Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Tuesday Poem: Winter - Beyond Oslo

The air is as breathable as concrete
the trees like fences propped
against a wind that knows hunger
The small farms bunkered down
in their garths on land worked
lean and seeded with stone.

You tell me there are wolves and bears.
I believe you.

Copyright Kathleen Jones 2014

Turf roofed Norwegian farm buildings
These are just a few scribbles from the Norwegian notebook. I was struck by how poor the available land was and how sparse the population.  I'd love to travel far enough out of Oslo to meet wolves and bears in the forests, though numbers are quite low and I'm a bit disturbed by the current efforts of the government to exterminate wolves altogether in Norway.  George Monbiot has quite a lot to say on this and it makes grim reading.

Why not head on over to the Tuesday Poem hub and read what other Tuesday Poets are posting today? This week the featured poem is by award-winning NZ poet James Northcliffe.  You'll find it at http://www.tuesdaypoem.blogspot.com

Sunday, 13 April 2014

Viking ships and a Queen's burial

Leif Erikson discovering America
I come from a part of Britain (the Lake District) that owes much of its landscape and language to the Norse invaders/settlers who arrived over a thousand years ago.  They left behind their stone graves, pagan and Christian monuments and buried hoards of treasure.  Then, at university, I studied Norse and Anglo-Saxon literature and fell in love with those old accounts of sea-going adventures (hands frozen to the oars) and heroic deeds - whether slaying monsters as in Beowulf, or defeating invaders. But the accounts of the Viking invasions we read in old poems and the Anglo-Saxon chronicles chilled the blood - especially how Brihtnoth  before the battle of Maldon heard the Vikings' 'cold voices calling across the water'. So, when I went to Oslo, more than anything, I wanted to see the Viking ship museum.

This is the Oseberg ship - used as the burial vessel for two women whose skeletons were dug up with the ship.

No one knows who they were, or why they were buried together, but it's such a splendid ship, the presumption is that one of them was a Queen.  The vessel has a curved prow and a lot of carving and apparently was made for pleasure sailing, rather than invading!

Even the deck planking has survived.

And this is the Gokstadt ship - a sturdier, ocean-going ship that contained the body of a king.

Unlike our Sutton Hoo ship burial, these grave sites had been plundered long ago;  all that remained was the ship, perfectly preserved, and the skeletons.  On one of the ships, the wooden house erected on deck to contain the body and the grave-goods was also preserved, so it's possible to see how the burial was organised.

They were buried with sledges, carts, chairs and chests - all the goods that they would need in the after-life.

There were also ritual objects, like these metal rattles

and carved animal heads that seem to have been part of shamen's sceptres - they're very like the early ones shown in the Ice Age Art exhibition at the British Museum.

This was a very emotional experience - the sheer beauty of the ships and the way they're shown is quite over-whelming.  I'm also full of admiration for the skill of the archaeologists in digging up these objects and preserving them.  I'd have given anything to be there when the Oseberg prow began to emerge from the mud!

Friday, 11 April 2014

An Unexpected Oslo

What did I expect of Norway's capital city?  Certainly not this elegant, thoroughly modern metropolis, with an integrated transport system that runs like clockwork, wide streets, designer shops and beautiful museums.
Apartment Buildings

The Museum of Modern Art

New developments on the waterfront
The opera house is stunning, with marble sloping roofs like ski slopes.

All marble and glass
I'd been warned that Oslo was expensive, but didn't find it much more punitive than central London. We were staying in a borrowed apartment in the centre, which made it more affordable, buying food in the local supermarket and eating with friends.  Norwegians are helpful, friendly and hospitable.  It's a country with a low population density and you can feel the relaxed atmosphere.  Apparently it's become a little more cautious since the terrible events of 2011, when Anders Breivik killed 77 people.  The prime minister and the royal family no longer wander around the streets freely without a posse of security guards.
Tumbling babies in Vigeland Park
Our friend Caroline, who's an architect, invited us to lunch and then took us to Vigeland Park - one of the big attractions of the city.  Vigeland was one of Norway's most famous artists and created a huge park full of nude sculptures.  It's supposed to be a meditation on life and death and all the human stages in between and is very impressive.

Vigeland - elderly compassion
A mother giving her children a piggy-back, with a few extra!

The central pillar carved with human bodies piled on top of each other.
Sculpture was the reason we were there - for our friend Julia Vance's big exhibition. It was the first time I'd seen many of the pieces - particularly one big alabaster like a space ship, with the interior carved like honeycomb.  I loved it - and so did someone else, because it sold straight away.


It was a great party!
Wonder what these two ladies are saying to each other?
Having got out of bed at 3am to catch the Ryanair flight from Pisa to Oslo, we didn't manage to last out the evening - collapsing into our borrowed bed and asleep before midnight.  I wanted lots of energy for the Viking Museum - 1st on my list of "must sees".  It didn't disappoint, but I'll post the pics tomorrow.

Monday, 7 April 2014

Tuesday Poem - The Fable of the World, translated by Neil Curry


It is so good to have chosen
To take up residence
Among the living;
In a beating heart,
To have given houseroom to Time;
And to have seen my hands
Take hold of the world
As one would an apple
In a little garden;
To have loved the earth,
The moon and the sun
Like the very dearest
And oldest of one's friends;
And to have committed
The world to memory
Like a bright horseman
Astride his sable steed;
To have given a face
To the words: woman, children,
To have served as a shore
To wandering continents
And to have come across the soul
With the gentlest of pulls
Upon one's oars so as not
To frighten it away
With an approach too brusque.
It is so good to have known
The shade under a tree,
To have felt age creeping
Across one's naked body,
Accompanying the pain
Of the black blood in our veins,
And gilding its silence
With the star called Patience,
And to have all these words
Buzzing around inside one's head
And to choose the least beautiful
So as to give them a little treat;
To have felt life
Ill-considered and ill-loved,
And to have sealed it up
Inside this thing called poetry.

© Jules Supervielle
Trans from the French by Neil Curry
from The Fable of the World
Published by Shoestring Press, 2013
Reproduced with permission.

Jules Supervielle was born in Montevideo, Uruguay, in 1884 of French parents.  His mother and father died from cholera when he was only a baby and he was brought up by an uncle and aunt.  He was later sent to France to be educated, but throughout his life divided his time between France and Uruguay and married a Spanish girl. Supervielle was also a friend of Rainer Maria Rilke and very highly regarded as a European poet.  He died in 1960.

This collection of Supervielle's poems is translated by English poet Neil Curry (a poet admired by Ted Hughes) and it's beautifully done.  It also includes one of Supervielle's most famous 'fantastical' stories - L'enfant de la haute mer' - The Child of the High Seas - a strange and moving tale.   The Fable of the World is a collection of poems and prose pieces that is a creation myth, in Neil Curry's words 'a compelling poetical statement about the poetic process'.  Highly recommended.  

If you've enjoyed this, why not hop over to the Tuesday Poets' Hub and see what the others are posting today?

Sunday, 6 April 2014

The Art of Despair

There are currently two exhibitions in Pietrasanta - the little town where Neil works in the marble studios.   By a strange coincidence, both exhibitions reflect - quite brutally - what we're doing to the world around us.  I'm currently in Oslo, Norway, but visited both these exhibitions on Friday before I left.

Gustavo Aceves is a Mexican sculptor currently living and working here and he has a huge and powerful exhibition in the church of Sant Agostino (now an art gallery) and apparently still to come in the piazza.  The sculptures are the broken bodies of more than life-size bronze horses in skeletal boats.  It's called 'Mare Morto' - Dead Sea.   Inside the church is an polystyrene model of a gigantic dead horse, tattooed with concentration camp numbers.  Nearby, a horse's head hangs on a hook from a guillotine.

In one of the smaller galleries in the piazza, there's an exhibition of mutant cows grazing in a field of salt.  Some look quite normal, but they become increasingly grotesque as you examine them closer. It's by a young Roman sculptor called  Enrico Franchi and is called "Transumanza".

Franchi believes that 'Man loves to … mess with his environment, and sometimes the result is a horrible catastrophe… and sometimes monstrous.'  The exhibition 'chronicles the artist's distaste for the social and anthropological mutations that come out of man’s irresponsibility'.

There is an increasing artistic response here to the man-made horror of the world we live in - Romano Cagnoni's war photographs, the installation of dead whales in fibreglass, the Berlin wall fragments.  None of the artwork is optimistic or upbeat - it's all very grim and despairing.  I came away from both exhibitions feeling depressed.

An increased awareness of environmental issues is changing things here in Pietrasanta too at the moment.  The town has always thrived on marble - for sculpture, but also for floor tiles, bathrooms and kitchens and the interior decor of public buildings and rich folk's houses.  The demand has increased for marble in the last few years, while the sculpture side of the trade has declined as the art market has contracted.   It now goes into toothpaste (pulverised) and is also apparently used to 'cut' cocaine.  The wonderful mountains around us have become noticeably smaller, and more degraded, as more and more marble is being removed.

Now, the environmental lobby is fighting to get quarrying stopped.  Personally I would be sorry to see the sculpture side of it abandoned - there's more than two thousand years of tradition here - the artigiani in the studios can trace their family lines back to gt-gt-gt etc grandfathers who worked with Michaelangelo.  But I'm not happy that such a beautiful material and such spectacular mountains should end up on my toothbrush. Something has to be done about the wholesale destruction of the Alpi Apuane.  There's a good article on it here.

Saturday, 5 April 2014

Off to Norway and the city of Oslo

This time I didn't manage to get the suitcase unpacked from our trip to Istria before having to pack it again for Oslo.  A few more jumpers went in!  The temperature in Istria was about 20 degrees and I'm not expecting that in the Viking north.

This trip isn't a writing trip, but a visit for an art exhibition by one of the sculptors working in the studios here.  Her name is Julia Vance and she's become a very good friend. Neil rates her sculptures very highly and I'm fascinated by her work because she sculpts three dimensional words and letters.

This is a big exhibition for her in Oslo and we're getting up at 3am to get a Ryanair flight which, we hope, is going to get us there in time for the launch! Fingers crossed.  Another friend is lending us an apartment in Oslo for the weekend because it's apparently the most expensive city in Europe.  There's no Wi-fi, so I won't be blogging (though I've scheduled a couple of posts) - a complete holiday for me! I'm looking forward to the exhibition, the party afterwards and to exploring my Viking roots.

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

To Istria - in search of a story

We left Trieste to head into the wilderness (sat-nav speaking) of Slovenia and Croatia.  Unless you pay an extra fee, the sat-nav goes blank as soon as you approach the border.  Road signs are rather more miss than hit and don't always agree with the map.  So it wasn't surprising that we got just a bit lost as the city faded in the rear view mirror.  There's a lot of new infrastructure, now that Slovenia and Croatia have joined Europe, and there are lots of new roads with hardly any vehicles on them (and they're not on the maps either!).

This area of southern Croatia (and a tiny sliver of Slovenia) that sticks out into the Adriatic towards Venice, is called Istria.  It used to be part of the Veneto, was part of Italy between the wars, and then became part of Tito's Yugoslavia. More recent history has been traumatic, and it's now Croatia, though the second language is still Italian.   Istria has its own character and is a country within a country.

I chose to set my new novel, The Centauress, in Istria partly because of its turbulent past, but also because the country fascinates me.  Istria is still wild and lightly populated with a beautiful sea coast and fortified hill villages that remind me of Italy.  I've read about it, watched films, and looked it up on the internet, but a personal fact-checking visit was essential.  Part of the story is set in a small fishing village called Rovinj - a location with a lot of history and great beauty, but only an hour's drive from Trieste (with a good map!).

The cobbled streets of the 'centro storico' are so narrow the houses almost touch each other.

There are tiny piazzas,

washing strung across balconies

and people make gardens wherever they can.

At the top of this dome of rock, is the baroque basilica of St Euphemia, a Roman martyr, thrown to the lions in the 3rd century, who was apparently washed ashore in a stone coffin in 800 ad after appearing to a young boy in a vision.

St Euphemia's coffin being dragged from the sea

But, although Rovinj was very seductive, there were other locations I needed to explore. The central character in the novel, Zenobia de Braganza, lives in one of the fortified hill villages, Kastela Visoko, just inland, but within sight of the Adriatic. The village is entirely fictional, but based on the historic villages of  Grosjnan and Motovun, which also have a tradition of housing painters, musicians and poets.  Just the kind of place an unconventional artist would choose to settle.

Motovun, Istria.
Like Motovun and Grosjnan, Visoko too, has a gated citadel and a tower and winding cobbled streets.

It's been great fun matching up the story and the landscape.  Istria has wonderful sea food and glorious wine and - since they wisely decided not to join the euro - it's incredibly cheap.  We were very sad to leave Rovinj, where we stayed in a small hotel near the sea.  This was my last goodbye shot, but maybe if people like the novel - I'll be able to go back! No harm in dreaming. . .