Saturday, 21 December 2013

Winter Light

Winter Light

The sun is low and slant,
revealing the world from a different angle,
what was in shadow is now made bright.

But the light is visiting less and less:
the sleeping dark grows.

Now the glory of the trees is gone
we see their essence,
how the weather has shaped them -
this one twisted, that one bent,
turning away from the battering wind;
here one has grown rotten,
those two are standing so near
they lean together, supporting each other.

The sun shines through the branches
now leaves no longer obscure the view;
hidden landscapes open before us:
now we can see what is beyond.

Soon only a trickle of light leaks into the days
which shuffle on towards the solstice,
to the still point
where we close our eyes
and disappear

a short time

then we wake again.

Hilaire Wood 2013

Solstice Blessings! Wishing you all a very merry Christmas and may every good thing come your way in 2014.

Sunday, 17 November 2013

Autumn: A Janus Time

When I opened my curtains this morning I gasped in awe at the scene in front of me. All the different leaves of  the trees and bushes (cherry, beech, birch, forsythia, ash, blackthorn) - the flowers and plants (evening primrose, cranesbill, strawberry, iris, lady's mantle) - are decaying in their own time, at different rates and showing different colours, giving the most rich and glorious mottled effect like a Pointillist painting. The picture above, although not of the view from my window, gives you some idea.

This time last year, on an autumn walk, I was struck by the fact that the path I was walking was thick mud with discarded leaves trampled into it in places and littered here and there were acorns, beechnuts and sycamore seeds; the dying and the promise of new life both abundant. The following poem tries to express my meditation on this.

A Janus Time

Acorns and beechnuts are gracing the woods
while discarded leaves enshroud the land,
mulching the pathways yet to be walked

This is the falling time, the time of seeds,
a Janus-time of living and dying,
a threshold season.

In summer, apple-scented eglantine
frolicked in hedgerows,
yarrow and meadowsweet
brightened the verges,
an angelic presence on grey rainy days

but the wings of the sycamore fly to the future;
seeds spin our fate,
through them our lives are unfurled,
by them we are carried,
by them we are saved

This is the falling time, the time of seeds,
a Janus-time of living and dying

The offspring of plants will nurture our children,
so we are seedsmen, trading in hope,
or gamblers, reckoning the odds:
‘one for the rock and one for the crow,
one to die and one to grow’

glowing like hearth light, the promise in darkness

we live our lives on this juxtaposition,
the crux and cusp at the heart of being.

This is the falling time, the time of seeds

and now, like the trees, we are down at leaf,
heads heavy, we bend to face our roots,
feed on tubers, remember the past,
the rich earth opening -

what seeds do you carry that must answer the light?


(I must just comment here since, I am aware that I am cross-posting on my blogs recently, that I don't intend to do this all the time of course but I've been finding it quite difficult to decide which blog to post these last few on (how to split oneself in half?) and so have put them up on both for now. I do have some posts in the pipeline which are more obviously appropriate for one or the other blog but for the time being I'll post to both when I'm undecided, although I might have to revise this in the longer term if the posts continue to converge more often than not.)

Friday, 1 November 2013

On the Deaths of Cats and Mothers - Poems by Thomas Hardy and Patrick Kavanagh

It's been a difficult time recently with some sad and challenging events. One of these was the death of  my cat Ash, companion of 20 years. My other cat, Willow, died last year at the age of 17. In the picture above you can see them both in happier times curled up on the end of my bed on a Sunday morning while I read the Saturday Guardian - an enjoyable Sunday morning ritual.

I remember  Chris Hamilton-Emery of Salt Publishing saying in his submission guidelines to avoid sending poems on the death of your cat, mother or Biology teacher. (Or how crap your life is. Or about bee-keeping). Happily some people have written poems when their cats have died - notably perhaps Thomas Hardy who treated the subject with seriousness and in doing so touched on more general themes of dealing with loss and the presence of absence.

Last Words to a Dumb Friend

Pet was never mourned as you,
Purrer of the spotless hue,
Plumy tail, and wistful gaze
While you humoured our queer ways,
Or outshrilled your morning call
Up the stairs and through the hall -
Foot suspended in its fall -
While, expectant, you would stand
Arched, to meet the stroking hand;
Till your way you chose to wend
Yonder, to your tragic end.

Never another pet for me!
Let your place all vacant be;
Better blankness day by day
Than companion torn away.
Better bid his memory fade,
Better blot each mark he made,
Selfishly escape distress
By contrived forgetfulness,
Than preserve his prints to make
Every morn and eve an ache.

From the chair whereon he sat
Sweep his fur, nor wince thereat;
Rake his little pathways out
Mid the bushes roundabout;
Smooth away his talons’ mark
From the claw-worn pine-tree bark,
Where he climbed as dusk embrowned,
Waiting us who loitered round.

Strange it is this speechless thing,
Subject to our mastering,
Subject for his life and food
To our gift, and time, and mood;
Timid pensioner of us Powers,
His existence ruled by ours,
Should - by crossing at a breath
Into safe and shielded death,
By the merely taking hence
Of his insignificance -
Loom as largened to the sense,
Shape as part, above man’s will,
Of the Imperturbable.

As a prisoner, flight debarred,
Exercising in a yard,
Still retain I, troubled, shaken,
Mean estate, by him forsaken;
And this home, which scarcely took
Impress from his little look,
By his faring to the Dim
Grows all eloquent of him.

Housemate, I can think you still
Bounding to the window-sill,
Over which I vaguely see
Your small mound beneath the tree,
Showing in the autumn shade
That you moulder where you played.    

Thomas Hardy

As for the suitability of subjects for poems, surely the quality of a poem depends not on its subject matter but on the skill and inspiration of the poet? In a few days time it will be ten years since my mother died. I haven't written a poem about her death but Patrick Kavanagh's poem in memory of his mother is a fine one I think.

In Memory Of My Mother
I do not think of you lying in the wet clay
Of a Monaghan graveyard; I see
You walking down a lane among the poplars
On your way to the station, or happily

Going to second Mass on a summer Sunday -
You meet me and you say:
'Don't forget to see about the cattle ' -
Among your earthiest words the angels stray.

And I think of you walking along a headland
Of green oats in June,
So full of repose, so rich with life -
And I see us meeting at the end of a town

On a fair day by accident, after
The bargains are all made and we can walk
Together through the shops and stalls and markets
Free in the oriental streets of thought.

O you are not lying in the wet clay,
For it is a harvest evening now and we
Are piling up the ricks against the moonlight
And you smile up at us - eternally.

Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Two Poems for British Polio Month

The Polio Pond by Ann Alexander

Couldn't get there quick enough,
legs pumping bikes
down nettled alleys,
over bomb sites and the dangerous road,
out of the light

and into this cool spinney, where
a pond of standing water waited,
still as a crouched cat.

We'd heard the polio lived here,
biding its time in mottled dark,
belonging to neither day nor night,
nor any certain thing.

That smell. Sharp underbelly stink.
Breath, in gassy bubbles
pocked the surface, where
a dead bird floated, wings outstretched.
Red ribs of a child's pram, half submerged,
told their tremendous tale.

We threw sticks, threw stones.
Well back, on guard, then inching close,
we stared into its clouded heart,
swore we saw the bloody eye,
the tentacles,
the curled chameleon's tongue.

© Ann Alexander (from the collection Too Close)

A picture of me from the local paper at the Infantile Paralysis Fellowship party in
Wakefield Town Hall 1956, on a rare outing from Pinderfields Hospital.

In 1952 I contracted polio which left me with a paralysed leg. In the 1940s and early 1950s there were major polio epidemics in Britain and naturally there was huge fear around them. The virus was thought to lurk in water and warnings were given out in schools and signs hung in public swimming-pools. As well as The Polio Pond being an excellent poem, a piece of social history and a depiction of the way children are attracted to danger, there was something about the way Ann Alexander portrayed polio as a dangerous beast rather than an invisible virus that I found very empowering.
I used to go to a pond in the overgrown garden of a deserted house, with some children from the village, when I was a child and it reminded me of Ann's pond. At a mythic level, a tale began to unfold in which I had been one of the children who didn't get away in time when the beast emerged. So I was wounded by it and also in a strange way tainted by it - which explained the fear I engendered in other children sometimes, their own fear of disability or fear about how to relate to someone who is not like them perhaps. There is a kind of power in being able to make people afraid, but also I felt curiously strengthened by the feeling that I had encountered the dangerous beast and survived - had more than survived. 

The poem worked on me on various levels, showing how magical poetry and stories can be. Disability is so often about disempowerment that it's good to have a sense of the opposite in a new way. Here's a draft of my own poem written in response to Ann's (which I have copied here with her kind permission) in which I've taken the story further. I've also implied that hate and cruelty are monstrous too.

Picture by Sulamith Wülfing

The Polio Monster

Biding its time, the pond lay watching,
a bright eye in the tangled waste;
the bars of a gate floated
dismembered and useless,
dotted with pondweed like green confetti.

The children threw stones and gobbets of mud,
their eyes gleamed, reverting to feral
and catching their offerings
the pool gobbled them down,
sent up bubbles signalling relish.

Strengthened, the monster emerged,
black slime ribboned his scales.
A dark bridegroom, he leered towards them
and all valour lost, they turned and fled,
except for the one who was left behind.
In the claws' grasp there's no time for fear,
there's only surrender, the rushing descent
into the tunnel, the muscular throat.
Claimed by the monster the girl becomes It,
scales now exchanged for an iron splint,
talons curved to the arch of a wheelchair.
Disallowed sticks, the children throw insults;
sticks and stones would break her bones
but words as well could harm her.
Yet where there’s fear there’s always power:
to become what is feared is to move beyond fear.

In the alien form she discovers her might,
feels the rush of sinewy wings
and knows her new world is still the whole world,
the monster now fled to the pools of their eyes.
© Hilaire Wood

If you have enjoyed these poems and would like to know more about the British Polio Fellowship, you can find out HERE and make a donation HERE. If you can, please spread awareness of Polio, a largely forgotten disease which still affects 120,000 people in the UK, and of the work of the Fellowship. Or if you are outside the UK, please find out about how polio affects people in your own country. Thank you!

Sunday, 14 April 2013

Launching The Sea Road

Reading from The Sea Road in London at the Poetry Cafe

I'm slowly recovering from a busy few weeks. The launch of my book of poems at the Aberystwyth Art Centre bookshop went better than I could have imagined, I'm pleased to say. None of the disastrous scenarios I'd envisaged came about :-) About 50 people turned up - the result of myself and Ken Jones (my co-launcher) having sent out invites and flyers to our friends and fellow-writers and Simon, the bookshop manager having done a wonderful job of advertising with a piece in the Cambrian News, on the website and posters everywhere. (It was rather unsettling having my face beaming down at me from pillars in the cafe, but eventually I got used to it and ignored them.) I've never read to so many people; it was a great privilege.

It's also the first time I've had such an opportunity to showcase my work (usually I'm part of a group or just reading one of my poems from a mixed anthology) and that was a good experience, giving me the chance to talk more about what the poems were about and what I was hoping to do in the collection. I'd found a poem by Wendell Berry, that morning which seemed to sum it up and so I started with that as a point of orientation:

A Spiritual Journey

And the world cannot be discovered by a journey of miles,
no matter how long,
but only by a spiritual journey,
a journey of one inch,
very arduous and humbling and joyful,
by which we arrive at the ground at our feet,
and learn to be at home.

~ Wendell Berry ~

All the available copies of the book sold out as well as three I had in the car and Simon said he could have sold twice as many. I think my publisher's marketing officer (i.e. me with another hat on) had got the marketing strategy right. I'd planned to produce a pamphlet/small book and price it reasonably so that people would find it easier to give it a try and see if they liked it. 

The following week I was taking part in an event at the lovely Pen'rallt Bookshop in Machynlleth for World Book Day/International Women's Day. I was on a panel that included poet Chris Kinsey, from Newtown, Caroline Oakley, editor of Welsh Women's Press, Honno (and Ian Rankin's editor), Emily Trehair, editor of Planet and Manon Steffan Ros, Welsh language novelist. There was a full house and a full programme - which was interesting and inspiring as each woman talked about her work and read something of it and of another writer she admired. I'd chosen my poems for an audience of women as the event had been advertised under the International Women's Day banner elsewhere. I was aware that if there was a mixed audience I might have to revise that in hurry but in fact the audience was almost a hundred percent women so it worked out all right.

Afterwards there was tea and the most delicious cheese scones and delicate pieces of carrot cake and everyone mingled and made contacts and chatted - it was a great atmosphere. I hadn't had supper so a friend and I (Jane Whittle who will be reading from her inspiring books, along with Ken Jones, at the bookshop on May 2nd) went over to the Wynstay Hotel where they'd finished serving food but very kindly rustled up a leek and potato soup followed by apple tart. We nattered about writing and the time flew so it was 11.15pm before I drove back towards Aber.

The following week I was going up to Sheffield for my granddaughter's first birthday party/naming ceremony.  My son and daughter-in-law had invited me to read my poem to her which I was dead chuffed about. I hadn't been nervous about it at all as I was so delighted - until I walked into the public house were it was being held and suddenly thought, I'm going to have to think about how to introduce it, what shall I say! I took myself off to the Ladies and practised to the back of the door - as you do - and it all went ok. Afterwards, we ate the most amazing cake made by Leila's other grandmother. It was called a Red Velvet cake and the sponge was red. I told Dylan and his friends it was dinosaur blood which didn't seem to put them off...                                           
After a lovely weekend it was the long drive back to Wales but once I'd negotiated the motorway I listened to T S Eliot reading his Selected Poems and Four Quartets and could have gone on driving for ever. Well, maybe not for ever.

Sunday, 3 February 2013

Writing poetry: Coming at it slant

I've got off to rather a slow start this year. After ending 2012 full of enthusiasm and ideas for working on my poetry in 2013, during the Christmas break I became ill and exhausted and I've been recovering by centimetres, a little at a time. I think I am almost back to normal - I can at least see blue sky now.

My plan for the first half of this year was to do Roselle Angwin's Poetry Correspondence Course which I thought would suit me very well. Roselle says about it: "While it’s an approach that favours the holistic, I’d like to think however that authenticity of voice, knowledge of the requirements of poetry & of the poetry world, & mastery of technique are given equal attention. I’m keen that literary quality is not sacrificed to the demand that poetry be also a means of connection, & a vibrant & essential aspect of inner work."

However, Roselle has decided not to run the course until July and since I'm always busier in the second half of the year and need something now to give shape to my work, I looked at other courses. The Open College of the Arts, the Poetry School... Nothing seemed quite right and so I decided to fashion my own Gelli Fach Poetry Course for myself. I'm structuring it loosely around two books: Jay Ramsay's The Poet in You and Stephen Fry's The Ode Less Travelled. They cover what for me are the twin aspects of poetry - inspiration and craft. I had started to work with Stephen Fry's book last year (which is an absolute delight to read, erudite, quirky and surprisingly soothing and encouraging). I have to say that, although I did the exercises and felt I was learning an enormous amount, when I tried to apply it to my poetry it was a dismal failure; trying to channel my inspiration into a strict form had the effect of making it dry up. Nevertheless, I'm going to persevere - to a point anyway.

Jay's book is working with imagination and inspiration and gives a series of 9 exercises to be done ideally over 9 months. I wasn't sure how it was going to be but I have done the first one and although I wasn't expecting to get very much out of it, it was very rich, interesting, inspiring and rewarding. So, a good start. I may write about it at some point but for the moment I am concerned that some of the potency will be lost if I share it here.

As well as giving time to these two aspects of poetry, I am also reading some books about poetry which have been stacked in a pile by my bed for... well, too long. I've dipped into them but have decided I need to take one at a time and make notes as I go along. I'm starting with Imagining the Earth: Poetry and the Vision of Nature by John Elder.

And of course I shall continue to attend the Poetry Reading Group once a month and the Poetry Workshop once a month - so that I am reading published poets, ancient and modern, and gaining from that, and offering my own poetry for feedback and constructive criticism from my peers, as well as offering feedback on theirs. Both of these groups I find invaluable as well as enjoyable.

I also have some readings and performances coming up. At the end of the month I'm launching my booklet, The Sea Road, at the Arts Centre Bookshop, alongside Ken Jones, a Buddhist and writer of haiku and haibun whose book, Bog Cotton, has recently been published. At the beginning of March I'm going to be reading at the Pen'rallt Bookshop in Machynlleth for International Women's Day and I'll also be giving a talk on self-publishing poetry. In May, the Word Distillery, the performance group I work with, will be presenting an evening dedicated to Coleridge at the Arts Centre - we'll be reading the whole of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, accompanied by slides of the Gustave Dore prints illustrating the poem, as well as some of Coleridge's other work. I'm very much looking forward to that.

Making up my own 'Poetry Course' means that I shall miss out on the discipline and the feedback which I wanted, but given the lack of energy so far this year perhaps it's no bad thing. I've discovered before that trying to impose a rigid structure on myself is a sure way to a collapse. I seem to be at my most creative or productive when I come at writing casually-  when I'm just having a look at a draft while the potatoes are boiling or jotting down notes which later I realise are nearly poems - or when I'm washing up and thinking about some image or potent experience that has occurred that day. I find I have to come at it slant.  "It's as if you have to sneak up on yourself", Eluned in the  poetry group said. But that doesn't mean that a more organised approach isn't useful for providing material and word music and improving skills. And practice, of course, makes perfect. I plan to write about this more here another time.

Wishing you- belatedly - a creative and fulfilling 2013!

PS - the submission deadline for Valleys has been changed to March 24th 2013.