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.