light in the dark

Twice recently, I’ve walked through the darkness that descends in late afternoon and pushed open the door of my local bookshop, The Suffolk Anthology. I go there often anyway, of course; but these visits were prompted by requests, on two separate days, for a replacement copy of my poetry book Sudden Arabesque, because, mirabile dictu, two different people had bought one! This heartwarming news meant I could brighten the winter’s evening by a visit to the bookshop. *

And what a delight it is to do this! Books everywhere, displayed standing, and shelved, and spread out on the central table of new arrivals. You can pick them up and handle them and turn them over in your fingers and leaf through the pages. There are so many beautiful cards as well, with all sorts of art; not to mention coffee and cake for those who want to linger. Of course I always come away with a book, or a card, a treasure of some sort. As so many bookshops close, any bookshop represents great courage if it has opened in recent years, and endurance if it has been there a while. I want to support this—and of course, it’s easy, as I love what bookshops offer!

Those two lovely unknown people who bought a copy of my poetry book have therefore supported (and I mean this is a wider than monetary sense) the bookshop, and also the poet; as well as the artist of the book’s cover, Ruth End, whose work I first saw on the walls of this very bookshop, where you can still see it now. And when we buy books published by a small poetry publisher, we validate the labour of love that such publishing entails.

In my bookshop you can find the work of many other local writers, and local as well as nationally-known writers do readings and signings there; writing workshops happen there too. So a bookshop becomes a cultural hub as well as a place to find books.

A bookshop is a light in the dark.

*An explanatory note in the unlikely event you wonder why I take Sudden Arabesque to the shop myself: it is published by Oversteps Books (that’s a clickable link) and anyone wanting a copy can order online directly from the publisher. Bookshops can also obtain it easily too. But, for my local bookshop, it’s quicker and easier to get replacement copies from me, and of course I love an excuse to stop in.

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Bright Abyss

I’m sitting in my morning chair, on a glassed-in balcony giving a wide view of the sky—intensely blue today, with only a few cloud-wisps. The sun, which earlier I saw rising, gradually strengthening its light, has started to melt the bloom of frost on the rooftops.

Beside me, a book I am reading in small doses, because it is so intense I have to keep stopping: My Bright Abyss by Christian Wiman.  This American poet was editor of Poetry for ten years; he now teaches at Yale Divinity School, and has written other books of poetry and prose. My Bright Abyss (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013) is, he says, “a mosaic,” made over seven years, as the cancer he’d been diagnosed with at thirty-nine “waxed and waned.” He didn’t intend to mention his illness, but realised that not including it would be dishonest as the book happened “in that shadow."

The book is subtitled “Meditation of a Modern Believer” but, as with all the best books, it can’t easily be summed up. It’s about being, or failing to be, or wondering what it means to be, “a believer,” and it's also about the deepest aspects of living, about creativity. Reviewers have praised its lyrical prose and the new way it approaches age-old questions; Casey N. Cep said "here is a poet wrestling with words the way that Jacob wrestled the angel...;" Marilynne Robinson called it "very lucid and not at all simple;" Jamie Quatro said the book "unlocked the universe for me;" and David Skeel says if Gerard Manley Hopkins "were transported to early-twenty-first century America, this is the kind of memoir he might have written..." 

Wiman does mention Hopkins (whose writing I love), and also evokes him implicitly, as in the word "thingness" in this passage:

“Some poets—surprisingly few—have a very particular gift for making a thing at once shine forth in its “thingness”  and ramify beyond its own dimensions. Norman MacCaig: “Straws like tame lightnings lie about the grass/And hang zigzag on hedges.”......[another example follows].

What happens here is not “the extraordinary discovered within the ordinary,” a cliché of poetic perception. What happens is some mysterious resonance between thing and language, mind and matter, that reveals—and it does feel like revelation—a reality beyond the one we ordinarily see.

Contemporary physicists talk about something called “quantum weirdness,” which refers to the fact that an observed particle behaves very differently from one that is unobserved. An observed particle passed through a screen will always go through one hole. A particle that is unobserved but mechanically monitored will pass through multiple holes at the same time. What this suggests is that what we call reality is conditioned by the limitations of our senses, and there is some other reality much larger and more complex than we are able to perceive. The effect I get from MacCaig’s metaphorical explosiveness, or from that of poets such as Seamus Heaney, Sylvia Plath, or Ted Hughes, is not of some mystical world, but of multiple dimensions within a single perception. They are not discovering the extraordinary within the ordinary. They are, for the briefest of instants, perceiving something of reality as it truly is.”

The “mysterious resonance between thing and language…that reveals a reality beyond the one we ordinarily see;” the way poetry seems to glimpse “something of reality as it truly is;” such hints and intuitions speak to us profoundly. Wiman gives us clarity at the edge of the ungraspable. 

The sun is passing now behind the three tall trees, so its brightness is less direct, but the sky is still a most lovely blue. And speaking of blue, Blue Planet II is currently on television. This jaw-dropping series, a work of art, an experience, takes us into that other blueness, the ocean. In the second episode, we penetrated fathoms down, where all the blue is gone; there is no sunlight at all, so enormous is the mass of water above. And in the seabed there are ravines, deeper still. Yet in that underwater darkness there is more light, and life, than was ever thought possible: squids with luminous ink, eels sparkling like strings of Christmas lights; a fish with a transparent head, bulbous eyes buried inside it, gazing through the clear jelly.

We saw the sponge coral called Venus’s Flower Basket, a delicate white cup of openwork, with the complexity of lace. Inside its chamber, shrimp are living; as tiny larvae, they were swept in through the gaps, and they have grown there, safe from predators. They are now imprisoned, too big to get out again. However, their young escape through the weave, and so a new generation is dispersed.

This hidden world has been invisible to us until now, miles deep, below the waves. A reality we could not see, until the submersibles, with cameras and lights, penetrated the abyss, and revealed a hitherto unknown and yet real dimension. 

Rediscovering the Music of Poetry

The 2015 Cheltenham Poetry Festival, held in the spring, was an exciting event in these parts. The tireless volunteer directors brought some amazing poets to Cheltenham. Listening to some of these poets and their work, I was captivated all over again by the power of poetry; by the force of language to move me, enthrall me, make me laugh or cry.

I was honoured to be in the line-up too, reading with Sue Johnson.  It was very rewarding to be reading our poetry to a smallish but nonetheless apparently appreciative group of kind souls who came to listen. 

My novel, Inscription, took many years to write, and during that time I didn't write very much new poetry, especially towards the end. The actual composition involved some of the same creative functions that poetry does, but in the latter years I was concentrating more on revision and structure and similar issues, and using the editorial bit of my brain more than the intuitive.

Now, for the last year and a bit, I've been working on rediscovering poetry and making it once more part of my life as a writer and as a reader.

How to do this? Well, poetry prompts with other poets can help—giving each other a small exercise and a deadline.  Also, a workshop can trigger all sorts of creative impetus. I was so lucky last year to be able to do a weekend-long workshop with fiction writer Amal Chatterjee and poet Jane Draycott. It was inspiring, stimulating, and reconnected me with myself.

Sometimes I enter contests, as I find (procrastinator that I am!) that the deadline marvellously focuses the mind. 

Going to local readings and short workshops is also worthwhile, and I enjoy doing that and participating in the local poetry scene.

And then there's reading poems in books! It's embarrassing how easy it has been for me to slip out of the habit of reading poetry regularly.  The new books I bought at the Cheltenham Literary Festival last year and at the Poetry Festival this year have really helped here. Poets I've been especially enjoying recently are Robert Peake, Michael Symmons Roberts, Daisy Fried, Jo Bell, and Sue Rose….to name but a few.

And of course you don't need to buy books to read poetry. So much classic and contemporary poetry is available online. For new work, there are now many well-respected online poetry journals, like Antiphon where my first poems to be published online (instead of in print) appeared.

 I've found out about some journals from unexpected sources. For example, I didn't think Twitter would lead me to poetry, but it has. Just today, I saw (because of the kinds of accounts I follow) an announcement about the online journal The Compass. Browsing around in its "pages" I found a lovely poem called "Against Hate" by Pippa Little. I haven't read the whole journal yet, but I'm sure there's more to enjoy there.

What I'm finding is that it's just a question of nurturing the poetry mindset. That used to be a place I lived in; but I drifted away from it. Now I am coming back.

As for the actual writing of poetry, I have been finding, as I return to it, that it's important to remember the sense of play, the delight of making something. This can be such an important part of the process. In all the endless revising and editorial work on my book, I'd lost sight of the actual joy.

"You need to rediscover the music,"  as one of my poet friends said.