Monday, 30 January 2012

A Poem Spreads its Wings

You know Alastair Cook who did the beautiful cover of Wherever We Live Now? He has made a filmpoem out of the first piece in the book Visiting the Dunbrody Famine Ship and you can see it


I hope you like it as much as I do. If you do you can hear Alastair talk about the filmpoem project


For those who haven't heard me do it, the Dunbrody is a ship which was used to carry emigrants from Ireland to America after the famine. It has since been restored, and you can see it in the harbour at New Ross, in County Wexford. It's a harrowing experience. If you were a cabin passenger, the accommodation was tiny, but you were allowed up on deck, if the weather was calm. If you were steerage, however, you weren't allowed up except at your designated cooking times, and you were allocated a bunk to a family. There wouldn't have been room for my Foleys to lie down anywhere for the whole five weeks - and we're a tiny family by and large.

There's also a database which claims to record all the emigrantsbetween 1848 and about 1930. It's very comprehensive, but I can't find my Foleys on it. We have always believed that their ship was wrecked, but statistically they probably died of TB or hunger or anything else they might have caught in the hell-hole of steerage.

The Irish are used to diaspora people coming back looking for their roots. It's a bit more than nostalgia. I found I couldn't settle in Sctland until I had some idea where I'd come from, and now I'm quite at home. I thought that this was just one way, but it occurred to me when I was at New Ross and Waterford, that the Irish are also bereft. While I'm asking "where do I come from? Where do I belong?" they are asking "Where did you go? what happened to you?" The chain that connects us has seekers at both ends.

Thursday, 26 January 2012

Song Thrush on Ash Tree

Fifty years ago when my friends Mary and Charles moved into the village, there were bitterns in the reeds below the bridge, and the river was well-known for the wintering ducks that could be seen here. Even when we moved here, twenty years later, you could see flocks of lapwings over the fields in spring-time, and fieldfares and redwings every time you looked out.

The changes haven't been all bad. We see more goldfinches and yellowhammers than we used to, and buzzards and kestrels are common. There's even a sparrowhawk, I don't think the owls have left yet, and there are swallows and housemartins on both sides of the river. But the redwings and fieldfares are an occasional sighting now, curlews are very rare, and the duck populations on the river have dwindled enormously. There are still lapwings and skylarks, but you have to look much more carefully for them, and I haven't seen a hare for more than five years.

The bird that Mary loved most of all was the song thrush. She used to sit out in the garden listening to thrushes singing in the evenings, and she missed it very much when she became too deaf to hear it. But she wouldn't have heard thrush-song very often anyway. I have always thought that if you have a lot of blackbirds you won't have many thrushes because they are in direct competition with each other, and we certainly have a lot of blackbirds. They must be winter migrants, but there are at least eight of them in and around our garden now, bullying the sparrows off the feeders and squabbling amongst themeslves, and even in the nesting season there must be at least two pairs here. I'd pretty much given up hope of hearing a song thrush in full territorial voice.

Until this morning. As I came across the bridge from the supermarket I could hear it from at least fifty yards away, singing and singing in that umistakeable fine careless rapture kind of a way, perched at the top of a sapling ash (not the one in the picture unfortunately, that one's further up the river), staking his claim to the garden, the riverbank, the park and the whole village. Mary would have been so pleased.

Friday, 20 January 2012

Advance and Retire

There's a figure in Scottish Country dancing (English and Irish too, for that matter) called advance and retire. You start a great many dances by dancing forward four steps and back four steps. So this year has gone. It's not just the weather, frost one morning

and seed sowing and birds marking out nesting territories the next

but the poetry too.

Just as new and exciting ideas put out little tendrils, like the witch hazel flowers, something comes along that knocks it all back again. But this week saw the start of something that I hope will really last. The online magazine of the Scottish Centre for Geopoetics, Stravaig has come out. It has two of my poems in it, but more excitingly, it has (among a lot of very fine stuff), poems from Susan Richardson, essays from Gordon Peters and Mohammed Hashas, poems and images from Nat Hall, and a film Abachen from Alastair Cook. This is greatly to the credit of the editor, Norman Bissell, whose hard work over many years brought together the inspiring mix of talents and opportunities that made it all possible. I hope you like it!

these precious and beautiful things

I like this post a lot. Daniela says she doesn't 'do faith', whereas anyone who has been around this blog for a while knows that I do. I try to keep theological content off the page, because unless you're interested enough to follow the whole complicated thing, it's just annoying.

But this is how faith works in my head. I'm really pleased to have discovered this blog.

All things being equal there will be a new post later today and I'll update the links and the website, so there will be a permanent link to These Precious and Beautiful Things in the sidebar.

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

First Steps in January

The first snowdrops are out!

Although it feels quite chilly and there is frost forecast for later in the week, I was much encouraged by what's going on in the garden. There were three blackbirds bathing in the pond this morning, sparrows and bluetits and great tits all busy at the feeders, and warming up their territory-marking songs, and signs of life everywhere. The first buds on the hazel hedge are beginning to break - always the first in this garden -

bulbs are beginning to show, and the very first flowers are already out!

On the poetry front, too there are new beginnings. I was at the first evnt at the SCottish Writers Centre in Glasgow last week, where, in a relaxed but inspiring talk Ron Butlin said several things about the process of compostion which started my own processes. The first was something that resonated with me, as it's something I think about a lot:
that poetry is something that happens behind the words.

Perhaps it's obvious to everyone - but if that's the case why is there so much shapeless boneless poetry about? Poetry, it seems to me, is as much about shape and flow and pattern as it is about language. Without this you just get a search for ever more quirky or bizarre images and themes, a list of banned images (rememeber the seagulls/shards debate that rampaged last year?) and a poetry that becomes ever more cerebral and remote.

The other was something less comfortable - in summary, that it isn't possible to write about a subject that you know too well, because you have nowhere to go with it, and nothing to gain from the writing process. It's made me question a lot of assumptions about what I want to write; it's not that I think I'm writing the same poems over and over, or the same subjects, but that I'm trying to write about subjects I've already over-thought. Poetry might work better if it wasn't so much a record of where I've been, as the first phase of exploring where I'm going. Feels kind of weird - a new way to balance thought and feeling, but interesting, interesting---

Also, I'm delighted and honoured to be able to say that I've a poem in the new issue (issue 3) of the elegant and thoughhtful on-line magazine Poetandgeek

Sunday, 1 January 2012

First Territory Walk of 2012 - Feet on Solid Ground

Last year was a real roller-coaster. Of course it had its glorious moments - the chief of which in my life was the launch of Wherever We Live Now but for an awful ot of people there was a sense of loss and closure and dismay. Some careers ended, som relationships went through the mill, some people had to accept the realities of living with illness and old age, and whatever illusions we'd been nurturing about a quick end to recession and return to normal, or about the Arab Spring were firmly squashed.
But out of all this seems to have come a certain sense of clarity and a new start. We may not be where we thought we were, but our feet are on solid ground now, and we can make a new start. So this is what I've been doing, taking advantage of a bright morning to go for a first territory walk, and establish exactly what trees there are along the river road.

The youngest trees are these oak seedlings, planted by the farmer three years ago. The guards are to keep the rabbits off the vulnerable shoots, and so far it seems to be working.

These are young alders, growing right on the river bank. The river is tidal and shallow here, so they often have their feet in water, which they like, so they should do well.

There are many sallows on the other bank, but this is the only one along this stretch on our side. If you've followed the blog for a while, you'll have seen photos of the larger green willows that are more typical.

And this is the most common tree on this bank, a big ash, covered in ivy.

There are also hawthorns, brambles elders wild roses and honeysuckle, and round the factory there are sycamores, rowans, cypreeses and larches, most of which were planted as screens or ornamental plantings. I'm planning to do this walk regularly, focussing this year on the birds and flowering plants I see, and to try and understand more about this square mile I live in.