Melissa Officinalis

Poetica Botanica

This is the link to the Poetica Botanica project I was involved in earlier this summer at Ledbury Poetry Festival. If you scroll down the page you will come to my poem, Melissa Officinalis, but also to a sound recording of me reading it, made during the festival. You can hear how long I have been in Scotland by the way I pronounce my ‘r’s, but the original scouse shows up in words like ‘lack’. I am very glad of this!

Thanks to  Ledbury Poetry Festival and Hellens Garden Festival, for including this fascinating project, and to Adam Horovitz who developed and led it.

The Charm of Nine Herbs

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I’ve been making a translation of the Old English Lacnunga, usually translated as The Charm of Nine Herbs.

mugwort

This glamorous one is mugwort ‘the first and the oldest of herbs’. The best guess of what the nine herbs are (and this is in serious dispute) is:

  • mugwort
  • plantain
  • stonecrop
  • nettle
  • betony (possibly cockspur grass, but I’ve never found any medicinal use for that)
  • chamomile (or mayweed?)
  • crab apple
  • thyme (some translations give chervil, but there is no record of medicinal use)
  • fennel

I have done a quick run through, but I’m not sharing the result any time soon. Apart from the fact that my Old English grammar is worse than I remembered, some of the words are pretty obscure. I’m going to have to do some homework on it!

But I have already discovered that, despite the reference to Woden in line 34, the charm is neither so pagan nor so magical as is often claimed. There are several references to Christ, plus an extended reference to the Old Testament book of Ezechiel, and some of the text looks like a scratch translation from Latin. It’s not a well-written or a well-preserved document, but it’s fascinating.

Translators seem to have the notion that medieval medicine was a mishmash of ignorance, superstition and magic, and there is very little attempt to make sense of the instructions at the end. The otherwise careful and interesting Penn State Medieval Garden site says:

prose instructions are given to take the above mentioned herbs, crush them to dust, and to mix them with old soap and apple juice.Further instructions are given to make a paste from water and ashes, boil fennel into the paste, bathe it with beaten egg — both before and after the prepared salve is applied.

I don’t think this is the case. That phrase rendered as ‘old soap’ probably means the kind of salve base we would now make from beeswax and almond oil ‘for keeping’. The word ‘sapan’ means something like a gum or resin, a thickener. I found confirmation of this in Dorothy Hartley’s Food in England (1954), where she says that egg yolks are often used as a ‘natural soap to form the emulsion’ in mayonnaise. A ‘dust’ of herbs is foliage finely chopped to make an infusion, and the oil and beaten egg make  a poultice or fomentation. The instructions to recite the charm while treating the patient may be magical – after all we are now aware that the placebo effect isn’t a cheat, but a therapy – but it is also quite likely to be a mnemonic, or a way to time the brewing of the infusion, or how long a poultice should be left in place.

The other thing I found delightful is the word ‘onflyge’, which literally means ‘flying in’. It is an airborne infection, as malaria was thought to be. It’s the same word as influenza. This makes me a lot happier than anyone of my age ought to be!

Apart from this, I’ve been at the wonderful Callander Poetry Weekend, and helping to form the infrastructure of a new collective to promote creative writing where I live – the Forth Valley Writers. There will be more about this over the next few weeks. And while I was doing it, the swallows and housemartins have gathered themselves together, and gone. One day last week there were five fledglings (probably a second brood) lined up on a windowsill, waiting to be fed, and then the sky was empty. This morning on the bridge over the river, I looked up to see a cloud of small black birds heading south, and heard the robins and wrens duking it out, singing to claim their territories for the coming winter. Though it is as warm and sunny as any day this year, summer is gone.

The Year on the Turn

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Not a great picture, but the best I could do at the time. We have hit that time of year. The children are back at school, the rowans are red – though the birds don’t seem too bothered just yet – and there are geese overhead in the twilit sky. These are not the migratory pink-footed geese which come in from the north in astonishing numbers in September. These are greylags which have been here all year round, but which are gathering together and finding more suitable roosts for the coming harder weather.

It is not quite autumn, although the first bronzing is showing on trees most exposed to temperature change. We have had plums, but no apples yet. The brambles are ripe, but hips and haws are barely tinged with colour, and the elderberries hard green pips. Tomatoes are ripening fast in the greenhouse, and though the winter  barley has been harvested (and one field ploughed already) the spring wheat will stand a week or two yet – much to the joy of the sparrows and finches. There are plenty of swallows and housemartins, but every telegraph wire has its long line of birds sitting, thinking about it, getting ready to move on.

I’ve been in Edinburgh a lot at the festivals, including the magnificent Grit at the Playhouse, and helping to launch Signal, the book of responses to Ciara Phillips Every Woman a Signal Tower project. signal

And I’m winding up the festival season at Callander, at the Poetry Weekend. It’s going to be the usual mix of poetry, book launches (including four from red Squirrel Press), book sales, performance, discussion and socialising, and this year includes a walk along the Poetry Path at Corbenic and The Write Angle’s

Word Exchange, 

on the Saturday evening, which sounds intriguing.

But I’ve been using the summer pause to revisit some old projects and re-evaluate where I’m going next. I’ve done a lot of new things so far this year – poems for five anthologies, judging a competition, editing and translating, and more readings and reviews than ever, and I’ve loved it. I’ve been at my desk more and in the garden and walking the territory less, which I’m less happy about, and some things seem to have been lost in the shuffle – regular themed posts here, for one. The grounded poetics strand is one I’ll be revisiting over the next month, as well as herb poems and some thoughts about weathering changes in both personal social and environmental life. There’s a thing called ( full of mythology and politics and ecology) The Wren in the Ash Tree which is going to make its debut at Callander, and which is going to take me some time ——

Stick around, it’s going to get interesting!

What I’m Reading in August

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A couple of weeks ago we went to see the Celts exhibition at the National Museum of Scotland (fascinating, and on until the 25th September if you haven’t seen it), and so I’ve been reading The Celts by Nora Chadwick. It is an old book – I got it in a secondhand bookshop – and scholarship has moved on a lot since then. I’m not sure that we would want to measure cultural advancement by the yardstick of Classical civilisation these days, and there is a lot more material to draw on, but this is the book that raised the bar on Celtic Studies, and has given me a good place to start from as I get deeper into the subject.

At a different tangent I’ve read The Secret Life of God   by Alex Klaushofer, which  deals with non-conformist religious observance among  in Britain of all sorts, from Catholic nuns to Islamic and pagan groups and solitaries. It’s an easy read, thoughtful and respectful of all the groups the author meets, and it becomes clear that while religious structures and institutions are having some serious problems, spirituality itself is thriving.

I’ve also read If Women Rose Rooted by Sharon Blackie. It’s not quite the book I thought it was going to be. It isn’t a survey of Celtic myths and stories from a woman’s point of view, though it does contain some well-told stories, and it isn’t a workbook for women to go on a spiritual quest themselves,though there is a short summary of the ‘heroine’s journey’ at the end, but a themed autobiographical account of Sharon Blackie’s own spiritual and geographic journey, paralleled by the stories of several other women (some of whom I know and admire greatly). It’s a well-crafted book, and a satisfying read, but —–

I think, because my journey is almost entirely the reverse of hers, from almost drowning in domesticity and earth-consciousness to the practice of my creativity and intellectual skills, I’m a bit wary of the earth-mother archetype. It can make a great excuse for women to be prohibited from education or public life. It can become a prison as surely as the relentless grind of working for the man. I’m not really convinced by this book at all.

I have a lot of poetry to be reading too – Clare Pollard’s Ovid’s Heroines, which I’ve just started and Falling Awake by Alice Oswald. I went to see her read at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, and the event was unforgettable. I’ve never been at a reading where there was such a complete silence, and the applause was like thunder. I may review these books soon. On the other hand, words might fail me.

Grounded Poetics – Coleridge’s Frost at Midnight

The Frost performs its secret ministry,
Unhelped by any wind.
And so begins my favourite poem by Coleridge. When I was younger I liked Coleridge’s poems better than Wordsworth’s – the language so much more precise, the imagery more vivid, the pace more varied and the tone so much less didactic. Now I am not quite so sure. There is less glitter and flash about Wordsworth, but he is more steeped in his subject, shaped by it more than adapting it to his artistic purposes. And yet.  Can you really resist that picture of the quiet house, the dying fire, the baby asleep in its cradle while the poet  tries to write? or the icicles ‘quietly shining to the quiet moon.‘?
I’m seeing other resonances now. The poet is the only one up – biographies of Wordsworth and Coleridge point out that it was a hardworking household, and what with new babies and all, everyone else is asleep, but Coleridge is restless. Even the calm irritates him and he can’t settle. He is looking at the soot-flag on the hearth – often referred to as ‘the stranger’, and popularly supposed to forecast an imminent visitor – and remembering his lonely schooldays when he would do the same, longing for someone to come and visit him. This is not a contented poem. He finds consolation in his current situation in the beauty of nature, which speaks to him of the wisdom of its creator, and intends to bring his son up familiar with all the manifestations of weather and landscape, wild or serene. It’s all beautiful, and therefore must be wise and healthy.
I’m no longer so convinced, though I am still bewitched by the final lines. Comparing Coleridge and Wordsworth, I am more conscious of Coleridge’s restlessness, his loneliness, his determination to use nature as medicine for what ails him.  Nature is, for him, as a nurturing stability, a refuge from the turbulence of human relationships.  Perhaps I read into it what I know of his later life, but it reminds me a bit of Jay Griffiths. She goes the other way in her engagement with nature, and looks for wildness, an escape from too much structure and control, and stresses ferocity and extravagance, but she is, in effect, doing the same thing – projecting the needs of a troubled personality onto a landscape, using it to find a balance. As a strategy, it didn’t work for Coleridge for too long, and he was soon back in the city, and into a life full of feuds and projects and failures, and less successful ways of medicating his troubles. As a philosophy of nature, I find it wanting in intellectual rigor and responsible praxis. But as a poem of observation, you can’t beat it:
Therefore all seasons shall be sweet to thee,
Whether the summer clothe the general earth
With greenness, or the redbreast sit and sing
Betwixt the tufts of snow on the bare branch
Of mossy apple-tree, while the night-thatch
Smokes in the sun-thaw; whether the eave-drops fall
Heard only in the trances of the blast,
Or if the secret ministry of frost
Shall hang them up in silent icicles,
Quietly shining to the quiet Moon.
You can find the full text of the poem here:

Latest News August

Last week Keith Parker who hosts the facebook group Poetry Talk, was kind enough to publish this lovely review of The Territory of Rain. He has given me permission to share it here.

Review by Keith Parker

Also, Soundwaves, this year’s anthology of the Federation of Writers (Scotland) was launched. It is, at 320 pages, the largest anthology the Federation has published, containing a mixture of poetry, flash fiction and short stories from writers such as Colin Will, Etta Dunn, Charlie Gracie, Finola Scott, Ann McKinnon, Marie Therese Taylor, Anne Clarke, Stephen Watt, Sheila Templeton, Maggie Rabatski, Anne Connolly and Kevin Cadwallender. A snip at £9.99. Oh, and Stand in the Light is in there too.

And, still to come, a reading from the Dazzle Ship pamphlet Signal at the Edinburgh Book Shop (in Bruntsfield, at Holy Corner) on Monday 22 August at 7pm.

And then on to September when Sally Evans  has a packed programme of readings, performances and book launches already planned for the Callander Poetry Weekend. More details later.

 

What I’m Reading

I’ve always had a thing about wrens. I think it may have had something to do with being small myself, and the fact that wrens were usually known as ‘jenny’, which was something of a rarity in the macho bird-watching culture I grew up in. Later I rather liked the fact that they are pretty loud for such a small bird, though this was somewhat damped by the revelation that it is the male who sings, claiming his territory. I like the effrontery of the ‘king of the birds’ story, where the wren hitches a ride on the eagles back so it reaches the highest flight, and I love the association of wrens with druids and bards.

Michael Hartnett has a wonderful poem called The Necklace of Wrens, which you can hear here, and which inspired this lovely piece of music by The Gloaming.

But what I’m reading just now is a monograph, The Wren by Edward A Armstrong, a summary of the extensive research Armstrong carried out over several years from 1943-48. It is an exhaustive study, explaining a lot of what has puzzled me about the wrens I see and hear, and with a lot of information about territory, nesting behaviour, and why I’m hearing wrens singing now. Wrens are going to be significant players in the long poem, so it has already paid off.

But also, while I’ve been running about getting to readings and so on, I’ve been catching up on other things. Common Ground by Rob Cowen was pleasant, if slightly heavy, but covered familiar ground – a man’s personal growth reflected in his engagement with an area of wild land.

More interesting, though a slightly frustrating read, was the twin volumes of poetry by Sean Borodale Bee Journal and Human Work. There’s something about a man discovering the inner meaning of jam making and stewing apples that is going to be a bit irritating if you’ve put in forty years of domesticity to the accompaniment of people telling you your perspective is too narrow and over-familiar. And yet, I nonetheless found myself fascinated by the focus of poems written in the middle of the process – what Borodale calls ‘lyrigraphs’. Physically the manuscripts are marked with splashes and pollen and mud and flour, but more importantly, the lines are shaped by the pauses and rhythms of the work in progress, and the perspective – very close observation, but without the baggage of repetition, tradition or the many other conjoined tasks of a kitchen – made me think again about the possibilities of writing – the capacity of poetry to transform and re-engage with received wisdom.

The long poem is taking me into strange places and making many new discoveries. I have a lot of research to do, but the first twenty lines are written!

Lavender’s blue

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Well, you’d think, wouldn’t you. But sometimes lavender can look like this – lavender stoechas, possibly ‘Avignon’

stoechas2

or this

Pink lavender

Which is lavender rosea, or this

white lavendar

which is lavender alba. They are all flowering their lovely heads off, and I’ve taken cuttings. With luck there will be some to share with poets at the Callander Poetry Weekend, which falls this year on the 2nd to the 4th September. Usually I would be encouraging people to sign up for a reading slot, but it seems that the word is out already and there is a wonderful programme in prospect, with the usual mix of readings, book launches, performance pieces, discussion groups, and a lot of good food and conversation.

The weekend got plenty of publicity at the Callander Haiku readings last night, as many of the contributors had met, or learned about haiku at previous weekends. I can’t recommend this weekend too highly, particularly as all the events are free, so if you are new to poetry readings, it’s an easy way to dip your toe in the water.

But in the meantime, I’ve been gardening, harvesting gooseberries and redcurrants, drying oregano for the winter, and beginning to cosset the first tomatoes. The roses are in full bloom and the honeysuckle is just beginning to flower – I think the combination of warm weather and torrential rain which we’ve had this week has really suited the garden! And there are flower buds on the myrtle bush for the first time.

In the quiet of the school holidays, I’ve taken time to rethink the next phase of this blog. I have a couple of poetry projects cooking – some translations from Old English, and a LONG poem dealing with land ownership and exile, environmental neglect, femininity, wildness and poetry. I’m getting sidetracked by research into wrens, fairy tales, folk music and early monasticism, but if I can bring it off, it’s going to be enormously satisfying. I may post scraps of it here every now and then. And I’m focusing my reviews to come up with a poetics of inhabitation – more human than eco-poetry, but less anthropocentric than pastoral. But I have no doubt that there will be the same mix of territory walking, domesticity and comment as usual. I hope those of you who are kind enough to read this regularly will enjoy it.

lavendersblue

Callander Summerfest

callander haiku poster

As part of Callander’s Summerfest festival , Die-hard Publishers (Sally Evans and Ian King, who also run the wonderfull Main Street Bookshop) have organised the launch of Callander Haiku

haiku book

a lovely book,  about Callander and its stunning surrounding landscape. The launch will take place in St Kessog’s Kirk Theatre, the Square, Callander at 8:00, on Thursday 21st July, and there will be several of the poets who have poems in the book. I’ll be reading a couple of haiku, and two or three other poems about the area. For more details, please see

https://www.facebook.com/events/1324561070904634/