Saturday 14 September 2013

"Go, Little Book": Poets in Edinburgh

When I go to Edinburgh, as I did last week, I go for lazy blog posts full of pictures, like this one from last year. So here's another with some of the poetic delights I came across.

This is Sir Walter Scott, from the Scott Memorial on Princes Street. Of course, I have excised the giant gothic folderol surrounding it and just included the statue.

This is a quotation from Robert Fergusson, outside the Writers Museum. He was a major influence on Robbie Burns.

These are all quotations from various Scots poets and writers on the side of the frankly weird Scottish Parliament. Here you can read and enjoy all the various quotations:

Although I didn't specifically track down the graves, I discovered that in the creepy graveyard of Greyfriars Kirk, a couple of famous or infamous poets are buried - Allan Ramsay and William McGonagall.

Here, too, was a mystery poet:

On the famous Rose Street there were planters with quotations from the likes of Hugh MacDiarmid and Ian Crichton Smith.

And in Princes Street Gardens I found this on a park bench:

We dropped in at the Scottish Poetry Library too and saw some of the beautiful and still anonymous book sculptures - as well as others here and there around town. At the Writers Museum we mainly visited with Sir Walter Scott, Burns, and Robert Louis Stevenson. I have a love for Stevenson's poems, which are wistful, dreamy and adventurous, among other things. Here's a rather lovely one.

ENVOY (Robert Louis Stevenson)

Go, little book, and wish to all,
Flowers in the garden, meat in the hall,
A bin of wine, a spice of wit,
A house with lawns enclosing it,
A living river by the door,
A nightingale in the sycamore!

All photos © Clarissa Aykroyd, 2013

Friday 13 September 2013

Sarah Maguire's 'Almost the Equinox': "Wondering at the River and the City and the Stars"

Anchor on the Thames by hozinja. Used under Creative Commons license

and the Thames so emptied of current
it shows bare flanks of sand. Beige sand. A beach.
The sudden vertigo of hardness when we're cupped
over the walls of the Embankment
examining the strange cream stones below,
driftwood, bottle-tops, crockery, one sodden boot.
And the slow mud opens its mouth.
Jets long departed, their con-trails fire
across the fierce blue skies, unfurling
into breath. The very last weather of a summer
spent impatient for change,
waiting for a sign, an alignment.
Beneath our feet, a hemisphere away,
the full moon tugs fluids into tides, and stops
another night in its tracks,
hours before it climbs over London -
the constant pull of elsewhere
mooring us outside ourselves. The colchicums
come naked into the early autumn air.
Bruised into mauve and purple,
their frail blooms admit the memory of harm
in their risky flight to beauty. Packed bulbs
underground harbour their secrets.
Now that we have witnessed
the flare of that ginkgo spilling up
beside St Paul's - its roots woven
deep beneath a graveyard of graves,
its slim knotted branches, sleeved
with airy, fantail leaves -
it will return to us, suddenly,
years from now. Anomalous Jurassic relic,
its origins are as ancient as these slabs
of blackening Whin-bed Portland Stone,
set here by Wren to stamp out Fire and Plague.
As a child, I climbed all the stairs
to the Whispering Gallery, laid my cheek
against the painted plaster of the dome,
and let those perfected acoustics bear my changed voice
back to myself. The huge nave
reminds you of the Great Mosque in Kabul -
sunlight falling on pillars of stone, the hushed intentness
of prayer. Shattered, war-torn, it's still standing,
somehow, next to the river by the Bridge of Bricks,
just as Wren's great dome once soared above the Blitz,
intact. Tonight, we will look up to see
Mars, that old harbinger of war, come so close to us
it rivets the southern sky with its furious,
amber flare. Sixty-thousand years ago it lit
these heavens and looked down
on ice. Next convergence, nothing will be left of us
leaning on this bridge of wires and tempered steel,
wondering at the river and the city and the stars,
here, on the last hot night before this planet tilts us
into darkness, our cold season underground.
The tide has turned, the Thames comes inching back,
drowning everything it will reveal again.
                                   for Yama
© Sarah Maguire, 2007. Reproduced by permission of the author.
I must have first read this poem about six years ago. It appeared in 2007 in Sarah Maguire's The Pomegranates of Kandahar collection, which she signed for me at the T S Eliot Prize readings at what must have been the start of 2008. I now know Sarah a little through the Poetry Translation Centre's activities, and she very kindly agreed to let me reproduce the poem.
This poem is a little like a mirror, for me. It reflects a good deal of my own thoughts and sensations about London - it has what I think of as "London truth", but I'm not sure if it's more my own perspective on the city, or the city's perspective on me (if that makes any sense at all). Since becoming a Londoner over the past eight years, I think a good deal about how the city and I, or the city and any of its residents, watch each other, and the direction of the gaze.
'Almost the Equinox' is dedicated to Yama Yari, a translator from Afghanistan. Sarah described the poem's genesis and inspirations as follows:
"The poem was written in response to a period of clement weather in early September 2003 and it records the first time I took my friend Yama Yari to St Paul's and Tate Modern. We'd met the previous March when I was in St Andrews for the StAnza Festival and he heard he read my poem 'The Pomegranates of Kandahar'. Yama was astonished that someone British might have an interest in his country and we quickly became friends. 
"The poem refers to several of my abiding obsessions, notably the tidal Thames, which is a constant source of wonder. And, of course, London itself: like all Londoners who grew up with parents who lived through the war, I have a particularly charged relationship with St Paul's which, for us, will always be a powerful symbol of resistance to fascism. The Great Mosque in Kabul also managed to survive the Afghan war lords' decimation of the city following the Soviet retreat. The leaves of the autumn crocus (Colchicum spp.) appear in the spring, create food supplies via photosynthesis and then die back into the bulb; the rather ethereal flowers come up, leafless, six months later. The Gingko biloba tree is an anomalous survivor from the Jurassic period - the same era that the Portland limestone beds, used to construct St Paul's, were being laid down. In September 2003 Mars was at its closest to the earth for 60,000 years."
I am fascinated by London's layers; for me, they mostly have to do with human history, art and architecture, all of which are present here. As well, the poet (who has trained and worked as a gardener) brings in the ancient and living natural world, the gingko by St Paul's with "its roots woven/deep beneath a graveyard of graves", and the Portland stone used by Christopher Wren to build the cathedral, in a more recent but still distant century. These are the kinds of layers that I would normally not perceive. It is a very forwards/backwards poem: "it will return to us, suddenly, years from now" - the watchers in the poem see themselves caught by this moment as memory, in future years. The poem itself becomes tidal, like the river, the way "the full moon tugs fluids into tides," and the ebb and flow of memory.
As in many of Sarah Maguire's poems, there is also an intense geographical and emotional reach. Here, it happens through the comparison of St Paul's and the Great Mosque in Kabul, which the speaker's friend has seen. London truly is a city at the centre of the world, and unlike Victoria or Dublin, the other cities which I've called home, you feel in London either as though you are on the edge of endless excitement, cultures and possibilities, or on the frontlines of the world's darkness and war. I think that this poem conjures up both, and powerfully. Mars overhead is described as "that old harbinger of war", and 2003 was of course the year of the Iraq invasion and the start of the Iraq War.
I'm glad to be able to post this poem just before this year's equinox, but I only wish that the weather this year was as described here, ten years ago. Still, I will be going to chase the sun soon enough... 

Thursday 12 September 2013

"Open the Doors and Begin": Edwin Morgan and the Scottish Parliament

I just spent a few days in Edinburgh, one of my favourite cities in the whole wide world, with my parents. It pretty much drips with poetry, overt and implied. A future blog post will probably contain some more photos and details, but for tonight, here's Edwin Morgan, considered one of the great poets of modern Scotland.

This quotation in stone is one of many which appear on the controversial Scottish Parliament building. Edwin Morgan, who was appointed the Scots Makar (national poet or bard) in 2004, also wrote a wild, Whitmanesque poem for the opening of the new Parliament building in the same year, and here it is:


Monday 2 September 2013

Beyond Silence Listened For: Seamus Heaney 1939-2013

Seamus Heaney at University College Dublin, 2009. Photo by Sean O'Connor

When on Friday I saw the news on my Facebook feed that Seamus Heaney had died, I first thought I'd seen wrong, then felt shock, then realised I was going to cry. All day on Facebook and elsewhere I saw similar responses from poets and poetry lovers, along with countless news stories from around the world, comments from students who said that Heaney had kindled in them a love for poetry or that they didn't really like poetry but they hadn't minded studying his - and on, and on. His death was one of the top stories on the Guardian and BBC websites. In Ireland, as well as worldwide, many public figures commented on their sense of sadness and shock, along with the general public. There was a good deal of shock; he was only 74 and while the last time I saw him read was over a year ago, some had seen him at events only a week or two ago. And there were so many poets, students and others who'd had personal encounters, and long-time friends - everyone so sad, especially friends, even those who didn't know him personally.

So much has been said already but I just wanted to say a little about Heaney's importance in my poetic life. He may very well have been the first contemporary living poet who I remember knowing of by name. I remember reading 'The Tollund Man' when I was fairly young - I would guess, between 12 and 14. At the time I think it was unlike any other poem I had read and it still carries this sort of aura, of at least a faint astonishment of my young self. It was at one and the same time personal and historical, physically evocative and disturbing, and relatable. There was just something that was different about it. I had similar experiences with 'The Otter' and 'The Skunk', though with their very different subject matters.

Later, my favourite Heaney poems have included 'The Toome Road', 'The Strand at Lough Beg', 'Act of Union', 'District and Circle', and of course 'The Underground'. Some of his poems gave me a further insight into the beauty and wounds of Ireland, my adopted country for a few years. Others left lines echoing through me, lines which continue to do so regularly, for  years: "Let me sleep on your breast to the airport" ('Wedding Day'), "Lost for its sunlit hills" ('Out of Shot').

I was able to go to his readings three times. In fact, I attended the T S Eliot Prize reading where he was nominated (and won) for District and Circle, but he was unable to appear due to his recent stroke, which was disappointing and worrying. I finally saw him in 2010 (I think?) at Southbank for the release of Human Chain, again at the readings for the 2010 T S Eliot Prize (at the start of 2011), and finally at Poetry Parnassus a little over a year ago. His reading voice was beautiful and unpretentious. He was low-key, interesting and very witty, with a very kindly air. The first time I saw him, he concluded with 'Postscript' and I think I cried. I so badly wanted him to read that poem, possibly my favourite of his works. I just regret that at none of these readings I queued up or tracked him down for a book signing, though I think the T S Eliot reading might have been the only opportunity. Even a very short meeting would have been nice. Like so many, I think I assumed that I would have another chance, that he would be around for much longer. Everyone who ever met him has spoken of his kindness, including a friend who randomly spoke with him in Belfast years ago and only later found out that he was a famous poet.

All I really wanted to say was this: Seamus Heaney, your poetry changed our lives, for a lot of us at least a little, for some a lot. I'm so glad I was able to attend your readings three times but I'm sad that I never met you and I'm very sad that you're gone. We will miss you a lot and it's wonderful that your amazing verse is still with us.

Here is 'Postscript', a poem which will always be in my heart - a heart this week "caught off guard and blown open."

POSTSCRIPT (Seamus Heaney)