Storytelling

“The way we experience story will evolve, but as storytelling animals, we will no more give it up than start walking on all fours.”

Jonathan Gottschall, The Storytelling Animal

Forgive me, it’s been a long time since my last confession. Ill health, disappointment and depression have been the main culprits behind that, but then one of those strange little random moments that life throws at us completely changed that, revitalised me and guided me back on course.

 

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I was browsing in a second-hand bookshop and discovered The Seashell on the Mountaintop by Alan Cutler. It is the biography of a C17th Danish scientist whose curiosity and intelligence was to lead him to fame as an anatomist in the Medici court in Florence, and it was here that he made his most significant discoveries, became an anatomist of the earth and determined the Four Principles of Stratigraphy still used by geologists today.

Born Niels Steensen, his name was Latinised at university to Nicholai Stenonis, but the world knows him simply as Steno, the father of geology. Immediately I felt inspired to tell his fascinating story. I decided to attempt a poetry sequence and a friend suggested the haibun form, a melody of prose and haiku championed by Japanese poetry master Basho.

Basho used the haibun for essays, diary entries and travel accounts so the idea of a journey began to form. Steno travelled extensively but he also underwent a spiritual journey from Lutheran scientist to Catholic bishop and I felt the haibun form would enable me to tell that story. However, when I started researching background information to understand the science involved in Steno’s discoveries I realised that this story was much bigger than just Steno and his Four Principles of Stratigraphy; it was the story of the earth itself and the evolution of life upon it.

The first problem was how to tell such a vast story? I decided that it would be a sequence of voices, each telling part of the story, and the whole sequence would be divided into four sections, each section metaphorically related to one of the Principles as determined by Steno. Another problem was the various theories involved in the story of evolution and history of humankind, so I plumped for one and ran with it, weaving together science and history. Like fairy stories or folk tales there may be other versions but we choose the one we’re most comfortable with. I make no claims to be an expert, but I hope the versions that I have chosen are consistent.

Having made these decisions I applied for, and was fortunate enough to be awarded, funding from DG Unlimited to undertake research in Florence and to engage the excellent support of mentor, Jim Bennett, poet and creator of online poetry services The Poetry Kit. (www.poetrykit.org)

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(photo by Mabel Amber, Still Incognito – Pixabay)

With his help I recently completed Ancient Anchors, the title taken from Ovid – Metamorphoses Book XV (8AD)

“Seashells lie far away from ocean’s waves and ancient anchors have been found on mountaintops”

and I’m now looking for a publisher. Enter the old disappointment about UK poetry publishing houses who are few and have a backlog of 3 years’ worth of books to publish therefore they’re not accepting any new submissions. However, there is always the option of self-publishing so watch this space…

 

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Song of the Rolling Earth

In October, during this year’s Wigtown Book Festival,  I volunteered to look after the Open Book bookshop for a morning. The sun was shining and the town was busy with visitors attending the literary events, but it was still quite early for them to venture out into the bookshops. I  busied myself at first, familiarising myself with the stock and finding where things were kept, in case I was asked by a customer. It was then I came across a little gem of a book called Song of the Rolling Earth: A Highland Odyssey by John Lister Kaye, naturalist and conservationist, published in 2004 by Abacus.

The book is an autobiographical account of the setting up of the first field studies centre in Scotland, the world-famous Aigas Field Centre, but it is so much more than this. It draws on the turbulent human events that historically took place in the Highlands and evokes the land and her people, her diversity and wildlife. And it is couched in the most beautifully poetic language that made me never want the book to  end.

It opens on a summer’s day with the author “slumped in a small green boat on a Highland loch.”… I am supposed to be fishing, but it’s too warm. Anyway, I’m a lousy fisherman. The rod lies idly across my knees. My dry fly is out on the frowning water, miming.”

He has gone to the loch to think but has taken the rod as an excuse so that he will be left alone. He watches the wildlife teeming around him and reflects on times when he was younger, exploring nature’s treasures, where he discovers for himself the complexity of life and death. Then, content he has been able to marshal his thoughts, he moves on.

” The fishing has served its purpose. It’s going to rain. I may as well pack in. I begin to reel in. The eared willows rimming the loch come alive. A troop of long-tailed tits weaves a tapestry into each thicket. Their thin cries are barely audible as a simpering wind flutters into the silver-green weft. I watch them shuttling from bough to brush, seeming to lead each other forward so they progress in a jerky, undulating stream as though pulled on threads. I take up the oars and follow them. Rain spots stipple the water and ricochet from the waxen lily leaves. Clouds are thronging now, dark nimbostatuses bowed with mood, stumbling forward as if forced by a snowplough. Darkness spreads over the water like a plague.”

Thus begins a journey of self-discovery, deeply personal and perceptive, that celebrates the sheer joy of nature in lyrical prose. As soon as I’d finished the book I started again because I can’t get enough of his intimate descriptions of the wondrous wildlife and landscapes we are privileged to have here in Scotland. Whether you’re a writer or not you can’t fail to be impressed with his storytelling and the power of his words.

A song of the rolling earth, and of words according,

Were you thinking that those were the words, those

                upright lines? those curves, angles, dots?

No, those are not the words, the substantial words are

                in the ground and sea,

They are in the air, they are in you.

Walt Whitman 1819 -92

Fireflies and Haibuns

I’ve started working on a new collection of poems and decided to try my hand at haibun, a form I’ve never used before.

Haibun is a poetic form that focuses on nature and landscape and creates the sense of a journey, which can be internal or extrernal. A haibun is the combination of two poems, a prose poem and haiku, and the form was popularized by the 17th century Japanese poet Matsuo Basho. Both the prose poem and haiku typically communicate with each other, though poets employ different strategies for this communication—some doing so subtly, while others are more direct.

Generally, a haibun consists of one or more paragraphs of prose written in a concise, imagistic haikai style, and one or more haiku. The prose part of the poem usually describes a scene or moment in an objective manner. Meanwhile, the haiku follows the typical rules for haiku and usually ends the poem as a sort of whispery and insightful postscript to the prose of the beginning of the poem. Another way of thinking about the haibun is as a highly focused testimony or recollection of a journey that ends with a kind of murmur.

A haibun may record a scene, or a special moment, in a highly descriptive and objective manner or may occupy a wholly fictional or dream-like space. The accompanying haiku may have a direct or subtle relationship with the prose and encompass or hint at the gist of what is recorded in the prose sections. However, there may be considerable variation of form.

In Robert Wilson’s series Vietnam Ruminations, a collection of individual haibun, each haiku begins the poem and the following prose is a piece of reportage or explanation:

Fireflies
on the water’s surface –
a house of mirrors.

Standing guard in the wee hours of the morning on the bow of the repair boat barge I was stationed on, was eerie, to say the least. You could never relax. Stories were told in the chow hall of Viet Cong frogmen who traveled across the small bay we were moored in, using hollow bamboo reeds to breathe through. Like ghosts, they appeared when a soldier’s guard was down. The only sound during this watch was the faint lapping of waves against the barge’s hull and the steady thump thump thump of my heart. In the distance, gunships sprayed the horizon with machine gun shells laced with tracers that lit up the sky. More than once, I saw my reflection in the water. At that time of the morning, at nineteen years of age, a variety of thoughts and questions danced in and out of my mind; some deeply introspective.

Whereas Stallion’s Crag by Ken Jones is a seamless collection of  haibun with the haiku at the end of the prose, as demonstrated in this extract:

The black tarmac strip comes to an end. The motor disappears back into the mountain silence. Down by the stream is a reception committee.

Three crows in a bare tree

proclaim the meaning of life

                            as usual

I give them a wave.

 

Ahead lies a broad valley. Great hills rise on every side, the grey bones of the mountain showing through their flanks. Here and there fans of scree spill down the slopes, and boulders litter the brown bogs. This is now a vast sheep walk, roadless, ruined and depopulated — a tumbled world of mist and bog, of looming and elusive shapes. There was once a notice at the farmhouse of Eisteddfa announcing that “The Notorious Hill of Plinlimmon is on the Premises and will be shown to any Gentleman Travellers who wish to see it.” All the literati who took up the offer seem to have had a bad time; Thomas Love Peacock, for example, wrote in 1855 about getting lost and soaked to the skin. And all this despite repeated warnings from the guidebook writers. One declared that “The Voluptuary will find little in this region to detain him.” And Benjamin Malkin, in 1804, warned that “it affords little food for the picturesque enthusiasms of those who venture on the laborious perils of the ascent”. He added that “it is the most dangerous mountain in Wales … and should not be attempted without a guide, whose attendance is very precarious.”

I soon dismissed this bleak, featureless wasteland when I first came here as a youth in search of excitement.  Even today there is only one car park, unofficial and usually empty. Instant drama begins further north, on Cadair Idris. There, if you spend only a night on the summit you will at least awaken either mad or a poet. On Pumlumon it takes longer. Half a century in my case.

Back on the mountain

my grey beard

soaking up the mist

 

Here at the road’s end there’s a keen wind blowing. Cold and rain are kept out by closely woven cotton, over finely spun lambswool, over Welsh flannel, over Japanese silk, over mortal skin. Dyed field grey, head to foot, and lightly waxed. Buckled snug down to the hips is a well worn backpack, with five days of green tea, frankincense, midge repellent, and much else, but not a word to read.

Contentedness

of mist and bog

miles of trudging solitude

I love the freedom that prose gifts to you and also enjoy the demands and constraints of the haiku. To combination these effectively will be a serious challenge, but then, life is all about change, of moving out of your comfort zone and going places you’ve never been before. To do otherwise is to stagnate.

Wish me luck.

 

Scorched Earth

Every once in a while you suddenly discover in your search through secondhand books an absolute gem, a book that stands out from the rest with its sparkling prose and hidden depths. Scorched Earth by David L Robins (Orion 2002) is one such gem.

The basic storyline is of a white woman, Clare, and her black husband, Elijah, whose mixed race baby, Nora Carol, dies shortly after birth. The white woman’s grandmother, Rosy Epps,  arranges with Pastor Thomas Derby for the child to be buried in her family plot in the graveyard of Victory Baptist Church where Epps is a deacon. The burial takes place, but when the other deacons find out they hold a meeting and refuse permission for the burial on the grounds of the child being mixed race. The child is then disinterred the following morning and transferred to the black cemetery up the road. That night the white church is burnt down and the man arrested for the arson is the baby’s father, Elijah, who declares his innocence.  What follows  is an intricately plotted, insightful and moving story, a legal case that reveals hosts of hidden prejudices and secrets that ignite rage and hatred.

What I love about the novel is that it spoke to me about identity and classification, about where and to whom people belong. I am a white grandmother of a blended family with a mixed race grandson so the issue is quite close to my heart, particularly in these troubling times. The novel raises issues about what it is to be ‘family’ or ‘community’, what part history, tradition and inheritance play in our psyche, and gets us to question, who are ‘our people’? And all this it does  in exquisite prose that delights me, captivating me right from  the opening chapter:

The place where they lie making the child is beautiful. They lie on a bed of ferns, which like a cushion of feathers, tickles them. Only a few strides off the old dirt road, they are beneath a tall red oak, thick as a chimney, bearded with gray bark: the tree is a gentle old presence.

If they were to stand on that spot they could see the fields. South lie forty acres of beans, leafy and ripe for harvest machinery resting now after church this Sunday afternoon. High pines and turning sugar maples make this field a green leafy loch where every breeze riffles. North of the road, beyond barbed wire and honeysuckle, is a cleared pasture for the cows, which are out of sight behind hills that rise and roll down, suggesting by their smooth undulation the couple lying under the oak.

He is a black man, blacker than everything, blacker than the soil of the road, everything but the crows. His name is Elijah, named by his mother for the loudest of the Hebrew prophets, though he has not grown into a loud man. He is silent as his skin, as the dark of a well.

Beneath him, wrapping him like roots seeking water, is his wife, Clare. Her green eyes closed behind white, blue-veined lids. Waist-length blond hair spreads over ferns and under her back. She kisses him and their tongues twine.

A band of starlings crisscrosses the field. The ebon birds strike something invisible at the center of the field and disperse, to clot again and circle some more, somewhat aimlessly. Clare and Elijah, tangled together, white and black, are absolutes, the presence and absence of all colors at once, sharing a smooth, perfect motion.

When Clare falls for Elijah, colour is no longer an issue:

She will remember this moment when Elijah’s blackness became not something missing from what she was but a remarkable presence not bound or described by color. She opens her mouth in a moment of shame, fleeting like a pinprick, fast and sharp, for ever having felt whatever ugliness it was she had just said goodbye to.

The couple are asked to sit on a Diversity committee at the paper mill where they both work but as Elijah says ‘This is y’all’s problem’ and Clare refuses to be used – ‘I’m sorry, but we’re not your damn role models’. However, in the aftermath of the tragedy of Nora Carol tensions escalate and soon both Clare and Elijah feel the effects of the problems others have with their relationship.

At the meeting of church deacons the Pastor is urging them to exercise compassion and leave the dead child where she is, but the response he gets is:

I like Elijah, by God I do, and I feel awful for what’s happened to him. But that don’t mean I want to buried with him or his kin. That poor baby ought to be laid to rest in a place surrounded by her own people, and that place isn’t here, it’s up the road.

And so begins a course of actions that divide a community, entrench latent prejudices where nothing and no-one will ever be the same, not even the reader.

As it says in the epigram for the novel:

The line separating good and evil 

passes not through states,

nor between classes,

nor between parties either,

But right through the human heart.

Aleksander Solzhenitsyn

Form and Inspiration

I’ve been tied up the last two weeks trying to publish an illustrated poetry pamphlet of my published poems. I’ve struggled with the format, getting images aligned opposite each poem, made more difficult because the images themselves were not uniform. Some were in portrait view and others landscape, so they had to be placed in the centre of the page so as not to bleed off into the margins. It’s been frustrating, to say the least.

I decided to have a break and to read through some poems in Josephine Corcoran’s excellent blog And Other Poems. I came across  Songs of the Sea, a pantoum by Eleanor Hooker, posted on March 17, 2017

Songs of the Sea

At Kilmore town ancient carols are sung,
legend says the sea will drown their town.
Casting stones into the sea is wrong,
storm-crested waves drag silent sail down.

Legend says the sea will drown their town,
a silver coin beneath the mast brings luck.
Storm crested waves drag silent sail down,
church bells sound when sinking ships are struck,

A silver coin beneath the mast brings luck.
true to say, what the sea wants, it gets,
church bells sound when sinking ships are struck,
a curlew’s flight makes fair-wind sailors fret.

True to say, what the sea wants, it gets,
casting stones into the sea is wrong,
a curlew’s flight makes fair-wind sailors fret,
at Kilmore town ancient carols are sung.

(published in The Shadow Owner’s Companion, Dedalus Press 2012)

I have attempted this form of poetry before and love the line repetitions as the poem slowly progresses and then winds backwards in the last stanza.

The pantoum originated in Malaysia in the fifteenth-century as a short folk poem, typically made up of two rhyming couplets that were recited or sung. However, as the pantoum spread, Western writers altered and adapted the form, made it longer and abandoned the need to rhyme.

The modern pantoum is a poem of any length, composed of a series of quatrains in which the second and fourth lines of each stanza serve as the first and third lines of the next stanza. The pattern continues for any number of stanzas, except for the final stanza, which differs in the repeating pattern. The first and third lines of the last stanza are the second and fourth of the penultimate; the first line of the poem is the last line of the final stanza, and the third line of the first stanza is the second of the final.

One exciting aspect of the pantoum is its subtle shifts in meaning that can occur as repeated phrases are revised with different punctuation and thereby given a new context. Ideally, the meaning of lines shifts when they are repeated although the words remain exactly the same: this can be done by shifting punctuation, punning, or simply recontextualizing.

An incantation is created by a pantoum’s interlocking pattern of repetition; as lines reverberate between stanzas, they fill the poem with echoes. This intense repetition also slows the poem down, halting its advancement. As Mark Strand and Eavan Boland explained in The Making of a Poem, “the reader takes four steps forward, then two back,” making the pantoum a “perfect form for the evocation of a past time.”

I love it.

All The Light We Cannot See

I’m getting overwhelm from all the political news and my disappointment in the human race. So coming across a book that transports and delights me enough to block all that out is a rare, and fortuitous, find indeed. It sat on my bookcase for a while, borrowed from a friend, until I picked it up last weekend. Usually I can devour a book in a few days but I haven’t got very far with this one, about a quarter of the way through the story, because I’m savouring the words so much. I want to spend time with them, read them aloud, then read them again.

Written by Anthony Doerr the novel is set in France and Germany during the 1930s and 1940s. Its main characters are a blind French girl who learns to navigate her town with the help of a miniature replica made by her father, and a German orphan who is destined for work in the mines until it’s discovered he can mend broken radios. As the novel, and the war, progress, their paths draw ever closer together. But it is the radiancy of  prose that grips me as much as the plot.

It opens on 7 August 1944 with:

At dusk they pour from the sky. They blow across the ramparts, turn cartwheels over rooftops, flutter into ravines between houses. Entire streets swirl with them, flashing white against the cobbles. Urgent message to to the inhabitants of this town, they say. Depart immediately to open country.

The tide climbs. The moon hangs small and yellow and gibbous. On the rooftops of beachfront hotels to the east, and in the gardens behind them, a half-dozen American artillery units drop incendiary rounds into the mouths of mortars.”

Then:

“They cross the Channel at midnight. There are twelve and they are named for songs: Stardust and Stormy Weather and In the Mood and Pistol-Packin’ Mama. The sea glides far below, spattered by the countless chevrons of whitecaps. Soon enough, the navigators can discern the low moonlit lumps of islands ranged along the horizon.

France.

Intercoms crackle. Deliberately, almost lazily, the bombers shed altitude. Threads of light ascend from anti-air emplacements up and down the coast. Dark, ruined ships appear, scuttled or destroyed, one with its bow shorn away, a second flickering as it burns. On an outermost island, panicked sheep run zig-zagging between rocks.

Inside each airplane, a bombardier peers through an aiming window and counts to twenty. Four five six seven. To the bombardiers, the walled city on its granite headland, drawing ever closer, looks like an unholy tooth, something black and dangerous, a final abscess to be lanced away.”

Each short chapter alternates between French  and German perspectives and sections alternate between the past and the present of the tale. Neither the girl nor the boy fit in with their people or surroundings, and the war, as beautifully written as it is,  is still war and its stark realities don’t escape us.

If you love exquisite writing that transforms the ephemera of daily existence in a story much more than a conventional war tale, you’ll love this novel. It was the Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2015 and is well deserved of that title.

“This jewel of a story is put together like a vintage timepiece…Doerr’s writing and imagery are stunning. It’s been a while since a novel had me under its spell in this fashion” Abraham Verghese, author of Cutting for Stone.

I second that.

 

 

 

Between Birth and Death

These are troubled days and as it is St Valentine’s Day this week I thought a little escapism into love would do me good. However, for those of us without a significant other, this time of year with the roses and cards can be painful, or seem crass. For me it’s the latter. So I decided to look for the positives.

Trying to establish the facts about St Valentine proved to be more difficult that I thought. Apparently there have been up to five Valentine’s accredited with being the saint but the Roman Martyrology, the Catholic Church’s official list of recognised saints, for February 14 gives only one Saint Valentine; a martyr who died on the Via Flaminia.

So why has Valentine’s feast day has been celebrated as a lovers’ holiday and a day of romance since the 14th century? Some say the date was thought to be the beginning of the mating season for birds. Others say it is because the church wanted to Christianise an ancient Roman pagan festival called Lupercalia, which centred around fertility and purification.Whatever the explanation and whoever is the real Valentine, we have in the western world an annual celebration of romantic love on February 14th.

Some people look to the Bible for inspiration about Love. I look to Khalil Gibran, Paolo Cuelho and Don Miguel Ruiz who each in The Prophet, The Alchemist and The Mastery of Love respectively, use a master talking to and teaching a crowd of people about Love. My favourite is The Prophet, possibly because I discovered it first at a time when I needed it and we always hold our first loves a little more tightly.

Almustafa, the Prophet,  is about to leave the city of Orphalese. He has waited twelve years for a ship and when one arrives the people gather round, desperate for last words of wisdom before he leaves, to tell him “all that has been shown you of that which is between birth and death.”

He is asked to speak about Love and exhorts the people assembled before him:

“When love beckons to you, follow him, Though his ways are hard and steep. And when his wings enfold you yield to him, Though the sword hidden among his pinions may wound you. And when he speaks to you believe in him, Though his voice may shatter your dreams as the north wind lays waste the garden.

For even as love crowns you so shall he crucify you. Even as he is for your growth so is he for your pruning. Even as he ascends to your height and caresses your tenderest branches that quiver in the sun, So shall he descend to you roots and shake them in their clinging to the earth.”

Not for him the slushy, chocolate box fiction of romantic love. He portrays love’s stark reality of light and shade, pleasure and pain, its catharticism.

When asked about Marriage he says:

Love one another, but make not a bond of love: Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls. Fill each other’s cup but drink not from the same cup. Give one another of your bread but eat not from the same loaf. Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each one of you be alone, Even as the strings of a lute are alone though they quiver with the same music.

Give your hearts, but not into each other’s keeping. For only the hand of Life can contain your hearts. And stand together yet not too near together: For the pillars of the temple stand apart, And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other’s shadow.”

So many elderly couples I know do everything together and take great pride in this, in never having had a cross word, of thinking and breathing the same way. It may work for them, and each to their own, but for me that kind of relationship seems claustrophobic, lifeless. The merging of two people into one is often written to describe finding one’s ‘soul mate’ but to me a soul mate is one who helps your soul sing its own tune in harmony with theirs, not get it to sing the same notes.

Someone recently commented that none of my characters in fiction are happily married or in successful relationships. I hadn’t noticed it before, but she’s right. I suppose as a writer I’ve brought my own experiences to my work and haven’t seen many examples of what I would say were ‘successful’ relationships. The couples involved might describe their relationships as successful, but seen by me, the outsider, they are too full of compromise, to the point where the individual has vanished. But I guess it’s all down to perceptions and the choices we make.

So whatever your status and views on love this Valentine’s Day, I wish you peace and joy.

“This day has ended. It is closing upon us even as the water-lily upon its own tomorrow. What was given us here we shall keep, And if it suffices not, then again must we come together and together stretch our hands unto the giver”