From the unlight

Twilight, gloaming, dusk. All of these seem redolent of evening, and this mid-morning barely light does indeed feel like nightfall. The clock makes it clear it’s getting lighter but my eyes are little convinced. Still, we could do with a word for the light of a morning reluctant to stretch out and shrug off the night.

We woke up into what felt like dead of night. Traffic moving on the ring road and and an advent calendar of lights in the apartments opposite betrayed the time.

On the bus, there is for a time no sky and no land. The brain insists on pale gray clouds and white snow, but much of the time an honest look sees one undifferentiated plane, slowly slowly increasing in luminosity. That word too doesn’t feel right. There is nothing about this light that the word luminous connotes. It is a barely perceptible paring away of darkness to reveal that there is no longer nothing.

Then, some quite sudden realisations. There is a subtle variegation in the clouds. Then a line of clouds doubles itself. Then, the lower line of clouds is the ridge of a fell. The snow plain unfolds into ridges and rills. Shadowing in the snow suggests things beneath: ripples of rock, tufts of turf? It won’t tell us yet. What is small and what is far away?

A bank of cloud pulls back. A stadium roof letting in real light that comes from above rather than the strange non-glow that seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere at once.

Then sunrise, and everything in the -8 degree air is in ultra high definition. Orange-pink-plum clouds scatter above low ridges, pockets of spruce, and the flags, frozen lake, cemetery and church of Þingvellir. Fingers exposed to click and swipe warn with rapid pain that soon they won’t work and don’t want to be lost.

Then, those few hours of limpid daylight. Geysers and gulleys floodlit and spotlit simultaneously. A half moon is staking its claim for equality. It will get more than that, but not yet. Yes, it’s a rush from site to site, next Geysir then Gullfos. They’re tourist traps, sure, but then we are tourists, eager to be snared by beauty. Chosen for us, yes, but not without good reason.

At Gamla Laugin, my showered hair freezes within seconds of stepping into the pool’s absurd warmth. After a few minutes I walk round the edge, through bubbling and spitting ponds and the scalding streamlets that feed the pool. It’s -10. My feet feel as alive as they ever have, every nerve receptor alert to danger, my head reassuring them of the return to 37 degree comfort soon. Clouds of sulphur-scented steam are apricotted by the last of sunlight waving from behind the horizon, handing over to the brilliance of the orange lit glasshouses that feed Iceland and gild its darkness with space-age sparkles scattered across valleys on the sleepy drive back to Reykjavik.

To the Land of Ice

3am. On the road, on the motorway, wondering where the light that’s too early for dawn is coming from. Impossible to tell if the clouds are illuminated from below, above or within. The pale ochre eye of Sauron over Swansea. A wash of barely luminous cloud giving way to Blackness above the tunnel of road lighting, clear up close, but snaking to a ribbon of ghostly haze ahead, around the Newport junctions that might have leaked, along with smear of dock and industry to the lowering slabs of sky. A wide flat curve swinging strings of coastal sodium and blue-white led across the horizon below the unblinking red eyes of the second Severn bridge crossing’s piers.

9am. It should be aeroplanes they call ‘the tube’. Slotted in, we cigar the sky, held up by wings that don’t seem joined on enough; that made, before we took off, weird mechanical noises like most vehicles no longer do, scaring a little bit more those fellow passengers who do fear. Occasionally it bumps and jolts. I can’t see out. I can’t feel the forward momentum. Head lolling, eyes closed, I could be on rutted road or unriveted rail but for the rushing off-white noise in the middle of my head, just below the music in my earphones: a minimalist drone by Star Transit – Not quite.

9:50 Landing. Smooth-ish wheels, but wind-swung tail yaws the tube around the landing/gear’s axis. We stop with a clinking of seat-belt clasps. A chill squeezes through the bodies squirming to leave. It grabs my right hip, edging off the seat. Welcome to Iceland, it grins.


10:50 The bus rolls languidly along a road that would be car-strewn and closed back home. The sun is a distant acquaintance of the clouds. It’s morning, the sun hasn’t even risen yet, but it feels as though it’s already been and gone, leaving faint footprints of light that gloam on the wind-dust snow settled on rills over the dunes – or is it moraine and till? I’ll look it up – that hunch against the flat-ironed sea.

A guy next to a van hits the ground repeatedly with some kind of pole. I’ve no idea what he’s doing, and this is not the kind of landscape or climate to invite idle conjecture. Whatever it is, it’s important and nothing to do with me. Every human activity and artefact here looks as though it exists only as the product of intense and earnest planning and effort. Go to hot countries and everything, from gleaming mall to squalid shack to twisting vine and palmm grove looks as though it was, or could have been, just slung together anyhow and it would work, kind of. And if not, it could just crumble or overgrow, and no matter. Here, even the vergeside LED advertising board, which will be the brightest thing I see all day, looks as though it was sternly muscled into place at risk of frostbite and fracture. We will live here like ordinary folk, it says. You came here for geysers and glaciers? Well good for you: get on the bus. Our work is done. We’ll be in Starbucks. In our shirt sleeves, because we can.

In between days

All is liminal in the going-up-midnight under-the-covers space where a looked and longed for break and a broached and breaking deadline interfere.

My mind is full of what I haven’t done instead of embracing what I will.

(Nonetheless, thankfully, I will.

New year, new something

One of the pieces of advice I would have done well to heed, but haven’t, is: Write something every day. New Years’ Eve is as bad a day as any to commit myself to the inevitable failure attendant on pursuing such a resolution, so here goes. My ambition wants me to write at length, so to avoid o’erleaping I must be brief. The fear of falling on the the other side has kept me from vaulting. My sides are pricked by being just seconds away from a new decade, but all I feel is the smart, not the surge. Yet here nevertheless are a few words.

(That’s something. 

Poem of the North 3.3

There are, of course, many ways of dealing with the breaks after the 8th and 10th lines imposed by the 8-2-1 brief given to Poem of the North contributors, but I think there’s a case to be made that prolific poet, biographer, and founder of Rack Press,  Nicholas Murray has used the form as well as any. The shifts in tone from the light (but sharply focussed) nostalgia of the first eight lines to the darker self-knowledge of the couplet, and the sardonic twist of the final short line, are finely-tuned and compelling.

I don’t think I realised until writing about it now, how closely my own piece shadows (however palely) the form and tone of Nicholas’s. I’ve struggled before, as I think I’ve mentioned, with how to render the cadences and linguistic differences from standard English of regional varieties without it seeming inadvertantly comic, but here I felt liberated to ‘go for it’ because it’s intentionally exaggerated, although hopefully with a jagged (or jiggered?) undertow.

I was tempted to provide a glossary, but hopefully there’s no real need. If there are any dialect words or meanings you’re unsure of – well, these days you can look them up online more-or-less like any other word (though be careful to read past the first paragraph of the Wikipedia entry for ‘teacake’ if you wind up there). You may want to check on back-to-backs, though. The narrator of Jigger seems to me to have voiced a common misconception that they are terraces with their back yards opposite each other across an alley/jigger/ginnel/jennel and so on (take your regional pick). If I’ve misunderstood, well never mind – it’s provided a bit of grist to my poetic mill.

We kicked on doors an’ all on mischief neight,
burrit were ginnels that we scarpered dewn
at ‘ends o’ terraces. Back-to-backs ‘ad long sin’
bin teared dewn, but they din’t have nor yards
any road up: they cou’n’t ‘ave, cos, well —
they were back-to-back, tha daft ‘aporth!
An’ did yer all scoff spice while yer were laikin’,
‘before havin’ butties in ‘teacakes yer mums were bakin’?

Nay. O’ course yer din’t. But that’s not right.
A rose, by any other name, and all of that.

Our word games turn  so easily     to spite.

(I suspect I may be the daft ‘aporth, though, with a ‘volta’ whose ambition o’er reaches itself and falls on the other side…

Poem of the North 3.2

Like the previous one, several of my poems have drawn inspiration and ideas from the ‘My North’ biographical notes that accompany each poem, as well as the poem itself.

My 3.2 reverts to the short form of my first few responses, written before I was posting them separately, and before this had become my main creative endeavour, for the time being. Of its four lines, almost all of the first two are lifted directly from Cora Greenhill’s ‘My North’, and its title (it is the only piece I have given a title) is a simple transposition of Cora’s Moving North:

Yet, despite its highly derivative nature and its brevity, this is one of the pieces that I am most satisfied with. I like its sound in my mouth (I finished the sequence I read at Spoken Word Saturday the other week with this). Cora’s poem articulates beautifully the sense of ‘dawning trust’, of ‘thaw’ after a turbulent emotional winter, and a sense of ‘home’ not doing what it should.  I haven’t had quite the same experience, thankfully, but we have had the feeling of going back to the place where we lived with a sense that really we were leaving, not returning, home.

Moving West

Our slow learning: that a place can hold you
down. That love can last as long as the string
that carries stretch and slack from hand to kite.
That snow hides from the sea. That here is home.

(But now we are here, and here, I hope, to stay…


Poem of the North 3.1

It occurred to me that my problem of what to call my poems instead of ‘responses’ might have been dealt with way back in 1.8, which Charley Reay titled ‘Ekphrasis’, but it seems to be used to refer to poems responding to visual art rather than other poems

Anyway, my whatever-it-is to Mike Farren‘s commended poem, Second Avenue, Heaton, 1992 feels in part like a kind of ekphrasis of the image from Bede’s Ecclesiatical History that Mike alludes to towards the end of his poem. I love his use of that image of his wife as the lighted mead hall (in other words, I think, this whole life) to his sparrow, and in my poem I linked it to the biblical image of God remembering the sparrows as he numbers the hairs on our head. And then spoiled it by, for some reason, imagining Bede in a Newcastle Wetherspoons encountering a trapped pigeon rather than a fleeting sparrow. That third stanza needs more work. Or culling.

Mike implies that he met his wife in 1992. In 1992, I married mine.

I see that sparrow dim
as it dips, but know
its hidden flight.

Which number is on that brown bird’s back?
Which hair of my head
would it choose to pluck?

I see Bede watch a pigeon in The Five Swans
panicking against the skylight,
shitting in fear in his mead.

Still, I look back at 1992
not as a flicker against the night
but as the light clicked on by you.

(Amid the fluttering, and flapping, there is a constant…

Poem of the North 2.10

Tom Weir‘s poem, like the previous one from Fiona Bennett, addresses a lost loved one, but although both skewer their memory to a particular place, Tom’s takes a more oblique approach that fixes his subject less through physical than psychological detail. This is a poem that defies direct approach, but ramifies and resonates.

The starting point for my response was Tom’s referring in his ‘My North‘ biographical sketch to taking the train to Whitby with his aunty, the subject of his poem.

I honestly can’t remember now if we first arrived in Whitby by car, and that I was struck by seeing the train station next to a large car-park by the water front, or whether we arrived by train and I was surprised to see such a large car park next to the station by the water front. Either way, it was the aunty’s train pulling into the car park that stuck with me, but set me off on a journey not out to the sea and skies but into Whitby’s past and some of its (oblique and tenuous) connections to mine. That swerve of direction led me also to invert the 821:

And, because you are not a god:

Whale bones
grieve for the harbour.

And Barlick lads
lie in Rohilla.
And St. Mary
chastens the abbey.
And Caedmon
dreams heaven’s ward.
And your train pulls in
next to the car park.

(I didn’t know until now that the Dewey Decimal subject classification subject 128 is ‘Philosophy & psychology: Humankind’, which seems fitting…

Proms Poem – Five Elegrams

I entered the BBC Proms Poetry Competition. I wasn’t a winner or runner-up, so you can’t read my poem here , where you will find the winning entries.  You’ll have to read it below instead (click the button at the top right to pop the document out into a new window if it’s too small. I needed to embed it as a PDF as the formatting was messed up otherwise):

The proms performance that inspired it was Five Telegrams by Anna Meredith. Here it is:

Poem of the North 2.9


One of the great pleasures of following the Poem of the North project so closely is discovering a wealth of poets and related websites and other projects that I haven’t previously encountered. The 9th poem in Canto 2 is by Fiona Lesley Bennett who is the founder of a lovely podcast called The Poetry Exchange each episode of which is a conversation with someone who chooses a single poem that they regard as a ‘friend’. I’ve already caught up with a number of previous episodes of the podcast, including one that introduced me to a Greek poet, C P Cavafy, whom I’d not heard of before, and then discovered that the latest publication from Ian Parks (writer of poem 2.8 – see last blog entry) is a collection of translations of Cavafy’s poems. I’m really enjoying following at least some of the interwoven threads that are emerging for me from following this project.

I found Fiona’s poem so moving, compelling and personal that it seemed to require a directly personal response:

But I shied from that response initially, and focussed first on an acutely observed detail from Fiona’s poem: “water is swollen above the weir before it breaks
/ into a gush of white foam.” This is one of those things that seems to me distinctive of literary language: that it can give shape meaning and form to something previously observed but not heeded. As soon as I read the phrase ‘swollen above the weir’ I knew exactly the visual impression referred to. Having adopted that image for the start of my own piece, I headed downstream, but never made it to the sea. Although Fiona’s title, with its reference to the River Dee and her autobiographical note referring to Chester fed me a line back to my recurring theme of the relationship between my northern English heritage and adoption of Wales as my home, that’s not where her poem took me.

I don’t know the back-story to the poem, beyond Fiona’s dedication: ‘in memory of Michael J Bennett’, but the description of the painter’s observation of the scene not, as might be expected, concentrating on the seeing eye, but on the forceful physicality, the corporeality, of the hands and arms with force and tension framing “the view you never came back to paint” renders the subject vivid, solid, alive: more so than is the scene itself which, despite still being there when he is no longer, is, poignantly – devastatingly – in the two line volta couplet  “like an X-ray held to the light”, and those two lines have a syntactically and semantically ambiguous relationship to the final, isolated, line. I could unpack the varied ramifications of that for hours; for pages. But I won’t. If you haven’t already, please read it. I love that poem, and my response feels like a pale and partial echo, at best. When I included it in my reading at the last Spoken Word Saturday, I changed the last line slightly:

What happens, then, when we hem nature in?

Water swells, appearing still, its force
waiting to be a gushing foss, won’t hold.
It charges to the sea, heedless of wheels
we use to steal a fraction of its power,
and locks give sedentary boats the chance
to cheat the headlong tumble. We have our
reasons to choose the mild over the wild.

But something else: those hands that seem a frame,
held there as if to choose what to exclude
what cannot, because infinite, be borne,
are concentrating a creative force;
the scene remains unpainted, but was thought,
and you, because you knew him, sought and found
what’s hemmed and stitched by poets’ and painters’ hands.

‘Stitched’ fitted better rhythmically, and, on reflection, its two facets: the surface meaning of joining, making and mending, but with senses of piercing, and stabbing pain, lying etymologically alongside seems more fitting in any case.

(While it might not have yielded my most coherent piece, this has been one of my most rewarding poetry exchanges of the project so far…