Monthly Archives: June 2016

Carnation Lily; Lily Rose

 

Light breaks across rock in sharp shadows, is turned in spills and cracks. It is visceral; moving by its impact. Here the distance is diminished. Small houses, feathery trees, bluffs of rock above a line of track scored in the crack of mountain that contains the river. The river is deep down, the houses and the villages on the top of the cleft are overshadowed and made small by the enormous heft of rock above them. The Himalayas fold. Like origami sometimes they open into recognisable space; sometimes they just endlessly unroll, unroll up to the sky.

Across the river stretch wires; sometimes there is a box attached, the Himalayan equivalent of homemade go-carts or swing boats. Sometimes there are boards laid down between the two sides and  the jeep can cross, up and down, planks shifting as the road reaches out to the other side.

The higher up we are the narrower the river’s span seems to be. Once or twice we walk across the river gorge. It is scary the way the bridge moves and the water appears and disappears through the cracks. The wire handrails are insubstantial – like clinging on to a slender twig to help in climbing a steep bank.

Where the bridge meets solid land it is cemented into great lumps of rock and stone. It is hard to negotiate a way down and by this time the altitude has produced breathlessness and chest pain and the steep rocky path up from the bridge end seems much too difficult. Bushes and small trees meet overhead and the tunnel winds up until solid walls start to appear and now and then the flat, log roof above the wall and a shy child or woman with scarf across their face peer through the half opened wooden gate.

At last the land opens out and the school is revealed. New and sharp edged. Its concrete dimensions cutting into the blue sky. All the men and boys of the village are waiting, seated on blankets in an open space of yellow grass surrounded by trees. It is harvest time and fruit is brought. In the distance women and girls have gathered in doorways. I am the only woman in this sea of brown faced, wrinkled men. We stretch out tentative hands to make connection.

Later I remember this and want to write about it. The way it works itself into a poem is surprising. It links with a very early childhood memory of being evacuated to the countryside and going on the milk round with an old milkman and his shaggy horse pulling a cart with a tall silvery churn, as big as me. He dips a ladle into the churn and the creamy milk streams out into jugs and  containers as we go through the village. I am about four years old and it is my first experience of countryside, milk outside the bottle, apple trees and orchards. Later, as I discover art, I love the Carnation Lily, Lily Rose painting that the mother also loves in ‘The Family from One End Street’ and that she calls one of her children after.

These are two stanzas from the poem Unreliable Narrations.

That moment crossing the river

to a slope of yellowed grass,

bearded elders sitting on blankets

offer nuts and apples.

One places a special peach

in my open hand.

 

Or the moment when I found myself

amongst churns;

the smell of milk, apples,

an old horse standing patient.

A white dress

in sun-slant.

I have a sudden realisation that the full poem needs to be linked in some way more clearly – field,  the mountains and child in the orchard, Family from One End Street and the Sargent painting Carnation Lily, Lily Rose and my own love of drawing little figures. Work to do!

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clip_image004This book cover is the one that I remember. It was a book I read and re-read and it was important to me in at least two different ways.

The social milieu of the Ruggles’ family was unfamiliar to a child growing up in a new, bland suburbia but it was the childhood space in which my father grew up, he being an Elephant and Castle child. Later at school I went to The Settlement at Peckham on Friday afternoons and some holiday times and fell deeply in love with that working class, inner city community. It was the seed place of my future life and career.

This was the first book that I had which had such wonderful drawings as illustrations. I copied them endlessly and learned the ‘how to’ of figure drawing.

Thank you Eve Garnett.

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After a long time…..

‘Someone I now forget

once said

journeying is hard.

The moon glimmers

in the brown channel.’

This is the last stanza of the last poem in Sarah Howe’s Loop of Jade.  I am on my third read of this book, I love it the language and words and formats are all interesting and challenging and much of it about China and Hong Kong,  I have wanted to write about journeying in these countries for a long time.  I have some Hong Kong poems and quite a lot of prose but not enough to make any kind of coherence in what I am trying to say. 

China I often think about – I was there for several months spread over three years and it was important in many different ways.  I have very vivid images of so much of it – but have not yet sorted through to find journal writing that I did at the time.  I did do a lot of other writing though and am remembering this because I am doing a Poetry School that is about portraiture and the images that keep coming up are of Troisieme Etage and China.  So I have just written a poem about my friend Zhao Jing and some of the journeyings that we did together.  It is on the third draft, still much too long but I am trying to capture a lot of experiences in a concise poem.  It’s difficult.

One of the things I am writing about is a  journey that we made together to a very remote and high school in the sandy mountains of Gansu.  When we arrived the children were sitting in school, at desks empty of everything but old textbooks, there was no sign of the project readers or the consignment of paper and pencils sent to help the teacher to teach literacy more effectively. This poem will, no doubt, be changed many times but this is the relevant bit:

Do you remember the tiny school we visited along a teetering mountain path,

jeep wheels only just biting into the sand?  No paper in the school,

readers unpacked, the terrified teacher, ‘So cold in winter ma’am

we took the paper home to stuff our broken windows with.’

afraid to give the children  books in case they spoiled them

Twenty boys and girls, from very small to adolescent,

red-faced and wrinkled with the cold sat at their empty desks.

You took off your coat and long scarf, took up a Big Book

to read them a story. You made them laugh. They drew pictures

wrote stories and at last leaving off his scowl, the teacher

joined in.’

And here is a photograph of those children listening to the story .

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After a long time I am thinking about this part of the world.  I remember the case studies that I made of three teachers that we worked with and the stories that we made.  It was Loop of Jade that took me back – the smells, the sights, the taste of China – something Zhao Jing told me is important in every Chinese meal.  We produced training manuals and a video for teachers and the background was a picture and sounds of a group of little children singing in a circle and banging the rhythm with their tin pencil boxes – it was one of the loveliest things I was ever involved in.

I am struggling to get back into writing – so much anaesthetic in my brain still I think, mobility limited and Phil still very convalescent after his hip transplant.  One day we will be leaping among the flowers again I hope!  I have found other people’s poetry so important as it is gradually leading me back to writing again.  I think about the possibility of prose writing too. I’ve changed my novel about India three times to accommodate different pronouns for the voice – perhaps it should go graphic next!

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