Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Somewhere between map and memory




I wonder sometimes about pictures, images or photographs of the places I write about. Sometimes, particularly if they are of nature, the photographs accompany the words as if they were made to be together. I enjoy images with text, whether it is in a blog post or a book, and I think it was in W G Sebald's books that I first noticed small black and white images that had inserted themselves between the printed lines and what I particularly liked about them was their unintrusive nature, they were not especially beautiful photographs and were not meant to be. Their function in fact or so I thought, was somewhere between map and memory or aide-memoire or sketch made while writing the notes and included in the finished product so that the reader might also follow the deliberations of the writer, add to their sense of curiosity and their enjoyment as they participate in the threading of thought and image and association, leading to a clearing in the dense wood, or to a rise which when you reach the top, gives you this immense view out over the surrounding countryside or the city below you and these sketchy photographs have formed part of the path, part of the wings that have carried you up here, to a view that strikes you like a thunderclap, a slap of insight a heavy wave of water that knocks you off your feet with the power of it, and you fall over laughing, in the spray of the breaking wave.

I've been thinking about this because I wanted to post an excerpt from a piece of prose that's been published recently and because it is about a very particular place, I went looking for some photographs to illustrate the place I was writing about. I could not find any because I did not take any at the time. And I thought that even if I had, would they have conveyed the streets I had written about, really? For writing is made up of that mixture of vision and imagination, and of associations and perhaps memories that arise, and the photographs would not convey that, not really. I don't think so anyway. And, looking through other photographs of streets near the ones I wrote about, in Tirana and other Albanian towns it seemed to me that they invoked their own stories so I could imagine looking at them and writing a story from them, but that would be a different story...

So I decided to put in photographs at the end. They might be seen as sketches or fragments from a notebook, or they might form a story of their own.

An excerpt from Walking in Tirana, included in Scottish PEN's anthology of prose and poetry, I'm Coming with You. It says on the back that the writing 'reflects on places, journeys, people, home and exile, and most powerfully on freedoms found through writing and reading.'

Near the clock tower I walk across a flat expanse of earth, with here and there a tuft of grass growing, emerald green against the brown. The area of earth is scattered with shiny puddles and most of what is not underwater is slicked with a film of mud. I negotiate the lakes and swampy areas and I feel briefly like a child, playing at explorers.

I do not know who I am as I step over fragments of patterned paving stones, the sunlight chopping all that it touches, slicing it up into brightness and shade. I am swept up with the rubble and smoothed down with the dust. I am nothing other than this. I am laughing and frightened. I am possibly only the words that I write. So I have to keep writing, as I have to keep moving, in sunlight, or out of it.

I don't know who I am as I walk through these streets. I feel like a chink in a wall, stuffed with extravagant flowers. In the evening, the flowers droop and drop, one by one, from the gap that they filled.

A loosened soil, I could be that, as I walk through these streets. Something crumbling. Maybe a stone. Maybe, once part of a red-brick archway, like the one I saw on a muddy track between Bajram Curri and Myslym Shryi, with greenery dangling from the curve of its roof. Or the darkness the archway is covering. Tell me I whisper to the sauntering streets, tell me who I am. My walking is waiting and listening, not walking at all.







Wednesday, 5 April 2017

Return to the River and the Rooks


The Old Vicarage, near Kirkby Lonsdale.

In the last post I mentioned that Shaping the Water Path has both poems and prose poems and I got to thinking about the differences between poetry and prose. And recently, thanks to The Solitary Walker I was reminded of John Berger's illuminating description of that difference.

Poems, even when narrative, do not resemble stories. All stories are about battles, of one kind or another, which end in victory and defeat. Everything moves towards the end, when the outcome will be known.

Poems, regardless of any outcome, cross the battlefields, tending the  wounded, listening to the wild monologues of the triumphant or the fearful. They bring a kind of peace. Not by anaesthesia or easy reassurance, but by recognition and the promise that what has been experienced cannot disappear as if it had never been.....the promise is that language has acknowledged, has given shelter, to the experience which demanded, which cried out.

Poems are nearer to prayers than to stories....In all poetry words are a presence before they are a means of communication.
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The poet places language beyond the reach of time: or, more accurately, the poet approaches language as if it were a place, an assembly point, where time has no finality, where time itself is encompassed and contained.
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Poetry can speak of immortality because it abandons itself to language, in the belief that language embraces all experience, past, present and future.

 

(from and our faces, my heart, brief as photos by John Berger)

And I was reminded of that encompassing of past and present when we returned recently to the Old Vicarage where I first wrote the piece that gave the title to the book, Shaping the Water Path.

The water path shaped


In the time between the two visits – almost a year has passed – the book has been created, thanks to the encouragement and hard work of my publisher, Sally Evans of diehard books, and this seems the most appropriate place to give a reading from it. (You can see photographs from the reading on Sally's facebook page.)

Back in the garden, where time and the river, where journey and trajectory have a presence. Like time, the river is in perpetual movement, yet there is also the ongoing work to give stability to the water course, the creation of walls to strengthen the river banks and the planting of flowers and bushes, permanence framing the rushing water and the shimmering movement of the rooks and other birds.

The next morning I went for a walk, following the narrow road uphill, that winds through the valleys of the fells.






Coming back towards the house, I opened the new gate into the adjoining field. The land falls away towards the little river.






It looks as though the wall surrounding the garden goes right down to the water and so there's no room to pass. But when I reach the beck I discover there is a way into the garden from outside. From the narrow path between the beck and the high wall, through a new wooden door set in the wall. Open it and step into the magical garden. You are met by a flurry of pink, a flowering currant bush.

 
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Gardeners work on a wooden bridge over the beck, making steps leading up to the slope of garden, with the hazel tree and its new shower of yellow catkins, to the rock garden that falls away from the house walls.



The sequoia is the guardian, protector, and beside it are other trees, where the rooks have their homes. We share this garden with the rooks, whose conversation is louder than ours. It is possible they hardly notice our tinkling twittering and laughter as we sit at the outside table in the sunshine. They have lived here forever these rook-lords of the garden, tolerating the gardeners' work, the pruning and the planting, the shoring up of beck bank, the wooden doors and bridges, the map-making of walks and trails, connecting this green space.







At dusk, a bat flutters like a black leaf, from tree to tree. When we go inside, there are no curtains drawn, and sheets of light spill out of the windows onto the path outside.

At night in my room I hear the beck sounds, the rushing of its water on its busy garden course. And once, a sound like hail or crystals, cascading on the window pane. I don't know what it was. Garden spirit or bat language become audible, this different language rustling like a tumbling bolt of beaded silk against the window pane, invisible, reassuring.