Tuesday, 7 March 2017

Shaping the Water Path - Prose Poems & Liminal Spaces

Bay near Kassiopi, north Corfu

The last two sections in Shaping the Water Path both have watery associations. In the Prose Poems the water themes embrace a river in the Scottish Highlands, the eponymous beck in the Cumbrian garden of the title, the view from a narrow boat on the Kennett & Avon canal, 

and the sea off the Kent coast.

As to why they are prose poems – well sometimes that's just how they come out. They have rhythms cadences and sometimes even rhymes, but not perhaps that sense of pause that
demands line breaks, grouping certain words together and separating others

For me the difference between prose writing & poetry (which includes prose poems) is that the latter seems to come from a different place. (Not everyone agrees with me on this. I remember talking about this different place of origin when I was giving a reading with another poet, who made it clear that for her, this was not the case at all). But that's how I experience it.  It was years later when I read Sherod Santos book A Poetry of Two Minds - and he seemed to agree with me. I wonder what other writers of both prose and poetry think?

Some call these different 'levels' of the mind the concrete mind and the metaphorical mind. The concrete mind is adept at the everyday tasks, it's the one that gets us from one place to another and that means we can navigate the stations and the ticket vendors, the shops, the bills etc. and it deals in cause and effect. The metaphorical mind on the other hand is at home in associations, whether in poetry or prose, it is more fluid, often working with images and it doesn't need cause and effect or a narrative, though it certainly can work with them too. But it often focuses on descriptions,
perceptions, states of being and consciousness.

The last section
Liminal describes those in-between places, shorelines, harbours, ports, thresholds between one element and another. 

Places or states of being that are not clearly one thing or another, shifting and mercurial, blurring boundaries between elements, terrain, moods and mindsets.

Reflections - Ionian Sea

And the Albanian Mountains
From Liminal:
Edward Lear's House in Corfu

I walk down a flight of steps,
through a narrow passageway,
come out on the waterfront
where the houses look towards the sea.

In the house with yellow walls
Edward Lear lived, painted,
traded insults with his manservant, the Souliote,
made wicked sketches of his neighbours -
learned Greek, wrote rhymes and nonsense,
made up words, wrote funny stories
so his friends would smile,
hid his afflictions, wept in solitude,
wrote about owls and pussycats
and pea green boats -
looking out over a sea of palest green -

Perhaps he too woke  in the night
to hear the squalling cats, the barking dogs,
the seagulls and the nesting herons -

The house beside the waterfront
has lemon yellow, slightly peeling walls,
closed shutters and an empty look -
in the evening the shadow of the little lamp
is thrown against the wall. 

Edward Lear's house, Corfu town

Thursday, 2 March 2017

A New Book - Shaping the Water Path

I've not been very good at promoting my work in the past, so I am trying to remedy this. Watching my publisher out of the corner of my eye, seeing all that she does on her blog, her websites (such as keep poems alive) her own books and writing, her publishing, her editing work (Poetry Scotland) her posts on twitter and facebook, her many readings, I am trying to learn. Sally is a true individual, always energetic, encouraging, hospitable (oh yes, there's the Callander Poetry Weekend which she organises and hosts). She is an Aries, bless them all, where would we be without them?

She has published my latest book of poems Shaping the Water Path (Diehard – Sally Evans and Ian King). I'm particularly pleased that they have brought this out as they published my very first book of poems, back in the last century (Deepwater Terminal) and because they are such fine people.

So I spent a lot of time working on these poems and images for the cover, at the end of last year. I had fun with the photographs, placing one over another.  The cover photos were taken by me and Sally made the final design. The larger backdrop one is the sea off the south coast of Crete, and the overlay one is of the performance room in the Art Book Museum, Lodz, Poland (which features in the prose piece the title is taken from). I played around with other possibilities, some of which are below.

The garden at Casterton with bridge over the beck, whose path was reshaped
The background here is the bay of Triopetra on the south coast of Crete, in black and white

Top photo:statue of the poet Julien Tuwim, the bottom one is the outside of the Art Book Museum, all in Lodz, Poland

Along with George Colkitto, whose book The Year of the Loch Diehard has also published, we gave a reading at the Blend Café in Paisley.

The title Shaping the Water Path comes from one of the prose pieces included in the book, written last year at Casterton. I also posted one of the poems here,  Guardians of Sea and Air.  Sally asked me for some local poems so the first section has poems from Scotland and the second, from England, Wales & Ireland.

But there would have to be a section of poems from elsewhere. Travel is always an inspiration for me, and wherever I am I'll write about the landscape either directly or as part of the environment I find myself in. And then there's the people, the fascinating characters you meet, such as Josip in Zagreb's train station, Georgio in Messolonghi, Amira in Carcassonne. Other places included here are Poland, Ukraine, Hungary, Greece, Cyprus, Kosovo and Albania.

George Colkitto reading at the Blend Cafe, Paisley

 Almost all of the poems in the book are recent ones from the past few years. One or two which Sally asked me to include are older, but only recently published – in Every Shade of Blue, which describes my travels with my musician friend John Renbourn. At that time I was immersed in so much wonderful music, it's not surprising that I found some poems coming out like songs. Recently, on a walk by a river I found a tune for one of them Café Impasse and turned it into a song. When I got home I found some chords that – more or less – went with the song, and I sang it at the Blend Café, the first time in many years, since I used to perform with our band Wolf Wind.

This is becoming much too long, so I'll leave a description of the other sections for another post.

And there was more music too from Wullie Purcell, in all a brilliant evening, with the après-reading (talk, wine, music and song) going on long into the night.

Wullie Purcell playing at the Blend cafe. Photo credit: Kathryn Metcalfe

The book is available from Diehard, address here, (or from me, same deal) for £5, (send a cheque) which includes postage. The ethos of this publisher and bookshop is to keep prices low – you can find amazing bargains in their second hand books (and I frequently do). 

Saturday, 18 February 2017

Yørgjin Oxo - a play of elements

Photo credit: Farnham Maltings

Farnham Maltings Theatre Group is on tour, playing Yørgjin
Oxo, by Thomas Crowe.Directed by Gavin Stride & Kevin Dyer
Tour Manager is Olly Jacques

As the audience arrives, the actors mingle with them, offering them delicious twig tea and Marshland cakes.
The story is about Marshlanders and it is as much a celebration of sound effects – sometimes singing without words – as it is of the characters and

Uncle Quagmire teaches our eponymous young hero about the delights of mud and boggy ground.
When danger appears, it is brutal and shocking. Many Marshlanders are taken as prisoners to Firmland, where they have to work as slaves in the mud mines to make bricks, to create a vast cathedral.

Yørgjin is discovered to have special powers which only operate when he is asleep. The elements play important roles – the water of the ocean, the earth bricks of the tall cathedral that rises high up into the air, the fire that razes villages and the rain that is the ultimate saviour, after the resolute courage of a sword-wielding mouse.

Yorgjin climbs the church steeple. Photo credit: Charlotte

The acting is excellent and the plot is constantly surprising. The actors sometimes move through the audience and you feel very much a part of the story. All your emotions are drawn in. There's fear and horror inspired by Simeon, the Viking-like leader of destruction. Yet even he comes to realise he has a soul, darkened by his misdeeds but able to let him glimpse the possibility of how love could transform him.

Love in its different forms – for landscape, elements, other people and other species – creates the threads that hold the story together and brings the triumph of justice at the end.

This is a superbly-acted and warm-hearted production. Go and see it if you can.
Tour Dates here (19th February in Wigtown, Dumfries & Galloway)

And Yørgjin (Robert Durbin) survives to ........ enjoy a morning bowl of porridge 

Friday, 10 February 2017

Refugees from the Russian Revolution: 2 From Kyiv to Odessa and Novorossiisk

Odessa  in early 1900s; photo credit HOBOPOCC - Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10667361

Teffi reaches Odessa where she and all the other fugitives believe they will be safer and this feeling is confirmed when France, which is one of Russia's allies, occupies the port town. But one day, without warning, the French troops left. Rumours of the approaching Bolsheviks were rife, gunfire could be heard at night, and people who had hoped to get travel permits from the French were scrambling to get on the last boats to set sail.

Friends of Teffi had passes to go on board the Shilka, heading for Vladivostok and said she could go with them.

'Now that something had been arranged, I realized just how much I wanted to leave...I could see what life would be  like for me if I stayed. It wasn't death itself that I was afraid of. I was afraid of maddened faces, of lanterns being shone in my eyes, of blind mindless rage. I was afraid of cold, of hunger, of darkness, of rifle butts banging on parquet floors. I was afraid of screams, of weeping, of gunshots, of the deaths of others. I was tired of it all, I wanted no more of it. I had had enough.'

But when she turns up on the quay at the agreed time, there were no lights on the boat, and no-one else was waiting. She went back to her hotel, where almost everyone had left, including most of the staff. When another friend turns up, distraught and not wanting to be on his own, he says that the friends who had said she could go with them on the Shilka, had already left, on board the Caucasus, heading for Constantinople. But he suggests she go with him on the Shilka, as he had two passes and didn't want to be on his own.

'We drove along the dark streets to the harbour.
We heard the odd shot somewhere nearby; in the distance, though, the gunfire sounded more serious.'

The Red Cavalry Brigade enters Odessa, 1919; photo credit wikimedia commons
They succeeded in getting on board the Shilka, which eventually arrived in Novorossiisk. But this journey became the most bizarre of them all, including an engineer among the passengers having to fix the engine, while all the other passengers had to load the coal for the boiler, and gut the fish for the meals, as most of the crew seemed to have absconded.

From Novorossiisk, where there were no rooms to be found, she ended up back on board ship and staying there, until she was asked to go to Yekaterinodar, '[which] was at this time our centre, our White capital.' Teffi's plays were being performed there, and she was asked to give a short reading. They performed to a full house; many high ranking officers including Anton Denikin, the commander in chief of the White forces in southern Russia, were in the audience. 

Photo credit: wikimedia commons

Almost all of the refugees including Teffi, believed that they would go back to Moscow or Saint Petersburg at some point or at least to some part of Russia. They also almost unanimously believed or hoped, that the Bolsheviks would soon be beaten back by the White Army and that some kind of normalcy would return. For Teffi and many others, though they did not know it at the time, they were leaving Russia for good; sailing away from Novorossiisk, meant seeing their homeland for the last time. While Teffi herself would go on to live out the rest of her life in Paris, some of her friends would return to Russia  and many of them would not survive in the Bolshevik regime.

Tuesday, 7 February 2017

Refugees from the Russian Revolution: 1 – From Moscow to Kyiv

Memories: From Moscow to the Black Sea by Teffi (Pen name of Nadezhda Alexandrovna Lokhvitskaya) 
translated by Robert Chandler and Irina Steinberg


Thanks to Pushkin Press and  their excellent translations I've made another discovery, the Russian writer Teffi. In Memories she writes about her journey as she escapes Russia in 1919, in the throes of the civil war that followed the revolution. In a series of extraordinary stories and sketches, she presents memorable characters and remarkable conversations. She writes in a deceptively simple and seeming light-hearted prose about the varied adventures and sometimes near-desperate situations she and her companions undergo.

For example, after they have succeeded in leaving Moscow, the next hurdle is getting across the border into Ukraine. After a helpful officer disappears (with rumours that he has been shot, for taking bribes) it seems impossible that they will be allowed to cross the border. But in the nearby rundown transit settlement they are asked to put on a performance of plays and songs to an audience of Red Army soldiers, and assured that if they do, they will be allowed to cross. One of their number, Gooskin, says “Now we're in real trouble. Slap into the hornet's nest. Executions every day. Only three days ago a general was burned alive. And they make off with every last piece of luggage. We must get out of here fast.”

By some miracle, the day after their performance they are given the promised escort to the border and continue their journey with several changes of trains, to Kiev, where Teffi sees an extraordinary sight – a Russian officer standing outside a bakery, eating a cake. She writes,
“Just imagine – daylight, sunshine, people everywhere, and in the officer's hand, an unseen, unheard-of luxury, the stuff of legend – a cake!
I close my eyes and open them again. No, it isn't a dream. So it must be real life.”

Sunrise over modern day Kyiv
 Teffi finds a room to rent in Kyiv. It is virtually unfurnished and the windows don't close properly (it's winter) but it is central and spacious, and she likes it. She writes some articles for the local newspaper, Kiev Thought and then comes down with Spanish flu. In a delirious state, she remembers friends coming to visit her, bringing bouquets of flowers. After she recovered she writes,

“.. when I went outside for the first time, Kiev was all ice. Black ice and wind. The few pedestrians I saw were barely able to make their way along the streets. They were falling like ninepins, knocking their companions off their feet too.
I remember an editorial office I used to visit from time to time. It was halfway up an icy hill. Trying to get to it form below was hopeless – I'd manage ten steps then slide back down again. Approaching it from above was no better; I would gain too much momentum and slide straight past. Never in my life had I encountered such ice.

The mood in the city had changed; it was no longer celebratory. Something had been extinguished. Everyone was on the alert, ears pricked, eyes darting about. Many people had quietly disappeared, to destinations unknown. There was more and more talk of Odessa.
“Things are looking up in Odessa, I've heard. Whereas round here... Peasants, armed bands....They're closing in on us.....Petlyura or something....”
Kiev Thought did not fear Petlyura. Petlyura was a former employee. He would, of course, remember this.
He did indeed. His very first decree was to close down Kiev Thought. Long before he entered the city, he sent his minions ahead with instructions.
Kiev Thought was perplexed, even a little embarrassed.
But close it did.”

Centre of Kyiv today

Petlyura was the leader of the Ukrainian Nationalists. During the revolution and the ensuing civil war, Kyiv was sometimes controlled by the Nationalists, sometimes by the White Army and ultimately by the victorious Bolshevik army.

As well as poetry, short stories and satires, Teffi wrote plays, and this shows in her superb dialogue. As her journey continues, with events and characters becoming more and more surreal I suddenly understand Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita. In an utterly bizarre world how else can you write? In situations in life which make no sense yet you have to respond to, and when these events clash hopelessly with your sense of reason, your desires, your usual way of responding and relating to others, the imagination makes leaps into fantasy.  Or the imagined past, as Bulgakov does so well as he gets inside the mind of his character of Pontius Pilate, living at a time when events were equally bizarre. 

Bulgakov had personally requested Stalin to let him emigrate, but permission was refused. The Master and Margarita was written in secret, and never published in his lifetime. But living in the Stalinist regime where he was not free either to publish what he wanted, or leave, writing his surreal masterpiece makes complete sense.

Teffi and her fellow  citizens, acquaintances, friends and colleagues are trying to escape. In situations where the normal rules of life are suspended, and as rumour follows rumour, they have no idea what is going on or what will happen. Russia, after the Revolution, was in the throes of civil war, Ukraine was occupied by the Germans, but after they retreated, Ukraine declared itself independent. After this very brief spell of autonomy, it was occupied by the White Army, followed a few months later by the Red Army.  As soldiers who had fought in the White Army found themselves no longer able to protect the city and the citizens, they were in grave danger themselves. Bulgakov's The White Guard, written several years before The Master and Margarita, tells the story of a family caught up in these terrifying times. (It was dramatised, but later suppressed by Stalin's regime.)

Saint Michael's monastery, Kyiv

Saturday, 28 January 2017

Dreams, Birds & Flight

Heron on Kennett & Avon canal

 Some dreams reveal their meaning immediately,  like a story that's invited you in to a whole other world. Others remain stubbornly alien, a story that doesn't seem to have much to do with you, or that speaks a language you can't unravel.

I've been writing my dreams down for a long time. And sometimes I find, when I go back in my journals and read past dream accounts, the images unfurl and make sense, they speak to me now, where they didn't before. Perhaps it is because I'm too close to present dreams, I don't know. Perhaps I'm just more aware sometimes, more perceptive.

Painting at Saint Ronan's Well, Scotland

 For me, birds in dreams, have always been clear. They are the light-winged self, the self that can fly, free from the gravity of space and of time too, for time can have its own gravity, and limitations. So I've had dreams of a tethered bird, and of an entangled bird, and they were quite clear, needed no interpretation.

Black swans in Regent's Park, London

Then there was birdsong I once woke to. But in the passage between dream and wakefulness, the sound is located within me, the birdsong and I are one, all that lift and lyric joy is who I am....and only when I'm completely awake I realise it is outside me, but – I don't forget that when I was in a different state of consciousness, it was not external to me, we were not apart.

In one dream beginning in an attic of discarded and covered objects, I think I see some movement and in response to my interest, a white bird gradually emerges, sheds its drab cover, grows enormous, with coloured patterns on its front, and huge wings that enfold me, with the kind of love that answers all our longing. This must be how it is when an angel wraps its wings around you. 

Birds cluster round angel statue in Rhodos, Greece

And then there was the bird that I was. I have flown in dreams before, but had always, as far as I knew, been myself, enjoying this new ability, the experience of flight. But in this one, as I became aware or lucid in the dream, I realised that I was this night bird, that was my being.  I was flying over moonlit pine trees and hills, feeling the wind shivering in my wing-tip feathers.

Eagle sculpture in Poznan, Poland

And in the waking world or perception, there are the dawn birds, the morning birds you watch just outside the window, feeding on grains and seeds, fat-balls and breadcrumbs, the daylight birds, sometimes in flight and sometimes sentinel-still on fence-posts, and the birds that catch the twilight in a net and draw it in, circling above treetops in conversation, or perched solitary on a topmost branch, singing their lighthouse keeper signal, not so much singing to you but singing you, as you know from the response their singing makes in you.

Heron takes off on the Kennett & Avon canal

And you know this because you once felt their song inside you, were once held by a bird as white as an albatross, and you were once a bird yourself, flying over moonlit pine trees and you haven't forgotten the feeling of flight, of freedom, the exhilaration of knowing that this bird is who you are. 

Seagull over La Manche

Friday, 13 January 2017

Images of Italy - Galleria Borghese

From the archives: Journal excerpts from 2003 in Italy, between my first and second visit to Albania.

Tobiolo and Cherubs at the Galleria Borghese, Rome

There was a storm in the night and the thunder was so loud it startled me from sleep and I cried out. The rain heaved itself against the windows and the balcony and lashed the rooftops and the trees outside. But by the morning, it was fair. There was a sneaky blue strip in the sky. It won't rain again I say, as if I knew what I was talking about. P makes us two small cups of strong coffee and says nothing.

We go to the Galleria Borghese. There is one Tobiolo e l'angelo (I forget the artist's name) where the angelo is wearing a bright red robe that looks as if it’s made of shiny plastic material, like rainwear with reflective qualities. Tobiolo has a spiky hairdo, filtered with wires of light, like a nascent halo. His hand is in the angel's and he looks up at him, trustingly. The angel is much taller than him. Tobiolo holds a large fish and his dog scampers on the path.

In The Two Faces of Love, by Titian, there is amor sacro and amor profano. I feel it’s a shame to divide them like that. Amor sacro is fully clad and has her head turned away. She does not look like someone who would be easy to get to know. She looks a little aloof. Amor profano on the other hand, is wearing almost nothing, just a drape over her hips – she looks towards, she looks more inviting, she looks – ready for encounter and there is only one way you feel, you could encounter her. One time of night, or evening, one mood, and one response. Can you meet that beauty, can you look her in the eyes?  She is not so much a suppliant, as a sign. Unmistakeable as a blue sky. Or a rising tide.

Titian's Sacred and Profane Love: from Wikimedia commons

Between them, in a kind of earth-filled container, a small, winged figure is examining what’s inside it. It could be earth, it could be a pile of dark leaves, it's really not possible to say what he's looking around in. I don't know if it’s Eros, looking for some sign or clue or uninterested in either of the two women and intent on uncovering his own buried treasures. Or maybe he's a flustered minor cherub, given a directive by Eros, which he let fall and is looking for – or one that is simply following some desirable trail, or drawn into the presence of the women, as onlooker or guardian.  

You see them in many of the paintings. Seeming-detached, with no clear role.  Yet drawn too, like understudies learning by watching and listening, content simply to be there.

In another, where Venere ties a scarf round the eyes of Eros, she looks almost dreamily, in another direction. Another winged cherub is at her back, chin resting on her shoulder, like a child content to be around adults, but without understanding of what is going on. Drawn in by the energy. Two other women come towards Venere, from the right of the picture – one holds a bow, the other, the quiver full of arrows. They are involved, they have their parts to play. Yet it’s the blindfolded one, who has his back to us, who will make the action that will result in consequences. Up to that point, everything is well-prepared, appointed. The roles are scripted and the words are worn as carefully as clothes. But once the arrow has been loosed, nothing can be certain, or foretold.

Titian's Venus Blindfolding Cupid: from wikimedia commons

Well, that’s always how it is, isn't it? Once love and desire come in, we are no longer in control. Which is just as well, for that's where life comes in.  Possibilities, consequences and unravelling. Breaches in the wall. Rips in the fabric and gaps in the heart.

Walking through train stations and airports yesterday, I thought how much of life has to do with parting – with meeting and with parting. When there is movement, there is meeting and parting and meeting again. There are endless scenes of separation. Movement involves this, it is inevitable. But the wonder of it is that it makes meetings possible and it makes moments possible – whether they last for seconds of time, or days or weeks, moments of linking with the connectedness of things, they are made possible through movement.

Now, of course, will also become memory, even while, in this moment, it is background. The chirping of a caged bird, on a nearby balcony. The swaying of the plastic strips separating the living room from the balcony. The movement of fresh, damp air from outside, brushing past my skin.

I think of other balconies, on almost the same latitude as here, but not much, only a little, for I do not want to focus on a sense of loss. I am after all working on a landfill operation, shoring up the crater in my heart.

It began to rain, when we came out of the Galleria Borghese. First of all the thunder was distant, then it came closer, carrying torrents of rain in its wake. We sheltered in a narrow doorway. In some streets, the water was several inches deep and reached half way up the wheels of parked cars. 
I thought you said it wasn't going to rain today, said P.