Tuesday, 24 September 2019

Seven Wonderful Wonders of West Wales.

Seven wonderful wonders of West Wales
I’ve lived in West Wales for nearly 10 years now, and everyday I celebrate the richness of its landscape, culture, history, buildings and people. I love everything equally, but when I really think about it, there’s bound to be

 things that particularly are in my heart. So I’ve compiled this top ten of wonderful wonders, some of which I see every day, some of which I visit with joy on occasion.

Number One; Cardigan Bay 
My local coast line is the hidden secret of West Wales – one of the best coastlines in the UK – but we try not to tell, otherwise everyone would want to see the resident dolphin pod, the breathtaking views (especially as the sun sets or the moon comes up over the black sea), the rugged rocks dotted with seals and rare sea flowers and tempting patches of rabbit-cropped grass ready for that perfect picnic, where you may  spot a kite, or even an ospreyThere’s picturesque villages, and tiny ‘secret’ beaches only reached by Wales’ famous coastal path. Stretching from Cardigan to Aberystwyth, the bay has a wealth of things to visit, from Llaneraeron, a National Trust day out, to the narrow gauge railway up to the Devil’s Bridge.  So, please don’t tell anyone about all of this; we like to keep it to ourselves!

Number Two; The Ancient Sacred SitesIf you’ve been reading my blog regularly, you’ll already know about the stone circle where we celebrate the Summer Solstice (and appeared on Channel  Five!!), Gors Fawr. Close by in the Preseli Hills are the amazing bluestone outcrops, which became part of the Stonehenge structure five thousand years ago. But West Wales is also resplendent with cromlechs,; the Welsh word for dolmen, pre-historic tombs consisting of a large flat stone laid on upright ones, possibly to form graves, some of which have been stripped down to their bare skeleton of massive stones. Pentre Ifan is perhaps the largest and best preserved neolithic cromlech, but there are others, some more than 1500 years earlier than the pyramids, all of which are amazing. Carreg Samson is a fine example – legend has it that St Samson placed the capstone in position using only his little finger. I’ve lain inside this dolmen, to meditate on a hot summer’s day. 
Perhaps the cutest is Carreg Coetan in Newport, near Cardigan. Composed of four upright stones, only two of them actually support the enormous capstone, which precariously perches…and has done for thousands of years! Also worth a visit is Castell Howell, a reconstructed Iron Age settlement. But I don’t want to forget the later Christian sacred sites, such as the tiny churches, some from 500 CE which dot the coastal landscape, and the great Abbey ruins of both St Dogmaels, where every week there’s an organic market next to the pretty duck pond, or the Cisterian Abbey of Strata Florida, Latin for ‘Vale of Flowers’, which has stood on lush meadows beside the banks of the river Teifi since 1200. 

Number Three; Newcastle Emlyn.
The tiny town (3000 inhabitants) which is four miles from my house, is one of the loveliest towns I know. The site of the first permanent printing press in the 18th century…and  the last recorded use of the stocks in Britain (1872), it’s a Fair-trade town with it’s own Fair and Fabulous shop, where mostly I buy my pressies, as I honestly can’t afford the Maker’s Mark, because this stocks the finest art and craft items local to the area. NCE is full of shabby-chic shops, antique galleries, organic shops like The Carrot Cruncher, and pretty cafes with a view of the Teifi like Riverside and Harrisons. Every month there’s a thriving cattle market which blocks the roads and adds to the farmyard stink, but I love to stand and watch the auctioneers, who rattle off their sales without taking breath.  
At the bottom of a steep cliff, the river winds round the town, creating both a  natural motte and moat for the ancient castle, where apparently the very last dragon in Wales was shot down, landing in Llewellyn’s Pool, a maelstrom in the river which has recently taken the life a man who fell in late one night. The last dragon is such a loved tale, that the townsfolk brought it back to life a few years ago…read about this here https://www.goddess-pages.co.uk/the-last-dragon-in-wales-was-killed-in-newcastle-emlyn/

Number Four; The Eisteddfod 
Every summer Eisteddfods are seen up and down the land, and the National one is held alternatively in the north and south of the country. Next year, it's in our county, at Tregaron which lies on the river Teifi, and we can't wait to be there, ‘ar y maes’, as they say in Welsh (on the field). We've been going to local eisteddfods since we came here, always totally stunned at the hotbed of hidden talent in our area. Competitors from four to ninety-four clamber up on the stage and announce, confidently, 'I'm going to sing...' or 'play...' or 'dance...or recite...'  Later, they will have to listen to the judges' opinion of them. Even more culturally shocking for someone from England is that teenagers do it to! Spotty youths who elsewhere would be hanging round street corners are there with their beautiful voices, singing violins and recitations.

The National Eisteddfod itself is held in the medium of the oldest living language in northern Europe (Welsh, of course! ) and is still one of the largest cultural festivals of its kind in Europe, attracting more than 150,000 visitors over one week in August. This ancient tradition exists thanks largely to the efforts of the 19th Century visionary Iolo Morgannwg, but it all began in my local town of Cardigan, (Aberteifi), where in 1176 a cultural tournament involving bards and musicians was held for the first time in the grounds of the castle by the Lord Rhys ap Gruffydd. We’re all booked up for the Maes next year, but will continue to enjoy the way the Welsh are wedded to music, poetry and dance all around Ceredigion every year.

Number Five; The River Teifi.
You’ll notice how many times I mention the Teifi (pronounced Tayvi in Welsh and Tivey by the English) because in Wales, places are defined by their river, and Ceredigion is no exception. The Teifi (and the Ceri, which is the tributary closest to where I live), used to be my favourite place to walk. It starts high in the Cambrian Mountains at the Teifi Pools, which long ago were bubbling springs but are now the county’s water reservoirs. If you keep striding west, you’ll pass beneath willows and beside wide trout pools, over a variety of stone bridges, through pretty villages and moss woods  filled with birdsong and the tinkle of streams. At Cenarth, you can watch the salmon leap the falls to go and spawn upstream, or hire a coracle, which used to be the only form of river fishing boat in this area, but now is simply a fun thing to try (and fail at) on holiday. 

But I don’t choose the river for my walks any longer, because my new puppy is a menace in the water! 

Number Six; The National Library of Wales 
I’ll never forget the first time I climbed the hill in Aberystwyth to visit The National Library of Wales. I turned round from its huge revolving door to witness what must be the best view from any library in the world. I was looking out over the slate roofs of the university city town to the blue-grey expanse of Cardigan Bay. It took away my breath, which I didn’t get back until I left its hallowed halls. It houses six and a half million books, all relevant to Wales, including every single modern book published in Wales. There’s the oldest book ever printed in Wales. and the oldest manuscript, the Black Book of Carmarthen, almost eight hundred years old. 

I’d gone there to read such a book (in facsimile, of course), because in the library houses some of the original copies of what we now think of as The Mabinogion. This ancient text, some of the earliest prose stories of the literature of Britain, is one of my great loves. There are two main source manuscripts, created c. 1350–1410, as well as a few earlier fragments. In the collection as it’s presented today, there’s a classic hero quest, "Culhwch and Olwen"; a historic legend, "Lludd and Llefelys," early glimpses of King Arthur and the highly sophisticated complexity of the Four Branches of the Mabinogi. The original 12th century books the White Book of Rhydderch and the Red Book of Hergest are in the National Library of Wales. But these stories were brought together from earlier oral traditions, in just the same way as the Iliad and the Odyssey were written about oral tales that had been told since the Bronze Age in Greece. You can read more about these stories in some of my blogposts.

Number Seven; The Welsh Botanical Garden 
Because one of my friends was part of the original team who founded the idea of a Botanic Gardens, I'm particularly attached to this wonder, and in fact, many others are too, as the Great Glasshouse was officially voted number one 'modern wonder' in Wales. When the gardens started being created between low hills in Carmarthenshire, it became the first national botanic garden of the 21st century anywhere in the world, and the first in the UK for nearly 200 years. At its heart is the amazing Glasshouse, largest structure of its kind in the world, with a geometry of such complex and advanced technology that it never existed on paper – only as a computer programme. Housing plants from Chile, Western Australia, South Africa, California, the Canary Islands and the Mediterranean. Outside in the grounds, we really love the double-walled garden, rebuilt from ruins, and the large collection of n Welsh apple varieties. It’s got a great cafe, and is a day out in itself, although on the way back, we sometimes walk around the gardens of Aberglasney, which are very different again.

I could go on; there must be a hundred wonderful wonders in Ceredigion alone. So come and explore yourself1

Thursday, 16 May 2019

Picasso: My Experience

Picasso: My Experience

Part Six of Kitchen Table Writer's Look at Art

People are always asking me what my favourite genre of novel to read is, and who is my favourite author, but no one ever asks me the same question about art. Perhaps I just don't move in those circles, where elevated conversation gently buzzes through rooms of martini-holding guests (which is how I sort of visualise arty parties). But if anyone actually did, I'd answer without hesitation…

The famous photo of Picasso shading Franciose
 Pablo Picasso and Françoise Gilot with Picasso’s nephew on the Côte d’Azur in 1951. Photograph: Robert Capa/Magnum

I first encountered Picasso in my twenties, when I bought the book written by Francoise Gilot; My Life with Picasso. Gilot became Picasso's lover and the mother two to of his children.  Gilot was at that point trying to establish herself as an artist when she met the older man. She is now 94, and was recently interviewed by the Guardian; read the article .

La Joie de Vivre, 1946
Since reading her biography, which was as much about their art as their love affair, I've  zoned in on the great man's work wherever I am, from travelling to London in the eightes for touring exhibitions of his work, to discovering that Antibes, in the South of France had its own picasso gallary. In 1946 Picasso spent a  year in Antibes using the 2nd floor of the Chateau Grimaldi as his workshop, and at the end of that year gave around seventy works to the city,  The gallery is now inside that magnificent chateau. I wandered around the artwork until I was face-to-face with the most enormous painting that struck a cord. This is linked to Francoise Gilot, because when he painted it, he was about to become a father again with her child in hid sixties, so he probably did feel full of the joys of life, This comes through in this painting, in fact it shouts it out. I could have stayed in front of it forever, because it is amazingly detailed and there is so much to see, interpret and understand. 

Françoise herself is depicted as the central dancing nymph accompanied by a faun and centaur playing flutes and two small goats who are dancing with her in their goat-like way. The colours are muted and restricted to yellow, blue and neutrals, and I stood there thinking how it made me feel free and re-energised. 

Three Musicians 1921
Since that time, I've visited the Museum of Modern Art in New York, where Picasso's The Three  Musician is on display. Like  La Joie de Vivre, it’s a massive painting more than 2 metres wide that swallows all your attention. Picasso was experimenting at the time with cutting out and repositioning images in paper. The  three brightly coloured figures are set against a dark background, which could be a stage as they might represent the masked figures in a type of Italian popular theatre, and it’s easy to spot Pierrot and Harlequin. The third figure is hard to make out. He is a singing monk, intriguingly concentrated into a small, grey rectangle. Using cut out paper clearly aided Picasso in his development of cubism, which, as far as my small artistic brain can work out, is when the artist tries to represent many sides of a 3-D object in 2-D, using geometric shapes to distort what we're seing and make us look again. This picture takes us backwards in art history time, to 1907 and the other famous Picasso at MoMA;  Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. The name is a reference to a street in Barcelona famed for its brothels. This is traditionally seen as Picasso's pivotal first step towards the new Cubist style, establishing him as the leader of avant-garde art in Paris, and marking a radical break from traditional composition. 

As I took in the pink, naked figures with their grotesque faces, and the incongruous bowl of fruit, which seems to be slipping down a slanting tabletop at the bottom of the composition, I  recalled a TV programme on Picasso I'd seen, which explained that the compressed, splintered, flattened and jagged naked women were inspired both by Iberian sculpture and African masks I was also struck by the connection between the powerfully muscular Art Deco bodies I'd been seeing all over New York during our tour and the ladies in Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, who are equally well-built and muscular.

More recently, I’ve become fascinated by a series of paintings I've never seen, but certainly will, next time I'm in Barcelona. In his final years, Picasso combined all the styles he'd invented and embraced all his life, and his paintings became even larger and full of colour. He also began to re-examine and re-appropriate (this is, copy, with changes to make the work your own) the old masters. In 1957, he created a series of 58 paintings in little over two weeks, all from a seventeenth century oil painting by Diego Velázquez; Las Meninas. This has even more massive dimensions than Les Demoiselles and is hung in Madrid. Picasso’s works – also called Las Meninas –  are preserved at the Museu Picasso in Barcelona – well worth a visit. 

    Click here to read more about the
 painting and see who all these people are 

Although I've never seen Diego Velázquez’s painting in the flesh, I downloaded it as a screen saver, and it excited, even thrilled me. I found that I could unravel things about it just by looking for longer and longer, and that I was taken off on tangents… psychological, philosophical and practical. But when I then read more about the picture, I had to review some of my conclusions and seek further unravelling of its mysteries. This simply added to the delight of discovery.  

The first puzzle is the name given to the painting. Clearly, the central figure in Velázquez’s original is the Infanta Margaret Theresa, a five-year-old stunner in a costly white dress. The 'Meninas' are her handmaidens, ladies in waiting of high status, dressed quite similarly, a little older than her, and extremely attentive. Noticeably, they have dark, ‘Spanish’ hair, while the Infanta has golden curls. 

At first I thought Margaret’s expression was that of a little girl who loves attention. I thought she’d turned her face to the light, believing it  enhanced her beauty. But on closer inspection, I could see her eyes are looking in the opposite direction – at Velázquez's canvas. Is that because the artist is painting her? If so, why is she behind him? Or is there someone else, outside the picture, who is posing for it? Is Margaret looking at a picture of her parents? Because they are there too, in the mirrored image behind Margaret. Are we watching the court watching the painting develop, and seeing it for ourselves in a mirror? If so, what does this mean?  I wondered if by looking at this painting, I'm putting myself in the shoes of the King of Spain. If that’s true, I don’t think the king understood. Velázquez remained his favourite all through his reign.

Each figure adds to the mystery and enchantment. On the right are two dwarfs, perhaps employed to entertain the princess One has laid a foot on the dog. Is he saying “at least I have power over one creature in this court” or is he just boyishly trying to inflict pain on the animal? Above the princess are the royal chaperone and a bodyguard while at the back, in a bright, open doorway, someone looks in. This might be the Queen's Chamberlain. To the left is the artist himself, concentrating on a massive canvas. A link between Velázquez and Picasso is that they both put themselves into their paintings.

All this discovery about Velázquez’s painting had come out of learning about Picasso's tribute. I'd been listening to a programme about Picasso’s Guernica
Click on link to find out more about this painting
on Radio Four, of course, which explained that  in the fifties, Picasso often created works relevant to the political situation in Franco’s Spain. This enabled him to make very specific satirical comments about the fascist government without getting into too much trouble. 
His Las Meninas is harder to unravel than Guernica, but, as with other Picasso’s works, it’s even harder to look away. I discovered they also fascinate and frustrate art historians.
click link for more information

The Infanta is a picture of childhood innocence. Picasso painted her over and over again: Alone, in body and as a bust, the Infanta appears in 14 of the series interpretations. In the work to the left, she does retain that sweet, chubby-cheeked look, but Picasso subverts and alters the original throughout the series. In some she seems to have a sourer look, worldly wise and rather disenchanted. In both representations, she’s wearing a mantilla, unlike the original, which makes me think Picasso wanted to make her seem traditionally Spanish. The colour of her dress and hair also change in each representation and in some her head is out of proportion. To quote art histories, it's possible Picasso twisted Infanta Margarita’s face in order to show how difficult it was for the young princess to balance her contradictory feelings and emotions between traditional etiquette and controlled behavior on the one hand and playfulness.

click link for  further pictures
Some art historians suggest that Picasso painted re-appropriations late in his life because he finally felt equal to the great masters, also to prove he had not left his best years behind. In the art world, it is quite common for a great master to be reviled in later stages of their lives, and this was happening to Picasso.

So how are these pictures a commentary on contemporary events in Spain, observed by Picasso from his exile in France? Look at the ceiling bosses. They have become grotesque hooks for the suspension of torture victims. In some pictures, the painter becomes a figure from the Inquisition while in one of them a maid has Franco’s moustache.

In the middle of these 58 paintings, Picasso also painted pigeons, white creatures, resonant of innocence and purity. It was as if he was searching for
perfect innocence amid the desperation of Spain at that time.

I found this quote from Picasso on the Guggenheim website, about this series…
little by little, I would paint my Meninas which would appear detestable to the professional copyist; they wouldn’t be the ones he would believe he had seen in Velázquez’s canvas, but they would be “my” Meninas. 

I like the way that sums up what you see when you look at the canvases, or at least, their representations online.

Wednesday, 3 April 2019

Only Artists Talking

courtesy of https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/m0002zbz
BBC Radio Four is always coming up with bright ideas for new programmes and I’ve particularly been enjoying the thirty-minute sessions called Only Artists, which involve unscripted conversations between people who work in the various creative arts. We’re now on Series 7, which includes a fascinating chat between theatre director Iqbal Kahn, famous for his innovative productions of Shakespeare, and another Brummie, the poet, playwright and children's author, Benjamin Zephaniah. Although all the artists have fascinating things to say, as a creative writer I prick up my ears when writers are talking, to see if I can garner any tips, or just have that moment where you think…yes, that’s so true! 

Wildlife writer  Robert Macfarlane spoke to leading landscape painter Norman Ackroyd, who began by saying how much he loves Macfarlane’s books, which include The Old Ways, and The Wild Places. They compared their descriptions of the natural world; Ackroyd's paintings and MacFarlane words. They shared their feelings on ‘seriously feeling fear’ while exploring the landscape for the right artistic inspiration.  ‘A sort of acid bite’ Macfarlane say. ‘It changes the way I write…the purchase I have’.  Ackroyd recalls watching Macfarlane swimming and playing in the bitterly cold water off the remote Tory Island, with a dog and a widow dolphin. ‘An astonishing experience; three species swimming together’. he talked about his most recent book, Underland. The images at the heart of that book are sixty-four thousand year old stencilled handprints on a cave wall. ‘The reddish ochre is spat against the hand and the stone then takes the colour. The symbol interests me so much, when I see those prints I almost see the hand as a gesture of communication’ Macfarlane also talked about rhythm in language.
‘It speaks to the back of the scalp; it does a form of communication that propositional language doesn’t.’ The very last thing Macfarlane does as he finishes a book is…‘speak it back out to myself. The ear can hear in a way the writing mind’s eye can’t…your tongue stumbles if the sentence is too long, or turns a corner too sharply’. Such good advice!

 Scottish Poet Don Paterson met the composer Thomas Adès at the Guildhall School of Music. Adès asked about Patterson’s use of notebooks, how some might get abandoned and others returned to in an obsessive way. Adès said that the one thing he envied was that poets didn't have to produce ‘hours and hours of little black dots’ on paper. Patterson, on the other hand was inquisitive about the collaboration Adès has to undergo to get an opera or symphony performed. Patterson had been asked to create a libretto and found the work ‘frustrating and difficult’. Neither of them felt they had an infallible gut instinct about what worked and what didn’t. Don Paterson explained how he looked at the ‘minimal number of prompts I can offer the reader to complete this picture’, citing Robert Frost’s methodology. The composer loved this description, and came back with a great metaphor for poetry. ‘It’s as if you’re vibrating to the world’ .
Between the Two My Heart is Balanced – Revenge –
from Migrations at Tate Britain by Lubaina Himid
Another Scottish poet, Jackie Kay, author of The Adoption Papers, and currently the Scottish ‘Makar’ (poet laureate), had a half-hour conversation with Lubaina Himid, the first black woman to win theTurner Prize. They talked about how early learned skills feed into their creative work. Kay spoke of the ‘putting in and pulling out’ of writing poetry, how she feels her poems have a ‘back and forth’ effect for both the writer and their inspiration, as well as the reader.  She spoke of how she’d heard Toni Morrison say that she wrote her books because she couldn’t find the characters she wanted to read. This came out of the fact that Himid admitted she couldn’t much talk about race or colour to her mother, after they’d emigrated to Britain. Kay felt Himid might have allowed her feelings to be quietly expressed in her art, while Kay has written widely about tracing and finding her Nigerian birth family in her memoir, Red Dust Road and her poetry collection Fiere, which is infused with both Scots and Igbo speech;
‘Oor hair it micht be silver noo,
oor walk a wee bit doddery,
but we’ve had a whirl and a blast, girl,
thru the cauld blast winter, thru spring, summer.’
Award-winning playwright  Hossein Amini  now famous for the TV series McMafia, chatted deeply about scriptwriting to  Conor McPherson, most recently feted for his play The Weir.  McPherson asked Amini if ‘you can write without pain’. Amini explained how, after a good day’s writing, ‘I float’, while after a bad day, ‘I torture myself…that’s the nature of the addiction…’ McPherson didn’t believe writing was an addiction, but a ‘function of your need to live. You are the god in the writing, reflecting the world like a snow globe’, extending that metaphor to suggest that what you pour into the globe becomes your story and can be seen from all sides. McPherson described how he often gives carte-blanche to actor interpretation when directing his own scripts; ‘it’s only when you work with actors that you realise what is good and what is not. Two dimensions become three’.
Joanne Harris has written more than fifteen novels plus collections of short stories, including Chocolat and Blackberry Wine. She was talking with the composer Howard Goodall so it was natural that the musicality of words would come up. They both agreed that it didn’t matter what sort of work they were undertaking, the important part was to enjoy the work. Goodall writes church music, film music, even music for adverts, but puts equal importance to each piece. Harris spoke of the pressure of conforming to the bandwagons that novelists are put under; ‘they told me not to write about food, to always set my stories in cities and to feature young characters. So I wrote about chocolate, set my story in provincial France, and featured old people’. 

Thank you WeareOCA.com for including a shorter version of this blog.

Find out more about these writers by clicking on the links at their names, and all the programmes are available on BBC Sounds, so also check out poet Hollie McNish, crime doyenne Louise Welsh, award-winning Irish writer Sebastian Barry and Amma Asante, among other artists chatting from the heart, spilling out observations that ring so true, at https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b08ltbhl/episodes/player 

Monday, 25 February 2019

The Thrush Sings Thrice Over.

There’s a thrush singing in my garden. When I let out my hens at daybreak, he’s there, welcoming the new morning. The first time I heard him, about a week ago now, I stood for long minutes. I had no idea that the wind from the top of the hill was lifting my hair, making me shiver. I was inside the song of the thrush. Finally, I was carried down the garden, with my steaming dishes of hen’s mash, calling out the lines from Browning…

That’s the wise thrush; he sings each song twice over, 
Lest you should think he never could recapture 
The first fine careless rapture!

I’ve seen him—it might just be a female, of course— fly from my far stand of clumpy willows, out across the fields, but usually he sings in a particular beech tree, establishing his territory for the breeding season. His song repeats on and off through the rest of the day, and is always there as the shadows soften down and the hens are heading to their beds. I’m hoping he and his lovely mate will choose my garden for their nest. Mr and Mrs Thrush don’t always start thinking about lurve quite this early on, but they’re responding to the warm rush of weather that has meant I don’t even need morning central heating. We seem to have left behind the worst ravages of winter behind bang on cue. 

The TV weatherman always makes the point that there are two starts to each season. The astrological start, which for spring is the 21st of March, and the meteorological start, which they seem to think is the 1st of March. But as a Druid, I follow the Celtic farming calendar, which has been with us since the Iron Age. The 21st of March,  June, September and December are the mid-seasons, not the beginnings. Spring started on the first of February, when our little band of earth-magic lovers…pagans, druids, witches, and the like…celebrated Imbolc, the coming of spring. For, although you might not feel very springlike at the end of January, under the soil and in the sap of the trees there is a new thrusting, shooting drive to lift the head and sniff the air and get on with things, from tilling the soil, to some DIY, to raising a family. 

Our Bridie Mantle, or girdle
 People pass through it, tying on their
hopes for the coming year
Imbolc is an Irish word, meaning ‘the milk of the ewe’, andeve n now, February the time of the baby lambs. Imbolc is dedicated to the Mother Goddess and the new life that she brings. She is well-known in Ireland by various names - Brighid Bridie Brigantia, becoming, as the years went on and the religion changed, Saint Bridget. She is often symbolised by the gentle bobbing of the snowdrop, which can literally burst through the last snows, and she's said to drape her green mantle across the winter world, turning it verdent. In her honour, Brigid Crosses are made by weaving rushes into a four-pointed star. As a goddess of healing, she has sacred springs across our lands, and in Solas Bhride Spiritual Centre, in Kildare, Ireland, a Perpetual Flame is tended by the Brigidine Sisters in memory of her, guarded as a beacon of hope, justice and peace.
with thanks to
It is true that this mother goddess takes a little time to spread her mantle over the cold, hard, earth. Legend has it that if the Winter Goddess, the Callieach, intends to reign over a good, long winter, she will make sure the weather on the 1st of February is bright and sunny, so she can gather plenty of firewood, often seen in the form of a raven picking up sticks in its beak. Therefore, people in old times were generally relieved if that was a day of foul weather. Last year around my area of West Wales it was a lovely day on the first, but this year it was cold enough for snow to fall. So our small ritual was based on the idea that these two had to confront each other; the beautiful maiden of spring and the wizened old hag of winter. Of course the Callieach must lose, and slink away, threatening to return next winter, but we’re not under any illusion that from the 2nd of February onwards there would be nothing but daffodils nodding in sunshine! In fact, it may be that the wonderful, record-breaking warmth we have been enjoying in the past few weeks should be worrying us.

Yesterday, it was ‘as warm as spring’, and I went on a Garden Crawl with some veg-growing friends. This is a bit like a pub crawl, but with tea and cakes as substitute for beer. We saw five wonderful gardens, with polytunnels as warm as a Mediterranean beach. For the first time since last summer, we pulled out my rattan furniture and sat on my lawn in the sun, chatting, enjoying Kate’s greenhouse-grown melon and listening to larks rising from the fields, and my thrush, shouting at the top of his voice.

For me, the song of the thrush is simply the best. Yes, the blackbird and the blackcap are lovely, and the robin has a very pretty tune, while the nightingale’s melody is darkly spine-chilling. But the thrush can lift off the top of my scalp. His song always surprises, full of twists and turns, and not always ‘thrice over’; sometimes he repeats a phrase four times, or twice, but what I love is you never know what will come next…only the bird knows that. It is said that the more complex the song, the smarter the bird, but that can only be true of ‘Passeri’ class of perching birds, because we all knows that Corvus—rooks, ravens, jackdaws—are as smart-as-they-come, and there’s not much to a crow’s song except latent threat and a thread of misery.

Super Worm Moon. With thanks to
Meanwhile, as the new lambs, chicks and fledglings begin their lives, the wheel of the year turns. That’s what I love about celebrating as a Druid; the constant turning of that wheel. Just 21 days ago it was Imbolc;  in less than four weeks time it will be Vernal Equinox in the Northern Hemisphere, an astrological event celebrated right back to the Neolithic. This year, that special moment of solar balance falls on the 20th March; twelve hours of daylight, twelve of darkness. The tides will rise as high as they can, while it feels as if the world stands still. And this year, as an added frisson, it will be the third full moon of the year; the Worm Moon…and this will be a supermoon, large, close to Earth and wonderfully ripe for magic. I wonder what we will celebrate on that night?

If the weather continues warm, my true-loving thrushes will have started a brood by then, and may carry on having broods of babies to the far end of summer. I haven’t a clue where that nest may be; it could be in the deep layers of ivy covering my century-old  beeches that line boundary, or it could be in the long, thin strip of land between the garden fence and the edge of the high bank elevating us from the little country road. I’ll be leaving out bits of cotton and fluff for birds to take advantage of, but I doubt the thrush family will use this; they like natural materials for their house. I would love to find it, with its clutch of sky-blue eggs, but I don’t want to look too close. I think it’s best if I just let them get on with their lives, while I get on with mine.

You can hear the song of the thrush here.

Saturday, 16 February 2019

Mary Oliver, Eavan Boland, and Alice Oswald

Mary Oliver reading one of her poems at a conference in California.
Photograph: Mario Anzuoni/Reuters
Mary Oliver was one of my favourite US poets, so it was with real sadness

that I heard of her death at the grand age of 83. In fact a friend told me, via a text, so I was not the only female in west Wales to be affected by her passing.  But she was most loved,  perhaps, in her native American - she won a Pulitzer prize in 1984. For me, her poems touch my druid heart, as they  reflect a deep love of nature, a transendental connection to the spirit world and the human condition. Her poems were subtle yet straight, and ever hopeful. 

Because of her death, our last West Wales book club meeting started by reading  “The Summer Day” from 1992, which is probably her most well-known poem. 

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean –
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down –
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

We talked together of how she it's possible she had an unhappy childhood which might have led her to a huge love of the natural world. In the 50s, she  made a pilgrimage  to New York where her favourite poet, Edna St Vincent Millay,  had recently died, and there met her life partner, Molly Malone Cook. Poet and photographer made a life together in Cape Cod, and it is that landscape she often wrote about, as here, in my favourite of hers, Wild Swans; 

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting -
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

 She told Maria Shriver in an O Magazine interview, “I am not very hopeful about the Earth remaining as it was when I was a child. It’s already greatly changed. But I think when we lose the connection with the natural world, we tend to forget that we’re animals, that we need the Earth.” This last poem is considered by many as her finest work, a 'death poem that becomes a life poem', as Jay Parini said in the Guardian obituary.

Sleeping In The Forest 

I thought the earth remembered me, she
took me back so tenderly, arranging
her dark skirts, her pockets
full of lichens and seeds. I slept
as never before, a stone
on the riverbed, nothing
between me and the white fire of the stars
but my thoughts, and they floated
light as moths among the branches
of the perfect trees. All night
I heard the small kingdoms breathing
around me, the insects, and the birds
who do their work in the darkness. All night
I rose and fell, as if in water, grappling
with a luminous doom. By morning
I had vanished at least a dozen times
into something better.

Eavan Boland, is an Irish writer now living and teaching in the USA, she mainly writes of the difficult position of women in Ireland. Cityscape, below, is a favourite of mine. I love the concentration on ‘elver’ –  on my first read, I didn’t recognise the word in the first two stanzas, where it’s used out of context. I really thought she’d invented a word. But it’s a perfect word to use for any silvery, wriggly line, such as a diver, the sudden, bright. low light of the evening sky, and a ‘yearning for the estuary’ which may be a reference to a longing to travel into the distance, which many of us have. Repeatedly seeded through the poem to fix ‘silver’ into your mind, it works as a sort of assonance. At first, the poem's got a very ‘yaowie’ sound…word, surface, waited, day, pause, …elver, how cirrus clouds, edge, elver…Then it begins to use more flat aa’s…Blackrock baths, cracks, I can I can I can, Harry, salt,  as, has, glass…


I have a word for it —
the way the surface waited all day
to be a silvery pause between sky and city —
which is elver.

And another one for how
the bay shelved cirrus clouds
piled up at the edge of the Irish Sea, 
which is elver too.

The old Blackrock baths 
have been neglected now for fifty years,
fine cracks in the tiles 
visible as they never were when

I can I can I can
shouted Harry Vernon as 
he dived from the highest board 
curving down into salt and urine

his cry fading out 
through the half century it took 
to hear as a child that a glass eel
had been seen 

entering the seawater baths at twilight —
also known as elver
and immediately
the word begins

a delicate migration —
a fine crazing healing in the tiles —
the sky deepening above a city 
that has always been

unsettled between sluice gates and the Irish Sea 
to which there now comes at dusk
a translucent visitor
yearning for the estuary.

More recently, Alice Oswald has become renowned for writing 'nature verse' although understandably, she hates that nomenclature. Oswold is an Oxford graduate who now lives in Devon and loves gardening, ecology and music, all of which find their way subtly into her poetry. She became famous after the publication of her second book, Dart, which was the outcome of years of primary and secondary research into the history, environment, and community along the River Dart in Devon, England. But it's her later works that I really love which include Woods, etc. (2005), winner of a Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize; Weeds and Wild Flowers (2009), illustrated by Jessica Greenman; A Sleepwalk on the Severn (2009) and Falling Awake (2016). Here's a favourite of mine, from that collection, Slowed-Down Blackbird;

Three people in the snow
getting rid of themselves
               breath by breath

and every six seconds a blackbird

three people in raincoats losing their tracks in the snow
walking as far as the edge and back again
with the trees exhausted
              tapping at the sky

and every six seconds a blackbird

first three then two
passing one eye between them
and the eye is a white eraser rubbing them away

and on the edge a blackbird
trying over and over its broken line
trying over and over its broken line. 

Finally, here's a poem I wrote last spring, when I found a fallen fledgling. I looked for alliteration 
(beached boat), assonance, (cat-dragged…back…soft, moth…lift, tissue)… Integral rhythms (I want to live, fly, court, breed) simile (beached boat, moth wings,) and metaphor (cloaked in suede). I hope the poem explains some of how deeply affected I was when I found the fledging.

Cat-dragged to the back porch,
Your wings have micro feathers with pigeon patterns
Your rib cage humped as a beached boat
Cloaked in suede 
Breaths soft as moth wings,
Life is worth the fight.
I lift you on tissue to my palm
You are as light as any bird yet heavy with existence
Your outsized beak opens wide
As if I were your mother,
A silent cry – help me!
I want to live, fly, court, breed, 
Lay a clutch of eggs, raise a brood.
Within the kitchen towels, I twist your neck.

On the porch step I sit 
Heavy with death.