flowers are mentioned in Homer's Odyssey - Odysseus is given moly by Hermes because its properties will protect him from Circe's magic when he goes to her lair to rescue his family.  And, accordingly, it is to family matters that we now must turn in our exploration of wild garlic.

The food we generally know as garlic (Old English, "Spear-leek"), whose cloves are pressed or crushed for culinary use, is strongly linked to wild garlic: both are members of the Alliaceae (Onion) family, both bear umbels of hermaphrodite flowers initially enclosed in spathes (sheath-like modified leaves) and both are known for taste and fragrance (with wild garlic slightly less intense).  But cultivated garlic (Allium sativum) has a complex genetic history dating back to Ancient Central Asia, where it has been used in cooking, and even as a currency, for thousands of years. Wild garlic, on the other hand, is an altogether simpler affair.  Sometimes called wood garlic, bear's garlic, broad-leaved garlic, or by its old English name of ransoms (Hramsa, meaning wild garlic), this European and Asian native, appearing at the winter's withdrawal like sprinkled cloud-dust along riverbanks and throughout deciduous woodlands, has always been regarded kindly. 

In Gerard’s Herbal (1597), we learn that wild garlic maye very well be eaten in April and Maie with butter, of such as are of strong constitution, and labouring men, and, unlike its cultivated cousin, the plant produces flowers tasting stronger than its leaves or bulbs.  Every part of the plant is edible, and its leaves are often used in sandwiches and salads, for use in pesto or in pasta sauces.  The bulb its self is eaten raw or cooked, throughout the year, though for best results when the plant is dormant from July to January.  In 19th Century Scandinavia, a popular butter was produced by feeding wild garlic to cows, resulting in a garlic-tasting milk.  Pictorial evidence suggests wild garlic has been eaten by people since the Stone Age.        
It is, however, not only people who like eating wild garlic.  Its Latin name Allium ursinum denotes its significance to brown bears - in pursuit of the delectable bulb, the bears will turn over the earth to dig it up, a habit mirrored by the wild boar.  The bears are not driven by hunger alone: wild garlic helps cleanse their systems after hibernation; the bulbs are healthy as well as delicious.  In fact, wild garlic is eaten by various animals, including badgers, sheep and guinea pigs, and is chiefly pollinated by bees.  But not all creatures feel the same.  The plant that so attracts  hungry bears ruthlessly repels mosquitos, moths, ticks, and fleas, along with many other insects.  It keeps moles away, and is similarly shunned by rodents.  Wild garlic is an ally of the gardener or farmer who wishes to preserve such crops as carrots, beet and chamomile, and is often planted as a "trap crop" repelling predators from roses.  Less friendly relations are shared with peas - most plants in the Fabaceae or pea-plant family fall foul of a chemical produced by wild garlic, inhibiting their growth.  Dogs are even less fortunate: eating wild garlic can be fatal.

For people, though, in addition to taste, wild garlic boasts an array of health benefits.  It is said to lower blood pressure, eases stomach pains and has been used for many years in Scotland for treating kidney stones.  But these gains were overlooked for many years, as wild garlic fell prey to a decline in medicinal popularity. Why?  Perhaps the answer lies in the very trend-shifting nature of attitudes that has seen so many plant foods - the turnip, the sprout, the almost forgotten artichoke - fall in and out of fashion down the ages.   Whatever the reasons, the fact remains that its medicinal qualities are generally seen as less than that of Allium sativum.  This is misleading.  While the positive effects of culinary garlic are longer lasting, the intensity of wild garlic's healthy impact is far greater.  Swiss herbalist Abbe Kuenzle, who claims to have successfully treated clients with rashes, scrofula and herpes entirely with wild garlic, describes it as a plant that cleanses the whole body.  Those with eczema and intestinal, problems, he feels, should "venerate ransoms like gold," while youngsters would "burst into bloom like roses on a trellis and sprout like fir cones in the sun," should they learn to rely on them!

So, like many wild and wonderful things on our doorstep, wild garlic offers a wide selection of curative blessings.  The plant which Welshman Leslie Norris, in his poem, like that of Mary Macrae also entitled Ransoms, compared to moonlight fallen clean onto grass, is awash with goodness.  Its leaves have assuaged catarrh and shortness of breath, and applying its fresh juices to the skin can help heal wounds.  Eating raw leaves can appease gastric problems, "worms," diarrhoea, insomnia, and even heart troubles.  Boiling freshly chopped leaves, adding these to a quarter litre of white wine and, if wishing to, sweetening with honey or syrup, gives us "Ransoms Wine," which is said to impede dropsy and age-related illnesses, while preparing a "whisky" of wild garlic may even stem memory loss and arteriosclerosis.  Although appropriate advice should be sought before using any natural remedy, it is hard to ignore the restorative and therapeutic powers of wild garlic, which is rich in Vitamins A and B.  Taken as part of an overall "de-tox", or simply an accompaniment to dumplings, potatoes, or other dishes, it can help to purify the body, easing circulation and flooding our bloodstream with vitamins to ward off sundry health complaints.  Wild garlic is one of nature's finest remedies - just ask the bears!

For some, though, it isn't the taste or health advantages of wild garlic that invoke the highest praise, but simply the appearance of this upright, glistening plant - which gradually colonizes slices of woodland until the banks and forest margins are resplendent with frilly white valleys, small fountains of snowy stars.   Indeed, the Ted Hughes poem The Merry Mink, celebrates this starry appearance:

He romps through the ransoms
(Each one like a constellation),topples into the river 

Wild garlic loves damp, moist environments, so by rivers, canals and woodland streams you'll find it, providing cover for earthworms and threaded like a lace hem against backdrops of bluebells, anemones and primroses. As Mary Macrae reminded us:

Pick and they quickly fade
but in the mass - and what mass! - overwhelming.

Wild garlic thrives in slightly acidic soil and deciduous woodlands - enabling it to capture the early spring sunshine.  With its two or three elliptical green leaves, rounded flowerheads and  strong and sharp aroma drifting through the woods and meadows, this abundant symbol of the winter's end, sometimes foolishly dismissed as a "weed," is one of our most splendid, underrated plants.  In difficult and testing times it can be hard to smile, and maintain a positive attitude to life, but come across a carpet of wild garlic brightening a shaded stream or urban hedgerow, and it's easy to empathize once more with the poet Leslie Norris: Pungent and clean the smell of ransoms from the wood, he tells us, and I am refreshed.

The Brink Of The Evening Light - Exploring the Poetry of Nuala Fagan

It was a privilege to host Nuala Fagan and her wonderful poetry at the debut evening of Poetry At The Blue Teapot, the events I am co-ordinating at Mytholmroyd's Blue Teapot vegetarian cafe as part of my Poet Residency there.

Nuala read from her two collections - Not All Birdsong, which I published last year, and also Cimmerian Garden (Wellhouse Publications 2010), her debut book and one I have been getting to know in more depth since we decided to feature it at the event.  Indeed, I introduced the evening with a poem from the collection called All Souls Night, which begins bewitchingly:

You will be ready
like Eurydice
to walk the wordly night
you will collect 
the ions you need
from your Cimmerian garden
solicit the special amino acids
you will need for your trip
will gather
strings of sugar for your heart

I love the way the reader's comprehension of the narrative hinges on line-endings which could go either way, the isolation of secretly, lending its application to both the line preceding and following, and the visual quality depicted by these deceptively straightforward lines.   Anyone familiar with Nuala and her work can see how these fabulously expectant words distill virtually the whole thematic span of her poetry, with their emphasis on the interweaving corporeal and incorporeal, the idea of seeking out new paths, escapes, or promises, and the irresistible strings of sugar with which the Eurydician protagonist completes their inventory.  Indeed, the list of ingredients might almost be said to comprise a roll-call of the quintessential elements nestling within Nuala's books, waiting to be collected by the reader.  Wordly, yet other-wordly, charged with pivotal moments which impel the imagination like ions, a trip through secrets and histories, sometimes spiked with the acids of pain and loss, but ultimately a glimmering garden of special truths and meanings, infused with a sweetness which will illuminate the heart.

 Nuala was born in Dublin in 1929, and grew up in Donegal, where as part of her education she learned many of Shakespeare's sonnets by heart.  The other predominant poetic influences of her early life were the national Irish poets, and the works of WB Yeats, and though she also discovered a love for the poetry of the English Romantics.  Though Nuala did not begin writing and publishing poetry until 2003, these influences undoubtedly laid the foundations of what was to come. With a degree in Pyschology, her writing delves deep into the human psyche, while, as we shall see, the time that she has lived in the North of England - Nuala moved to Halifax in 1961 - is strongly reflected in her writing. Nuala's poetry inhabits a sphere of thought and emotion in which the everyday realities of life are played out in slow motion, in which painful events and memories are recalled in sharp focus fragments, yet in which an undercurrent of history is also ever present.  Both Cimmerian Garden and Not All Birdsong share these concepts, and are similar books in many ways.  Yet they are also very different animals, each embodying a variety of themes and presences.

Cimmerian Garden begins with broken bits of memories, faded photographs and the corroded cogs of good intentions / scattered on the tarmac, exposing from the very off this powerful sense of melancholic retrospection, of taking leave and considering what might have been, or of moving stoically onwards and refusing to be cowed.  Turn away, the poet tells, us, for this is a wasteland / and you will find no buried treasure here.  In All Souls Night, Nuala expresses the intention to search the edge of the Stygian night, and from there the collection broods through galleries of sad images, of subterranean demons and hostile harpies, birds dead in dustbins, and cans stored for a holocaust. The death of scientist Dr David Kelly is examined in David and Goliath, while in Time Gapes we see how:

Time is a snake
that gobbles events

as we enter the territory of poems like Midwinter it does indeed feel like a step beyond the precipice, into a dark side tinged with irony:

Our speech is laced with mildew
damped with mould
and cold has rooted in our eyes
until the festive season bursts 
like a premature demanding birth
saying celebrate 

The Oxford English Dictionary defines "Cimmerian" as  Noun: 1. a member of a nomadic people who overran Asia Minor in the 7th Century bc ; 2. a member of a mythical people living in perpetual mist and darkness near the land of the dead.

Living "near" the land of the dead.  This is highly significant, for though the Cimmerian tribe has no contemporary presence in the world,  this definition situates the Cimmerians as both close to, yet distinct from, the dead - and emphasizes their "living" status.  In his poem L'Allegro, published in 1645, Milton introduces the Cimmerian element early in the text, to differentiate its nature from that of the poem's theme of jollity and joy:

HENCE loathed Melancholy
    Of Cerberus and blackest midnight born,
In Stygian Cave forlorn
    'Mongst horrid shapes, and shreiks, and sights unholy.
Find out som uncouth cell,
    Where brooding darknes spreads his jealous wings,
And the night-Raven sings;
    There, under Ebon shades, and low-brow'd Rocks,
As ragged as thy Locks,
    In dark Cimmerian desert ever dwell.

The "Stygian" tone ends at this point, exchanged for the jocund imagery of Venus, Bacchus, nibbling flocks and country dances.   It is the only mention of the word "Cimmerian" in all of Milton's poetry, and indeed of any poetry I have found with the exception of that of Nuala Fagan, though the name has been appropriated in various forms by poets and writers of fantasy and science fiction, such as Robert E Howard, whose poem Cimmeria, a doomy depiction of Fredericksburg, USA, in midwinter rain, imagines the Cimmerian land as a land of Darkness and deep Night, a gloomy place with dark woods, dusky silent streams and a leaden cloudy sky. 

And yet for Nuala Fagan, this dark territory has yielded not a night of gloom, but a garden of poetry.  How was this so?  It is worth turning to the words of the poet herself, who explains her interest in the term:

Milton used Cimmerian as an adjective.  The Cimmerians were thought of by historians as an obscure race who were found in historical records only briefly.  Nobody knew where they came from or where they went.  So knowledge of them was obscure.  

Indeed, she is keen to point out:

They were not Summerians.  So the pronunciation is different.  The accent is on the last i .       

As for the title of her book -

 I called it Cimmerian Garden because I do not know sometimes where my poems come from.  Like most poems they come from an obscure place  in the mind. 

This misty obscurity, this embrace of the mysterious and unexpected, is equally evident in Nuala's second collection, Not All Birdsong, which I published in November 2015, and which again finds its author searching and attempting to assess the transient pleasures and long-standing pains of both the historical and personal, but in this book her gaze is turned not so much on the mythical or spiritual, but more on the temporal and everyday.  Where Cimmerian Garden tracks Ancient woods of primitive gods, its successor volume focuses on the grittier images of  derelict mills, dishcloths, Blackpool carved on a rock and the sound of Yorkshire goodbyes.  And yet, there is the same reverberating undertone of history, as in Living in the Song:

When the song calls me
I am in the song,
I am come back to Erin
and I am called Mo Chusla.
I am called Mavournin,
I am handsome, I am pretty,
I'm the girl from the golden city.

The above poem clearly takes inspiration from the traditions of Irish folk with which Nuala, growing up in the Irish Republic, could not but have been familiar, and although the treatment is almost diametrically different, the two books also share this aspect of Irish history as an undercurrent.  I am interested in the Anglo-Irish dynamics at work in Nuala's poems, especially in the context of Irish poems published by an English press, and also from my own perspective of being English but with Irish relatives: the cultural interplay between the two countries is of lifelong interest to me, and I am greatly moved by the stark elucidation that this history receives in a poem like St George's Day where

As April blows the snows away
the sun is pearl in the grey midday 
the flickering flags glow red on white
on rain-washed spires and speeding cars
and I think of St George and chivalry

These lines from Cimmerian Garden have a Shakespearean quality - but the imagery of blood and violence is then exacted to the full when, having observed the modern anarchy of populous bars, Nuala then describes how

...the petrol rainbow stain
becomes a dragon once again
conjuring allies out of the rain
Nemain, Morrighu and Badb.

The theme is revisited in  Not All Birdsong, yet for once it is the second collection wherein the writing becomes more multi-faceted and less direct - the Irish Potato Famine is recalled by the spectre of the old woman in her Galway shawl / whose bony hand holds a black potato, and are the scars of war, such as in the poem History House, where a bruised sketch of Irish history is transposed into the form of the house, opened at last, the contrasting opulence of The October orchard ... with its rowan reds, / yellow pearls and

...the freezer. 
Slices of green?
The jacket.
Mixes of red and white?
A swathe of red silk?
Spread on the road.

Cimmerian Garden is also echoed by its predecessor when it comes to observing the psychological.  In the former, depression is outlined by jagged trees, black horizons and a drowning sun, while the poems Dining with a Psychiatrist and Freud with Mushrooms both transpose their characters into surreal environments - a hungry shrink rejecting the skeletons, moths, silver foil, corks and skewers he is offered, and a nocturnal feast with the in/famous psychoanalyst, at which the idea of Civilisation proffers only discontentment. In the latter book, the poet again places her assessment of psychiatry or its offshoots within a culinary frame - in Secret describing the poem's central character as a can of fruit cocktail being devoured by a counselor or doctor hungry for tittle-tattle.

Despite its more realist settings, the deep-seated themes of Not All Birdsong do seem like that of Cimmerian Garden to locate themselves within the abstract, shunning linear timescales, as in Keening:

a high thin note which reaches far back 
to your ancestors 
to your very roots,
and every bad thing that ever happened.  

Or in poems like Finding Him, where:

She found he was a house
made of bricks and iron shutters

If only he was a house made of glass
she would pull apart the shutters
and plead with her open palm.

The uncertainty at the heart of much of the collection is perhaps best executed in Dementia:

Time you are a wrecker.
She was beautiful as a church.
You made her an avalanche of distorted parts 
like broken pews 
like splintered views

But Not All Birdsong, in which the poet is found looking at the moon / and remembering the sun, it is sometimes the joys, rather than the regrets, of memories which shine back at us:

He made me feel like Beethoven's piano
gently exploring my finer notes.
But oh those chords, evoked without notice,
making his thoughts my doing, my undoing,
making me a stormy night, a rough sea,
a patriot's passionate shout.
He made me stop like a thudding hoof.
He made me moonlight.


Not All Birdsong starts and ends on a note of leaving, of turning away from the debris and seeking out a kinder destiny.  All Souls Night begins with an entreaty to explore, to take a trip and go forth into a new world, equipped with an armory collected from a mysterious, dark, but sweet and secret garden, but goes on to unveil the promises of what might be found:

you will bind yourself
with chains of protein
to hold you
and you will approach 
the brink of the evening light 

Nuala Fagan's is a poetry of pain, addressing time's bitter twists and turns, the injuries of history and the losses of the heart, but also the longer perspectives afforded us by the passages of time, the unexpected joys and happiness that can be grasped even upon the wastelands of the night, and the inner strengths which might propel us to the discovery of beauty amid darkness, provided we are willing to undertake the journey.