The wound is the place where the light enters you. RUMI Forget safety. Live where you fear to live. RUMI

If you want to conquer the anxiety of life, live in the moment, live in the breath. AMIT RAY

Wednesday, 18 May 2016

Europe


Amidst all the scaremongering and speculation, it's instructive to step back from the frenzy and consider who wants us to leave the EU and who wants us to remain.

For Brexit: Boris Johnson, George Galloway, Nigel Farage and UKIP, Michael Howard and Michael Gove, Liam Fox and Iain Duncan Smith, Zac Goldsmith, Vladimir Putin, Marine Le Pen, ISIS, Donald Trump, The Queen, the Telegraph, the Mail, the Express.

For Remain: David Cameron and George Osborne, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party, Tim Farron and the Liberal Democrats, Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP, Natalie Bennett and the Greens, Mark Carney (Governor of the Bank of England), Stephen Hawking, Bill and Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, most UK businesses, all EU member states, the Guardian, the Financial Times, the Mirror.

Well, I know what I"m voting for, and have known for a long time.

Most young people instinctively feel part of Europe rather than identify with some archaic, let's-go-it-alone-and-damn-the-foreigners type of isolationism. But many are not even registered to vote. Please, you must do so! It's so important for the future. Even if the European project has its problems and difficulties, it's maintained the peace in Europe now for nearly sixty years.

Friday, 13 May 2016

Phenomena

Who can say what is? Who is able to judge the true worth of things? RAINER MARIA RILKE

I look around the room and find
Things radiant with vague significance:

Three tulips in a cracked, Venetian vase,
Pale cups of light on stiff, green stems.

Two gold-edged mirrors hanging opposite
Each other, tricking interlopers
To fall endlessly, mise en abyme.

Two windows, luminous and liminal,
Connecting interior and outer worlds,
In this case room and garden.

Four wooden chairs in all their usefulness,
With all their history, associations,
Crafted and beautiful aesthetic.

A wooden table set for dinner,
Empty white plates as cool as milkstone,
White candles, gleaming cutlery,

Awaiting company, though all is still
And quiet as an abandoned ship
And sudden voices unimaginable.

My funny, sort-of conversation
Is silent and appropriate:
A quick nod to the captive flowers,

A glance into the otherworldly
Garden, a quick prayer
That I may also love the unloved things. 

I praise the room’s unique particulars,
A room where things are waiting to arrive
Yet shining with the things already placed,

Potent with meaning, yet all the many meanings
Seem barely tangible, just out of reach.

Thursday, 12 May 2016

Experiencing Unique Particulars


Rilke is one of those writers and poets who is never far from my side. Strangely, I'd never read his prose work The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge until recently. It's not as remarkable as the wise and wonderful Letters to a Young Poet, but I was struck by the following two short passages:

Poems don't come to much when they are written too soon. One should wait and gather the feelings and flavours of a whole life, and a long life if possible, and then, just at the end, one might perhaps be able to write ten good lines. For poems are not, as people suppose, emotions — those come easily and quickly enough. They are experiences . . .

. . . No, no, nothing in the world can one imagine beforehand, not the least thing. Everything is made up of so many unique particulars that cannot be foreseen. In imagination one passes them over and does not notice that they are lacking, hasty as one is. But the realities are slow and indescribably detailed.

Rilke writes about all the important things — the poignancy of transitoriness, the necessity of solitude, the praising of creation in all its diversity, the recognition of love in all its complexity, the radiance of life which sparkles in spite of and, indeed, because of the ever-present nature of death; his poems, and many of his letters and prose pieces, may be considered deep meditations on existence. His artistic territory straddles the borderline between the expressible and the inexpressible.

There's a very fine book on my shelf called A Year with Rilke: Daily Readings from the Best of Rainer Maria Rilke, beautifully translated and edited by Joanna Macy and Anita Barrows. The entry for 29 April, from a letter written to Witold Hulewicz on 13 November 1925, reads:

Impermanence plunges us into the depth of all Being. And so all forms of the present are not to be taken and bound in time, but held in a larger context of meaning in which we participate. I don't mean this in a Christian sense (from which I ever more passionately distance myself) but in a sheer earthly, deep earthly, sacred earthly consciousness: that what we see here and now is to bring us into a wider — indeed, the very widest — dimension. Not in an afterlife whose shadow darkens the earth, but in a whole that is the whole.

Finally, here's a poem taken from The Book of Hours:

How surely gravity's law,
strong as an ocean current,
takes hold of the smallest thing
and pulls it toward the heart of the world.

Each thing —
each stone, blossom, child —
is held in place.
Only we, in our arrogance,
push out beyond what we each belong to
for some empty freedom.

If we surrendered
to earth's intelligence
we could rise up rooted, like trees.

Instead we entangle ourselves
in knots of our own making
and struggle, lonely and confused.

So like children, we begin again
to learn from the things,
because they are in God's heart;
they have never left him.

This is what the things can teach us:
to fall,
patiently to trust our heaviness.
Even a bird has to do that
before he can fly.

Tuesday, 5 April 2016

Afflictions

There was a time when, though my path was rough,
This joy within me dallied with distress,
And all misfortunes were but as the stuff
Whence Fancy made me dreams of happiness:
For hope grew round me, like the twining vine,
And fruits, and foliage, not my own, seemed mine.
But now afflictions bow me down to earth:
Nor care I that they rob me of my mirth;
But oh! each visitation
Suspends what nature gave me at my birth,
My shaping spirit of Imagination.
For not to think of what I needs must feel,
But to be still and patient, all I can;
And haply by abstruse research to steal
From my own nature all the natural man—
This was my sole resource, my only plan:
Till that which suits a part infects the whole,
And now is almost grown the habit of my soul.

Stanza VI from Dejection: An Ode by SAMUEL TAYLOR COLERIDGE 

Sunday, 28 February 2016

Mad, Mad World


If, a short while ago, I'd have believed that Donald Trump might be in the White House or that the unlikely, rather sinister triumvirate of Nigel Farage, George Galloway and Boris Johnson might be scaring us out of Europe, I'd have woken up sweating — knowing it was just one of those rancid nightmares you get from time to time. But, unfortunately, some nightmares are not nightmares — they are the living truth. God help us all. Time for me soon, I think, to retreat to a shack in Croatia or a cave in the Pyrenees. 

Saturday, 20 February 2016

To Where Does It Lead, This Walking?


To where does it lead, this walking? Past sea-lashed stacks and blocky towers of granite, shattered into cubes, to wind-bashed headlands drenched in spume and spray. Through lush-green tunnels of feathery tamarisk, humid as the tropics, wet-warm as rainforests, dripping with hart's tongue ferns and frothy with meadowsweet.

Read more of my Cornish-coast-path prose poem at Roselle Angwin's Qualia and Other Wildlife . . .

Wednesday, 10 February 2016

A Gap In A Hedge

To know fully even one field or one land is a lifetime's experience . . .  a gap in a hedge, a smooth rock surfacing a narrow lane, a view of a woody meadow, the stream at the junction of four small fields — these are as much as a man can fully experience. PATRICK KAVANAGH The Parish and the Universe

Inniskeen Road: July Evening

The bicycles go by in twos and threes —
There's a dance in Billy Brennan's barn to-night,
And there's the half-talk code of mysteries
And the wink-and-elbow language of delight.
Half-past eight and there is not a spot
Upon a mile of road, no shadow thrown
That might turn out a man or woman, not
A footfall tapping secrecies of stone.

I have what every poet hates in spite
Of all the solemn talk of contemplation.
Oh, Alexander Selkirk knew the plight
Of being king and government and nation.
A road, a mile of kingdom, I am king
Of banks and stones and every blooming thing. 

PATRICK KAVANAGH

Friday, 5 February 2016

On Books And Reading

It's true that we're all only ever passing through this world, but part of being alive is that magical process of making it our own. ROB COWEN Common Ground

I love books, but I'm not precious about them. Although books seem to collect around me, I don't consciously collect them. Books pass through my library and life like people: fascinating certainly, often memorable, even life-changing — but one moves on to the next thing. I lend books, borrow books, sell books, give books, am given books, chuck books, even lose them. I have few fine editions with polished spines. Books on my shelves are there to be read, not to impress or gather dust. No doubt this cavalier but rather liberating attitude comes from my previous career in publishing sales. I used to get scores of free books by post every week for many years. I really didn't know what to do with them. Some I sold or gave away. Others I kept, thinking I would read them later — but I hardly ever did. I had far too many books of my own choosing to read!

At some stages of my life I've read omnivorously. At other times I've not read much at all. During my recent trek along the Via Francigena I packed only a guide book. But, of course, I read lots of other things along the way: shop signs, marker posts, graffiti, newspaper headlines, snatches of magazine articles, random fragments from the Bible in churches, words of nonsense and wisdom in pilgrim visitors' books.

At the moment I'm going through a huge bibliomaniac phase. I'm reading library books rather than buying books. I tend to read books in different ways and at different speeds, depending on the form, the content, the style, the density, the difficulty. I've no problem reading some books in a day and others in a year. War and PeaceIn Search of Lost Time and The Alexandria Quartet still lie unfinished on my shelves, though I love these novels more than I can say. I also have no problem reading some books twice, some poems countless times and some texts not at all. Life's too short to feel you have to read certain books just because you think you ought to or because others have praised them.

Having said this, I'm lucky in that I do seem to have a wide taste in subject and styles, and, strangely, this compass is getting wider the older I get (you might think this would be the reverse). I don't read books simply for 'escape' or 'entertainment', though I realise that most people do (I hasten to add that I've nothing against this, naturally, and am in no way an intellectual snob). I read to be moved, enlightened, educated, inspired, transformed. Although I've travelled quite a bit, books take me much further than my feet will ever take me. Books really do enlarge and stimulate the mind, and provide the hope, beauty, joy and consolation so necessary for us all.

As examples, let me take two library books I've just finished with. If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things is a debut novel by Jon McGregor, which was first published on 2002. I remember the sparkling reviews at the time. But after reading the first few pages, and then skimming through it, I really could not bear it. He writes of ordinary life in an ordinary street in an ordinary town. But it's hard to write interestingly about everyday life and, for me, he doesn't quite achieve it. I also could not stomach the pseudo-Beat or Whitmanesque style of the opening paragraphs:

And all these things sing constant, the machines and the sirens, the cars blurting hey and rumbling all headlong, the hoots and the shouts and the hums and the crackles, all come together and rouse like a choir, sinking and rising with the turn of the wind, the counter and solo, the harmony humming expecting more voices . . . 

I found this too general, too contrived, too artificial. I prefer something more specific and gutsy. But that's just me — one's taste is so personal. Many people really did love this novel.

Turning now to Rob Cowen's Common Ground, I came across this book serendipitously in a local library. I'd never heard of it before. It came out last year and focuses on a small triangle of edge-land — borderland between town and country — in Bilton, a suburb of Harrogate. I read it quite slowly — you are forced to, as the text can be densely textured (though not difficult) and startlingly, dazzlingly metaphorical. It's staggering, thrilling writing about the symbiotic relationship between man and wild animal. Cowen manages to convey both the crude blandness of life — with its sewage works, factories, chip shops and traffic — and the magic of nature in this ordinary yet extraordinary corner of England. The mundane and the mystical coexist side by side, and he creates something truly wonderful out of this apparent dichotomy. Cowen is without doubt one of our best current writers on landscape, on a par with Roger Deakin, Richard Mabey and Robert MacFarlane.

In this passage from his book Cowen writes about the brief life of the mayfly:

Time is of the essence and yet there is no sense of time. Not as we know it. No fear of the coming, inevitable unknown; these are prehistoric creatures of the present, 300 years in the making. An order older than dinosaurs. Time to them is in the frequencies of the surrounding birdsong, the fluttering of wings, the sun moving through the foliage, the colours that move across their compound eyes, the vibrations that spill down from a passing heron's croak. Light spills down too, a hot afternoon light that fractures the wood, falling in shards between trees and water. The infinite motion of the river runs in one direction; the endless flux of sky meeting wood in another, and into this strange dimension, as though an irresistible force possesses them, the spinners* rise on stained-glass wings, like angels.

And here he considers the importance of the countless, tiny, overlooked miracles to be found in the the natural and not-so-natural world: 

These long days. These late-summer days, immense and golden. It's Tuesday. I walk up the lane at lunchtime troubled by the thought that I may have been lax in my own recordings of this place. The microscopic details of the here and now seem to possess an inexpressible value that I'm worried I've overlooked. I wish I'd kept more rigorous data. More snapshots. The changes in a single leaf in a single location from day to day.The biodegradation of a discarded fag butt on the stone track. The minute-by-minute movement of a single bird through the wood. Maybe these are the things of true importance.  

* 'Spinner' is a name for the adult form (imago) of a mayfly.