Tuesday, 29 November 2016

Tuesday Poem: The Mayo Tao - Derek Mahon

I have abandoned the dream kitchens for a low fire
and a prescriptive literature of the spirit;
a storm snores on the desolate sea.
The nearest shop is four miles away –
when I walk there through the shambles
of the morning for tea and firelighters
the mountain paces me in a snow-lit silence.
My days are spent in conversation
with deer and blackbirds;
at night fox and badger gather at my door.
I have stood for hours
watching a salmon doze in the tea-gold dark,
for months listening to the sob story
of a stone in the road, the best,
most monotonous sob story I have ever heard.

I am an expert on frost crystals
and the silence of crickets, a confidant
of the stinking shore, the stars in the mud –
there is an immanence in these things
which drives me, despite my scepticism,
almost to the point of speech,
like the sunlight cleaving the lake mist at morning
or when tepid water
runs cold at last from the tap.

I have been working for years
on a four-line poem
about the life of a leaf;
I think it might come out right this winter.

Copyright: Derek Mahon, Selected Poems, Penguin, 2000. Collected Poems, Gallery Press, 1999.

Who hasn't fantasized lately about retreating to a solitary dwelling between the sea and the mountains, away from the constant noise (and the horror) of the world news?  I certainly have.

The wild coastline of County Mayo
Derek Mahon's poem has been much shared on the internet, and between poets, for its picture of the poet's idyll. Time to write.  Silence.  Space.  Being able to watch 'a salmon doze' in the dark, peat-coloured water of a stream. It is so quiet you can hear the storm 'snoring' on the sea.  But the tranquility is not without its sadness - the sea is 'desolate', the stones of the road tell a 'sob story', the shore is 'stinking'. Then there is the reality of the four mile walk to the shop, the frost crystals, and the tepid water in the tap. I love the way the poet laughs at himself a little, particularly in the last lines. Which of us doesn't have a poem that we can't get quite right and have been working on for months, if not years?

Nick Laird wrote about this in the Guardian a few years ago, in an article titled the 'Slow Language Movement', arguing that we need silence and patience in order to write well.  

‘ ... most poets write poems that speak with a single voice pulled out from the silence. The work is slow, but there is a correlation between effort and reward. The pleasure got from the internet, from the buzz, the immediacy, the wit, is different in kind from the pleasure of language that integrates experiences. When I'm trying to comb through my own work, Boileau's dictum comes to mind: "Of every four words I write, I strike out three." . . .  Derek Mahon exaggerates, but only slightly, in "The Mayo Tao".’

Copyright Nick Laird, The Slow Language Movement, Guardian, 4th July, 2009.


Derek Mahon was born in Northern Ireland in 1941 and has a dazzling list of publications.  This poem of his will always be one of my favourites. I return to it again and again for its quiet humour and vision of peace. 

Friday, 25 November 2016

Legendary Borrowed Days




Today was what in Cumbria we call a ‘borrowed’ day.  The sun was shining in a clear blue sky and I could feel the warmth of it on my skin.  Around me, the horizon gleamed with white-capped peaks, but the air felt soft, like spring.

The expression ‘borrowed day’ puzzles a lot of people.  As a Cumbrian child, I grew up with it, knowing what it meant but not where it came from.  The source is an old Gaelic myth, long forgotten here in the north of England.  It is the story of Beira, the Winter Queen, her son Angus and Bride - a girl imprisoned by the Winter Queen to prevent Angus from marrying her. The perpetual winter that Beira imposes on the land also keeps Angus and Bride apart.  In order to defeat his mother and free the kingdom from Winter’s grip (and marry Bride!), Angus borrows two days from summer to create a thaw to weaken her power.  Those warm, borrowed days made it possible for Angus to find Bride and make her his wife.  

And from that moment the earth seemed warmer under their feet, and the birds sang for joy from the branches of the trees. And as the two young lovers looked on in wonder, the Queen of the Fairies came to them with her hand-maidens and she cast her wand over Bride and she was transformed into her summer glory. She radiated beauty, like the sun through a break in the clouds, and her long golden hair that hung down to her waist was decorated with snowdrops, violets, daisies and primroses; her ragged dress was now a snow-white gown that shimmered with inlays of silver and on her breast there shone a clear crystal. They went with the Queen of the Fairies to her hall where they were married and a great feast was held. Wherever Beira’s hags had frozen the water, Bride’s touch turned it once more into flowing streams and lakes.”

© Tom Muir, Education Scotland

But, like all things borrowed, the days must be given back - and so, when the sun wanes and the days shorten, Beira increases in power again and we have winter.
Beira, the Winter Queen (Source: Deviant Art)
The story has been forgotten by most people here, but it has left its traces in our language. Cumbrian dialect is very rich - we were once part of Scotland, but we were also settled by Vikings and so there are traces of the Norse language and their stories in our vocabulary.  A language which is location specific carries much more than just ordinary everyday exchanges - it carries a freight of history and mythology with it too.  Fewer people today speak Cumbrian dialect, particularly the young, and when it goes so much will be lost to us.

I've been looking at the weather forecast. Tomorrow, just like the story, the borrowed days will have departed and we will be in the grip of winter again here!  Better get the winter woollies out.


Tuesday, 22 November 2016

Tuesday Poem: Alun Lewis - All Day it has Rained

All day it has rained,  and we on the edge of the moors
Have sprawled in our bell-tents, moody and dull as boors,
Groundsheets and blankets spread on the muddy ground
And from the first grey wakening we have found
No refuge from the skirmishing fine rain
And the wind that made the canvas heave and flap
And the taut wet guy-ropes ravel out and snap.
All day the rain has glided, wave and mist and dream,
Drenching the gorse and heather, a gossamer stream
Too light to stir the acorns that suddenly
Snatched from their cups by the wild south-westerly
Pattered against the tent and our upturned dreaming faces.
And we stretched out, unbuttoning our braces,
Smoking a Woodbine, darning dirty socks,
Reading the Sunday papers – I saw a fox
And mentioned it in the note I scribbled home; –
And we talked of girls and dropping bombs on Rome,
And thought of the quiet dead and the loud celebrities
Exhorting us to slaughter, and the herded refugees:
Yet thought softly, morosely of them, and as indifferently
As of ourselves or those whom we
For years have loved, and will again
Tomorrow maybe love; but now it is the rain
Possesses us entirely, the twilight and the rain.

And I can remember nothing dearer or more to my heart
Than the children I watched in the woods on Saturday
Shaking down burning chestnuts for the schoolyard’s merry play,
Or the shaggy patient dog who followed me
By Sheet and Steep and up the wooded scree
To the Shoulder o’ Mutton where Edward Thomas brooded long
On death and beauty – till a bullet stopped his song.

Alun Lewis
First Published in Horizon, 1941.
Selected Poems of Alun Lewis, ed. Jeremy Hooker & Gweno Lewis
Unwin Paperbacks 1981



It's the anniversary of the Battle of the Somme, which ranks as one of the most brutal and senseless slaughters of WWI.   Over a million men were killed or wounded and it is the most costly battle in military history. All that was gained was a few kilometres of ground without any strategic importance.

Alun Lewis is a poet of WW2 and his work has a quiet, lyrical brilliance. He's good at narrative - focusing on telling detail (he also wrote short fiction).  In this poem he's in training for war up on the moors in Edward Thomas country, thinking about his predecessor both as soldier and poet.

War hasn't changed much.  We still have 'the loud celebrities/Exhorting us to slaughter, and the herded refugees;'.  What this poem does is focus on the dichotomy in a soldier's life - 'we talked of girls and dropping bombs on Rome' - the constant clash between the horror of war and the mundane details of every day.

Alun is famous for his letters to Gweno, his wife, and the poems he wrote for her. But he fell deeply in love with Freda Ackroyd when stationed in India in 1943, writing passionate love letters that have also been published (A Cypress Walk - Enitharmon Press).  When he was reassigned to his regiment after sick leave, he wrote to her on December 30th 1943 of his repugnance for war.  "I'm afraid of the fighting when it comes. I'll loathe it so utterly, & be so faithless to Life, beloved Life." His personal situation and beliefs created a turmoil which he couldn't resolve.

'A trackless wilderness divides
Joy from its cause, the motive from the act:
The killing arm uncurls, strokes the soft moss;
The distant world is an obituary'


 He died in March 1944, in Burma, with a bullet through the head from his own revolver. The military inquest brought in a verdict of 'accidental death' but this may well have been to spare his family the anguish of 'suicide'.  It makes the last line of the above poem very poignant. 

Saturday, 19 November 2016

Politics, Despair and Earthquakes


How shaky is the ground we stand on - how fragile the rock we call security?  One moment we pretend we’re masters of the universe - the next we’re vulnerable animals caught between the forces of destruction and creation.
One of the victims of the Kaikoura Earthquake NZ (photo Stuffnz)
The last couple of weeks have all been too much - the uncertainties of Brexit;  then the swingeing welfare changes which will affect all of us - particularly those of us of a certain age becoming dependent on pensions;  the destructive NHS cuts which, in our remote rural area, will close hospitals, and reduce GPs and social services, - this in a region where the ambulance service is short of 29 paramedics and achieves none of its NHS target times - not even Code Red.  It can take over an hour for an ambulance to reach you and more than that to get you to a hospital.
A demonstration against closure of one of our local hospitals.
On Thursday I visited a university where mature student intake is down nearly 90% since the fees hike, and where care assistants, who once came to get a degree and upgrade to nursing staff, are no longer doing so because of the removal of the training bursary. The lack of investment in education, re-education, and training for a twenty first century workforce is clear for everyone to see.  Except, it seems, the government.

Jeremy Hunt - Much of the NHS has already been privatised, we just haven't been told.
Then add into that the devastating result of the US election, where - let’s not mince words - a proven liar, morally flawed, predatory, apparently ignorant, misogynistic, racist, white male was elected to one of the world’s highest offices - and I almost gave up then and there.


The sense of despair was acute.  I’m not in favour of voting for a woman simply because she’s a woman (I certainly wouldn’t vote for Theresa May!) And I’m no fan of Hillary Clinton. And before I get savaged by my Sisters - not because she got her emails in a twist, but because she is a (passionate) advocate of the neo-liberal political ideology that has (frankly) f****d the world.  We’ve had it with Big Oil, Big Pharma, and the Corporate agenda.  It’s got us where we are now and that’s not a good place.
Hillary Clinton - dignified even in defeat

But Hillary was a far, far, more qualified, experienced and deserving candidate for the job than her rival.  And it was misogyny, vindictiveness, anger and frustration that brought her down, rather than logical political argument about ideology. That's tragic.

What we seem to be witnessing is a revolution  - the politics of nihilism, where an old, corrupt and self-serving political society is torn down by the struggling masses underneath without any regard for the consequence. We don’t take to the barricades with guns these days (at least not yet) but the result is the same.  Chaos.

And then to round off my week, a massive earthquake has struck New Zealand where my daughter lives with her family and where I have many friends affected by it.  Phone lines, down, power out, tsunami warnings and hours of anxious waiting and watching the news feed on the internet.
Lorry trapped on the road.  Parts of  South Island rose by between 2 and 4 metres.
These are a couple of weeks I don’t want to live twice.  I wish I could say ‘Beam me up Scottie!’ but the only Star Ship Enterprise that’s around is one dedicated to turning the world into a giant consumer-driven Corporation.  And its CEO has a name beginning with T.

Tuesday, 8 November 2016

Tuesday Poem: "I am not resigned", Edna St Vincent Millay


I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground.
So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been, time out of mind:
Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely. Crowned
With lilies and with laurel they go; but I am not resigned.

Lovers and thinkers, into the earth with you.
Be one with the dull, the indiscriminate dust.
A fragment of what you felt, of what you knew,
A formula, a phrase remains,—but the best is lost.

The answers quick and keen, the honest look, the laughter, the
love,—
They are gone. They are gone to feed the roses. Elegant and curled
Is the blossom. Fragrant is the blossom. I know. But I do not
approve.
More precious was the light in your eyes than all the roses in the
world.

Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave
Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;
Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.

Edna St. Vincent Millay

From her Anti-war play Aria da Capo 1919


It the week in November when we remember the slaughter of world wars and the general insanity, inhumanity, and sheer stupidity of war at any time and in any place. Whether it is Syria, Afghanistan, Croatia, Africa, Germany, Gaza, Japan or Russia, war means loss, grief, death and destruction and images of long lines of ordinary people, women, children, the old the sick, clutching precious belongings and walking away from their ruined lives as refugees.

Edna St Vincent Millay lived through the First World War and, living in America, she was isolated from the direct experience of its horrors.  But she articulated the experience of families, lovers and friends who said goodbye to young men, 'the wise and the lovely . . . They are gone', never to see them again.  As in other wars, a generation of women lost the chance of making a relationship and having a family.

Women's poetry from the first two world wars is sparse - partly because fewer women were published poets at that time and partly because they tended to remain at home rather than go to the front.  They often wrote novels or memoirs rather than poetry - Vera Brittain's Testament of Youth is one of the best.  Edna St Vincent Millay is one of the most lyrical of poets - I particularly love her sonnets.  This one too, is about war and its loss.

What Lips My Lips Have Kissed, And Where, And Why (Sonnet Xliii) -

What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why,
I have forgotten, and what arms have lain
Under my head till morning; but the rain
Is full of ghosts tonight, that tap and sigh
Upon the glass and listen for reply,
And in my heart there stirs a quiet pain
For unremembered lads that not again
Will turn to me at midnight with a cry.
Thus in winter stands the lonely tree,
Nor knows what birds have vanished one by one,
Yet knows its boughs more silent than before:
I cannot say what loves have come and gone,
I only know that summer sang in me
A little while, that in me sings no more.

Edna St. Vincent Millay

Millay was a precocious child and won a Pulitzer Prize for poetry by the time she was 23.  She didn't conform to conventional codes and described her young life as "very, very poor and very, very merry".   Her love life was equally complicated.  She was a life-long pacifist which earned her much condemnation during the second world war.  After she died, in 1950, her sister Norma handled her estate, assisted by the young Mary Oliver.

Friday, 4 November 2016

Flood Repair Work Begins - the messy stage

If you're wondering why I've been so quiet here recently, perhaps these photos will explain.  Flood repair work is ongoing - the electricians have finished tearing out the walls, floors and ceilings and now the Boys have moved in to build and decorate.   I live with a cement mixer on the doorstep. On the outside wall behind it, you can see the green mould from the flood water.  We still haven't dried out and on December 5th it will be a year since the flood changed all our lives here.



Inside the front door I wade through a builders's yard of  rescued furniture, materials, rubbish and tools. Partition walls, wrecked by the water, have yet to be taken out.



The Mill Gallery has been turned into a workshop.



Inside our little cottage the floor, at least is done, though kitchen worksurfaces and shelving, windows and doors have yet to be restored.  As much as possible is going to be high up on the walls.

Upstairs the ravages of damp, mould, and the re-wiring, are being repaired.  This is my wonderful son-in-law, Ian, who has come to help.  Way to go yet, but at least it's begun!


Tuesday, 25 October 2016

Tuesday Poem: A Winter King - George Mackay Brown

'Now,' said the sea king
'Freight the death ship
With jar and tapestry and gold.
I must sail alone, very far.
It is time for a new saga to be told.'

The king was bronze-bearded, not sick
                           or meek-mouthed or old.
On the hull a bird had been cut,
Branch-beaked, a long gray wing.

Fishermen loosed the rope.
They sent the ship down the rollers
                          with a darkling shout
Under the voyager's star.


Copyright George Mackay Brown,
from The Wreck of the Archangel 
published by John Murray, 1989

I love this small poem from one of George Mackay Brown's last collections.  It takes me back to the Norse sagas and ancient poems like 'The Seafarer'.  In that poem, the wanderer endures unimaginable hardships at sea, alone, in winter, his hands frozen to the steering oar, his feet 'in fetters of ice'.  But the anonymous poet also records the 'sea-longing' that can't be resisted.

Forþon nu min hyge hweorfeð (and now my heart soars
ofer hreþerlocan,                          (beyond my breast,
min modsefa                                  (my spirit longs
mid mereflode,                          (to be on the flood
ofer hwæles eþel                          (over the wide whale-road
hweorfeð wide,                          (it soars
eorþan sceatas -                          (to every corner of the earth
cymeð eft to me                          (and returns often to me
gifre ond grædig;                          (eager and greedy;
gielleð anfloga,                          (the lone bird yells
hweteð on hwælweg                  (yearning for the whale-way
hreþer unwearnum                          (the unwearying heart

Mackay Brown's seafarer is obviously a Viking - the beaked ship, the funeral vessel laden with treasure, though this Norse king is neither old nor sick. The Norsemen were wonderful seamen and storytellers who colonised the northern hemisphere, including the Scottish Isles, while the Brits were still paddling around in corracles.  The poet came from Orkney, where he spent the whole of his life, and its history and archaeology was in his bloodstream. 60% of Orcadian men have Norse DNA and George Mackay Brown, in his prime, was beautiful enough to be a Viking himself.




But there are other myths at play in this poem too - the Winter King is a figure in many northern mythologies and has even found his way into the Arthurian stories. In some myths he is paired with the Corn Queen; in Scottish mythology it is Bride who brings the spring and summer. 


The whole collection, The Wreck of the Archangel, is centred around the sea and particularly around a 19th century wrecked Russian ship that was either called The Archangel, or came from Archangel.  The only survivor was a small boy, who features in the poems.  I particularly loved 'The Horsefair', which is the boy's account of a visit to the fair with 'Old Da' who has adopted him.  The collection includes 'The Scottish Bestiary'.  One of them, 'Moth', is a lyrical, vivid picture of life on the islands.

'The moth travels from pane to pane, in August
Wherever a lamp is set.

There's old Sammy playing his fiddle,
Such a rant
The sweet plea of the moth at the pane is lost.

In the next croft
Three children are reading their school books.
He thuds on the pane.
They are lost in labyrinths;  seaports, poetry, algebra.

Travel on, moth.
The wife is out in the byre, milking.
A fire-drowsed dog
Growls at the birring in the window. . . . '

I bought this collection second hand (thank you Abe Books), as it is out of print.  The poet is passionate about his homeland, and the vividness of the poetry could only have come from such a deep attachment and observation.  It made me want to visit Orkney's wild landscape and its prehistoric monuments, and to read more of Mackay Brown's work.  At the time when it was published, the poet Charles Causley said, "I don't know anyone writing in this particular genre today who comes within a thousand miles of him".  I've ordered his short stories - The Masked Fisherman, and I'm very tempted by his autobiography 'For The Islands I sing'.