Thursday, 29 March 2012

Adrienne Rich: 1929 - 2012

Adrienne Rich died last night at the age of 82.  Her importance to the feminist movement can’t be underestimated.  There was a time when almost everyone I knew had a copy of her prose essays;  ‘Lies, Secrets and Silence’.  Her poetry has been life-changing for many women, because she put into words what had not been said before - about the reality of women’s lives.

I haven’t agreed with all Adrienne Rich’s politics - I like men, love men,  and often think they’ve had as raw a deal as we have from gender stereotyping, but that wasn’t something you could say in the heat of the feminist debate.   Nevertheless,  her poetry has been very important in my own life.  ‘Snapshots of a Daughter in Law’ hit me like a blinding flash when it was published in England, and gave words to my severe depression caused by trying to live in an unhappy relationship.  Like the young woman in her poem, I too would stand at the kitchen sink, blinded by misery.

Banging the coffee-pot into the sink
she hears the angels chiding, and looks out
past the raked gardens to the sloppy sky.
Only a week since They said: Have no patience.

The next time it was: Be insatiable.
Then: Save yourself; others you cannot save.
Sometimes she's let the tapstream scald her arm,
a match burn to her thumbnail,

or held her hand above the kettle's snout
right in the woolly steam. They are probably angels,
since nothing hurts her anymore, except
each morning's grit blowing into her eyes.

Here was someone who felt just like me - whose mind wandered towards poetry and other things while doing the washing up, who kept trying to be the perfect wife, crushing down rebellion and dissatisfaction at the limitations of the role.  Suddenly, instead of feeling guilty about those snatched moments scribbling, I felt validated.  It was ok to write and let the dust gather on the piano!    Later I found  'Diving into the Wreck'
and loved it - the exploration of that undersea, unfathomable landscape inside us.  It’s not just a feminist poem, it’s universal.  This is just a short quote.

I came to explore the wreck.
The words are purposes.
The words are maps.
I came to see the damage that was done
and the treasures that prevail.
I stroke the beam of my lamp
slowly along the flank
of something more permanent
than fish or weed

the thing I came for:
the wreck and not the story of the wreck
the thing itself and not the myth
the drowned face always staring
toward the sun
the evidence of damage
worn by salt and sway into this threadbare beauty
the ribs of the disaster
curving their assertion
among the tentative haunters.

But the one that always makes me smile is the one about living with an artist, called ‘Living in Sin’,  and the romantic disillusionment that sets in from the first moment: -

She had thought the studio would keep itself;
no dust upon the furniture of love.
Half heresy, to wish the taps less vocal,
the panes relieved of grime.

But of course, given the extent of her expectations,  reality soon begins to creep in.

By evening she was back in love again,
though not so wholly but throughout the night
she woke sometimes to feel the daylight coming
like a relentless milkman up the stairs.

I live with an artist and there’s a lot of dust on the furniture (not to mention the windows) - but I cancelled the milkman a long time ago!

Monday, 26 March 2012

Tuesday Poem: Suitable Poetry from Fry and Laurie

I thought it was time for some light relief.   This small video by Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry features 'suitable poetry' for the time-challenged modern traveller.  If the video doesn't run for you, please follow this link.

For more contributions from the Tuesday Poets please visit the Tuesday Poem hub at

Friday, 23 March 2012

The Lost Village

The spring weather has been lovely here - sunshine and clear skies, but still cool enough to walk up into the mountains.

We went off to explore some of the ancient 'Pilgrim Paths' in the Alpi Apuane - this one starting on the hill just above our little house.  I'm not sure why they call them Pilgrim paths because they seem to have been constructed to connect the little hamlets on the mountainside with each other and with the towns on the coastal plain.  Some of them were also used by workers in the marble quarries - many of whom walked for two hours to get to work and then two back.    They're beautifully constructed with paved edges and cobbled centres, navigating precipitous slopes.

In the spring weather, the stones were dotted with wild crocuses and narcissi growing up through the cracks.

Most of the paths are very well marked, with red dots, as alpine routes - but somehow, in the chestnut forest, we took a wrong turning and found ourselves in a thicket of bamboo.  It was only then that we realised that we were in the centre of a ruined village.  We should have noticed the clumps of daffodils - remnants of someone's garden, and the beautiful stone walls - all that's left of the terraces they cultivated.

The houses had almost completely vanished.  This photograph was taken from about 15 feet away from one of them and, although it's straight in front,  you can hardly see it at all. 

Down crumbling steps we found what had once been the village piazza.  Under a chestnut tree that had taken root in the wall was a water cistern fed by a spring, and a carved trough for washing people and laundry.

As we looked we began to see more and more houses hidden under the cover of wild clematis and bramble.
Doors swung open on scenes of desolation.

The front walls of some houses had collapsed into the valley.  From one window I could see the mountains through the remains of what had once been three houses.

We found our way back to the path (it was so obvious we must have been talking or looking at the view in order to miss it!)  and soon began to notice more ruins among the trees.  This was our favourite - glorious views and much of it still standing.  I sat on the front step and fantasised about living there.

The sad thing is that the path we were on leads to Sant' Anna - location of one of the worst massacres in Italy during WWII.  These villages too would have been searched and 'cleansed' by troops looking for partisans.  That's one reason they're deserted.  The other is that living up here is hard - people want electricity, running water, roads. 

Two more beautiful things I found in the woods - a magical tree bole like a sculpture and some red, red moss on a silver rock.

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Tuesday Poem: Poetry in Translation - Tomas Transtromer

April and Silence

Spring lies desolate.
This velvet-dark ditch
crawls by my side
without reflections.

The only thing that shines
is yellow flowers.

I am carried in my shadow
like a violin
in its black case.

The only thing I want to say
glitters out of reach
like the silver
in a pawnbroker’s.

April Och Tystnad

Våren ligger öde.
Det sammtesmörka diket
krälar vid min sida
utan spegelbilder.

Det enda som lyser
är gula blommor.

Jag bärs i min skugga
som en fiol
i sin svarta låda.

Det enda jag vill säga
glimmar utom räckhåll
som silvret
hos pantlånaren.

Aprile e Silenzio

La primavera giace deserta.
Il fossato di velluto scuro
serpeggia al mio fianco
senza riflessi.

L’unica cosa che splende
sono fiori gialli.

Son trasportato dentro la mia ombra
come un violino
nella sua custodia nera.

L’unica cosa che voglio dire
scintilla irraggiungibile
come l’argento
al banco dei pegni.

I have the Bloodaxe ‘Collected Poems’ of Tomas Transtromer in English, but - because I’m learning the language, I also have his ‘Sad Gondola’ collection (La Lugubre Gondola) in Italian, and this edition includes the original poems in Swedish. So, by a happy accident, I’m able to read three different versions of the same poems - in three different languages - and I thought it might be fun to compare them. Looking at poems in translation can sometimes give additional insights into the meaning, but it always raises the questions, ‘what is a good translation?’ and ‘is a translation a new poem altogether?’

Transtromer himself has written that ‘theoretically we can, to some extent justly, look at poetry translation as an absurdity. But in practice we must believe in poetry translation.’ He goes on to explain what he means by this, that there are two ways of looking at a poem. ‘You can perceive a poem as an expression of the life of the language itself, something organically grown out of the very language in which it is written. ... impossible to carry over into another language.’ But you can also believe that ‘the poem as it is presented is a manifestation of another, invisible poem, written in a language behind the common languages. Thus, even the original version is a translation.’ The Italian translator of his poems goes further and adds that every reader makes their own translation - for each one ‘the text is the same, but the poetry is different.’ So, no poem, in whatever language, is ever the same for every person. The important thing, she writes, is what happens between the text and the reader.

The English versions, by Robin Fulton, are excellent and come from a close partnership with the poet. George Szirtes writes in Poetry London that, ‘Transtromer has entered the English language as if he had been born to it, floating in Anglo-American space with an ease denied to many other’. In Italy Transtromer is translated by Gianna Chiesa Isnardi and the poems are very, very close to the English (I can't judge on the Swedish). Essential features of the poem’s structure have been kept, such as the repetitions in stanza two and four ‘L’unica cosa’, ‘Det enda’, ‘The only thing’. The length of the lines remains more or less the same and most of the words are simple equivalents. ‘Som en fiol’, ‘come un violino’, ‘like a violin’.

April and Silence translates very well - a straight-forward transmission of meaning using the repetitions of ideas and phrases, exactly chosen words. But the sounds and rhythms are very different. Looking at the unfamiliar symbols of the original Swedish I’d assumed that it would have a rougher sound than the Italian or English, but a Swedish friend here read it for me and I was surprised at the lyrical quality of the language. Smooth, musical and beautiful, more equivalent to the Italian than the English.  I hadn't expected it to sound like that. This is a glimpse of Transtromer reading in Swedish.

For More Tuesday Poems please visit the Tuesday Poets hub at

I'm having fun getting about a bit this week - also guest-blogging about 'The Itinerant Muse'  over at Wendy Robertson's brilliant blog  A Life Twice Tasted

and writing about women's diaries and letters 'What Survives of Us....' on Michelle McGrane's wonderful Peony Moon.

Sunday, 18 March 2012

Mother's Day and Julia Copus' Ghost Lines

I'm a bit ambivalent about having 'days' for particular people or things. But 'Mother's Day' has such a long history - back to the Virgin Mary, and before that to the pagan mother goddesses we worshipped millenia ago.  Even nature, the earth, was seen as a woman.  Maybe to do with the mysterious processes of giving birth - it seemed such a miracle, and women risked their own lives in the process of giving life to a new human being.  It also seems an appropriate day to remember those who long to have a child, yet can't.  There's a moving series of poems by Julia Copus about the gruelling process of IVF, and its failure, called Ghost Lines, which was broadcast on BBC Radio 3 in December 2011.    Although the programme doesn't seem to be available for re-viewing at the moment, there's a trailer clip from the Fiction Factory Ghost Lines is short-listed for the prestigious  Ted Hughes prize for new work in poetry and is also in the current issue of Poetry London. 

I particularly loved 'Inkling'  which begins

Last night I sensed a taking root
under the bonecage of my heart,
a stirring, shifting;  something not
quite of a breath or heartbeat's weight.

It was the inkling of a soul.
Now I shall have no peace at all
till he's caught and fastened, nested in
the cradle of my pelvic bone......

These poems are very, very special and I'm looking forward to reading them again in her next collection The World's Two Smallest Humans, due from Faber in  July 2012.

Also remembering my own lovely mother today.  I'm grown up enough to stand on my own two feet now, with grown up daughters of my own, but I still miss her.  This photo is of her as a girl and I'm amazed how Italian she looks!  - all those maternal relatives in Genoa, whose names I would love to know.

Thursday, 15 March 2012

Travelling, travelling, travelling .......

So far four trains, two buses, a plane, a London underground ride and a taxi;  two hotels and a succession of coffees in paper cups and tasteless sandwiches.   No wonder I'm feeling a touch jaded.  And my poor laptop has  been trying to connect to so many internet hotspots it's become confused!   I'm currently in Ipswich giving a talk on Katherine Mansfield to the Suffolk Book League - a lovely group of book enthusiasts it was a pleasure to meet.   Waterstones even managed to sell a few books.  But I wonder whether audiences have any idea what an effort writers make to meet readers and talk to them about their work?

I haven't been to Ipswich before and at first glance it seems like most modern English town centres - hardly any old buildings left and most space taken up by a pedestrianized shopping mall with all the usual suspects;  Monsoon, Debenhams, H&M, McDonalds, Gap, Benetton, Costa coffee, M&S.   There is, apparently, another face to Ipswich - the waterfront - which I haven't seen yet. 

There are lots of very young mums here, strolling around with their babies in buggies - some of them don't even look old enough to have left school.   That's something you don't see in Italy and I wonder why?  Do Italian girls have better things to do than have babies as teenagers?  Most wait until their late twenties or early thirties.  Cultural differences?  The family group is certainly stronger and more important in Italy than it is over here, so perhaps young girls feel less compelled to begin their own.  But there's also a demographic shift in Italy - the birth rate is dropping and the government are worried about it.

Now I'm about to start the journey again in reverse - taxi, trains, bus, plane (fog permitting) and hopefully Neil will be waiting for me at Pisa airport around midnight.   It's sunny over there he tells me and tonight the sky should be clear enough to get another look at Venus and Jupiter together - the brightest objects in the night sky.

Monday, 12 March 2012

Tuesday Poem: A Syrian Poet in Homs - Tal al-Mallouhi

You will remain an example

I will walk with all walking people
And no
I will not stand still
Just to watch the passers by
This is my Homeland
In which
I have
A palm tree
A drop in a cloud
And a grave to protect me.

This is more beautiful
Than all cities of fog
And cities which
Do not recognise me
My master:
I would like to have power
Even for one day
To build the “republic of feelings.”

Tal al-Mallouhi
(Translated by Ghias al-Jundi)

Tal al-Mallouhi is a young Syrian poet and blogger, born in Homs, arrested aged 19 accused of spying for foreign countries and sentenced to 5 years in prison in 2009.   This is her brief biography from the internet:

“al Dosr al-Mallohi (al-Mallouhi) (Arabic: طل الملوحي ) born in Homs January 4, 1991. She is considered the World's youngest prisoner of conscience. On 27 December 2009, Tal was taken from her home by officers of one of the security offices in Syria because she has written poems about Palestine and social commentaries on her blog.  Since then, her parents don't know which security office has detained her nor where they can visit their daughter. Tal al-Mallouhi has been accused by the Syrian government of being a spy for the United States of America, and sentenced on February 15, 2011 to five years in prison.”

For more about her situation please look up English Pen who are trying to publicise her plight by sharing her poetry with as many people as possible.

For more Tuesday Poems please visit the Tuesday Poem website at
where thirty poets from around the world post a poem every Tuesday.

And today the wonderful Michelle McGrane has featured my new collection 'Not Saying Goodbye at Gate 21' on the brilliant poetry site 'Peony Moon'.  Thanks Michelle!

Thursday, 8 March 2012

40 Women Sculptors for International Women's Day

As it's International Women's Day today, I thought it might be appropriate to post something about an exhibition celebrating the work of 40 women sculptors who have lived and worked in Pietrasanta during the last fifty years.

Whatever you think of gendered events, (and I know many of the women here are very ambivalent about them) it's difficult to turn down the opportunities that positive discrimination sometimes presents.   The work featured in this exhibition is extremely varied in style and subject matter and the sculptors come from almost every part of the world, including USA, Italy, Norway, Venezuela, Russia, Europe, and Japan.

They were all interesting, and I had my own personal preferences, but here are some that I found really interesting.  Sadly, one of my favourites, 'Dancing in the clouds' by American Shelley Robzen, can't be shown because it was highly polished black marble in a spotlighted situation which didn't photograph.  In fact, it was difficult to get any good photos at all, given that the church 'St Agostino' has no natural light.

My favourite artist of the older group,  Alicia Penalba (from Buenos Aires) died in 1982.  Her 'Trilogie'  - the three bronze figures standing at the entrance to the church, is really beautiful.

The gesso maquette for Grand Gisant reminded me of dinosaur vertebrae.

Again in the older group, the Italian Fiore de Henriquez who died in 2004, had a strange, almost feral bronze figure, full of quite violent life.  It's called 'Ippogrifo' - the Hippogriff.

I loved this small, alien landscape with its lonely figure by American Jill Watson who now lives near Pietrasanta.  It's called Giardino - garden.

This relief, by Swiss artist Maja Thommen, looks simple, but is incredibly intricate. She's a very interesting artist who paints, creates installations and also performs with a gypsy punk band.  It's called Donna Velata - veiled woman.

Dutch sculptor Margot Homan exhibited this bronze figure of a women holding her finger to her mouth - Il Silenzio.  It's very finely balanced.

There were some images that I found quite disturbing, including this male, almost zombie-like figure by young Italian artist Elena Bianchini.

Altogether a fascinating exhibition.  I'd have loved to do a creative writing workshop with it!

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Tuesday Poem: Minding Isabella

She isn't sure of me, this occasional person
she calls Abuela, whose DNA she shares
across two generations and two languages.
I don't always understand her.  'Agua' she says
holding out a cup.  'Donde esta mi madre?' 
The lip quivers, and her face tilts up, reflecting
mine. A small hand slips between arthritic fingers
unable to unlatch the harness of the car seat
that she mustn't wriggle out of.  Precious cargo, 
Isabella; daughter's daughter.  Mine for today.

Copyright Kathleen Jones

This is unashamedly sentimental.  I've just been back to England for a few days to look after my small grand-daughter  - a lovely, and exhausting, experience.  She's just beginning to talk and often difficult to interpret. My daughter is trying to bring her up to be bi-lingual, so some things she says are in Spanish, others in English.  'Abuela' is Spanish for grandmother, and I love it.   The biggest challenge, since I have the writers' curse, RSI, in my wrists, was locking and unlocking all the child-proof things - buggies and car seats etc.  A nightmare!

I'm also experimenting a bit with forms.  This one's ten lines, each line 12 syllables (approx), which is an interesting short form to work with. There are two lines that don't quite work yet, so more editing necessary!

For more Tuesday Poems please visit the main site:

Sunday, 4 March 2012

The Two Faces of Italy

I'm reading a very interesting book at the moment, 'The Dark Heart of Italy', which promises to enlighten my own ignorance of the tortuous pathways of Italian politics.

Italy is outwardly seductive - the beautiful landscape, history, art, food, wine and language.  But learning - or trying to learn! - that language has made me more aware of the duality here.  Just the word for icing sugar for example.  In English it implies decoration, enrichment, as in 'the icing on the cake', but in Italy it is a 'veil' concealing what is underneath.  This is a country where the word for cunning, 'furbo', also means cleverness and is used admiringly.
Two Faces of Italy - Catastrophe in an Idyllic Location - will Schettino ever face justice?
It's a country where the rich declare less than 50,000 euros a year in earnings and drive around in Ferraris and  Lamborghinis.  It's a country where most attempts to bring corrupt politicians and officials to justice usually founders in a maze of judicial bureaucracy.  It's called the 'muro di gomma' - the rubber wall everything bounces off.

While I'm on my terrace admiring the view, northern Italy is experiencing violent unrest - to watch the news you'd think half Italy was burning.  The 'No Tav' movement has blocked an autostrada and the railway lines to protest against a proposed fast rail link from Turin to Lyon.  There are burning barricades and violent clashes.

Elsewhere there are demonstrations against austerity measures.  One in three Italian youths doesn't have a job.  The fact that you have to know someone to get a job makes things doubly hard.  PM Monti has pledged to reform the labour market and create a meritocracy, but will it happen? or are the practices too deep rooted?  Like Japanese Knotweed in Britain, Nepotism is wild and out of control here.  You need a lot of 'furbo' to get anywhere.

Thursday, 1 March 2012

Fancy a Cheap Ferrari?

In Italy, Berlusconi's replacement, Mario Monti, is busily trying to clean up the Italian state.   He's promising changes to the tax system - at the moment even the low-paid are taxed at 50%, which is why everyone avoids tax whenever possible.  The black economy is huge here.  But the rich are the biggest tax evaders of all and Monti is threatening to chase them up.  Which is why they're selling their Ferraris and buying something less eye-catching in an attempt to evade the dreaded Guardia di Finanza - a financial police force with blood-curdling powers!  So, if you want a testosterone boost, or fancy a display of machismo, the car dealers of Milan will probably be able to oblige with one of the rocket powered machines guaranteed to raise the CO2 levels of the planet even on a trip to the supermarket.  Sadly, I must confess that I do experience the odd moment of lust when one roars past my modest Peugeot on the road, but my sensible self soon re-asserts itself!