Archives for category: Poetry

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On one level, I see myself as a writer. I am constantly writing something – lists (for today, this week, this month, this year, sometime…), quotes, reflections, mood stuff. When it comes to real writing, though, I think about it too much. So much, in fact, that I think my way out of actually doing any.

So, what has been left unwritten? I have a list (of course) of topics that connect my thinking and my lived experience. I am veering towards personal essays, musings that reflect my day-to-day life, particularly as it relates to, and is informed by, my encounters with literature and the arts.

I have long dabbled in poetry. As a young teen, I won a national competition in Ireland. (Something about autumn leaves, I think. I wish I had kept a copy.) For many years thereafter, I saw myself as a poet. In relatively recent times, I completed a Masters in Creative Writing. My final dissertation focused on the theme of skin and the the poetry I created on the topic. Here are two poems from that time:

Dandruff

I am itching

to brush the white specks away,

to dust the dead skin from

the collar of your coat.

 

But I am a stranger.

You may not take kindly

to the caress of my hand

on your soft threads.

You may be angry, irritated,

inflamed.

Or merely surprised, bemused

by the feel of me,

intrigued by the intimacy of the gesture.

 

That touch, a risk,

born out of nothing more, nor less,

than kindness.

 

Tattoo

You said

I wouldn’t dare,

wouldn’t stick the pain

of scraping, piercing needles.

Forbidden art.

Grey lines

etched on translucent skin.

Wings poised

to take flight.

To break free.

Beak open,

olive branch on offer.

To make peace.

.

This dove

cannot escape.

My skin, its cage,

locked from the inside.

Captive art.

You said

‘don’t do it’.

 

And I did.

 

I have come to accept that I am no poet, and now happily enjoy the works of others rather than write poems myself (although I have not entirely ruled out dabbling in prose poetry).

At the beginning of her memoir Things I don’t Want To Know, Deborah Levy quotes Georges Perec:

“I know roughly speaking, how I became a writer. I don’t know precisely why. In order to exist, did I really need to line up words and sentences? In order to exist, was it enough for me to be the author of a few books?…One day I shall certainly have to start using words to uncover what is real, to uncover my reality.”

I see writing as a making sense, a way of interrupting circular and directionless thinking. Jung said that “Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life, and you will call it fate” My words seem to come from some liminal interior space – where truth and reality jostle for position. Putting my words out there is an attempt to ease the tension within. Of course, I could just keep a diary. Which I almost consistently do, but sharing my words, writing with an intended reader is different. It speaks to the other, and gestures towards a witnessing, not merely of my words, but also of my existence.

Wittgenstein said that “All I know is what I have words for.” I get that. My thoughts and words seem inextricably connected, one leading to the other. This interconnectedness is echoed by Lydia Davis suggestion that “maybe the notebook is a place to practice not only writing but thinking.”

For me, writing is both a way to stop running and a way out of the liminal space. Why don’t I write? Stopping, standing still, can be challenging and threatening. And perhaps there is also an element of fear around what might lie beyond the exit sign.

Henrik Pontoppidan:

“But one day, we are stopped by a voice from the depths of our being, a ghostly voice that asks “who are you?” From then on, we hear no other question. From that moment, our own true self becomes the great Sphinx, whose riddle we try to solve.”

To consider the (probably unanswerable) question “who am I?” feels important. Henceforth, instead of endless circular thinking, I aim to break this closed loop and direct the flow from thinking to words to pencil to page.

“Pages are cavernous places, white at entrance, black in absorption.
Echo.

If I’m transformed by language, I am often
crouched in footnote or blazing in title.
Where in the body do I begin;”

from WHEREAS [“WHEREAS when offered…”]

Layli Long Soldier

CQ

 

 

 

 

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This is my second Thanksgiving in the US. This holiday, and even more so July 4, remind me that I am a visitor here, and thus cannot make any authentic claim to truly own these national events.

I do like the opportunity Thanksgiving affords to bring people together, in kindness, encouraging us to pause and consider all that is good and meaningful in our lives.

Kindness is at the top of my gratitude list. Coming here, a stranger to the city and the country, the kindness of others has made my stay so much more welcoming and joyful.

The poem Small Kindnesses, by Danusha Laméris, encapsulates this beautifully.

“Mostly, we don’t want to harm each other.

We want to be handed our cup of coffee hot,

and to say thank you to the person handing it…”

 

“…We have so little of each other, now. So far

from tribe and fire. Only these brief moments of exchange.

What if they are the true dwelling of the holy, these

fleeting temples we make together when we say, “Here,

have my seat,” “Go ahead – you first,” “I like your hat.”

from Small Kindnesses

By Danusha Laméris

 

 

 

This event happened last weekend, apparently a pretty huge annual one here in the US. I was pretty unaware of it until that night, when the guy who helped me in a store told me how sad he was to be working and not watching the game.

As it happened, the weekend also marked nine months since my arrival in NYC, May 2018. Overall, I now feel pretty settled. Returning to the city following a Christmas/New Year break in London, I realized how much NYC, and my apartment, feel like home. Also, over the past few weeks I have noticed that most experiences in my adopted city no longer feel like I am encountering them for the first time (which is a little sad in a way – I do want to hang onto the excitement of the newness).

My non-engagement with the Super Bowl led me to wonder, however, the extent to which I have truly integrated. Have I merely exchanged one big multicultural city (London) for another? And also, what happens to one’s sense of identity when you move from nation to nation, neither of which is actually your homeland of origin? I was surprised to learn a few weeks ago that everyone I encounter here assumes that I am English. I guess that living for more than a couple of decades in London muted my Irish lilt, but still… Being here in the US, I feel more Irish than I ever have, and gratefully so.

Things I have (particularly) noticed over the past transplanted months:

Language and spelling – gray vs grey / arugula vs rocket / squash vs courgette / sleeper sofa vs sofa bed, the plethora of commas (something I have embraced enthusiastically, being a passionate advocate of same)… The list is exponential.

Directness – it is not just the language that can be different here, but also the way it is delivered. People generally say exactly what they mean, which was disarming initially but I have come to appreciate the directness. It makes you feel that whatever the agenda is, it is transparent to all.

Friendliness – I like that people randomly talk to you, on the street, on the subway. When you start off knowing almost no-one, the acknowledgement of your presence from strangers matters.

Excitement – someone said to me that living in NYC is like being permanently electrified. There is so much to discover, to interest, to energise, to excite. If you are up for it, and I generally am, the options are endless. Take, for example, last week, when I went to a loft apartment in Long Island City for a classical concert. The organisation Groupmuse hosts intimate concerts in people’s homes. The price is a small donation for the musicians, alongside BYOB, and for that you get to hear pretty amazing music and also to meet new people. The concert on this occasion was a cellist performance. Wondrous, and only around 14 of us present. I plan to host a concert in my apartment, too. I love the idea of people coming to my space and sharing such experiences.

I perceive life in technicolor here. I also believe that what I perceive is not how I want it to be, but for the first time, seeing life as it really is.

Living in NYC has also moved my passion for literature and reading to another level. New York Public Library is amazing. And free. I have an endless request list there. Plus, there are numerous, and often free, book events throughout the city. Of late I have seen Colm Toibin, Paul Muldoon, Brian Dillon, Jorie Graham, Tessa Hadley, Dani Shapiro, Elizabeth Gilbert, Maria Popova…

Being surrounded by so much has inspired me in other ways, too. I play the cello in an amateur ensemble. With a friend, we planning to host literary salons on all things pretentious! I am writing, a little, and aiming to do much more. Despite the busyness of life here, I feel as if my brain is almost paradoxically lighter, and open to more.

There are downsides, of course. The UK where my daughter is at school so often feels too far away. NYC is super expensive, though I am learning how to exist here more economically., and there is much culturally that is free.

Although this is gradually and surely improving, there have been moments of huge existential loneliness – stripped bare of that which had previously supported me, moving alone to New York exposed a vulnerable me that inevitably questioned the meaning of my life on more than one occasion. But those experiences have also helped me to understand myself better. Being so exposed, so stripped bare, has encouraged me to critically question my self – my thoughts, behavior, actions – in a (hopefully) constructive way.

I love this a quote from the Baal Shem Tov that I came across in the introduction to Dani Shapiro’s book, Hourglass:

“Let me fall if I must fall. The one I will become will catch me.”

Someone asked me this week where I am heading, what my life plan is. I had no definite or concrete answer. And I am glad of that. I have largely stopped trying to plan my life, and also, I have become mostly okay living with a “not-knowing.”

From Denise Levertov’s Variations On a Theme by Rilke:

“….The day’s blow

rang out, metallic or it was I, a bell awakened,

and what I heard was my whole self

saying and singing what it knew: I can.”

 

Which is what I have gradually come to experience over these past months – a self-belief, and the sense that I, too, can.

 

CQ

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I took this picture at dusk while walking by the canal. It made me think about reflections – both the physical and the contemplative kind. The twilight time of year is particularly conducive to the latter as we pause, consider and reconsider the year that ends, and move on in a (hopefully) more surefooted way to the commencing one.

Although I am not generally into New Year Resolutions, I do appreciate this pause, the freedom to reflect back on past months. David Sedaris believes that we tend to remember sadness, not happiness, happiness being harder to put into words. There is a truth in that. However, I remember many moments of exquisite joy in recent times, mostly derived from the simplest of things – the beauty of water, the sense of sun’s warmth on my face, the smiles and kindnesses of others, the awareness of earth beneath my feet…

I have learnt more about myself this past year than ever before, which has both surprised and at times shocked me. In his wonderful novel, Early Work, Andrew Martin states that “the provisional life is easily unmade.” I like this, it inspires hope. As does Anne Lamott in Almost Everything–Notes on Hope:

“We can change. People say we can’t, but we do when the stakes or the pain is high enough. And when we do, life can change. It offers more of itself when we agree to give up our busyness.”

One thing I have learnt over the past year is that being open to change makes the experience of living so much more fulfilling.

“Living is no laughing matter:

you must live with great seriousness

like a squirrel, for example–

I mean without looking for something

beyond and above living.

I mean living must be your whole occupation.”

from On Living, Nazim Hikmet

Life is indeed a serious business, the realisation of which grows year on year with age. Living it in a lighthearted way, however, need not contradict this realisation.

Beckett’s refrain “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” is particularly apt as the old year fades. For me, as the new year approaches, Larkin’s (uncharacteristically) optimistic words resonate:

“New eyes each year

Find old books here,

And new books, too,

Old eyes renew;

So youth and age

Like ink and page

In this house join,

Minting new coin.”

from Femmes Damnées, Philip Larkin

 

CQ

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wrote a poem. It made me smile.

 

For the Sake of a Name

 

“My name is Mabel,”

I said as I paid for my coffee.

No, strike that, it was Kombucha.

Telling the lie was thrilling.

I wanted to laugh out loud

because I am so not a Mabel.

I have never actually met any Mabels,

although maybe a cat, once,

and a lonely spinster in a Virago novel

who liked a tipple.

 

This Mabel likes Kombucha.

 

I wait expectantly

for the “Mabel” shout out.

 

They forget the order.

 

I argue my/her case.

A Kombucha arrives,

silently.

 

Name-less.

Mabel-less.

No froth on top.

 

And utterly tasteless.

 

CQ

 

 

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Today, I got up late. It’s Saturday, and there was no urgency. I can take a later yoga class instead of my usual early morning one. I could have stayed in bed all day in fact, and probably no one would have known.

There is a great freedom in that. To cliché it, “my life is my own.” Pretty much.

It also means, however, that no one really witnesses my life. Especially this chapter in it, this new adventure in a different place and country.

Our lives are the sum of so many moments, the trivial and the not so. All the small things – which matter to me hugely – that constitute my every day aren’t really worth relaying to someone else, later. And so, these days, for the most part I am the only person who “sees” the micro and the macro that threads together my personal narrative.

Mostly, I am pretty content just witnessing myself witnessing me.

But there are times, too, that it feels as if I am looking for proof that I actually exist, that I am here / have been here / did that… Which is probably why I am drawn to writing, a potential affirmation of my existence. A record, of sorts.

Maybe that’s what diaries are all about. A witnessing, a proof to ourselves that yes, we do actually exist.

A few years ago, I saw (twice) the film Dreams of a Life. It tells the true story of a young woman who is found dead in her London apartment two years after a last sighting. She was found accidentally. No one had reported her missing. She literally disappeared, and no one noticed.

I am good at being alone. I like it. But I also thrive on being in the company of others. And I am happy to report that I am gathering “others” in my new land.

In Buddhist teaching (which I am currently studying and getting much from), the notion of the “no self” is a dominant one that challenges the delusion of cherishing the small, individual self. Our perception of our “selves” and others is merely a thought. Perhaps we fight that notion of “ourselves” being no more than a succession of thoughts by doing things, by chronicling them, by having others witness them, so that we can be truly reassured that we do indeed exist.

Of course, the presence of others need not necessarily equate with a witnessing. We all encounter many people every day, but how often are they truly present to us, and we to them?

As always, I look to poetry for further considerations.

First, Norman McCaig, from his poem Summer Farm:

“Self under self, a pile of selves I stand

Threaded on time, and with metaphysic hand

Lift the farm like a lid and see

Farm within farm, and in the centre, me”

 

And second, Morning, by Yannis Ritsos (translated from the Greek by Nikos Stangos):

“She opened the shutters. She hung the sheets over the sill.

She saw the day.

A bird looked at her straight in the eyes. ‘I am alone,’ she whispered.

‘I am alive.’ She entered the room. The mirror too is a window.

If I jump from I will fall into my arms.”

 

CQ

 

 

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In my new space, as yet sparsely furnished (and I hope to keep it pretty minimalist), I am unconsciously using my time differently.

I don’t have a TV, nor plan to. I also seem to watch much fewer movies, something that used consume much of my time in London (although I did watch this wonderful film on MUBI last night, JÚLIA IST). There is a cool cinema near where I live – I have recently seen RBG (great), Hereditary (not sure why I went to see this, curiosity I guess, not uninteresting) – but I seem to be more drawn to creating something myself, writing. I fantasize about writing using an original Olivetti. I have even found a store here that reclaims and restores them. Soon, I hope. The wonderful thing about living alone is that I can prioritize needs in a purely self-indulgent way.

I am doing a poetry writing course, which I am loving. Every Sunday morning I head to the Bowery, were 8 / 10 of us gather, with a tutor, and workshop poems and ideas. We have spent time walking the streets, gathering inspiration from the novel and the mundane, and this weekend we head to The Metropolitan Museum of Art for some ekphrastic poetry writing, which I am very excited about.

By the end of the course, I hope to have a portfolio of poems in various draft forms, but all around the theme of Self-Portrait.

I share the first – and most raw – below, and as yet untitled (though, in line with my spartan apartment, I may stick with the “Untitled” title).

 

Untitled

Red lipstick on thin, narrow lips.

A family legacy.

She peers through black-framed glasses.

Japanese.

She likes them.

They are kind to ageing eyes,

and offer her a bigger version

of the world she is hungry for.

 

Black on red. Cartoon-like.

Or maybe it’s Chaplin.

 

Red splits apart, revealing

misshapen and unforgiving teeth.

Quirky, she thinks, kindly.

 

She smiles at herself, and whispers,

“Yes, I am ready.”

 

CQ

I just noticed that my last post was in December 2017, and was titled “Everything is going to be alright”, from Derek Mahon’s poem of the same name. Prescient that, as I write from a place (NYC), where pretty much everything seems and feels different and unfamiliar. And where everyday I need to reassure myself that I am doing ok.

I suspect that it is no coincidence that I am finding hope, joy, and solace, in poetry. Poetry has appeared and disappeared at various times in my life. At one point, I used to write poems on a regular basis. But I came to judge them harshly – objectively (if that is even possible here), they were certainly far from impressive. However, I now believe that that judgment in itself missed the point.

I now return to poetry – both reading the works of others and writing my own – from a difference place, both literally and metaphorically, and this feels me with a enormous sense of optimism.

Here are two haikus I wrote before my move west on May 1. Re-reading them just now, they are certainly prescient, but more importantly, hopeful.

I

My footprints in snow

lost with each retreating step

icicles drip tears

 

II

The dove tries anew

wings spread wide she flies and soars

olive branch in beak

 

 

CQ

 

I always seem to return to Derek Mahon at this time of year – proving perhaps poetry’s powerful capacity for personal resonance.

And so it is with Everything Is Going To Be Alright. The words speak for themselves. Even better, hear and watch Mahon read the poem himself.

How should I not be glad to contemplate

the clouds clearing behind the dormer window

and a high tide reflected on the ceiling?

There will be dying, there will be dying,

but there is no need to go into that.

The lines flow from the hand unbidden

and the hidden source is the watchful heart.

The sun rises in spite of everything

and the far cities are beautiful and bright.

I lie here in a riot of sunlight

watching the day break and the clouds flying.

Everything is going to be all right.

 

Derek Mahon

 

 

On December 2, Philip Larkin was finally memorialised in Westminster Abbey’s Poets’ Corner. Exactly 31 years to the day since his death.

Larkin was, and remains, a controversial figure, ‘jammed somewhere between celebratory and condemnatory impulses.‘ I have often argued for appreciating the work of poets through their words without dragging their lives into the mix. For me, poetry can stand alone, can be complete in itself as words on a page. Perhaps that is a naive standpoint, but I remain content experiencing great work as a thing in itself.

And for me, Larkin is a great poet. One of the best presents I ever received was the entire collection from my daughter a couple of Christmases ago.

And it being Christmas again, I thought of that gift as I read about Larkin finally arriving in Poets’ Corner. As I put up our Christmas tree, aware of another ending year, Larkin’s wondrous poem The Trees presented itself.

The Trees

The trees are coming into leaf
Like something almost being said;
The recent buds relax and spread,
Their greenness is a kind of grief.

Is it that they are born again
And we grow old? No, they die too,
Their yearly trick of looking new
Is written down in rings of grain.

Yet still the unresting castles thresh
In fullgrown thickness every May.
Last year is dead, they seem to say,
Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.

Philip Larkin