Tuesday, 29 April 2014

The Tuesday Poem: Norman Nicholson - The Pot Geranium

By Norman Nicholson

Green slated gables clasp the stem of the hill
In the lemony autumn sun; an acid wind
Dissolves the leaf stalks of back garden trees,
And chimneys with their fires unlit
Seem yet to puff a yellow smoke of poplars.
Freestone is brown as bark, and the model bakery
That once was a Primitive Methodist Chapel
Lifts its cornice against the sky.
And now, like a flight of racing pigeons
Slipped from their basket in the station yard,
A box kite rides the air, a square of calico,
Crimson as the cornets of the Royal Temperance Band
When they brass up the wind in marching.  The kite
Strains and struggles on its leash, and unseen boys,
In chicken run or allotment or by the side
Of the old quarry full to the gullet with water,
Pay out on their string a rag of dream,
High as the Jubilee flagpole.

          I turn from the window
(Letting the bobbins of autumn wind up the swallows)
And lie on my bed.  The ceiling
Slopes over like a tent, and white walls
Wrap themselves round me, leaving only
A flap for the light to blow through.  Thighs and spine
Are clamped to the mattress and looping springs
Twine round my chest and hold me.  I feel the air
Move on my face like spiders, see the light
Slide across the plaster; but wind and sun
Are mine no longer, nor have I kite to claim them,
Or string to fish the clouds.  But there on a shelf
In the warm corner of my dormer window
A pot geranium flies its bright balloon,
Nor can the festering hot-house of the tropics
Breed a tenser crimson; for this crock of soil,
Six inch deep by four across,
Contains the pattern, the prod and pulse of life,
Complete as the Nile or the Niger.

           And what need therefore
To stretch for the straining kite? – for kite and flower
Bloom in my room for ever; the light that lifts them
Shines in my own eyes, and my body’s warmth
Hatches their red in my veins.  It is the Gulf Stream
That rains down the chimney, making the soot spit; it is the Trade Wind
That blows in the draught under the bedroom door.
My ways are circumscribed, confined as a limpet
To one small radius of rock; yet
I eat the equator, breathe the sky, and carry
The great white sun in the dirt of my finger nails.

From: Norman Nicholson Selected Poems 1940-1982. London:Faber & Faber
Copyright The Hunt Family

As it's Norman's centenary and this week there are lots of events and celebrations, I thought I'd post what he considered was his 'signature' poem.  It is a meditation on confinement - because he was diagnosed with TB as a teenager, he spent a lot of time cooped up in small rooms gazing at the outside world he couldn't explore.  He lived all his life at 14 St George's Terrace, Millom, in the small attic room described above, with its views of the Lake District fells and the roofs of the town.  He was adamant that his work was universal and not 'provincial'.  What is local and personal is relevant to the whole human race.  Wherever we are we 'eat the equator, breathe the sky, and carry/The great white sun' under our fingernails.

Why not pop over to the Tuesday Poem hub and see what the other Tuesday Poets are posting?

If anyone is interested in reading more about Norman, The Whispering Poet is available as an ebook and a print book from Amazon and from all good bookshops.

And for anyone living in the NW of England, Lancaster University are hosting an event on the 30th April, 6-8 pm in the Alexandra Gallery.  A celebration of the life and work of Norman Nicholson.

Sunday, 27 April 2014

Celebrations for Norman Nicholson's 100th Birthday

Yesterday the Norman Nicholson Society were celebrating Norman Nicholson's 100th birthday with a gala lunch in Millom.  It's quite a trek by public transport from Appleby, where I live when I'm in the UK.  In the end I spent 8 hours on public transport - a bus, two taxis and four trains - but got there and back in one piece!  The journey involves a small train along the Cumbrian coast with fabulous views of the sea.  It's the Solway Estuary, so a bit muddy and the sky seems to go on for ever.  Somewhere over there is Scotland.

And then the dark bulk of a fell called Black Combe - the westernmost edge of the Lake District - which gradually gets closer and closer as the train skirts the edge of the sea.  Even in full sunshine Black Combe has a lowering quality and Norman wrote several poems about living in its shadow.

The lunch party welcomed us with a junior brass band - the Holborn Hill Royal Brass Band - which was absolutely fantastic (though conversation was a bit difficult while they were playing!).  It's good to see young people playing to such a high standard - also to see the northern tradition of brass being kept up.

Every table was decorated with red balloons and a geranium - both of which feature in Norman's famous poem about spending his life in Millom - 'The Pot Geranium' (which you can find here) Quotes from the poem were written on flags placed in every pot.

There were poems and tributes from family and friends and an excellent buffet lunch.  Happy birthday Norman!!

And then I came back to a wonderful surprise - the most fantastic review I've ever had - author Dennis Hamley has reviewed my biography of Norman 'The Whispering Poet' in glowing terms.

"one of the great strengths of this book, as with all Kathleen Jones's biographies, is the lucidity and quiet elegance of the prose. Unassuming yet transmitting sharp insights and engaging our feelings with its eloquent simplicity, its qualities resemble the poetry of its subject."

Thank you Dennis - you made my day and - just possibly - my week!!!

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

A Book - and a Journey

I'm off again - this time to England for some events connected with Norman Nicholson.  The clothes are so well-trained they climb into the suitcase by themselves these days.  Sometimes they can't be bothered to get out at the other end!

But I'm feeling cheerful because my new novel The Centauress appeared on Amazon yesterday and is already in the top 50 in literary fiction.  No idea why - I put it on Facebook and Tweeted a couple of times - haven't the resources, or the time, to do much publicity.  Feel like hugging everyone who bought it!   Neil designed a beautiful cover, using detail from a painting in the Brooklyn Museum, New York by an American/French painter called John La Farge.

It was difficult to condense the plot to a coherent 'blurb' for the cover - quite a lot had to be left out, but this is how it reads:

'Bereaved biographer Alex Forbes goes to war-ravaged Croatia to research the life of celebrity artist Zenobia de Braganza and finds herself at the centre of a family conflict over a disputed inheritance. At the Ka┼ítela Visoko Alex uncovers a mutilated photograph, stolen letters and a story of indeterminate gender, passion and betrayal. But can she believe what she is being told? In order to discover the truth about Zenobia, Alex travels to Istria, Venice, New York and London and, in working through the narrative of Zenobia’s life, Alex begins to make sense of her own and finds joy and love in a new relationship.' 

The Centauress  Amazon.co.uk

The Centauress Amazon.com

Saturday, 19 April 2014

Older than Easter

The tiny village we live in on the slopes of the Alpi Apuane keeps traditional customs.  One of them is the Easter Procession on Good Friday evening, when the figure of Jesus is taken from the church and driven along the road, accompanied by music, to the grotto just above our house in the olive grove, where the priests say a mass.

In the grotto is the Madonna of the Rock, a female figure with a halo of stars, her hand raised to bless.  She reminds me of figures of the Goddess found by archaeologists dating back tens of thousands of years. This one is Celtic - found in Scotland recently.

The shrine of our 'Madonna of the Rock' is kept stocked with flowers and candles all the time by the women of the village. This veneration of the sacred female figure is obviously older than Christianity - the paths here date back to the Etruscans and the siting of the shrine - outside the village on a prominent viewpoint - seems significant.  I'm not religious, but seeing her shrine lit up in the middle of the night, and the perfume from the lilies and stocks placed in it, gives me the strangest feelings of connection with something older and more primitive.

The route of the procession is lined with lights and twelve crosses erected by the side of the road.

Since Easter has a lot to do with fertility rites, it seems fitting that someone has sprayed a love message on the road beside the grotto - 'Amore, ti amo' - Beloved, I love you.

Thursday, 17 April 2014

Papal Revelation! - only in Italy

New Headlines: 'Il Papa Fa La Pi-pi Come Noi' - roughly translated; The Pope pees like the rest of us. Shock horror! He might actually be human.  Only in Italy could this be news - photographed outside the Pietrasanta 'edicola' - those fascinating pavement news-stands where you can buy any kind of newspaper and magazine.

When you look more closely, you can see that the headline is in a satirical magazine called 'Il Vernacoliere' - which is the Italian  equivalent of Private Eye, only slightly ruder.

If you buy a copy you can ponder weighty questions such as 'Is God a Communist?' and follow the murky political adventures of Peppa Pig as you have never seen her before.

The wisteria is out on the railings and spring has sprung in Italy, where political insanity rules with a kind of reassuring continuity, despite a change from Prime Minister Letta to Prime Minister Renzi. A shift from the Cautious Economist to the Mayor of Florence changes nothing.  Time for another glass of wine on the terrace!

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?

Saturday, 5 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.

Friday, 4 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.