Wednesday, 19 September 2018

Pascal's Coat


The image above is a painting by Rene Magritte called "Pascal's Coat". At the age of 31, the  famous mathematician and scientist, Blaise Pascal is reputed to have experienced an intense spiritual vision. He recorded this vision on parchment which he then sewed into the lining of his coat. He secreted this note in each of his subsequent coats until the parchment was found after his death by a servant who, noticing the unexplained bulk in the final coat, undid the lining. Pascal's "Night of Fire" was a time of personal transformation, and he obviously went to great effort to keep the memory of it in close proximity for the remainder of his life.

The poet Jorie Graham has written a long poem called "Le Manteau De Pascal". Both the poem and the image appeal to my love of poetry and art, and the genre of Ekphrastic writing. This line resonates in relation to that genre - "You do understanding, don't you, by looking?"

Over the next few weeks, I will be exploring the image and the poem in my own writing.

Here are some extracts from her poem:


"I have a coat I am wearing. It is a fine admixture.
The woman who threw the threads in the two directions
has made, skillfully, something dark-true,
as the evening calls the bird up into
the branches of the shaven hedgerows,
to twitter bodily
a makeshift coat - the box elder cut back stringently by the owner
that more might grow next year, and thicker, you know - "

"You do understanding, don't you, by looking?
The coat, which is itself a ramification, a city
floats vulnerably above another city, ours,
the city on the hill (only with hill gone),
floats in illustration
of what once was believed, and thus was visible -
(all things believed are visible)
floats a Jacob's ladder with hovering empty arms, an open throat,
a place where a heart might beat if it wishes,
pockets that hang awaiting the sandy whirr of a small secret,
folds where the legs could be, with their kneeling mechanism,
the floating fatigue of an after-dinner herald,
not guilty of any treason towards life except fatigue,
a skillfully cut coat, without chronology,
filled with the sensation of being suddenly completed —
as then it is, abruptly, the last stitch laid in, the knot bit off —
hung there in Gravity, as if its innermost desire,
numberless the awaitings flickering around it,
the other created things also floating but not of the same order, no,
not like this form, built so perfectly to mantle the body,
the neck like a vase awaiting its cut flower,
a skirting barely visible where the tucks indicate
the mild loss of bearing in the small of the back,
the grammar, so strict, of the two exact shoulders —
and the law of the shouldering —
and the chill allowed to skitter up through,
and those crucial spots where the fit cannot be perfect —
oh skirted loosening aswarm with lessenings,
with the mild pallors of unaccomplishment,
flaps night-air collects in,
folds... But the night does not annul its belief in,
the night preserves its love for, this one narrowing of infinity,
that floats up into the royal starpocked blue its ripped, distracted supervisor —
this coat awaiting recollection,
this coat awaiting the fleeting moment, the true moment, the hill,the vision of the hill,
and then the moment when the prize is lost, and the erotic tinglings of the dream of reason
are left to linger mildly in the weave of the fabric according to the rules,
the wool gabardine mix, with its grammatical weave,
never never destined to lose its elasticity,
its openness to abandonment,
its willingness to be disturbed."

"How many coats do you think it will take?

The coat was a great-coat.

The Emperor's coat was.

How many coats do you think it will take?

The undercoat is dry. What we now want is?

The sky can analyse the coat because of the rips in it.

The sky shivers through the coat because of the rips in it.

The rips in the sky ripen through the rips in the coat.

There is no quarrel.

I have put on my doubting, my wager, it is cold.
It is an outer garment, or, conversely a natural covering,
so coarse and woolen, also of unknown origin,
a barely apprehensible dilution of evening into
an outer garment, or, conversely a natural covering,
to twitter bodily a makeshift coat,
that more might grow next year, and thicker, you know,
not shade-giving, not chronological,
my name being called out now but from out back, behind,
an outer garment, so coarse and woolen,
also of unknown origin, not shade-giving, not chronological,
each harm with its planeloads folded up in the sleeves,
you do understand, don't you, by looking?
the jacob's ladder with its floating arms its open throat,
that more might grow next year, and thicker, you know,
filled with the sensation of being suddenly completed,
the other created things also floating but not of the same order,
not shade-giving, not chronological,
you do understand, don't you, by looking?
a neck like a vase awaiting its cut flower,
filled with the sensation of being suddenly completed,
the moment the prize is lost, the erotic tingling,
the wool-gabardine mix, its grammatical weave
— you do understand, don't you, by looking? —
never never destined to lose its elasticity,
it was this night I believe but possibly the next
I saw clearly the impossibility of staying
filled with the sensation of being suddenly completed,
also of unknown origin, not shade-giving, not chronological
since the normal growth of boughs is radiating
a system of spoke-wise clubs of green — sleeve pieces —
never never destined to lose its elasticity
my name being called out now but back, behind,
hissing how many coats do you think it will take
"or try with eyesight to divide" (there is no quarrel)
behind everything the sound of something dripping
a system of spoke-wise clubs of green — sleeve pieces
filled with the sensation of suddenly being completed
the wool gabardine mix, the grammatical weave,
the never-never-to-lose-its-elasticity: my name
flapping in the wind like the first note of my absence
hissing how many coats do you think it will take
are you a test case is it an emergency
flapping in the wind the first note of something
overheard nearby an impermanence of structure
watching the lip-reading, there is no quarrel,
I will vanish, others will come here, what is that,
never never to lose the sensation of suddenly being
completed in the wind — the first note of our quarrel —
it was this night I believe or possibly the next
filled with the sensation of being suddenly completed,
I will vanish, others will come here, what is that now
floating in the air before us with stars a test case
that I saw clearly the impossibility of staying."

Wednesday, 18 April 2018

Writing in Nature at Coed Aberneint

I belong to a small writers' group who meet regularly. Today we went to Coed Aberneint and did a circular walk, stopping at three locations to write - observing and reflecting for ten minutes each time.

Stop One
There’s a skill to being able to silence the heart and mind in the midst of turmoil, in extremes, like Primo Levi. Some psyches seem more capable of surviving- not quite intact but not completely dismantled either. The persistence of a chainsaw and birdsong dissecting the air. I’d like to pare back, to let the light in on what I love. To take time to notice what matters, to heal with the felled trees and fallen birds.

Stop Two
Beneath an oak tree. Reminded of a conversation about non native trees being “wrong”. What is rootedness? Some things survive and thrive so well out of place. What takes root and what gets blown by the wind? Dispersal, upheaval, displacement. And the wind is up now making all of that possible if not preferable. It seems we survive in such small margins of error. Birds fly over. I think of the solitary curlew that accompanied me across alien moors - the peat paths and granite boulders. The curlew calling was a constant. It sounded like my heart keening.

Stop Three
Waterfall. Water falling. The force of water on the move. It finds its ways through fissures, around stones and drops into itself over the edge. The insistence of it beats into the blood. It carries the fallen along without discernment, sprays upwards on the wind. Where is its source, where is its release? Following streams off mountains in mist. Rowan trees seeded along their sides, their berries blood red. Listening now to what the river says. Feeling more found than lost.

Sunday, 28 January 2018

Awakening the Bear

I was talking with a friend a while ago about how difficult a month January can be.She called it an inward time, and said she felt like the last of the Mohicans. I found this an interesting analogy. What might a last Mohican feel like?

On Christmas Eve in 1995 my father and I had watched the film together. My mother was in Velindre Hospital having a blood transfusion. She came home a few days later but died the following March. I had stayed with her the final three days and on the morning she died I drove home listening to the film's theme tune - "No Matter Where You Go I Will Find You". I wanted some magical thinking to help bear the terrible loss, despair and feeling of isolation.

I have been thinking how best to negotiate January? Perhaps to see it as a time of reflection and preparation. In Bear Medicine, hibernation or The Great Sleep is regarded as a time of introspection and restoration, through to re-emergence.

 In his poem "Sweet Darkness", David Whyte explores the positive possibilities of going into the dark, where "The night will give you a horizon/Further than you can see". When light and energy are low, l can reference both the song and the poem as a way of affirming my connection with my essential self - until the Bear awakens.

Monday, 9 October 2017

Wednesday, 4 January 2017

"Come", "Stay", "Ouch"


This is the dialogue between ET and his young friend just before ET gets onto the spaceship that has come to take him back home. I always find it extremely moving to witness the acute pain felt  by these two beings who have bonded so deeply and are now having to part.

This morning, for the first time ever, Nel, my aged border collie, pulled back on her lead - reluctant to come with me on a short morning run in the forest where we live. She had shown her usual excitement at the start and had come with me for about half a mile. I put the lead on her now because as she is almost blind she often stops to take in smells and if I run on a little way without  her, she becomes confused. So we start with the lead on until she gets into a rhythm.

Her reluctance to come with me was a shock but not really a surprise. Witnessing a dog grow old is like a kind of death by a thousand cuts. I am so grateful that she had lived this length of time - she will be fourteen in February - but a dog's life is relatively short and certainly never long enough.

Nel was adopted when she was a year old, from a dog rescue centre that thought euthanasia was going to be the only option because she was so badly traumatised. We have been running in the forest together for thirteen years. I have been blessed with every step that we've shared.

Maybe tomorrow she'll feel differently but today it feels like -
and most definitely

Saturday, 31 December 2016

A Year of Reading - not so dangerously

There is no frigate like a book
To take us lands away,
Nor any coursers like a page
Of prancing poetry.

Emily Dickinson

About a year ago I came to realise that it had been months since I had  last read a complete book. This was shocking to me. I consider myself a life-long reader. As a child I went to the library once a week, if not more, and always took out and read the full quota of books allowed. I think I had two buff coloured tickets for fiction and a green one for non-fiction. One Saturday I waited outside for the librarian to open up my local library in Porth. I chose three books, went home and read them and returned to the library ready to borrow more. When the librarian saw the date for return stamped in them, she presumed I had changed my mind about them and she told me off for being a time-waster. I don't know why I didn't speak up for myself then, but gratefully accepted her forgiveness that manifested itself in allowing me to borrow more books. I am forever grateful to librarians and for libraries.

This is a poem by Nikki Giovanni -

My First  Memory (Of Librarians)

This is my first memory:
A big room with heavy wooden tables that sat on a creaky
    wood floor
A line of green shades—bankers’ lights—down the center
Heavy oak chairs that were too low or maybe I was simply
    too short
         For me to sit in and read
So my first book was always big

In the foyer up four steps a semi-circle desk presided
To the left side the card catalogue
On the right newspapers draped over what looked like
    a quilt rack
Magazines face out from the wall

The welcoming smile of my librarian
The anticipation in my heart
All those books — another world — just waiting
At my fingertips.

I felt it was important to reconnect with a regular reading practice - to feel a book in my hand, to smell the print and paper and to experience that satisfying feeling as the pages mount up on the left. So I made a plan to read four books a month. I gave myself four categories:

1. Fiction
2. Non-Fiction
3. Work related
4. Pure entertainment

Throughout 2016 I have read forty four books. (I did allow myself to include a couple of audible books and one or two as kindle versions). It has been strangely satisfying to see the list grow, and I enjoyed working out which books to read for each category.  I intend to continue with the practice again next year and am alread  planning my four for January 2017.

My Reading List for 2016

1. Non-fiction
2. Fiction
3. Work-related
4. Pure entertainment

2. The Miniaturist - Jessie Burton
3. On Elizabeth Bishop - Colm Toibin
4. W is for Wasted - Sue Grafton
1. The Narrow Door - Paul Lisicky

2. Room - Emma Donaghue
1. A Year of Reading Dangerously - Andy Miller
3. Reasons to Stay Alive - Matt Haig
4. Career of Evil - Robert Galbraith

1. Keeping An Eye Open - Julian Barnes
3. 30 Second Philosophies - Law and Baggini
4. Cross and Burn - Val McDermid
2. Blue Diary - Alice Hoffman

2. The Snow Child - Eowyn Ivey
3. We Learn Nothing - Tim Kreider
1. 25 Lessons I Learned about Photography - Dominguez and Staal
4. The Forsytes Continues - John Galsworthy

2. The Snow Queen - Michael Cunningham
1. Kindling the Native Spirit - Denise Linn
3. NVC - A Language of Life - Marshall Rosenberg
4. Beside Myself - Anne Morgan

2. The Answer and Other Love Stories - Rebbecca Ray
1. Footnotes - How Running Makes Us Human - Vybarr Cregan-Reid
3. Boredom - a lively history - Peter Toohey
4. The Bat - Jo Nesbo

3. The Skeleton Cupboard - Tanya Byron
4. The Spider Truces - Tom Connolly
2. The Language of Dying - Sarah Pinborough
1. Quicksand - Henning Mankell

2. Analyzing Sylvia Plath - Alice Walsh
1. All at Sea - Decca Aitkenhead
4. Taking Pity - David Mark
3. Dog Medicine - Julie Barton

1. Steig Larsson, My Friend - Kurdo Baksi
3. Stuffocation - James Wallman
4. The Blackhouse - Peter May
2. The Unwitting - Ellen Feldman

1. Baggage - Victoria Field
2. Manhattan 62 - Reggie Nadelson
4. Everything I Never Told You - Celeste Ng
3. Into The Magic Shop - James Doty

4. Magpie Murders - Anthony Horowitz
2. Precious Thing - Colette McBeth
3. How To Age - Anne Karpf
1. Fast Asleep, Wide Awake - Nerina Ramlakhan

2. The Swimming Pool - Louise Candlish
4. Caught - Harlan Coben
3. Me After You - Lucie Brownlee
1. How Did We Get Into This Mess? - George Monbiot

In Anthony Horowitz's "Magpie Murders" one narrator says, "Fiction allows us a glimpse at the alternative". This, and so much more, is what reading continues to allow.

Wednesday, 13 April 2016

Gun and a Leather Sole

"Digging Down II - A Curiously Collaborative Museum of Lost, Found and Broken"
with Lindsey Colbourne and Marged Pendrell.

This was an exploration of a new type of museum where the traditional model of collection and display was abandoned and replaced with a more interactive  method of exhibiting objects that had been found. In this way, "participatory collections’ of objects were created, allowing for exchange and handling, and an invitation to respond to the objects creatively.

So what gives an object special significance? Where and why do I keep certain objects? When and how, if ever, do I return or give away objects I have collected?

This poem by Rebecca Lindenberg explores some of these questions.

 In the Museum of Lost Objects

"What thou lov’st well shall not be reft from thee;
What thou lov’st well is thy true heritage."  
          Ezra Pound

You’ll find labels describing what is gone:
an empress’s bones, a stolen painting

of a man in a feathered helmet
holding a flag-draped spear.

A vellum gospel, hidden somewhere long ago
forgotten, would have sat on that pedestal;

this glass cabinet could have kept the first
salts carried back from the Levant.

To help us comprehend the magnitude
of absence, huge rooms

lie empty of their wonders—the Colossus,
Babylon’s Hanging Gardens and

in this gallery, empty shelves enough to hold
all the scrolls of Alexandria.

My love, I’ve petitioned the curator
who has acquired an empty chest

representing all the poems you will
now never write. It will be kept with others

in the poet’s gallery. Next door,
a vacant room echoes with the spill

of jewels buried by a pirate who died
before disclosing their whereabouts.

I hope you don’t mind, but I have kept
a few of your pieces

for my private collection. I think
you know the ones I mean.

From the lost, found and broken objects I chose a small rusted gun and a partial shoe sole to write about.

Lost and Found

Rough notes at the museum

Gun and a Leather Sole

At odds yet strangely suited, one heavy, one weightless in my hand. A real gun rusted beyond use, taking me back to the toy pistols with snapping, smoking caps. To cowboy hats, plastic swords and forts. To holding my parents' hands down miles of urban streets, looking at toys in shops. Who chose what and when? Their leather soles outworn. My father cobbling on an iron last. Leather pared and dropped like fingernails. Mending my mother's shoes. (So much he could not mend for us. All that is broken now, regardless). Our triad unlaced.  Yet we are threaded each through each with rust and dirt and un-forgetfulness.