Friday 24 December 2010

Advent Calendars

December has galloped by and I've said almost nothing here. I've been in the grip of what I can only (but rather pretentiously) describe as an experience of gnosis. For most of this month I haven't known who I was, how to relate to the world around me, or what on earth to say here.

Fortunately the spiritual dust is settling now, and so, full of seasonal bonhomie, I thought I'd tell you about my advent calendars.

I have two calendars, which I've owned since I was a child. The first came from a National Trust shop in, I think, 1980. Here it is:

It's very battered and the tabs that held its roof together are floppy and largely useless. There's some dry, flaking Sellotape where once I stuck the roof together. Some of the doors are ripped and there's brown card and scratches on the pictures inside from the year I decided to glue the windows flat:

Much of 24 is torn and Joseph is almost entirely erased, poor man, except for his rhubarb pink face and custard yellow hair:

The calendar has a lovely seventies psychedelic look about it that reminds me of my mother's book on astrology from around the same period. Even Father Christmas looks like he's been taking fly agaric:

Perhaps most of all I love the pink and red fish scales on the roof and the curtains at the windows:

The second calendar comes from my mother's Woman and Home magazine in 1981. Every year for some years the December issue included an advent calendar that children could cut out, stick on to a cereal packet and get excited about thereafter:

The pictures inside were ink drawings only, so they could be coloured in. I'm still impressed with the care my brother (then eleven) and I (nine) took to do this: we've barely gone over the edges:

There are a few oddities, however, such as the spring-green antlers on the reindeer:

and the pink berries on the mistletoe:

but by and large it's a delicate beast with an unusual twenty-five doors:

The calendars are a link to my younger self. I feel the same excitement when I open their doors and I have the same favourites each year. I always buy a new one too, but it's never as magical as these two.

One day I suppose the doors will fall off, or the calendars will be damaged beyond repair and I'll have to let them go. There's a chance that they might survive me, in which case I'll have to find an appreciative/unfortunate young'un to leave them to.

Any one interested in applying to inherit them can write to me care of the World Tree, where I'll be hanging upside-down with a kitten in each arm, hoping for further gnosis.

Happy Christmas!

Tuesday 14 December 2010

Mountains by Alice Oswald

Something is in the line and air along edges,
which is in woods when the leaf changes
and in the leaf-pattern's gives and gauges,
the water's tension upon ledges.
Something is taken up with entrances,
which turns the issue under bridges.
The moon is between places.
And outlet fills the space between two horses.

Look through a holey stone. Now put it down.
Something is twice as different. Something gone
accumulates a queerness. Be alone.
Something is side by side with anyone.

And certain evenings, something in the balance
falls to the dewpoint where our minds condense
and then inslides itself between moments
and spills the heart from its circumference;
and this is when the moon matchessly opens
and you can feel by instinct in the distance
the bigger mountains hidden by the mountains,
like intentions among suggestions.

***I don't know how Alice Oswald manages to be so good, to 'go so far, so fast,' as Plath puts it. This piece comes from her collection, The Thing in the Gap-Stone Stile. Read it and squeak.

Tuesday 23 November 2010

Street Photographs I & II in Twenty-One Syllables

or the past couple of months my friend Caroline has belonged to Street Photography Now, a project for amateur photographers which each week instructs its members to go outside and either photograph a particular scene or use their cameras in a particular way.

I have decided to take part too and write a twenty-one syllable response to the instructions. Each week I want to create a poem that has a strong visual, perhaps Imagist quality, what Barthes calls 'an explosion [which] makes a little star on the pane of the text' (Camera Lucida).

Last week's instructions were to get 'On your knees please... Take a picture from ground level.' This was my (slightly cheating) response:

This is the path the leaf took:
from bud, down,
stripped to vertebrae
and the push of my brush.

And this week the Street Photography chiefs said, 'Play photographic poker. Look for a pair, two pairs, or three of a kind.' Today I came up with this:

On the snow-slowed road
a car slushes past,
its headlights form yellow cones
flecked with shadows.

I'm enjoying myself hugely and hope post a few more small poetic explosions over the coming weeks.

***Today's initial began as a lightning flash, but a furry frost beast appeared instead, no doubt born of the snow.

Friday 19 November 2010

Poetry at the Lewes Arms

After some weeks without attending any live poetry events, I spent an inspiring evening on Wednesday with Sandy, a couple of dozen other poets and poetry fans and the brilliant Andy Brown, as part of the University of Sussex's New Metaphysical Poets series. Then last night Rebecca and I went to Lewes Poetry at the Lewes Arms.

Olly, Lewes Poetry's compere and resident poet, used to run a comedy club that A A Gill once described as 'the worst comedy club in London'. He is rightly proud of Gill's review.

Olly and his wife have made their own decoration for the poetry events by creating a backdrop of purple velvet (apparently made from their bedroom curtains) with the word, 'Poems', in applique letters at the top. Flaps of further, flowery psychedelic fabric hang beneath, half obscuring another word: 'Pi...'. Rebecca and I were told this was 'Pints', but Rebecca reckoned it was more likely 'Pimps'; I went for 'Pineapples'.

It turned out Rebecca and I were the only poets who wrote primarily serious work. I don't think I have ever laughed so much or so joyously at a poetry reading before, though perhaps our whiskys with ginger ale increased the sense of carnival.

During the break (and while we were serenaded by Andy Williams on a portable stereo that had to be played upside-down or the CD lid would flip open) Olly said we were all to write limericks for that evening's competition, the prize for which was a bottle of white wine. We were told to write on a certain engagement that's been in the British news this week. Unwilling to write limericks, Rebecca and I each wrote two haikus (or seventeen syllable jabs, in my case) instead.

Mine won, largely due to Olly's vitriolic reading and the company's desire to let a mock-haiku (a fake-u?) win a limerick competition.

On our way home and full of drunken chutzpah, I told Rebecca I would publish my pieces; so, ruining forever my chances of becoming laureate, here's the stronger of the two:

He's stupid, balding, buck-toothed, an arse.
I really couldn't give a toss.

And, with great pride, here's my bottle of wine:

Thursday 11 November 2010

My Life is Better Without You Because...

Illustration by Corinna Sargood, from Angela Carter's Book of Fairy Tales

My life is better without you because you used to make me sandwiches with horrible fillings, such as jam and sausages, or ham and bananas; then you'd watch me eat them and snigger to yourself. Sometimes I was sick.

My life is better without you because once when I was weeding the drive you came back from the shops and ran me over. My ribs and pelvis were crushed and I was in hospital for five months. Even now it's hard to breathe. You didn't apologise.

My life is better without you because you used to do the hoovering at 2am and would hit the bed repeatedly with the upholstery attachment. Then you would hoover the mattress, poking the nozzle beneath me and catching the hem of my pyjama top.

My life is better without you because whenever I tried to leave you, you hired security people to find me and take me back. I could never get further than a few miles away because you took away my bicycle, my car, my passport and my money. I had to sleep in fields and hedges; so I couldn't leave in cold or wet weather. Once I knocked on my neighbour's door and asked for shelter, but somehow you knew I was there and came for me. I wondered sometimes whether you controlled the world.

My life is better without you because you always knew what I was thinking and I was scared to think anything bad in case you saw it. I used to wake up shaking whenever I had nightmares about you, when my dreams were begging me to leave you. I was so afraid you'd see them.

***I wrote this piece last Saturday as part of the Day of Meaningful Nothing. Jenny suggested we write on this theme, as she, Rebecca and I love Luke Kennard's prose poem, ' My Friend', which I won't reprint here as would put my own piece to shame. She also reckoned it might be cathartic for us all to write about getting rid of someone who used to cause us pain. I didn't want to write about any real people, as I still miss most (though not all) of the people I'm no longer in contact with. Instead then I wrote about someone fictitious. It was only when I came to read it out that I realised it was actually loosely autobiographical, describing among other things aspects of my childhood. It prompted much discussion among Jenny, Rebecca, Suzanne, Terri and I about childhood: being forced to eat food we didn't like, being powerless and unable to run away, believing our parents were telepathic, and, of course, angry maternal hoovering.

Rebecca has given an excellent account of the day on her website. I can't add to her description, but I would like to thank my four fellow Meaningful Somethings for filling it with their creativity, honesty, sensitivity, intelligence and good humour.

Friday 5 November 2010

Creative Panic

hat should we do when we can't write anything of any quality? Should we carry on working through the drought?

I've just come to the end(ish) of 600 or so lines of a narrative poem I started at the beginning of the year. Since the MA ended I've been preoccupied with finishing various projects that I just haven't had the time for until now, one of which has been the narrative piece.

Ovid needs further work too, but I'm stuck in the Battle of Lapiths and Centaurs and frankly I find the fights the least interesting tales in Metamorphoses: I have problems remembering which centaur has his head crushed so that his brains come out through his nose, eyes, mouth and ears; or which gets tangled in and trips over his own intestines. I'm sure I shouldn't admit this, but I don't much care: having recently read both The Golden Notebook and The Women's Room, a bunch of men, even ones with hooves, chopping one another up and pulverising each other with tree trunks seems no great shakes.

But I'm not getting on with anything new and that's the rub. Should I? Is it best to tie loose ends, or begin weaving new ones? If I finish everything, what will I do then? I'm afraid that
if I don't begin anything I'll forget how to do it and end up in serious creative panic. It's like beginning a new notebook: all those blank pages that demand brilliance but so often end up covered in mistakes and non-starters.

This is familiar territory, of course, and I guess it will pass. It's probably partly due to the post MA void: my life feels a bit like a new notebook at the moment. Perhaps I need to learn not to worry so much about the future.

Tomorrow I have some friends coming over for a Day of Meaningful Nothing, that is, a day of talking, voice-workshopping, cake and alchemical stew-eating and vision-board-making. I am so looking forward to a full day of creativity and I hope it might ease my panic. In the meantime there are just those dying centaurs to contend with.

Friday 15 October 2010

Eye Walk the Weald

Eye walk the Weald: path, hollow, abandoned highway, impassable in winter, bramble-bracken-deep in June. I carve myself into the earth, each step wearing it away, clagging it or cracking. I breathe the south-west wind. My bones are sandstone, my muscles clay. My blood is thick with iron. I shake my head and oak leaves fall. From the freckles on my arms, speckled butterflies take flight. The dandelions tick-tock my steps from stile to stile, from the meadow-burst of thistles, finches, to the wood, in stinkhorn fug and honeysuckle. Dappled, I sing in blackbird trill, cow call, the hymns of gnats, the leather-rub of leaves.

***This piece first appeared as part of Tunbridge Wells Borough Council's EyeLife arts project.

Thursday 14 October 2010

Myth Country II

Illustration to Wordsworth's The Deserted Cottage by Birket Foster

Where the cliff ends, the land runs steeply to the sea. The sound of waves, the barking of seals who lie on the rocks, dive and reappear.

The land is wooded and the trees reach to the beaches. A path follows the sea and the edge of the woods, running in, bridging streams, coming out upon coves and folding back into the woods. There is always the scent of damp, and in spring Blackthorn and Hawthorn blossom above Wild Garlic.

From the woods the path climbs another cliff, through Thrift, Sea Cabbage and Bladder Campion; past the ruined chapel, the fallen cottages that are now just stones. Some are larger, more recently vacated. They bear traces of upper floors, the shells of fireplaces and bread ovens or they house rusted iron bedsteads or parts of ploughshares. Grass grows from the upper stones. Gulls nest in the frames of windows and brambles hide the doorsteps.

*** This is my (brief) response to Doris Lessing's claim that 'Every writer has a myth-country.' It follows Jenny's and Rebecca's pieces on the same theme, published here and on Rebecca's site, and is probably linked to a piece that I wrote some months ago on my day-dream island.

Tuesday 5 October 2010

Myth Country by Jenny Walters

Alexander Hogue, Mother Earth Laid Bare

This country is my island of myth,
Where I root my feet to the earth,
Wriggle my toes under the grass
to anchor myself.
I throw back my head,
Stretch out my arms
and grow.

Now I am tall I can cover miles in one stride,
Feel the soft Sussex meadow under my bare feet
and the spikes of the coppiced woods
that snap like charcoal.
Heading north to London and the heat
of the summer concrete rises up and warms the backs
of my thighs.
I scatter cars with my fingers
and wink at cheeky office workers
in skyscrapers with my sky blue eye.
I catch a passing plane in both hands
and abseil off the salty coast.
I crush handfuls of native oysters
in my massive teeth. Shells and all.
I plunge through the waves like a whale
and wave at chalky cliffs.
I haul myself onto the beach at Cornwall
and plop into the sand.
For a moment still.
The sun fills my insides
and rises up to my mountainous breasts.
Some beach-goers are frightened.
Some have been crushed.
I laugh and shake the sand from my hair.
Running fast now, east.
Slowing my pace I start to shrink
with each step.
And here in this country lane
I lie down on the warm tarmac
and sigh.

Jenny's poem was inspired by Doris Lessing's claim that 'Every writer has a myth-country' (African Laughter). Jenny, Rebecca and I have each written about our myth countries, and this piece first appeared last month on Rebecca's site. More to follow....

Monday 27 September 2010

The Abandoned House

Past hope, past hunger,
I am my loose steps,

my fly-by-night boards;
brambles sprawled upon a chair;

missing banisters;
the footprints of foxes;

cupboards of workaday and best china;
records; tins of polish, paraffin.

I am folding inwards,
till my roof collapses,

till mortar falls from brick
and plants seal me

in this homeless home,
this seed case.

Here’s the fire I set for warmth,
or to end, to still

the talk of rodents,
the tongues of curtains.

***This poem has just been published in isssue 7 of Swamp

*** And here are the latest additions to my family:

Monday 20 September 2010

After Ovid (and Flo)

issertations are cruel beasts. They weigh a great deal and and have sharp teeth and claws. Having worried me for over a year, mine climbed on to my back sometime in late July and refused to let go, clinging to my neck and shoulders till they ached, breathing in my ear at night, so that my dreams were nightmares and I woke up before dawn and couldn't get back to sleep again. Its breath was so hot that my skin and hair shrivelled. It scratched my eyes till they were red and swollen. It made whatever I tried to eat huge and indigestible and it got into my stomach and twisted my intestines. When it was on my shoulders it whispered to me that I wasn't good enough, that I would crack, that I wouldn't finish on time. It made me so afraid that my words got stuck inside and I had to force them out one by one.

In the few moments when it left my side it created a mountain range of books in my sitting room, which kept changing and growing, so that I could never find the one I needed.

I went for fast walks, trying to get away from it, but it was always the only thing in front of my eyes. August passed. I am told it rained.

And then one morning a week before my dissertation was due, my cat, Flo, was killed by my neighbours' dog. For a few hours I became present again, almost relaxed. I was forced to notice the ash trees beyond my window, and the ripples of light on their leaves, their movement in the wind. I saw that they were beginning to change colour and that autumn was coming. I found I was once more sitting on my sofa on a sunny morning at the end of August, not solving any puzzles or making any connections or thinking about the beast at all. For a few hours it left me alone. There was a stillness, which I hadn't known for weeks. My husband and I took the morning off work and went for a walk, carrying the first of our pain and anger out of the house with us, walking it across the fields, trying to earth it in the Boletes that we collected for lunch.

The day after, I remembered a poem by Sharon Olds:

Easter 1960

The doctor on the phone was young, maybe on his
first rotation in the emergency room.
On the ancient boarding-school radio,
in the attic hall, the announcer had given my
boyfriend's name as one of two
brought to the hospital after the sunrise
service, the egg-hunt, the crash - one of them
critical, one of them dead. I was looking at the
stairwell banisters, at the lathing,
the necks and knobs like joints and bones,
the varnish here thicker here thinner - I had said
Which one of them died, and now the world was
an ant's world: the huge crumb of each
second thrown, somehow, up onto
my back, and the young, tired voice
said my fresh love's name. It would have been
nice to tear out the balusters, and rail, and the
stairs, like a big backbone out of a
brontosaur, to take some action,
to do, and do, as a done-to, and
dear one to a done-to-death-to, to have run, on a
treadmill, all night, to light the dorm,
the entire school, with my hate of fate,
and blow its wiring, and the town's wiring,
pull the wires of Massachusetts
out of the switchboard of the country. I went back to my
room, I did not know how to get
out of the world, or how to stay -
I sat on the floor with the Sunday Times
and read the columns of the first page down,
and then the next, and then the next.
I can still see how every a,
initiator of his given name,
looked eager - it hadn't heard yet, that its
boy was gone - and every f
hung down its head on its broken neck,
its little arms held out, as if to
say, You see me, this is what I am.

I got rid of the dissertation beast two weeks ago, dismantling its mountains on the Sunday evening and handing it in at 9.40 the next morning. I staggered beneath the two armfuls of books that I had to take back to the library. Other post-grad's smiled sympathetically as I passed. One remarked that he'd been wondering where all the books had gone.

I drove home very fast and dangerously and that night I got drunk.

The beast's ghost is still with me, though my osteopath and I are doing our best to exorcise it. After handing it in, I cleaned the house and tidied the pile of letters, pens, pencils and old, sticky sweets that had gathered in my corner of the sitting-room. I removed my Ovid vision board and hid it upstairs.

We went on holiday last week to the Forest of Dean. While we were there, to further shake it off, I threw a stick into the fast-flowing river Wye, imagining it was my no-longer-needed past. I don't know whether the beast jumped in after the stick, but I think I can still feel it around me.

Flo is here too, though she's a welcome presence. I keep seeing her in the house, a little black shape on the bed, or sliding on the tiles in the kitchen in her hurry to go out to the garden. I hear her cracked 'Ack' of a meow as she comes downstairs to greet me. At least now I have the time to miss her.

Monday 9 August 2010

Down the Rabbit Hole Once Again

I am going into the Underworld to finish my Ovid work and probably won't surface until the middle of September.

Monday 19 July 2010


ast week's conference was a fascinating experience and I learned a great deal about myth and particularly about myths of nationhood. It prompted me to think about my own identity, both as a poet among academics (I was one of a very few people there working with myth in a strictly creative way) and also as an English poet with a Welsh name. I have always felt confused about my national identity. When I ran an internet community some years ago, new members would sometimes greet me with, 'Bore da.' Quite a number of people I met at the conference asked me if I was Welsh. Certainly, Welshness is a fine inheritance for any poet and the associations that come with my name (I like to fantasise that I'm related to Dylan, Edward and R.S) were one reason why I kept it when I married. But I am not Welsh and I have never had to hold to a strong sense of national identity in the face of a the kind of bullying the English have historically inflicted upon the Welsh. I am aware of the blend of French, Irish, Scottish, English, German, Russian and probably Welsh sap that runs through my family tree. I'm afraid I don't know what it means to be English, aside from a sense of embarrassment about, well, everything.

As soon as I got home I went into our garden to let the hens out and to let Sylvia rejoin the others. I was glad to be home, to feel Wealden clay hard-baked beneath my feet. My identity is bound up with the Weald. I feel more Sussex than English and more Wealden than Sussex (though I must admit to feeling I belong to the Sussex Weald most of all, mythical as the concept is), even though my parents weren't born in this area. The Weald is real, it's the clay, the landscape of this part of the world and nowhere else. I can touch it. I know its particular smell. I know the streams, the woods, the hills here. My house is built of bricks that were dug from the earth only a few miles away. I know where the water in my taps comes from. I know where much of the food I eat is farmed. I know where the nearest abattoir is. Perhaps it is precisely because Englishness is so slippery and so fraught with tension that I feel an affinity with this bit of the land, which Peter Brandon describes as 'a region of antonyms. Its wonderful impression of fecundity and tranquil beauty [...] has always belied grudging clays wearily farmed to the very limits of practical credibility.' There's something about Brandon's description that I and many of my Wealden friends can identify with: whatever tranquil beauty we may have is founded on grudging clay.

On Monday morning, I sat at the bottom of my garden and wrote about the Weald. Beneath my feet, the grass had worn away and the ground was dusty. I pushed the dust with my toes and remembered the same sensation, thirty years ago, making fairy houses in the roots of trees in the playground of my primary school. The soil in my garden is the grey-tan colour of Wealden sandstone. Now, in summer heat, there are runs in it, cracks. Near where I was sitting, hogweed was flowering. By the end of summer the flower stems will be hollow, easy to pull out. My brother, Mash, and I used to use hogweed stems as swords in the camps we built in the field behind our house.

Later that day, I walked in Parsons Wood. To cool down, I paddled, or rather stood, in the stream. I watched insects fall into the water, which moved so slowly that the mud inside it looked like smoke. Some of it silted on my feet and it felt as though I was turning into the stream bed. There were mud-coated, filigreed leaves in the water, decomposing on the bottom. Sunlight came through the beech leaves and the far bank was emerald green with moss.

I left the water, carrying my shoes. The sensation of walking barefoot was so pleasing that I continued shoeless into the fields, putting them on again only to cross the thistles near the clootie tree, taking them off again as soon as I could. I noticed that I trod softly, that I was forced to move a little slower and with greater care. I felt the changes between grass and clay.

When I left the woods, I walked barefoot through the village, over hot and cool tarmac and brick paving, through the run-off from the small chalybeate spring and back to my house. My feet were hot and sore and my back ached slightly. I think my posture must have changed in response to my shoelessness. I made a cup of tea and Flo, my cat, came to sit beside me on the sofa. She lay on her side, purring and gazing up at me. I picked up my copy of Metamorphoses, my notebook and my favourite pen and got back to work.Check Spelling

***I drew the decorated L some months ago and then forgot about it, probably because it's a funny little thing. Its leekishness is a coincidence & I hope it doesn't cause any offence to Welsh readers!

Monday 12 July 2010

Time Glides Away II

So, I am set for the conference. I've printed a stack of cards with my contact details (pictured above), made from a vision board I assembled a couple of months ago. I've also finished the last alterations to my paper; read it aloud many times to my husband, Phill, our cat, Flo, and our fox-mauled hen, Sylvia, who's currently living in the house, roosting on the side of the bath at night and raiding our compost bin during the day. She's been inside for the past two weeks and doesn't seem at all interested in the garden any longer. Instead, she's developed a fondness for Radio Three (we tried her on Radio Six, but it made her squawk) and seems to like Baroque music most of all. I may well have to take her to Handel's Rinaldo at Glyndebourne next year: a perching ticket, perhaps?

Tomorrow, saying Goodbye to family (furred, feathered & otherwise), I'll catch a train to London to meet Terri at Charing Cross. Together we'll go to the V & A, where we'll look at lots of small spaces & get excited about spatial theory.

On Wednesday, having said Goodbye to Terri and her family (furred and Neil-her-lovely-chap-shaped) I'll catch two further trains from Euston to Birmingham and from Birmingham to New Town, Powys; followed by a taxi to Gregynog Hall and three days of conference joy.

Lastly, on Friday, I'll say Goodbye to the gorgeous Gregynog and its 750 acres of gardens and catch a fourth and final train to Cardiff, where I'll meet Phill again and together we'll go to our friend Donal's birthday party in the Celtic round house on his (mostly human) family's land in St. Hilary.

While we're away, the gorgeous Caroline has kindly agreed to look after the furred and feathered crew. She is under instructions to leave the radio on.

Friday 18 June 2010

Time Glides Away

I am currently immersed in work for my dissertation, a collection of poems in response to Ovid's Metamorphoses. The work, six hundred lines of verse, plus a five thousand word critical introduction, is due in at the beginning of September, which really should give me plenty of time to edit the five hundred reasonable lines I have already and to create another couple of hundred; so that I have enough strong material to select and submit. However, time is galloping.

Today I had my last class at Sussex. The M.A is almost over. Everyone in the class took it in turn to read from and talk about our dissertations and while I was listening to the others, I doodled the frog above, upisde-down on an early draft of my dissertation proposal.

Monday is the summer solstice. I'll be getting up before the sun rises at 4.45 am, meeting Rebecca at her parents' house and walking with her, up the hill of our village and down again on the other side to Johnny's cottage, for a day of Four Quarters merriment. It only seems a few days ago that we were prowling Parsons Wood in the snow on the winter solstice.

Next month, I am presenting a paper on my Ovid work at the University of Aberystwyth's Recycling Myths, Inventing Nations conference. I am all nerves and excitement about it, as I'll be exploring somewhere entirely new (and travelling there by train, of all wonders), but I have only three weeks left to write my paper.

While I was reading George Sandys's gorgeous 1632 translation of Metamorphoses (pictured below) one morning earlier this week, I came upon the following couplet in the story of Venus and Adonis:

Time glides away with undiscovered hast;
And mocks our hopes: no wings can fly so fast.

That same morning I went into my garden and wrote in my notebook that the buttercups were now blooming in my lawn because the grass needed cutting again; that the comfrey was already past its best, but was still humming with bees; and that my favourite orange oriental poppies were in full bloom. Since I wrote that, I've cut the grass, the comfrey's finished flowering and the poppies' petals have fallen. I love this time of year, but it saddens me too. I want to hold on to it, to stop it moving, just for another few weeks.

I found a poem, on the brilliant Poetry in Translation website, by Anna de Noailles:

The Trace I Wish to Leave

I aim to thrust myself against this life so hard,
And clasp it to me fiercely, leaving such a trace,
That when the sweetness of these days I must discard
The world will keep awhile the warmth of my embrace.

The sea, spread out across the globe so lavishly,
On stormy days my fitful memory will sustain,
And in its myriad, random motions ceaselessly
Preserve the acrid, salty, savour of my pain.

What will be left of me in heath and windswept coomb?
My blazing eyes will set the yellow gorse on fire,
And the cicada perched upon a sprig of broom
Will sound the depth and poignancy of my desire.

My joy and restless passion will not die with me,
Nature will breathe me in, making of me a part
Of all that lives, while sorrowing humanity
Will hold the individual profile of my heart.

It chimed with me. I adore de Noailles's love of life, of nature and her desire to 'clasp it... fiercely'. She seems so determined to fuse with the world, so that it becomes a little bit her, even after her death. My own feelings towards time and the changing seasons feel more tense, more anxious, less Nietzschean. I want to hold the ground to stop it changing. I want to fix the petals back on to the poppies. I don't want the solstice to come because afterwards, the nights will draw in again and winter will soon come icily fast.

I don't want to leave Sussex either. The two years of my MA have gone so fast. I like being a student: I like using the library and strolling around campus. I feel at home there.

I don't know what I will do next. For the moment, September still seems far enough away that I don't really feel the need to think about it. In the meantime, there are a thousand things to do, many poems to write, much to reflect upon and many (I hope not quite so breathy) posts to publish here.

Saturday 12 June 2010

Culhwch & Olwen

from The Mabinogion, translated by Jeffrey Gantz.

Arthur then said, 'Chieftain, I have heard nothing of this girl, nor of her parents, but I will gladly send messengers to learn of her.' That night messengers set out, and when at the end of a year they had found nothing Culhwch said, 'Everyone else has obtained his request but I am still waiting. I will leave, and bear your shame with me.' 'Chieftain, you are not fair to Arthur,' said Kei. Come with us - until you say that the girl does not exist or until we find her we will not leave you.' Kei rose then. He had this talent: nine days and nine nights his breath would last under water, and nine days and nine nights he could go without sleep. No doctor could cure the wound from Kei's sword. He could be as tall as the tallest tree in the forest when he pleased, while when the rain was heaviest a hand's span about what was in his hand would be dry by reason of the heat he generated, and when his companions were coldest that would be kindling for the lighting of a fire.

Arthur also summoned Bedwyr, who never avoided any errand on which Kei went. No one in the island was as handsome as Bedwyr, save only Arthur and Drych son of Kibddar, and though he was one-handed no three warriors on the same field could draw blood faster than he; moreover he would make one thrust with his spear and nine counter-thrusts. Arthur called upon Kynddilig the Guide, saying, 'Accompany the chieftain on this errand,' for Kynddilig was no worse guide in a country he had never seen than in his own; he summoned Gwrhyr Interpreter of Languages, who knew every tongue, and Gwalchmei son of Gwyar, since the latter never returned without fulfilling his errand, and was moreover the best walker and rider, and was Arthur's nephew, his sister's son and his first cousin as well. Finally Arthur summoned Menw son of Teirwaedd, for if they came to a pagan land Menw could cast a spell through which they could see everyone and no one could see them.

This party rode out until they reached a great level plain and saw a fortress, the strongest one ever. They journeyed throughout the day, and when they expected to reach the fortress they were no nearer than at first; yet as they travelled along the plain they could see a great flock of sheep with neither end nor limit to it, and a shepherd watching form the top of a mound, a cloak of skins on him, and a shaggy mastiff at his side, larger than a nine-year-old stallion. He had never lost a lamb, much less a sheep, nor did there pass him any company which he did not harm or wound mortally, for his breath had burned every dead tree and bush on the plain to the ground.

Kei said to Gwrhr Interpreter of Languages, 'Go and talk to that man over there.' 'Kei, I never promised to go any farther than you did, so let us go together,' said Gwrhyr, and Menw son of Teirwaedd said, 'Do not worry - I will put a spell on the dog so that it harms no one.' They approached the shepherd and said, 'You are well off, shepherd.' 'May you never be better off than I,' was the reply. 'By God, because you are the head man.' 'Apart from my wife, no wound annoys me.' 'Whose sheep are you tending, and whose is the fortress?' 'Everyone knows that this is the fortress of Chief Giant Ysbaddaden.' 'And who are you?' 'Custenhin son of Mynwyedig, and because of my wife Chief Giant Ysbaddaden has ruined me. And who are you?' 'Messengers of Arthur who have come for Olwen' 'God protect you, men - for all the world, do not say that, for no one who made that request has ever left here alive.'

Then the shepherd rose, and Culhwch gave him a gold ring; he tried to put it on but it did not fit, so he put it in the finger of his glove and went home and gave it to his wife. She took the ring out and asked, 'Where did this ring come from? It is not often you find treasure.' 'I went to the seas to find sea-food, and what did I see but a body washing in on the tide. I never saw so beautiful a body, and on its finger I found this ring.' 'The sea strips dead men of their jewels - show me the body.' 'Wife, you will see the owner of that body here soon.' 'Who is he?' she asked. 'Culhwch son of Kiydd son of the ruler Kelyddon, by Goleuddydd daughter of the ruler Amlawdd - he has come for Olwen.' The woman had divided feelings: she was happy that her nephew, her sister's son, was coming, buy she was sad because she had never seen anyone who came with that request depart with his life.

The visitors came on to the gate of the shepherd Custenhin's court, and when his wife heard the clamour of their arrival she ran out to give them a joyful welcome. Kei drew a log form the woodpile as she approached and sought to embrace them, and when he thrust the log between her two hands she squeezed it into a twisted coil. 'Woman, had it been I whom you squeezed so, no one else would ever need to love me,' said Kei. 'A bad sort of love yours!' They entered the house and their needs were seen to, and after a while, when everyone was busy, the woman opened a chest near the hearth and out jumped a lad with curly yellow hair. Gwhyr said, 'A shame to hide such a lad as this. I know it is not his own fault that he is so treated,' and the woman replied, 'He is the last one; Chief Giant Ysbaddaden has killed twenty-three of my sons, and there is no more hope for this one than there was for the others.' Kei said, 'Let him come along as my companion; he shall not be slain unless I am.'

Then they ate, and the woman asked, 'On what errand have you come?' 'We have come to ask for Olwen.' 'As no one from the fortress has yet see you, for God's sake, turn back!' 'God knows, we will not turn back until we have seen the girl - will she come to some place where she can be seen?' 'She comes here every Saturday to wash her hair; she leaves her rings in the washing bowl, and neither she nor her messenger ever comes after them.' 'Will she come if she is sent for?' 'God knows, I will not sell myself by betraying the one who trusts me, but if you swear to do her no harm I will send for her.' 'We swear.' Messengers were sent and Olwen came, dressed in a flame-red silk robe, with a torque of red gold round her neck, studded with precious pearls and rubies. Her hair was yellower than broom, her skin whiter than sea-foam, her palms and fingers were whiter than shoots of marsh trefoil against the sand of a welling spring. Neither the eye of a mewed hawk nor the eye of a thrice-mewed falcon was fairer than hers; her breasts were whiter than the breast of a white swan, her cheeks were redder than the reddest foxgloves, and anyone who saw her would fall deeply in love. Wherever she went four white trefoils appeared behind her, and for that reason she was called Olwen.

Tuesday 1 June 2010

On the Little People

ome years ago, I stayed in the Foret du Cranou (Forest of the Fairies) in Brittany. While I was there, I had a number of odd experiences, including a lucid dream in which I was inside a goblin shop that I knew to be in somewhere in the Forest. I was talking to the shop keeper when one of my cats, Jack, came in. I realised he had come because he missed me, but I didn't want him to be hurt crossing the roads back, so I walked him home and the dream ended. Sadly, two years later, almost to the day, Jack was killed by a car on my lane.

Recently, while I was writing in the Museum of Witchcraft, I found the following description by Pomponius Mela, of the Korrigan, the Breton little people:
[The Korrigan are the] oracle of the Gallic God. His priestesses, holy in perpetual virginity, are said to be nine in number. They are called Gallicenae, and are thought to be endowed with singular powers, so as to raise by their charms the winds and seas, to turn themselves into what animals they will, to cure wounds and diseases incurable by others, to know and predict the future.

For years I wondered whether my dream was connected to Jack's death. Secretly I worried that he might have been taken by the little people, as he was a gorgeous cat and I could understand someone wanting him. Now I wonder whether instead the dream was a premonition: Jack's death was so sudden, perhaps the Korrigan were trying to prepare me.

After reading Pomponius Mela's words, I made the following notes:

These ones who catch us, teach us, punish us for our ignorance, dance with us; who live underground, in the dark places, in wells; who swim up to us, or who hide in wait; who sit for years alone.

Their power is so much greater than ours. We blunder about, seeing through our one good eye, stuttering. They ask us questions we cannot answer. We grope to complete rhymes that are beyond our skill. We play with words we've never heard before, or try to repeat songs that are beyond our hearing.

Did they make us? If so, why? Are we their dolls, or their students? We who move in circles, around supermarkets, roundabouts, one-way systems and ring-roads. Are these the dances they taught us at night in the fields? Are we endlessly driven to repeat them?

At the few holy wells that aren't yet blocked, do they still hear our wishes? Do they grant them, or keep them, as we keep money, stuffing them into their pockets to save for later?

And what if we created them? What do they give us, poor ragged, jagged-toothed beasts, poor goblins? What is it in their laughter, their cruelty, their dancing, that we desire?

And if we are their students, why try to teach us? What does it mean that they come into our dreams to prepare us for the worst? Can they change anything? Can they influence the future? Are the truly powerful things also the smallest, the seemingly least significant?

This post has taken me a long time to write. I have felt awkward discussing goblins and Korrigan. I'm quite embarrassed and my notes are full of questions because I don't want to commit to anything too pointy-eared.

Finally then, to return to something safely literary, here's Christina Rossetti's thoroughly creepy Goblin Market.

Tuesday 11 May 2010

Words and Witchcraft II: Fragment of a Prose Poem

urther to my last post, I have spent much of this week editing poems from my spell in the museum. A couple of new pieces have arrived too, but most of my work has focused on the handful of poems that were born while I was there.

Looking over my notes, I found the following odd little creature. It's a prose-poem that I wrote as a warm-up exercise and meant to sound a bit Luke Kennardish, but which never grew beyond two paragraphs:

In a cabinet in the museum I found a Sheela-na-gig. She was grinning and glazed, and quite unembarrassed. When she saw me looking, she rolled on her back, and from between her knees she said, 'Have some of this!' I looked away, at the blue felt back cloth and the information card at her feet.

In a cabinet in the museum I found two monkey skulls. They were arguing because one had stolen the other's teeth. The one on the left (the one with the teeth) was laughing and flashing his gnashers at his friend. The other one shouted, but his words came out gummily and his friend only laughed all the harder.

Here are some Sheela-na-gigs.

And here are the museum's two monkey skulls.

Perhaps if I return next year, my odd little piece might grow into something significant. It's certainly the runt of my litter, but I am rather fond of it.

Monday 3 May 2010

Words and Witchcraft

spent last week working as Poet in Residence at the the Museum of Witchcraft in Boscastle, Cornwall. It's a fascinating and friendly place, packed with poppets, stuffed with spells, and chock-full of charms. It also contains lots of information on social history and folklore.

During my residence, I wrote many poems and prose notes and chatted to some delightful visitors, including a vicar and his young daughter, and a group of children from a school in Devon who were proudly unafraid and thoroughly enjoying themselves.

Here's one of the poems:

Spirit Bottle

Here is a body,
a container
of the correct proportions,
a little long perhaps,
a little thin.
Here are sinews,
muscles, bones,
coils and strings
of red and white;
hard, turned sticks
and ivory dowels;
the threads of veins.
Here is a centre,
a lump of a heart
to jig, to flex,
for the rhythm
in the dancing.
Here are lungs
to squeeze,
to wheeze,
airbags, a throat
for the singing.
Here everything moves,
quivers, pulses,
trills, resounds.
Here's a home for a spirit,
fill it, fill it.

Throughout the week, I thought about the connection between writing and magic. A spell, a tale told and spelled out, becomes more powerful each time it is repeated. Rhymes and other repeated sounds have oneiric power. I thought of poems and of poetic prose, of the use of repetition in narrative, of shamanic-poetic traditions and of the repeated lines in Finno-Ugrian poems.

I thought of how writers aim to give life to writing. We talk of muscular writing, of a piece having guts, balls, blood, soul, a heart. Usually, we have to read aloud our written work, to chant it, to know whether or not it lives.

I thought of hand-written, closely-guarded Books of Shadows, with their midday full stops, sunset l's and eclipsoid crescents of c's and g's. I thought of the many times I have held my notebooks close, of the little rituals I perform when I finish one or start another.

I thought of words that exist between meaning: the phonetic power of nonsense words, new words and words in other languages, of unfamiliar alphabets. Words are scrying tools, dark mirrors. In working with words, we strive to shake off meaning, to by-pass intellect, so that they speak directly to the unconscious, to the body.

And now that I'm back in Sussex, among my own books with their familiar words, I have found a gorgeous Khanty poem, from The Great Bear:

Song of the Witch of Kasym

Verily I sing and verily I tell!
Down from the seventh heaven, the sixth heaven
with its ridge-pole, its smoke-hole, from my father
I, witch, am summoned here: on to the lake
round as a duck's, a capercaillie's crop
on to the hummock where the small loon's nest
the great loon's nest waves to and fro I, witch
have been let down, and in a double-fronted
a treble-fronted sledge I sit. At midnight
when all around is dark as a ghost's eye
I listen, sharp-eared as a wakeful pintail
by the dear waters of the southern Ob
the mighty-shouldered Swamp-beast's merry feast
is being prepared, and from my nest well-lined
with black beast hide, with red beast hide, I raise
my wise witch-head, its hair a hundred points.
Upon my five-toed feet, my six-toed feet
I put two good bull reindeer toe-skin shoes
and over my dear shoulders draw my cloak
lucky for black beasts, red beasts, and tie on
my lucky belt, and round my wise witch-head
its hair with a hundred points, and fasten on
my holy shawl bright as the moon and sun
and past the village, past the town I walk:
I have a hundred reindeer, bulls and cows
so I can spare two yearlings from one mother.
I take three strides fit for a Forest-girl
a little witch with plaited hair, four strides
fit for a Forest-girl. I am called by name
Little Black-Cat-Shaped, Little White-Cat-Shaped Witch -
that is how I am known, a Little Witch
Hissing like a Sable Bitch, a Sable Dog -
that is how I am known. And afterwards
I take three strides fit for a Forest-girl
and leave the seven towns, the six towns standing
by the deep trenches of the Ob that teems
with food, with fish, and now I have arrived
upon the narrow ridge inhabited
by the wide-wandering Goosefeather-man
where one bull reindeer runs. Around the house
built by the son of ancient men with seven
with six roof beams I saunter seven times
six times with the sun: with my five-fingered hand
I, witch, open the larchwood, sprucewood door
built by the son of ancient men, and step
into the house noisy with little boys
merry with little girls, and I am met
with tinder-fire and beaver-musk in hand:
'Houseful of women, O houseful of men!
Long live your little girls, your little boys
and now be well! When on the five-stringed wood
a lower string is plucked, may a lower spirit
sing out, and when a higher string is plucked
may a higher spirit sing! what can I leave you?
My dance for luck with fish, with game, I leave you.
When I have gone, no great and ruinous
holy disease befall you: may you be
protected by my fur coat's skirt and sleeves!'

I hope to return to the museum next year. Until then, my thanks to everyone there for their warmth and kindness throughout the week.

Wednesday 21 April 2010

Little Red Riding Hood IV, by Sandy Tozer

Charles Robinson, 1911

For Sian
From Sandy

I smell of clean rocks and the grey lichen caught in my bristly fur. I am heading for the pines, down, downward I go towards the tree line - slipping a bit now - hold on, hold on.

Sliding down scree... mountain ridge to col the fast way. The others are ahead. They wait, yawn, red tunnels, white portals.

I can see them scratching. Look, one lifts his head. Small, far below, but clear I can hear his half tone whine escape... that'll be Baldor.

He is, they all are, blood belly full, so no fear. Gather in your cloak as we pass into the trees, no threads for opportunistic Ariadnes to wind and spin and give to men. We're free.

***Sandy is a fellow MA student at Sussex. A talented poet, short story writer and graphic novelist, Sandy is also a compassionate and intellectually generous friend with a fruity laugh and a passion for Ted Hughes.

Friday 9 April 2010

Little Red Riding Hood III, by Terri Mullholland

Millicent Sowerby, 1909

Once upon a time I met you and it was as if I had known you a long time ago. In you I found a friend. You complimented me on my red hood, you said red was your favourite colour. You smiled at me. You weren't like the wolves in the stories my mother told me. I delighted in your glossy coat and you let me rub my face against yours. Soft wolf, gentle wolf.

We met several times to play in the woods together. You were often hungry and glad to share my lunch. One day I explained I couldn't stay long because I was taking some cakes to my Grandma's house. 'The dear old lady on the other side of the wood? But I know her very well, we're often to be found taking tea together.' We rejoiced that we had found someone in my family to bless our friendship. While I finished gathering my fragrant bouquet, you said you'd run on ahead and tell Grandma to set another place for tea.

Later, when I knocked at Grandma's door, I knew it was you answering. You had put on a silly, high voice to make me laugh. I joined in the game too. In the dim light I could see you lying in Grandma's bed, one of her bonnets over your head, your ears poking out comically. We went through the routine, like in the old story. 'What big ears you have Grandma.' You smiled at me, your eyes looked longingly into mine. 'What big eyes you have Grandma.' I walked forward and took your paw in mine. Your paw lay black on the white bedspread with the red roses. Red your favourite colour. 'What a big mouth you have.' Your face came towards me, your smiling red mouth on mine.

*** I first met Terri sixteen years ago. She and I spent many happy hours together as undergraduates, sharing Lord Byron fantasies. A committed bibliophile, talented writer and all-round clever-clogs, Terri can usually be tracked down to one of a number of libraries, either at Oxford or in London. She also dances expertly and with great enthusiasm, plays a mean wooden spoon, and is thus a fine addition to any party.

***I hope to post further responses to Little Red Riding Hood, over the coming months. If you too would like to get involved in this project and write a short (no more than 500 words of prose or 100 lines of poetry) response to the story, please email either
Rebecca or me at Poems, stories, prose-poems will all be jubilantly received and posted on one or other of our sites, although we won't be able to pay you for them, as neither of us have any money. Alternatively, if you'd rather post a reponse on your own blog, please just let us know where it is and we'll link metaphorical hands, or rather, paws.