Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Three Wise Poems and a Seasonal Star (Letter)

'Tis the season. To be jolly. To be over-indulgent. But also, to be reflective.  Peace-filled. And what better way to succeed in the latter than a few well-chosen poems?

Christmas is the ideal subject matter for poetry and poetry is the ideal medium for conveying the ethereal feel of Christmas. One of my favourite Christmas memories consists of watching a TV programme on Christmas poems, with some well-known actors reciting  a few festive favourites to montages of snow, brightly-lit shopping districts and tinsel and trees. 

So I thought I'd try to replicate that somewhat here by including some of my favourite Christmas poems. (And very wise ones too, as all poems are of course.) All following the star of inspiration that this time of year provides and encapsulating the stardust-like magic of the season. And all based on the Christmas star motif and the wise men, strangely enough.

TS Eliot's The Journey of the Magi of course, is a classic, a poem about redemption and the search for something more in the midst of all the flippancies of modern life, 'I should be glad of another death'. UA Fanthorpe's BC:AD is a simple but stunning meditation on the season, 'walking haphazard by starlight' - aren't we all haphazardly stumbling around at this time of year? And then a favourite poet of mine, Alice Oswald's Various Portents. I adore this poem. I love the variety of it, the repetition, the emphasis, the whole wide-ranging vision,  how it speeds along, stop-starts frequently and then slows towards the end, towards the epiphany-quiet moment that we're all steering for, the winds 'blowing the stars towards them, bringing snow'. Read it and feel the tingles of recognition as some stars blow towards you.

And lastly, the star letter. In 1897, a young girl, Virginia, wrote a letter to the editor of The New York Sun, asking if there really was a Santa Clause. And the answer she received was the now infamous line: Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. Words that, everytime you hear them, cause a swelling up and a warm glowing of something, something that I like to refer to as belief. What the essence of the letter contains. And the essence of the season.

Happy Christmas to all my followers, readers and randomers. Thank you for taking the time out from all the madness, mayhem and materialism of the season and dropping by to read some poetry and inhale a frankincense, myrhh and golden breath of what the season is all about. 

Seasons Greetings, 

~ Siobhán.

BC:AD - UA Fanthorpe

This was the moment when Before
turned into After, and the future's
uninvented timekeepers presented arms.

This was the moment when nothing

happened. Only dull peace
sprawled boringly over the earth.

This was the moment when even energetic Romans

could find nothing better to do
than counting heads in remote provinces.

And this was the moment

when a few farm workers and three
members of an obscure Persian sect
walked haphazard by starlight straight
into the kingdom of heaven.

Journey of the Magi - TS Eliot
A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times when we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities dirty and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wineskins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

Various Portents  - Alice Oswald
Various stars. Various kings.
Various sunsets, signs, cursory insights.

Many minute attentions, many knowledgeable watchers,
Much cold, much overbearing darkness.

Various long midwinter Glooms.
Various Solitary and Terrible stars.
Many Frosty Nights, many previously Unseen Sky-flowers.
Many people setting out (some of them kings) all clutching at stars.

More than one North star, more than one South star.
Several billion elliptical galaxies, bubble nebulae, binary systems.
Various dust lanes, various routes through varying thickness of Dark,
Many tunnels into deep space, minds going back and forth.

Many visions, many digitally enhanced heavens,
All kinds of glistenings being gathered into telescopes:
Fireworks, gasworks, white-streaked works of Dusk,
Works of wonder and or water, snowflakes, stars of frost …

Various dazed astronomers dilating their eyes,
Various astronauts setting out into laughterless earthlessness,
Various 5,000-year-old moon maps,
Various blindmen feeling across the heavens in Braille.

Various gods making beautiful works in bronze,
Brooches, crowns, triangles, cups and chains,
Various crucifixes, all sorts of nightsky necklaces.
Many Wise Men remarking the irregular weather.

Many exile energies, many low-voiced followers,
Watchers of whisps of various glowing spindles,
Soothsayers, hunters in the High Country of the Zodiac,
Seafarers tossing, tied to a star…

Various people coming home (some of them kings). Various headlights.

Two or three children standing or sitting on the low wall.
Various winds, the Sea Wind, the sound-laden Winds of Evening
Blowing the stars towards them, bringing snow.

Eight-year-old Virginia O'Hanlon wrote a letter to the editor of New York's Sun, and the quick response was printed as an unsigned editorial Sept. 21, 1897. The work of veteran newsman Francis Pharcellus Church has since become history's most reprinted newspaper editorial, appearing in part or whole in dozens of languages in books, movies, and other editorials, and on posters and stamps.

"DEAR EDITOR: I am 8 years old.
"Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus.
"Papa says, 'If you see it in THE SUN it's so.'
"Please tell me the truth; is there a Santa Claus?

VIRGINIA, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except [what] they see. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds. All minds, Virginia, whether they be men's or children's, are little. In this great universe of ours man is a mere insect, an ant, in his intellect, as compared with the boundless world about him, as measured by the intelligence capable of grasping the whole of truth and knowledge.
Yes, VIRGINIA, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus. It would be as dreary as if there were no VIRGINIAS. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The eternal light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished.

Not believe in Santa Claus! You might as well not believe in fairies! You might get your papa to hire men to watch in all the chimneys on Christmas Eve to catch Santa Claus, but even if they did not see Santa Claus coming down, what would that prove? Nobody sees Santa Claus, but that is no sign that there is no Santa Claus. The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see. Did you ever see fairies dancing on the lawn? Of course not, but that's no proof that they are not there. Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world.

You may tear apart the baby's rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man, nor even the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived, could tear apart. Only faith, fancy, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernatural beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real? Ah, VIRGINIA, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding. 

*More Christmas Poems: Christmas - John Betjeman  
'Twas the Night Before Christmas 

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Let it Snow

Oh, the weather outside is frightful....but I wish it would snow and be delightful!

Right now, there are threatening forecasts of snow, but no white stuff as of yet. (Sleet and so-called 'wintry showers' do not count). No, it has to be proper snow, snow that goes shin-deep and requires boots and trudging, snow that really is a parade of raindrops wearing fur-coats (came across this apt metaphor in a children's grammar book, and have memorised it since.)

To me, snow is the icing on the cake of Christmas (blaringly obvious simile, sorry.) And to lots of other people too. But snow is so many things more than the perfect meterological trimming. It's metaphor. It's revelation. It's discovery. Transformation. Magic. A manifestation of all those delicate wishings and notions that swarm in our hearts and minds like dust motes, never settling. Dreamings. Confirmation. A fulfilled promise. A benevolent blessing. Epiphany.

Just like every snowflake is unique and various, so is every snow. Every memory associated with it. Every happening. (Granted, last year the sheer exhausting extent of it did become characteristed by nuisance in the end-up!) But before all  of that, it's awe-inspiring beauty. A sort of deep transient beauty that stops you in your tracks, makes you ooh and ahh  at white wonderland scenes even as the cold seeps through your multi-layers and your extremities begin to freeze. It has the power to bring practical workings to an utter standstill. With this effect on the machinations of routine, what of that on our minds, and the less-insulated territory of our hearts?

Well I've included some of my favourite snow poems here to provide those answers.

First, Louis Mac Niece's 'Snow' which is incomparably fabulous in describing the comfort of sitting by a fire and  watching the snow, all the while basking in thoughts of the world being 'incorrigbly plural' and reeling in 'the drunkeness of things being various.' It perfectly captures that feeling of how snow transforms our ordinary world into something so different, so excitingly random and so much more open to the contemplation of possibilities and the pursuit of the extraordinary.

A previously used poem in this blog 'Snow' By Carol Ann Duffy, is the poem which depicts the harshness of snow and the deathly symbolism of it, 'a huge unsaying.' (See November post,  'Gilded Gold'.)  Snow can be death  indeed to many people, either a physical hardship or  just a never-ending wasteland to the mind, presenting, in unfathomable terms, the huge blankness of the existential dilemma - which is conjured so well in Wallace Steven's poem 'The Snow Man', a pondering at the end of the haunting puzzlement of  'nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.'

Or then there's just the fervour and excitement that comes with a 'snow-day', no work or school to go to, the whole day to yourself, to marvel at the snow and the new freedom from routine 'the world fallen under this falling' as in Billy Collins' 'Snow Day'. Indeed, who can resist 'the revolution of snow, its white flag waving over everything'? And do nothing but listen to its 'the grandiose silence', that is so truly grand and all-encompassing and full of soft nuances of meaning.

And in the famous sublime short story by James Joyce 'The Dead', the snow a sort of epiphany at the end, a quiet realisation of the inevitability of things, a subtle understanding of life and death and an acceptance of this, 'the soul swooning', I think is the ultimate use of snow in literature that I've come across. Certainly one of the most memorable. (And one on which I subconsciously base all my significant snow encounters for some reason...)

Lastly, on truly Irish terms, the Christmas ad from Guinness, which somehow reminds me of 'The Dead' everytime I watch it (maybe it's the Dublin/Dubliners setting?) and manages to roll all of what I've just said about what snow means - magic, revelation, epiphany etc- into a  simple 1-minute reverie. Watch and see.

I hope you enjoy reading these selections. And, I'm still hoping for the 'white stuff ' this year, even after last year's deluge.

Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow!

~ Siobhán.

Snow - Louis Mac Niece

The room was suddenly rich and the great bay-window was
Spawning snow and pink roses against it
Soundlessly collateral and incompatible:
World is suddener than we fancy it.

World is crazier and more of it than we think,
Incorrigibly plural. I peel and portion
A tangerine and spit the pips and feel
The drunkenness of things being various.

And the fire flames with a bubbling sound for world
Is more spiteful and gay than one supposes–
On the tongue on the eyes on the ears in the palms of your hands–
There is more than glass between the snow and the huge roses.

The Snow Man - Wallace Stevens

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

 Snow Day - Billy Collins

Today we woke up to a revolution of snow,
its white flag waving over everything,
the landscape vanished,
not a single mouse to punctuate the blankness,
and beyond these windows

the government buildings smothered,
schools and libraries buried, the post office lost
under the noiseless drift,
the paths of trains softly blocked,
the world fallen under this falling.

In a while I will put on some boots
and step out like someone walking in water,
and the dog will porpoise through the drifts,
and I will shake a laden branch,
sending a cold shower down on us both.

But for now I am a willing prisoner in this house,
a sympathizer with the anarchic cause of snow.
I will make a pot of tea
and listen to the plastic radio on the counter,
as glad as anyone to hear the news

that the Kiddie Corner School is closed,
the Ding-Dong School, closed,
the All Aboard Children's School, closed,
the Hi-Ho Nursery School, closed,
along with -- some will be delighted to hear --

the Toadstool School, the Little School,
Little Sparrows Nursery School,
Little Stars Pre-School, Peas-and-Carrots Day School,
the Tom Thumb Child Center, all closed,
and -- clap your hands -- the Peanuts Play School.

So this is where the children hide all day,
These are the nests where they letter and draw,
where they put on their bright miniature jackets,
all darting and climbing and sliding,
all but the few girls whispering by the fence.

And now I am listening hard
in the grandiose silence of the snow,
trying to hear what those three girls are plotting,
what riot is afoot,
which small queen is about to be brought down.

 from 'The Dead' by James Joyce:

It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

Monday, 5 December 2011

Northern Lights

At this time of year, just around the beginning of December, when it's bitter cold outside and dark mid-afternoon and fairy lights are going up and all thoughts turn Christmassy, I go into full Arctic mode. That is, my thoughts turn towards the polar realms, those great white vistas of snow and ice and imagination. (Especially now that I've come back up North home for the holidays; as I write this the sky is throwing down ferocious hailstones and is charcoal-grey, ominously storm-cloudy. We're getting closer and closer to North Pole weather than continental Europe every year...)

Well I like nothing better at this time of year than to curl up by the fire reading about the Arctic and Antarctic, imagining snowstorms and icebergs and blue oceans and ice-shelves engulfing those brave enough to step foot on these forbidding destinations. The inherent mystery, wildness and beauty of the Poles intrigues me no end.

You know that question - 'if there was one place in the world you could go (all practicalities aside) where would it be?', well I have my answer right here: Antarctica.  Without question. What I wouldn't give to sail (or fly or trek) to the South Pole. To gaze upon the endless and varied whites and blues of the landscape, the snow-capped peaks and valleys, and marvel at its stillness and silence, its pristine beauty.

How truly amazing when you think about it.  There's nowhere else like it on earth. (The Arctic is made up mostly of ocean, frozen for one half of the year). Antarctica, on the other hand is so fabulously unique in that it is a continent made entirely of ice and snow - a continent - three times bigger than Australia, and totally uninhabited except for some hardy penguins. Nothing else (polar bears are indigenous to the North Pole readers). Imagine. Imagine the quietness. If Earth wanted to whisper something to us, would it not be there, a tendril of misted breath, a wisdom preserved forever in ice for us to contemplate?  

My fascination with the ice caps first began with images of the Antarctic. It's hard to explain, but I was transfixed by its isolation and beauty, its sheer whiteness and wildness. It was like nothing I'd ever seen before. Majestically mysterious and hauntingly beautiful. Forbidding as well as fantastic. And I related to it somehow. And it was that somehow that moved me enough to seek out more on this enchanting place.

And so I read countless stories of all the great explorers. What in God's name propelled them to tackle such a forbidding and dangerous place where death waited to rear its sharp teeth?  Bravery, heroism and the strength of the human spirit were all at the hearts of these narratives. Exploration wasn't just for fame and glory it was for something more insatiable: a testing of the spirit, of faith and belief. How do you survive when all the odds are stacked against you alone in the ice-fields, with no provisions, no heat, no hope? Spirit carried all those great men in feats of true heroism. What mattered wasn't defeat or success; it was 'the response of the spirit.' These moving narratives of polar exploration never fail to strike a chord within all of us - the idea of a spiritual quest and the triumph of endurance and the human spirit over hardship and hopelessness. Nowhere was this theory put more to the test than in polar exploration. 'To strive, to seek, to find and not to yield.' (Ulysses - Alfred Lord Tennyson)

But there was more to it than that. That somehow again, sparkling from the ice crystals. One of the greatest Antarctic explorers, Ernest Shackleton, said 'we all have our own White South.' And he was referring to the space of the imagination, that terra incognito where only some of us are brave enough to go, the inner journey we must complete at some stage or another, testing our mettle over fear. I found this book by travel journalist Sara Wheeler 'Terra Incognito: Travels in Antarctica'* and read more on the history of exploration in the continent, but also on the idea of the metaphor of Antarctica. What it meant to those explorers of old and what it means to those today - the science teams and adventure junkies that gravitate towards it indeed as the magnetic point of their existences.

The characters that emerge from the book have all one thing in common: their love of the White South and their commitment to it. Everyone that has gone there has fallen under its spell. One modern day explorer, Robert Swan, who walked to both Poles comments in the book that 'going to either is like watching a child's magic slate wipe away your life as you knew it.' For others it's the perspective the great white land offers, the harmony and the soul-searching solitude, a place to get your bearings. Is it because it represents 'everything beyond man's little world' as the author puts it? Somewhere where the world is seen anew and afresh, and the great grand spectacle of existence unveiled.

And then there's the Arctic of course. The dark North, lit by titanium white bergs like bared teeth in black ocean and the greening spectacle of the Northern Lights. Land of the midnight sun and polar bears and Santa Claus. I watched a documentary once where the presenter was aboard an ice-breaker ship to the North Pole, and the sheer volume of ice everywhere, was breath-taking, like another world. Admittedly, not as intriguing to me as the South Pole (the North Pole is inhabited, and maybe seems closer in a lot of ways), but still a place of mystery and beauty.

Especially when it comes to  the Northern Lights. That great magic display of colours lighting winter skies. Although they are scientific in principle, they are purely magic in manifestation and meaning. They are one of the things I would love to see at some stage in my life. It would be like watching a magic show. The Aurora have meant many things to many people throughout the centuries, with earlier peoples seeing them as signs from dead ancestors. Me, I see them as emblems of belief. Proof of miraculous beauty in the midst of seemingly hopeless darkness. Like Santa for grown-ups.

But perhaps the most intriguing feature of these lands is their beguiling beauty alongside their deathly harshness. One juxtaposed to the other. The beauty in the apparent barrenness,  bleakness, simplicity. Death amidst life's most spectacular scenes. And a space for strength to shine through and break hardship into heroism. Where the great beyond beckons in all its staggering glory and presence. The sublime.

I could go on all day but I'll stop here. The fire is dwindling, and I want to get back to the Eskimos and reindeer in my current read about the North Pole before the last embers go out. And from my cosy perch there,  daydream of packing off to the icy realms, ready to explore the unknown territory of the earth's ends and simultaneously, set off on an inner journey towards the magnetic pole of the unexplored inner landscape...

-enjoy the Arctic spell while it lasts, I am!

~ Siobhán.

More Books of Interest:
'The Worst Journey in the World' - Cherry-Apsley Garrard
'The Magnetic North' - Sara Wheeler
'Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage' - Alfred Lansing

And a poem celebrating the heroism of the exploration age, relating to the sacrifice Captain Oates made as part of the Scott expedition -  'at the heart of the ridiculous, the sublime...'  

'Antarctica'- Derek Mahon

I am just going outside and may be some time.’
The others nod, pretending not to know.
At the heart of the ridiculous, the sublime.

He leaves them reading and begins to climb,
goading his ghost into the howling snow;
He is just going outside and may be some time.

The tent recedes beneath its crust of rime
And frostbite is replaced by vertigo:
At the heart of the ridiculous, the sublime.

Need we consider it some sort of crime,
This numb self-sacrifice of the weakest? No,
He is just going outside and may be some time –

In fact, for ever. Solitary enzyme,
Though the night yield no glimmer there will glow,
At the heart of the ridiculous, the sublime.

He takes leave of the earthly pantomime
Quietly, knowing it is time to go:
‘I am just going outside and may be some time.’
At the heart of the ridiculous, the sublime.

Monday, 21 November 2011

Gilded Gold: Poems to Make You Glow

Monday, Monday, why have you to be so miserable and mundane?? A dull start to the week after the flashing neon lights of the weekend. Well, have I the perfect anecdote: poetry of course. Poetry combats mundanity by making everything matter again. And what better poetry than Carol Ann Duffy's much-awaited new collection 'The Bees'?

Now before all you non-poetry people reading give up or doze off, or switch blogs - here, listen -  just for a moment. Carol Ann Duffy is the ideal poet to introduce to beginners. She's not at all boring or elitist  - two of the biggest criticisms poetry gets. Her poetry is so alive its cells are bursting from the pages and so exciting the words spark and glow and glide.  She is an all-inclusive poet, hence her UK Poet Laureate status. 

Carol Ann Duffy is one of my favourite poets. I love her muscular style of writing, full of metaphors and images, truth and a brutal kind of beautiful honesty, punctuated by musical lyricism and roll-off-the-tongue rhythm.  Her poems encompass all moods and themes; she can be wittily sarcastic, bawdy, funny and then lyrically romantic, straight-up honest, clever, mysterious and emotionally raw.

I stumbled upon this new collection in a bookshop surprisedly a while ago and finally got around to getting it last week. Oh and what a joy it is to encounter a poem in a quiet corner of a bookshop that makes you stop and muse and marvel upon its wonder and the wisdom it has to offer; it takes you away from the world for a moment and places you in a still quiet place of truth. While outside the city whirrs and spins and thrums in its incessant destination focus, inside all is calm. From being storm-tossed to being stilled. Poetry allows us meditation in the midst of the riot of routine and the chaos of busyness. It puts things into peaceful perspective. 

A good poem, I always maintain, has gold within it. A treasured nugget of wisdom, a warming richness of truth, a glinting sheen of worth. This is so true of this new collection by Carol Ann Duffy. Every poem gleams with treasure. Even the cover, designed like a honeycomb, glints gold enticingly. 

And every poem here is worth its mettle. Some of my highlights include: 'Gesture', 'The Bees', 'Snow', 'Virgil's Bees,' 'Atlas,' and so many more. The job of the poet laureate is to make poetry relevant and applicable to society again and Duffy does that brilliantly. From an ode to David Beckham's broken ankle 'Achilles,' to poems about the current political state of the world, Duffy's sharp and witty performance-like style is perfect for subtle criticism and her insights are accurately true - politics 'makes your face a stone/that aches to weep, your heart a fist/clenched or thumping, your tongue/an iron latch with no door.' In 'Miss Schofield's GCSE', a riposte to an English teacher who deemed her poetry unworthy to be on the syllabus, Duffy takes the high-ground praising poetry - 'explain how poetry/pursues the human like the smitten moon/above the weeping, laughing earth; how we/make prayers of it.' And of course, there's her signature humour. In 'Poetry' she makes fun of metaphor by stating: 'I couldn't see Guinness/and not envisage a nun' and a sarcastic ode titled 'Simon Powell' on the X-Factor's 'silver-smile' culture. 

And then there are the poems that give you shivers: 'Cold' written about her mother's death, a recurring subject throughout the book and 'Snow', which I've included below. It's a winter poem, a warning poem and a poem that hits you with  all the might of meaning and leaves a tingling tremor of truth, like so many of Carol Ann Duffy's. And then the glowing warmth of 'Gesture'. You can't help but smile and your heart swell at the last lines and infact the whole sentiment of the poem. That's what makes her a great poet. And that's what gives poetry its great power to change us, even for a fraction of a moment, into truth-seers and enlightened human beings at peace with the world and ourselves.

This is a book I'd urge all poetry and non-poetry lovers to indulge in.  Picking up a random poem can shed light on so many things, and better yet, can shed a golden gleam onto everything ordinary and break the muddy illusion of mundanity into shining golden particles. (Bye bye Monday misery!) 

In one of the best poems of this collection,  'Gesture', a poem written for the UK cancer survivors society, Duffy writes: 'Did you know at the edge of your ordinary, human days/ the gold of legend blazed?' and this is what this collection seems to echo over and over: the glinting gold of this human experience we call life.  As sweet and nutritious as honey, you won't be disappointed.

~ Siobhán

Here's three of my favourite from 'The Bees'. Enjoy.

The Bees

Here are my bees,
brazen, blurs on paper,
besotted; buzzwords, dancing
their flawless, airy maps.

Been deep, my poet bees,
in the parts of flowers,
in daffodil, thistle, rose, even
the golden lotus; so glide,
gilded, glad, golden, thus - 

wise - and know of us:
how your scent pervades
my shadowed busy heart,
and honey is art. 


Then all the dead opened their cold palms
and released the snow; slow, slant, silent,
a huge unsaying, it fell, torn language, settled;
the world to be locked, local; unseen,
fervent earthbound bees around a queen.
The river grimaced and was ice.

                                                           Go nowhere -
thought the dead, using the snow -
but where you are, offering the flower of your breath
to the white garden, or seeds to birds
from your living hand. You cannot leave.
Tighter and tighter, the beautiful snow
holds the land in its fierce embrace.
It is like death, but it is not death; lovelier.
Cold, inconvenienced, late, what will you do now
with the gift of your left life?


Did you know that your hands could catch that dark hour 
like a ball, throw it away into long grass
and when you looked again at your palm, there
was your life-line, shining?
                                              Or when death came,
with its vicious, biting bark, at a babe,
your whole body was brave;
or came with its boiling burns,
your arms reached out, love's gesture.
                                                                    Did you know
when cancer draped its shroud on your back,
you'd make it a flag;
or ignorance smashed its stones through glass,
light, you'd see, in shards;
paralysed, walk; traumatised, talk?
                                                              Did you know
at the edge of your ordinary, human days
the gold of legend blazed,
where you kneeled by a wounded man,
or healed a woman?
                                   Know -
your hand is a star.
Your blood is famous in your heart.

*Read more on Carol Ann Duffy's The Bees in the Guardian Review here

Thursday, 10 November 2011

November Moon & Poems

November is usually such  a dark month, the real 'bleak mid-winter' if you ask me. But as I write this I am contradicted by the gorgeous maple-golden sunshine outside and the cool blue sky nights this past week, owing to the bright frosty moon in the sky. 

Tonight will see the first full moon of November, the 'frosty moon' as it's known.  Apparently it gets its name from northern autumnal ground frost (- thanks Áine!) And you can literally see why its name is so fitting: the white frost-like brightness of it. I think it's the whitest brightest moon I've ever seen. And it's so high in the sky. All other full moons I can recall are usually lower. This moon is at a faraway slant, a contracted pupil staring down at us, a beady ball in the sky so circular and small it reminds me of the exact small circle of a contact lens everytime I look up at it. 

I really wanted to take a picture of it to post here, but unfortunately couldn't for several reasons: a/have a crappy camera b/don't have a lead to connect crappy camera with computer and c/I'm not a great picture-taker. So I had to do with a googled image instead (hmpf!) But, if any of you out there caught it, oh, I'd be so over-the-moon (ha) to see your attempts! But if you want to see some great photographs of it, check out Flickr. For now, I'll have to let words paint the picture.

What's great about this moon is the colours it lavishes upon the winter sky. Come 5 o' clock, the sky turns a clear ice blue with some pink blushes on the horizon. Later it's pure Arctic blue with the pink slipping into hazy lilac tones of twilight. It reminds me of those white snowy days and spider-web frost tendrils and the Northern Lights and all those great magical things about winter. 

Did you know that all the full moons have different names? There's the Pink Moon in April, the Honey Moon in June, Harvest Moon in September, Hunter Moon in October,  and the randomly occuring Blue Moon (when two full moons occur in one month - very seldom, hence the saying!) I have a soft spot for the golden harvest moon, but now here in the Frosty Moon I think I've found its silver companion, all sparkly and white and frosted as a diamond. 

While travelling by bus last week on a long journey, it was there; the whole way, a luminous companion as bright as any north star lighting up the dark outside (and inside). Not yet full, like some prelude waiting in the blue wings of sky. It stayed there the entire journey, at times to my left, to my right, and then right above me in the skylight, sometimes visible, sometimes not, but always there, throwing its light. Just as inspiration does.

I said I'd write about the moon in more detail before, so here I am. This November full moon has inspired me to.  And I'm thinking of a collection of poetry dedicated solely to the moon ' - 'To the Moon', edited and introduced by Carol Ann Duffy. A book that finally shows how much writers have been inspired by this white deity from as far back as Shelley to Carol Ann Duffy herself. There are poems here ranging fom many different poets and styles, but one thing they all have in common is their devoted and undying awe and inspiration of the moon. So if you're a lunar lover, you must check out this book!

And of course not to forget that it's a full moon, and all the connotations that go with that. Feeling emotionally overwhelmed or that certain emotions are magnified right now? You've got the moon to thank for that. I always seem to see things clearer when there's a full moon. Like its luminance offers perspective. And tomorrow being 11/11/11, it all seems very fortuitous indeed...

Now it's getting dark. But not dark; the sky  is a curious mix of green and blue, a turquoise on the horizon, Aurora-hued with  pink and lilac lavender tones beneath. There's my picture.

So I'll leave you with some moon poems I particularly like in honour of this full moon.  If you have some more suggestions please let me know!

moon musing still, 

~ Siobhán

'Moon Hymn' ~ Alice Oswald

I will give you one glimpse
a glimpse of the moon's grievance
whose appearance is all pocks and points
that look like frost-glints

I will wave my hand to her
in her first quarter
when the whole world is against her
shadowy exposure of her centre

o the moon loves to wander
I will go clockwise and stare
when she is huge when she is half elsewhere
half naked, in struggle with the air

and growing rounder and rounder
a pert peering creature
I love her sidling and awkward
when she's not quite circular

o criminal and ingrown
skinned animal o moon
carrying inside yourself your own
death's head, your dark one

why do you chop yourself away
piece by piece, to that final trace
of an outline of ice
on a cupful of space?

'The Woman in the Moon' ~ Carol Ann Duffy

Darlings, I write to you from the moon
where I hide behind famous light.
How could you think it ever a man up here?
A cow jumped over. The dish ran away with

the spoon. What reached me were your joys, griefs,
here’s-the-craic, losses, longings, your lives
brief, mine long, a talented loneliness. I must have
a thousand names for the earth, my blue vocation.

Round I go, the moon a diet of light, sliver of pear,
wedge of lemon, slice of melon, half an orange,
silver onion; your human sound falling through space,
childbirth's song, the lover’s song, the song of death.

Devoted as words to things, I gaze, gawp, glare; deserts
where forests were, sick seas. When night comes,
I see you gaping back as though you can hear my Darlings,
what have you done, what have you done to the world?

'Back Yard' ~ Carl Sandburg

Shine on, O moon of summer.
Shine to the leaves of grass, catalpa and oak,
All silver under your rain to-night.

An Italian boy is sending songs to you to-night from an accordion.
A Polish boy is out with his best girl; they marry next month; to-night they are throwing you kisses.

An old man next door is dreaming over a sheen that sits in a cherry tree in his back yard.

The clocks say I must go—I stay here sitting on the back porch drinking white thoughts you rain down.

Shine on, O moon,
Shake out more and more silver changes.

~And a song - 'Pink Moon' by Nick Drake.  'Oh, it's a pink moon, pink, pink, pink....' Enjoy!~

Friday, 4 November 2011

Imagination Vs Reality: Feathers & Bricks

'They say that most of what happens to a writer happens only in their head.'

There's one occupational hazard about writing that affects me majorly in real life and that's imagination. 

Specifically, over-use of imagination, over-reliance on imagination. Which translates to unintentional illusions and alternative realities made of the fine fragility of feathers that collaspe under the weight of reality's bricks eventually, leaving me in a heap of broken-dream rubble.

See to create fiction requires a lot of imagining. Lots of wondering and pondering, fantasising and make-believing, using and over-using of this power. To live in the real world requires....a blocking out of that power? My real world, and probably that of many other creatives, is more than scaffolded with imagination. I imagine things better than they are at times. I add and embellish and decorate the bones of day-to-day life with ideas, visions,  reinvention of what-ifs and what could bes. I refuse the black and white platter we're offered and choose instead to paint scenes with the coloured palette of possibilities. I see things as I'd like to see them; I see things as they settle into mutable shapes in my mind, not as the sharp lines they actually are in reality.

I first became aware of this at a creative writing group once when a participant remarked to me after I'd read out some work 'how she'd love to live where I lived, with all the magical surroundings and people' - she was referring to all the moonlight vistas, emerald-green wonder and blue-eyed muses I'd charted in my writing. It occured to me then that this must be how I see the world; not how others see it, not how it actually is. I was telling stories to myself I realised. That's how I lived, through stories. Through stories I'd read, watched, and created myself. The fabric of my life was a narrative I was continually creating and re-creating.

So I've come to realise that I have the power to create my reality somewhat. Mythologize things  into magic. Like an alchemist, turn the cold metal of mundanity to shimmering warm gold, ordinary to extraordinary. It's like I'm pre-programmed; if I didn't do this, then the world would seem a very plain place to me. That's why I believe stories are so important to us. They have been since the beginning of time, since narrative first began with a few scratches on cave walls.  

We need stories. They are our way of making sense and meaning of this sometimes blank of existence. No one likes to be faced with a blank page after all, our instinct is to fill it. So we tell stories - to each other, to ourselves, to understand our world, but more so, to know that we matter, that things we hold dear matter, that everything has meaning beyond this sometimes bottomless insignificance that confronts us from time-to-time in the form of ennui and emptiness. 
One of my favourite books is Life of Pi by Yann Martel. In it the author chronicles a young boy's experience lost at sea, alone on a lifeboat, with only a tiger for company. (Yes, a tiger. Read it to believe...) Without giving the story away, the book highlights the importance of fiction in our lives, the vital necessity of it for our sanity, our survival, our sense of self.

So being able to tell stories is good, right?  In certain situations yes. In others,...  I don't know. I've gotten myself into tricky situations due to an over-active imaginative impulse... When it comes to matters of the heart for instance, how to know what's real and what's imaginary? How in the heck do you decipher reality when you spend all of your time creating an alternative one while in writer-mode??! You see my dilemma. Most people have 'common sense', a gut reaction, which is their foolproof guide. I do too, but it's just that imagination interferes, and I don't know which to trust, as it's usually imagination  most of my waking life.

And now I'm wondering if I'm destined to make the same mistakes over and over again when it comes to figuring out what's real and what's imaginary in that airy-fairy vague realm of love. Is the proof in the actions, the words, or how I interpret them? Is the truth in my head the pure unaltered version or has imagination enveloped it in a misty aura, tinting  it opaque? I can't decipher reality from imagination at times; and without that gift I wouldn't be able to sit down and write and create worlds out of my head and see life as great big coloured Wonderland full of possibilities and surprises.  But with it, my vision is obscured when it comes to calling it as it is. (Added to this I'm also a diehard Romantic; which results in a highly potent mix of misguided idealism, unyielding optimism and mighty misunderstanding!)

Like right now. Right now I feel stupid for having read signs wrong; putting two and two together and getting five; believing in a rainbow instead of a black and white reality. A Sylvia Plath poem is going round and round in my head which explains my state exactly, because yeah, it is enough to drive you mad! And the repetive haunting echo of the villainelle structure just goes straight for that silly soft part that actually was stupid enough to drop all defences and believe. Here:

Mad Girl's Love Song - Sylvia Plath        
I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead; 
I lift my lids and all is born again. 
(I think I made you up inside my head.)

The stars go waltzing out in blue and red, 
And arbitrary blackness gallops in: 
I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.

I dreamed that you bewitched me into bed 
And sung me moon-struck, kissed me quite insane. 
(I think I made you up inside my head.)

God topples from the sky, hell's fires fade: 
Exit seraphim and Satan's men: 
I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.

I fancied you'd return the way you said, 
But I grow old and I forget your name. 
(I think I made you up inside my head.)

I should have loved a thunderbird instead; 
At least when spring comes they roar back again. 
I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead. 
(I think I made you up inside my head.)

They say that most of what happens to a writer, happens mostly in their heads.... Yes, I think I made you up inside my head. And that makes me wonder now -  what else did I make up? 

George Bernard Shaw once said: 'Only in books has mankind known perfect truth, love and beauty.' And I'm starting to really believe that. That only in the hold of the imagination does perfection exist, in love, truth and beauty, the great grail trinity. Seems reality comes up second-best every time.

So I turn to the page, where it's perfectly acceptable to imagine, and be rewarded with the contentment of creation. The permanence and importance of it. Instead of self-doubt and recrimination.

The sobering thought of facing reality is a thorny one. But facing reality without the cushion of imagination, definitely worse.  In the coming barren days, it'll be imagination that tends to these raw wounds reality has inflicted. I need this trait to create. Without it, I wouldn't have  a hope in hell of ever filling a page. 

There you have it, another writer's dilemma. Has anyone experienced this occupational hazard? How do you deal with it? Is there a chance of reconciling the two? I'd love to know....!
But for now I suppose, if it came down to it, I'd rather be buried by feathers than a tonne of bricks. 

~ Siobhán. 

(And another poem, the medium where reality is tilted until truth glints off it. And apologies to Sylvia Plath for showing her gloomy side once again here, there is more to her than deadpan despair, will include more of her neutral poems in future..) But for now, here's an achingly accurate picture of regret:

Jilted - Sylvia Plath 

My thoughts are crabbed and sallow,
My tears like vinegar, 
Or the bitter blinking yellow 
Of an acetic star.

Tonight the caustic wind, love, 
Gossips late and soon, 
And I wear the wry-faced pucker of 
The sour lemon moon.

While like an early summer plum, 
Puny, green, and tart, 
Droops upon its wizened stem 
My lean, unripened heart.

This blog was soundtracked by the magnificently morose, The National. A perfect pitch to match the notes of disappointment and disillusionment, for when the castles come crashing down: Fake Empire -The National

*images taken from weheartit