Monday, 28 August 2017

Starlight and Sapphire - The Poetry of Dragonflies

The landscape above Luddenden is defined by verticals: craggy hillsides sweeping steeply down to wobbly cobbled streets, thin columns of disused factory chimneys.  Up on the tops, you could almost be in the Scottish Highlands, as gowns of purple heather are draped across the moors; rugged looking sheep chew the fields which peter out to the boggy borders of Wainstalls and Warley.  You might be watched through grass by the bulging eyes of bulls and cows, reclining lazily among blackberry and boulders.  In winter, the view is almost Scandinavian: I have walked there in January, the valley below steeped in frost; flurries of sleet slapping harshly through the wind, the rocks, clustered like large snowballs by the sides of moorland paths, plathered in an icy rain.  The chimneyed citadel of Oats Royd Mill, once a power-base of textile magnate John Murgatroyd, now a complex of apartments, stands at the basin of the valley, its long, chunky boxes of Yorkshire stone lending an industrial hue to this rural view.  To the south, the cemetery of St Mary's climbs up the  incline towards Mount Tabor Road.  In the east, piercing the clouds against a hilly horizon, stands the 120-ft 19th Century War monument which dominates the hill of Stoodley Pike, frozen in time, like some great primeval totem pole.

 The jagged geography of this  moorland environment, toughened by stone, blustered by scissoring winds, looking cold-coloured in a seemingly perpetual autumn, even on this hot August afternoon, is the last place I would have expected to have seen the hovering, shining presence which appears in my peripheral vision, skimming the summit of Stocks Lane, the winding road that extends out of Luddenden and into the moors.

Turning, I catch full sight - a swivelling swish of emerald and jet, propelled by four transparent wings, is bouncing on the breeze, swerving on the precipice of the hillside.  A luminous black cylinder, banded by bright green abdominal spots, the dragonfly pauses, wavering in mid-air as if granting me the chance of observing it close up.  Aeshna cyanea, Southern Hawker, whose exploratory life spans no more than three or four months of a short-lived English summer, often drifting far from its typical environment of ponds, even to such stony alttudes as this. This is a female hawker, and she is prowling for prey - insects to be caught on the wing, by this flexible, curving, bending predator which can fly backwards, and is among the fastest dragonflies in Britain.
Like a turquoise torpedo, twisting through the blue, the dragonfly dips and dives, slicing a shimmering green arc above the moor-grass as she zigzags over the tumbling descent, a crystalline quill doodling her nimble stories on the wind.

I seem to have seen more dragonflies than usual in this humid, wet summer, but this glittering insect, reflecting the sun as she threads her way through the tangle of grasses overhanging the hill's edge, is the first I have been confident to name.  Most of the dragonflies I've seen in 2017 have certainly been hawkers, but mainly of the blue or red variety, or seeming to fizz past me so fast as to defy a detailed observation, like multi-coloured magic carpets weaving through Arabian skies, glossy blurs of onyx, malachite, sapphire, ruby on the canvas of the summer air.  Amid the watery woodlands near Harcastle Crags, which the River Hebden chugs through like a fat blue vein, I've seen them frazzle by in splashes of fiery orange; along the canal towpath between Sowerby Bridge and Mytholmroyd, they've flashed like lazers igniting the overcast gloom.  Then there was the dragonfly I saw floating over my garden earlier this summer, a tentative ballerina dancing across  tips of borage and Perovskia, fluttering above the feverfew like a diamond-spangled acrobat, lingering over the wall's edge as if balancing on a thin trapeze.

Like all wildlife, dragonflies are indeed engaged in a nerve-racking balancing act - the struggle to find food and to preserve the perpetuity of their genes, the flight from predators, the need for stable habitats.  Unlike many British animals, the dragonflies, of Ancient stock and numbering over 3,000 international species, are not generally endangered, though in Britain this is due in no small part to the efforts of conservation agencies like the British Dragonfly Society, a charity which encourage educational projects to promote the study of dragonflies and damselflies, and works to monitor and enhance their habitats, in the wild, and at home.  The charity's website explains how  Half of Britain's ponds were lost in the 20th century but a recent revival led to a 12.5% increase in the number of ponds between 1998 to 2007. All but five of the regularly breeding species of dragonfly and damselfly in Britain are known to have bred in ponds, with 17 species considered to be widespread breeding species in garden ponds and a further 8 breeding in garden ponds more rarely. Even a small pond can harbour dragonflies, with species such as Southern Hawker managing to exist in surprisingly high numbers in small garden ponds. 
The website goes on to list advice for gardeners aiming to create dragonfly-friendly environments, and this takes me back to a memory from more than thirty years ago, to the first time I remember seeing dragonflies, in the garden of a house on the street I grew up in.  In my mind, the memory is kaleidoscopic: a multitude of dragonflies, sweeping slotting in and out of one another's mazy flightpaths, scarlet stripes slashing through the flowerbeds, velvet wands casting azure magic over rockeries and roses.  My parents and I stood and watched them dazzling above the grass, and I was aware of experiencing something out of the ordinary, something special, for the first time.  When my mother spoke of them as dragonflies, I realized that although these unusal creatures were like nothing I had ever seen, to the grown up world they were recognizable - part of the tapestry of a natural world I was thrilled to be discovering.  The prefix Dragon seemed appropriate - so mythic did these phosphorescent streaks of magical mystery appear, that had they breathed fire from their minute mouths, I would hardly have felt surprised.  Years later, I would recall this introductory encounter in my poem Dragonflies, remembering how

We watched them
dive and swivel
like blades of circus knife throwers,
skim the sun-licked lawn,
ignite the glittering tips
and globes of flowers
in crackling splashes
of cobalt, indigo,

and when, years later, at the Fairburn Ings wildlife reserve outside Leeds, I stood with my father and watched the crackling colours of dragonflies bobbing above the ponds, these childhood memories returned, as one by one the insects shot out of the ether, seemed to glide like slices of amethyst above the water, then disappeared among the reeds, dew-dappled dreams dissolving into sunshine. 
Fairburn is one of the richest habitats for dragonflies, and when, on a blazing day last August, I watched a scarlet darter soaking up the sun on the wooden fence post beside one of the reserve's many ponds, I was transfixed by its long red body, glowing like a candle coaked in melted jasper.  The darter, completely calm in human presence, bathing its glassy wings in a shower of sunshine, seemed half at rest, and half - knife-like tarsias clenching the wood in prehensile, flexed tension - poised for flight.


Rubicund torch,
black veins woven
over wings of glass,
svelte vermillion glider,
rowan-berry eyes,
spidery legs,
you settle on fallen wood,
a stained-glass crucifix,
bleed your molten body
into fibres softened
by decades, centuries
and rain.

In my 2013 collection Little Creatures, I pay tribute to the dainty damselfly, the gem-lie, willowy creatures I first became aware of when I watched them by the ponds at Roundhay, north Leeds, where I was living in the mid 2000's,


Split moon-fringe,
silk slice
blue as threaded sapphire,
you haunt pond air
at July sunrise.
Floating flake, 
like a breeze-blown vein 
you come, half-visible,
a slither of translucency,

and later in the same poem go on to describe the damelflies reedy habitats beyond the pond. But whatever I write about dragonflies, I doubt I can compare with the talents of a poet across a different pond, JD McClatchy, the contemporary American poet who celebrates the dragonfly as an Itinerant clarinet, and a mob of selves that others see - Devil and Goat, Eye-on-Broomstick, Goblin tableux, which performs a Bayadere, amuses crowds, flies like a baggy clown, before Collapsing at night in a tiny starpatched sky-loft, and gradually transfiguring into a dragonfly ghost.  There is something of this starlit metamorphosis in Tennyson's 1842 poem The Dragonfly, in which the poet describes a dragonfly shedding its skin:
An inner impulse rent the veil / Of his old husk: from head to tail / Came out clear plates of sapphire mail
And when HE Bates published his memoir of childhood Down the River in 1937, he remembered watching a continuous play of blue gauze over the snowy flowers above the sun-glassy water. It was all confined, in true dragonfly fashion, to one small space. It was a continuous turning and returning, an endless darting, poising, striking and hovering, so swift that it was often lost in sunlight. 

Dragonflies have painted their colours on our popular imagination, swooshed into our culture and imprinted their neon signatures upon the pages of our natural history.  Belonging to an order that has existed since the Triassic, more than two hundred million years ago, these magnificent insects continue to enchant, and to surprise.  Up among the knolly, craggy hills above the Yorkshire town of Luddenden, I feel this morning touched by the alchemy of Mother Nature, as this sequinned fluke sails unexpectedly by, and I'm struck by the fragility and transience of things, as the dragonfly's sharp, svelte body drifts into the distance, and the beauty of its lucent green jewels slowly disappear from sight.

Sunday, 20 August 2017

Mytholmroyd Tree - A Poem by Suzi Szabó

Just off the A646 outside of Mythomroyd, a rather unusual tree can be seen in a field backing onto the heathery fringes of Midgley Moor.  


When poet Suzi Szabó got up to read at a recent open mic poetry event at Hebden Bridge's Fox and Goose, and introduced her poem as being "about a tree in Mytholmroyd," I - like most others in the pub, as it turned out - anticipated that it would be this achromatic, snowy skeleton that was featured.  Paying homage to the tree's apparent death mask / of unequalled beauty, Suzi's poem articulates in stark, elegant language the solitary splendour of the antique tree.

I have passed this tree dozens, scores, maybe hundreds of times, walking back from Mytholmroyd, or zipping by in cars and making casual references to its unique appearance.  I have stood and observed it from afar, and - prompted by Suzi's poem - taken a closer look, drawn into its dreamy pallor, as it scrapes the sky like the rickety totem pole of some fairytale tribe.

I will hand over to Suzi here, who depicts the unique quality of this bleakly beautiful entity better than I could, and ends with a rousing message to all poets!
Mytholmroyd tree

I have long since admired
your bare beauty
Naked and proud
unlike the others
huddling together
for comfort

You stand alone
With apparent death mask
of unequalled beauty
almost white against the blue
is how I most enjoy your company

If you could talk
what would you say?
Keep writing,   
the roots are still alive!

Vegetable Verse

I have grown, but strangely never eaten, nor written poetry inspired by, courgettes - Cucurbita pepo and known by Americans as Zucchinis - but these culinary and literary omissions are about to be put right.
Yesterday, the staff room of my workplace was briefly subjected to a vegetable invasion, colonized by courgettes, as the contents of an allotment were laid upon a work surface, up for grabs.  I chose the smallest of these ambiguous squashes - like mis-shapen bananas yet too tough and marrowy to be called a fruit in anything other than the strictest botanical sense - and all the way home, wondered what ever I might do with it?

The solution to this Cucurbitous conundrum presented its self by means of words thrown forth by the contemplation of its unique shape and colours - though whether these squashy scribbles merit the title of poetry, I will let you be the judge. For myself, now that I have sharpened the pencil of my literary gaze sufficiently to take in an observation of  Cucurbita pepo, the only course of action left to me is now surely to break another duck with this weird and wonderful vegetable, by eating it.

Crocodilian-coloured carrot,
candle of green wax,
like the ridge-ribbed body
of a glitzy lizard,
your emeraldesque, 
viridian skin,
in a dew of glinting specks,
 you entice the knife
to puncture your facade 
of toughened flesh
and spill the wet,
life-lathered juices
bottled up inside.

Update: Following the heavy rains we have had, I was thrilled to see today that my own courgette plant is now starting to bear fruit:

Saturday, 12 August 2017

Pity the Birds - my poem for the Inglorious Twelfth


Pity the birds, when the guns begin
and peace is punctured by a ricochet
of cracks.  Bellies bullet-pumped,
they’ll fall like bricks in bags
from August skies to freshly-bloodied grass.

Pity the grouse, blackish, russet-smudged 
and rustling through rushes, like hook-
beaked hens eye-deep in heather,
bodies almost globular, heads crowned
with scarlet tufts.

Unsuspectingly, they will root through shoots, ingest
the juice of moorland berries, dot rural skies
like black stars bobbling over tree-tops
until the skeleton-shredding lead bursts them open
and they drop, gut-strewn, to a chorus of dull “thucks.”

Pity these innocents, naively nibbling grass and gorse,
lapping up a landscape 
slyly set against them, so big gangs of grown men 
might laughingly maraud, 
pissed on whisky by mid-afternoon 
and smashing birds to bits, 
like tantrumming schoolboys they cock their guns,
esteemed QC’s, and crooked judges, and those who own 

whole postcodes, whose grand estates are leased
for slaughter, so that birds may bear the brunt
of their shrivelled egos - blue-blooded thugs,
men so insecure they need to kill - and kill they will, 
their violent games protected by bent laws, 
ensuring harmless and defenceless birds
are shot down by the scum of England’s countryside
on the bloody afternoon of the Inglorious Twelfth.

Wednesday, 9 August 2017

Baudelaire in Hebden Bridge

I hadn't read anything at a public reading for some months, until Monday evening at The Blind Pig, Sowerby Bridge, following a fantastic reading by Keith Hutson of his latest round of biographical sonnets - widening the scope somewhat from music hall to general showbiz, with a range of characters from hapless 19th Century dancers to Bob Monkhouse.  The other guest was Phil Foster, and he read a poem about Clarke Kent, in which he wondered how CK had managed to keep schtum about his secret life as Superman, and a passionate tribute to the Kurdish people, with particular emphasis on the indomitable Kurdish women.The open mic was a jolly affair, and when it came to my turn I spoke briefly about how much I had recently enjoyed the videos and images people have been sharing from this year's Pride festivals, having only ever been to one Pride myself. In particular I liked seeing the Hebden Bridge tree,

...and its umbrella theme certainly seems fitting for this pluvial summer, drenched as August has so far been by almost continual rain.

Somewhat sunnier than our dampened shores, the island of Lesbos was the birthplace of Greek poet Sappho (c.630 - c.570 BC), and, after reading from the poetry of Payam Feili, it was this Aegean idyll that I recalled in my reading: not my own poetry, but that of the French poet Charles Baudelaire, one of my long time inspirations.  Baudelaire, whose adult life was largely defined by his continual financial struggles and ultimately unrequited love for one woman, and whose controversial book Le Fleurs du Mal (The Flowers of Evil) appeared one hundred and sixty years ago this year,  celebrated Lesbos as mother of the Latin games and the voluptuous rites of Greece, (where) kisses of languor or rapture, sun-scorching or melon-cool, / make lovelier the glorious nights and days - romanticizing its female inhabitants just as he had done in earlier poetry:

Vous que dans votre enfer mon âme a poursuivies,
Pauvres soeurs, je vous aime autant que je vous plains,
Pour vos mornes douleurs, vos soifs inassouvies,
Et les urnes d'amour dont vos grands coeurs sont pleins

 You whom my soul has followed into lairs infernal,Poor sisterhood, I pity and adore,
For your despairing griefs, your thirst eternal,
And love that floods your hearts for evermore!

(Trans. Roy Campbell)

For the socially anarchic Baudelaire, more truth-seeker than decadent, the vision of an isle of the sultry swooning nights like the myths of Delphine and Hippolyta, would evoke Utopian notions of transcendence: I can see him, penniless and bedraggled, trudging through the grime of  a Parisian winter, turning through the narrow streets and absinthe-poisoned alleyways, his tortured, tired mind drifting into dreams of the sunlit island, where kisses cascade fearless  into fathomless depths, /
sobbing or chuckling, stormy or secretive, seething or profound;/ Lesbos, where the kisses cascade down, personifying - deifying, even - the island as a queen of the realms of gentleness,/ lovable motherland, queen of the inexhaustible subtleties of loving.  With his ideological compass swinging between the revolutionary and the reactionary, and eventually settling into an almost nihilistic detachment, his religious impulses alternating wildly between Satanism and devout belief, Baudelaire simply did not fit into the defined territories of his times, and as such a great many of his poems and proclamations provoked incensed receptions, always taken literally by an easily scandalized reading public:

"There are but three beings worthy of respect: the priest, the warrior and the poet. To know, to kill and to create. The rest of mankind may be taxed and drudged, they are born for the stable, that is to say, to practise what they call professions."

Censored, prosecuted and harassed, Baudelaire would face the wrath of the authorities for his Fleurs du Mal, his artistry criminalized, his works confiscated and withheld from public view, until a shortened version of the book found publication in 1861.  Among the Pieces Condamnees - which would not legally appear until their limited Belgian publication in 1866 - was Lesbos, and in its counter-cultural reproach of Patriarchal prudery, we might find presentiments of the indignant bluster with which his own ignominy would be greeted, as the poet taunts the Gods: Let greybeard Plato frown with his reproving eye ...asking rhetorically, Lesbos, which of the gods shall presume to be your judge /if the golden scales fail to weigh the deluge of tears / your streams have poured into the sea? /
Lesbos, which of the gods shall presume to be your judge.

Baudelaire's poetry sometimes seems like a plea for beauty and truth in a world of ugliness and falsity:

Sometimes I have seen,  in a third rate theatre,
lit by the sonorous orchestra,
a fairy kindle miraculous dawn in infernal sky,

a being who was naught but light and gold
overthrow  gigantic Satan,
but my heart ...
is a theatre in which the gauze-winged being
is forever awaited in vain

at other times, it is drenched in a brooding introspection too profound to be labelled as self-pity:

I am fuller of memories than if I had lived a thousand years...

I am a graveyard that the moon abhors,
in which long worms crawl like remorses,
always battening on the dead I hold dear

in places philosophical:

This life is a hospital
in which every patient 
is obsessed with the desire to change beds 

and elsewhere, downright suicidal:

In a rich soil full of snails
I want to dig a deep ditch for myself
where I can stretch my old bones at leisure
and sleep in oblivion like a shark in the sea.

With his poems of devils, rape and vice, his blasphemy and descriptions of prostitutes, tramps, murderers and vampires - as well as his spirited defences of clandestine love - condemned by hypocrites and envious contemporaries, Baudelaire fumed against his situation in a letter to his mother:

"I have always considered that literature and the arts pursue an aim independent of morality ... But this book, whose title says everything, is clad, as you will see, in a cold and sinister beauty. It was created with rage and patience. Besides, the proof of its positive worth is in all the ill that they speak of it. The book enrages people. Moreover, since I was terrified myself of the horror that I should inspire, I cut out a third from the proofs. They deny me everything, the spirit of invention and even the knowledge of the French language. I don't care a rap about all these imbeciles, and I know that this book, with its virtues and its faults, will make its way in the memory of the lettered public."


I see Baudelaire stumbling in clumsy grace into Keith Hutson's pantheon of vaudevillian heroes. I imagine him centre-stage, performing sinister magic under the lamps of Covent Garden, or pulling serpents out of hats at the Batley Variety Club. I see him as neither Superman or Clarke Kent, but instead championing Lex Luther.  I can picture him in Hebden Bridge, not wining and dining but wandering the canal banks late at night, weaving starlit trysts with hash-hazed fellow travelers, composing poisoned sonnets and howling at the moon. I see him on the fringes of cities, avoiding the crowds but discreetly drinking in the atmosphere, dazzling at poetry readings but vanishing before the end. I see him on the side of the Kurdish women and today's femmes damnee of Russia, Zimbabwe, Iran and Pakistan, writing poems of protest but drifting quietly into the background, living in the world within his hallucinatory mind, a world and deity-defying delights and beautiful madness . And to be quite honest, I see him, if he were living now, very likely being just as ill-treated, just as marginalized and as misunderstood in today's  supposedly enlightened world, as he was in the turbulent atmosphere of his own turbulent times.

Thursday, 3 August 2017

Caterpillar Poetry: No Longer Associated with UNESCO

This March I co-ordinated an evening of international poetry at Morley Library, raising money for the mental health charity MIND, and also for UNESCO - the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization -  being timed to coincide with that body's International Day of Poetry.  On this site and on youtube, I posted videos and images in memory of the day, all of which I have taken down.
One of the things that attracted me to UNESCO was the apparent sincerity with which they seemed to support a peaceful outcome to the Israeli/Palestinian issue, and notwithstanding the various resolutions and statements they have historically passed for and against both sides, I genuinely believed that by enacting a UNESCO celebration, I was helping to support efforts aimed at secure and lasting solutions in this field.  The ins and outs of the issue was of no consequence to our event, which was based on internationalism, tolerance, and peace.  Our participants and spectators included poets and performers from the USA, Australia, Spain, Libya and many places in between.  Along with the flags of 193 other member states, those of Israel and the Palestinian territories were hung as bunting around the building.
The news a few weeks that UNESCO had passed a resolution implicitly denying any reference to the Jewish history at Jerusalem's Temple Mount, and listing the site purely by its Arab name - an act of partiality by an organization claiming to be neutral on this extremely complex matter - came as a shock to me, as did the further elements of UNESCO's biased resolution which dispute any Jewish claim to the city of Jerusalem, even describing various "so called" Jewish sites and putting inverted commas around others.  Above all, I was bemused by UNESCO's simplistic assertions, as outlined in an excellent Tablet article by Paris-based journalist Shany Mor:

UNESCO “condemns Israeli aggressions” perpetrated “against the freedom of worship and Muslims’ access to Al-Aqsa,” “deplores the continuous storming of Al-Aqsa Mosque/Al-Haram Al-Sharif by Israeli right-wing extremists,” and “deeply decries the continuous Israeli aggressions” committed by “the so-called ‘Israeli antiquities’ officials.”
There’s a long history to Arab claims that Jews or Zionists or Israelis have threatened Al-Aqsa, dating back past 1930.
The power of this lie, in inciting violence ... was first understood in the 1920s by the Mufti of Jerusalem (and future Nazi collaborator) Haj Amin al-Husseini. He saw Al-Aqsa as a way of turning a local conflict, where his side might have been at a disadvantage, into a regional, religious, and even global conflict where this disadvantage could be reversed. The claim that Jews were seeking to harm Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem in 1928 was the pretext for a wave of Arab violence against Jews, culminating in the massacre a few months later of 67 Jews in Hebron.
This served as a model for future violence following false claims of Jewish threats to Al Aqsa, which occurred roughly once a decade, particularly after Israel conquered the Old City of Jerusalem in 1967. Even during the peak years of the Oslo process, the opening in 1996 of a second exit to a tourist tunnel that (despite lies to the contrary) ran under no mosque was used as a false pretext for three days of violent rioting that included two deadly attacks on Jewish holy sites in the West Bank. Global opinion universally blamed Israel for the riots.

I have never visited the region.  I remain a strong supporter of any peaceful movement which genuinely has at its heart the security and success of both peoples, and I do not regard myself as a mouthpiece for either.  But I believe UNESCO's resolution flies in the face of this, and of history.  Mor goes on, This perceived grievance stretches the bounds of irony ... immediately after conquering the Old City, Israel handed control of the Temple Mount to the Islamic Trust, and forbade any Jewish religious rite on the entire Mount, a status quo it has maintained to this day.  The world’s only Jewish state had just scored an astonishing victory over enemies who only days earlier were promising a war of extermination against it and, in the process, liberated the Jewish people’s holiest site—and promptly handed it over.  He suggests that restrictions on access to the site are imposed on Jewish, not Muslim, visitors, and that Israeli control of the Old City in the last half century has meant that Al Aqsa, is the rare Islamic holy site not to be a stage for some kind of massacre of Muslim worshipers by one or another rival branch of radical Islam, and contrasts UNESCO's attitude to Israel with its lack of focus on other agents in the region and their impact on historical sites: The construction of the El-Marwani Mosque on the southeast corner of the Mount entailed unrecoverable destruction of archaeological treasures ranging across three millennia. Unlike the imagined archaeological damage fantasists accuse Israel of committing, this was never condemned by UNESCO or any other international body. 

I simply cannot associate myself with an organization that goes out of its way to single out individual countries - especially those caught up in interminable cycles of regional and religious conflict yet which are held to higher moral standards than would ever be expected of nations free from the concerns that states like Israel has faced  - while blithely ignoring the flaws and pitfalls of its neighbours.  Many Ancient sites have been razed to the ground in recent times, by ISIS and other forces of destruction, to resounding silences from UNESCO.
I am disappointed at this turn of events.  Along with others, I had been planning several extensive events to raise money for UNESCO over the next couple of years. I waited several weeks after the initial news, in the hope that as time went by some further statement from UNESCO might suggest they had taken the time to consider the matter somewhat less one-sidedly (as with their reversal of a cancellation on the Simon Wesenthal Centre art exhibition a few years ago), but the conclusion I have reached is that although UNESCO remains in essence an important international body (of which both Israel and Palestine are members in their own respective ways), its current stance on this matter is not conducive to peace, and is unhelpful to both Israelis and Palestinians.  As an artist I do not like to tie myself into any political organization and prefer to operate outside the ideological territory of any biased group or movement, and as such, until such a time as they modify or alter their position, a continued association with UNESCO, is not something I am pursuing.

Monday, 31 July 2017

In Praise of Doubt

By chance, I recently came across Bertolt Brecht's In Praise of Doubt, and felt its message highly apt for our own times. Written in 1932, its opening stanza is clear and direct:

Praised be doubt! I advise you to greet
Cheerfully and with respect the man
Who tests your word like a bad penny.
I’d like you to be wise and not to give
Your word with too much assurance.

And the poem progresses through images of international conflict and moments of profound historical significance:

Read history and see
The headlong flight of invincible armies.
Wherever you look
Impregnable strongholds collapse and
Even if the Armada was innumerable as it left port
The returning ships
Could be numbered.

and brings home, in a Biblically proclamatory style, the twinning of

O Beautiful the shaking of heads
Over the indisputable truth!
O brave the doctor’s cure
Of the incurable patient!

This poem strikes a particularly resonant chord for me at present, because I feel we are living through a time of immense vituperation and massive ideological polarities.  All over the world, the forces shaping the social, political and religious dimensions within we all must live, are increasingly characterized by extremity, and here in Britain we have recently survived a bitterly hostile General Election, in which the leaders of the two "main" parties were surely the worst those parties have ever been known to offer the electorate.  As a perennially floating voter, my decision to vote Liberal Democrat owed more to extensive correspondence with my local candidate, in which I expressed my anxieties regarding the leader of his party (and found we were largely singing from the same hymn sheet, for want of a better pun), than anything that leader had to offer.  I remember sharing my decision on two occasions with two friends, one pro-Tory, the other pro-Labour - and being derided by each, both displaying an equal conviction that they were right and I was wrong, with absolutely no room for discussion.
Our national discourse has become a fraught arena of binary stances and competing certainties, with much of the country apparently bound up in a desperation to assert their own viewpoint, and unwilling to accept that they might be wrong - even though our own behaviours contradict this assumption.  For example, nearly everyone I know who voted to leave the European Union in last year's Referendum has changed their minds, while almost all Remain voters I know have now altered their stances to pro-Leave.  For reasons of expedience and opportunism, the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition have swapped sides also (in the case of the latter, a return to the anti-EU position he had occupied for over forty years) and whenever I hear them speaking on the issue it is as though they are telling me that they have the right to change their minds while I do not.  Yet our ability to make decisions and take stances on ideological issues is something that not even the most brilliant psychologists and neuroscientists have been able to fully decode and understand, is prompted by our upbringings, by parental and familial example, is contextual to our environments and experiences, and even our mental state at any given time.  All this proves is that human beings are not robots, and that our entire history is defined by changing attitudes and the empowering perspectives of experience, and ought to be informed by relentless, excessive attention to the ever-shifting minutiae of the complex questions that we face.  I cannot think of a single influential figure in history, politics or religion who did not, at least once, undergo profoundly transformative and often very public ideological shifts, in accordance with or in opposition to the prevailing moods of their times.  At the very least, matters affecting the future of nations surely ought to be decided on by means of continuous dissection of evolving situations (as with the system of holding national elections at regular intervals) rather than signed off at random via one-off votes.

Do not praise / The doubt which is a form of despair advises Brecht, before extolling the virtues of eventual decision making.  Thus, I don't believe Brecht is arguing that we should spend our lives in states of permanent prevarication, nor that attitudes and deeply-held truths - arrived at instinctively or via hours of objective scrutiny - should be automatically distrusted.  But I do gain from his wise words an affirmation of the values of empirical enquiry, dialogue and mutually respectful debate, as opposed to blind faith or a bigoted refusal to listen others' points of views, as exhibited more and more these days by aggressive political attitudes, the hysterical tantrums of television programmes such as Question Time, academic and cultural boycotts, and the sudden rush to violence we are seeing so regularly whenever someone, somewhere feels that they have a grievance to express.  Perhaps once in a while an ear to Brecht might serve to prevent some of these increasingly frequent elements of modern life!

There are the thoughtless who never doubt
Their digestion is splendid, their judgment is infallible.
They don’t believe in the facts, they believe only in themselves.

Thursday, 27 July 2017

Payam Feili, Poet.

Today is the 50th anniversary of the 1967 Sexual Offences Act, permitting homosexual acts between two consenting adults over the age of twenty-one, and, although only a first step in the full legalization of homosexuality, clearly a milestone in British history. 

But homosexuality remains illegal in 72 countries, carrying the Death Penalty in several, and many years imprisonment and torture in others, most of them theocracies, where religion has tightened its yoke around the neck of a country's general populace, making such prejudicial thuggery easier to enforce, through brainwashing and fear.

I first became aware of the Iranian writer Payam Feili in 2013.  A keen reader of his poetry, I was appalled to read of his treatment at the hands of the Iranian authorities.  An openly gay poet in a country which punishes homosexual acts with execution, Feili was for years blacklisted by the state authorities, his works censored or banned, and his life in danger. Four years ago, Index on Censorship reported:

Iranian poet Payam Feili ... is the victim of a brutal system. He was fired from his job, his translator’s house was ransacked, and the censors have shunned him.
Isolated in Iran, Feili has dedicated himself to writing. He says he lives among his ideas, a citizen of his mind: “I’m writing on the edge of crisis but I think I am doing fine. I’ve gotten used to life being full of tension, horror, disruption and crisis”.

The poetry of Payam Feili covers multitudes of subjects, but his sexuality is present, un-hidden, and forms an important part of his poetic consciousness:

 This dark Yalda night, upon a high wall
I delve into your solitude, I delve into you

Beneath the moonlight
Through that distant forest
Deep in that listless lake
I catch a glimpse of you in the stars

Leaving brings sorrow
Staying brings sorrow
Loitering in these abandoned streets brings sorrow

I grieve for my morning paper, vilified
I grieve for my books, bowdlerised

I mourn my Uncle Ali’s beautiful son
I mourn those somber sparrows soaked to the skin

 I blossom, and I grow tall
O! Boy, tender is my torso
Out of spite for the beauty of my uncle’s only son, I will one day,
In the streets of the village, to the wits of my despair fall prey.

“Because I come from a country where the government is always talking about wars and hatred," said Feili to the online journal Slate,  "as an author I want my message to other countries and readers to be a message of peace."  And yet, purely for expressing his personal identity, this peaceful, dignified poet was arrested, detained, and held for 44 days without charge.

Payam Feili is now living in Israel, having successfully claimed asylum in that country, but the treatment of Iran's remaining gays is barbaric and obscene - men hanged in public or thrown to their deaths from crates.  It is far from alone in dishing out such murderous treatment.  It is easy to jump to anti-Islamist conclusions on this issue, given the high number of Muslim countries where homosexuality is illegal, but these terrible laws also apply in many constitutionally Christian countries, and here in the UK we have recently seen our government enter into collaboration with an openly homophobic party, while the leader of the Opposition has spoken highly of homophobic movements such as Hizbollah, and taken money from the Iranian state to present television programmes.  He claimed to have been doing so in order to raise "human rights issues," but the evidence for this is not forthcoming. All in all, I personally feel there is little to celebrate on this momentous anniversary.

At Hardcastle Crags

Despite having lived for five and a half years within a few miles of Hardcastle Crags, my first visit to the wooded Pennine valley immortalized in Sylvia Plath's poem of the same name and now owned and managed by the National Trust, for five and a half years, comes only this summer, when on a sultry July afternoon I find myself trekking north of Hebden Bridge, beyond the ruins of the 12th Century St Thomas' church, beside the graveyard where Plath was buried in 1962, and for once instead of looping back towards the familiarity of the town, descending into the ferny green lushness  

Sylvia Plath's Hardcastle Crags is a brooding, melancholy, haunting poem, in which the vulnerability of the human is cast against the might of a wild landscape, described by Brita Lindberg-Seyerstedt a harsh view of a human being alone and defenseless in an unresponsive, 'absolute' landscape. The poem derives its power from a very detailed, realistic picture of fields and animals, stones and hills.

In the woods beneath the looming absolute of Hardcastle Crags, a haven for red squirrels, it is easier to become lost in the intricacies of  an overhanging green canopy than to feel dwarfed by hills or rocks.  Only as you continue heading through its fern-bestrewn puzzles of pine and silver birch, do you start to find the terrain growing stonier and steeper.

The pathway peters out into a thin jumble of stones and roots, until my view ahead is hazed over by a clustering bulge of trees.  Erect and cylindrical they stand, like impenetrable columns of soldiers, or seeming to tilt ever so slightly, a chess board of giants.


Or hunched and gnarled like inflated, psychotic leprechauns, jerking out of beechy overgrowth, morphing into the twisting poises of manic witch-doctors, their wrinkled tentacles like fat wands of wicked magic


Or else they stand stark and white, thin bodies pocked by bulbous galls, like totem poles carved out of bone

I am ensconced by Plath's sway of lymph and sap, a landscape looming absolute as the Antique world was once, and marooned in a world of trees, alone among them and entirely at their mercy.

Opening out to water, the sunshine over the valley illuminates Hebden Water in a cool early evening glow, its silver ripples tinted in the candy-pink glow of rosebay willowherb, dangling on the banks like flighty girls at teenage discos, glittering in ear-rings and bangles.


and before long, the valley is awash with  water, trickling over stones and tearing down through rocks

The sunlit communion of acidy soils and regular rainfall makes for a diverse range of flora


and a tantalizing gallery of insects!




Pressing on beneath banks of wildflowers, I am watched quietly by suspicious locals:

and intrigued to see what looks like a hidden gingerbread house:


until discovering again, a world transposed to water.

Gibson Mill was a water-powered,19th century cotton mill, which has since been renovated to demonstrate renewable energy, running on a combination of photo voltaic panels, turbines, a wood burning boiler, a wood burning ceramic stove and locally-sourced reclaimed material.  Its softly shaded brick, woodland surroundings and quaint mill pond give it rather a look of some friendly, over-sized Wendy House, than a former industrial powerhouse,and reaching the mill I have a sense of achievement, as if a milestone of sorts has been surpassed.

Winding my way along the stony inclines, I find my energy levels rising, and before I know it I am jogging over the bumpy terrain, jumping stones and running up through a tangled corridor of nettles and heather.  The rocks along my way see to be growing gradually, some like secret grottoes:

others like odd works of Stone Age art:

until finally I have ascended the summit of the Crags, a valley bursting with growth and vitality spread out below like the fantastical fan of some celestial peacock, the air humming with bees and birdsong:

In Sylvia Plath's poem, the altitudinous grandeur of the Crags is balanced against the steely street of the stone built town from which the protagonist has escaped, as her footsteps strike

A firework of echoes from wall
To wall of the dark, dwarfed cottages.
But the echoes died at her back as the walls
Gave way to fields and the incessant seethe of grasses
Riding in the full

Of the moon, manes to the wind,
Tireless, tied, as a moon-bound sea
Moves on its root

But Plath's setting delivers no rustic liberation, as

The long wind, paring her person down
To a pinch of flame, blew its burdened whistle
In the whorl of her ear, and like a scooped-out pumpkin crown
Her head cupped the babel.

All the night gave her, in return
For the paltry gift of her bulk and the beat
Of her heart was the humped indifferent iron
Of its hills, and its pastures bordered by black stone set
On black stone.

As the poem climbs towards a desolate, or reflectively positive, conclusion, we are provided, unstintingly, with Plath's characteristic juxtaposing of the human will tested by an oblivious, passive Universe.  Hardcastle Crags is a beautiful, but raw, harsh environment.  My summer saunter ought not to blind me to its bleak and brutal dangers, its rock-hewn roughness, and its sweeping declines which promise sheer, bone-breaking descents.  I imagine the split-second slip on on sleet-smeared stone, or tripping on a straggle of gorse along the ridges of these jagged crags, the tumble towards concussion or a mangled death, and before the weight of nightfall might enfold this primeval place and leave me adrift among its stones and hills of stones, I turn back.