Tuesday, 19 May 2009

Between mountain and sea

They wound me and bless me
with strange gifts

The salt of absence
The honey of memory

I wonder how many people these days feel the resonance of the words wound and bless that occur at the climax of this deceptively simple poem? (the full text is a couple of posts back) There was a time when almost everyone would have recognized that the words, used in conjunction, have a religious significance. I cannot hear them without thinking of the images of Jesus that haunted my Catholic childhood, one hand raised in blessing, the other indicating a chest apparently split by a gaping wound which reveals a beating heart within, and which echoes that other wound, the one in Jesus's side which Thomas felt obliged to test by inserting his fingers.

Strangely though, I stopped believing in God when I was seven years old, about the time when I made my first confession and God took no punitive action when I failed to admit all my sins. I then proceeded to take my first communion with my soul still stained. I say strangely because I find it hard to imagine myself as a seven-year-old taking that decision about the nature of the universe, and yet I know for sure that I did. And I subsequently continued my career as an altar-boy, both at the local church and in the convent behind our house where I served Mass every morning for several years, absorbing incense and Latin in equal quantities, but the sky never did fall on my head.

Monday, 18 May 2009


Well, I was going to fit these photographs tastefully into the post about Norman MacCaig, but I couldn't make them go where I wanted them, so here they are in a new place. The first picture was taken in April. I stumbled into this ruined village by accident - it wasn't marked on the map. The other two were on a misty August afternoon. It was a very rainy week and I was lucky to be able to see anything at all. I don't suppose you'll ever see a crowd on the top of this hill, like the one we met on top of Snowdon this Easter, as you have to walk several miles before you can start climbing.

Norman McCaig

I've been meaning to write about Norman MacCaig for a while, and as the BBC is having a poetry season this seems like a good moment.

MacCaig is second from the left on the book cover. Worlds was edited by Geoffrey Summerfield who also produced the excellent Voices series, of which more in another post. The book contains interviews with seven poets: Charles Causley, Thom Gunn, Seamus Heaney, Ted Hughes, Norman MacCaig, Adrian Mitchell and Edwin Morgan. It also has photo essays on each poet by Fay Godwin, Larry Herman and Peter Abramowitsch.

I first came across Norman MacCaig in the late 1980s when I heard him being interviewed on the radio. He also read some poems about frogs. I went out and bought his Collected Poems and read it from beginning to end - not a thing I usually do with poetry books.
For the last twenty years I've had a poem of his pinned to my wall:

Between mountain and sea

Honey and salt - land smell and sea smell,
as in the long ago, as in forever.

The days pick me up and carry me off,
half-child, half prisoner,

on their journey that I'll share
for a while.

They wound me and they bless me
with strange gifts:

the salt of absence,
the honey of memory.

MacCaig spent a lot of time in Sutherland, in north-west Scotland, and had a special relationship with the strangely-shaped mountain, Suilven, that rises from the watery moors behind Lochinver. I recommend that you go and climb the mountain from Inverkirkaig, where you'll see the moving monument which the Friends of Norman MacCaig have erected at the start of the path. You'll also have a wonderful day out, if the midges aren't biting and the weather is fine.

Norman MacCaig died in 1996. The Poems of Norman MacCaig edited by his son Ewen comes with a CD of him reading his poems. For a very different outdoor poem also linked to this BBC stuff visit Chris Priestley's blog. It's all connected, you know!

I finished a book today. Well, I say finished - I wrote the final chapter and now all I have to do is rewrite it a few times. It's not a very long book and it's taken me a ridiculously long time to write. My new plan is to write a long book very quickly!

Monday, 11 May 2009

More Trees

I looked out of my window today and saw a poem in action.

The Trees

The trees are coming into leaf
Like something almost being said;
The recent buds relax and spread,
Their greenness is a kind of grief.

Is it that they are born again
And we grow old? No, they die too.
Their yearly trick of looking new
Is written down in rings of grain.

Yet still the unresting castles thresh
In fullgrown thickness every May.
Last year is dead, they seem to say,
Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.

Philip Larkin

I don't know whether it's just because leaf rhymes with grief, but this isn't the only poem which connects trees and mortality. There's Spring and Fall, by Gerard Manley Hopkins, and New Hampshire by T S Eliot. Feel free to let me know of others!