Saturday, September 28, 2013

REPOST | BEFORE THE BEGINNING OF YEARS by Algernon Charles Swinburne (1865)

Last night I immersed myself in two hour-long documentaries on the life of Father Bede Griffiths. These films are part of a rich archive of study material for an online programme I signed up for several months ago. The films pose a great many questions and today prompt me to do something dear Marylinn does from time to time - namely, repost a piece from 'the archives' that blog stats indicate has been repeatedly revisited. We wonder how and why this happens? Certainly, I have appreciated being put in touch with stories-of-old again, for the themes they highlight, the patterns they reveal. 

Who was it who said, 'We are our stories'? In the original post - a little over a year ago - Mary McC used the word 'wrought' in reference to the 'life material' I'd uncovered. I appreciated her choice of word, indicating as it does the 'forged-in-fire' process Life is. We are continually in the making.  Staying with the story metaphor, we are changed in the telling and re-telling of our stories.  Every choice we make and every experience we have forms, informs and reforms us. There'd be something seriously amiss if it didn't. The implications in this are profound; we are the same people we were a decade ago, a year ago, a day or an hour ago and, too, entirely, utterly different. Not only are the compositional ingredients of our body completely replaced every seven years so that we are physiologically, biologically and structurally renewed, but our psychic, spiritual and emotional interiors are engaged in corresponding processes of a similarly transformative nature. If something doesn't change - and transform through that changing - it effectively dies? In this way we are in constant and dynamic process, a recurring combination/application/ministration of flame and heat, of chipping and sanding, welding and refining

We find ourselves scorched and broken, tested and found wanting. We understand. We do not understand. We understand. We weep and wail. We beat our breasts and gnash our teeth. We despair. We laugh. We rejoice. We dance on light's edge and, too, spend long periods burrowing through darkness, picking over the pieces in our personal compost heap and roaming - we trust, productively - the shadowlands. We attach so as to learn to let go. We detach so that we can learn to give more generously, more authentically engage. It is not enough just to know 'about' these things, or to 'visit' these places. We have, it seems, to fully inhabit them in order for the gifts to make themselves known and the lessons to find purchase. To quote Roethke, 'We wake to sleep and take our waking slow. We learn by going where we have to go'.

And now to the re-post --- 

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 shared the cottage with 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 one 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 has 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

(I'm happy to report I found my original Swinburne Scroll.)

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Tuesday Poem | The Peninsula by Seamus Heaney

Images captured this weekend whilst driving out on our peninsula. No explanation needed re; why I felt prompted to post Seamus Heaney's poem again. . .  

              The Peninsula

               When you have nothing more to say, just drive
               For a day all around the peninsula.
               The sky is tall as over a runway,
               The land without marks, so you will not arrive

               But pass through, though always skirting landfall.
               At dusk, horizons drink down sea and hill,
               The ploughed field swallows the whitewashed gable
               And you're in the dark again. Now recall

               The glazed foreshore and silhouetted log.
               That rock where breakers shredded into rags,
               The leggy birds stilted on their own legs,
               Islands riding themselves out into the fog.

               And drive back home, still with nothing to say
               Except that now you will uncode all landscapes
               By this: things founded clean on their own shapes,
               Water and ground in their extremity. 

               Seamus Heaney 
                      from his collection Door Into The Dark

This week's editor on the Tuesday Poem hub is TP curator, Mary McCallum 
with Digging in the garden after dark (written - it just so happens - for the late and much loved Seamus Heaney)
by Pat White

                              this morning the blade bites clean
                              through soil turning up, on the way
                              worms, spiders and a surfeit of others
                              at work in the everlasting dark

                              the news is it is your turn to spend
                              some time with them, nothing is ended
                              changing places perhaps, . . . 

For this and other Tuesday Poem offerings, please click on the quill.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Tuesday Poem | The World Below the Brine by Walt Whitman

                     The world below the brine, 
                     Forests at the bottom of the sea, the branches and leaves, 
                     Sea-lettuce, vast lichens, strange flowers and seeds, the thick 
                     tangle openings, and pink turf, 
                     Different colors, pale gray and green, purple, white, and gold, the 
                     play of light through the water, 
                     Dumb swimmers there among the rocks, coral, gluten, grass, rushes, 
                     and the aliment of the swimmers, 
                     Sluggish existences grazing there suspended, or slowly crawling 
                     close to the bottom, The sperm-whale at the surface blowing air and spray, or disporting 
                     with his flukes, 
                     The leaden-eyed shark, the walrus, the turtle, the hairy 
                     sea-leopard, and the sting-ray, 
                     Passions there, wars, pursuits, tribes, sight in those ocean-depths, 
                     breathing that thick-breathing air, as so many do, 
                     The change thence to the sight here, and to the subtle air breathed 
                     by beings like us who walk this sphere, 
                     The change onward from ours to that of beings who walk other spheres. 

                     Walt Whitman (1819 - 1902) 

This week's editor on the Tuesday Poem hub is Lesotho-born, Paris-based poet Rethabile Masilo
with A Poem for the Innocents

                                                             "A killing moon peeks through leaves
                                                             of trumpet trees in full bloom
                                                             for Lent, their barks crisscrossed
                                                             by wild strokes of a machete
                                                             when my son tried to help me weed
                                                             our garden, overrun with dandelions. . . " 

To read on, please click on the quill. 

Thursday, September 05, 2013


What can any one of us say re; the way things are unfolding in the Middle East right now? I have no words to articulate the shock and sorrow I feel at President Obama's decision to intervene with a military strike against Syria. 

Before he left, Seamus Heaney gave us this poem 'The Cure at Troy'. 


                               THE CURE AT TROY

                               Human beings suffer,
                               they torture one another,
                               they get hurt and get hard.
                               No poem or play or song
                               can fully right a wrong
                               inflicted or endured.

                               The innocent in gaols
                               beat on their bars together.
                               A hunger-striker's father
                               stands in the graveyard dumb.
                               The police widow in veils
                               faints at the funeral home.

                               History says, Don't hope
                               on this side of the grave.
                               But then, once in a lifetime
                               the longed for tidal wave
                               of justice can rise up,
                               and hope and history rhyme.

                               So hope for a great sea-change
                               on the far side of revenge.
                               Believe that a further shore
                               is reachable from here.
                               Believe in miracles
                               and cures and healing wells.

                               Call the miracle self-healing:
                               The utter self-revealing
                               double-take of feeling.
                               If there's fire on the mountain
                               Or lightning and storm
                               And a god speaks from the sky

                               That means someone is hearing
                               the outcry and the birth-cry
                               of new life at its term.

                               Seamus Heaney

This morning Planet Waves host Eric Francis posted the following article on his website - Eight Arguments Against Going to War in Syria by Stephen Zunes -

Tuesday, September 03, 2013

TUESDAY POEM | Limits of Spectacle Lake by T. Clear

                        LIMITS OF SPECTACLE LAKE

                        — in memory, Walter James Clear, 1918–1966 

                               When the sun had slipped behind the hills
                               I said, let’s go back. Forget this business
                               of lures and lines and casting so far
                               the eye could hardly follow the thread
                               out to snag a rainbow’s lip. Afraid
                               we’d lose our way and soon our boat
                               would spin and sink. There we’d sit
                               eye to eye with a million fish.
                               When I was eight I caught my limit.
                               But not before my father turned the boat
                               to shore and let out one last line for luck.
                               I held that rod for all the hope left
                               reeling in the depths. I pulled
                               trout from tangled, churning light
                               slipping underhand.
                               I don’t know who was more the spectacle—
                               the lake, me, or my father guiding the pole
                               between my unbelieving hands. Somehow
                               he trusted in the end of all filtering light.
                               When he died the next winter,
                               I remembered six fish
                               laid out on a plank.
                               Eye to eye with the dead, in the wake
                               of the boat, I learned the limits,
                               the last ripple of life in a dying fish.


Somehow. . . 

I met T. Clear online some three or more years ago. 'T' stands for Therese; she prefers to be called 'T'. Last year we met - hooray - in person, in Seattle. I'd arrived at her Brandon Street home a little ahead of her and was waiting on the curb when she returned from her day's work at Melinda's glass studio. We took one glance at each other, laughed wholeheartedly and fell immediately into conversation - not a smidge of 'first-time-meeting' awkwardness. After dropping our various bits of paraphernalia inside the house we headed for the woods T so often writes about on her blog -  (a place she seems to visit in all weathers and at any time of day or night!). I imagine by now she'd be capable of walking those forest tracks blind-folded, guided by the sound of her footfall on moss, lichen and tree root, the owls' call or the faint scuffle indicating the presence of eagles as they rummage in their ramshackle eyrie atop their chosen alder. A living-sculpture-of-a-tree in an unexpected clearing, this gnarly-barked giant is not only home to a pair of these majestic birds but also custodian to a diligently-tended, knot-shaped altar of unusual offerings. 

I'm sure I have several of you to thank for my online introduction to T (thank you!). Much-loved poets Theodore Roethke and Seamus Heaney surely had a part to play in our meeting, too. (She and I might have posted Roethke's 'Waking' on the same day/in the same week some years back? Who knows how these connections happen?)  

I dithered at length over which of T's fine poems to post here today. Initially I'd asked her if for permission to post Pond; it was all pretty much typed up and ready to go when the news came in that Seamus Heaney had passed away (oh, sorrowful day). Given the respect and tender regard both T and I have for Seamus Heaney and his work, I decided to hold Pond for another time and instead post Limit of Spectacle Lake. My sense is this would be her preferred poem for this week, too. (She is away at the moment so I'm acting on faith here). 

T - woman, artist, mother, friend, chef, musician, poet - has a rare and exceptional capacity for not shying away from the gritty, dazzling and oft-times shocking realities of life and death. I admire her greatly for this and, too, for the ways in which her poems engage fearlessly with Truth - her own and the collective's. Hers are tenacious poems, poems that ask questions, that mine, probe and penetrate with deep integrity; the same can be said of Seamus Heaney's work. There are times when, reading T's poems, I sense his presence in the room, too. 

Seamus Heaney is considered my many to be one of the great Fathers of Poetry. I commend T's homage to him and her late husband, Mark - Seamus Heaney on the Bathroom Wall - to you. You will notice that today's Limit of Spectacle Lake is dedicated to her late father, Walter James Clear - another reason why I chose this poem instead of Pond for today. 

A suite of six of T's poems were recently published online in the journal Cascadia Review - do visit this site to read them? Several of my favorites are there, including Abandoned Apple Orchard, Earthquake with Forty Pianos and Pond.   

. . . he trusted in the end of all filtering light - T. Clear 
(Photographs/paintings by CB) 

In closing (and by way of a bio) an excerpt from T's blog --- 

"Driving today, after work, in dimming light along Lake Washington, the blue bruised water ruckled-up in the wind, the maples and alders side of the road in every shade of red/orange/yellow.  A swathe of rainbow to the north, a concentrated lump of color sitting just at the horizon. The sky beyond: velvet charcoal.

I kept shouting:

"I live here!"

I've driven that stretch of road so many times, it's easy to take it for granted. Easy to admit to a certain ordinariness in what is never ordinary, never the same from day to day, from hour to hour.

Easy to dismiss the forward-thinking gods who delivered me back to this city that I love, and to whom I say:


This week's editor on the Tuesday Poem hub is Helen McKinlay with the poem Matangi Tai - a powerful testament to a vulnerable man, sorely wronged - by Samoan-born poet, novelist and health activist, Sia Figiel -

                        ". . . P.S: Don't go inciting no violence now sis
                                I know you and that heart of yours
                                I can see your salt already boilin' girl
                                But eh, fink of da mens Martin Luther King Jr.
                                And Mahatma Ghandi
                                And taste me in your ocean girl. . . "

Over on the TP hub, Helen writes, "I am always looking for poetry which speaks of the indigenous origins of the poet. Poetry which springs from the poet’s deep love for their homeland; its culture, its beliefs and its values.  Poetry which sometimes bears the scars of conflict, but never bears a grudge…poetry which makes us laugh from the belly and cry from the heart. A few weeks back I found such a poem: Songs of the fat brown womanand began a search for the poet. . . " 

To read Sia's poem for Matangi Tai and to learn more about her and her work, please click on the quill.  

(Formatting challenges with Blogger today!)