One of the many weird, sad things about living during this time of pandemic is what it does to how we look on other people: suddenly everyone is threat, or potential threat, and connection is something to be avoided, not sought. I’d like to offer a little antidote to this—a reminder of connection as protection—in the shape of ‘Shoulders‘ by the deeply gifted Naomi Shihab Nye.Read More
Apparently that’s the name for the torture whereby a board was placed on top of you and weights gradually added until the life was crushed out of you (or you made a plea in relation to the crime of which you were accused). “Pressing”, as it was also known, comes to my mind every now and then these days when I turn on the news or check out The Grauniad website and hear what the latest Thing is. I have a distinctly physical sense of another weight being added, another piece of bad news and difficulty on top of what already felt like a crushing load. Thus half an hour ago I was to be seen sitting with my forehead on the desk trying to summon the energy and will to sit upright. I’m sure this is a common experience. What works, apart from coffee, chocolate or a walk in the wood, is acknowledging to myself what I’m actually feeling; and so I give you ‘Talking to Grief‘ by Denise Levertov.Read More
Or rather, remember, that poems can be instruction manuals for us in times of crisis (see Libby Purves, above). As one who usually needs a walk in the morning if I’m to greet the world with anything other than a scowl, snarl or sob, I really relate to ‘How to Regain Your Soul‘ by William Stafford. It feels like a useful entry in the How to: Life guide at the moment. See what you think.
I love the specificity here. ‘[T]hat one place where the valley floor opens out’, as well as inviting us into the poem and, in its intimacy, suggesting that we’re fellow-travellers welcomed by the poet, this tells us how well-known this place is to the speaker. This first stanza is full of precise detail: the poet is steeped in the place, grounded in it, and can evoke it with a vividness possible only when you’ve really allowed yourself to be in a place—have a relationship with it (and it with you). It’s a place to ‘[p]ut down your pack’; a place, then, you might’ve made some effort to get to, but which is worth the trek. A place and time to be savoured.
And time expands in the second stanza, back into the distant and then the unimaginably distant past. There is freedom here—’Above, air sighs’; the dazzle of the ‘white butterflies danc[ing]/ by the thousands in the still sunshine’—and a sense of access into eternity and the “sudden” knowledge that ‘anything/ could happen to you’. A moment of grace, or ephipany: your soul taking its right place in the soul of the world, as part of the world, and then ‘shin[ing] back through the white wings to be you again’. This is a drink of cool well-water on a hot day. This is refreshment. We all need this at the moment.
I can’t say I get my third eye opened every time I shuffle, stride or sometimes scamper (a solo thing, that!) through the woods and up onto the scar behind my house. But there is always something about attention to the place and its small wonders which lifts and frees me, and partly because of my familiarity with it. Yesterday, walking in all that spring-shaggy greenness, I rejoiced in the multilayered birdsong echoing through the damp air. I spotted a jay, a woodpecker, a tree creeper, many squirrels and the rat which lives near that big limestone outcrop (you know, the one by the steps up onto the dancing green where the bench is?). The grass was made beautiful by rain and the orchids poked their magenta up through the silvered green. It was magic. And I regained enough of my soul to function as a reasonably civilised human being again.
Until the following morning, at least.
That extra time we’re supposed to be having at the moment, during which we relax, read, knit ourselves cunning new kitchens, all that lot… It hasn’t been like that for me. I seem to have spent a startling amount of time doing I know not what. But one of the things I have managed to achieve, which I’ve been meaning to do for a long time, is get hold of some WS Merwin.Read More
I’ve heard and read in many places these last few weeks a lot of stuff about how “we’re all in a heightened emotional state at the moment”: operating at a higher pitch; a bit more thin-skinned than usual. It’s not surprising. So I don’t know if it’s what’s going on in the macrocosm or in my own microcosm which makes me so susceptible to this poem, ‘A Blessing‘ by James Wright (have it read to you here). But susceptible I am. It moves me greatly. See what you think.Read More
Waking at 5.25 this morning I got straight out of bed and went to the wood behind my house where I walked slowly round, revelling in the full glory of the dawn chorus. I was still in my pyjamas so I’m glad I was there before the first dogwalkers and runners (in these days of lockdown they are infesting the times and places that—did they but know it—are actually MINE. I know; sorry.) But even though I didn’t get caught I was aware that this wasn’t exactly Normal Behaviour. I mean, sure, I walk pretty much every morning. But I usually get dressed first. It just didn’t seem worth it today.Read More
There is good stuff in amongst all the strangeness at the moment, as a lot of people are noting. Some are doing so with a vim and perkiness which I find quite annoying—I rarely find Uplift uplifting—but it’s good to hear the quieter, less trumpety tales. And to notice things, too. Driving up to Scotland last week I was moved to see an oystercatcher walking across the M6 in front of me. I’m kinda glad the world is getting a rest from us.
‘The Horses‘ by Edwin Muir is one of the poems which has been echoing round my mind these last few weeks. Though it offers a post-apocalyptic vision it’s not an unmitigatedly doomy one, and I don’t offer it with a gloomy sense of prophecy. Rather, it’s because I’ve been aware of how strange and lovely I am finding the current silence, or relative silence, on my (rare and legitimate, guv’nor) sorties into the outside world. And silence is what Muir’s poem opens with. (Here are a couple of readings of it, too, one much more fruity and declamatory than the other. See what you think.)Read More