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

Saturday, 31 March 2012

framed by brightness: a cleave poem

So here's a thing: I'm in one of those lulls between periods of writing poetry. I used to find the fallow stretches scary – fearing the fleeing of the muse over the horizon with his/her pants on fire; and the prospect of not being able to lure him/her back even more terrifying. Now I recognise that inspiration simply cycles, like everything else; and in periods where I'm giving a lot out my own well runs dry, and somehow I need to allow its replenishment (I'm aware of the resonant edge to this, given the drought warnings here in England at the moment – end of March and the rivers are as low as That Summer, 1976. Be sure you can expect another water blog [aka rant] before too long!).

Where was I? Oh yes nil inspiration. Nowadays I know how to dangle a bait: usually a walk will do it, and some spaciousness, and reading one or other of my favourite poets; often catalysing the writing process for others, like in leading my Two Rivers poetry group (as today), or teaching a session for the Poetry School.

And today, what fired me was coming across a new (to me) form, mentioned yesterday by one of my correspondence course poets (thank you, Valerie). It's the 'cleave poem', created by Vietnamese boat-person refugee Dr Phuoc-Tan Diep, who is eloquent in speaking of this form:

'In its most basic form it is three poems:
  • two parallel ‘vertical’ poems (left and right)
  • a third ‘horizontal’ poem being the fusion of the vertical poems read together.
I needed a form that was a dichotomy that embodied the concept of fusion and was instantly recognisable as a work of art. For me a good poem should be an epiphany. It should be well crafted, with depth and meaning, not mere entertainment, not the random scribbles of a disordered mind. The cleave form was a logical step – two poems fusing to become a third new poem. Each poem can stand alone, a true poem in its own right. In its most basic form the cleave poem is a vertical stanza on the left hand side, a vertical stanza on the right hand side, and a third horizontal poem which is read straight across from left to right, as though there is no gap between the left and right vertical stanzas. The cleave form is a contranym: at once a fusion of two poems to form one, and a splitting apart of one poem to form two...'

So a rich morning was had by all of the Two Rivers poets, and it included the creation of a number of very beautiful pieces.

The form would lend itself well to found poetry, concrete poetry, and of course clearly to collaborations.

For the sake of offering you an example, here's a draft of part of a sequence of mine from this morning. Remember to read it vertically first, down left then down right, then read across whole line by whole line in the normal way.

But framed in brightness
last night     the stars –––––––– the stars came down again
in their blue robes –––––––– with their voices like bells
where I stood –––––––– in the frost of the courtyard
and remembered how –––––––– last year    this time

I knew she wouldn’t see –––––––– the windflowers
this spring –––––––– nodding in snowy congregations
among bluebells –––––––– under tall beeches
on the steep hill –––––––– up from the river

here where I touch –––––––– the hem of morning
touch nothing –––––––– touch

the great –––––––– enigma
being –––––––– non-being

I remember

© Roselle Angwin

Thursday, 29 March 2012

the calm of stones

Out in the very early morning, frost still steeping the meadows, icing the brook's breath. A solitary red deer doe grazing by the far hedge. Sun greening the world back to being. 

Precious moments to be only fully here – no more, no less.

Back home, the new bread is rising, and I am aware that in me something that was raw is slowly being cooked to maturity. (More than about time, some would say!)

I've always been known to friends and family as a bit of an idealist, a dreamer, an extremist. I've feared the 'quiet desperation of the English way', and I dread a kind of complacency coloured by – driven by the need for – the inertia of the status quo, security and comfort.

I'm a salmon, perpetually swimming against the current. It gets me to interesting worthwhile places and I'm so glad to have done it. I will continue to swim against the current of mainstream values and my own shallower ones, if those values seem soulless and inhumane, as they so often do – based on greed, on vanity, on ignorance; on exploitation of other sentient beings (including the planet) just because, as my Buddhist blogger-friend David Ashton says, we can. ('Snow Branches': )

But in my own life, personal and professional, I'm seriously burnt out with doing things the hard way. I'm giving up struggle and strife – you have witnessed my saying this! – and breaking lifetime habits of feeling one is only alive if one is living perpetually on the edge, in some discomfort.

One of the wisest contributions of Buddhism is the idea of the Middle Way – walking the path that leads between the pairs of opposites, holding the truths of both without being swayed into identifying oneself with one ideology in opposition to another, for instance. And knowing that even truth, any truth, as we can perceive it from our relative unenlightened position, is partial, incomplete, a shadow on the wall of the cave.

That's not to say that there aren't 'right paths' – but that may be more of a judgement call than we like to think, and who are we to pronounce on Ultimates? And, even knowing the right path in any situation, and committing to walking it, making the intention to stay with it, it's still wise, Buddhism would say, to not be attached either to that path, or to the outcome. Otherwise we will do that thing: 'The truth comes knocking. "Go away!" I say. "I'm looking for the truth!" The truth goes away, puzzled.'

When my Zen teacher first spoke of situationist ethics, I felt very uneasy. What, wishywashy uncommitted sitting-on-fenceness? 'Anything goes'? But of course that's not what it is. It's recognising that there's a tyranny in any pronouncement that declares itself to be The One Right Way. I don't 'believe in' killing; but if anyone were threatening my daughter's life I'm sure that notion would go out the window. I 'don't believe' we need to kill animals to survive; but it's easy to say that, living here in lush Devon where I have a choice; if I were an Inuit with little to eat in the way of plants, grains etc would I really starve myself to death? I 'believe in' honesty, and have always declared that it should be 'complete honesty'; but would it, for instance, help my distressed and ailing father to know the truth of the huge emotional, mental and financial cost to we four daughters of the struggle we've had in relation to his and my mum's illnesses and the complexity of the ramifications the last few years? 

And the human heart doesn't operate in black and white values; that's the opinionated bias of aspects of the rational mind, coloured by emotional responses (the Heart is of a higher level of feeling).

So I am at last valuing as a felt experience, not simply a concept, the idea that while the Middle Way might not be as exciting an adventure as living on the edge, I'm finding there's a deep deep quiet satisfaction, to my surprise, in the maturing process that brings clarity and a willingness to let things be a bit without fearing that I will lose my fire, that there's no vision in these quieter places, that I will simply calcify. And yet, speaking of calcification: I am, as a friend counselled, learning to listen to the calm of stones...

'Draw alongside the silence of stone
Until its calmness can claim you.'

(John O'Donohue)

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

all the missing names of love

I think I might have posted before this Chippewa/Ojibway quote: 'I go round the place pitying myself, and all the time I'm being carried by great wings across the sky.'

My wings have felt a little sodden of late. So there I am plodding around my small corner of paradise feeling sorry for myself with the continual sense of pressure: work undone, car problems, family troubles and relentless issues in relation to them to sort out, no time to rest or simply appreciate the coming spring...

...and here is a courier, and here, six weeks ahead of time, is my new poetry collection!

There truly is little like the buzz of the birth of a book, and I am heady for the rest of the day. Here it is; and if you click on the link, with any luck it'll take you through to my author page where you can, should you wish (please wish!) buy it... my publisher has chosen 7 or 8 sample poems from it, I see, too; so you'll know what you're buying. It's different from Bardo; the poems (all poems, no prose poems this time) are more personal, on the whole, and include a few 'forms', like the sonnet, the roundel, the terza rima, the dunad. All of the work coheres around the notion of love, which I interpret broadly to mean our relationship to everything.

The cover artwork is from a beautiful tapestry by my friend Anne Jackson, and it inspires one of the poems in the book (for me too the prehistoric cave art of Europe is a continual source of amazed astonished delight; almost a sacred experience; this too informs one or two of the poems, including the title one).


Every poet in the UK must dream of being picked up by Faber, Cape or Bloodaxe; just as every novelist would like the big mainstream houses to open a 'bidding war' against each other and offer him or her a vast advance and a major publicity campaign for The Novel. For 95% of us, or more, it simply doesn't happen like that.

And for myself, I am enormously grateful to Ronnie and Dawn of the small indie press Indigo Dreams. They've been fabulous to work with: they constantly let me know what's happening; they negotiate and give me choices; they do what they say they're going to do (just about instantly); and with my novel Imago last year no less than this collection they are ahead of schedule. What's as gratifying is that they approached me – Ronnie was the poetry editor for my first poetry publisher, bluechrome, who brought out Looking For Icarus in 2005, and was due to publish Imago; and who disappeared (the publisher, not Ronnie, who'd already left and founded IDP), leaving a number of authors adrift. Ronnie emailed me to say he'd like to take my books on (interestingly, I didn't register what he was saying the first time). So a big thumbs-up to you guys at Indigo Dreams.

Monday, 26 March 2012

the flash of a firefly

Wonderful gig last night – Shetland fiddler Aly Bain with his duo partner, the incomparably funny accordionist Phil Cunningham. Uplifting and inspiring, and once again I remembered how much is transmitted without words.



Driving back home in the starry night, for no apparent reason I found myself remembering some words from a First Nation tribe, transcribed in T C McLuhan's Touch the Earth. I can't find my copy to check who, or the exact wording, but this is pretty close. I hope you don't find it too melancholy for a Monday morning; I find something reassuring in being reminded of impermanence, and that so much of our suffering is self-inflicted, due to our unwillingness to accept transience.

What is life? It is the breath of a buffalo in the springtime.
It is the flash of a firefly in the night.
It is the little shadow which runs across the grass
and loses itself in the sunset.

Saturday, 24 March 2012

fingernail moon and chip oil dilemmas

Oh the joy of having a camera again! This is a picture of jubilation:


Slim hammock moon slung in Aries in the west. Jupiter and Venus are dancing further apart now. It's dimpsey, and Dog and I are strolling along the footpath by the brook. Spring scents the air. There's a metallic clamour of pheasant as the cock who picks his way delicately up our track to peck around beneath the bird-seeder every morning is caught out in a low roosting spot; drops to the ground and repeatedly throws himself at the squares of the sheep mesh, as the young lambs were doing the wrong side of the fence earlier today. Ash and I drop back (not her instigation – she's very interested in pheasant) to give him a chance to collect what wits he might have and finally remember he can fly.

Below on the brook I'm in time to catch a splash and ripple, but not in time to see in the dusk what's caused the splash, and the vees of the bow-wave and wake – not a bird and too big for a water vole. I so hope it's an otter – I do on occasion see what I think is otter spraint (spelling?) beside the path.

An hour or two ago a couple of miles away the seagulls on a newly-ploughed red-soil field had been joined by a flock of birds I couldn't identify. I was driving past and they were at a distance, but they were small-goose/large-duck sized, but entirely white bar some black on their heads (and definitely neither gulls nor lapwings/plovers). I can't think what they could have been. Any ideas?

So many flowers. Marsh marigolds on Simon's little pond. White and lilac periwinkles. Thousands of primroses and celandines. The first bluebells, the first windflowers (wood anemones). White and purple violets.

I could tell without even opening the blinds this morning that the wind was in the east. There's a very particular quality of light to an easterly – both sharp and glittery, and hazy at the same time. The moors were eclipsed by a haze-veil, and the light this afternoon, as the sun was setting, was exquisite: diffuse, rosy-apricot.


So satisfying, eating a meal made almost entirely from ingredients grown, foraged for or baked by oneself: home-made spelt bread with nuts (bought flour and nuts), and a thick soup made from wild garlic, wild sorrel, nettle, our leeks and potatoes, and the very last of our dried flageolet beans ('Soissons', I think, in case you're interested). Completely delicious.


Dilemma. Horns of. I live in the sticks; I've always lived in the sticks; I intend to continue doing so. Until very recently I was only ever a tenant, and that suited me well – living in astonishing and beautiful places that I could never afford to buy (now I live in the barn converted by TM). 
     Pluses: I don't get dragged into what my sister calls the 'noise and the nonsense'; nor the fads and trends; nor the whole thing of 'retail therapy' (grim phrase and concept). Peace, silence from machines, rushrushrush. From smog and light pollution. From the continual sense that there is somewhere to get to and it's not here. From being caught up in that psychic projection of collective babbling (got enough of my own, thanks). What a privilege. Can grow own food, and do. Can simply walk out of door and be amongst wild things. 
     Minuses: no public transport. Have to have a car – next to industry perhaps the greatest contribution to environmental degradation. Freedom of access to whatever whenever wherever comes at a cost: wrecking the earth. Plus there's a cost to our psychological wellbeing: restlessness and dissatisfaction with where one is, with the simplicity of staying home and making one's own entertainment, with the fact that we know our world doesn't stop at the next village and we demand the right to make sure it doesn't. Expectations. 
     BIG struggle for me: cause of continual chronic low-level guilt and concern, recently brought to acute by the fact that my old green workhorse of a Peugeot has been burning vast quantities of oil and belching thick blue smoke. I'm an environmentalist, a Green Party candidate this time last year, a champion of the unadulterated unspoilt unpolluted wild places etc. – makes me want to wear a paperbag over my head each time I drive out so no one can identify the driver as me – she who fights pollution etc. I do try to use my car absolutely minimally and combine everything into one hit, but since I have an ailing father plus a daughter the other side of the moor to visit, and though much of my work takes place at home some doesn't, it seems impossible to get by without one.
     So the last few weeks I have been going over the diesel versus petrol argument (there's not the slightest chance, now or in the imaginable future, that I could afford a hybrid car to plug into our green energy supply). 
     We've been running in great measure on recycled chip oil, filtered and thinned with a turps equivalent. I haven't had the Peugeot converted, which means that in the winter the chip oil is too thick and viscous to ignite properly, so I run usually 50/50, with 75/25 in the summer. Chip oil has not been grown for fuel, is not of course contributing to fossil fuel extraction, and creates apparently no more emissions than the original plant material degrading would do. However, it's probably the use of chip oil that's responsible for the seals having blown (and the fact that the car has done over 200,000 miles). TM has had a conversion, but nonetheless he's recently had a lot of trouble with the chip oil, resulting in a very expensive clean-out of the tank and replacement expensive glow-plugs.
     Thing is, Mr Diesel built the engine to run on corn oil. Should be OK; but it ain't. So: back to diesel which, even more modern cleaner diesel, is a particulate pollutant, and it's that that's partly responsible for the FPP – fine particle pollution – or smog – one sees hanging over our cities as a low belt of cloud in fine weather. It's also responsible, at least in part, for ill health, such as asthma. But if you buy a diesel car you comsume less fossil fuel per mile, or km; but your emissions are worse. On the other hand, you can run – illegally – on straight veg oil plucked from the supermarket shelves – unless the car is newer than about 12 years old. 
     Then there's the argument about biofuel – crops grown specifically for powering diesel engines – which is also not a sustainable answer, as it uses land that could produce food, not fuel cars.
     But the petrol engine can only run on fossil fuel; and does less to the gallon, or litre – depending on the engine capacity.
     The only green answer is to not own a car, not see family, not travel anywhere to work without the major hassle of getting non-existent or partial public transport to link up – usually an impossibility from here.
     So you can see my dilemma. 
     However, I have broken into my meagre savings and am now the owner of a petrol, low-cc, ten-year-old Golf which is cleanish, in terms of emissions, and looks like it should do a reasonable mpg. 
     And a pushbike. I have a pair of legs, too.


And that's worn my braincell out. So not this time for the issue of sex trafficking, predominantly of Asian and African women, in Ireland (did you know that prostitution is illegal in Norway and Sweden?); nor for the insidious, increasing and highly repressive/regressive infringements on civil liberties in terms of criminalisation of groups of people gathering in peaceful protest in the UK – this was a significant clause slipped in, like the illegality of living in your own mobile home on your own land, amongst hundreds of clauses in the Criminal Justice Bill in the mid-90s – no one seemed to notice at the time, though many of us attending meetings at Glastonbury Festival in 1994 tried our best to shout about it; and now it is truly upon us. But you could check out Laurie Penny in; and Robert Webb, ditto.

Friday, 23 March 2012

Islands of the Heart

Take me to seamist and silence;
The gulls’ cries; light on the mountain;
This brindled bee; green stone;
This blackface sheep for a pillow;
The sky, my duvet.

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

poetry & Zen retreat in bluebell time

May on Dartmoor couldn't be more beautiful. The lambs and pony foals tumble around in gangs; the new bracken is greening up; bluebells haze the shoulders of Hound Tor.

And I'm leading a weekend poetry and mindfulness retreat on the edge of the pretty little moorland town of Chagford, Devon.



akes place in the purpose-built Barefoot Barn, perched at the top of a woodland garden with stunning views of the moor. We'll be spending the weekend of 11-13 May nourishing ourselves with silence, walking, writing, group discussions and some simple meditations, all designed to bring us back to this passing and precious moment, and our dwelling-place within it. We'll be working particularly with haiku and haibun – full guidance given.

If you need a deep retreat for the heart and the senses, I invite you to join us. The weekend costs have been kept very low, and accommodation is usually in shared rooms (some camping available). Food is delicious simple vegetarian fare, and help with washing up is part of the weekend's practice.

You don't need to be experienced in either writing or meditation; you'll be welcomed warmly whatever. We' ll start with supper on Friday May 11th (arriving after 5pm for 7pm start) and finish around 4pm on Sunday.

Please contact Martin Pitt by email: eaglehurst[at] for full info (flier and booking form) and to book - bookings close on 31st March.

More info on my website: - 'courses>course details' (scroll down). Also see:

vernal equinox poem

A day stolen from the tide
light rain, a haze of green ghosting the trees

equal-handed the dark and the light
I walk the middle way

here where the blackbird sings rainsongs
and first bluebells push towards sky

sway of curdwhite windflowers below the birches
scudding of geese overhead

and this grace note: grazing the untended land between
water-meadow and road a trio of wild deer

~ Roselle Angwin

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

the return of the light, Persephone & the Divine Androgyne

The spring equinox takes place here in the northern hemisphere between 20th and 23rd March (while the solstices are 'fixed' at 21st June and December, the equinoxes wander – I've neglected my astro-knowledge the last some years so can't quite remember why, but it's to do with the precession of the equinoxes and I believe the wobble in the tilt of the earth on its axis in its journey round the sun – after a lot of time with little sleep that's about as technical as I can get this morning, sorry! I'll check that and come back to rectify).

This year, the equinox – or 'equilux' – (actually since it's about equal amounts of light and dark, I think we should call it 'equilox' or 'equinux') takes place today, 20th March. This is another of those staging posts, threshold times; a momentary pause where the 'opposites' are held in perfect balance in relation to each other before gliding on into the next phase, the waxing light phase, of the continuing cycling of the Ten Thousand Things.

So I light the candles: three – two for the pair of opposites and all they symbolise, and one for the bigger cycle that holds, contains and resolves them in this spiral journey; and from which the new cycle will emerge.

Every culture has a myth that equates to the abduction of the evolving human, or god, by dark powers, and his (or her) release/redemption/return, which is usually effected or at least witnessed by an Other of the opposite gender. (This sometimes happens at the winter solstice, with a 'birth'; often at this time of year, with a more obvious death and resurrection.) The perspective I take suggests that this is symbolic of the state of wholeness needing a resolution of the opposites in one's one psyche, or heart; then one is healed and fit to offer service to the collective without being permanently constrained by the little needs and niggles of ego.

So of course we have Christ's death and resurrection at Easter. (Prior to that it would have been Eostre, here in pagan Britain, with its obvious etymological connection to the Goddess and fertility.) There are many other examples (eg Osiris, Orpheus etc), but the one I've been thinking a lot about is the myth of Persephone.


Persephone, or Proserpina, is a beautiful maiden, daughter of the corn goddess Demeter (or Ceres – the one is Greek, the other Roman). One day in the full lush heights of summer she is gaily and maidenlikely picking flowers, maybe iris, maybe anemone, in a meadow of soft tall grasses whispering in the light summer breeze. Immersed as she is, she doesn't hear the earth cracking open and the chariot of Pluto/Hades. The first she knows is muscular arms in cold metal snatching her away from the flowers, and in moments she's been rushed into the dark cold Underworld. Here nothing grows, nothing is warm, nothing is comforting; and she lives in darkness, captive. She can't eat or drink; and, too, at the back of her mind she hears her mother's voice speaking of the Underworld: if one is ever abducted it's crucial that one eats nothing in or from that world if one wants to return to the light.

Meanwhile, in the upper world, her mother is demented with fear and despair. Frantically, she journeys the world, from glacial wastes to canyons and deserts; from forest to mountain top. She crosses the seas; but nowhere is Persephone to be found. In the end Demeter falls into a depression and desolation so deep that the earth itself becomes wasteland: nothing flowers, no crops can ripen, no seeds can even germinate. The earth's situation is dire. The gods send Hermes/Mercury to Demeter.  As the god of communication, but also the psychopomp – one who can move so fluidly between the worlds that he's charged with carrying souls between them – Hermes has more hope of tracking Persephone than anyone; and Demeter begs him; and he finds Perspehone, at last.

He does a deal with Hades/Pluto who eventually agrees to Persephone's release. After a winter of imprisonment, Persephone is free to hang onto Hermes' winged-sandalled legs to travel back up to the light and her mother.

But – and this is the interesting bit – just before she leaves, anorexic as she is, Persephone from choice eats the six pomegranate seeds held out to her by the Dark Lord. This effectively seals an agreement that from now on she will spend four months in the Underworld each year, and eight back up in the light.


There's a lot we can learn from this myth. We could say that it is indicative of deep abuse and dysfunction of the worst kind – as, on one level, it is: not only the terror of abduction and the shudder-making captivity in the cold dark earth, but also the fact that, as happens in 'real life' sometimes, she somehow starts to feel a sympathy and identification with her abductor. (There's a name for this syndrome – can anyone remind me?) Some psychologies would say this is adaptive victim behaviour, which is directed towards survival, and no doubt this is entirely true.

But there's another possibility, too, offered by archetypal psychology. This is that conscious experience of the dark is not only a good thing but a necessary thing for wholeness: that is, the virginal innocent Maiden needs to move on to the Woman and Mother and Queen (or Youth to Man and Father and King); and this cannot happen while one refuses to grow. And of course we grow through loss and pain and grief and hard times – and integrating them.

In Jungian thinking all these figures in myth are constellations of energy in the individual (as well as collective) psyche. In connecting with these constellations, and reclaiming their energy (it takes so much energy to hold at bay, or repress, these energies which, so often deeply destructive if let completely loose inappropriately, are frightening forces in the psyche), we become more empowered, wholer, less given to being frightened of things we don't wish to face, less driven by our need to project 'out there' what are actually 'in here' forces. We get to know them, to take their measure, to have some choice in how we relate to and express them.

So we need to face, maybe with help, our dark sides, a little at a time; to integrate the poles within ourselves. Sometimes it is about integrating one's opposite-gender side: the feminine anima for a man, the masculine animus for a woman. We meet it, at first, in its underdeveloped crude persona. As we continue to hold its gaze, it transforms (viz Beauty and the Beast, or the Prince kissing the Loathly Lady). If we don't encounter and incorporate it, it will drive us and/or be unleashed on others (of course this never dissolves completely, but the prescription for wholeness involves meeting it).

So it might be that someone split off from the other pole in him- or herself – be that masculine or feminine, light or dark, rational or imaginal/feeling-based – is more dangerous than someone who's eaten the pomegranate seeds which allow growth of consciousness to happen and appropriate access to the more challenging stuff as well as sweetness and light.

In this myth, a symbolic exchange happens – she brings Pluto/Hades, trapped as he is in his dark insensate world, flowers from the light. He gives her seeds for the next cycle of growth to begin.

It is interesting that, in the myth, it's Hermes/Mercury who is the go-between. Hermes is an androgyne; neither invested in being masculine nor feminine. In Dr Jung's thinking, he or she who has moved beyond being driven by the pairs of opposites, and has integrated them in him/herself, has achieved the wholeness of the Divine Androgyne. (Our word 'hermaphrodite' comes of course from Hermes' union with the goddess Aphrodite/Venus, the Divine Androgyne from the 'feminine' line.)

So I can look at this myth in terms of what of the darkness do I need to work with in myself; what have I sacrificed this winter, or what do I need to let go of on this cusp of spring; what are or were my pomegranate seeds, and have I eaten them or am I still stuck in the Underworld or in some kind of denial of the movement towards wholeness; and what green shoots am I carefully tending now, coming out of the darkness?

Light, now, after this winter, will preside.

© Roselle Angwin March 2012 

Friday, 16 March 2012

red sandstone and sombre angels

Wild geese, over the house in the early morning. The woodpecker, doing its co-opting-the-feeder-but-mostly-just-hanging-there thing, eyes half-closed. The first time this happened I thought it was a woodpecker-choke thing, requiring the Heimlich manoeuvre, but it's happened so many times now with no ill effects that I think it's just something they do. Crocuses poking through fog; fog snagging on thick damson blossom, on blackthorn. Green flush beginning. A hare at the crossroads. Caterpillar of nose-to-tail-lights on the A38, all of us thinking there's somewhere to get to. St Thomas churchyard with its tall imposing firs and its sombre lamenting stone angels. Disconcertingly, a small abandoned new-looking child's scooter lying in its splash of pink and purple under a cedar. The mother in me, fed by the part of me that sees a sack in the road and assumes dead body, is alarmed. Thirty or more swans by the weir at the Mill on the Exe. A young father, three children, yawning and yawning, mortality greying his face. Two Muslim women students crossing the campus in full burka – is this their choice, here in England, or is it imposed on them? Now crossing the Exe the red soil starts, heart of Devon, pink sheep, cob and soft red sandstone houses. More poetry for more rural primary children, and a village that has had significance for me in the past.

Each moment a kind of home.

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

plant spirit medicine

I have recently been somewhat taken up in responding to my critic on 'reasons for jubilation' in a way that expresses my views as clearly as I can, given different paradigms (mine having a metaphysical content, his – I assume it's a he – as far as I can tell being materialistic) without being aggressive. If you have energy and stamina to read the conversation, I'd welcome other views. I'm so pleased now to resume my 'normal' blogging style! – though all such challenges are useful and fruitful in clarifying vision. (Should my critic read this post, below, I imagine he will roll his eyes in horror and leave in disgust immediately.)


Because of the time of year here in the UK, and because I've been noting with joy a kind of green aura around each of the young ash trees in an avenue along the brookside path (I say 'aura' because they are not in any visible way actually leafing, but from a distance there is a very distinct green tinge to the whole stand, as well as each tree) it's tree medicine, this time:

I've been involved intimately with plants all my adult life. I've used almost exclusively herbal medicine for self, daughter, animals and anyone else I can thrust herbs on. I used them also to make dyes for the garments I used to knit and weave from handspun wool in my early twenties, which was the way I made my living before becoming a shoemaker (and then, in 1991, a writer and workshop facilitator).

I remember blissful early-summer days on the North Devon coasts above Woolacombe and Putsborough, Croyde and Saunton, gathering gorse flowers for dye, with my baby daughter in a sling on my chest, intoxicated (me – and maybe her too) on the apricot and coconut scent of the flowers in sun. I remember the bucket of lichen standing lidded in the garden into which my then-husband had been instructed to pee, as ammonia gives a beautiful deep sunset pinky orange to a lichen dye. I remember subtle deep shades from various tree barks, notably the wild plum family.

And I have always foraged for food. I'm currently fixated too on the idea of our species creating, in the global community, woodland gardens based on permaculture and agroforestry principles with perennial foodbearing crops – this way reforestation and carbon soaks can happen at the same time as food production.

I long for the wild garlic season to come – and here it has. I gather it by the day, if I am passing the nearest lush patch, and we will eat it now for two or three months in salads, soups, potato tortillas, sandwiches, pies. Apart from its sheer pungent lushness, it's also an immune booster.

Soon too I will be collecting the tips of young nettles, very tasty added to leek and potato soup (what our garden is still offering in abundance), and a wonderful detoxifier and bloodcleanser, as well as being very rich in various necessary minerals and vitamins.

And young tree leaves, particularly hawthorn (a blood pressure regulator and heart strengthener), ash, birch and lime will find their way into salads and infusions.

The issue I want to speak of here is of sympathetic resonance.

This is not quite the same as the use of plants more directly and internally for altered states of consciousness. The latter involves the ingestion of hallucinogenic plant substances to alter consciousness, made public with the counterculture in the 60s, and with Carlos Casteneda's writings; these include peyote, mescaline, psilocybin, opium and LSD (originally derived from ergotamine, a fungus that occurs on rye grain) and the (less potent) cannabis, of course.

This isn't about ingestion of plant alkaloids in the physical sense, where with some of the above plants and others there are significant attendant dangers (I have myself used some of them but feel it would be irresponsible not to point out the realistic potential for harm, both physically and psychically); but rather that of sympathetic resonance: recognising a quality of subtle energy unique to each plant and with which our own subtle energy may harmonise, or which it may need for balance – or both. These plants are generally not toxic and may or may not be ingested. The way in which this works synergistically and/or symbolically with the human is subtle, and needs to be approached in a spirit of enquiry and interest, with commitment and intention, and direct open relationship with that plant or tree.

I conducted an interview for a journal many years ago with Elliott Cowan, a shamanic practitioner who works with plant spirit medicine and has written a book of that title. This way of working is twofold: learning from someone who knows; and through direct perception and personal experience.

I have had very particular experiences having spent a block of time in the vicinity of willow (a surprise to me), and more especially and continuingly the rowan, a magical tree in Celtic thought. I've always been drawn very strongly to the crab apple, under which I was once given a vision; and perhaps most of all the silver birch.

When I think about the symbolism of this latter I'm aware that the birch is the first tree, in the northern hemisphere anyway, to colonise wasteland and scrubland, to re-establish itself after changes of climate, and is comfortable on the margins. It doesn't require rich soil, nor is it a prima donna about conditions. It's the first tree in the Celtic ogham tree alphabet, b for beth. It's a threshold tree, and, living as it does on the cusp of wildland and upland, has been considered to be a tree of initiation.  It is seen in shamanic cultures as a tree that will allow the shaman safe passage into the Otherworld, and some say the Siberian shamanic culture sees it as the World Tree*. (There are of course historically many more 'functional' uses of birch: its bark has been used for writing – the ancient Indian Vedas were scribed on birch bark, and it's been used for canoes and brooms.)

Some of the work I do in my courses is, or involves, subtle initiation in terms of consciousness, and an opening of perception to other realms of being. No surprise then that birch offers guardianship of thresholds; and right now my pull to it may suggest something I need myself at a time of great exhaustion following a lot of stress. (It's also the tree associated with Venus, the planetary ruler of my sunsign, Libra.)

My friend Fred Hageneder, who has written several books on the more esoteric and mythological meanings of trees, has this to say about birch, quoting George Calder, Celtic scholar, in 1917*:

'In Irish mythology,  the first ogham signs were carved into Birch, to warn the light god, Lugh, that his wife was about to be kidnapped by the underworld:

"...on the birch was written the first ogham inscription that was brought into Ireland, to wit, they wife will be taken from thee ... unless thou watch her. It is on that account b is still written at the beginning of the Celtic alphabet".'

('Lugh' is a significant Celtic firegod and light bringer; in England, place names that include Lud or Lug are likely to be remnants of spots once dedicated to him. His wife is represented by the graceful birch.)

The reason I'm mentioning all this this morning is because I am reminding myself, and anyone else who wants to listen, that this world is crammed full of 'helpers', as myth would say, human and non-human. We think we can manage, we humans, on our own with no help; maybe we overlook at our peril the other beings in this web of life who can offer us nurturing, if we wish to accept it.

And of course the workshop facilitator in me wants to say: take note of the plants and trees you are drawn to; observe them, learn about them, listen to them. Eat them, maybe (with thanks, of course!). Take ten minutes, or an hour, to lie down under a tree of your choice as its leaves are beginning to spring...


* The Spirit of Trees – science, symbiosis and inspiration, Fred Hagender, Floris Books 2000.
Fred has also written The Heritage of Trees and The Living Wisdom of Trees. He's also a composer and harpist, and has created a number of very beautiful pieces of music around the tree alphabet, and Celtic themes – plus accompanied performances of my own long River Suite poem. Apart from being an erudite esoteric scholar, he's also founded a tree charity.

Sunday, 11 March 2012

the light that accrues

Such a small space between

Last night when I couldn’t sleep I got up and looked
at the stars, and that light that accrues
on horizons even at night. Birth and death
seemed such small concepts; and what’s between

squeezed like breath, and so arbitrarily; and we all
think we’re so malnourished in the realm of the heart.
Still, in this morning’s brilliant sun before this salt
dusting of sleet, I watched three white egrets

paddle in the bullocks’ mud like hunched dwarf
angels, and the fibre-optics man climbed down
from his thrumming cab and smiled as he let me through
even though I’d moved the ROAD CLOSED barrier –

perhaps because of the sun, or because I’m
a woman; or maybe because the earth’s still
spinning, and we haven’t yet fallen off.

~ Roselle Angwin, in forthcoming All the Missing Names of Love (IDP, April 2012)

Saturday, 10 March 2012

Ground of Being

 ('Vernal Equinox', Roselle Angwin)

The work closest to my heart is that which takes place outside, and is best described as a meeting between ecopoetry, ecopsychology and mindfulness. I'm passionate about restoring a sense of a felt experience of being a part of the web of life, deeply and intimately connected with everything that is. Once we experience this, my sense is that it becomes much easier, inevitable even, that we experience ourselves as part of the body of earth, and vice versa. At this point, we know that what we do to the planet we do to ourselves, and separatist, speciesist, 'us and them' notions, like the shrink-wrap trappings of 'civilisation', become irrelevant.

Just in case you live within striking distance of Dartmoor, I thought I'd tell you about my spring equinox Ground of Being day. These days happen on a Sunday, close to the four solstice and equinox turning points of the year, and involve an outdoor day retreat, through slow walking, mindfulness, silence, writing and poetry/story, all day. The aim is to enable reconnections between self and land, as well as to mark the wheel of the year and the wheel of our inner lives' attunement. Behind all of that is the sense of restoring our relationship to land as a felt living experience, so that we may also live as if we were – as we are – a part of a robust and fragile web.

Here are the details of this equinox gathering. You might also be interested to know that I am offering the same at the wonderful Gardoussel retreat centre in the Cevennes, France, September 1–8 (

This is the day workshop:

‘Ground of Being’
Re-imagining the world
creative writing & environmental awareness
Merrivale, Dartmoor
For the spring equinox, Sunday March 18th 2012
10am–4pm (the latter approx.)

Gather 9.45am at Four Winds car park, near Princetown, Dartmoor 
(OS ref: 562749)

Humans are tuned for relationship. The eyes, the skin, the tongue, ears, nostrils–all are gates where our body receives the nourishment of otherness. This landscape of shadowed voices, these feathered bodies and antlers and tumbling streams–these breathing shapes are our family, the beings with whom we are engaged, with whom we struggle and suffer and celebrate (David Abram)

Relationship is our natural state. And yet loss of heart and alienation seem to be widespread experiences in our fragmented consumer society. What would it be like to live in accord with our essential nature, aware of interrelationship and interdependence as felt experiences? Time spent in natural and megalithic landscapes like that of Dartmoor enables us to feel and deepen this sense of connectedness, and can offer us a lasting shift in understanding. This outdoor workshop day aims, by re-immersing you in the land with its inhabitants, to reconnect you to lost and hidden parts of yourself, to your imagination and creativity, and to the shared heart of nature. Here we touch the invisible ‘ground of being’, where briefly we may move beyond the separate disconnected self into world soul, anima mundi.

These day workshops draw on ancient bardic sources, returning us to the wells from which we sometimes forget to drink. We aim, too, to catch some of the fire of the elusive spirit of ‘Awen’. We use poetry and creative writing to record our experience in whatever words have been given to us during the day, alive and thrumming. We’ll be paying attention with all our senses, including the non-physical ones, plus using silence as starting points, and writing as a way of recording our responses.

At the spring equinox, where light and dark are held in balance, we’ll consider how this is symbolized in the outer world and in our inner lives; the poise or otherwise of the pairs of opposites; what visions we're planting this year. At this time, too, Persephone emerges into the upper world – what are we bringing to the surface from the dark dreams of winter?

‘Sunday is still glowing in my mind; it was remarkable, intense, revealing, surprising.  You established a trusting space … [I was] amazed at what the day brought.’  ‘Full, rich, magical, extraordinary…’

Come for just one day or join us four times a year to share the equinoxes and solstices with me in this way at the same place. If you pay with your booking, in advance, the fee is £35 per day; £40 if you pay on the day. Either way, bookings MUST be in advance.

NB Places are limited. To book, please contact me through my website, Please make sure I have a contact number for you.
Please bring
packed lunch, hot drinks/water, notebook, pen, warm windproof clothes (it can be really cold up there, even in summer, especially since we’re still quite a lot), waterproofs, sturdy footwear – and an ability to be with silence.

Friday, 9 March 2012

reasons for jubilation

1 The banks brimming with primroses
2 The new green accessories to the bare thorn branches; and fat apple tree waking-up buds
3 Such huge starry faces on the celandines this year!
4 Plump purple sprouting broccoli in the veg garden – the third variety to flower, so we've been eating it since July and looks like it'll continue a bit
5 A pair of house sparrows (YES!) in the courtyard – never thought I could feel so joyful at the sight of a little brown jobbie that was so plentiful in my childhood. Woke to the monotonous cheep cheep cheep of a pair at my daughter's, yesterday, too – am glad that at tough times such seemingly little things can still make me smile.*
6 Excellent poetry performance by Bickleigh on Exe (one of the nicest friendliest primary schools I've ever worked in, and the class I worked with are currently rearing 100 salmon from eggs they've hatched in a tank to release into a tributary of the Exe) and Bow schools at Exeter Phoenix. I was slightly nervous – you come in and do a poetry hit and run raid; you don't always know whether what you've planted sprouts and grows, and you don't usually get to taste the fruit. Anthony, my poet-colleague, and I were really excited and proud of the pupils at the results.
7 Oh yes the cover to my new collection – look right if you haven't yet spotted it. Out in a few weeks!
8 An insightful and well-written article by Bryan Appleyard in last week's New Statesman on the militant intolerance of the new atheism, as promoted by Mr Dawkins. Appleyard explores a concern I have, and the source of a number of – errr, lively – debates between self and TM: the need to reduce (as I see it) everything to something amenable to the scientific method, and its rigorous rationalism (it should be said that though TM has a metaphysical outlook he is primarily a rationalist, albeit not at all of the Dawkins' variety; his perspective is that of the truth-seeker, and his conviction is that ultimately the rational mind should be able to explain everything).
     I guess for me I have no problems with allowing some mysteries to simply be that, and explanation and analytical understanding is of less relevance than other aspects of spiritual practice: eg how our value system, whatever it is, informs the way we live, and how we integrate, crudely, the needs of the head with the needs of the heart.
     Of course there is room for both – indeed both are crucial – but some things simply aren't amenable to rational explanation, or at least not without losing their essence; it's the wrong language for the movements of the heart. Examples are love, meaning, soulful/transcendent experience, art, mythology, music, poetry... These experiences do not happen in the harsh light of the rational gaze and its certainties, but need moistness, shade, mystery.
     Appleyard: 'Explaining religion – or indeed the human experience – in scientific terms is futile. "It would be as bizarre as to launch a scientific investigation into the truth of Anna Karenina or love," [Alain] de Botton says. "It's a symptom of the misplaced confidence of science... It's a kind of category error..."' (

To be fair, the article following Appleyard's in the NS, by Richard Dawkins, is also sane and justifiable, and makes a good case; until he starts mudslinging, at the end.

OK, to work – masses piled up...


* House sparrows, it seems, may be deterred from nesting where they always have, in close proximity to human dwellings, by EMR – electromagnetic radiation – in this case the frequency of radiowaves emitted not only by mobile phones but also by cordless indoor phones. There's a suggestion that bees too are affected by these waves. There is of course also the knock-on effect of massively destructive and widespread pesticide and herbicide use; in a society where systems thinking is not the norm, there's an absence of perception about what happens when you erase 'weeds', and insects, in an ecosystem. Perhaps you'll forgive me a little plea, or at least a suggestion: switch your mobile off when not in use; if you need to buy a new house-phone make it corded; try and buy, if you don't already, some organic foods which at least don't require the application of destructive chemicals; plant a bee plant this year...

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

springing the trap

I'm back. I'm doing some work with poetry for the Prince's Trust with rural primary schools at the moment; we're gearing up for the first performance in Exeter Phoenix on Thursday. This has all been pretty back-to-back and interspersed with workshops for adults, and has involved hundreds of miles of travel and early starts and late nights.

Yesterday, I spent 10 hours straight trying to work out why my email outgoing server, after years of working fine, has been refusing to send my emails – although they appear in my 'sent' box. I didn't know they weren't going, so the ramifications re deadlines for copy, articles and approving the cover for my new book, not to mention a great many people not receiving responses to their emails, are wide-ranging and I'm feeling pretty sore about it all, as so much of my work is email-based. (I haven't solved the problem, but those of you who have my internet-today email address please use the one on my Fire in the Head website instead.)

The joys of e-communication. And I need to add to the list of People I Appreciate my mac-guru, Jim, in Tavy Typesetting, who has spent hours and hours without charging me over many years now sorting technical/electronic problems. And those of you who have emailed to ask if I'm OK – thank you to you too.

On a brighter note: I've just had the proofs for the cover of my next poetry collection: All the Missing Names of Love will appear from IDP in early April.


One of the rigours and joys both of my life facilitating workshops is that I have to think up new ones all the time. I've been doing this now for 21 years, and I try my best never to repeat exactly what I've delivered before. Of course there are many overlaps, and some exercises come back in different clothes. Workshops such as my outdoor 'Ground of Being' ones on Dartmoor (advance notice of this as a weeklong residential in France, 1–8 September), held on the equinoxes (next one 18 March) and solstices, take loosely the same shape with addenda and changes according to the season.

The common core in my practice though is a trust in the subconscious. Poetry depends at least in part on freshness, surprise and originality of the images and metaphors used, and this happens best when we get out of our own light. A great deal of my time is dedicated to helping people unlearn the tyranny of the conscious rational mind; or at least to be able to sidestep its grip at times (the more highly educated the mind, the harder this often appears to be). The most inspired and inspiring writing, creatively speaking, springs from somewhere other than the 'thinking' aspect of mind which, to me, is employed as a secondary shaping process.

So there is 'thinking logically', and there is 'thinking associatively', which is not really thinking so much as a kind of linked-particle slipslide connectivity. Poetry employs and needs both, but in my view the more alive and vital a poem is the more likely its genesis in the associative – an undervalued mode in the West, at least since the Enlightenment, I believe.

So I try and offer 'bait', as it were, to the feeling- and image-based associative aspects of the unconscious mind; the 'right brain', as it has been described (Roger Sperry and others).

One of the ways I do this is to offer exercises that prompt free association; usually I offer my prompts at speed, so there is no time for participants to think and dither, but instead go with 'first thought right thought'. I work with triggers for images. I also like to suggest that people use others' words as starting points, erasing them later; this injection of a different vocab/style can often catalyse new expression.

On Monday evening for the Poetry School I wanted to concentrate on metaphors. Our working text is the wonderful Bloodaxe anthology Staying Alive. I offered a series of exercises: we picked and read out ten metaphors each at random from the book; then we wrote some of our own; then we used the last line of a couple of the poems from which we'd lifted our metaphors as a starting-line for, first, ten disconnected lines of our own, one beneath the other; then for ten connected lines. I asked people then to remove the borrowed lines but to use the rest to quarry something new, without too much thought (aka rational intervention).

Because we'd been working with images 'foreign' to our own personal subconscious, but some of them at least recognisable as 'felt' images from, let's say, the collective unconscious, much of our own work in response to the trigger was different from our usual. For myself, I ended up with some bizarre and quite dark imagery (I have also been thinking about the myth of Persephone, relevant to this time of year), which, while not necessarily comfortable, offered me new details.

Again, in relation to the idea of loosening the grip of the conscious mind, I reminded people that poetry, unlike prose, does not have to unfold in the shape of a linear syntactically-senseful narrative. In poetry it is not just the rational mind of the reader or audience that's being engaged but also their imagination, which can make leaps and somersaults and bridge gaps. Don't spell it all out, I say. And don't feel you have to write in complete sentences. And especially 'show, don't tell'. In the interests of this I also suggested they try reading their poem, with a few tweaks as necessary, from the bottom up – often so much more dynamic and surprising.

Here's the first draft of my own weird little piece from the workshop, turned the other way up, so to speak:

Springing the Trap

in the news from a distant star
back where you started
finding home –
and, contraflow,
in cold clear air
breaching gold
where, moonlight lying
on grass like frosted tresses,
you, being salmon,
leap, and leap         until –

or, leaning on wind,
comes at last
a kind of solution
one that cannot arise
from words from semen
from haemoglobin

but only
in dialogue with silence
speaking in tongues
like the dead

~ Roselle Angwin

Thursday, 1 March 2012

dydd gwyl dewi sant*

Ahhh mmm the land is definitely waking up. Green scents of cracking-open earth. Feathery tendrils of ash. Soft sun through mist. Skirmishes of chaffinches in the lane – testosterone-fueled scraps, heedless of cars, cats, passers-by (me and Dog). All day mating calls of young owls. Congregations of snowdrops, rashes of daffs. This everywhere-renewal, cracking open again the heart, over and over...

 *(St David's day) (actually I'm guessing at the Welsh)

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