‘Every word is like an unnecessary stain on silence and nothingness’ – Samuel Beckett
I’ve been absent for a while – my energy levels are low, there have been numbers of small but distressing events to deal with, and the ability to write seemed to have deserted me.
It’s election day in the UK today, and this morning I realised that even though my friends and I may vote very differently, what motivates us is the same thing – a desire for things to be better – and our differences lie only in how we believe that might be achieved. On a day that often leads to arguments and opposed views, it’s worth remembering our shared humanity.
In here, I am tired and the clock ticks slowly.
Pillows are piled high under my head
and I cannot straighten my legs because two cats are arced across the blankets.
The hot water bottle is unnecessary, but comforting nonetheless.
Out there, in a cold June wind, people are voting for a better world,
making their mark beside those names they hope will provide it.
The worlds they yearn for are not the same,
but an identical longing moves through them all, like the cool summer wind.
I haven’t got a great deal to write about at the moment, so I’m going back in time a bit. My writing course finished a while ago, but in the last session we worked on trying out different poetic structures. The first exercise – which led me to think that our tutor has a demonic streak that she normally manages to hide extremely well – went like this. We had to take a word of eleven letters, use the letters to create as many other words of four letters or more as we could, then write an eleven-line poem in which – wait for it – the last word in each line had to be one of the words we’d extracted from the original word. I hope you’re keeping up here.
Just when I thought it couldn’t get any worse, we were told the word we had to use was ‘chimpanzees’. Well, I failed, miserably. For one thing, I loathe chimpanzees. I’m not keen on any of the primates, but chimpanzees, with those horrible gurning old-people faces, personify for me the worst stuff about humans without any of the good things. That aside, the whole thing felt too much like an intellectual exercise, on a par with – perhaps – solving cryptic crossword clues or doing sudokus, neither of which appeal to me in the slightest. I simply couldn’t get into it at all.
I have a deep suspicion that Fiona was motivated to give us something truly horrible to start with so that we wouldn’t freak out when she said the next thing we had to do was write a sonnet. Believe me, after the anagram crossword exercise, a sonnet seemed like a breeze. For an awful moment it did look like the subject of the sonnet was going to be James Bond, but fortunately someone else protested and that idea was abandoned. We got chocolate instead – chocolate as a subject, that is, not the real stuff. (Although by then some of the real stuff would have been more than welcome.)
So here’s my sonnet to chocolate. In case you’re wondering, a sonnet is structured with rhyme endings that go like this: first eight lines are AB AB CD CD, then six lines that go CDE CDE, or alternatively you can have the last two lines as a rhyming couplet. I’m afraid mine falls apart a bit towards the end, and it might well have Shakespeare turning in his grave, but you can’t expect perfection in the space of twenty minutes.
Chocolate – a love story
We’ve had a life-long love affair, we two.
Though times I’ve tried to leave you and be free
It never lasts and I return to you –
I can never have enough of you, you see.
You’ve been my solace in a hostile world,
You’ve been my sweetness, oh, and my delight.
You’re there for me, your wrapper comes unfurled
At any time of day, or even night.
But I must give you up, I know I must,
Though it leaves a space that I can never fill.
I think of you and I am filled with lust
And seeing your rich brown body’s quite a thrill.
But here’s the thing: I’m getting rather fat, and clothing-wise things are a little tight.
I’ll give you up, I swear I will, I must. But even so, not without a fight.
My old cat died last night, just a couple of weeks short of her twentieth birthday. She stopped eating, and for the latter half of the day she lay there glassy-eyed and unmoving and I knew it was time. She was so thin it was hard to see how her body could support life, her fur was dry and matted, and she felt so fragile I thought she might shatter with a touch. Her time had come.
I wanted to hold vigil with her on her last night, so I wrapped her in a blanket and laid her on a cushion beside my bed. At 12:50am she began to twitch wildly, then took her last few ragged breaths as I gently stroked her. I think it was a good death, with a minimum of suffering, in a familiar place, wrapped in all the love I have to give.
The kittens gathered round, unsure what was happening, but somehow knowing to keep a respectful distance. Later, I placed her body on a table in my office and Fingal extended a gentle paw to touch hers. I was lucky enough to have my camera in my hand at the time.
A little while ago, I wrote this poem after Wicca had made a rare visit to me when I was lying sleepless in bed one night. We have a three-storey house and she hadn’t been to the top floor of the house in months.
You came to me tonight,
easing your arthritic body up several steep flights
just to see me,
and allow me to stroke your dulled fur
and murmur your name into deaf ears.
I was having dark thoughts till you came,
but you led me back to a safe place
and my heart unfurled,
and the soft purr of a loved old cat was all I needed
to let me feel what there is of peace in this world.
I’ve been going to a writer’s class, just a small group that meets monthly. We try out different techniques, different inspirations, and we can write in any form we choose. Mine is usually poetry, as I like the challenge of trying to distill what I say down to the least number of most effective words – since I’m usually rather a wordy person, it does me good. And I think that poetry and pictures work in similar ways – they say things that can be felt but not always articulated in the usual ways, and they both involve a stripping down to what’s essential. And of course a short poem is quick to write – an advantage that’s not to be sniffed at.
At our last meeting we looked at unusual ways of using language, with examples from ee cummings (one of my favourite poets) and a poem by Rody Gorman (whom I’d never heard of) called Soldier’s Heart. He uses a technique that lumps several words into one long word that somehow expresses more than the individual words would if used separately. It reminded me of those endlessly long German words that are a combination of several shorter ones. I can’t find a link to the poem, so I’ll reproduce a little of it here just to let you see the idea:
[He] was filled with war-goddessbattle-fury
And darkness and sudden violent madness
And flutterloitering and floathovering and fumblerestlessness
And double unsteadyrestlessness and strifemalice for every place
Where he used to be and belovedcharitylove for every place he was not.
Not the easiest to read, but very distinctive.
Our task was to do something similar, and we were given inspiration in the form of books on mythology and legends. None of these got me going, and I pondered on what would, eventually coming up with the Tarot. I’ve always loved Tarot cards, more for their visual appeal than anything else, although I did go and learn how to read them at one stage in my life. The pictures on them can be regarded as Jungian archetypes and say a lot about the human experience. The one that always got to me is The Tower. The Tower represents a falling away of all the structures in your life, everything you hold true, the familiar, the dear, everything on which your life rests. It feels catastrophic, but has a larger meaning of clearing away the dross, throwing everything up in the air and then allowing it to settle into a new and better pattern. I feel as if I’ve been in the the Tower pattern many times in my life, so it resonates with me. You can see a couple of depictions of The Tower at the top of the post – the first is the Aquatic Tarot, and the second is the well-known Rider-Waite Tarot (both are copyright free). The card pictured next to the poem is from Dancing Tarot, also copyright-free
A whole poem came to me and fell into place, inspired by this card. I’m not sure I can really take credit for it – it just seemed to appear fully-formed.
When the tower crumbleshattered
And felldived around her
And skyboltfire cracked and flamed
She felt a chaosmadfear in her heart
The world was full of fallingfear and shattersounds
And explodebricks crashed around her
Heavenfire flamed through her senses
And her body floatfell to the grasshard ground.
This was a lot of fun to do, although I’m not sure I’d want to make a habit of it! The technique obviously lends itself to rather grand, gothic scenarios, and I wanted to try it on something quite different to see if I could get it to work, so I wrote a short poem about my kittens. One is black and white and looks as if he’s wearing a tuxedo, and the other has wonderfully patterned fur that makes her look a lot like a snow leopard. As they sat waiting for me to feed them, I had the idea that they were dressed up to go out to dinner, and wrote this:
She wears leopardpawfurs, he a dinnerdatetux
Their rattlingrollpurrs are loud for such tinysmallperfects
Dinner is platepalemilk and meats braised in gravygel
Afterwards, tumbletussling padpawsoft play, then counter-curled sleep.
A final thought: if you had to depict the essence of The Tower photographically, how would you do it? At the moment I have no idea, but it’s something interesting to think about. Any ideas?
(Thank you to Fiona, for her writing course Kickstart, and for the prompt that led to this.)
It is not expected that you go somewhere exotic, grand, or far-flung in order to write a poem. You can make one anywhere, about anything. It will not be seen as a worse poem for being about your toddler looking at the moon (Ted Hughes), a fork in a woodland path (Robert Frost), a blade of grass (Brian Patten), or a haggis (Robert Burns). It is recognised that something big can be said by writing about something small.
A poem is not thought to be better because you climbed a mountain and trekked through thigh-deep snow for hours in order to write it, nor because you had to get up before dawn or risk your life on the edge of a slippery precipice. It is not thought better because you hefted several kilos of pens and notepads to the location where you wrote it.
It is not necessary to keep upgrading your pen and paper to be any good. Nobody will think any the less of you, nor judge your poems according to whether you write them with a biro or a Parker pen.
Nobody ever asks what kind of poet you are and expects you to define yourself as a landscape poet, or a street poet, or to say you specialise in sonnets or villanelles. It is enough to say that you write poetry.
A poem is not thought to be good because its grammar is exact and perfect, and its spelling exemplary. A good poem breaks as many rules as it keeps and it needn’t be instantly clear and obvious. It is recognised that there are many ways of creating a good poem and that all good poems do not have to conform to a single ideal, but are allowed to be good in their own way.
A poem is not expected to describe exactly, but to distill its subject down to its essence and, by changing it, show it as it is.
It is expected that a poem be edited and polished before it is released. It is not regarded as some sort of cheating if you change the words of the first draft and crop out superfluous phrases.
Finally, nobody ever says: ‘that’s a great poem, you must have a really good pen. Oh, and what sort of notepad do you use?’
December drips and drabs along into the dark time,
grey rain drizzles from an oozing sky,
and the murky light glooms its way to nightfall.
Birds are silent; the world smells only of damp dead leaves.
In houses, in streets, squares of warm yellow – reminders of an absent sun.
I don’t mind the cold of winter, or even the rain as such – it’s the grey gloominess of it all that gets to me. I would welcome snow and ice, sparkling frost, tumultuous skies full of stormy life, pale blue skies with a wintry sun, even rain that comes down in torrents – anything other than this drip and drizzle and monotonous greyness. It’s the one time of year when I regret our temperate climate and long for some ‘real’ weather.
I woke up one December morning – very early, I thought, but it was after 8.00am and the light was so dim and poor that it didn’t seem as if the day had got started yet. My heart sank a bit on seeing how dreich it was (Scots: dreich: – a combination of dull, overcast, drizzly, cold, misty and miserable weather; at least 4 of the above adjectives must apply before the weather is truly dreich) . I’ve been writing bits of poetry lately – usually in the middle of the night, and this certainly felt like the middle of the night – so I wrote a little word picture and got it out of my system. I found this photo that I took a while ago, and it worked quite well with the words. Sometimes you just have to go with things as they are and make something of it, and by doing that you can rise above it. The great thing about writing and photography is that everything is fuel for creating, even the bad and the dull.
Some of you may have seen the film of The Road, an adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic novel of the same name. A man and his son make their way through a grim world inhabited by survivors who are quite likely to kill you, or even eat you in order to ensure their further survival. It’s a sombre film, made more so by the unrelenting rain that teems down on father and son, and the lack of any colour but greys and browns. This alone is enough to make you wonder about your motivation to stay alive in such a world, even without the threats and danger from others, and the whole would have lost much of its power without the absence of colour and that endless soaking dull rain. No wonder the ancients worshipped the sun.
I have big changes in mind for this blog, although it may take me some time to implement them. The first thing is to change hosts as Hostgator is getting ridiculously expensive for a simple blog that doesn’t make any money. But changing hosts is the easy bit – I hope – as I’ll get someone to do that for me. I also want to expand the scope of what I write about to more than just photography, and that will involve a new name for the blog and a new design, too. I’ve found a theme I like, but it’s pricey and January has been full of unexpected expenses, so I may have to wait a couple of weeks for that. I know that the theme I’m using has problems and I’m not tech savvy enough to know how to solve them. I hope the new one will be a big improvement.