Sonnet – By Emma Jones

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Here it is again, spring, ‘the renewal’.

People have written about this before.

And the people who track the four seasons,

the hunters who know the weather has changed.

~

Still, rains happen; there are slow roots that make

progress; something has a hand in the earth

and turns it. Clouds unknot the wind. Bulbs blow.

Their threadbare minds gust outward, turn yellow

~

eyes to heaven. It answers with the sun.

And the sun is a bulb, a mutual bomb.

The daffodils crack. ‘Oh heavens!’ they fret,

~

‘Where’s your terminus?’ The flowers are wan

travellers. They unpack their cases. All

they know, they are. Renewal, rest. Renewal.

~

from “The Striped World” collection by Emma Jones

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It is Spring here in the Southern Hemisphere and I am really enjoying discovering new poets this year through my Faber Diary. Emma Jones is a young Australian, whose first poetry collection ” The Striped World” was published by Faber. She was poet-in-residence from 2009 – 2010 at the Worsdworth Trust in Cambria. Is is just me, or are there echoes of Sylvia Plath in this beautiful poem about Spring and renewal?  Love the lines “the flowers are wan/travellers. They unpack their cases.” And the sun being described as a bulb, such evocative imagery! Hope you’re enjoying Spring or Fall/Autumn depending where you are.

 

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Listening to My Soul

 

“I have been a seeker and still am

but I stopped asking the books and the stars.

I started listening to the teaching of my soul.”

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Apologies for being absent on the blog this week. I am going through a lot of changes in my life at the moment.

My partner is in Europe on a cycling tour for five weeks (not the Tour de France, ha ha), so my days are even busier with the children, being totally on my own to look after them. I am also undertaking an online course which runs all year called “Year of You: Creative Rehab”.

Having been a stay at home mum for some years I am trying to work out what I should do next, i.e: what do I really deeply desire to do?

For a year or so I regularly posted on Instagram about books and art, but started to find that very restrictive, as my photography skills aren’t that brilliant, and to me the caption was always more important.  ‘Bookstagram’, as that niche of Instagram is known, after a while just became boring really, everyone congratulating each other’s choice of book, with posts mainly all about beautiful images of books staged with flowers, coffee or on location such as the seaside. Don’t get me wrong, I played the game too for a while and enjoyed it, but as my life got ever busier, I started asking why am I doing this? I realised it wasn’t working for me, so disabled my account.

For the moment, the blog and my on-line course is enough for me. I love writing about books and art still, but I want to try more creative writing too, so I will start doing some on the blog soon.

The on-line course I am doing is very confronting and intense, but in a good way. It asks basic questions that are  quite fundamental like:

What do you want?

What do you need?

What is keeping you suspended over the void of what you no longer are, and what you need to become?

If you knew you would die tonight, what would you regret the most?

These are questions I am on my way to answering this year. I am considering doing a course on visual arts next year. I have read widely about all sorts of artists, and am constantly amazed at how many women artists there have been throughout history, yet  totally underrated or unknown. I would like to highlight some of these in my blog over the coming months.

A genre that has always helped me as a form of bibliotherapy is poetry. One poet that is still immensely relevant today is Rumi, a Persian mystic born in the 13th century. But even though the word mystic might imply “weirdo” these days, his work is strongly grounded in the here and now: it’s direct, powerful and abundant in tolerance and compassion.

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“Christian, Jew, Muslim, shaman, Zoroastrian,

stone, ground, mountain, river,

each has a secret way of being with the mystery,

unique and not to be judged” 

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He had so much to say, on everything from love, to religion, to life and death, and everything in between, and he sounds startlingly modern.

“Forget safety

Live where you fear to live

Destroy your reputation

Be notorious”

~

“Don’t be satisfied with stories,

how things have gone with others,

Unfold your own myth.”

He speaks to us unhindered by time and cultural difference, and his words have an elemental force that remains undiminished across centuries. He certainly speaks to me as I journey through a year of great change.

⭐️

All quotations from “Rumi, Selected Poems” published by Penguin, translated by Coleman Barks and John Moyne.

 

 

 

 

Poetry Thursday: Robert Frost

 

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‘Love at the lips was touch

As sweet as I could bear;

And once that seemed too much;

I lived on air

That crossed me from sweet things,

The flow of – was it musk

From hidden grapevine springs

Downhill at dusk?

I had the swirl and ache

From sprays of honeysuckle

That when they’re gathered shake

Dew on the knuckle.

I craved strong sweets, but those

Seemed strong when I was young;

The petal of the rose

It was that stung.

Now no joy but lacks salt,

That is not dashed with pain

And weariness and fault;

I crave the stain

Of tears, the aftermark

Of almost too much love,

The sweet of bitter bark

And burning clove.

When stiff and sore and scarred

I take away my hand

From leaning on it hard

In grass and sand,

The hurt is not enough:

I long for weight and strength

To feel the earth as rough

To all my length.’

“To Earthward” by Robert Frost

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Robert Frost was born in 1874 and died in 1963. He had a long life, but it was plagued by grief and loss. His father died of tuberculosis when Frost was only 11, his younger sister had to be committed to a mental hospital, and his wife suffered bouts of depression, and died relatively young of heart disease. Of six children, only two outlived their father.

He always wanted to be a poet, and his first poem was published when he was only 19. To earn a living he worked in mills, as a teacher and then a farmer in New Hampshire and Massachusetts .

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Above: Frost as a young man.

Although he is usually thought of as a rural poet, writing about life and nature in New England, Frost is much more than that. His simple language and conversational tone, belies the often dark mediations on universal themes of love and loss.

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‘Some say the world will end in fire,

Some say in ice.

From what I’ve tasted of desire

I hold with those who favor fire.

But if it had to perish twice,

I think I know enough of hate

to say that for destruction ice

Is also great

and would suffice.’

“Fire and Ice” by Robert Frost

His poetry is so calming and beautiful, but it must have been a hard won beauty for him personally. Despite the pain, his poetry lives on.

Poetry Thursday

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Image: from “The Disasters of War” by Francisco Goya, series of prints, 1810 -1820. (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)

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“Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.”

From “The Second Coming” by William B Yeats

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No, that wasn’t written yesterday, but in 1921 when Ireland was in the throes of a vicious Civil War.

Yeats stayed a neutral observer through all the upheavals of Irish history during his lifetime, and some of his best poetry reflects this.

One of my great loves is poetry, and I hope to start a weekly post on favourite poets, combined with art images.

I am always struck by the French proverb “Plus ça change, plus chest la même chose”, the translation being  “The more things change, the more they stay the same”

With the world sometimes seeming to be entering a new Dark Age, with senseless atrocities everywhere snuffing out innocent lives, one can easily be tempted to despair.

It’s worth remembering though, that there have been dark times before, and that always through the dark times love has continued to exist, and eventually to prevail.

Another poet that was a great observer of the political landscape that enabled the disasters of the  Spanish Civil War and then World War II to occur, was W H Auden. He lived in Germany for a few years in the early 1930s and saw a catastrophe unfolding. The following poem was written on the eve of the Second World War.

 

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Image: “We Are Making a New World”, by Paul Nash, 1918. (Imperial War Museum, London)

“I sit in one of the dives

On Fifty Second Street

Uncertain and afraid

As the clever hopes expire

Of a low dishonest decade:

Waves of anger and fear

Circulate over the bright

And darkened lands of the earth,

Obsessing our private lives;”

from “September 1, 1939” by W. H. Auden

The poem catalogues the disasters of the past, and prophesises dark times ahead, but it ends with a very simple message:

“We must love one another or die.

Defenceless under the night

Our world in stupor lies;

Yet, dotted everywhere,

Ironic points of light

Flash out wherever the Just”

Exchange their messages.

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Seamus Heaney, another great Irish poet was right on the money when he commented:

“I can’t think of a case where poems changed the world, but what they do is they change people’s understanding of what’s going on in the world.”

Any feedback would be appreciated. Would you like to see more poetry posts? Any favourite poets?

Skunk Hour

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by Robert Lowell

Nautilus Island’s hermit

heiress still lives through winter in her Spartan cottage;

her sheep still graze above the sea.

Her son’s a bishop. Her farmer

is first selectman in our village;

she’s in her dotage.

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Thirsting for

the hierarchic privacy

of Queen Victoria’s century,

she buys up all

the eyesores facing her shore,

and lets them fall.

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The season’s ill—

we’ve lost our summer millionaire,

who seemed to leap from an L. L. Bean

catalogue. His nine-knot yawl

was auctioned off to lobstermen.

A red fox stain covers Blue Hill.

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And now our fairy

decorator brightens his shop for fall;

his fishnet’s filled with orange cork,

orange, his cobbler’s bench and awl;

there is no money in his work,

he’d rather marry.

⭐️

One dark night,

my Tudor Ford climbed the hill’s skull;

I watched for love-cars . Lights turned down,

they lay together, hull to hull,

where the graveyard shelves on the town. . . .

My mind’s not right.

⭐️

A car radio bleats,

“Love, O careless Love. . . .” I hear

my ill-spirit sob in each blood cell,

as if my hand were at its throat. . . .

I myself am hell;

nobody’s here—

⭐️

only skunks, that search

in the moonlight for a bite to eat.

They march on their soles up Main Street:

white stripes, moonstruck eyes’ red fire

under the chalk-dry and spar spire

of the Trinitarian Church.

⭐️

I stand on top

of our back steps and breathe the rich air—

a mother skunk with her column of kittens swills the garbage pail

She jabs her wedge-head in a cup

of sour cream, drops her ostrich tail,

and will not scare.

⭐️

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Poetry is one of my favourite genres and I hope to post on a particular poem regularly.

There’s so much happening in this poem, with its vignettes of a declining town, its alliteration and precarious line endings. Also what a great image of a mother skunk and her tenacity!

The ‘hermit heiress’ is a self centred loner, and the repetitive use of the possessive pronoun ‘her’ emphasises her elitism and her dreams of past glory. She longs for a past before her exclusive world was invaded by outsiders like our ‘summer millionaire’. Deluded, he wishes to find acceptance in the heiress’s world, unaware that it is crumbling.

Poignantly, the possessive pronoun used about the ‘fairy decorator’, which here instead of selfishness and exclusivity, indicates a subtle pride in his work and tenuous outcast identity.

Lowell became known as one of the first ‘confessional’ poets, and his mental torment is expressed with dramatic intensity in lines like ‘my mind’s not right’ and  ‘I myself am hell, nobody’s here’, which references Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’.

The skunks are shown to have a unity and sense of community missing in the human world  of the poem. They take the poet out of his nightmare experience, into a feeling of hope that he will survive, due to the example of their stoicism and single mindedness. ‘a mother skunk with her column of kittens swills the garbage pail’.  I love this poem with its strong imagery and its ending of a mother skunk that ‘will not scare’.

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Lowell was born in 1917 to an old Boston family that could trace its origins to the Mayflower, and is his poetry he is both repelled and fascinated by his Puritan heritage. He had a tumultuous life, having three difficult marriages, and dying in 1977. Much of his poetry deals with his mental illness. He suffered from bipolar disorder and had frequent stays in mental hospitals to manage his condition

He wrote intensely and uninhibitedly  about his family, his privileged background and his mental health struggles in “Life Studies” from which this poem is taken.

In an era where on-line confessions about our innermost thoughts are so common, it’s difficult to comprehend how the candidness of his confessional poetry was so incendiary. His best poetry is intimate, disturbing and very powerful. He is without doubt one of America’s best poets of the twentieth century.

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This Faber edition of his selected poems is a good general introduction to Lowell’s work.

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The Book of Disquiet

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by Fernando Pessoa

“My boss Vasques, Moreira the book-keeper, Borges the cashier, all the lads, the cheery boy who takes the letters to the post office, the errand boy, the friendly cat – they have all become part of my life.  … Moreover, if I left them all tomorrow and discarded this Rua dos Douradores suit of clothes I wear, what else would I do? Because I would have to do something. And what suit would I wear? Because I would have to wear another suit.”

The above is our introduction to the complex and neurotic disquieting thoughts of Senhor Soares, for whom Pessoa is the vehicle.

Fernando Pessoa was a fascinating man and writer. Ironically his surname in his native tongue, Portuguese means “person”.

He was born in Lisbon in 1888, the same year as T S Eliot, and at nine years old his family moved to Durban in South Africa for almost a decade. There he learned English to a high degree of proficiency, and later translated a number of English literary writings into Portuguese. He was well read in both English and French.

He wrote a lot of poetry, but much of it remained unpublished at his death. He worked as a translator of correspondence for various firms, and was virtually unknown when he died, having avoided not only literary circles, but society in general. His quiet demeanour in life, belied the incredible inner workings of his mind. He died in 1935, at the age of 47, leaving behind in a wooden trunk thousands of pages that still have not been fully edited.

Part of this cache was The Book of Disquiet, but to call it a book is a little misleading. Who knows how Pessoa would have wanted to present it? It consists of diary entries, some fragmentary, written across decades of his life. These have been edited into this book. I think it is true to say that there is nothing else out there like it.

“My soul is a hidden orchestra; I know not what instruments, what fiddle strings and harps, drums and tamboura I sound and clash inside myself. All I hear is the symphony.”

Philip Pullman wrote “This is the very book to read when you wake at 3 am and can’t get back to sleep – mysteries, misgivings, fears and wonderment. Like nothing else.”  I would have to agree.

Within Pessoa, there were a multitude of ideas, characters and styles of writing. So he took this to an unprecedented conclusion and wrote under a number of ‘heteronyms’. This concept differs from a pseudonym (Greek for “false name”). Instead heteronyms have their own style and biography as though they actually existed. Pessoa went so far as to create astrological charts for them.

“If I write what I feel, it’s to reduce the fever of feeling. what I confess is unimportant, because everything is unimportant.”

“There are ships sailing to many ports, but not a single one goes where life is not painful.”

In The Book of Disquiet, the heteronym is Bernardo Soares, a clerk who works in the Lisbon business district, and in diary fragments relates his thoughts on life, death, the universe and everything. It is tempting to think that Soares is Pessoa, although he might deny it.

“Friends: not one. Just a few acquaintances who imagine they feel something for me and who might be sorry if a train ran over me and the funeral was on a rainy day.”

Was Pessoa genius or neurotic borderline madman? It’s a fine line, depending on your point of view.

This is a fascinating book, an insight into a singular mind, but not recommended if you’re feeling depressed or melancholy, as it will certainly accentuate those emotions.

“We are two abysses – a well staring at the sky.”

Pessoa was intriguing to the end. On 29 November 1935, he wrote his last lines in his diary in English: “I know not what tomorrow will bring”. He died the next day.

Note: All quotations from The Book of Disquiet are from the Serpent’s Tail edition, published in 2010, translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa.

Photo of Pessoa: copyright Getty Images

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STANDING FEMALE NUDE

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By Carol Ann Duffy

Fifteen years minimum, banged up inside

for what took thirty seconds to complete.

She turned away. I stabbed. I felt this heat

burn through my skull until reason died.

~

I’d slogged my guts out for her, but she lied

when I knew different. She used to meet

some prick after work. She stank of deceit.

~

I loved her. When I accused her, she cried

and denied it. Straight up, she tore me apart.

On the Monday, I found the other bloke

had bought her a chain with a silver heart.

~

When I think about her now, I near choke

with grief. My baby. She wasn’t a tart

or nothing. I wouldn’t harm a fly, no joke.

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Duffy is a Scottish poet, born in 1955. She is the first woman, first Scot and first openly LGBT person to become Poet Laureate in the United Kingdom.

She is very popular and her poetry is widely used in high school and university courses in the UK.

“ Standing Female Nude “ is her first poetry collection, published in 1985.

She writes in many voices, as a war photographer:

“In his darkroom he is finally alone

with spools of suffering set out in ordered rows.

The only light is red and softly glows,

as though this were a church and he

a priest preparing to intone a Mass.

Belfast. Beirut, Phnom Penh. All flesh is grass”

from ‘War Photographer’

as a nude model:

“Six hours like this for a few francs.

Belly nipple arse in the window light,

he drains the colour from me. Further to the right,

Madame. And do try to be still.

…The bourgeoisie will coo

at such an image of a river-whore. They call it Art.

~

Maybe. He is concerned with volume, space.

I with the next meal.”

from ‘Standing Female Nude’

and as in ‘Human Interest’ (above), as a man who sees his woman as a chattel and violence and murder as his entitlement.

Duffy’s work touches on issues of feminism, gender, violence and politics in very contemporary accessible language. Duffy was brought up in a Catholic household, and while no longer religious, she learned from it a sense of the ritual of language. She has said “ Poetry and prayer are very similar. I write a lot of sonnets and I think of them almost as prayers: short and memorable, something you can recite.”

Much of her work has a disturbing edge to it. In another poem “Education for Leisure” she gives voice to an alienated teenager:

Today I am going to kill something. Anything.

I have had enough of being ignored and today

I am going to play God.

She has said that she likes to use “simple words, but in a complicated way”.

I find her poetry very powerful and striking. You can see why it’s used in education syllabuses. I think young people would be attracted by it. I read this collection in March and can definitely recommend it, specially to people that don’t read much poetry.

I love discovering new poets. Let me know in comments who your favourites are.