Monday, 28 August 2017

Starlight and Sapphire - The Poetry of Dragonflies

The landscape above Luddenden is defined by verticals: craggy hillsides sweeping steeply down to wobbly cobbled streets, thin columns of disused factory chimneys.  Up on the tops, you could almost be in the Scottish Highlands, as gowns of purple heather are draped across the moors; rugged looking sheep chew the fields which peter out to the boggy borders of Wainstalls and Warley.  You might be watched through grass by the bulging eyes of bulls and cows, reclining lazily among blackberry and boulders.  In winter, the view is almost Scandinavian: I have walked there in January, the valley below steeped in frost; flurries of sleet slapping harshly through the wind, the rocks, clustered like large snowballs by the sides of moorland paths, plathered in an icy rain.  The chimneyed citadel of Oats Royd Mill, once a power-base of textile magnate John Murgatroyd, now a complex of apartments, stands at the basin of the valley, its long, chunky boxes of Yorkshire stone lending an industrial hue to this rural view.  To the south, the cemetery of St Mary's climbs up the  incline towards Mount Tabor Road.  In the east, piercing the clouds against a hilly horizon, stands the 120-ft 19th Century War monument which dominates the hill of Stoodley Pike, frozen in time, like some great primeval totem pole.

 The jagged geography of this  moorland environment, toughened by stone, blustered by scissoring winds, looking cold-coloured in a seemingly perpetual autumn, even on this hot August afternoon, is the last place I would have expected to have seen the hovering, shining presence which appears in my peripheral vision, skimming the summit of Stocks Lane, the winding road that extends out of Luddenden and into the moors.

Turning, I catch full sight - a swivelling swish of emerald and jet, propelled by four transparent wings, is bouncing on the breeze, swerving on the precipice of the hillside.  A luminous black cylinder, banded by bright green abdominal spots, the dragonfly pauses, wavering in mid-air as if granting me the chance of observing it close up.  Aeshna cyanea, Southern Hawker, whose exploratory life spans no more than three or four months of a short-lived English summer, often drifting far from its typical environment of ponds, even to such stony alttudes as this. This is a female hawker, and she is prowling for prey - insects to be caught on the wing, by this flexible, curving, bending predator which can fly backwards, and is among the fastest dragonflies in Britain.
Like a turquoise torpedo, twisting through the blue, the dragonfly dips and dives, slicing a shimmering green arc above the moor-grass as she zigzags over the tumbling descent, a crystalline quill doodling her nimble stories on the wind.

I seem to have seen more dragonflies than usual in this humid, wet summer, but this glittering insect, reflecting the sun as she threads her way through the tangle of grasses overhanging the hill's edge, is the first I have been confident to name.  Most of the dragonflies I've seen in 2017 have certainly been hawkers, but mainly of the blue or red variety, or seeming to fizz past me so fast as to defy a detailed observation, like multi-coloured magic carpets weaving through Arabian skies, glossy blurs of onyx, malachite, sapphire, ruby on the canvas of the summer air.  Amid the watery woodlands near Harcastle Crags, which the River Hebden chugs through like a fat blue vein, I've seen them frazzle by in splashes of fiery orange; along the canal towpath between Sowerby Bridge and Mytholmroyd, they've flashed like lazers igniting the overcast gloom.  Then there was the dragonfly I saw floating over my garden earlier this summer, a tentative ballerina dancing across  tips of borage and Perovskia, fluttering above the feverfew like a diamond-spangled acrobat, lingering over the wall's edge as if balancing on a thin trapeze.

Like all wildlife, dragonflies are indeed engaged in a nerve-racking balancing act - the struggle to find food and to preserve the perpetuity of their genes, the flight from predators, the need for stable habitats.  Unlike many British animals, the dragonflies, of Ancient stock and numbering over 3,000 international species, are not generally endangered, though in Britain this is due in no small part to the efforts of conservation agencies like the British Dragonfly Society, a charity which encourage educational projects to promote the study of dragonflies and damselflies, and works to monitor and enhance their habitats.  The charity's website explains how  Half of Britain's ponds were lost in the 20th century but a recent revival led to a 12.5% increase in the number of ponds between 1998 to 2007. All but five of the regularly breeding species of dragonfly and damselfly in Britain are known to have bred in ponds, with 17 species considered to be widespread breeding species in garden ponds and a further 8 breeding in garden ponds more rarely. Even a small pond can harbour dragonflies, with species such as Southern Hawker managing to exist in surprisingly high numbers in small garden ponds. 
The website goes on to list advice for gardeners aiming to create dragonfly-friendly environments, and this takes me back to a memory from more than thirty years ago, to the first time I remember seeing dragonflies, in the garden of a house on the street I grew up in.  In my mind, the memory is kaleidoscopic: a multitude of dragonflies, sweeping slotting in and out of one another's mazy flightpaths, scarlet stripes slashing through the flowerbeds, velvet wands casting azure magic over rockeries and roses.  My parents and I stood and watched them dazzling above the grass, and I was aware of experiencing something out of the ordinary, something special, for the first time.  When my mother spoke of them as dragonflies, I realized that although these unusal creatures were like nothing I had ever seen, to the grown up world they were recognizable - part of the tapestry of a natural world I was thrilled to be discovering.  The prefix Dragon seemed appropriate - so mythic did these phosphorescent streaks of magical mystery appear, that had they breathed fire from their minute mouths, I would hardly have felt surprised.  Years later, I would recall this introductory encounter in my poem Dragonflies, remembering how

We watched them
dive and swivel
like blades of circus knife throwers,
skim the sun-licked lawn,
ignite the glittering tips
and globes of flowers
in crackling splashes
of cobalt, indigo,

and when, years later, at the Fairburn Ings wildlife reserve outside Leeds, I stood with my father and watched the crackling colours of dragonflies bobbing above the ponds, these childhood memories returned, as one by one the insects shot out of the ether, seemed to glide like slices of amethyst above the water, then disappeared among the reeds, dew-dappled dreams dissolving into sunshine. 
Fairburn is one of the richest habitats for dragonflies, and when, on a blazing day last August, I watched a scarlet darter soaking up the sun on the wooden fence post beside one of the reserve's many ponds, I was transfixed by its long red body, glowing like a candle coaked in melted jasper.  The darter, completely calm in human presence, bathing its glassy wings in a shower of sunshine, seemed half at rest, and half knife-like, tarsias clenching the wood in prehensile, flexed tension - poised for flight.


Rubicund torch,
black veins woven
over wings of glass,
svelte vermillion glider,
rowan-berry eyes,
spidery legs,
you settle on fallen wood,
a stained-glass crucifix,
bleed your molten body
into fibres softened
by decades, centuries
and rain.

In my 2013 collection Little Creatures, I pay tribute to the dainty damselfly, the gem-lie, willowy creatures I first became aware of when I watched them by the ponds at Roundhay, north Leeds, where I was living in the mid 2000's,


Split moon-fringe,
silk slice
blue as threaded sapphire,
you haunt pond air
at July sunrise.
Floating flake, 
like a breeze-blown vein 
you come, half-visible,
a slither of translucency,

and later in the same poem I the damelflies' reedy habitats beyond the pond. But whatever I write about dragonflies, I doubt I can compare with the talents of a poet across a different pond, JD McClatchy, the contemporary American poet who celebrates the dragonfly as an Itinerant clarinet, and a mob of selves that others see - Devil and Goat, Eye-on-Broomstick, Goblin tableux, which performs a Bayadere, amuses crowds, flies like a baggy clown, before Collapsing at night in a tiny starpatched sky-loft, and gradually transfiguring into a dragonfly ghost.  There is something of this starlit metamorphosis in Tennyson's 1842 poem The Dragonfly, in which the poet describes a dragonfly shedding its skin:
An inner impulse rent the veil / Of his old husk: from head to tail / Came out clear plates of sapphire mail
And when HE Bates published his memoir of childhood Down the River in 1937, he remembered watching a continuous play of blue gauze over the snowy flowers above the sun-glassy water. It was all confined, in true dragonfly fashion, to one small space. It was a continuous turning and returning, an endless darting, poising, striking and hovering, so swift that it was often lost in sunlight. 

Dragonflies have painted their colours on our popular imagination, swooshed into our culture and imprinted their neon signatures upon the pages of our natural history.  Belonging to an order that has existed since the Triassic, more than two hundred million years ago, these magnificent insects continue to enchant, and to surprise.  Up among the knolly, craggy hills above the Yorkshire town of Luddenden, I feel this morning touched by the alchemy of Mother Nature, as this sequinned fluke sails unexpectedly by, and I'm struck by the fragility and transience of things, as the dragonfly's sharp, svelte body drifts into the distance, and the beauty of its lucent green jewels slowly disappear from sight.

Saturday, 12 August 2017

Pity the Birds - my poem for the Inglorious Twelfth


Pity the birds, when the guns begin
and peace is punctured by a ricochet
of cracks.  Bellies bullet-pumped,
they’ll fall like bricks in bags
from August skies to freshly-bloodied grass.

Pity the grouse, blackish, russet-smudged 
and rustling through rushes, like hook-
beaked hens eye-deep in heather,
bodies almost globular, heads crowned
with scarlet tufts.

Unsuspectingly, they will root through shoots, ingest
the juice of moorland berries, dot rural skies
like black stars bobbling over tree-tops
until the skeleton-shredding lead bursts them open
and they drop, gut-strewn, to a chorus of dull “thucks.”

Pity these innocents, naively nibbling grass and gorse,
lapping up a landscape 
slyly set against them, so big gangs of grown men 
might laughingly maraud, 
pissed on whisky by mid-afternoon 
and smashing birds to bits, 
like tantrumming schoolboys they cock their guns,
esteemed QC’s, and crooked judges, and those who own 

whole postcodes, whose grand estates are leased
for slaughter, so that birds may bear the brunt
of their shrivelled egos - blue-blooded thugs,
men so insecure they need to kill - and kill they will, 
their violent games protected by bent laws, 
ensuring harmless and defenceless birds
are shot down by the scum of England’s countryside
on the bloody afternoon of the Inglorious Twelfth.

Thursday, 3 August 2017

Caterpillar Poetry: No Longer Associated with UNESCO

This March I co-ordinated an evening of international poetry at Morley Library, raising money for the mental health charity MIND, and also for UNESCO - the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization -  being timed to coincide with that body's International Day of Poetry.  On this site and on youtube, I posted videos and images in memory of the day, all of which I have taken down.
One of the things that attracted me to UNESCO was the apparent sincerity with which they seemed to support a peaceful outcome to the Israeli/Palestinian issue, and notwithstanding the various resolutions and statements they have historically passed for and against both sides, I genuinely believed that by enacting a UNESCO celebration, I was helping to support efforts aimed at secure and lasting solutions in this field.  The ins and outs of the issue were of no consequence to our event, which was based on internationalism, tolerance, and peace.  Our participants and spectators included poets and performers from the USA, Australia, Spain, Libya and many places in between.  Along with the flags of 193 other member states, those of Israel and the Palestinian territories were hung as bunting around the building.
The news a few weeks ago that UNESCO had passed a resolution implicitly denying any reference to Jewish history at Jerusalem's Temple Mount, and listing the site purely by its Arab name - an act of partiality by an organization claiming to be neutral on this extremely complex matter - came as a shock to me, as did the further elements of UNESCO's biased resolution which dispute any Jewish claim to the city of Jerusalem, even describing various "so called" Jewish sites and putting inverted commas around others.  Above all, I was bemused by UNESCO's simplistic assertions, as outlined in an excellent Tablet article by Paris-based journalist Shany Mor:

UNESCO “condemns Israeli aggressions” perpetrated “against the freedom of worship and Muslims’ access to Al-Aqsa,” “deplores the continuous storming of Al-Aqsa Mosque/Al-Haram Al-Sharif by Israeli right-wing extremists,” and “deeply decries the continuous Israeli aggressions” committed by “the so-called ‘Israeli antiquities’ officials.”
There’s a long history to Arab claims that Jews or Zionists or Israelis have threatened Al-Aqsa, dating back past 1930.
The power of this lie, in inciting violence ... was first understood in the 1920s by the Mufti of Jerusalem (and future Nazi collaborator) Haj Amin al-Husseini. He saw Al-Aqsa as a way of turning a local conflict, where his side might have been at a disadvantage, into a regional, religious, and even global conflict where this disadvantage could be reversed. The claim that Jews were seeking to harm Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem in 1928 was the pretext for a wave of Arab violence against Jews, culminating in the massacre a few months later of 67 Jews in Hebron.
This served as a model for future violence following false claims of Jewish threats to Al Aqsa, which occurred roughly once a decade, particularly after Israel conquered the Old City of Jerusalem in 1967. Even during the peak years of the Oslo process, the opening in 1996 of a second exit to a tourist tunnel that (despite lies to the contrary) ran under no mosque was used as a false pretext for three days of violent rioting that included two deadly attacks on Jewish holy sites in the West Bank. Global opinion universally blamed Israel for the riots.

I have never visited the region.  I remain a strong supporter of any peaceful movement which genuinely has at its heart the security and success of both peoples, and I do not regard myself as a mouthpiece for either.  But I believe UNESCO's resolution flies in the face of this, and of history.  Mor goes on, This perceived grievance stretches the bounds of irony ... immediately after conquering the Old City, Israel handed control of the Temple Mount to the Islamic Trust, and forbade any Jewish religious rite on the entire Mount, a status quo it has maintained to this day.  The world’s only Jewish state had just scored an astonishing victory over enemies who only days earlier were promising a war of extermination against it and, in the process, liberated the Jewish people’s holiest site—and promptly handed it over.  He suggests that restrictions on access to the site are imposed on Jewish, not Muslim, visitors, and that Israeli control of the Old City in the last half century has meant that Al Aqsa, is the rare Islamic holy site not to be a stage for some kind of massacre of Muslim worshipers by one or another rival branch of radical Islam, and contrasts UNESCO's attitude to Israel with its lack of focus on other agents in the region and their impact on historical sites: The construction of the El-Marwani Mosque on the southeast corner of the Mount entailed unrecoverable destruction of archaeological treasures ranging across three millennia. Unlike the imagined archaeological damage fantasists accuse Israel of committing, this was never condemned by UNESCO or any other international body. 

I simply cannot associate myself with an organization that goes out of its way to single out individual countries - especially those caught up in interminable cycles of regional and religious conflict yet which are held to higher moral standards than would ever be expected of nations free from the concerns that states like Israel has faced  - while blithely ignoring the flaws and pitfalls of its neighbours.  Many Ancient sites have been razed to the ground in recent times, by ISIS and other forces of destruction, to resounding silences from UNESCO.
I am disappointed at this turn of events.  Along with others, I had been planning several extensive events to raise money for UNESCO over the next couple of years. I waited several weeks after the initial news, in the hope that as time went by some further statement from UNESCO might suggest they had taken the time to consider the matter somewhat less one-sidedly (as with their reversal of a cancellation on the Simon Wesenthal Centre art exhibition a few years ago), but the conclusion I have reached is that although UNESCO remains in essence an important international body (of which both Israel and Palestine are members in their own respective ways), its current stance on this matter is not conducive to peace, and is unhelpful to both Israelis and Palestinians.  As an artist I do not like to tie myself into any political organization and prefer to operate outside the ideological territory of any biased group or movement, and as such, until such a time as they modify or alter their position, a continued association with UNESCO, is not something I am pursuing.