Tuesday, 30 May 2017

Dreaming of Herons

From the window of the train, I can see the outline of craggy hills, jumbling into mist as a starless sky melts into indigo dawn.  We are shuttling through the early morning, and there are few signs of life among the bare hills and leafless trees whose branches hang sadly over the ice-like lake like broken umbrellas, stroking chill, rain-braided waves of wind.  As I rest my head back against the chair, I gaze through glass speckled in the dew-like diamonds of raindrops, sunlight splinters through a fringe of cypresses ranged along the horizon like a sentry, and a long stretch of water is illuminated, dark banks fading into the black edges of a thick, foreboding forest. And gracefully poised on the riverbank, levering its thin, rod-like neck towards the water, a silvery, svelte heron pauses to reflect, as the sunlight gleams against its eye, shining like an amethyst as it jabs the surface of the water, knifing for prey.

As the train swerves around the curve of the river, I wonder what corner of the world I have found myself in on this silent, dark morning.  I recognize some of the landscape as my own Calder Valley environment; the long, sweeping battalions of trees recall something from Eastern Europe, or perhaps the Black Forest.  As my eyes slowly prize themselves open, and the real dawn filters through the window like a glass of spilt lemonade, I realize I must have been on board what poet Lotte Kramer calls the Dream Train:

This train never stops.
I'm a parcelled person
In its warm movement,
Assured of eventual stations.

 With the real world around me so tortured and confused, I have felt myself of late immersed in a dream life, and these nightly journeys seem to veer between the idyllic and the cursed.  But that they should feature sightings of imagined herons ought not to surprise me, given the prevalence of that bird in my current daily life and writing.  My ongoing writing project, hopefully to evolve into a book, has of late seen me journeying to see them and to learn about them from experts both here in Yorkshire and in Lancashire, and they are seen here in the valley in relatively high numbers, owing to the watery nature of much of our environment.

In my dream, the parts of the fantasy riverbank which seemed to merge most clearly into that of my real world surroundings was the edge of land where the heron gingerly fished - land which, in real life, following the willowy course of the Calder as it meanders past the rural fringe of Sowerby Bridge, the skeletal walls of the old wireworks, and the road which hurtles towards Halifax and motorway, plays stony host to clefts and dips of gorse, red campion, poppies, planes of buttercups and tiny blue blazes of forget-me-nots; wildflower banks, sandy lanes hung with cow parsley and tall,glistening grasses; hedgerows tunneled by tough shrews and quick, zig-zagging wrens and blackbirds.


Land which has been butchered and shrunk in order to accommodate an expansion of housing which has already had serious consequences for ecology: the removal of native trees, the destruction of natural habitats and the proven exacerbation of flooding problems during the great deluge of 2015.  This area, roughly known as the Milner Royd nature reserve, lies within walking distance of my home, and I have watched with horror as - my communications (and the protests of many local groups) brushed off by the town's Labour MP and the local Tory councillor - have been disregarded. Several sections of land and water have been protected for the benefit of wildlife, not least the herons who depend on the water for their diet and survival, but huge chunks have indeed been swallowed up for development - a triumph of Greed over Need.

It is rather fitting, I suppose, that one of the poems I discover on waking from my heron-themed slumbers, is another by Lotte Kramer - her 1980 poem Nine Herons on Reclaimed Land, in which Surprised by sun / That reddened through the morning frost they:

Stand as carved 
And motionless as this blue air. 


 Land falls from us, writes Lotte Kramer, In long, stiff tongues that grip the sky, closing her poem with a Pantheistic blending of human-heron prophecy, twinning both species in a shared predicament, where every breath is ominous of waiting sea.

As with poetry, visions can be distilled within a dream in lucid and coherent ways, offering us the chance to "see" details perhaps processed by the mind's eye in waking life, but shunted to the dusty cellars of peripheral visions and hushed afterthoughts.  The dream dictionaries I consult tell me that my heron dreams suggest a need for balance and serenity. Often, the world of dreams seems preferable to the Dystopia of reality, and it is in this hazy world of the transient and half-glimpsed where I have sometimes, unsuspectingly, been witness to the clarity of nature.


you slip,
a wirework whisper
of cold smoke

frozen in a gauze of ash,
you stitch yourself,
a stone-spun ghost,
unfurling from the loom
of dawn's grey rain
into my sleep-sunk vision,
eye me loudly
in thickening silence.

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Something Sweet

Following my Jupiter explorations, I have been prompted by recent sightings to venture this week on a different, but no less inter-galactic, adventure. 

My father was a salesman, and throughout my childhood sold sweets to shops across West Yorkshire, sometimes taking me along, the back seat of the car stuffed with boxes of Mars Bars and jelly babies. The recipient of many prizes for selling more sweets than anybody else, my dad was always happiest when "on the road", and to have a father employed in such a fantastical job as traveling around flogging wine gums seemed at once magical and completely normal, as did the jumbles of Easter Eggs in our house from January or February, the gums and jellies accompanying the sandwiches in my school lunch box, and the bags and boxes of goodies he would bring home from the warehouse after trade fairs and advance deliveries of new lines.  A long time ago I wrote a poem about these "free samples", and despite receiving an affectionate response at readings, it has to date never found a home in publication.  But I have decided to publish the poem here, having spent much of the last week or so thinking back to those sweet-remembered days - all because of a flying saucer.

Oddly enough, flying saucers were never among my dad's swag, I knew them from school tuck shops - these being the days when it was not seen as remotely untoward for the education authorities to stuff their charges full of sugar - and playgrounds, but when several of them turned up among a bag of sweets behind the counter I was working at, it did not take me long to claim my share.  Immediately, the contrast of flimsy rice paper and tartaric tang stung me with nostalgia.  A few years ago, these strange sweets - which are like a cross between communion wafer and a sherbet fountain - were found to be Britain's favourite confectionary, and it is hard to believe that they have only been around since the 1950's - though less surprising when one thinks of the prominence in that decade for space-age comics and the emergence of space-related toys.  I remember them as perhaps the best example of that strange, indefinable line of childhood between innocent pleasure and otherworldly devilment: dodgy deals with sweets passing hands, the swapping of forbidden pleasures.

Luminescent eyelids
of sad cephalopods
drifting benthic depths,
silent and abyssal gems

like plasma-varnished stars
floating through space, sailing
through light-years of loneliness.

The secret ingredient of the flying saucer is, as described above, sherbet - a truly unique confection which always seemed like a dazzling treat in my childhood. In a classification all of its own, this strange, powdery substance, which I have no doubt floated down to earth from the recesses of some other solar system, is the stuff of dreams.

Crystalline cascade
of ice-spiced sugary snow,
acidic blizzard glimmering
in quartz clouds of cocaine-
coloured candy, cosmos
phosphorescent as a frost-flossed,
diamond-fibred, lustrous, white
exploding star.

 My father tells a story about how, on visits to the local dental surgery, the dentist would force him to watch a polo mint dissolving in fizzy water.  Only once the defenceless peppermint hoop completely wasted away would the older man turn to my father and break the silence.  "That," he would say menacingly, "is what people like you are doing to children's teeth."  To which my father would invariably respond that were it not for people like him, the dentist himself would be out of a job.  That was in the 1980's, when dentists still had time to talk to patients, and it is true that in the succeeding years the sight of confectionary has grown ever scarcer on the shop shelves, just like the existence of the shops themselves - local grocers, village stores, newsagents and even specialist sweet shops.  I still seek out the same old (vegetarian) favourites, and my childhood memories are, if the pun can be forgiven, all the sweeter for the presence of confectionary. Debates about the pros and cons of sugary sweets persist, but my own associations with them have been entirely positive, notwithstanding any negative press the industry may receive. It is also worth recalling that, for all the many sweets I no doubt gobbled, the same dentist often remarked that my own teeth were "the whitest teeth in Leeds."  There is clearly much to be said for a good session of tooth-brushing.


One day, they'll be onto us,
the Jelly Babies,

the dusty-skinned,
podgy blobbies,
fixed grins etched
into smirky,
sly-eyed faces,
peering over
from the back of the shelves.

One night, while we sleep,
naively oblivious,
they will creep at the gates,
hack at the doors,
wield jelly knives
and jelly pick-axes,
chubbily bumbling
into living rooms and kitchens,
upturning pans,
smashing clocks
and knocking pictures off the wall.

Lilliputian armies will advance,
massing on the valleys
and swelling into towns,
bloated bullies laughing manically
as they deface monuments,
slap down aldermen,
poke old ladies in the eyes

all the while waiting
for the great Jelly Baby in the sky
to drown us in a sea of sugar,
where we will sizzle, groan, inflate
and burst.
And all that will be found of us,
floating in the starchy, syrupy sea
will be our blackened, rotted teeth.


Often, on a Friday night,
my father brought free samples.

Bag upon bag,
tube after tube
of fizzbombs, blackjacks,
long and sticky strips of chewy tooth-rot,
sherbet dips, those necklaces
that made it feel like you were biting into stone,
candy cigarettes that minted up the mouth,
chocolates of every variety.

Best of all were the jellies -
sugar-speckled cola bottles,
vampire teeth, dusted jelly babies,
wine gums, jelly-reptiles,
strange multi-coloured snakes
oozing juiciness,
slivery holograms and foam mushrooms,
jelly beans and jelly bears and jelly bugs,
miscellanies of jellies, pastels, lollies, liquorice,
a copious outpouring of confectionary,
a life I thought would never end.

Sunday, 14 May 2017

Visions of Jupiter

I was astonished to see the planet Jupiter in the night sky on May the 7th.  Since this unexpected, stunning event, which took place shortly before midnight, I have seen the world in a different context, and struggled to take seriously a great deal of petty everyday concerns.  In between firing off messages to friends, advising them to check the skies, and long spells of awestruck observation, I managed to salvage a few poor quality photographs, with Jupiter shining below the moon at 5 o'clock angle, and looking like a silver snowball in reflected lunar light.   Also periodically visible was a blurry seep of purplish red radiating like a beacon from its base. This made it look like a kind of sun, and the combination of its immense size and three hundred and sixty five million mile distance was phenomenal to contemplate. 

Over the ensuing days I found myself instinctively jotting down my reflections and have worked these writings into short poems.

gloss polished
ball of chalk

dancer in galactic
aspic, star-
sea voyager

cool marble
in slate black sky

a conflagration,
an eye.

Milk-white in my poems, Jupiter is actually composed of a blend of shades - white, brown, orange, yellow and red - but its appearance changes due to storms and winds which bring materials such as phosphorus, sulfur and hydrocarbons to merge into its toppermost, icy, ammonia crystal clouds.  Thus, my idea of a "film" of milk around the ball of Jupiter reflects the prominence of this cloudy colouring on the night I saw the planet. 

My descriptions of the planet as a ball, in keeping with its obvious spherical appearance, nonetheless give little idea of the actual appearance of the planet to the naked eye as it floated in the black, its shape approaching star-like, but with frazzled, arrowy points flickering as if burning.  My vision of it, then, took on a hallucinogenic tint, as I watched its spike-like blades jab the sky - and in my later writing, I began to focus on this strange confluence of sphericality and star-like quality.

Dome of frozen lemonade,
you radiate a calm
lunar anger,
singe star-glaciered vastness
in black-brightening brocades
of lucent silver blades,
cast astral tentacles
lambent as spiked candles
each glinting wick
simmers to a frizzle,
bangling black sky
in gilt-slit ice.

Later, the imagery of insects surfaced, as the irony of the planet's tiny size in Earth's night sky loomed in my mind.

Like an icy insect,
glass arrows
pincering charcoal sky,
dancing diamond,
you simmer
crackling aster,
burning bubble,
gas sparkling,
shardy as a slashed-up star.

And from insects, spiders soon followed:

Like a stiff white spider
bathing black in polar bones
you distantly ignite
a sky the shade of thick black coffee,
basking Bobby-Dazzler,
burning, spindled
gossamer gas,
you're a satin web,
a silver sinner,
scaffold of cold gems.

I am amazed to fins that Jupiter, not only the largest but the earliest discovered planet in the solar system, has had so little poetry written about it over the centuries, though it has of course been at the forefront of mythology.  The Classical Jupiter or Jove was the principal god of Ancient Rome, the Babylonians identified it with their patron deity Marmuk, while in later times the planet was associated with Thor, and the star gods of Central Asia.  I can easily see why such planets and cosmic sightings inspired myths, legends and religions in Ancient times, and continue to transfix and entrance today.  My own visions of Jupiter left me too overcome with dazed delight to embark on any latter-day myth-making, and my awed attempts at poetry seem less profound or astrologically astute, than the startled ramblings of a truly awe-struck man.

At five o'clock to the moon
you're a

scintillant microchip

jagged dazzler

frazzled superstar,

cause my heart to jump
in unadulterated wonder

Monday, 1 May 2017

A Little Spell - The Lesser Celandine (Ficaria verna)

It was a lovely surprise to see the celandines I planted last year, re-emerge this spring to sprinkle the garden in their sunshine-coloured glow.  Like the delicate melodies of a fond-remembered song, their ochre notes have twinkled in a shower of light, as the land slowly brightens and the sandy, stony soil is gradually filled with flowers. 
The celandines in question are the so-called "Lesser Celandines" (Ficaria verna) - wild growing perennials with glossy yellow petals.  The juices from F. verna's tuberous roots are rich in Vitamin C, and were said by Gerard to purgeth "the head of foul and filthy humours," the leaves have a nutty taste and are often used in salads - while the flowers themselves have drawn a variety of poetical responses from writers through the ages.

Modest, yet withal an Elf / Bold, and lavish of thyself  is how Wordsworth conjures up the character of the flower, and he went on to write three poems specifically in praise of Ficaria verna - proclaiming it his favourite flower, and declaring:

There is a flower, it is mine
'tis the little celandine

A century later his poems in honour of the lesser celandine were echoed in their admiring tone by Edward Thomas.  In his poem Celandine, Thomas paints a sadder picture than Wordsworth, remembering a deceased love, who found the celandines of February / Always before us all, and whose memory is recalled by his own sighting of the flowers:

Thinking of her had saddened me at first,
Until I saw the sun on the celandines lie
Redoubled, and she stood up like a flame,
A living thing, not what before I nursed,
The shadow I was growing to love almost,
The phantom, not the creature with bright eye
That I had thought never to see, once lost.

In stark yet tender stanzas, Thomas uses the image of the petals to depict  locks sweeping the mossy sod, the laughing "blossoms" of the celandines perfectly embodying the poet's lost love:

Her nature and name
Were like those flowers, and now immediately
For a short swift eternity back she came,
Beautiful, happy, simply as when she wore
Her brightest bloom among the winter hues
Of all the world

In Sons and Lovers, DH Lawrence also twins the celandine with young love, presenting the plant as a favourite of protagonist Paul Morel:

Going down the hedgeside with the girl, he noticed the celandines, scalloped splashes of gold, on the side of the ditch. "I like them' he said 'when their petals go flat back with the sunshine. They seem to be pressing themselves at the sun." And then the celandines ever after drew her with a little spell.

But the magic of the celandine has also shone its way into the realms of the fantastical. CS Lewis features the flower in one of the salient passages of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, as the forest floor becomes bejewelled by their unexpected splendour:

wonderful things happening. Coming suddenly round a corner into a glade of silver birch trees. Edmund saw the ground covered in all directions with little yellow flowers - celandines".

That Ficaria verna has found its glimmering way into a poetry and prose,  need come as no surprise. When we think of its rich sunny coloured petals, quilting woodland floors in a floriferous glow of buttercup-blonde, catching the light and gleaming like tiny topaz stars, its intricate receptacle enclosing a globular carpels and wavy, lemony stamens brimming with pollen, and the way the flower opens out on spring mornings to reveal a sun-like shape of brightness and warmth, it is not unsurprising that these pretty woodland wildflowers have enjoyed a presence in literature, and were so beloved of William Wordsworth that he arranged for their image to be carved onto his grave.