Monday, 19 December 2011

Poem for Christmas

I wrote this pantoum for the recent Slingink Scribbling Slam which I was lucky enough to win. The other day I realised it would make a perfect Christmas poem to give to some of my writer friends. Here it is for anyone else who might like to read it.


This small night-light, this wax –

is it a wolf or a beaver-moon?

The candle wick quivers, is low;

it struggles to find a true north.

Is it a wolf or a beaver-moon,

a firefly’s glittering stage?

It struggles to find a true north

in the frost and iron of snow.

A firefly’s glittering stage?

There are huddles of birds

in the frost and iron of snow.

The harlequins have left.

There are huddles of birds

though rafters are empty of nests.

The harlequins have left

that tumbled, cavorted and sang.

Rafters are empty of nests;

yet something was here

that tumbled, cavorted and sang

in the dark – a star or a moth?

Something was here.

The wick of the candle is low

in the dark. A star or a moth:

this small night-light, this wax.

Mandy Pannett    Christmas 2011

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Eric Ravilious

One thing that drew me towards the writing workshop at Cuckmere Haven  (previous blog) was the thought of seeing the landscape that had so inspired my favourite artist, Eric Ravilious. 1903-1942.

These are two of his paintings of the area:

Ravilious has crept into at least 6 of my poems, not always by name. In 'All the Invisibles' he is the character who falls in love 'with the whiteness of chalk' and strides off single mindedly on a mission of his own. He said of his painting 'Chalk Paths'  that 'The long white roads are a temptation. What quests they propose! They take us away to the thin air of the future or to the underworld of the past.'

Ravilious was employed by the government as a War Artist but it was the art he was following more than the war. There came a time when even the whiteness of chalk and the ever changing light over the sea and cliffs at Cuckmere Haven was not enough. It was while he was in search of  the radiance of northern skies that the plane he was in vanished over Iceland leaving no trace.

A long poem of mine called 'Later, all at once' has just been published by the journal SAND. In one part of it I mentioned the two fever vans from the Boer War that Ravilious  and his wife had come across, discarded in undergrowth,  at Ascham, and had cleaned and decorated to use as accommodation and as an artist's studio. Later in the poem, based on his own diary,  I wrote a further passage about him.

August 1942  Iceland
Enamoured with the still-life of buoys and anchors, chains and wrecks, he sketches a propeller that reminds him, he says, of a daffodil bloom. Later he dreams of a gibbous moon and a sun together, side by side, in a parched and coppery sky.
On his last but one mission he flies above mountains that stretch on for miles: a lunar landscape pillowed with craters, pale as salt with shadows like fronds in a pool.  A barrage of dust is thickening light; he is smitten by longing for rain.

Cuckmere Haven

Here are some pictures from the writing workshop I went to at Cuckmere Haven. It was beautifully and inspiringly led by the novelist and poet Kay Syrad. Coleridge would have enjoyed walking on the beach and wading through the river and sea with us; we were told that uneven ground suited his muse whereas Wordsworth preferred a straight gravel path. The Coastguard's Cottage where we were based was magical. No wonder it featured in the film of 'Atonement' I have a notebook of phrases and a head full of thoughts that may or may not turn into prose or a poem. For now I am content to absorb memories and impressions of a visionary day.

Ovid's Birds

I have been reading about the hoopoe. Tereus was turned into one and, according to a translator of Ovid, 'An immoderate elongated beak juts out, like a long spear. The name of the bird is the hoopoe and it looks as though it is armed,'

This fits in with Wikipedia notes which describe the bird as 'a solitary forager. which usually feeds on the ground' and has such strong muscles in its head that its bill can be opened when it is inserted into the ground. This bill is also used as a weapon for a hoopoe is known to stab its rivals in flight.

A savage and powerful bird, a counterpart to the revengeful, desperate Tereus pursuing the nightingale and swallow through the forest for which there is no way out.

So far the legend. But in other cultures the hoopoe has a higher status - sacred in Ancient Egypt and Minoan Crete, the wisest of the birds in Persian literature, granted protection in countries where its diet of the pupae of the processionary moth helps the forests to survive.

This sudden interest in the hoopoe has come out of last night's workshop led by the gifted poet Jackie Wills who took the Slipstream, Poets on a short exploration of the world of translation - ancient and modern. I was particularly taken by Moniza Alvi's poems 'after' Jules Supervielle and need to read more but it was the Ovid that has hooked me most.

But not so much Tereus,  although today I seem to be following  the hoopoe's path - but Philomel, the agony of her transformation, her human voice ravaged and squeezed into the nightingale's song. I haven't included it in my poem but the image in my head was of a stroke victim or one in a coma who cannot speak the words that must be scorching the brain.

This is what I wrote last night:

Your throat is strangling from within
your epiglottis silted in hard breath.
What recompense are feathers now
of soft and forest brown, or melodies
that tease a poet's muse?
Forever dumb your human voice
like one small bird
must beat inside its cage.