Thursday 28 January 2010

Passing the Same Trees

from, John Berger, The Shape of a Pocket.

One July evening this summer, I went up the highest field, high above the farm, to fetch Louis's cows. During the haymaking season I often do this. By the time the last trailer has been unloaded in the barn, it's getting late and Louis has to deliver the evening milk by a certain hour, and anyway we are tired, so, while he prepares the milking machine, I go to bring in the herd. I climbed the track that follows the stream that never dries up. The path was shady and the air was still hot, but not heavy. There were no horseflies as there had been the previous evening. The path runs like a tunnel under the branches of the trees, and in parts it was muddy. In the mud I left my footprints among the countless footprints of cows.

To the right the ground drops very steeply to the stream. Beech trees and mountain ash prevent it being dangerous; they would stop a beast if it fell there. On the left grow bushes and the odd elder tree. I was walking slowly, so I saw a tuft of reddish cow hair caught on the twigs of one of the bushes.

Before I could see them, I began to call. Like this, they might already be at the corner of the field to join me when I appeared. Everyone has their own way of speaking with cows. Louis talks to them as if they were the children he never had: sweetly or furiously, murmuring or swearing. I don't know how I talk to them, but, by now, they know. They recognise the voice without seeing me.

When I arrived they were waiting. I undid the electric wire and cried: Venez, mes belles, venez. Cows are compliant, yet they refuse to be hurried. Cows live slowly - five days to our one. When we beat them, it's invariably out of impatience. Our own. Beaten, they look up with that long-suffering, which is a form (yes, they know it!) of impertinence because it suggests, not five days, but five aeons.

They ambled out of the field and took the path down. Every evening Delphine leads, and every evening Hirondelle is the last. Most of the others join the file in the same order, too. The regularity of this somehow suits their patience.

I push against the lame one's rump to get her moving, and I felt her massive warmth, as I did every evening, coming up to my shoulder under my singlet. Allez, I told her, allez, Tulipe, keeping my hand on her haunch, which jutted out like the corner of a table.

In the mud their steps made almost no noise. Cows are very delicate on their feet: they place them like models turning on high-heeled shoes at the end of their to-and-fro. I've even had the idea of training a cow to walk on a tightrope. Across the stream, for instance!

The running sound of the stream was always part of our evening descent, and when it faded the cows heard the toothless spit of the water pouring into the trough by the stable where they would quench their thirst. A cow can drink about thirty litres in two minutes.

Meanwhile, that evening we were making our slow way down. We were passing the same trees. Each tree nudged the path in its own way. Charlotte stopped where there was a patch of green grass. I tapped her. She went on. It happened every evening. Across the valley I could see the already mown fields.

Hirondelle was letting her head dip with each step, as a duck does. I rested my arm on her neck, and suddenly I saw the evening as from a thousand years away:

Louis's herd walking fastidiously down the path, the stream babbling beside us, the heat subsiding, the trees nudging us, the flies around their eyes, the valley and the pine trees on the far crest, the smell of piss as Delphine pissed, the buzzard hovering over the field called La Plaine Fin, the water pouring into the trough, me, the mud in the tunnel of tress, the immeasurable age of the mountain, suddenly everything there was indivisible, was one. Later each part would fall to pieces at its own rate. Now they were all compacted together. As compact as an acrobat on a tightrope.

Saturday 23 January 2010

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Wednesday 20 January 2010

Lullaying the Lull

n my last post, I wrote about my recent editing frenzy and of the joys and trials therein. This time I want to explore what's happened since.

I have entered a lull. I put so much effort into last week's work that I spent the first part of this week unable to begin anything new. Finally, when the house was quiet on Tuesday evening, I forced myself to do so and, as I wrote, I felt the world ordering itself around me, becoming somehow clearer again.

I think John Berger's words in The Shape of a Pocket on the need to paint apply to writing also:

Painting is first an affirmation of the visible which surrounds us and which continually appears and disappears. Without the disappearing, there would perhaps be no impulse to paint, for then the visible itself would possess the surety (the permanence) which painting strives to find.

In writing (and I assume this is true for other creative acts too) there is a sense of ordering, of making permanent, of slowing down. There is our experience of the world and there is our held experience. I have spoken with other writers and visual artists and they often talk of the deep need they feel to do what they do. I know I couldn't settle this week until I wrote again. I thought, 'I'm too tired to write and I've done so much recently, I'll just read instead.' But I couldn't just read: all those printed words reminded me that I wasn't writing, and I wonder whether as writers progress reading and writing merge. That's how I feel about it at the moment, as though I'm devouring published words to produce something new from them later.

The further I climb the ladder of writing, the more I find I can't divide one aspect of it from the next: reading and writing are becoming the same thing; and what's more, I am no longer sure where process ends and product begins. I don't even know when a poem finishes, as many pieces seem to talk to one another. I remember reading Carol Ann Duffy's Introduction to Answering Back and being excited by Duffy's observation that the poems spoke to one another, not just the new to the old, but generally, as though there was a larger conversation taking place within the entire collection. I suppose it can be explained by influence, by this devouring of other works; and I guess there is also the relationship that forms between people, between objects in a room, poems in a collection, which is always a new and unique thing.

And I am trying to finish this post, to keep it reasonably short, but it wants to grow and ramble across the site. I'll cut it there and see if I can strike a few cuttings.

Saturday 16 January 2010

Editor's Ague

his is my first post in two weeks, as I have been entirely absorbed in editing my recent work for assessment by my tutors at Sussex University.

Editing is a process of condensing, of removing all extraneous, soft material; so that one is left with rock only. I now look back over my poem's Prologue and realise that I cut it from its original thirty lines to just eight, and it benefited from every cut I made. That it could ever have been thirty lines seems a wonder now. Here's the original second stanza:

Come screeching in on Matchbox tyres, cut
the corners, crash into the cat (repeat
the crash at least three times in action replay).
Bring your shoe bag and your lunch box. Bring
your thermos, though the glass is smashed.

Of all those words, only 'and your lunch box' still stood by the end. I enjoyed writing about crashing into the cat (is this evidence of some repressed sadism towards my cat, Flo?), but it was also a distraction. I found that the eight lines I ended up with took my reader straight to the action of the poem, which had nothing to do with crashing into cats. The poem as a whole follows quite a rambling journey and it didn't benefit from an equally rambling Prologue.

One of the most difficult aspects of editing seems to be knowing when to stop. This is the finished Prologue, or rather, this is how it now stands:

Wake up, child past and stir my memory.
Put on your uniform, tie your shoes
and bring your lunch box: I have Wagon Wheels.
We're going back. I'll drive us through the woods,
past Deacons Farm. We'll course through Horsted Lane.
We'll sneak up Smugglers Row, glide past the church,
and finally, stop dead beside the butcher's shop.
Then, looking left and right, we'll cross the road to school.

Just eight lines of iambic pentameter with an extra foot in the final line. Could I have cut it further? Perhaps I'll return in a few months' time and reduce it to a single couplet.

Saturday 2 January 2010

Initials and Other Beginnings

y friend Sinead was given a copy of The Red Book for Christmas. It's a beautiful thing: a sort of illuminated manuscript (can it be an illuminated manuscript without any gold illuminations?), full of exquisite illustrations and lettering. It gave me an idea.

For some time, I've wanted to make my my blog more attractive. I love Zina Dreams and The Hermitage, and I've been wondering how I might give this site a little of the visual appeal that they have.

Sinead showed me The Red Book last Tuesday and I spent much of the week working on my own decorated initials. I'm glad to start the New Year with a slightly new look, although I am also quite concerned that I'll get carried away and forget this is supposed to be primarily a writer's site.

In order to justify the inclusion of my M then, I will note that it reminds me a little of the cover of The Hobbit, and thus also of my father, who first read Tolkien to my brother and I when we were children. I remember being in my brother's bed, listening. I only seem to remember this happening once, although my father read the whole book; so I must have layered all the readings onto one. I don't remember my parents reading us anything else either, although I know they did. For some reason, The Hobbit is all I recall, possibly because I loved it so much.

My brother's room was long and thin and his bed faced the window. I could see the tips of branches, electricity pylons and the roof of our neighbours' house. I remember the warmth of the bed and of family and the mustard yellow of the carpet. I remember the oak toy chest that my father made, one for each of us, from an old wardrobe. I now keep piano music in mine, even though I still can't play the piano, and a broken cuckoo clock, and old cuttings from Just Seventeen.

I think of Bilbo's road going ever onwards, and I wonder whether I also wanted to use my M because it formed a link between my childhood and the present. I suppose the river or stream that I have running through the valley could equally be my own road still winding.

Those mountains are beginning to look a little ominous.