from BARDO

The stars are in our belly; the Milky Way our umbilicus.

Is it a consolation that the stuff of which we’re made

is star-stuff too?


– That wherever you go you can never fully disappear –

dispersal only: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen.


Tree, rain, coal, glow-worm, horse, gnat, rock.


Roselle Angwin

Sunday, 31 July 2011

lughnasadh: John Barleycorn must die

... so goes the old folksong, immortalised by (was it) Fairport Convention, or Steeleye Span, or Traffic – or all three? – with its mythical rippling undercurrents of ancient vegetation rites and sacrifice. Even if you don't know what it's about there's something that catches your breath in that song.

Tonight and tomorrow see the festival of Lugh, or Llew, the god of fire/light: Lughnasadh, or Lammas; the high point of the four fire festivals of the Celtic world. (In Ireland Lughnasadh lasted the whole month.)

Polar opposite to Imbolc (see February's post) which speaks to the hearth fires and the inwardness of a 'feminine' fire festival, that of the Earth Mother/Goddess, Lughnasadh is very much a solar festival and 'masculine' in quality. It symbolises, in the harvest, the culmination of the sun's light energy focused in the ripening of grain, and also a sacrifice of the old so the new may begin. Things have come to peak fruition, and the results will be harvested between now and the autumn equinox, where day and night will again be brought into balance.

So at this peak fire festival beacons are/were lit, music and dance and merriment take place, and the death/rebirth nature of sowing, reaping, dying and being reborn are celebrated – the whole cycle of transformation represented too by the marriage of the sun god with the earth goddess.

And John Barleycorn is sacrificially cut down, that the grain may be 'reborn' as bread, or ale, to sustain new life. The first barley and wheat crops here in Devon have been cut; the lanes are scattered with the leavings of broken bales of straw where the tractors' loads have been too high to clear the trees.

In our inner lives too there are cycles, of course, of things needing to be let go of that other things may come to fruition; maybe now, microcosmically mirroring the macro-, is a good time to reap the harvest of earlier sowings. I find these turning points in the years' cycles (the fire festivals sit exactly between the astronomically-determined solstices and equinoxes) useful reminders to check in with inner processes; specifically here with what has come to its peak, and what needs to be let go of that the new may enter in. And there's the turning-towards each other of the masculine and feminine principles.

In some of the Celtic places trial weddings would take place today: a year later the couple could return and dissolve the marriage if it wasn't working!

Incidentally, British place names with 'Lug' or 'Lud' in them are dedicated to the fire god Lugh, the light-bringer.

*
I'm delighted to say I wasn't cut from the R4 programme. If you're interested in hearing the Poetry Workshop session I imagine it's available as a listen-again; and also will be broadcast once more next Saturday here in the UK at 11.30pm.

*
OK my friends: unless with my Blackberry from a medieval village house in the Lot I can find wifi, and have the energy and eyesight to post from a tiny screen, this is it from me until after August 13th. Have a creative two weeks, a good harvest and month of Lughnasadh, and please come back!

Friday, 29 July 2011

hayfields, horse-dung & blossom


In case you're in at 4.30pm in the UK this Sunday coming, July 31st, the first of the new series of Poetry Workshop on Radio 4 with Ruth Padel is broadcast. With any luck they won't have cut my poem! (Aired again the following Saturday, 6th August, 11.30pm.)

Talking of cuts, I've had another little flurry of communications about the absence of my regular column in MsLexia mag. Thank you, friends. This jolted my (also absent) memory about my intention to include previous columns here. This is one of them.

‘Being a writer is a whole way of life,’ says Natalie Goldberg; ‘a way of seeing, thinking, being.’
  In my columns I addressed what I consider to be core practice for a writer: finding ways to open conduits from the fertile life of the subconscious realm into the conscious mind, and finding starting points for making use of the flow of images, memories, associations and feelings that arise and are captured in ‘stream-of-consciousness’ writing.
  This practice can be deepened so much by including close observation. Paying attention, really paying attention, is key to writing of any kind: poetry, fiction, non-fiction.
  Much of the work I do with others, whether schoolchildren or adults, takes place outside. I ask people to register and record their sensory response with close attention to the environment, and then to pay attention to the relationship they make with what they perceive – in other words, to the flow between inner and outer.
  Something I stress is the way we overlook certain senses in favour of our eyes, or our ears; so I also ask people to relate consciously and singly via each sense (if appropriate, including taste): so often we forget the potency of smell, or the messages received via the haptic. There’s a certain Zen discipline in this: when we’re fingertipping the moss, describing the exact shade of the first bluebell, the feel of bare feet on cool sand or hot tarmac, noticing the distant roar of traffic, sinking teeth into a sharp apple, catching a whiff of hayfields or horse-dung, we’re doing it with all of ourselves, bringing everything to this moment, this now.
  Clearly, close observation includes observation of our own species, too: invaluable for fiction writers. More on that another time; but if you'd like to put this observation into practice, here's a start. Take your notebook outside, and find a place, where there is plenty of foreground detail but where you can also see the horizon. 
  You’ll see that in one of the five stages I also invite in imagination and/or memory.
  This exercise is most effective if you keep your responses brief and vivid – just a few lines each time, and stay with the present tense. Please feel free to be poetic!
  Spend some time noticing, and then jot down, what you perceive in the environment in front of you in the:
1.    Foreground – a spread of a few metres
2.    Middle distance – not close enough to be aware of much detail
3.    Horizon
4.    Over the horizon
5.    Very close up and detailed – within centimetres or fewer: an insect, a piece of lichen, a mark or stain, your thumbtip.

Which of these proved easy, and which more challenging? It can also prove fruitful to apply this template separately to your inner, or personal, life. Is there a way then to bring the two together?

Sharp-eyed readers might spot that my post yesterday sort-of followed these guidelines.

Thursday, 28 July 2011

speaking of now

Here a late bee bobs at the lavender, and behind, in the lilies, the dusky rustle of frog and vole begins. Cat's tail twitches.

The troupe of great-tits have left off their clamour at the feeder, and the scarlet runner bean flowers have lost their accoutrements – two young greenfinches, now long gone from the bamboo perch.

In a minute the smoke of bats will begin there – just there – from the roof ridge. Behind the house a gallop of Friesian bullocks washes down the hillside to the stream. The hay tractor strains up to the brow for the twentieth time – but still no rain, despite the forecast. Away towards the quarry pool there's a mumble of geese, and a young buzzard's whistling lament from the nest in the woods.

From further than I can see comes the muted racket of train. Over the hill out of sight, too, are the five young calves so long without water – I would pray to any god listening that the watergod be kind to them, and soon. I would pray to them all for the Norwegian parents, the Syrian parents, the Palestinian parents – the list goes on.

I am here, quiet, safe, in the courtyard. Another day alive; another day in paradise (though I forget, sometimes, to see). A small wind gets up, strolls in the willow-tops.

If you were here I'd show you all this. And I'd show you the bumble bee I've just lifted from the dog's water bowl – stroke those velvety rust, golden, sooty stripes, notice the one shiny leg waving in the air.

'Be safe,' I'd say. 'Know you are loved.'

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

architecture of a wasps' nest



Read this literally rather than metaphorically – though no doubt there's a symbolism in it too...

Over the last few weeks I've been watching a colony of wasps building a nest (I notice there's a bee/wasp/hornet thread running through my posts! I'm not whatever the entomological equivalent of a 'twitcher' is; I suppose it's just general interest in wildlife, and a certain pleasure in learning about those creatures we usually love to hate.)

They've been constructing this low down in the earthy bank of an old Devon holloway, overhung by foliage. First they tunneled out a horizontal adit, maybe 25 or 30 cms deep. Then painstakingly over many days a number of them started to build a nest, forwards towards the entrance, with their architectural layers of slightly waxy papery secretions (the texture's that of wood ash). Finally, most recently, they started to build a kind of flap/fixed portcullis downwards across the entrance, made from mud; in effect a door with a tiny entrance and exit very low down. At this stage you wouldn't have known there was a wasps' nest behind it, sunk safely into the bank.

Next thing, a couple of days ago, the whole structure's been smashed – weeks of work gone. And I have no idea who or why. It's unlikely to be another human – the nest was very well-hidden, very low down, and hardly anyone ever walks that tiny track. (Plus you'd be braving a swarm of angry wasps.)  Anyone paying enough attention as to notice it in the first place would probably have been someone actively interested in natural history and its ways, and unlikely to have smashed it.

As far as I know, wasps don't make honey; so I don't imagine it was a predator after that. I suppose it could have been a creature after the grubs; which creature eats wasp grubs and will brave the stings (on a sensitive nose/face?) to get to them?

If anyone knows this, please send me a Comment!

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

political extremism and acts of hatred

Like most of us, I assume, I find it hard to shake off the world's horrors; and there are so many I find I can't usually even start to go there in this blog. I'm fumbling to find what I want to express here, but it's something to do with trying to offset global horrors; paying attention to the world; seeing it in as clear-eyed a way as possible ('this is how it is right here right now'); seeking ways of being that go beyond knee-jerk reactivity and blatant materialism; and honouring more soul-filled ways of living.

There's something too about trying to take into account the whole picture. This has to include having the imagination to be empathic, to walk a mile in another's shoes, etc.

Because much of my thinking is influenced by Zen, there's a wish to explore the enduring as mirrored in the transient; or that might take us in that direction, anyway.

Yes, there is a 'but'. My approach above doesn't mean, though, that one has to be quietist. We also have to engage with the political issues of our time, and question what a 'right response' might be. I don't pretend that poetry is enough, or observing the natural world is enough – in themselves; though it is also necessary to find generous, cultural, heartful, creative and/or spiritual activities that speak to and of the soul, in my view, to offset the sum of human atrocities and destructiveness. But when there's a case of injustice, it needs to be spoken of. I admire hugely the people who will stick their heads above the parapet in the name of political, social and environmental justice without worrying about personal cost.

Right now, I'm thinking about Friday's Norwegian atrocity, and about how the first speculation that appeared in various news channels immediately blamed Islam. Increasingly, and fairly swiftly, the evidence was that it was not a Muslim extremist cell; and yet the media still ran with that view. Saturday's Sun newspaper was blaming Al Qaeda and likening the massacre to 9/11. How can this do anything other than continue to feed the Western anti-Muslim paranoia; and how can that do anything other than increase the divide, the hostilities, between the West and Islam?

And how much more so if, despite all the evidence that has shown conclusively that in fact the gunman was a far-right anti-Muslim extremist, a sector of the public still holds on tight to the fact that somehow, somehow, Islam must be behind, and to blame for, this?

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/jul/24/charlie-brooker-norway-mass-killings

Monday, 25 July 2011

pool, your life as a novel, wildlife, Bly on poetry

The quarry pool just after dawn: two moorhens, trout rising (photoshopped photo):



And now just at the dusk of that rare and wonderful thing – a whole day off! Harvesting new potatoes, more garlic, a few marigolds.



I've had a weekend of very intensive courses here: Saturday a writing from life day looking at the themes that weave through our individual lives, and yesterday a day exploring work-in-progress in relation to participants' novels. Having led fewer courses this year (burnout), it felt very good to welcome some people, mostly 'old hands' at my courses, to my beautiful (if shambolic) loft space.

The perk of leading a weekend course is that I allowed myself to have today off (there's always more to do than I can stay on top of as a freelance – ironically little of it to do with my actual writing, and much to do with admin in relation to present or future courses; and that's before I think of partner, daughter, friends, family including incapacitated parents, dogwalking and veg garden – oh and writing – not necessarily in order of significance!) – and there's an extra deliciousness in the slightly illicit sense that most working weeks involve working on a Monday...

And so I've been lying in the orchard immersing myself in more Motorcycle Maintenance, Waddell's Peter Abelard (thank you MM for the cue; and related spotify coming up) and Robert Bly's Talking All Morning.

On Saturday I slip out for a breather while the writing-from-life writers are looking at 'what under no circumstances would you give up?' which is a question I feel is crucial to plotting a novel, from the point of view of the main character – this can show motivation and drive, and point to the source of potential conflict, both in a plot and, I think, in a life. Wandering up the path beside my shed/loft, I emerge from under the holly and little oaks and ashes into the light of the orchard – and there, sitting up like a dog, is a full-grown fox sunning itself, ears pricked! We check each other out for perhaps two minutes before it decides – what's that phrase? 'Caution is the better part of valour'? – and lopes off through the undergrowth.

Then later, dusk, I meander out to look at the pink quiet sky. Standing by the woodpile (inhaling the good tannin smell of oak logs in the woodstore, slated and all, that The Man built) I hear a small scratchy rustle, like giant beetle wings; and then one after another a little smoke of bats stream out from a gap maybe 2mm deep between the slates of the loft and the ridge tile – that explains the scrabbling I so often hear above my head if I'm working late here!  I count 23, either all horseshoe with young, or a mix of horseshoe and pipistrelle. A little wonder.

So I'm reading Robert Bly. This is a book of his essays on poetry. He's speaking of poetry and the political, but it's clear to me that it's not just about the political, but about the whole process of immersion. Listen: '...what is needed to write good poems about the outward world is inwardness... the truth is that the political poem comes out of the deepest privacy... The life of the nation can be imagined also not as something deep inside our own psyche, but as a ... larger sphere...  In order for the poet to write a true political poem, he has to be able to have such a grasp of his own concerns that he can leave them for a while, and then leap up into this other [collective] pysche. He wanders about there for a while, and as he returns he brings back plant seeds that have stuck to his clothes, some inhabitants of this curious sphere, which he then tries to keep alive with his own psychic body...  A true political poem is a quarrel with ourselves... like the personal poem, it moves to deepen awareness.'

being another syllable

To lie all the green day
in this summer meadow

to hear the grass roots murmur
in their long stretch up to light

to be an unthought
in the day's bright dreaming

grass blade, swallow, human –
all tunes for the wind to dance in


Roselle Angwin

Saturday, 23 July 2011

never mind cleansing the doors of perception - break the glass!

So many words
and none
to describe
the simple cycles
of the sun towards west
this moon rising east

In the bowl of the valley
one dusk-winged heron flies south
towards the sea
and above in still clear twilight
buzzard flaps in languorous
widening circles
upwards     and     upwards

Break the glass and fall
towards the glassblower's lips
says Rumi

What we all want is
a love so light
it can fly
so deep the ocean comes
to our call


Roselle Angwin

Friday, 22 July 2011

and then there are other days

Just to counter yesterday's writing, here's one of my poems from Looking For Icarus (bluechrome 2005; hopefully to be reissued by IDP).

This one won a small prize somewhere or other.


Against the Ice
Contra el agua, diás de fuego  Paz
 
There are mornings when you wonder
how anything ever turns out right -
 
when we’re all refugees trudging scorched soil
without hope; without anything;
 
yet in the face of all odds
snowdrops still break iceblack soil
 
swollen plums blush in the August sun
despite pollution, genetics and sprays
 
and there are insects who still know
what pollen to merge with which.
 
 
Then there are evenings when out of the stillness
a huge wind rises to stride through the leaves
 
and sets fat drops of rain glistening
like fairy-lights amongst the mulberries;
 
And times when the voice of a blackbird
breaks you open
 
and you go out into everything, your heart
on fire like a sunflower in a landscape
 
that ripples with song, with something
that cannot be suppressed.
 
 
 
- Roselle Angwin
 

Thursday, 21 July 2011

there are days...

The courtyard, liminal zone.
Tricksy east wind. Sun alighting restless, strobed through leaves, on my face in morning meditation.
Stillpoint; and today not so still. Too many challenges on too many fronts.
A little despair, here, today, glittering off the leaves, pooling on the flagstones.
And. It's not just personal.
So the government is going ahead, despite independent scientific advice to the contrary, with a badger cull (this threat has been rumbling on for years. Theory is it's badgers transmit TB to cattle. Likelihood is it's just as probable the other way round, and the real culprit is agribusiness and intensive and inhumane farming practices.)
I know there are (also) bigger global things to worry about; but this, globally speaking (but also because this has knocked me back personally on top of loads of other stress) is the shoelace breaking when you're running for the train on top of marriage breakdown, job loss, house repossession (I'm speaking entirely metaphorically here, and not personally!). The little last straw. And it's one of several campaigns I've been personally committed to, for a long time; and for a little while it looked as if the tide was turning towards vaccination. But now we've lost it.
Scapegoating. The demonisation again of the wild.
How we humans love to blame.

When are we going to learn to live with heart?

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

that tricky axis: intimacy & solitude

Driving up the M5 yesterday I followed one of those caravans plastered in stickers of 'Places I've Visited'. Above them and prominent were two stickers of moose (meese?) – the kind that are popular among a few people – if that's not an oxymoron – in GB. The big one on the right, back of the steering wheel in other words, was presumably representing 'him'. Beside it but on the same side was a smaller moose, presumably representing 'her'. They were facing in opposite directions, rump to rump.

I smiled at this, amused. But it also got me thinking about what that symbolic statement conveyed, which in turn got me thinking about a long term preoccupation of mine linked in to my psycho-spiritual interests: the intimacy/solitude axis.

'This tension – between the solitary voyage and the longing for love and companionship', says novelist Rose Tremain in a Guardian Review, '...before I had written anything worth publishing, yet already aching to succeed as a novelist, I understood that these conflicting desires lie at the heart of most writers' lives and would lie at the heart of mine.'

I think this is hugely insightful – and yes, it's core. I certainly see it in my writing and themes to which I return both as author (fiction and n-f) and as poet. But I'd add that these conflicting desires lie at the heart of any life.

This is a biggie, and underpins perhaps all our relationships. There's of course a whole book on this (and many have been written), and this is only a blog-page. But I guess we can't escape from the fact that in order to be at peace, and be psychologically healthy, we need to face and reconcile the apparent conflict between the two poles in ourselves. We all need both, to a greater or lesser degree (and therein, clearly, lies the trouble).

We are alone, speaking existentially: no one else can do our being born into space and time for us; no one else can do our dying. But within that, one of the most rewarding experiences possible to a human, it seems to me, is that of genuine and loving intimacy (and although I here mean with another or other human/s, I'm not speaking of the sexual relationship necessarily – I suspect true loving intimacy there is rarer than one might hope. And one can also be spiritually and psychologically intimate of course with oneself – that seems a necessity for healthy relationships 'out there', with close friends and family, with other species, with a landscape).

And then there's the cosmos: how to be intimate with the cosmos, feel ourselves directly as a part of it? To be distinct, in the way that a river is distinct – and also utterly connected from rain to ground water to source to sea...


Waking up to these facts, really waking up to them and what they mean, might be something to do with growing into psychological maturity, and its rights and responsibilities. (I don't know – ask me when I've made it!)

So: we have company along the way: 'You have to do it (this journey) alone,' says John Rowan; 'but you don't have to be alone to do it.'

So there's this urgent need for merging; and I don't believe this is simply explained by a mainstream behaviourist 'take', which seems to me reductionist and therefore hugely limited: that our need for merging is simply a desire to return to the womb. I think there's a more profound metaphysical need there to experience ourselves as truly connected, truly belonging, truly a part of everything, rather than 'apart from'.

In our culture, though, with no cultural religious container, we so often and completely unconsciously attempt to get this need met via a human 'other', who of course can't carry a project this size. I've written a great deal on this elsewhere* – how our biggest experience of merging in the Western secular postmodernist world (if not through barrier-dropping mind alteratives such as alcohol and drugs, and at times through music, art, poetry, dance, the outdoors) is through falling in love – and have a great deal more to write. And many others have written of it at length.

And then there's the need for solitude, in many of us unrecognised (but perhaps less so if one makes one's way in a creative field); and the cause of a lot of trouble if left unrecognised.

And it's an axis, isn't it, and each of us finds ourselves, knowingly or more usually not, somewhere on that axis.

The trouble comes in relationship when two people's models are different (which I guess is probably the default); when they're at different places on 'the line'. All that jostling, all that frustration and disappointment and resentment: one wants more space, one wants more closeness. One pushes for connection, one withdraws into silence. In co-dependent relationship (as opposed to interdependent) – and let's face it most of us muddle up love and co-dependence – each carries the projected unconscious needs of the other, and both are fearful of what they see 'out there' as the other's extreme neediness, or perhaps extreme withdrawal.

I guess a healthy relationship has to include acknowledgment of all this, and a conscious commitment to working on one's own stuff around intimacy and solitude – as with everything else. Maybe happiness is partly to do with an awareness of what we can and must do for ourselves, and a comfortable relationship with both being alone and with our own requirements for intimacy; plus a sense of what it's reasonable or realistic to expect or ask from, and also to give to, another. (Motivation is part of the picture, too, isn't it? Am I giving to give, or am I giving to get something back?)

So then there's the inescapable question, articulated by archetypal psychologist James Hollis: 'What am I asking of the other that I should be doing for myself?' And the corollary: 'What am I doing for the other that s/he needs to be doing for him/herself?'

And these things have preoccupied me for so many years now because yes of course they're also what I'm working with. It's never-ending, as long as we're alive, this process...




Over the last 25 years, since doing a training in transpersonal counselling, I've led workshops in this and related subjects, as well of course as in writing. If you live in Britain with access to the southwest, and think you'd be interested in exploring this on a weekend or week-long course or even regular short workshops, or maybe in one-to-one mentoring using writing as a tool, let me know: roselle[at]fire-in-the-head.co.uk (the mentoring can be done via the internet too).

* In a number of essays and articles, and also in my first book Riding the Dragon – myth & the inner journey

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Zen & the art of motorcycle maintenance take two

The truth comes knocking at your door (he says). You open it. Go away, you say: I'm looking for the truth. The truth goes away, puzzling.

I look up from the story. I know this almost as well as I know my hands. Well, OK, maybe my shoulder blades. Is this his, or Zen/Taoist/Confucian? I smile. Oh yes – I remember.

I know almost nothing about motorcycle maintenance. I did, sort of, learn to ride a BSA Bantam belonging to my first boyfriend when I was a student; one of the few bikes which allowed my feet to touch the ground at a junction. A later non-boyfriend stripped his motorbike down, oil and all, on my bed – luckily I was away at the time, having lent him my room in the long vac, as a student. Having wrecked my bedding, he paid me a very small amount of compensation – I don't know, £20 maybe? – enough, in those days, to buy me a second-hand guitar (and I didn't worry too much about sheets and bed-throws). I'd just learnt to fingerpick the best Donovan songs when my not-yet-husband decided to take my guitar on an extended tour of Europe, neglecting to tell me. The things we did in the name of being laid-back, man, in the late seventies...

Anyway, my friend Bridget, who (no doubt illegally) stuffed my dog between the two of us on the back of her motorbike in Dorset one summer – she knew how to strip down a motorbike, too. Our friends used the universal joint she took out of her Honda as an ashtray for their – errr – joints.

I did know a bit about how to fix my Citroen deux chevaux, though. A memorable incident on Totnes High Street, which is quite steep, when my fan-belt went (I was mid-twenties I guess), had me tearing a narrow strip from the all-round hem of my much-loved green and blue and cerise skirt to makeshift a fan-belt. It worked. And here's a story: another deux chevaux of mine caught fire on the motorway. I have a memory of attempting to douse the flames using my wooden clog and a neighbouring puddle. Turned out a mouse had eaten through the corrugated card – not kidding – heating duct under the bonnet, and the tube had dropped on the exhaust manifold and ignited.

So here I am. I haven't met him for 30 years. Now I pick him up on impulse from the bookshelf, settle on the sofa beneath the skylight in the lovely room with the French window and huge woodburner, and – hesitate. You can't always revisit. I open him.

We haven't forgotten each other. I grin. I know him.

The truth comes knocking at our door. What does it take to answer it, say YES?

Another grin. My girl knows him too: in between last time and this time, at round about the age I was when I first met him, she too found him, read him, got him. Thumbs up to you, beautiful daughter, she-who's-learning-to-answer-the-door-to-the-truth.

And a bow to you, Mr Pirsig.

herepaths

Checking out Thurlbear Woods in the Blackdowns today (wind and swaying sunlight, ancient broadleaf woodland, prehistoric trackways, herepaths, crossing-points) for a Littorals poetry & land art workshop...


As close as a lover's face –
how many storms have shaken it
how many rivers traced its creases
beetles' feet confided in its cracks and crevices
lives flashed beneath it
hands reached to touch, caress, its wizened bark
as I do, now, in my own brief passing?

Monday, 18 July 2011

a book blog: Jason Kirkey; and A Printmakers' Poetica

Once in a while you come across a writer who hits the heart; with whose emphasis and values you resonate. As you'll know if you've been following my blog, Jim Perrin in his book West has been one such.

Another, in a different and quieter way, is Jason Kirkey. I'm not sure how I first came across Kirkey's work; but I think it was in connection with some druidic study. Kirkey wrote The Salmon in the Spring – the ecology of Celtic spirituality; this is a wide-ranging, erudite and inspiring (if occasionally over-wordy – but who am I to speak) book that combines scholarly knowledge with Kirkey's exploration of the esoteric Celtic shamanic tradition, in which he interweaves his interest in Buddhism (both of which inform my own spiritual path).

Kirkey is frighteningly young to have developed such depth of wisdom and insight; but if I say that he has been pursuing for many years various studies in consciousness at both Naropa and the California Institute of Integral Studies (and I am sick with envy at this!) it will become obvious that this guy is unusual and his field of vision not that of the mainstream. 

I found on the internet, looking for Salmon, his 'Earth House Sutras' (accompanied by some exquisite photographic images). I was rather blown away by them (and synchronously had been writing my own series of landscape sutras). 

Now Kirkey's brought out Estuaries (the cover image is my own scan and is of a comparatively poor quality; the book's colour reproduction is very good, and yet the cover price is reasonable). 


Accompanied by James Liter's fine photographs are a number of Kirkey's poems, among them the Winter sutra:

1
I am ready
to live with the wrens
and the cedars
to slough off 
my mind
on the mountain.

11
There is nothing but stillness here –
stillness and wind.
They flirt like squirrels
among the branches. 

As happens in the best books where text and images are combined, the photos don't 'illustrate' the text, but add to and enrich our depth of immersion through speaking to our senses.

Kirkey's concern is with the discovery of a common language with which to speak to and with, as well as the more common 'of', mountains, rivers, forests – the whole non-human (and fast disappearing) world. He manages to combine a driving passion for the non-human and an awareness of the acceleration of loss of wild without himself losing the felt experience of being part of, rather than apart from, this natural world of which his poetry is a celebration. There are passages in the book in which Kirkey speaks with that voice, so redolent of Buddhist teaching or the mystic's experience, that transcends the dualism of the separateness of 'self and other', or 'here and there': 'A single cicada is singing / from everywhere / on the branch of a maple tree.'

Anyone who is tuned in to wilderness will be aware of Thoreau, that great nature-writer. One of my favourite poems in this book is 'Thoreau's Cabin':

Walked into Walden Pond –
really into it.
The body upright among its
lapping tongues and eddies,
dragonflies in the sun like flames
to light a fire in the waves.
I stand with minnows,
"in wildness the preservation
of the world."'

The book's blurb says: 'Too often poetry is thought of as the domain of human creativity with its source in the depths of the imagination... The poems in Estuaries suggest that speech and poetry are fundamentally rooted in the ecosystem – the detritus of fallen leaves, the curvature of a river bend, and the sound of rain on a heron's wings. All this might be regarded as the speech of the earth. When we speak or write poetry that engages these voices we become participant in the patterns of the watershed.'

This, I would say, is a pretty good manifesto for Kirkey's work, which also includes the founding of Hiraeth Press ('hiraeth' is the Welsh word for a longing or craving, usually applied to the longing after a kind of soul-home), and editorship of a new and wonderful eco-journal Written Rivers; originally an e-journal, this has just become available as printed copy; not cheap, as it again lavishly and skillfully incorporates photography, but it's the kind of work of art all too rare in the non-commercial world of literary magazines. (I'm proud to say that a couple of my own poems appear in the current edition.)

www.hiraethpress.com
www.jasonkirkey.com
www.magcloud.com/browse/issue/215661

*

Completely different is A Printmakers’ Poetica. I felt as nervous as a mother holding someone else's newborn baby lifting and turning the pages of this exquisite limited edition several-hundred-pounds'-worth handmade book (the word 'book' feels too pedestrian for this work of art).

This is a huge project. The brainchild of Jenny Pery, who coordinated it, the brief was for a selection of Devon printmakers to pick favourite poems and make work in imaginative response to those poems. Each book contains a number of individual prints, each with its relevant poem-inspiration, and is entirely handmade. Printmaker Joanna Radford was largely responsible for making the books, with the help of the individual printmakers who did some of the sewing and sticking. Most of the poems are by 'household name' poets – both dead and alive. I'm privileged in that Mary Gillett, one of the artists, who also comes to my Two Rivers poetry days, chose 'Bavarian Gentians' by D H Lawrence, and 'Coming to Shiant Island', by myself (not in any way suggesting I'm a 'household name' poet!), as her sources of inspiration.

Here's her print, and below it my poem.



etching by Mary Gillett, for 'Coming to Shiant Island'

 Coming to Shiant Island

The sea thins. The birlinn’s bows
part the fog like a finger through milk.
Below, the blue underworld of the Minch
still churns and roils, clutches at your keel.
The wind keens. What you were
peels away astern. No journey
worth making is easy. Here what you
learn will come from winter gnawing
the shingle, the play of cloud on sea,
the fires you succeed in igniting;
from the endurance of turf and granite,
the puffins’ lack of fear. You will make
your home in light and storm and rabbit-
scat, in the arms of the four winds.
The keel grinds on the shoreline.
You step out. The future begins.

Roselle Angwin

Sunday, 17 July 2011

notes from the courtyard

There's not a lot more satisfying than eating one's own veg. So today's Sunday lunch (a rare event in this household):  roast new potatoes in olive oil (yes haven't found a local organic veg oil yet, and our neighbouring smallholder sells organic Palestinian olive oil), huge baked onions, baked fat red garlic, mangetout peas and the first broad beans, carrot thinnings, cavallo nero kale (the dark pointy one); and foraged wild sorrel and wild 'fat hen'. Would have added plate-sized cep mushrooms from the woods but the mice got there first. Did add a quorn roast, bought. 

Smile.

 (Am cheating: this photo's from my last cottage, three years ago – had 100+ globe artichokes there, and haven't managed to get any to thrive here; and nor are our courgettes or French beans anything like at this stage yet. We won't talk about my sweet peas. Instead I'll say how pleased I was to find corn marigolds in the next door field.)


The courtyard's been chattering with rain. Yesterday, to my distress, the cat brought in one of our young great tits, which died in my hands. I like all animals but I'd never keep a cat for that reason (she belongs to my partner's daughter). Is it 10,000,000 songbirds that die at the teeth of cats each year in GB? (Not to mention all those intensively-farmed animals that come in tins.)


This morning I sat by the open French doors from the kitchen into the courtyard, watching the birds, a Bach sonata quietly on the CD player. The other 15 or so great tits were doing their acrobatic stuff : abseiling up the quarryface (normally there's a trickle of water there from which they drink but not this summer), shimmying up the bean poles, spiralling round the 'shepherd's crook' birdfeeder pole with one wing out like ballerinas, jettisoning themselves from the tips of the azalea to the roots, having great tit tiffs over the peanuts, and even taking a fragranced shower, deliberately shaking the wet leaves of the lemon verbena over themselves and flurrying their feathers; all the time swiveling their heads swiftly from side-to-side like those nodding dogs you used to get in car rear windows (and do once again, I see, presumably ironically).


Above us, wings scooped back to hold still against the wind, was one of the buzzards, tutelary spirit of the valley.



Saturday, 16 July 2011

the inland sea behind us

Even a Gordian knot is unbraided by walking – the rhythm, the moving in, through and on a landscape. For as long as I can remember this has been salve and solace for me; especially if the sea is involved.

So today in changing weather TM and I sallied forth with the Trusty Hound (you might remember perhaps She-who-wears-her-grey-matter-on-the outside from previous posts) for Slapton Sands (bit of a misnomer, as it's all shingle).

We had an excellent coffee at the new StreteGate beach-cabin opposite the little walled garden woodland walk (earmarked now for an ecopoetry/storytelling workshop day, or a Littorals workshop with my land artist friend Michael).


The southwest has at least 3 inland lagoons back of the sea: there's Loe Bar on the Lizard in Cornwall, where as a child I found what was to me a precious jewel: a tiny piece of oval sea-polished serpentine, a deep ruby red at one end and a deep moss-green at the other. There's the Fleet at Abbotsbury, in Dorset, with its snow of swans, a truly magical place for me. And there is Slapton Ley, barely a half hour's drive from home and yet to which I haven't been since my daughter was 3 or 4: I remember her round cheeks purple with cold but her laughing excitement at so many miles of (shingly) sand, and the 'other' inland sea just behind us.


I had forgotten the shingly flora, so similar to the flora of my childhood Braunton Burrows back of Saunton Beach: horned poppy, chamomile, viper's bugloss, trefoil, restharrow, sea thistle, miniature mallow, yarrow, horsetail (equisetum arvense - unchanged since prehistoric times) and the wonderful bright blue chicory.
And the birds – I was in heaven – wild geese, swan, coots with their glottal-stopped peeping whistles, duck, reed buntings, swallows, martins, black-headed gulls, and comical young starlings simply dropping from the thatched eaves outside the pub at the far end of the Sands to within a couple of inches of diners' plates and strutting unselfconsciously towards the morsels.

Having been brought up in a Devon village close to the sea, and running free in meadows and woods and hills and on the beaches with animals, wild and otherwise, for company, the culture-shock of arriving for university in a flat, albeit old and beautiful, city in the east of England was almost too much. I never got used to it, and yearned to get back to the coast and the hills; and despite making good friends felt miserably alone without animal life, wild or otherwise, around me. It was enough though to lift my heart simply to see a wild bird. I used up my grant (I was one of the lucky ones) each term getting out of the city to the (flat) East Anglian coast as often as I could; having spent my grant, in order to eat I cleaned loos in a pizza parlour after they closed at night and then cycled the couple of miles back in the dark on the (terrifyingly dangerous) fast Huntingdon Road in the early hours.


I've just finished Perrin's book West. I spun it out as long as I could. It is simply one of the profoundest, most profoundly moving, and erudite, books I have ever read. I'm missing it.

I'm thinking, as so often, about our relationship to the wild. So many ways humans respond to it: fear it; revere it; objectify it; go out and lose yourself in it (more about that in a minute); have it come in and wash through your life; find yourself in it, and establish an intimate friendship with it.

Here's Perrin again, echoing so much my own experience: '... closeness with a natural landscape is a life-changing experience, taking you into dimensions previously unsuspected, initiating you into the earth's mysteries, reinstating the old human senses that urban civilization has atrophied... In all weathers, in all lights or no light, at all seasons these hills became my intimates, disclosing, confiding. I slipped among them in the company of chough, raven and peregrine; of fox, polecat and hare... What the walking did, then and now, was to establish what I cannot but see as the most crucial, fulfilling and redemptive relationship of my life – the one on which all others depend and from which they have taken their contexts. Thoreau... puts the view to which I hold most succinctly: "To insure health, a man's relation to Nature must come very near to a personal one; he must be conscious of a friendliness in her; when human friends fail or die, she must stand in the gap. I cannot conceive of any life which deserves the name, unless there is a certain tender relation to Nature."'


Here at Dartington the Ways With Words festival continues. Alongside Matt Harvey and Chris Tutton, I gave a poetry reading from Deborah Gaye's wonderful anthology in aid of breast cancer: Of Love and Hope. So many anthologies are a mixed bag; this one is pretty well inspiring all the way through (all profits go to breast cancer charities). Between-the-covers bedfellows to Yeats, Marvell, Shakespeare, Neruda are many big-name more contemporary poets: Sharon Olds, Ginsberg, Andrew Motion, Don Paterson, Carl Ann Duffy, Brian Patten, Adrian Mitchell, Seamus Heaney, Leonard Cohen, Elaine Feinstein etc etc who have donated their poems. I read about 10 poems, including some of mine, and one in particular by David Constantine that moved me tremendously: 'Swallows on the Island'.

Yesterday morning I went to hear Neil Ansell speak. Ansell is the author of Deep Country; a book about his five years, in his early 30s, living in mid-Wales without road access (and no car), electricity, running water, phone, clock, radio (until later) or neighbours in a cottage he rented for £100 a year (plus poll tax as it then was). He could, he said, walk west 20 miles from the cottage and not come to a road, fence or habitation. Foraging, growing his own food, bringing in and chopping up his wood to light the fire on which he cooked and that was all the heating he had (been there – I know just how obsessive one becomes about collecting every fallen branch or near-rotting log on every excursion), he spent his days otherwise simply watching raven, redstart, blackbird, kite, or staring at the flames. By year two he had slipped a sense of self; he almost forgot how to talk (friends might visit every few months but otherwise he'd walk to the Post Office every fortnight or so for basic provisions and that would be it for verbal communication), and simply became a part of all that was around him.

The more he spoke the more I saw that what was happening to him was what my many years of Zen practice have been directed at: simply slipping the egoic sense of a separate self and going out into All That Is, being it. There are many moments (but only moments) when I achieve it, usually alone outdoors; for Ansell it became the status quo. I had just formulated this thought in relation to Buddhist practice when he said: 'My Buddhist friends say that that sounds like meditation practice, but for me it wasn't a conscious choice – it's what happened.'

And the silence and the solitude have, he said, become part of who he is, and see him through his family life now back in the city.

And more on solitude anon.

And I forgot to say that at Slapton we were picking ripe blackberries almost as big as plums – and six weeks or so early.

Thursday, 14 July 2011

the waters before


The waters before and the waters after
Now and forever flowing, follow each other.


from The Zenrin

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

ego, the wild, the west & a hornets' nest: Part 11

Not the real hornets' nest
Here in the lush and temperate southwest of England even we are seeing the results of more extreme weather. By the stream the willows are yellowing, despite torrential rain coming on the heels of much sun. The hazelnuts are already fat and sturdy; foxgloves dropping blossom; and the Michaelmas daisies associated with the end of summer are in flower too. Still so few swallows around; and only a couple of hornets, where last year we had a large number emerging from the intricate architecture of their nest on a huge old oak across the valley, flying to feed on blackfly on the willow outside my study door.

The mangetout peas are prolific, and at last the sweetcorn is flowering and broad beans nearly ready, though our climbing beans and courgettes are not thriving.

*

My challenge here is to keep what I want to write about brief, not to say succinct. (Ha!) I've some poetry assignments to respond to, and as always more emails and promotional stuff for courses than I can stay on top of. And it's Ways With Words literary festival this week – apart from reading myself on Thursday, there are events I'm attending too.

Here I want to follow on from my June post on the compass of the heart, and also from Monday's Part 1, where I spoke of ego and our so-called 'civilised' attitudes that marginalise the wild.

*
The wild and the west
That wonderful book I mentioned in June: Jim Perrin's West – a journey through the landscapes of loss has become one of the books I can't bear to finish, so I've been rationing it. It's a book about wild, and wild living (that is living close to the natural world rather than having one's life dictated by societal norms); it's a book about love and loss, it's a book about philosophy, natural history, climbing, poetry and an inner journey. It's hugely erudite, resonant and enormously inspiring. It's also exquisitely written; it out-poets poets' writing without being self-conscious. I want to copy out whole chunks, or the whole book, and share them/it with everyone!

But since I can't, I'm going to restrict myself here to picking up the theme of west, by copying out bits of a longer passage (until this two-finger typist who should be doing other work tires of it/or I'm getting to the stage where I'm breaching copyright!).

On the medicine wheel of various shamanic traditions, including the native British, west is the direction of water and the feeling nature; dissolution and dispersal, dreaming, death and letting go.

Here's Perrin: 'A tenet of Celtic Christianity – the branch religion Augustine was concerned to eliminate – is that to follow sunwise, westwards, is to take some steps towards the wisdom the access to which is through a loss or abnegation of power; is to apprehend the metaphor implicit both in the sun's slantwise celebration and enlargement of the natural world (think how small the hills become at high-summer noon, how they rear in the evening light), and in the greater beauty at its setting than at its zenith. Reflective fragments of history and culture still attach to these furthermost places of an old land: Scotland and the Western Isles, the West of Ireland, Cornwall, Wales... The structures, contexts and perceived necessities of our 'western' society, its insistence on straight thinking and dismissal of the crooked path of the sage, have marginalized the unsupported living in these places more than ever before...

'I watch the walkers on the coastal paths of the west, and catch at the sense emanating from them of something unstated, unconscious, drawing them there, aspiring in true pilgrim fashion after Grace. If the land inspires in us the capacity to love, then love has entered our souls, and we are connected in The One. And connected too in the loveliest places with the echo of moments in locations where humane values have flourished, and may flourish still, as they do not flourish throughout much of our soft-totalitarian state, with its subservience to capital, its desperate need to control and restrict and own and possess, its posturing inauthenticities, its addiction to empty and gratuitous sensation, its rabid underbelly, its abject squeaking fear of difference...

'So I make an effort to give definition to the idea that West, like East, is not only place but also distinctive and therapeutic state of mind – a letting-go, a coming-to-terms with the wilderness within, a celebration of the beauty of wild nature without which spaciousness and annihilating glory our lives are the more savage. Our society's multi-dimensional failure is in the turning to security, the reliance on currency you can grasp and hoard. That gilded wave-crest, those flung diamonds, the squeal and chatter of mating choughs – inexpressible riches! – what vault would hold them, and what could they buy?... This moment... is all the life we have, and it is for the living.'

Mmmm.

Perrin's book is a coming-to-terms, expressly, with the suicide of his son, and the death of his lover, within months of each other. He also tells us in passing that he himself has had a diagnosis of cancer; but there is no self-pity in this book; just a sense of authenticity, great love, questioning, deep sorrow and celebration.

And the hornets' nest... nothing to do with either the literal one, or Stieg Larsson's book, but a literary one.

I have a very strong sense of fairness and justice, and cannot always shut up where others might have the wisdom to do so. Amazon has or has had a couple of 'reviews' of this book that are negative to the point of vindictiveness. [Just checked: some of the original reviews have been removed, leaving one or two more-or-less innocuously unfavourable ones.] The reviewers, family members of Perrin's lover, were, let's say, very strong in their condemnation of the book and Perrin's motivations.

Clearly I can't know what really went on in the heart of this man's relationship; there are always two sides to any story. But it is an upfront story that discloses a great deal. Given the two 'artistic temperaments' that come across in the book it was no doubt a volatile relationship. He admits, too, that memory is unreliable. And I should imagine some of the disclosures might be extremely uncomfortable for someone close to read. However the comments posted were/are so negative something in me kicked against this kicking of a man who was so obviously deeply in love with his partner, and who has lost both her and his son so close together, and is himself facing cancer; and there were attacks made publicly that amounted to a smear campaign.

I have no doubt that the people concerned have their own valid reasons and are also feeling a huge loss; they will also know things that I don't know about the relationship and situation. I just felt that something more balanced might have served their cause better.

So I wrote a comment to counterbalance that; in no way attacking or aggressive. This drew a response that was sufficiently unpleasant (and paranoid) to both myself and Perrin that Amazon removed it; but before they did I responded, again as carefully as I could.

I was tracked down and telephoned by one of the people concerned. She was pleasant and courteous enough, and very very insistent that I hear her case and take her side. She also asked whether it was I who had removed the Amazon posts, or been 'manipulated by Perrin to do so – he's manipulating the internet'. (The denigrating response has also, unless they've changed their minds and removed it, been posted on their own blog.)

Coming on top, as it did, of a personal and professional shock to me in an unrelated realm last week, and news of a death this week, I have to say I could have done without all that really; nonetheless I'd do it again.

Monday, 11 July 2011

ego, the wild, the west & a hornets' nest: Part 1

The ego is a funny beast. It's driven by fear primarily, and power and greed stemming from that. It seeks more than anything to 'have', to make its stamp on the world, to control and shape things according to its own needs, to close out and destroy that which threatens it/is different from it/it can't understand. Unless we make a conscious effort to relate to it differently, or unless a dramatic incident of loss or love breaks its defences, it can determine our life based on those three principles.

I'm not saying, by the way, that I believe the ego should be dismissed. In the New Age a common fallacy (one I shared in my 20s, with my imperfect understanding of Buddhist teachings on slipping the tight grip of ego) is that ego is 'bad' and we should 'rise above' it – that's crude misunderstanding, I think.

Things changed for me when I embarked on a training in transpersonal counselling in my late 20s/early 30s. One of the defining features of the transpersonal approach is a taking-into-account of the human search for meaning, and therefore the recognition of a spiritual dimension, whatever the individual understands by that. The training course drew on, as well as Jungian and post-Jungian thought, many sources of psychospiritual understanding from both West and East; its aim of course was towards wholeness.

My very wise teacher, Joan Swallow, gave me an insight into the proper place of ego (I'm paraphrasing): 'One needs to have developed a strong ego in order to weather the storms that are created by any serious journey towards consciousness. What one is aiming for is that the transpersonal self (known in Jungian circles as the Higher Self, or simply Self with a capital S) in its wisdom shapes our journey, and the work is integration of ego and Self, so that it is the Self that directs our journey, rather than the inflated ego.'

*

Maybe 25 years ago I wrote: we can't bear the wilderness 'out there' because we can't bear it 'in here' either. It has seemed to me for many years that our urge to destroy the natural world is as much to do with the fearfulness of the ego as it is to do with the more obvious excesses of greed and power (well and according to my earlier definition that's simply stating the obvious). We have a need, as a species, to stay in tight control of our environment, and are threatened by what we perceive as disorder. Our ego clamps down tight and attempts to bring it under our power via our personal will. In archetypal psychology we might call this the pull of the god Apollo (representing order, reason and the cerebral) as against the god of Dionysus (representing earthy sensuality and relationship to natural cycles). Either taken out of balance is destructive, albeit in very different ways. We need both, arguably.

When we make a vegetable garden, we are taking a patch of wilderness and shaping it to our own needs. Yes, this is controlling the environment; and within reason, based for me on 'how little do we need?' and an awareness of how our actions affect others, rather than the consumerist 'I have therefore I am, and how much can I have?' approach, seems healthy. We do need to shape aspects of our outer environment, as our inner, and the healthy, functioning ego is crucial to that. Trouble is, we don't stop there and can't leave the Wild to be itself. We need to change it to suit ourselves.

This may come initially from a perfectly valid adaptation-to-survive strategy, but it's undeniable that it's become savage since the beginning of our Industrial era, though the impulse might well be inherent in our species. Robert Bly makes an interesting distinction between 'wild' and 'savage' – if I've mentioned this before in my blogs forgive me – memory cells migrating into ancient untouched woodland: he says that the 'savage' man has a wound and does not know it; but the 'wild' man is in touch with his wound. The savage human hits out and destroys, and we see the effects all around us, all the time.

I'm talking about this for a couple of reasons: one is because the preservation of wilderness, the healthy functioning self-regulating ecosystem of this planet with a natural balance of species and their impact, seems so utterly crucial in its own right, for its own sake, let alone for our continued survival here (and not even starting to take into account the species we are losing every day as a consequence of our actions) that for me it eclipses almost every other concern.

The second is that the preservation of wild is also crucial for our own souls.

I cannot help but see our attitude to the wild as a mirror of collective and individual internal processes. The soul needs its wild places, its beaches, its rivers. It needs to feel itself part of this, part of the All. The Fall, it has been said by many in various ways, is/was the severance of our experience of ourself as being one with everything; our loss of a sense of interconnectedness, into our experience of separation. (This is why falling in love is so amazingly wonderful: the experience smashes through our egoic defences and for a little while we feel ourselves to be at One with another; perhaps the closest we get in a secular society.)

If we cannot relate healthily to our own need for recovering some of this sense of belonging, and to our healthily wild impulses – and I am speaking of the simple childlike joys of eg not watching the clock, walking barefoot, forming relationship to animal, bird, tree, plant, place, sleeping out, paying attention to our environment through the senses, learning from it, feeling the wind in our hair, being overawed by a mountain or risking the power of the sea, speaking the truth from the heart, learning about wild food, not being in a hurry to wash off mud, being spontaneous and creative, being able to disrupt routines and live by a deeper rhythm, being aware of our dream life, our daydreaming, our fantasies, our needs for 'time out' and not being overly-civilised (which word comes specifically from the Latin word for 'those who live in cities'), our need to express ourselves according to our best connected nature rather than others' expectations, spontaneous expressions of affection, also becoming aware of and listening to, rather than simply repressing, our impulses towards sadness, anger, fear, hunger and learning to recognise them without necessarily having to act them out, and playing – then how can we form a healthy relationship to the untrammeled and unshaped-by-human-hand wild places? And what loss do we risk on many levels if we don't?

And I shall stop there today; but I am leading towards speaking of the wild, the west, and a hornets' nest I inadvertently kicked in relation to that wonderful book by Jim Perrin I mentioned a few weeks ago when I was talking about compasses. That will be Part 11.

Saturday, 9 July 2011

the crucible of the garden/hortus conclusus





I'm noticing more and more that the courtyard between the house and the wider world is becoming a really important locus for me, both as an imaginative starting point for my experience of the world and as an actual starting point 'on the page' in much of my writing. It reflects and symbolises too my intense relationship with 'threshold' zones: cuspal places and times, borderlands and boundaries, 'nomanslands', and the 'interface' between what we understand as 'self' and 'other'.

In the photo above, neither the colours nor the sense of openness do it justice. I've taken this photo at dusk from halfway across the courtyard. It faces nor'nor'west, and at my back is our stone-oak-and-glass house, which The Man physically built himself (or rather converted from an old barn). The courtyard is bordered on the left (southwest) side by a quarryface, from which the original barn-builders took the stone; on the right is the valley and tiny stream with the hill rising beyond it, and ahead is the small vegetable plot with TM's toolshed topped by what I call tongue-in-cheek my 'garret' space behind it (one long loft-like room where I work, and that contains the furniture I brought from my old home that wouldn't fit in TM's already-furnished house). A large oak tree overhangs the courtyard, and yet it is still light; it's full of plants and birds.

I spend as much time as I can out here, taking my writing out when it's possible. Here, I feel myself secluded in a way that allows contemplation, but still in contact with the natural world in a way that is not possible inside a house (though a remote wooden thatched cottage facing south over Dartmoor, rented when my daughter was young, with its wild woodland garden and resident bee-swarm in the double-skinned wooden walls, was pretty close to feeling as comfortably permeable to wind and sun and the sound of rain as I like and need).

TM and I differ in preferences. TM likes rolling pastoral landscapes where humankind's touch is clearly visible; part of it; and a permanent home is a refuge. I need wild places – sea, granite edges, moorland and mountains, ancient woodland, rivers – places where I can look in all directions and not see human habitation (though of course the human hand is visible in the shaping of all British landscape, sadly) as accessible as possible to me. (I say this knowing that 'wild' in the UK is scarcely really so, though the Celtic fringes offer a meal, and the moors and coasts of the southwest, smaller reflections, offer a taste.) I'm more naturally nomadic; given the choice (not a lot lately for a number of reasons) I like to lose myself with a tent and a book and a small fire (and a horse or pony would be a lovely companion, as has been the case in the past for me) and not be stumbled-upon by anyone else and where 'home' is wherever I happen to be at the time.

It also seems to me that we cannot 'own' land, and stamping our mark on it too heavily can deface it; if, as I believe, everything is transient, our happiness surely depends on our allowing ourselves to roll with that fact, rather than hang on tightly to that which cannot be permanent or 'ours'. Nonetheless, I understand the impulse to make somewhere one's 'own'; and if Julian Pratt's stewardship model holds – if we have made something we are entitled to 'own' it – then to have built one's own house and made one's own garden surely goes a big way towards being able to call that place 'mine'.

So TM and I are gradually finding ways to accommodate differences, and to allow this place to be both refuge and place of fusion with wilder ways; and safe margin and corridor for the native inhabitants of the natural world away from industrial development, pesticides, herbicides, intensive farming practices in general and noise.

The area above the quarryface is also ours – well, TM's, as my income and house prices in my native and/but desirable-to-many-ex-city-dwellers Southwest of England do not make a good match (or any kind of match apart from renting) – and is a small north-facing very sloping meadow with a woodland margin, a big (luckily flat – old silage pit) organic veg plot (we are aiming towards more-or-less sustainability in food-growing; as one vegetarian and one vegan, the veg mostly go the distance) and apple trees. This is beautiful; we're so lucky, and, courtesy of TM's willingness to listen (though not without a great deal of initial resistance!) to my desire to not make it all neat and cultivated, we also offer shelter to a flourishing ecosystem, including foxes, badgers, bats. If I did not have other and significant ties here, I might well have migrated, before meeting TM, to a wilder and less inhabited Celtic fringe area; nonetheless Devon is very beautiful, and lush. The 'meadow' is a compromise for us both.

Interestingly this little hidden valley is now hosting maybe half a dozen individuals, couples and small groups who are all focused on the organic and sustainable model, and have sunk money into a few acres each to cultivate on a permaculture, agroforestry or small-smallholding basis. Food-bartering is becoming a possibility, and now the bees and butterflies have a wider range to forage on unsprayed plantlife.

The courtyard is something else again. It's a kind of omphalos. It somehow contains and intensifies experience, both imaginal and feeling-level. It feels like the crucible of alchemy, in which intense containment creates transformation (I'm speaking here of the subtle process of transformation of the human soul, spoken of by figures such as C G Jung; not the cruder supposed-form of physical lead-into-gold that the alchemists of the Middle Ages let the uninitiated believe was the purpose of the process). And it also brings a quality of deep peace and contemplation (and where I can be just a yard from a visiting woodpecker, the great tits and chaffinches, and where everywhere I look are bees – much rarer now than they should be, globally speaking). I spend quite a lot of solitary time in it; but also TM and I 'meet' here with our joint morning meditation when the weather allows it, or over a cup of tea.

In this way it's like the hortus conclusus of the 1400s in Europe; the enclosed garden with its magical and esoteric symbols of fountain/flowing water, roses, a central focus and paths, all containing a process of quiet reflection that allows transformation. This kind of garden (and it might simply be a tiny enclosed space out-of-doors anywhere that's reasonably secluded) of course mirrors mythical/symbolic gardens that represent a state of purity, such as the Garden of Eden; a return to some kind of essential clarity unmuddied by the rush and heave of the drive to acquire, 'better' oneself materially, do battle with time etc that characterises so much of our outer-directed struggle.

And of course this garden is actually an inner state; and I know how very fortunate I am that here at home is a small physical space that acts as midwife, over and over, to that state.

The Scottish poet-gardener Ian Hamilton Finlay was in the process of creating a hortus conclusus at his Little Sparta when he died. If you're interested, there's a link here below; though it will tell you little of the spiritual processes associated with such a garden, it's nonetheless interesting.


http://www.gardenhistorysociety.org/post/agenda/the-hortus-conclusus-at-little-sparta/

Thursday, 7 July 2011

heaven's breath


Anyone else remember Lyall Watson's wonderful book Heaven's Breath, about the winds? It enchanted me as a teenager; more recently a friend tracked it down for me. It's a treasure. And if you have read The English Patient you might remember how Ondaatje makes use of Watson's material in his magical and poetic descriptions.

So, now: the courtyard in a still summer dusk. The blues and mauves are incandescent – there's a word for that in flowers, isn't there? Do I mean inflorescence?

Anyway, the winds: all three of them.  There's the high dreamy cirrus clouds, snagged on a northwesterly, so slow the long mares' tails are barely moving; the westerly, lower, new, is piling up cumulus like dirty mounds of escaping goosedown; and then close above me little tags of thin ghost-clouds, almost not-there, are gliding over from the south.

not a poem about sex

Well, my friends, this bloggers' world is a funny one. You drop these words, cyber-messages in e-bottles, out there into the world not knowing who reads them or what they make of them – except that sometimes someone tells you, and that is such a gift.

And a few of you (often bloggers yourselves, so you're kind of tuned-in to variations) have emailed to ask if I'm OK; to say that they (you)'ve noticed a subtle shift in how I'm writing and the subject matter recently. Particularly noted is that there has been less of the personal 'me' in evidence.

You astute people; no, things have not been easy chez moi, on either the personal or professional fronts recently. 'But –' you might justifiably cry 'you've had two books out recently. What more might a writer want?' And I'd respond yes, and that's great, and long-awaited; but in these days of no-one, especially small presses, having any money for promotion (and I haven't had an advance on a book in 13 years), and royalties being a tiny percentage, not of cover price as per before the Net Book Agreement, but of publishers' receipts, a very different beast, and royalties anyway being due up to a year after the book is released, I can expect a few pounds only maybe in 2012 and will need to keep doing a lot of promotion myself. So in some ways there's the post-book anticlimax (the more so since Imago was written 17 years ago, and has hardly hit the bestsellers' list – not, I hastily add, that I had any expectation that it might); plus the ongoing issue of how the hell to keep bringing in even a pittance.

And there have been a number of other more personal difficulties.

So yes there has been I guess a certain verve lacking lately: I am on my way to reclaiming it. In honour of some cathartic events which have undammed some dams, I'm going to post below a very different poem from my usual; just so you know (I perhaps mean just so I can remember!)  that I can occasionally be frivolous!


’im an’ me

I said to ’im ‘this ain’t a poem about sex’
an’ he said ‘then there’ll be a great gaping hole
at the heart of your poetry’, an’ I said
‘it’s about mortality’ an’ he said ‘sex
is an attempt to counter mortality’
an’ I declined to answer and wrote this anyway:

‘it’s like one of them chalk pavement drawings,
innit, soon to be erased by rain; and your
brain cell’s slithering away with a mind of its own
that ain’t yours’ (and he interjected that even
the slithy tove never slithered like that); ‘and
your memory was last seen packin’ a bag
and hitchin’ a lift out of here; and all them
bits that should be staring at the sky
have discovered the laws of gravity;
and you don’t know what it’s all about
and you were never sure whether there was
a God anyway; and life slips by like a field mouse
scarcely shakin’ the grasses’ (I pinched that line
from Ezra). And he said: ‘Never mind
darlin’; nothing that a cup of tea won’t sort.’
 

– Roselle Angwin


Wednesday, 6 July 2011

summer day writing courses



For many years I offered a 'summer school' each July: five days of varied and inspiring ways in to writing. Then I burnt out – the perpetual cycle of a lot of energy output for minimal relative income coupled with family health issues. Still, the summer comes around and the Ghost of Summers Past hovers at the edges of my creative thinking, and I give in because actually I really love doing these courses.

So, if you live close enough, and feel you'd like a shot of inspiration this month, may I tempt you perhaps to come and join us in the lush green depths of the Devon countryside on either or both of two writing days? If you succumb, you can email me via my profile. I'd love to see you.

*

I need bookings by 16th July – please email me as above and for more details.

Writing From Life
Saturday July 23rd, 10 – 4, £40. Near Totnes, Devon (details on booking).
Bring vegetarian lunch to share.
For several years I ran this course as a weekend residential. I've heard so many moving and inspiring and funny and sad stories. There's something very profound about sharing the story of our life; and in the doing we can also remake ourselves: story is a way of healing. This one-day workshop will ask you to choose a theme and an incident from your life, and as the story unfolds it may reflect back to you a deeper truth about your life, as well as offering a starting point for fiction, if you wish. Bookings in advance with cheque to address as above please.

***

Dusting off that Novel
Sunday July 24th, 10 - 5, £45. Near Totnes, Devon.
Bring vegetarian lunch to share.
This day is intended to be a trouble-shooting and morale-boosting day for those novelists and aspiring novelists who feel themselves in need of extra stimulus and tutor and peer support to remember why on earth they thought this was a good idea. If there seems to be demand, I am also offering a work-in-progress session into the evening where there will be feedback on individual synopses/plot outlines. This extra session will be an additional £15 plus £5 for a bowl of soup and some bread. There are B&Bs a couple of miles away for anyone needing that. Bookings as above.

Tea & coffee provided.

You can attend BOTH COURSES for £75 (plus evening extra as above).

***

Failing this, maybe your summer reading might include my novel, Imago, or ‘proem’ collection, Bardo?
 

I’ll be offering a regular weekly poetry session for the Poetry School in Exeter (Mondays from September). I will also be leading a one-day poetry workshop here, and probably a weekend: 'Zen and the Art of Poetry'.





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