{Sat 24 March 2007}   Green thoughts in green shades

Today, I was thinking of changing my presentation theme; then I remembered this stanza from Andrew Marvell’s poem The Garden that was a favourite of mine at varsity:

Meanwhile the mind, from pleasure less,
Withdraws into its happiness :
The mind, that ocean where each kind
Does straight its own resemblance find ;
Yet it creates, transcending these,
Far other worlds, and other seas ;
Annihilating all that’s made
To a green thought in a green shade.

In many ways, this is what I’m doing on this blog, I guess, so I think I’ll stick with the green shades! A friend last night suggested that I was possibly being a little over-enthusiastic in my intention to post something on my blog every day (a not-yet-achieved goal), and I do confess that the blogging I’ve done so far has possibly taken up a tad more of each day than I originally intended, but I hope that the annihilation of all that’s previously been made will make space for green thoughts that are fertile and bursting with life and potential! Meanwhile, in the other room, my hubby is creating far other worlds and other seas in Second Life… sigh… is that where all cyber roads eventually lead? An alternate reality?

For the whole poem, go to this lovely site: http://www.luminarium.org/sevenlit/marvell/garden.htm

{Fri 23 March 2007}   Each mortal thing selves

What is it to be oneself? To which of the many values I hold should I be true? Every morning I wake with thoughts like these already challenging me. They sometimes nudge, sometimes scream. Which set of compromises will I engage in today? Are these compromises betrayals, or are they the appropriate negotiations of an adult and flexible mind?

The first stanza of this sonnet by Gerard Manley Hopkins has been playing over and over in my mind for days now. It contains the essence of the thing that I am crying out for: that I must “selve”, be congruent, be able to say “What I do is me”. But how? Kingfishers do it naturally, without thought, but that is not within the capacity of humans, it seems.

Unless they’re saved, of course. GMH’s resolution in the second stanza is that “the just man” is more than himself. When he is just, he expresses not only his own righteousness, but that of Christ, which is “more” than any other mortal being can do. The picture he conjures of the consequent elevation of man and the implied adoring gaze of God upon this composite expression of Christ is at once beautiful and alienating to me. I think GMH is saying that we find and express our true nature in Christ, and that it is as natural for us to do this as it is for kingfishers to catch fire and dragonflies to draw flame, but this does not answer my cry. If kingfisherness is enough for the kingfisher, why cannot Tia-ness be enough for me, and for any god who looks on me? The theological answer is original sin, of course. The kingfisher cannot sin, and is not born with the burden of the sins of previous generations. It is only we humans who are trapped like Sisyphus before we are conceived. As I think of this, I feel ill. I am actually nauseated by the injustice of this theology!

I also find the masculine language alienating – it’s all about a male Son relating to a male Father through men. And yes, I’m fully aware that “man” and “men” in this context probably are intended to be inclusive of all (saved) humanity, but the patriarchalism still narks me.

And yet, and yet, I still love this poem, all the way to the last full stop. Its internal logic and the pulse of its argument are compelling. I love the way most of the lines begin with a strong beat which drives its conviction home. And the transcendence it suggests is possible still speaks to my longing.

As Kingfishers Catch Fire
By Gerard Manley Hopkins

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying, What I do is me: for that I came.

I say more: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: that keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is —
Christ. For Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.

(poem text copied from Poetry Connection)

{Thu 22 March 2007}   tree and roses
tree and roses

i see
an abundance of roses,
waiting for the tree that cannot move
to come to them;

climb-twist, wave-scent,
petal-plunge, dip-dance,
grow, grow…

oh, blow, speed, plant
these seeds there
around the tree
(that, or this, or any of these,
may grow more easily, and faster
than any tree!)

grace it with delicacy,
protect it, love it
with laughing thorns
that scratch and tickle
its deep-grooved bark;
that these sweet roses
may draw blood from any outside hand
that knows not the dance
of tree and roses.

poet, i love you;
i long for you, to hold
you and walk through
roses with you,
dripping lifeblood.

teach me.

Oh happy days! Not one, but two poetry-relevant articles amongst all the bad news in the past few days.

First, I was interested to see this ancient debate revived: John Walsh asks “Is there a link between madness and creativity?” in The Independent. See http://news.independent.co.uk/uk/health_medical/article2361028.ece for the full article. The sentence “The idea of creativity as divine afflatus, the breath of God, turns easily into the divine fire, that ignites the imagination but consumes the thinker” particularly caught my eye, because it refers to the mad wonder of creativity and creation that I tried to express in my poem Primeval Watercolour, which is about my surprised discovery in my first watercolour painting lesson of how unpredictable and how intense the colours could be (I had previously thought that watercolour painting was all about delicate, faded, impressionistic landscapes!).

As my poem reflects, the experience made me think of the Judaeo-Christian myth of creation out of formlessness, in particular Genesis 1:1-2: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.”

By the way, while thinking about this again today, I found this beautifully written exegesis, “Making sense of Genesis 1” by Rikki E. Watts ( http://www.asa3.org/ASA/topics/Bible-Science/6-02Watts.html), which urges the reader to be conscious not only of the worldview brought to the text by its original, Hebrew-speaking, hearers and readers, but also of the writer-reader “contract” that requires the reader to recognise the conventions of genre in determining what kind of truth is being conveyed. The writer asserts that Genesis 1 is poetic and refers to Blake’s burning tiger to suggest a possible approach for interpretation. There is also a good brief overview of other creation myths to support the general argument. One to bookmark, I’d say.

Secondly, I was excited to read “The lost joy of ‘difficult’ poetry” by Roy Hattersley in the Mail&Guardian here:
http://www.chico.mweb.co.za/art/2007/2007mar/070316-poetry.html which contains thoughts related to those expressed in my post Poetry’s Potential and my Comment on my poem On deciding not to marry a priest. Unfortunately, I don’t have time today to summarise any more, but I’m noting the link here for future reference.

{Thu 15 March 2007}   Link to Damn-Sad

Just a short note today to say that I received an email from Ian Reed giving me the link to his poem “Damn-Sad“, which up to now has not been available on his website. This is great, because I wrote my poem On the Death of Saddam Hussein in response to Ian’s poem on the morning I received it from him by email, so this gives it a bit of context.

If you are interested in political poetry, or if you just want to find out if you are, you might like to browse the Polemics page on Ian’s site or sign up to receive his poetry updates. I found his latest poem, Airport, which I received this week, quite scary – tapped into my fear quite well, it did.

Oh, Sunday morning! Day of hope and resurrection! Why am I more surprised by the balmy sky that greets me through my London window today than by this account of yet more hypocrisy by two significant Christians beloved by many:


There is a lesson here for the eager-to-influence. Always remember that:

Clout ecclesiastical
achieved through
Eloquence gymnastical
leading to
Steps of faith fantastical
Opinions elastical.

Bloggernista is a great site, by the way… classy, with teeth. Now there’s something to cheer one up on a Sunday morn!

{Thu 8 March 2007}   Examination Meditation
Well, I’m thinking of applying for this wonderful-sounding Online MA in Creative Writing and New Media.
I haven’t studied formally for so many years; I wonder how I’ll fit in to the whole uni thing again. Considering this makes me think of a poem I wrote in futile protest once when I really ought to have been doing something more strategic for my end-of-year exams:

Examination Meditation

The weight of that which must be learned
Forbids the enjoyment of a single word
Which probably, if dwelt upon
Would yield a richness like the one
That’s sought in all this wild attempt
To gather all things known or meant
In a holy list of date and time,
Falsely to cry “This knowledge is mine!”
For once the pen has hit the pad,
It really is so very sad
How quickly all the marshalled facts
Just fly the grey cells; turn their backs
And I, their erstwhile master, then
Become degreed, with no more ken!

Well, there’s been some discussion on this blog about whether my poetry is “accessible” or not… the jury’s still out on many related issues, such as which poems we’re talking about, to which audience/s one should aim to be accessible, and whether “accessible” is always good, for instance. I think most people would agree that the following is an example of an accessible poem that is puke-inducingly ghastly. I wrote this at the age of thirteen, obviously during one of my weaker moments…

(Warning: this might make you feel that you’re covered in icky stuff that just won’t come off for the rest of the day…)

Roses of Life

My heart is full of roses,
Of soft petals and cruel thorns.
Life and living it makes these posies:
Happiness the petals and sadness the thorns.

Light pink are the mem’ries of loved ones,
Deep red the embraces of lovers.
Soft yellow are my childhood companions,
Sweet orange are all the others.

Sharp, short, are innocent childhood hurts;
Long and curved the unfaithful friend.
Cruel, hooked, are the many “light-hearted” flirts;
Sword-sharp is youthful contempt for old men.

But through joy and grief has been growing
The flower of experience and wisdom:
She now her pure white petals is showing,
And her thorns are mere decoration.

{Tue 6 March 2007}   The Nameless Thing
The Nameless Thing

What is this great horror?
I pad around it silently,
Catfelt in the dark.
It is not nervous.
Nor am I.
But it sits.
And I pace.
And that’s the way things are.
For now.

{Mon 5 March 2007}   The Ageless Call

I’ve been thinking a lot over this weekend about goals (or, more specifically, about my lack of clearly described, time-limited, achievable goals). I have wanted so many things over my life time, and many of those desires still remain, and yet it seems that I settle so easily for less than fulfilment, or for situations that are almost guaranteed to prevent fulfilment.

This morning I’m wondering about the (as yet unfulfilled) passion that I see in another childhood poem of mine, The Ageless Call (see below), which I wrote when I was thirteen. It speaks of my desire to go to Scotland, a land I knew only through my imagination and the very many Scottish activities I was exposed to in South Africa. Blood-wise, Scotland has no greater claim on me than the other strands of my origins, which include Irish, English, Lithuanian Jewish and others not explored. However, my parents met at Scottish Country Dancing in Johannesburg. My father used to teach (he developed several innovative new dances of his own), and had also done a bit of Highland Dancing while younger. As a family, we went often to weekly dance sessions and dancing holidays (although my brothers felt this was distinctly uncool and were rather reluctant participants). While at high school, I danced in competitions and demonstrations for a Scottish Country Dance group. I had also taken up Highland Dancing very young and competed in Highland Gatherings several times over the years. Although I did receive medals for exams and competitions, I never developed the dedication of two of my cousins who were South African champion dancers.

I also started bagpiping (to the consternation of almost everyone at the very prim girls’ boarding school I attended, and the fascinated incomprehension of the boys’ pipe band whose Band Master reluctantly allowed me to practise—but not to march officially—with them). After high school, I spent a brief period with the Transvaal Irish Regiment, but I was very naive and found it a bit rough being not only a teenager amongst adults, but the only female in a very masculine environment again, and this one much more macho. My enthusiasm also cooled fairly sharply as I began to realise the hours of commitment in practice and performance time needed to maintain the required standard and attend all the official functions. I left shortly after being measured for my kilt! However, my love of the pipes remained.

When my father died, I arranged for a piper to play at his funeral. It was a very appropriate send-off, but intensely emotional for almost everyone there because it brought him to mind so strongly. After his death, the Jewish side of my identity gradually took more and more focus. Eventually I emigrated to Israel, but I kept my practice chanter (I still have it) and took it with me on all my travels. When I eventually moved to the UK, I craved a reconnection to aspects of my culture that had been completely absent from my life for four years. One of the first things I did was to find a bagpipe teacher here. However, I stopped within a few months because work pressure made it difficult to find time for the necessary practice and I felt ashamed and undeserving before my very brilliant teacher. I also couldn’t fathom what I would do with my reinvigorated skill—an apartment in London is not exactly the best place for chuffing away on the bagpipes, and the practice chanter is a less-than-thrilling substitute. Also, my ever-patient husband, who is willing to give most things a go at least once, found it hard to work up any enthusiasm! I suppose it’s a lot to ask of anyone, but especially of an Israeli sabra with absolutely no exposure at all to any culture from the British Isles. At least he’s learned to love some Irish drinking songs…!

Nowadays, there’s not much Scottish in my life at all. I’ve only been to Scotland once, a few years ago. I did love it, but it was only for a few days. I wonder how to make sense of all the passion and all the experience over the years that seems to have come to nothing. My dad’s mom was Scottish and his dad Jewish, so in a way I suppose I explored my relationship with him via the former while he was alive and the latter after he died, but neither exploration yet feels complete.

The Ageless Call

The pipes, the pipes are calling me
To come to the highlands wild and free.
The swishing kilt, the marching feet,
Echo the time of the drummer’s beat.

The thrilling notes of victory
Running in my blood are part of me.
The glorious, triumphant battle cry
Lingers in the air from days gone by.

Oh, misty mountains of my Scotland,
Live forever against the bitter wind!
Wrapped in memories, your majesty
Reminds your folk of a proud country.

I want to dance the victory dance
Of the ancient Scots, in warrior stance.
If only I could return to the land
Where my heart beats to a Scottish band.

Great Scotland I have never seen;
To my own land I have never been.
Yet my spirit the distance spanned,
Linking me to my heather-clad land.

Born and bred in a southern place,
Scottish Jew with an Irish face:
A varied ancestry in all,
But the strongest cry is the piper’s call:

“Land of my high endeavour,
Land of the shining river,
Land of my heart forever,
Scotland the Brave!”

et cetera