Saturday, June 23, 2012

Choose Me

(to the Muse, who may take any gender it chooses, but I think this one is male)

Choose Me

I am as ready as I’ll ever be,
my door unlocks and opens easily
to any visitor, my walls are thin
and breakable, you may as well come in.

Take me - I’m not particular or proud,
(refined by nature, but you can be loud),
I’d love a swineherd better than a fine
thin-blooded prince who wouldn’t throw a line

to save me. Feel how cold I am, I’ve lit
a fire but lack the stuff to throw on it:
something good to burn, if you’ll be so kind,
a high conceit or bawdy joke – don’t mind.

Come now. My sheets are white and I am free.
I am a poet lost for words. Choose me.


Monday, June 18, 2012

Vita's place

Last week we visited Sissinghurst Castle, the home of Vita Sackville-West. It was full of people wandering around the gardens, standing on the roof of the castle with binoculars, eating cake in the Granary coffee shop and lunching in the restaurant. We ate exceptionally good poached salmon with dill and mustard sauce, new potatoes and crisp steamed vegetables; gooseberry fool for dessert. Everyone sitting around us spoke French.

In the gardens, I wanted to be astonished because they represent a lifetime's work and dedication. But I am not a gardener and my relationship to the world of flowers is mostly superficial.  You must see the White Garden, someone said to me. Go in early summer. I imagined that everything would be white. I forgot that the gardens of great houses are divided up into this and that - a rose garden, a herb garden, a white garden. I pinched off a small piece of lavender and held it to my face, looking round to see if anyone had noticed this small act of vandalism. People walked about with iphone cameras, clicking. Mr. Signs pointed to the laurel growing on the side of a wall and said the laurel in our garden was in better shape. It was a joke we developed as we looked at what was flowering: our roses were better too, less drooping and distressed, our peonies bolder and more vibrant, our foxgloves looked fresher and our forsythia was not brown at the edges. We were overheard by some people who looked at us oddly, because it was an odd thing to do: to walk around a famous garden and make unfavourable comparison with one's own. In the white garden our joke began to peter out. There were strange, dancer-like flowers I had never seen before and tall stalks with frill, like some delicate material on a hand-sewn petticoat. Everything was open and vulnerable-looking. Here Vita and Harold Nicholson would spend their time, year on year, tending the flowers, while visitors came and left their shilling contribution in a bucket by the wide arch that looked over the Kentish fields.

More than anything, I wanted to see the study where Vita wrote her books and poems. It was in the turret, about half way up the seventy-eight stairs, which I climbed with difficulty. En route were rooms given over to plaques and illustrations which spoke about the history of the place - how it had once been a poor house, and also how it had, for a period, housed French POWs in the eighteenth century.  They were kept in disgraceful conditions.  One of the guards had once shot at a group for no reason and killed a couple. The French visitors were milling around me, talking and pointing. There were delicate markings on some of the walls, drawings of boats that the prisoners longed to return to.

The entrance to Vita's study had iron bars through which we could look but not enter. I was disappointed. I had pictured myself standing by one of her windows, seeing what she might have seen (the terrain still much the same) when she had looked. I wanted to be close to the vital life of the room. I pressed my face against the bars and breathed in the scent of old books, the walls being covered with them. My eyes wanted to take in everything, but I knew I would only retain a few details and all else would be sense impressions. There wasn't time, and French pilgrims behind us were impatient for their turn to look. There was a scent, almost not there, but I have a keen sense of smell and if it had been possible for me to linger I might even have identified the brand; not one that would easily be found now. It was the kind my mother, or more likely one of her older friends, might have worn in the fifties, when I was too young to read or know about these things. It was sweet, with a touch of decay, almost unpleasant - but one would have got used to it. The scent had hung about her, I guessed, as she sat and worked, and the furnishings - the chaise longue, rug, wall hangings, and the books - still held it, this essence, and breathed it out.

Coming back to Signs Cottage, we went into our minimally-tended garden, which I do not appreciate as much as I might.  It looked particularly beautiful. Mr. Signs pointed to an area he was leaving to grow wild - our meadow.  Us aristocrats.

Vita knew her flowers intimately and had a connection to them, gave each their due. One catches this in her poem, The Land - heavy in parts, but it begins to sing when it speaks of flowers, and her relationship to the garden.

She walks among the loveliness she made,
Between the apple-blossom and the water -
She walks among the patterned pied brocade,
Each flower her son, and every tree her daughter.


Friday, June 8, 2012


I am reading Laura Hillenbrand's book, Unbroken. It is her second book, the first being Sea Biscuit, which was about a racehorse. Unbroken is about Louis Zamperini, who became famous for being a runner and winning races, and then for surviving terrible years as a POW in Japan. Laura Hillenbrand, who is now 43, has had M.E. since she was 19. She lives in her room and goes out so rarely that when she does, she is confused by changes in the world: things are automated that never used to be - that sort of thing. She says that she writes about people who push themselves to the limit against overwhelming odds because it gives her a vicarious life. People have urged her to write an autobiography (she wrote a splendid piece, published in the New Yorker, about the very beginning of having M.E.). But writing about her own life is the last thing she wants to do. Writing stories is a way of not having to live so completely inside her own diseased body. It has been her escape. I find it hard to imagine how she does it. She says that everything is set up for her. She has a refrigerator in her room. Her husband is a successful university professor and was presumably able to provide for her, before she became financially successful. Even so, there are cognitive challenges she must have had to negotiate.

What she said made me think - that we all, to some extent, live our lives vicariously. We do this when entering into the life of another or just observing a creature or something from the natural world. When we pay attention to the 'otherness' of the other, then we become that: borrow the airborneness of a bird in flight, the astonishment of a baby who sees everything as new; and I remember the look in my daughter's eyes in the morning when she was two months old - I felt proud, almost, to have brought her into the world so that she could discover the remarkable fact (not the word but I can't find the right one) of a pattern made on the wall by sun coming through pink curtains. The first time my cat went outside, looked up and saw birds flying in the sky, something moved in her soul, quickened her senses. Of course, in time, she would want to catch and kill them, but still, it was a moment of wonder, when sudddenly this bit of life was revealed to her, and I felt proud of the world and what lived in it, as though I myself had had something to do with its creation - and at the same time I felt I was her, on the receiving end of all these new manifestations.  Animals have this virtue, that they keep their innocence. Even when they kill and maim, they do not lose it, as people do.

Everything after birth is a falling away from innocence. To keep the soul intact, to retain a sense of wonder - this is great blessing. Sometimes it is lost or damaged, but we can get it back, as Louis Zamperini, after his terrible experiences, managed to do, this being (in my opinion) his greatest achievement.

It is June, but the wind is autumn-like, tearing through the branches of the ash tree outside my window. A child's red teepee has been blown onto my lawn. Nothing is quite as it should be. I am filled with a sense of possibilities.   

Friday, June 1, 2012

Water and Stars

I like poetry. Ever since coming across those lines from A Child's Garden of Verses by R.L. Stevenson (about the pail by the wall being half full of water and stars) it has had a place in my life - been important to me. But I hardly get to any poetry readings these days. Mostly, this is because of restrictions imposed my neurologically-challenged brain that isn't easily able to give the kind of sustained concentrated focus needed. But I have to admit that my preference is also to have a particular kind of one-on-one relationship with a poem that you get when it is just you and the words on a page. I often hear it said that a poem only really comes alive when it is spoken aloud, and it is quite true that to speak it aloud often tests where a poem is or isn't working; and it is true that when a poet has the gift of being able to deliver their words well, then it is a fine thing to hear them. I know one of whom it is said that he could read from a telephone directory or a Tesco's till receipt and make it sound like poetry (and perhaps, for the duration of his performance of such, it might become so). But there are good, even famous poets who don't do this well, and then I would prefer to meet their work on the page.

Perhaps I am making a virtue of a necessity. However good the poem on the page, one doesn't have the buzz of conviviality that comes from a room full of people sharing the experience. I have recently been in rooms full of people because they were occasions which I couldn't bear to miss: the book launch of a dear friend was one and the wedding of my youngest brother was another. The commonplace business of engaging in conversation in a crowded room, especially where there is ambient noise, has become something I can - almost - no longer do. It does something to the wiring in my brain that is hard to describe, but many PeopleWithME will know and recognise. Clearly there was a time when I managed better than I do now. But for now I will (have to) carry on treading the path of acceptance. Does this sound boring?

I am not bored. I have almost never been bored, even as a temp when typing figures all day on a manual typewriter or sitting in a classroom listening to the depressed geography supply teacher drone about where we got our wheat, cocoa and meat from. I took in none of the facts (I seldom did) but I remember everything about the teacher: how carefully he combed the few oily strands across his bald head, the texture of his tweed-like suit that picked up on the colour of his ginger sideburns, the earnest expression, as though there might have been something hidden in the dreary litany of facts that he would have liked to reveal to us. I remember how dust gathered in the corners of the large classroom windows that you could only open by using a long pole with a metal hook at the end, and the blackboard where there was always the ghost of something written in chalk, even once it had been rubbed out. I must have been paying attention - to something or someone. I still do. And the other day I read Billy Collins who said, while the novelist is banging on his typewriter, the poet is watching a fly on the windowpane. I don't think the one activity necessarily excludes the other, and however many flies you watch there is no substitute for writing words on paper (or screen). But it did give me the sense, or remind me, that the act of witnessing and paying attention means something and gives power and substance. The pail is still full of water and stars.