Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Tuesday Poem - Before The Beginning Of Years by Algernon Charles Swinburne

I first encountered Before The Beginning Of Years in 1980, in Norton's Anthology of Modern Verse. At the time I was a student at the University of Natal, Pietermaritzburg, studying Fine Arts, Latin, Classical Civilization and English. I've kept Swinburne's poem (written in 1856) within arms' reach ever since. As far back as I can remember I've taped it to the walls of my studio - it's probably hung in every studio I've worked in. So saying, I seem to have misplaced it recently and spent some time today trying to find it.

I wrote the poem out way back in the 1980s, using ivory black ink and a long scroll of newsprint. This same scroll was carted from one workspace to the next. In 1985 it hung from a bare curtain rail in the converted tractor shed that doubled-up as accommodation and studio; I was twenty-four at the time, recently graduated and newly married. We - my twenty-five year old husband P & I - started our life together on a remote pig farm in a farming district named Nooitgedacht (back in South Africa this was). As it turned out, we ended up having very little in the way of 'together' time there; six weeks after our wedding, he was called up to the Angolan border to serve time as a medic for the military. I've never quite got my head around that chapter of our story. . . 

Storm Warning I (detail) - lithograph with ink & gesso - CB + Katherine Glenday vessel

Anyway, I spent the next couple of months on my own - well, no, I wasn't entirely on my own. I had my cat, Count Cumulus. I grew veggies, walked, talked to pigs and cows and otherwise spent long, satisfying hours working towards my first solo show. I loved living out there - the huge skies, skudding clouds and wild fecundity of the place. Within a week or two of P's leaving, I discovered I was pregnant. I thrived, deeply content in the knowledge of my growing babe and found myself entranced by the surprise of full breasts and a rounding belly. Everywhere I looked I found rhythms - echoes between my inner and outer landscapes. This short period of productivity and paradise came to an abrupt end after two grueling murders were committed within unsettling proximity of the farm. I decided it would be unwise to stay and, within twenty-four hours of the second death, had packed up my few belongings, my studio materials and cat and moved to the city. The curator of my first-ever dealer gallery kindly offered me her spare rental flat for a few weeks while I hunted for a suitable place to stay. I had an exhibition to produce and was thoroughly nest-y at the time; am not sure what I'd have done had K not stepped in and offered me that temporary shelter. I hung Swinburne's poem on the wall opposite my king-sized mattress in K's very small street-front flat (our mattress lived on the floor in those days). I drew and painted all day, read and played music to my belly at night, ate kilograms of citrus and drank litres of rooibos tea (loose twigs, with honey). 

Before long, I found a small, affordable garden cottage to move into in Randburg (one of Johannesburg's Northern suburbs) and taped Swinburne to the wall behind P's empty - and patiently waiting - desk in the spare back room I'd chosen to make my studio. From there, the same (rapidly-yellowing) scroll moved with me to the shed that became my workspace in our whitewashed home in Kenilworth, Cape Town. Our family had expanded to five by then. In 1994, we moved to New Zealand; the poem came, too, of course. It spent several months on a container at sea (a little like me) and when our belongings arrived and we'd unpacked, I took it down the hill to the second floor studio I'd signed a lease on in George Street, downtown Dunedin. We - the poem and I - settled into that space and stayed there for seven years - we left reluctantly when my landlord decided to double my rent (inner city apartments were becoming The Thing) and I moved on to another place; next came a rather derelict two-roomed studio in a neglected old building at the bottom of Jetty Street. I didn't stay there long - less than two years - but, despite the isolation (the building was tucked under the armpit of an over-bridge in the older, largely uninhabited part of town), my stint in Jetty Street was once of the most productive periods of my working life. In 2003 I moved to the old harbour-side villa I live and work in today. The Swinburne Scroll came with me, of course. I've had it out and up since moving to 22; it's got to be here somewhere. . . 

Here, then, is the poem:


            Before the beginning of years
                There came to the making of man
            Time, with a gift of tears;
                Grief, with a glass that ran;
            Pleasure, with pain for leaven;
                Summer, with flowers that fell;
            Remembrance fallen from heaven,
                And madness risen from hell;
            Strength without hands to smite;
                Love that endures for a breath:
            Night, the shadow of light,
                 And life, the shadow of death.
            And the high gods took in hand
                 Fire, and the falling of tears, 
            And a measure of sliding sand
                 From under the feet of the years;
            And froth and drift of the sea; 
                 And dust of the laboring earth;
            And bodies of things to be
                 In the houses of death and of birth;
            And wrought with weeping and laughter,
                 And fashioned with loathing and love
            With life before and after
                 And death beneath and above,
            For a day and a night and a morrow, 
                 That his strength might endure for a span
            With travail and heavy sorrow,
                 The holy spirit of man.
            From the winds of the north and the south
                 They gathered as unto strife;
            They breathed upon his mouth,
                  They filled his body with life;
            Eyesight and speech they wrought
                  For the veils of the soul therein,
            A time for labor and thought,
                   A time to serve and to sin;
            They gave him light in his ways, 
                   And love, and a space for delight,
            And beauty and length of days,
                   And night, and sleep in the night. 
            His speech is a burning fire;
                   With his lips he travaileth;
            In his heart is a blind desire,
                   In his eyes foreknowledge of death;
            He weaves, and is clothed with derision;
                   Sows, and he shall not reap;
            His life is a watch or a vision
                   Between a sleep and a sleep. 

            Algernon Charles Swinburne (1865)  

Storm Warning II (detail) - Lithograph with ink and gesso - CB

This week's editor on the Tuesday Poem hub is yours truly. I have chosen Ripe Fruit by South African writer Ruben Mowszcowski

You may remember I featured Ruben's searingly evocative poem Karoo Moon on All Finite Things a couple of weeks ago. (Incidentally, Karoo Moon received more reader 'hits' in a week than any other Tuesday poem I've posted. It was interesting taking a look at my stats - something I rarely do. Apparently Stanley Kubrick's The Layers has had 1103 page views since it was posted here on 1 March 2011!)

One reader of Karoo Moon sent me a private message in which he said the poem had startled him, brought him 'back to source', set him back on track. 

Click on the quill to savour Ruben's Ripe Fruit and an exciting selection of poems from around the globe. . .  

Keeping an eye out for fire. . . 

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Tuesday Poem - Strawberries by Margaret Atwood (posted for TP's Flash Fiction Day)


The strawberries when I first remember them are not red but blue, that blue flare, before the whitehot part of the wire, sun glancing from the points of waves. It was the heat that made things blue like that, rage, I went into the waste orchard because I did not want to talk to you or even see you, I wanted instead to do something small and useful that I was good at. It was June, there were mosquitos, I stirred them up as I pushed aside the higher stems, but I didn't care, I was immune, all that adrenalin kept them away, and if not I was in the mood for minor lacerations. I don't get angry like that any more. I almost miss it. 

I'd like to say I saw everything through a haze of red; which is not true. Nothing was hazy. Everything was very clear, clearer than usual, my hands with the stained nails, the sunlight falling on the ground through the apple-tree branches, each leaf, each white five petalled yellow centred flower and conical fine-haried dark red multi-seeded dwarf berry rendering itself in dry flat two dimensional detail, like background foliage by one of the crazier Victorian painters, just before the invention of the camera; and at some time during that hour, though not for the whole hour, I forgot what things were called and saw instead what they are. 

Margaret Atwood
from Murder In The Dark - pages 95 & 96

Friday 22 June is National Flash Fiction Day in New Zealand. Some of the Tuesday Poets will therefore be posting flash fiction this week instead of poetry. To quote Michelle Elvy (editor over on the Tuesday Poem hub this week and judge of this year's NFFD Competition), "If you're not sure about flash fiction, think short short fiction - usually stories up to 500 words are considered flash fiction - sometimes as long as 1000 but more often ever shorter, in the 250 - 300 range."

Click on the quill to read Michelle's flash fiction post - Bomb by Sian Williams - and from there follow the links to discover what our Tuesday Poets are up to this week. 

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Tuesday Poem - Can You Imagine? by Mary Oliver

                 CAN YOU IMAGINE?

                 For example, what the trees do
                 not only in lightning storms
                 or the watery bark of a summer's night
                 or under the white nets of winter
                 but now, and now, and now - whenever
                 we're not looking. Surely you can't imagine 
                 they don't dance, from the root up, wishing
                 to travel a little, not cramped so much as wanting
                 a better view, or more sun, or just as avidly
                 more shade - surely you can't imagine they just
                 stand there loving every minute of it, the birds
                 or the emptiness, the dark rings 
                 of the years slowly and without a sound
                 thickening, and nothing different unless the wind,
                 and then only in its own mood, comes
                 to visit, surely you can't imagine
                 patience, and happiness, like that. 

                 Mary Oliver

For more Tuesday Poems, please click on the quill. 

This week's editor is Helen McKinlay with a delicious and surprising poem The Cheese Room by Judy Brown.  

Monday, June 11, 2012

. . . palms flat on the sand

        ". . . In the pre-dawn hours I watch the sky, the small distant suns, as winter comes on, of Orion and Canis Major shining above the southern horizon. I can easily imagine a planet among them on the surface of which someone is standing alone in a clearing trying to teach himself to whistle, and is being watched by large birds that look like herons. (I reach out and begin to dig in the sand, feeling for substance, for stones in the earth to hold onto: I might suddenly lose my own weight, be blown away like a duck's breast feather in the slight breeze that now tunnels in my hair.)

        I stand up, resume the watch. I know what I'm looking for. I wait. 

        I do not know what to do with the weariness, with the exhaustion. I confess to self-delusion. I've imagined myself walking away at times, as though bored or defeated, but contriving to leave enough of myself behind to observe any sign, the slightest change. I would seem to an observer to be absorbed in a game of string figures between my fingers, inattentive, when in fact I would be alert to the heartbeats of fish moving beyond the surf. But these ruses only added to the weariness and seemed, in the end, irreverent. 

        I have been here, I think, for years. I have spent nights with my palms flat on the sand, tracing the grains for hours like braille until I had the pattern precisely, could go anywhere - the coast of Africa - and recreate the same strip of beach, down to the very sound of the water on sea pebbles out of the sounds of my gut that has been empty for years; to the welling of the wind by vibrating the muscles of my thighs. Replications. I could make you believe you heard sandpipers walking in the darkness at the edge of a spent wave, or a sound that would make you cry at the thought of what had slipped through your fingers. When tides and the wind and the scurrying of creatures rearrange these interminable grains of sand so that I must learn this surface all over again through the palms of my hands, I do. This is one of my confidences. . . 

        I have spent much of my time simply walking. 

        Once I concentrated very hard on moving soundlessly down the beach. I anticipated individual grains of sand losing their grip and tumbling into depressions, and I moved at that moment so my footfalls were masked. I imagined myself in between these steps as silent as stone stairs, but poised, like the heron hunting. In this way I eventually became unknown even to myself (looking somewhere out to sea for a flight of terns to pass). I could then examine myself as though I were an empty abalone shell, held up in my own hands, held up to the wind to see what sort of noise I would make. I know the sound - the sound of fish dreaming, twilight in a still pool downstream. . . "

from River Notes - Barry Lopez (pages 63 & 64)

Don Binney - Kotuku, Puketotara III (2006) Acrylic & graphite on board, 430 x 645MM

I discovered Barry Lopez - his library of tenderly observed, exquisitely paced books - whilst traveling in New Mexico last month and referenced Desert Notes in my post The land does not give easily. Since then I've been on a search for his writing. A couple of days ago, Desert Notes - Reflections In The Eye Of A Raven and River Notes - The dance of Herons arrived in my mailbox. I'm immersed in both; an incongruous pairing some might think, but no. To the contrary, the experience of one heightens the other, provides relief, dimension, illumination. Reading them together feels like carving a route out of some inarticulable barrenness towards succor, softness, comfort and understanding ('. . . I know what they tell you about the desert but you mustn't believe them. This is no deathbed. Dig down, the earth is moist. . ') or of being plucked from dark water a moment before drowning, delivered to a shore with substance, stability, infinite promise and purchase. ('. . . When you are suddenly overwhelmed with a compassion that staggers you and you begin to run along the bank, at the moment when your fingers brush the soft skin of a deer-head orchid and you see sun-drenched bears stretching in an open field like young men, you will know a loss of guile and that the journey has begun. . .' pg 67)

We all experience desert times - in life, work, the vortices of inner/outer conversation - and times when the river flows. Today, I'm grateful for the encouragement that arrived on the backs of these six words - 'Dig down, the earth is moist.' 

Perhaps what we consider to be desert is in fact river?

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Tuesday Poem - The Phenomenology of Stones by Thomas McCarthy

I've been rustling and rummaging since returning home; riffling through manilla envelopes, files, folders, shelves, boxes, plans chests and drawers that house preparatory sketches, writing fragments (a new literary genre, I learnt this week), outlines for exhibitions, ideas for installations, objects and projects (many of them realized, as many yet to begin, still others in process. . .); three-plus decades of consistent, pretty-much uninterrupted creative work. . . Going through all this material has been an interesting process, one that's triggered a wide range of feeling in me - in part because I think it will soon be a chapter in the past. I can't see myself continuing to work the way I have during the years preceding this one. This is not a sudden realization; change has been on its way for some time only now it's becoming emphatic, less equivocal. The world we all live in is not the same Now as it was Then and therefore invites a different engagement and response. I'll write more about this in a separate post;  today is Tuesday - and, therefore, Tuesday Poem day - but the reason I'm alluding to this now is because whilst sifting and sorting, I came across a sketchbook that contained the preparatory notes and drawings for an exhibition I put together in c. 2001, titled Altered Ground. In it I'd transcribed The Phenomenology of Stones by Thomas McCarthy. I first read this poem in the late 1990s when I was in my early thirties - a young wife and mother, artist and idealist. . . It moved me then and it moves me now (and I have always loved stones, seen life and felt the life-force in them). Stone tables - altars as bridge-builders and meeting places - have been a recurring theme in my work. The person who wrote the catalogue essay concluded his piece with McCarthy's poem. . . 


                     These summer days I carry images of stone,
                     Small pebbles from a photographer's shelf
                     Made smooth by a million years of sea and salt.
                     Sunlight shines roundly into their small room,
                     Twisting black grains into crystals and gems:
                     Lights call like young birds from their surfaces,
                     Sparrows of light flying from graves, from places
                     Where the dead had grown; the sorrow-gardens.

                     But the silence of stone quietens the mind
                     And calms the eye. Like their girl-collector -
                     In her deep solitude the stones are moved.
                         She is their dream-collector, pouring her kind-
                         ness into the sleeping form. They gather
                         Fables about themselves to entertain such love.

                    Thomas McCarthy
                          The Penguin Book of Contemporary Irish Poetry - page 412

For more Tuesday Poems, please click on the quill. 

PS. Blogger's doing weird things today. I'm away to the Banks Peninsula for a couple of days - snow's been forecast so two days away could well turn into more. When is life not unpredictable/an adventure? 

Monday, June 04, 2012

Keeping An Eye Out For Fire


"Hold fast to your life, to beauty and inspiration, and to obedience to inspiration. . ."
Agnes Martin