For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel's sake. The great affair is to move. ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON

Friday, 9 December 2016

Pilgrim

Pilgrim

All of us are pilgrims on this earth. I have even heard it said that the earth itself is a pilgrim in the heavens. Maxim Gorky

Your journey never ends -
each step the first step,
each step the last step.

You move, but stand still.
In stillness you move through the valleys.
You feel you can move mountains.

You walk all day to a familiar place,
a place of coming and going,
a place of crowds and crossing points,

a place of no signposts.
You wait among the crowds,
watching for signs and signals.

One face among many,
you are alone, but not lonely
among the unfamiliar faces.

You are rootless, but at home
among the sharks, the snakes
and the snake oil salesmen,

though you would rather be in the desert
living on locusts and honey,
turning stones into bread

and water into wine.
You are rooted in the earth
like a tree whose twigs

and branches are crooked paths,
webbing the heavens.
You are the wellspring,

the stream and the river,
the delta, the ocean,
the shimmering destination.

You are all of this
and yet you are nothing
but the weary pilgrim,

arriving, departing,
following blind-eyed
the desire path of sorrow,

the dream path of desire,
up the steep hill,
past rowan and thorn

and the fourteen stations.
Each step the first step.
Each step the last step.

Thursday, 24 November 2016

The Dove Descending

This poem was inspired by a recent reading of Rilke's The Dove and Lowell's Pigeons.

The Dove Descending

The dove descending breaks the air / With flame of incandescent terror
TS Eliot Little Gidding, Four Quartets

Eliot said the end of our exploring
will be to arrive at where we started
and realise our home was not so boring
before we panicked, packed our bags and parted.

And Rilke said a dove must fly the world
in order to appreciate the dovecote.
In storm and roaring wind is peace revealed.
The raging torrent rocks, then calms, the love boat.

Danger and distance, certainly,
and fear, and fear of fear itself,
delay departure, often indefinitely,
leave us like bookends on a dusty shelf.

We know the multi-coloured rainbow beckons
from edge of town, but our fenced-in backyard
requires attention. Drab suburbia threatens
but comforts also. It is always hard

to quit the friendly space one knows and loves,
to doubt the ones inhabiting that space.
Yet constantly a restless heart outgrows,
outflies the limits of this time and place.

Yes, all of us are arrows in the dark
speeding from God-knows-where to God-knows-where,
unsure of making a true mark on earth,
falling unsteadily through endless air,

skimming the ocean till we disappear
into the fire of the sinking sun,
all fight extinguished, as the Temeraire,
all flight unfeathered, Icarus undone.

In pieces, we reform to our true shape.
In dust, we scatter like primeval seeds.
Divorced from cells of coelacanth and ape,
no more embodied by our thoughts and deeds,

alone – no myth or metaphor or art –
and open to the stars which are our home,
we still the beating of our weary heart,
finding at last the place that we’ve come from.

Friday, 11 November 2016

Van Gogh's Ear

Bernadette Murphy's recent book, Van Gogh's Ear: the True Story, inspired this poem.

Van Gogh's Ear

I am not here. Already I’ve moved out
from studio to street, from charcoal grey
into chrome orange and cochineal,
from yellow house to whorehouse. Gabrielle,
that poor maid, mops the floor
the painted ladies pockmark with scuffed heels.
I pity her bare arms, her rabid flesh
scarred by the cauterising iron,
and pull her by the wrist into the light,
the burning light of cobalt blue Provence.

I place a ragged parcel in her hands.
She shudders and says nothing, but receives
the gift with grace, clutching it to her breast
in reverence, and I am like a god —
I’m Jesus Christ, and gentle Gabrielle
is Mary Magdalene. I stagger through
the blinding streets of Arles and cross the Rhône,
rave in the cornfields just beyond the town.
Vermilion blood runs down my cheek like tears.
But I’m not here. I have already flown
by crow’s path over waving cypresses
and under whirling stars I lay me down.

You Want It Darker

If you are the dealer, I'm out of the game
If you are the healer, it means I'm broken and lame
If thine is the glory, then mine must be the shame
You want it darker
We kill the flame

Leonard Cohen (1934-2016)

Saturday, 29 October 2016

Knowledge

The more you know, the more you know you don't know.

Socrates, Aristotle and Einstein all realised this. And it's a statement worth unpicking. First of all, what do we mean by to 'know'?

Einstein — boy to man.
There's a world of seemingly incontrovertible facts and figures out there, things which by and large are not a matter of opinion. The moon spins round the earth. The earth spins round the sun. Trump and Clinton are the USA's presidential candidates. The capital of Venezuela is Caracas. The kind of bald truths churned out in question and answer form on the innumerable quiz shows which plague the media in the guise of entertainment.

Then there's the wealth of information and misinformation grounded in hearsay, gossip, prejudice, conjecture, supposition, intelligent (and not-so-intelligent) guesswork, propaganda, and religious, political and economic belief. Jesus married Mary Magdalene. Marlowe and others co-wrote many of Shakespeare's plays. Eating cheese increases your chance of a heart attack. Allah is the one true God. The Labour party is the best. Communism is dead.

A few things we can be completely sure about, i.e. mathematical formulations, such as one plus one equals two, and syllogisms, such as 'All men are mortal. Socrates is a man. Therefore Socrates is mortal'. These rather uninteresting truths are true for all time and are what philosophers call a priori truths. Most other truths are empirical truths — whether 99.9% certainties (the sun will rise tomorrow) or highly dubious beliefs which are advocated by some but disparaged by others (wearing a copper bracelet will help the arthritis in your wrist). There's a vast spectrum of truths and beliefs, ranging from unassailable logical truth to absolute falsehood, with many shades of truth, half-truth and untruth in-between.

If we consider the whole of history, how many things can we be utterly sure of? The accuracy of some dates and the reality of some personages and events, certainly. But many things remain in obscurity or semi-obscurity. What was the actual cause of the First World War? What was Rasputin's true character? Why do we think the Greeks invented democracy when their empire was built on slavery? Did Atlantis really exist?        

Science seeks and often uncovers the truth (cigarette smoking is likely to cause lung cancer), but this may only be a relative truth (Galileo and Einstein turned astronomy and physics upside down), dependent on the historical timeline.

The point of all this is to say quite simply that truth is a tricky business — and we haven't even begun to consider emotional truth, imaginative truth or artistic truth.

The reason I'm trying to sort out my feelings about truth and knowledge at the moment is that I feel I'm being bombarded with incredible amounts of information — from the Internet, from social media, from TV and radio, from politicians, economists, new-age gurus and other pundits, from salespersons, from books and magazines, from just about everyone and everywhere. And this flow of information ever increases. But to whose benefit? Do we really want to know all those facts about celebrity and sport and TV shows regurgitated by the blotting-paper brains of quiz show contestants? Do we really need to fill our minds with pro-and-contra arguments about every conceivable subject? Are we really going to be made to feel inadequate because we haven't mastered this or that skill or learnt this or that fact in order to increase our kudos in the eyes of contemporary society?

Faced with this onslaught of undifferentiated, often trivial information, we have the ability, thank goodness, to select, discriminate and shut out the bits we want to shut out. I refuse to be jealous of those with apparently huge mental reservoirs of facts and figures, of arguments and opinions, who are able to recall them and rehearse them at will. I refuse to be intimidated by the pressurised demands of the noisy and instant information age. I want to read and watch and hear and learn and digest the things which I myself decide I want to know, and to hell with the rest. 

For I know that, despite all we know, we know very little, and, anyhow, knowledge is quite a different beast from wisdom. I read a great deal, but I know I'll never read all the books I want to read, and I don't care. (Or I tell myself I don't care.) Often it's far more rewarding to know one thing in depth rather than many things superficially. And knowledge itself, as we've found, is a slippery creature. For instance, take our own mind and body. They are our two constant and intimate companions — but do we really know them? I would hazard barely at all. Take a random subject — China, say, or geophysics, or Mediterranean flowers, or phenomenology, or a million others. Unless we happen to be a specialist in that particular area, do we really know very much about any of them? (I'm not saying that we should do — a small amount of knowledge may well be all that is necessary for our sanity, despite the saying that a little learning is a dangerous thing.)   

I come back to this. I know that the more you know, the more you don't know — as Socrates, Aristotle and Einstein once said. Actually, in the end, that's quite a comforting notion.

Monday, 24 October 2016

Onto A Vast Plain

Krista Tippett (Image from Wikimedia Commons)
I've been enjoying the podcasts on Krista Tippett's inspiring website, On Being (thanks, George McHenry). Out walking this morning I listened to her conversation with Joanna Macy — translator of Rilke, philosopher of ecology and Buddhist scholar.

Summer has gone and winter storms will soon be with us.

'Onto a Vast Plain'

You are not surprised at the force of the storm —
you have seen it growing.
The trees flee. Their flight
sets the boulevards streaming. And you know:
he whom they flee is the one
you move toward. All your senses
sing him, as you stand at the window.

The weeks stood still in summer.
The trees' blood rose. Now you feel
it wants to sink back
into the source of everything. You thought
you could trust that power
when you plucked the fruit:
now it becomes a riddle again
and you again a stranger.

Summer was like your house: you know
where each thing stood.
Now you must go out into your heart
as onto a vast plain. Now
the immense loneliness begins.

The days go numb, the wind
sucks the world from your senses like withered leaves.
Through the empty branches the sky remains.

It is what you have.
Be earth now, and evensong.
Be the ground lying under that sky.
Be modest now, like a thing
ripened until it is real,
so that he who began it all
can feel you when he reaches for you.

RILKE Book of Hours, II 1 

Translated by JOANNA MACY and ANITA BARROWS

Sunday, 23 October 2016

Wednesday, 5 October 2016

Margery Clute: Literary Phenomenon Or Provincial Nobody?

Charlotte and Emily Brontë's writing table in the Haworth Parsonage Museum.

Following a recent visit to the Brontë Parsonage Museum, I was reminded again of that little-known Yorkshire poet Margery Clute (1824-76), who, I'm reliably informed, entered into and vanished from the lives of the Brontës like a wraith on the Pennine moors. When you've had a surfeit of Emily Brontë's poetry, and you're wondering where to turn next, it's well worth perusing Clute's (admittedly meagre) output for a bit of light relief.

It's on record that Clute became increasingly jealous of and vindictive towards the Brontë sisters, particularly Charlotte and Emily, as it became more and more evident that her own work would never achieve the starry heights so obviously destined for these superior writers. What's not always realised is the extent to which Clute tried to sabotage the work and reputation of her talented contemporaries. For example, she was in the habit of accompanying minor portrait painter Branwell Brontë on some of his habitual pub crawls around Haworth — not for reasons of social intercourse or beer-soaked bonhomie (indeed, Clute was strictly teetotal), but in order to clinically observe Branwell's progressive inebriation and document each sordid detail in her notebook in a neat and precise hand. (This cold and calculating attitude, it may be argued, is a necessary stimulus to creativity. Did not Graham Greene talk of the writer's 'splinter of ice in the heart'?) Although she never actually used any of this 'evidence', as far as I can gather, it was always there in case she needed it in her secret campaign to sully the Brontë image.

Another story, so incredible it must be true, goes as follows. Clute kept a pet magpie which she'd found injured in Haworth churchyard. She nursed the bird until it was completely recovered, training it easily, as one can an intelligent corvid. Then, one warm summer's day, when Tabitha Aykroyd, the Brontës' housekeeper, had opened the rectory windows to let in some fresh air, Clute introduced the magpie through the window of the downstairs room where Charlotte and Emily were in the habit of working at a large mahogany writing desk. It promptly flew across to a sheaf of papers on the table, picked them up in its beak and carried them off into the treetops. Neither bird nor booty were ever seen again. The papers comprised the half-finished manuscript of Emily Brontë's second novel, provisionally entitled Blethering Depths. Emily never restarted the work.

One final apocryphal narrative suggests that Margery Clute is in fact a pseudonym for the obscure Bradford poet William Eckerslyke, though why he should adopt a female name is a mystery, as it would be an invitation to even less attention and fewer book sales (after all, the Brontë sisters adopted the masculine first names of Currer, Acton and Ellis in order to evade the pervasive nineteenth-century prejudice against female writers, and, of course, Mary Ann Evans published under the name George Eliot). 

I've been able to trace very few of Clute's poems myself. Despite rumours of a second slim volume of verse, possibly called Moorland Ditties, her only verifiable published work is Fallen Leaves, which is extremely rare, and I believe only a handful of copies exist in this country (there are tattered copies in New York and Tokyo, I'm told, which are being repaired and restored as we speak). The bulk of the short, privately-printed run may have disappeared in the Great Fire of Ramsbottom (1888). However, I do know that one or two of my blog friends and followers have more than a passing interest in Clute's oeuvre, and may be able to supply me with one or two of her poetic gems. If anyone can contribute, please do so in the comments section. With grateful thanks.

Could one of these indecipherable tombstones in Haworth churchyard mark the grave of Margery Clute?