Saturday, 17 June 2017

Holocaust Memorial Day

Image result for holocaust memorial day 2017

To my granddaughters who visited the Holocaust
Museum on the day of the burial of Yitzhak Rabin

Now you know the worst
we humans have to know
about ourselves, and I am sorry,

for I know that you will be afraid.
To those of our bodies given
without pity to be burned, I know

there is no answer
but loving one another,
even our enemies, and this is hard. 

But remember:
when a man of war becomes a man of peace,
he gives a light, divine 

though it is also human.
When a man of peace is killed
by a man of war, he gives a light.

You do not have to walk in darkness.
If you will have the courage for love,
you may walk in light.  It will be 

the light of those who have suffered
for peace.  It will be
your light.

~ Wendell Berry ~

Thursday, 3 December 2015

Review: The First Telling - A Contribution to the Literature of Hope

The First Telling

A few weeks after writing my post on Poems about Rape, I found myself, in a workshop with Pascale Petit, sitting next to Gill McEvoy who showed me her pamphlet which deals with a rape and its aftermath. Naturally I was interested and bought a copy from her. It was the beautifully produced The First Telling, published by HappenStance, which I'm delighted to say has just won the Michael Marks Award for best pamphlet. It’s a very powerful piece of work which stayed with me long after I’d closed the book.

From the beginning the reader is engaged and involved in the narrative. We hear the narrator's thoughts and have to orientate ourselves in the story as it unfolds. The language is sparse, sometimes ungrammatical, sometimes inarticulate, which by its very nature reveals something that more eloquent speech would fail to do. The printed poem works well visually - the dashes, italics, repetitions and slashes give a physical dimension to the telling enabling us to hear the incoherence, the sobs, the silences - how does one find the words to express such appalling experiences after all?

can’t run
can’t breathe
can’t breathe

Birds are present as a motif throughout with some short bird poems becoming a metaphor for what the narrator can’t say, adding texture and dimension to the sequence:


Stabs itself under its wing
with that great beak…

Hides the scars with feathers.

But the sequence moves beyond horror, pain and suffering towards the beginning of hope and healing. And this is more than welcome. All the poems I mentioned in Poems about Rape, apart from that of Farhan Akhtar (which calls on men to wake up to the treatment of women and oppose it), document the horror of rape and the way it damages lives. This is a powerful telling because when the knowledge of rape is hidden away and unacknowledged, society can ignore it. Added to that, in the words of John Berger: "Poems, regardless of any outcome, cross the battlefields, tending the wounded, listening to the wild monologues of the triumphant or the fearful. They bring a kind of peace. Not by anaesthesia or easy reassurance, but by recognition and the promise that what has been experienced cannot disappear as if it had never been. Yet the promise is not of a monument. (Who, still on a battlefield, wants monuments?) The promise is that language has acknowledged, has given shelter to, the experience which demanded, which cried out.” ― John Berger, And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos

But the poems I highlighted do not move beyond this acknowledgement and shelter to offer a way forward, bar perhaps through the unstated hope that society might listen and do something about its treatment of women. The First Telling, however, does show us something more. Through the means of objectifying the experience of rape and its aftermath in language and telling it to a wise listener who hears and understands, rather than being condemned to live in isolation with the raw, unspoken and unedited re-living of what happened, the narrator is able, in small, realistic steps forward, to find a path out of the ever-present prison of the unresolved past; the colours, the images, the thoughts start to change. We are left with the possibility of healing:

So bright the blue.
Like new air rushing in.

The writer Barry Lopez has said that he wants to “contribute to a literature of hope… to help create a body of stories in which men and women can discover trustworthy patterns. Every story is an act of trust between a writer and a reader; each story in the end is social. Whatever a writer sets down can help or harm the community of which he or she is a part.” Elaborating, he says he has to believe “that imagining a story will somehow help people to imagine a way around difficulty. And that by encouraging a sense of hope, some woman, some man, will exercise their imagination in a way we could not have foreseen and that will be our blessing and our release from pessimism. Somebody will see a different way to do things. Stories, in some way, work as blueprints for the imagination”. ― Michigan Quarterly Review

I recommend The First Telling to you not only as a welcome contribution to poems about rape but also as a contribution to the literature of hope and a blueprint for the imagination.

Friday, 3 July 2015

Keeping the Channel of Creativity Open - Martha Graham

Martha Graham (1894 - 1991), the American dancer, who created a movement language based upon the expressive capacity of the human body, is quoted as saying something I have often thought but ne'er so well expressed. Read it when you need to dispel the demons of self-doubt, feelings of inadequacy and the sense of futility about one's work that most writers seem to visit at some time - it acts as a kind of charm against them:

There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening, that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique, and if you block it it will never exist through any other medium and be lost; the world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is, nor how valuable, nor how it compares with other expressions, it is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work, you have to keep open and aware directly to the urge that motivates you. Keep the channel open... 
(As told by Agnes de Mille in Martha: The Life and Work of Martha Graham. A Biography.)

And this is helpful too:
Practice means to perform over and over again in the face of all obstacles, some act of vision, of faith, of desire. Practice is a means of inviting the perfection desired.

Saturday, 13 June 2015

The Goddess and The Gardener - now available here

 Poet and writer, Jane Whittle, explored Britain alone on foot for many years before settling on the coast of West Wales, where she began to make a garden from a patch of un-tamed mountainside 'in a place where rainbows land'. The poems in this book arose from that mysterious space between dream and reality experienced in the landscape, first by solitary long distance walking and then by sinking a root in one unspoiled place. They are accompanied by the author's own illustrations.

The poems are divided into two halves. The first half are in the voice of The Gardener, the woman who has stopped her physical journeying and has settled, finding 'new strength/to stay at home'. We are taken on the Gardener's inner journey through the seasons, from spring when 'New arrivals/crowd their neighbours/budding intermezzos drown in brazen greens' to winter, when 'The earth is hard on new flowers/broken by gales and frost'. Through her we meet the Goddess in different guises as she allows the Gardener to see the magic of the garden emerge and to experience her at the source of much that is around us - in a faltering stream, in the colours of the rainbow, in a leaf uncurling, in the cycle of elderberries from flower to wine.

In the second half we are privileged to hear the voice of the Goddess herself, first as Eurynome from early Greek myth who created the earth with the help of the serpent Ophion but banished him when he tried to take all the credit, then as she reveals herself in water, in wind, in a poem but above all in the earth. 'Lay yourself down/ and become land' she says, 'Listen - you will hear me'. 'As I turn and re-turn/, I return you to life.../  Remember my story.'

Jane Whittle's language throughout is skillful, simple with the simplicity of archetype, conveying in a few well-chosen words a depth of meaning that offers us new insights and delights.

Copies of The Gardener and The Goddess published by Brigit's Forge ( ISBN 978-0-9574106-1-9) are available to buy from this website (see sidebar) whether or not you have a PayPal account.

Saturday, 30 May 2015

John Agard: Poetry to Energise the Soul

I was interested to hear the poet John Agard talking to Kirsty Young as a guest on Desert Island Discs in November 2014. Born in Guyana, Agard came to the UK in the 1970s with his partner, the poet Grace Nichols. Carol Ann Duffy says of him: “John Agard has always made people sit up and listen. He has done this with intelligence, humour and generosity... He has the ability to temper anger with wit, and difficult truths with kindness... In performance he is electrifying – compelling, funny, moving and thought-provoking. His work in education over the years has changed the way that readers, writers and teachers think about poetry,” 

His poems are often satirical, addressing subjects such as slavery and, as the BBC website puts it "the historical myopia of a shared past judged solely through European eyes". His humour is sometimes achieved by provoking an abrupt change of perception in his audience, a disruption of an accepted way of seeing. His readings are, as Duffy says, electrifying, giving language an almost physical quality in which words are played with, emphasised and delivered for maximum impact. Have a listen to him over on the Poetry Archive if you haven't heard him before.

Asked about how he felt about being awarded the Queen's Medal for Poetry he says that that the medal is given for your contribution and oeuvre as a poet and that it would be ungracious to reject it. Young people, he says, both black and white, need to be motivated by people who channel the word with positive energy; they need models who can energise the soul, beacons who give them a positive hope that poetry is also something that is worthy of being honoured. For that reason he says he had no qualms in accepting the medal and felt honoured and touched to be in the company of many great poets.

He talks of the process of writing poetry, how the poet uses the same 26 letters of the alphabet as everyone else but there is "a magical moment when you happen to put the right words in the right order and this can trigger off a verbal chemistry that can touch your depths and language begins to fly". A line might come to you, he continues, like a benediction, like grace, like it's a gift. It has spiritual overtones but is not divorced from the mundane of life.

He says he believes that "the poet keeps us in touch with the vulnerable core of language that makes us what we are."

That's certainly something to ponder on.