Monthly Archives: April 2012

Fiddling Around

Fiddled, diddled, breakfasted, counted the dust. I truly must ditch the domestic and apply myself to poetry that is …. ‘the sense that at its best, it is the closest language gets to evolving the whole the indivisible nature of being alive’. Well – it all sounds very delightful and even probable but what Adler called the demand of the object keeps intruding. Only so much dust, only so many frozen dinners left in the freezer…only. So we stumble on believing ourselves to be poets but finding all possible means of not being one on the way.

I am tempted to look for a wonderful cartoon from the Guardian years ago and to translate it into:

I think I’ll put a comma

I should have put comma

I shouldn’t have put a comma

Just lately I seem to spend all my time fiddling at this level, moving sheets of paper between the lovely colourful cardboard files I bought in the supermarket, changing the label from ‘To send out’ to ‘To revise (3)’
Anyway provided this pastes into Opsimathpoet I hope that the breakup of solid text will help opsimathreaders. (Woops – it didn’t copy!)
The problem with revision is that it creates real dilemmas of meaning and then all the underlying musical tropes and trills. I like lopping off the branches but then suddenly find that I have lopped off the intrinsic meaning of the whole poem. Perhaps it gets easier as one learns more, writes more, revises more.
I realised this morning that three years ago I had never heard of Wallace Stevens, Elizabeth Bishop or John Burnside and I had heard of but never read W.S.Graham. Now these icons of poetry are so sustaining and enriching I can’t imagine what life might have been without them.
The Poetry Retreat at Le Moulin starts on Tuesday morning. I still haven’t decided whether to be a travelling poet or to stay and retreat in situ. I need the proximity and input of poets, can’t wait to see Penny Shuttle and Caroline Carver again and be able to talk commas with them. This morning read Sightings again (Kathleen Jamie) – I am saving it up so I only read one section a day. It is good for the sense of commas – spare, nothing diverting or extraneous and yet a wonderful evocation of place and happenings. It is good to be thinking of what to take to read at the retreat – I am inclined to Fiona Sampson (3rd time), Maitreyabandhu (his two pieces on Spirituality and Poetry in Poetry review) and Don Patterson’s horrendously difficult The Domain of the Poem. Then I have been saving up Ha Noi 2,000 and I have a lot to think about (and hopefully a picky audience to help me with the pruning job). I have had really helpful writing about Vietnam from Isobel who went there some years ago – more dialogue about it to follow I hope.
I am going to reference this so that my  friend June in Canada can follow up poets if she wants and also to remind myself of the things that have fallen into my opsimath lap.
*Wallace Stevens: Collected poems plus letters, journal and some of his writing about poetry are all in the Library of America’s Wallace Stevens: Collected Poems and Prose
* Elizabeth Bishop: Complete Poems Chatto Poetry; The Collected Prose Chatto and Windus; Anne Stevenson’s ‘Five Looks at Elizabeth Bishop’ Bloodaxe and the absolutely wonderful and inspiring Exchanging Hats which is a collection of her paintings (June you will love these)
*W.S. Graham: The Collected Poems: Faber and Faber
*The Nightfisherman: Collected Letters of W.S.Graham
*Penelope Shuttle: Redgrove’s Wife: Bloodaxe
Sandgrain and Hourglass: Bloodaxe (latest)
*Caroline Carver: Tiki Tiki Man; Ward Wood (latest)
*Kathleen Jamie The Tree House: Picador
Findings: Sort of Books
Sightings: Sort of Books (latest)
*John Burnside Black Cat Bone: Cape Poetry (latest)

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More thinking about memory and beads

Maybe this is what we are trying to do all the time; to catch a memory by the tail and get it down on paper. This is maybe what MM means about using language as a means of observing memory. As a result of reading Eternity’s Sunrise I seem to have been pulled in by the wind and tripped over the light to find myself in a new space. I am writing down what I remember that is significant. I had already started to do this when working with Katherine Gallagher last year produced a poem about the war. I have written several since and it is a rich ground to explore. It has led me to look quite differently at both the first and second World Wars; it’s a strange place for a pacifist to find themselves. This is partly because of living in Normandy I think, where there are so many ‘war’ relics and where I feel often presences in the ditches, in the old barn, when an empty road winds away into a dusty distance.
Also working on Ha Noi 2000 – the long poem I am currently trying to write. I was always uneasy in Vietnam, it seemed to me that the war had never gone away, and when I read more Vietnamese writing and comments I realised that it was a lot of wars, stacked up piles of bodies of war, that I was responding to. The Ha Noi Hilton was one example and finding out how originally it had been Hotel Central – the French prison and torture house. I tried to write tourist memory but what has continuously risen up is the unconscious understanding of a country where the war has left blood stains everywhere.
I am enjoying reading about war, watching Foyle’s War on television (Brilliant scripting and plot and absolutely meticulous attention to detail in the visuals) and, of course, serendipitously I find no end of ‘war’ incidents in the newspaper, reading books, talking to people. I realise what an important experience it was a small child. I am still trying to tease out some of the ends and see where and how they relate to my aging self.
Today I have put up maps and written a long list of memories. There is Chitral and the surrounding areas of Ghizer and Northern Swat. Gilgit and Hunza, Shigar and up towards the Chinese border, and what triggered it all off, remembering Baltistan and the fort in Khaplu that we visited and where my travelling companion, Mehrdad, suddenly went into a long reminiscence of himself as a child visiting the English wife of the Raja and being given chocolate. Extraordinary! And I suddenly realise the privilege that I have had of travelling through the Himalayas in such company, of the wonderful places that I fetched up in, of the people, particularly the women that I met on the way. Suddenly I am urgent to write about it all. So – the maps, sorting through photographs; next I’ll need to look and find my journals for the different times that I went there and to try and map out the visits that I made. At the time I was so face up to it all – glaciers, moraine, forts, hill villages, schools and children – they were just an amazing part of my journeys over four years. Now I want to stretch it out and see the shape of it all. It feels a bit like the skin of an animal that has been cured and stretched and now, suddenly, is softening and ready to be shaped.
What has really provoked all this too has been my morning reading of Kathleen Jamie. First I read Findings again – having lost my copy and then found another on Amazon. Now she has a new collection of wonderful, poetic, intense pieces of writings (essays seems too formal a term for writing that invites us in so closely and so intently to listen and to look). I am only on the third piece of Sightings but it is wonderful. I like Kathleen Jamie’s poetry very much and I travelled in the Himalayas with ‘On Golden Peak’ the book she wrote about her travels in the same region. She inspires me.
On the back of the inspiration I intend to write my blog at least once a week, and to consciously think about markers along the way of things that I want to say. I am still really excited when I get a response from people.

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More Marion Milner

‘Yes, I must be no mystic because I don’t feel I want to give up everything for union with God, I’m really only interested in finding more and more ways of saying what I feel about the extraordinariness of the world and of being alive in it. Looking always for a language. A language of love? What about hate then? But I do know that to find the language, gestural, verbal or pictorial, one has recurrently to let everything go, all thoughts of what one loves, all images, and attend to the nothingness, seemingly nothing there – silence. Is this mysticism?’ Marion Milner: Eternity’s Sunrise. p.114
Then I remember Phil waking this morning and remembering what the Kung Fu Panda said in the film last night – yesterday is history, tomorrow is mystery – there is only today. That is why we say it is a present. Also later, the scroll said nothing, only reflected the face of the reader. What was needed, the courage and the cunning, was already there in the reader/Panda/dragon warrior.
Here is the nub of disturbance about writing. Competitions and contests, getting accepted/rejected – this has nothing to do with what one wants to say. It is a measure of quality and peer acceptance, it acknowledges the thing one wants to say and the language in which you say it but it is not necessarily the truth of it. ‘Unreliable Narrations’ – how I re-read it yesterday and immediately the ‘untruthful’ bit struck me, the note wrong, muffled, borrowed – no real acknowledgement of the negative capability we need in order to dwell in language or to say what we want or need to say. So what should one do? Go on writing in notebooks and scribbling on the back of envelopes – it is not enough because there is no pruning, no honing. Where is the poem lurking, under the bark, under the skin, impeded by its kitchen sinks, its scurrying and insect like marauding. Instead – what about trying to take the backward, upward looking route. Let the language flow over the head, like the sunlight coming through the water when I was swimming in the reef at Unawatuna. Something I tried to capture with the poem ‘Siphoning the well into the old bath’ and that poem was, of course, quite significant because of the experience it was trying to express. The water came from up and under, thirty nine feet down in the well at the top of the field. The bath was at the bottom. Phil filled the pipe with water and then took it to the bottom of the field. The well did not perceive any gap between its water and the water that was encouraging it down the field. So the deep water (the unconscious, the dark side, the obscured?) gushed out into the sunlight and as it did so it reflected what was in the bath – the skeletal leaf, the insects – onto the lid of the water. It is actually a hugely significant psychological act – and I see now what I was really trying to capture in the poem.
This seems to give me my work for today. It is silent now. Very early, still dark although the tree outlines are showing, the dark has begun to bleed away since I started writing. I embrace the dark, the silence and the coming light. I will think of it today as a present. I will look at those two poems and see what silent reflection might do for revision.

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Lost for Words??

Finding Eternity’s Sunrise again – after many years of not reading it – it still has a power and a resonance.  Written when Marion Milner was in her eighties it is a kind of reprise of her thinking about thinking, experiencing creative wonder and understanding and looking at memory.  So it is, for me, the perfect reflective reading to be doing at the moment.  I ask myself who I am writing this for?  Unusually I am sitting at the computer rather than writing by hand at my desk in front of the window.  Today there is mist outside so instead of light beginning to lift across the orchard and stripe the sky, the sky is crowding in, it has dropped down from the ridge and is caught here in the valley at the bottom.  As MM says our thoughts, our acknowledgement of the creative within, our understanding of things, seem to rise from the mud at the bottom of the river.  Now I see that I am trying to combine two ways of understanding – the old American Indian idea of the wise old woman who is able to enter the river and find the river below the river, and then to rise to the surface understanding, cleansed, ready to tell others what they have learned –  alongside her finding shape out of the muddy bottom.  MM , though, has a more humble understanding.  She calls the ‘response’ or the meditation and then the rising of the thought (this is not a good paraphrase, it will have to do for now) an answering activity (AA) – a kind of contact that produces a response, although whether she thinks there is any way this can be called prayer she is dubious about.  Rather maybe that this praying activity  does ‘free me from the captivity of egocentric preoccupations, from that ego island I once drew a picture of.’  Later she speculates on what starts off the creative process:

‘Is it that the world is remote, has nothing to do with me?  Or times when one can find nothing to hold onto, like a looping caterpillar frantically waving its front half in the air looking a twig that isn’t there?  Which sounds like a sense of loss that has to be made up for somehow?  But could it also be something else too, a drive to find a new way of looking at things, a kind of uneasiness that’s like the feeling of a coat that has grown too tight (oh yes, my Delos snake skin!), an awareness that some current way of seeing the world is getting worn out, has served its usefulness and become a constricting cliché?  If so then new bottles have got to be fashioned, certainly for oneself, perhaps even for others.’ p.53

and she goes on to speculate also about when insight and understanding might come.  She suggests that they appear, like a porpoise from the waves, but that:

 ‘these seasons, weather in the souls, not easy to forecast, to know when to lie fallow, when to sow, this only to be found by experiment.  To notice, remember, that’s so hard. because the heavenly bodies, whoever they are, don’t seem to move according to a fixed calendar….The central thing is, when the porpoise attention surfaces, which is the only moment when one can do anything with conscious choice, its then comes the battle to find words for the new vistas.’ 

And then I find myself looking for Blake on the bookshelf, trying to find the Mercy, Pity, Peace and Love poem, astonishing myself when I read the final verse:

 ‘And all must love the human form/In heathen, turk or jew/Where Mercy, Love and Pity dwell/ There God is dwelling too.’

The truth of George Fox’s, ‘walk cheerfully across the world responding to that of God in everyone’ , which was what I liked most about Quakerism when I first found it and I think of my  Bahai friend Mehrdad praying with me as the sun rose over the mountains in Gilgit, for the soul of my mother, who had just died, that she might ‘walk in the garden of the Lord’.   So reading MM has drawn together for me a whole panoply of ideas:  The river under the river, the way (in the Tao) water always finds the lowest place  to flow, perhaps the gap between the wave that holds everything in suspension for a moment allows us to see (experience) the flow of creativity.  What I like in these metaphors is the attempt to express moments of understanding – to see where the motivation to find words come from.  Without the words to carry forward the understanding half of the impetus is lost.  After all why else would one write?  I think of Mikhail Bakhtin’s notion of the comic procession of the circus, the pantomime of life – the festival pressing forward and sometimes dancing on the spot.

 So – I have cleaned the house, counted the food in the cupboard, observed the weather (closing in and grey). I have tidied the notice board, made lists of all that I should do.  What I am left with is chasing the memories and trying to find words to make sense of them.  And this is how it feels.  I wrote in my novel – ‘it must be like a writer who is pushing up through the dry earth and trying to break the ground with a word’ – I didn’t actually write it this way but it was what I meant.  I am not patient at waiting for the fallow part to cease and for the porpoise to appear out of the waves.  I remember Margaret Peters saying she had done as much as she could and now it was ‘over to you Lord’.  I don’t know what I am waiting for, what will charge the energy, what will spill out of the earth, what shower of words I will create as I rise up from the river under the river.  I just hope that I can catch the shining alphabet when it chooses to come down to earth again.

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