Summer Haiku

I’m enrolled on an online session writing haiku so I thought I’d better do a few warm-up exercises. I’m no expert but know the traditional ones reference a season so some of these do. The syllable count of 5-7-5 is often ignored by contemporary poets but I’ve kept to this in most cases. Haiku usually capture a moment in time, often evoke an image and describe concrete details while at the same time suggesting universal themes. Haiku should be read more than once – they are meant to be savoured like culinary delicacies.

*

sickle moon in blue

sipping tea in hot sunshine-

contented for now.

*

cat chasing shadows

while I sit in baking sun

iced tea by my side.

*

a hot day in June-

jumping spider on my arm

pencil in my hand.

*

bees and wasps buzzing

foxglove nodding in a breeze

droplets on the leaves.

*

after watering

droplets sparkle on a leaf –

the sun’s pouring heat.

*

it’s thirty degrees-

two cats hiss at each other

I watch from my deckchair.

*

haiku in July

sun and moon against blue sky-

it’s too much for me!

*

under July’s sky

distant sirens become sharp-

the temperatures rise.

*

how long do they live?

butterflies dancing in air –

she talks about death.

*

a cat crouches, still –

a feather’s twitching in the wind

a pigeon’s remains.

*

morning glory

reaches towards the high sun –

she collects seeds.

*

how vast karma is!

we walk round the pond-

water off a duck’s back.

The Case For The Defence

Here is another piece about climate catastrophe and species extinction. Before you read it just a short introduction about the context. I am presently writing about climate change and species extinction. Like Covid, it is never out of the news and many of us get a bit weary listening to the arguments.

Nevertheless let’s take the bull by the horns. Many commentators think that run-away capitalism is a historical cause of the present crisis. Think of the destructive effects of the Industrial Revolution! Decades ago people like EF Schumacher argued that something more ‘humane’ had to replace mere economic growth and global competition. That he included spiritual and ethical components in his vision is evidenced throughout his seminal book, Small is Beautiful. Here is one short quote:

But what is wisdom? Where can it be found? It can be read about in numerous publications but it can be found only inside oneself. To be able to find it, one has first to liberate oneself from such masters as greed and envy. The stillness following liberation – even if only momentary – produces the insights of wisdom which are obtainable in no other way. [p30/31 in the paperback edition]

There is tentative cause for optimism today. Many of us agree with Schumacher, who wrote his book in 1973. David Almond, the internationally renowned fiction writer for young people talks about ‘re-wilding the self.’ Others debate how we can rewild the natural environment and restore denuded habitats. Hopefully, the younger generation will reject the allure of material riches in favour of a more equitable, ecologically aware society.

It is perhaps too easy to point the finger of blame at The Enlightenment of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but I have taken up the baton for the purposes of my own piece here.

If anyone is interested further, I can recommend a few books which in different ways address these topics. [Recently The Wildlife Trust (in the UK) had an online discussion with five eco-writers which I tuned into.]

The Case For The Defence

Okay, I admit it; I killed you but so what?

In the grand scheme of things

you really didn’t amount to much.

It’s not as if you had claws, roared

or became an emblem of a multi-national

fossil fuel business.

It’s time to clear up a few false impressions;

to set the record straight. My aim is to enlighten.

*

I adored the guys who shored up my Enlightened

edifice with philosophical musings. They lent kudos

when it mattered; they were cool, unlike your Romantics

with their subjective rants. For example, their talk

about a rose still being a rose by another name. Yet

they prefer Mother Earth instead of a medium sized planet

orbiting an average star.

They’re very fond of their Red Lists aren’t they but

remember I helped to split a rainbow into wavelengths.

I weighed and measured my words in a chemical balance.

The conquest of nature was my invention so they shouldn’t

make false claims of ownership. I was proud

of how I assembled the earth’s bountiful produce;

I knew the time was right to export my Light

worldwide. I shrugged off their Lucifer insult.

I resented their finger-pointing from the start;

how they tried to make me feel guilt and shame.

My rigid grids were not prisons as they allege.

My ecological abuse was for their benefit; my compulsive

divisions were a set of oppressive rules devised to help

you grow and develop at your own pace. Your organic gardeners

should welcome warmer winters even if you don’t. They shouldn’t

appropriate my language as in ‘dysfunctional mechanisms,’

‘greenhouse effect’ or ‘run away feedback loops.’

*

So, I hold my hands up. I ask, ‘weren’t you just a snack for a bat?’

Weren’t you somewhat insignificant in spite of your name?

You can’t complain; having four stages of a life-cycle’s

asking for trouble. I guess no garden tiger will be ‘burning bright’

in years to come. No, you won’t be missed. Perhaps no will even notice.

A Poem and a Lost Scottish Classic

As we approach the end of this unprecedented year it seems appropriate to post this short poem.

2020

That was the year when

everything shut down

and all we could hear

were the birds.

That was the year when

we hid from each other

and couldn’t say goodbye

to the dying.

That was the year when

the masked looked

askance at the unmasked.

That was the year when

we found out what

was essential and what

was inessential.

That was the year when

I found out there was more

to life than life.

That was the year when

I found out there is more

to death than death.

That was the year when

I unstitched a few

malevolent masks.

That was the year when

I found out there was a

a human need to reach

out and touch others.

* * *

Addendum

I am reading a novel at the moment which is pertinent to our present pandemic. It is titled The Silver Darlings, by a Scottish author, Neil M Gunn. It was first published in 1941, perhaps that date is significant in itself. The ‘silver darlings’ of the title are in fact herrings as the novel traces the Highland fishermen and their families in various situations. (They are silver not only because of their colour but because they provide sustenance and profit for the population.) Each chapter (26 in total) has a title and chapter 10 is The Coming of the Plague. The plague turns out to by dysentery but the effects on the population are the same; the need to isolate those infected and many deaths. With our present pandemic I’ve heard people reference Albert Camus; The Plague and other novels or plays but I’d be surprised if many people have heard of this Scottish novel. The historical setting is around the highland clearances when many were moved off the land and hence found employment in the fishing industries. There is an underlying political dimension to the novel. (Neil Gunn was a Scottish Nationalist.)

As some of you may know my father was a Scot and I may even have heard him mention Neil Gunn. It is a pity I will never know if he read this book. There are salmon fishermen in our ancestry so that is another reason for connecting with the characters.

So, what is it about the novel which makes it other than just a ripping old adventure story? In a word, its humanity. The characters are all believable and three-dimensional. But above that, I have been moved by the honest down to earth evocations of situations involving suffering and joy, for example when he describes compassion in action and the love between the characters. There are many poetic descriptions of the countryside and sea. Many commentators today talk of the loss of community: in this novel there is a strong sense of community. It is easy to feel nostalgia for the past and over-romanticise it, but Neil Gunn writes without sentimentality of a way of life which has vanished from the so called developed world.

The plague chapters are very moving and are impossible to read without comparison to our present situation. Again, he doesn’t exaggerate the suffering and writes with much empathy. (I do wonder how the war affected him and how involved he was. Some research for a rainy day! I had a quick look online and there is no mention of the war although he was living in Scotland in the 40s.)

I am only half way through the novel so I have not made my mind up as to how satisfying it is in the end as a work of art. From what I have read so far, I would recommend it as a novel which provides insights into a way of life of the past and how natural forces (disease and the elements) affect us all.

January 2021

I have now finished reading the novel and can say it is one of the most life-enhancing novels I’ve read. The relationship between Catrine and her son is very well developed. The overall tone of vitality and optimism is refreshing; there is none of the angst associated with mid twentieth century literature. Some may conclude that this is because it is a naturalistic ‘escapist’ narrative, but I found depths of insight here which would contradict this assessment.

National Poetry Day

As it is NPD in the UK I set myself a task to write a ‘quickie’ while sitting in the sun yesterday. Here it is.

It’s National Poetry Day

so today’s the day to put pen to paper

if I can drag myself away from watching

a garden spider wrapping silk around

a hoverfly (I can see it now from my seat

in the sun in the centre of its lair). The victim

looks like a minuscule mummy and the spider’s

drinking the liquidised flesh if I’m not

mistaken (so fit for purpose!).

So what’s on the menu now that’s ended?

More Covid 19 alarm?

more listing the thousands of critters on the Red List?

more stream of consciousness?

more rubbing our noses in the dirt?

more didactic drumbeats?

more alarmist alliteration?

more marvellous metaphors, sardonic similes and canny conceits?

more ironic digs about our country?

more colonial cognitive dissonance?

more climate catastrophe?

more hero’s journey into the dark night?

Well, no;

just a few concrete observations (don’t ask me what;

I don’t know yet) and some showing not telling

as they advise in all the best books.

I told a friend today she could tell north from south

by looking at brambles (even the stench of manure

will tell you which way is south in England’s Green

and Pleasant Land) and that nature’s a better teacher

than all our hardback books and even the thousands

in Dove Cottage. (At the precise moment I told her

I heard a mewing from the sky so we both looked up

and saw seven buzzards circling in the thermals).

That’s strange: the spider’s scarpered with its first

wrapped meal and left a second twitching in its web.

(I’ll check it out after tea)

And, look! a dandelion’s flowered between flagstones;

a giant cumulus humilis cloud’s hugging the house opposite;

a crow caws from a chimney cowl; against the blue

a contrail expands from needle-sharp beginnings

to candy-floss staccato and two black and white carers

cross the street peeling off masks and wiping hands.

An Alternative View

[I don’t think I’ve posted this one before.]

*

I remember

a black and white photo of a boy

in bed on Christmas morning,

a model-plane kit on the blanket;

coloured in my memory.

I remember hands hurting in the snow;

throbbing pink after snowballing.

I remember no Christmas tree

but the dry weightlessness

of balsa wood and pressing pins

to secure wings to paper

plan; sharp addictive smell

of glue and drum-like tautness

of dope-stretched tissue across

wing ribs and fuselage; winding up

elastic band powered propeller. Its level flight

reward enough for patience.

I remember a solid fuel pack

when lit sent another plane

out of sight with a fizz and a buzz

and a burnt chemical stink. I lost that plane

when it flew over roof tops.

I remember gazing at grey snowflakes

drifting against a bright sky and wondering

why everyone said snow was white.

In the Shadow of Covid 19

My monthly post is inevitably topical.

Falling Apart

In the garden

daffodils wilt; blossom falls.

Some may see each day

endlessly repeating

like a wind-up toy, while

what may seem hum drum,

the hum of the fridge,

a ticking clock,

the science fiction silence outside,

is the world renewing itself

in each dying moment. . .

And we too, while honouring

the bitter taste

of each remembered mistake

can fall apart again and again.

*

Ageing

Seventy three years

cultivating karma

yet there is no self in each breath

*

Surprised By Joy

Sitting alone

sudden birdsong

extinguishes dreams.

A Vision

earth

I first came across this description by J.B. Priestley in a wonderful book of his called, Man and Time. It is an exploration of time from different points of view; scientific, literary and religious. It is beautifully illustrated in colour. He was fascinated with phenomena such as pre-cognition and dreams and wrote his famous ‘time-plays’ such as Dangerous Corner to dramatise various anomalies and theories. The poem is based on one of Priestley’s own dreams.

A Vision1

I am on top of a high tower, looking down. I see thousands of birds

flying in separate flocks; one flock is a cloud of curlews,

one is a murmeration of starlings, one is a squadron of swans.

Gradually as I watch, the flocks fuse and become a vast aerial river

of birds; a river in the sky, a river of multicoloured feathers and wings,

a pulsating river, now spiralling, now circling, now cascading.

I hear a gentle honking, cooing and twittering as the river draws nearer;

I feel a cool draught of air on my cheeks.

*

I see generations of birds; watch them break their shells as they are born,

watch them flutter into life, mate, weaken, falter and die. Wings grow

only to crumble into dust, bodies are sleek and then bleed and shrivel.

Thousands upon thousands of flickering bodies flap wings and moult

feathers in heaps until the heaps form multicoloured hillocks of down.

Scrawny heads crack open fragile shells and the naked birds quickly grow

feathers, quickly fly and mate again and again only to bleed, shrivel and die.

I feel sick in my throat. What is the use of all this struggle to exist?

It would have been better if not one of them, if not one of us, had been born.

I stand on the tower; a man alone and in despair.

*

Now the thousands of birds become one multicoloured mass spread out

like a never-ending flower-bed on a desert sand. Time is running so fast

that the mass of birds is motionless. The desert seems an oasis of all

colours; blues, reds, yellows, purples and greens; the desert is a plain

sown with bird-bone-flesh-and-feathers. And along this plain, flickering

through the bodies themselves, there passes a tiny white flame, trembling,

dancing, then hurrying on, flickering through every particle of coloured

bird-bone-flesh-and-feather. Now it comes to me in a rocket-burst

of ecstasy that this flame is life itself and that nothing else matters;

nothing else could matter because, compared to this flame, everything else

is a shadow.

*

I am still in the tower and now I see a river of people.

Some are swimming, some are drowning and some are losing

their heads; and arms and legs. I see the water is thick with excrement

and blood. Bits of buildings, decapitated trees, vehicles and boulders

hurtle along with people and body-parts.

Time speeds up and the river flows faster; the bodies, boulders,

trees and buildings merge into a new mysterious form, gigantic,

like a whale, and the river convulses and surges like a tsunami.

Time goes even faster and I see the Earth

as if from the moon. And I hear a voice roaring like a lion:

“Who shall inherit the Earth?”

I am looking down from my moon-tower.

The Earth still looks beautiful; mottled, like a guillemot’s egg.

*

1Part-found poem: source; J.B. Priestley’s, Rain Upon Godshill, p304 William Heinmann Ltd, 1941.

The Blind Girl

I wrote this for another poetry website.

John Everett Millais’ The Blind Girl

First of all I sat for the blind girl. It was dreadful suffering, the sun poured in through the window. I had a brown cloth over my forehead which was some relief but several times I was as sick as possible and nearly argued. Another day I sat outside in a hay field, and when the face was done Everett scratched it out; he wasn’t pleased with it and complained about the showers.

Smoke from Everett’s pipe got in my eyes so I had to shut them. He told me to keep them shut. He told me not to see the beggar boy on the toll road; he told me not to see the three crows feeding on a dead rabbit or the adder by his own left boot. I laughed and said I could still see with my eyes shut. I could smell the acrid smoke rising from a factory chimney; I could hear the donkeys coughing in the field; I could hear the boy weeping. He told me to be blind.

The concertina was lent by Mr Pringle who had a daughter who had died. It was hers. He said we could keep it as it would never be played again. I smoothed my orange skirt and rested the concertina on my lap doing my best to be blind. It was difficult to keep my eyes shut on such a beautiful day. Everett said there was a double rainbow so I had to look. Everett wasn’t pleased as he was doing the face again. I stretched out my right hand and touched a wild flower growing in the grass. I knew it was a harebell as my little finger fitted inside just as if it was a thimble.

The next day the weather seeped into our drawing room and the double rainbow arched over the carpet. I had my eyes open and could see a painted lady fluttering at the window pane. I could hear concertina music softly playing.

[Part-found prose poem: Source/ Effie Millais’ journals]

To My Father

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I’ve been trying to write a long poem in tribute to my father who was a Wordsworth enthusiast. Needless to say, I have found it very difficult and don’t know what to make of my attempt. This is the beginning. The good thing about a blog is you can float ideas to try out. This is not a finished draft; merely a first attempt!

*

Is it for this an un-bridged chasm yawned between us?

I know I turned away from your literary conversations

and when you wrote your annotations, but be sure, that now

I venerate your Everyman hardback. Now you’re no longer

able to converse with Wordsworth or with me I’ll try

and bridge the widening gap. I’ve paid homage today

by gluing the loose spine and placing your book on my altar.

*

You didn’t annotate De Quincey’s quip, that Wordsworth’s legs

were certainly not ornamental so I wonder if you smiled

when you followed De Quincey’s meandering steps. Did you

chuckle when you read that beside a tall clergyman

Wordsworth’s figure appeared “mean” and he walked

like a beetle, even edging his companions off the highway?

Once you attached a grapnel around his eyes and underscored:

there was a light as if radiating from some spiritual world

the light that never was on land or sea.

I’m in concord here and throw a rope to the other side, hoping

I can narrow the distance. I’m following a convoluted path

here and now but recognise your footprints: your battles

en route and with the dimming light. Some footholds

afford some security and I can rest awhile. I travel on

and glimpse a finger-post pointing to a deep ravine;

I hope there’s a permissive path beyond the gorse.

*

I was a toddler trailing clouds of glory when you read

about your hero’s legs. Like his, yours conquered many a peak

and cut a path through scrub and gorse. Years later I came to myself

in a dark wood: I knew I had lost the way. If only I had

talked to you about Dante’s Labyrinthine Way!

Your furrow then was straight and certain, a bulwark against

the distractions of the world. You underlined in pencil;

he was guarded from too early intercourse with the deformities

of crowded life. In the ensuing years your naming of parts

obscured both our paths. You named the poetic faculty

as the highest good. I find your longer sentences difficult

to follow even with a magnifying glass. You turned his Ode

around and wrote horizontally. There is little that’s fugitive

but his spots of time became your asterisks; his radical ideas

your ‘toning down.’

I lay down my words in the shadow of yours;

I underline the verses next to yours and tomorrow I’ll copy out

your longer passages before they fade from view. My hands

touch the edge of both our worlds on this cold day.

A double underlining for the powers of reason and nature

thus reciprocally teacher and taught – you can be my guide

even at this late date. I know that, a voice without imagination

cannot be heard. Is it for this that I am searching for the signs?

Wordsworth’s Mysticism

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Grasmere

This is a version of a mini-essay I did for an online course designed by Lancaster University on FutureLearn. My late father was a Wordsworth enthusiast so this is partly a tribute to him. I have a few of his books on Wordsworth and have enjoyed reading my father’s many annotations he made in pencil.

Although Wordsworth became an orthodox Anglican in his later years this should not be held against him or detract from his championing of the ‘indwelling spirit’ throughout his life but especially in his younger years. He is not as radical as William Blake but, nevertheless, there are passages in The Prelude where he is preoccupied with a mystical view of reality and that necessary inner spiritual transformation of the individual.

We are all familiar with his ‘nature-worship’ which goes by the term ‘pantheism.’ Perhaps this is epitomised in his Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey, and especially in the lines:

And I have felt

A presence that disturbs me with the joy

Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime

Of something far more deeply interfused

[. . . ] A motion and a spirit, that impels

All thinking things, all objects of all thought,

And rolls through all things . . .

However, we should not limit Wordsworth’s beliefs to nature-worship alone. I would argue his broader views have a lot in common with Blake (“to see heaven in a wild flower”), the English Mystics, St John of the Cross, and even Eastern traditions such as Buddhism and Taoism. As with all mystical traditions, a universal ‘Love’ is at the centre of his worldview. In common with Blake, he also elevates “Imagination” to a position where it is co-joined with selfless Love.

Here is a passage from Book 14 of The Prelude (significantly, the 1850 version is not much altered from the 1805 version):

Imagination having been our theme,
So also hath that intellectual Love,
For they are each in each, and cannot stand
Dividually. — Here must thou be, O Man!
Power to thyself; no Helper hast thou here;
Here keepest thou in singleness thy state:
No other can divide with thee this work:
No secondary hand can intervene
To fashion this ability; ’tis thine,
The prime and vital principle is thine
In the recesses of thy nature, far
From any reach of outward fellowship,
Else is not thine at all. But joy to him,
Oh, joy to him who here hath sown, hath laid
Here, the foundation of his future years!
For all that friendship, all that love can do,
All that a darling countenance can look
Or dear voice utter, to complete the man,
Perfect him, made imperfect in himself,
All shall be his: and he whose soul hath risen
Up to the height of feeling intellect
Shall want no humbler tenderness; his heart
Be tender as a nursing mother’s heart;
Of female softness shall his life be full,
Of humble cares and delicate desires,

Mild interests and gentlest sympathies.

The independence of the individual is unambiguous here and has something of the broad sweep of Walt Whitman.

Be tender as a nursing mother’s heart” has an exact parallel in a Buddhist scripture which reads as follows:

Even as a mother protects with her life

her child, her only child

so with a boundless heart

should one cherish all living beings;

radiating kindness over the entire world;

freed from hatred and ill-will.

[part of the ‘loving-kindness verse’]

Book 14 is a fitting climax to Wordsworth’s Opus Magnum and achieves philosophical and psychological heights which not only illustrate the prospectus of Romanticism, but recapitulate his earlier ideas rather like the last movement of a symphony. I am in awe of The Prelude and look forward to comparing the three versions in the Norton Edition. I recommend it to anyone who has not read it in its entirety!