My poetry has been published in a variety of small-press magazines as well as online. It has also appeared in several anthologies. 'Fran Skating on the Manor Pond' was runner-up in the Exeter Poetry Prize 1998 and later included in the anthology Making Worlds; One Hundred Contemporary Women Poets, eds., Myra Schneider, Dilys Wood. Gladys Mary Coles, pubs., Headland in association with Second Light.
Online sites are excellent for placing more experimental or innovative texts, as the poems can often be displayed in different layouts than the single page of text. The poem here 'Up on Yannadon', for example, which is about the artist/writer Edith Holden and her visits to Dousland on Dartmoor, came about after I had visited Yannadon - a popular place for the artist's moorland walks - and was walking round Burrator Reservoir, which would also have once been her stamping-ground. By a chance of serendipity I noticed a little posy of orchids lying on the track; somone had evidently picked them and left them there. I remembered that I'd read somewhere that during her moorland rambles Edith enjoyed finding and picking orchids; an odd frisson of excitement: this was meant to be. Who had picked the orchids and why, I do not know to this day. But the poem soon popped into my poetry in-box and I decided it needed a backing image upon which to surmount it. Hence the layered effect, which unfortunately does not appear in the printed version in Tessitura. This version does appear on GreatWorks.
Ballerina’s ‘Song of the Earth’
(for Darcey Bussell)
pencil-line ornate in grey
around that empty space
the virtual (veritable) land
where no one is
a bird (lost Bride)
free from its cage
Have you ever (just once)
considered latent (wasted) talent
where words are lost-in-ether
though they may alight on a limb
of branch or perch as sigil on the stalk
of a rose?
Where does the phrase of incomplete text
finish? How long
does it exist in air before
it dies or
to earth dead
And no! She couldn’t have been there!
All a figment and that you know don’t you
what I mean? though
bracken was an arena for theatre
The day I saw her on the moor
I’d been considering the
those who say
they can have
as and when
they like and thinking
how fortunate they must be
Just to the north high on the crown
of Sorton tor there’s a metamorphosis
of rocks beneath my feet
this moor-scape edge grass-hillocks on
green-earth salted with dew
down from mid-grey skies – Ballerina!
You must have seen her
on the ground?
sur les pointes
that dress catches light
as she bourees back en pointe
it’s chiffon and satin a border
of organdie and net
She’s intent on inner voices
singing the song
where she went on the night of her final
Farewell to earth
I caught the last glimpse
her terre à terre before
she’d gone one with the hang-glider
behind the tor
out of view
and now don’t know
if she came to be part of the poem
to tell us something
or even flew in just for fun
a trick of light simplicity itself
disguised in a moving text
You do know though
She won’t return.[i]
[i]Bussell’s last performance with the Royal Ballet in June 2007 was Macmillan’s ballet Song
of the Earth.
'Ballerina's Song of the Earth' appears in Tessitura. It was first published online in asn issue of Ouroborus Review. I wrote of its origins in Reflections. a piece written for an exercise in conjunction with Exeter University:
'On reflection I decided that given that the poem Ballerina’s Song of the Earth is set on Dartmoor yet the Walkshop with which it is associated took place on the Blackdown hills some explanation is needed! It’s more or less the first time I’ve attempted to comment on my own creative writing, preferring to keep creative and academic writing separate and tend to be one of those who feels that one’s own creative impulse is best accepted for what it is. In this case, given the initial motive for the walk as providing material for the ongoing symposium at Exeter University and given that others of the group had spent time enhancing their work with such comment, I thought I’d have a go at making some sort of commentary on the thought processes behind the poem.
Taking as a starting point the assumption that a “physical environment imprints itself into every act of writing even when not directly the subject or object of that writing” (George Selmer: Landscape as Writing: synopsis) I’ll begin by locating the two scenes relevant to my poem. Ballerina was begun fairly soon after a walk on Dartmoor – whose circumference stretches round the landscape of my childhood - (this spot was just beneath Sourton Tor), with my little cavalier dog when unexpectedly a fleeting, and on hindsight rather surreal, picture/image/ of a ballerina wearing a wonderfully rich violet/cerise/mauve dress had come swirling down from the sky to dance before us. (I don’t think Isla was aware as she was too absorbed in burying her nose into the intoxicating smells provided by these fern-strewn lower slopes). The projected picture stayed with me and later I linked it with the televised programme I had recently seen of Darcey Bussell’s last performance of Song of the Earth at the Royal Ballet. Knowing virtually nothing of ballet and having had no previous interest I had found myself transfixed by something in the dancer’s poise and je ne sais quoi but had soon forgotten about it and her: life moves on apace nowadays.
The after-image/eidolon of the ballerina-on-the-moor was still with me when a week or so later I joined the other poets for the walk-shop on the Blackdowns and given the state of the inclement weather (to state it mildly) was more than a little incongruous: the two scenes/seens couldn’t have been more contrasted in terms of geography and weather. (I’m not claiming that this was some mystical vision of another dimension exactly: it just was as it was – a kind of day-dream projection). Perhaps I should have put the ballet-scene to the back of my mind and allowed other more appropriate ideas and images to gather. I don’t know what these may have been (but most likely the flowers identified by Tony would have featured) although this location on the Blackdowns had been an important place for me for several years earlier in my life and was now teeming with memories of people now gone from my life as well as special sites with particular resonance; these stretched from the pub to the lake and beyond. Anyway, the artist instinct being perverse (do the opposite of what you are supposed to do) - and by then bits and pieces, fragments, phrases, jottings re the ballet scene had begun to gather in my head and notebook so I’d more or less decided in advance that I wouldn’t be too anxious about discovering more material for another poem. In any case this was the first time I had had the chance to meet up with my long-time poet friends for quite a long while and that - with the opportunity for a meal and gossip - was sufficient for one day.
Anyway, when I began the first draft of the poem there were many images/memories/thoughts of the Blackdown walk bubbling away – and behind these another layer of thought/memories/images surfacing from times past – both impinging onto those of the poetic-scene itself; I knew that at least one level of writing I wanted to explore the links between the two places both in terms of outer and inner scene/seen and that the disjunction between the two locations fed into the notion of the exile who whilst living and working in one external location is actually in an inner-world pre-occupied with another (which would inevitably contain many ambivalent memories of love/family/friendship/loss etc) and frequently would be beset by bleak homesickness drawing him/her back to that one place, one special Home-land.
So the scene was set in terms of a doubling and/or opposition between two forces: a doubled-duality which I tried to actualise in the poem itself: these were the external landscape/scene/place and an internal landscape/seen/space. The doubling was enacted in several interlinked ways: the poet writing in one scenic place, yet the inner-seen is set in another place/dimension; and at the heart of the poem – with the lyrics of the final Song of the Earth (see below) which I now see as a kind of inter-text - that split between an actual place and a longed for place of be/longing.
I’m going to digress briefly so please bear with me. For both personal and academic reasons, I’ve been preoccupied by these kind of doublings and dichotomies for a while. Fate seems to have laid out for me the path of the wanderer who is yet always home-sick, longing to find again that lost and beloved scene/place of childhood (which for me was a beautiful house/garden built by my Grandfather high up and looking over a small Devon town and in the distance to Cawsand Tor on Dartmoor). Admittedly, as yet the wanderings have mostly been within the ambit of the Westcountry; significant Others seem to have been rooted effortlessly in their homes for ever, yet the more I covet this haven the more it eludes me. However, since I have been researching material for the book I’m writing on Devon women writers it has been striking and oddly comforting to find that several of these writers had for one reason or another kindred lives of perpetual travel and that frequently a text seems to have been generated and affected by the gap or divide in the writer’s actual place of writing and inner site-in-the-head – usually but not always a beloved home. Often, it seemed, the dichotomy must have allowed the writer to invest something extra special in the writing of a text, which therefore had more impact because of this life-split.
Three of these writers especially come to mind; for them it was particularly the split-scene of seascape that impinged on their life/writing: Jean Rhys, Sylvia Plath and H.D. were all exiles from their respective native lands when they were living and writing in the southwest of England. All three women crossed the Atlantic Ocean and spent periods of their life down here, perhaps drawn to the area because of our sea-bordered landscapes. Of course one can’t generalize and analyze their work as one but I think it’s possible to infer similarities: all three writers sought to delineate a textualised self in terms of the loss of an early idealized childhood sea-landscape and a real or figurative looking back over amniotic Atlantic water to their distant American or West Indian home-shores. In other words, whilst actually living and writing in a particular sea-location in the south-west, their inner sea-imaginings were “oceans” away with and at the sea-strewn coasts of their respective childhoods. (I think you’ll understand my intention here is not to suggest parallels between their work/literary status and my own but I guess that as individuals we are all fascinated by those with whom we look up to and would emulate, as artists/professionals etc).
Plath made her antipathy to Westcountry seas clear in Ocean 1212W – which she offers as a “fine white flying myth of origins”. She recalls visits to sea-places in Devon: rather than providing the solace she is looking for in re-membering her beloved “jewel in the head”, (which for her was the seascape of the Massachusetts coast), the Devon coast “Is not it. That is not it at all”. In other words she is announcing the significance of the schism of landscape without and within and the importance of landscape associated with text/s is implied: (see for example Blackberrying; also see Hughes’ comments on Plath’s reactions to the local Devon coast in Birthday Letters).
Rhys also experienced bleak reactions to the coastal resorts she stayed at in Devon/Cornwall: she loathed Bude, yet whilst there was working on drafts of Wide Sargasso Sea whose metamorphic modes feature the sea-strewn scenes of her childhood. It’s tempting to suggest that the dislocations in psyche and text evident in her fiction were only emphasized by the sea’s presence round her in the Southwest.
H.D though, writes of the “lost [sea] land of her childhood and often charts her inner world via such emblems as a chain of white necklace (which she associates with islands off the South-West as well as Greece); she is able to weave these into and with the memory of her beloved childhood islands on the eastern coast of Maine. So for her, southwestern seas become restorative; the coast seems to have enabled and enhanced her texts; this contrasts with sea-effects on Rhys and Plath which apparently provoked passionate homesickness for the lost lands of childhood and powerfully influenced their poetry/fiction via the negative emotions incited by the split.
For all three writers any real analysis of their textual self-realization needs to take note of the complicated effect of these splittings and /or doublings suggesting that the indefinable mind-space between real-scene and scene-in-the-head is a kind of alchemical container where mysterious, idiosyncratic and enigmatic psychological transformations can take place affecting both writer and text.
Another interesting splitting is relevant here. So many of the writers seem to have been endowed with a doubled artistic gift. What is always intriguing is that for some that gift in itself is more troublesome than enhancing as the writer is perpetually struggling to reconcile one with the other – and in many cases one art form has been abandoned so that the other can flourish; for others the doubled gift is enriching in itself as the writer/artist/musician has allowed one talent to complement the other. In some cases therefore the doubled gift has led to a split in appreciation or half-use of the dual gifts: whilst painting the artist would be longing to write; whilst writing a novel the writer would be longing to play the harp; whilst playing the flute the musician would only be longing to be able to paint that abstract scene seen in her mind’s eye. In other instances the artist would be complementing the picture with textual commentary; the writer backing her poetic manuscripts with evocative backing musical scores. And so on.
The link between split-creativity and the kind of divisions experienced and expressed by the writers noted above - and others - occasioned by living and working in dual- inner/outer landscapes struck me as being significant and as I began to write I released I could make use of and further explore these repercussions through the poem.
So there was the starting point. When I began to attempt a draft from my notes I had a mishmash of these thoughts dancing round in my head: as I wrote it seemed my sudden infatuation with Bussell/Ballerina/Ballet itself, fed into these preoccupations. There was the obvious split in the incongruity between seen image and scene itself; I began to see that She/Ballerina/Bussell represented for me an Icon of startling originality; in an age of post-modern cynicism she has that unique gift which bestows on her true (not “celebrity”) Star-Status - extra poignancy then to the realization that for her it was the final and last performance/presentation of her Gift. One of the critics expressed it so: “Darcey Bussell radiated eloquent affirmation in the face of death”: the heart rending last, faltering movements of her steps for Song of the Earth - where she seems to be stepping slowly into a future unknown - seemed to be so futile: still in her prime and her talent only partially revealed. What of the neglected and lost talent – where does it go? Can it be transferred somewhere (another dimension?), or to someone else? What constitutes self-fulfillment? Certainly the ballet itself backed by the inter-textuality of the lyrics of Song suggests that in spite of the inevitability of the finality of endings/finality/death there is an ever-moving renewal or cycle figuring perpetual movement beyond; the poem’s beginning is supposed to represent this reversal: the release of the dancer is imagined as rising again from the restrictive circles of empty circles within space which encircled her last tentative steps.
As well, Bussell seemed to embody (as archetype?) that kind of artist who manages to - and effortlessly at that - draw together the two dimensions requisite to a performer (inner-voice world and external dance performance) as well be a kind of conduit for dual art forms; in her case that of the dancer and that of the poet. You might challenge the latter thought, but many of the ballet critics in discussion of her and other ballet dancers employ poetic terminology to express their opinions: for instance dance is discussed as “choreographed poetry”. In other words, whilst dancing she was/is able to feel through the narrative/heightened emotion of the intense inner-experience she is living and to project it out through her dance on to the ground beneath her feet.
It wasn’t too much of a glissade from here towards the idea of ballet-as-text as being a useful metaphor for a statement of the ever-evolving inter-relationship between writer/text and landscape itself: dance as choreographed sigil is a living, changing document because dancer becomes the moving pen telling/dancing a story on over and across the land/paper-sheet, so co-joining the inner writer mind/seen and the outer landscape/ scene.
So in terms of my personal (rooted but rootless) and professional fascination with local landscape and texts by women, I’d like my ballet poem to be read as a way of re-grounding and re-establishing a grounded identification with that territory; in this day and age when the “land outside the computer screen is like a text we can forget how to read” (Simon Tresize, The Westcountry as Literary Invention) the metaphor of ballet-scene as text over the land presents a magical symbiosis between land and text/sigil and hence rekindles a renewed respect and attentive regard for Mother Earth – (lost bride). Somehow, writing it and this piece has given me a new understanding of my “roaming” habit as well as some sense of reconciliation of conflicting creative pursuits.
Re the form and style of the poem, I wanted to keep it fairly light and in keeping with the theme to reflect the imagined movement of the dancer through and behind the text; effect wanted is of poem-still-moving-through-its-text as a living, changing document. The next draft will probably experiment with spaces rather than punctuation. Oh and in case anyone wonders, with a moment of synchronicity I ripped (with a half-rhymed alteration) the lyrics Ballerina, you must have seen her/dancing on the ground/sand from the Elton John/Bernie Taupin song Tiny Dancer, heard at the apposite moment, at the recent Concert for Diana.'
The final song of the lyrics of Song of the Earth
By Mong-Kao-jen and Wang-Sei
The sun is setting behind the mountains,
Evening climbs down into all the dales
With its shadows that are full of coolness.
O look. Like a silver boat it hovers,
The moon upon the blue lake of heaven,
I sense the breath of a fine wind
Behind the dark firtrees.
Full of fair sound the brook sings through the darkness.
The flowers turn pale in the twilight.
All longing wants to dream now,
Men go home weary,
To find forgotten happiness in sleep
And learn to be young again.
The birds squat silent on their branches.
The world is going to sleep.
The air is cool in the shadow of my fir trees.
I stand here and wait for my friend.
I wait for him and our last farewell.
By your side, friend, I long
To enjoy the beauty of this evening.
Where are you? Long are you leaving me alone.
I walk up and down with my lute
On paths padded with soft grass.
O beauty. O world forever drunk on love and life.
He climbed from the horse and offered him the drink
Of farewell. He asked him wither
He was going and also why it had to be.
He spoke and his voice was veiled:
"My friend, I tell you,
In this world luck was not kind to me.
Where I am going? I'll go, I'll wander into the mountains.
I'm seeking rest for my lonely heart.
I'm walking towards home, my abode.
I shall never rove far away.
My heart is quiet and bides its time.
Everywhere the dear earth
Blossoms in the spring and grows green
Again. Everywhere and forever
The distance looks bright and blue
'The Soprano Who Loved Silence' came about after an interview with Dame Felicity Lott on Desert Island Disks, in which she suggested that as the years went by she liked 'silence' as much as 'sound'. You can hear that interview here
I was struck by this statement, because for me it reminded me that if I was able (or rather, had been lucky to have been born with the talent) to live as an alter-ego, I would choose to be singer; in other words, I prefer sound/music to silence/words.
So, the piece, or project, began as a need to write some sort of lyric poem; it ended a year or so later with a layered text, which in hindsight I feel was rather too ambitious. I explained some of the reasoning behind the project in the afterword of the poem. Here are some extracts from that afterword:
'Soprano is intended for page – possibly for performance. Traditionally the lied, as art form, balances in equal proportions, words and music. However, in its preferred presentation the lied prioritizes the sounded performance: the words implicitly come (a close) second to the music. Another of the conventional characteristics of the classical lied has been its typical and intrinsic bonding of male-derived words and music. Yes of course there are women poets represented in the repertoire, and there are female composers who have - and are still - writing classical song/s. Yet songs written and composed by women are (at least for the amateur) not easy to find (in recordings or as sheet music). Contemporary classical singers are performing some lied by women writers or composers – but these are apparently few and far between when compared to the songs of the classical and male canon. It seems that classical song has not yet caught up with the prevailing poetry culture, where women poets are being published more and more. How this contrasts with the world of pop-culture, where female song-writers are ubiquitous - indeed are given the privileged status of ‘Princess/es of Pop’. Whilst I was doing bits of research for this project I found many poems by men (with music also by men); quite a lot of poems by – mostly, but not all famous women poets - (with, usually, music by men); a handful of poems by women (with music also by women); a couple of songs by one woman (words and music both by the same artist). Most interesting -found just as I was completing the piece -(because of the composer’s links with Devon, my home county),Maud Valérie White, whose song ‘My soul is an enchanted boat’ according to several sources (including Grove’s) was and is ‘one of the best in our language’. Why then had I not heard of her before? Why can I not easily obtain a recording of the song - or even of the sheet music? How many other equally gifted female composers were (and still are) relegated to the musical margins?
One of the several threads of this poetry-project came from the female poet’s point of view – to try an exploratory written lied, in which the words are supposed to take precedence; as ‘poem on the page’ the piece is displayed, whilst the ‘music’ is imagined or heard inwardly by the inner musico-poetic ear. After the piece was completed I came across the theories of Garrett Stewart re the phonotext – exploring the ways that the ’sounds’ of the silent text are perceived by the body of the silent reader: he or she becomes a
sounding board for the poem’s language (see Reading Voices; Literature and the Phonotext). These ideas re reading and sound resonate with what I wanted to explore here. The project began with a snippet - a couple of lines spoken by Dame Felicity Lott during her Radio 4 Desert Island Discs session: ‘I love silence … more and more’. The main lines of the poem - (the vertical trail on the left) are mine – plus some of the fragments and also the English words of the ‘refrain’; I have cited all quotes by others. Music is from various sources and the poetic/song lyrics are also adapted from a variety of song-like places (see below). There is a thread of narrative, but the piece is intended to present a multiplicity of allusive voices.'
The lines 'There are green finches/music in my garden' appear in 'Soprano'.
Peter Philpott, who created the webzone GreatWorks, a collection of innovative poetry, accepted and published the poem online along with a few other of my poems, which allows it the best possible presentation.