Monday, 8 January 2018

Emily Bronte: High Waving Heather

I am preparing for a talk about Emily Bronte's life and writing, at Morley Library (details on my Upcoming events page), and one of the poems I plan to feature is High Waving Heather, whose form and structure I have been considering.  I have always liked the poem, but in recent days the experience of reading it aloud has drawn me to the particularly strident sounds and style of the poem, whose vowel sounds and line endings charge it full of purposive energy and bite. The poet's use of dactylic foot, as I shall demonstrate below, accentuates the aggression of the subject matter, and enables each line to thrust its self into life very much in the manner of the tempestuous weather she describes; but the poem, which has been interpreted allegorically, is also a wonderfully dramatic evocation of the sort of moorland world in which Emily Bronte felt most at home.

  
High waving heather 'neath stormy blasts bending, the poem begins, and notice how already we are tugged along by stormy weather into a brisk, or even bounding, pace; the authoritative syllabic sound of "High" kicks things off firmly; the alliterative opening, spiked with a Long "i" sound,  sweeps us into a rhythm of energy and movement. With the insistent sound of words like "High," "Mighty," and "Roaring," to initiate the lines, combined with the use of dactyls (syllabic units where the first sound is stressed, followed by two unstressed syllables), Emily Bronte has injected the poem with a vigour and anger, a little like an athlete "pushing" off from the blocks for that first spurt of a race. 
Right from the start, we know this poem is not going to be a pastoral meditation on heather waving gently in the breeze - but a fast blast of sharp sounds, all enabled by the employment of the dactyl.  With line endings like rending, descending, flying and defying, this three-stanza flurry of a poem is designed to rouse the reader, or listener, and to summon up an urgent pace.  Yet the poem also imprints an imagery of stoicism in the echoes of a storm, contrasting the transience of the elements and the "gloom defying" lightning, and the advance of the river bursting its banks, with the permanence and immovability of the earth.

Rivers their banks in the jubilee rending,
Fast through the valleys a reckless course wending,
Wider and deeper their waters extending,
Leaving a desolate desert behind.



There is something in Emily Bronte's pace and rhythm which, for me, conjures thoughts not just of the heather and hills of Yorkshire, but of the Scottish Highlands, in these lines.  Indeed, when I first read the poem I half forgot that I was not casting my eyes over the words of Robbie Burns.  Much has been written about the author's veneration of nature, and her use of a lower case "h" in "heaven" (twice) is certainly interesting, especially considering her background as the daughter of a Parson, but whatever metaphors or allegorical themes might be deduced from this powerful poem, the sense of escape is ever-present:


Man spirit away from his drear dungeon sending,
Bursting the fetters and breaking the bars. 

The ABAAAB rhyme scheme is both pleasing to the ear, and invigorating, in how it gives the stanzas' final lines a punch, and neatly compresses a story of midnight storms, thunder, and desolation.  Rhymes and half-rhymes within the lines are acutely stirring also - wild, and life-giving, glory and rejoicing, Lightning-bright flashes the deep gloom defying.  The juxtaposing of stars and darkness, or earth and heaven, jolt us into shifting visions and spectral imaginings. The vision of survival, even of the triumph of the will, against a hard, bleak background, and in spite of tempests, dungeons is hard to overlook, yet though the poem's power lies in its wet and wild setting, the lasting imagery of sadness is surely underlined in the fleeting brevity of the storm's life-giving essence, fading from the desolate aftermath.

High waving heather 'neath stormy blasts bending
Midnight and moonlight and bright shining stars,
Darkness and glory rejoicingly blending,
Earth rising to heaven, and heaven descending,
Man spirit away from his drear dungeon sending,
Bursting the fetters and breaking the bars. 

All down the mountain sides, wild forest lending
One mighty voice to the life-giving wind;
Rivers their banks in the jubilee rending,
Fast through the valleys a reckless course wending,
Wider and deeper their waters extending,
Leaving a desolate desert behind.


Shining and lowering and swelling and dying,
Changing for ever from midnight to noon;
Roaring like thunder, like soft music sighing,
Shadows on shadows advancing and flying,
Lightning-bright flashes the deep gloom defying,
Coming as swiftly and fading as soon.

 

Tuesday, 2 January 2018

Bicentenary of Emily Bronte - Exploring the Brontes events




2018 is the bicentenary of Emily Bronte, and I am greatly looking forward to developing the event Exploring the Brontes with my co-collaborator Caroline Lamb, and friends. In 2017 we took the show to Morley, Gildersome, Todmorden and Halifax,
 

...and we are planning an imminent event at Sowerby Bridge, plus some exciting further ventures - all of which will be featured here as soon as possible.

My first solo Emily Bronte themed event will be at 11AM on Thursday 18th Jan at Morley Library, West Yorks, where anyone is welcome and where attendance is free.  I will be talking about Emily's life and work, and focusing especially on certain poems, including the one below, which I have always felt is identifiable with the spirit of solitude which characterized Emily Bronte, and gave rise to some of her greatest literary creations.  In some of my Exploring the Brontes talks on Branwell last year, I used to say the poem reminded me of him, and I suppose it does in a way.  But I feel that it could also be said to be a sort of tribute to all lost spirits, or to anyone who has at any time in their lives felt alienated or adrift, and it is certainly one which I will be exploring a lot in this momentous year of Emily's bicentenary.


It was night and on the mountains
Fathoms deep the snow drifts lay
Streams and waterfalls and fountains...
Down in darkness stole away

Long ago the hopeless peasant
Left his sheep all buried there
Sheep that through the summer pleasant
He had watched with fondest care
Now no more a cheerful ranger
Following pathways known of yore
Sad he stood a wildered stranger
On his own unbounded moor.


Carving Angels in the Window Pane - Poetry by Keely Murphy




I know little of American poet Keely Murphy, beyond that her collection This Steady Place (Blue Begonia Press 2005) is one of my favourite books, sent to me by a friend from the publisher's home state of Yakima, Washington, nearly ten years ago.  The biographical information records that the author lives in the Yakima Valley, "one block away from the centre of the city," but there is no suggestion of any other publications. The poet's persona is as enigmatic as many of the presences which sail fleetingly through this magical book.  I dreamt ghosts carved an angel in my window pane, begins one of the poems in this shimmering collection, all shattery, haunting my apartment building. 

 


Dreams feature significantly, as do the beginnings of days, the act of waking, though often with the sense of something more elegiac than Edenic:

A hush fell over the city today.
I crossed Yakima Avenue and felt and
heard the same hush on 40th Avenue.
We drove downtown and this 
sea of birds flew up from the old buildings,
all curving in a crowd, darting, spotting the sky.
Dark against a gray sky lit up by sunset.

 
    

Birds flutter and swoop through the beguiling pages of this day-dreamy book, winging their way into the title poem, where the book's valley setting is my quiet strength, like bone destiny.  Setting out her declaration of intent, the poet states:

Today, I don't need sand dollars.
I need this sun, this March heat, these white cumulus clouds.
And I will continue as this desert does, bending seasons,
dry and wet, cold and warm, and
this inconsistency its own reliability.


Deep in a meditative communion with her surroundings, the author celebrates the valley's powers in a a Pantheistic joint embodiment:

I wake up just how this valley does.
It got into me as a child. It raised me up as a woman.
Its cycles are my cycles, and I am its own.
This dusty ground, accepting what we give it.
I accept this long way around.
I love it here - these chimneys and porchlights.
This steady place.  It is broken and blown over.
It is blooming and full of birds.

Reading these lyrical, quasi-Biblical lines, which so eloquently portray the cloudy heat of late winter in the Pacific Northwest, in the grip of a Calder Valley winter, it is hard not to notice both the vast differences and similarities between our two environments.  Here, there are no irrigation sprinklers to overwhelm any miraculous crop harvest.  No cherry blossoms, desert dust, or lawns being mowed - even by March.  But the horizons are defined by bulbous brown hills rising into clouds, and the ground we walk on is built over minerals thick and cold, while the Calder Valley winter is a glittering symphony of birds  - waders, ravens, wrens and woodpeckers, muscovies and merlins.
Keely Murphy's descriptions of pigeons strike a chord for me, as they are birds of abundance here in my neck of the woods:

Farther down the avenue, pigons flew
up from the old Baptist church and
one white bird landed on the east side
perched on a tiny stone ledge. I said,
"Look at that white one." 



I love how the poet imagines the pigeons' relations elsewhere in the world:

The pigeons flying like how I picture they fly in Europe,
how I picture they fly on the East Coast.
They fly the same on every continent, classic like that.
Birds flew in the hush and I pictured them
swirling up a wind current on their own,
flying by their own movement.

 
But the birds flocking through the poems in This Steady Place are as likely to be mythical or imaginary as real:

Reading

In a dream last night I dreamt
I was sitting next to this young Asian man,
overlooking the water when
a tremendous flock of birds flew up
dotting the entire pink sunset sky, end to end.
And as I gasped and told him how beautiful it was
he told me that sometimes when that happens
he tries to read what it says like text,
black letters dotting the page.
And I wondered what it would say
if you froze the there-
all of their wingtips touching
discovering the shapes.


What the poet has done here ties in greatly with one of my own current obsessions - the poem as dream, or the dream as poem - but in a manner so elegant and fluent as to create the impression of a realistic dialogue. I can see and hear the Asian man, the birds, the black letters of their wings dotting the page of a Pacific sky.  It is this acute skill of depicting characters which also brings to life the more conversational or human-focused poems in the collection, as in apparently autobiographical sketches such as Honey Cigars and Wine:

We stand there as Murphys.
We are everything my parents thought would never happen.
My brother, a desperate eighteen year old,
swallowed up by love,
emotional, transitory, troubled, and full of music.
Smoking cigars desperately.
My sister, a married purple-teeth-stained patchouli girl
who wants to fight and wants to be loved, equally.
Me, a color-driven poet, pierced and full of words.

The poet's family appear also in the gentler Honeysuckles, where she recalls The honeysuckle days of childhood  /tangled up in gray woody trees, and remembers warmly:

These are my best moments,
held up in live wood.
Fresh honeysuckle still in my mouth.

Going on to idealize the setting, while also hunting at hidden pains beneath the bucolic exterior:

We were a beautiful strawberry jam whole wheat bread
family with shallow aching unspoken secrets 

Elsewhere, the concept of sharing, of bridging the divide between two people by a joint experience of "opening up", is given unexpectedly pictorial, stunningly metaphorically effective treatment:

we opened ourselves,
opened beautifully in a few moments.
Raw right and left ventricles, red chambers, open.
We don't have solutions or remedies.

This Steady Place is a quietly enchanted, nostalgic, at times dark, often warm and sometimes funny book, split into three sections - the first being mainly recollections from the poet (or narrators) interlinked with dialogue, the innocence of garden and rural scenes mingling with the corrupting, and magnetizing delights of the city; the second a descent (or ascent) into spiritual settings, with the concluding third veering into surrealism.  Some of the titles of the poems in this third part are enticingly bizarre:  I Woke Up With a Mouth Full of God; and my favourite, My Mother's Unwritten Poems, while the poems themselves often begin with dazzlingly strange images:
I want to tape leaves to my eyelids

I am walking up and down the crucifix

A poem starts as an ache

There is uniquely crafted, bewitching poetry of love and loss, poetry of memory and of dreams, poetry of bridges, breaking hearts, city streets and spray-painted angels, and poetry that deserves to be read far beyond the poet's native Yakima, as far and widely as possible.  Indeed, one of the book's most arresting images comes, for me, in the short poem Prayer, which opens up its second, more spiritual or philosophical section, and which is arguably even more relevant at the onset of 2018 than when first published 13 years ago. The poet combines images of prayer in valleys beyond her own.  In Jerusalem they are praying, she tells us, while in China their prayer flags blow / and spin.  Just as at other points in the book her weaving together of valley after valley after valley depicts a multi-faceted web of shared existences, so this poem's deft depictions of cultures thousands of miles apart somehow transcend the barriers of space and time and bring into focus the bonds of a shared humanity and planet.  Reading it overlooking the woodlands, villages, towns and lives intersecting and evolving in my own valley, I am struck by the poem's simple beauty, and its urgent, unaffected truth.

I am breathing out in a valley
where I wait for the hills to brown
from their black muddied slopes.
I am breathing out the same air 
that moves their papery wheels.

Monday, 1 January 2018

Winter Birds of the Ryburn Valley

When I moved to the Calder Valley six years ago, I lived in a valley-within-a-valley, the Ryburn Valley - so named for the River Ryburn, which flows down from the wooded franges of Blackstone Edge, through the moor-bordered hills of Rishworth, Ripponden and Triangle, onto its confluence with the Calder at Sowerby Bridge.  Although I left the Ryburn Valley in 2015, the window of my flat still overlooks its hilly edges, and my walks so often take me among its hills, woods and waters.


 One of the first birds I noticed on moving to the River Ryburn in 2012 was a green woodpecker, bobbling above a stream that trickled down the hills above the woods at Milner Royd. Like a lithe, red-hatted jester, it seemed to jump between the stones that jutted from the water, before shooting up the hill into obscurity amid a blur of grasses and high hedgerows. 

 I knew you writes Hampshire poet Denise Bennett, by your / green carpenter's apron,/ your red-crested head - / and watching you chisel bark / with all the care of a craftsman*.
Bewick claims they are the largest woodpeckers of the British kinds, stating that as adults, they are thirteen inches in length. He explains that the smoothly-feathered green bird, documented by Linnaeus in 1758, is seen more frequently on the ground than the other kinds, particularly where there are ant-hills. It inserts its long tongue into the holes through which the ants issue, and draws out these insects in abundance. Sometimes, with its feet and bill, it makes a breach in the nest, and devours them at its ease, together with their eggs. The young ones climb up and down the trees before they are able to fly; they roost very early, and repose in their holes till day.

The green woodpecker, Picus viridis, has achieved a certain familiarity due to its appearance on international postage stamps, and as the insignia of the traditional English brand Woodpecker cider.
The species has been known as Rain Bird and Weathercock, since their presence has been thought to imply oncoming rain. Another name is Laughing Betsey, owing to its laugh-like call, which has also given rise to titles such as uffle, hefful, hickle, icwell, eccle and - a personifying development - Jack Eikle. Yuckel is a further variation, as is Yappingale, and perhaps even more imitatively, Yaffingale - which may be familiar as the source of the name Yaffles. Stiff, stern but loveable, Professor Yaffles, with his spectacles perched atop his beak, is the wise old bookend in Bagpuss, the children’s television series in which assorted puppets and ornaments - not least the eponymous cloth cat himself - interacted among the shelves of a cluttered toyshop. Based on a green woodpecker, Yaffles was soon an established part of modern English folklore, as recognizable and iconic as the animals of Beatrix Potter or those among the stories of Winnie the Pooh.

Walking across the valley at this time of year, one is even likelier to see robins, thrushes, coal-tits and blue-tits - predictable, yet among the loveliest sights of a winter morning, jeweled nuggets of cerulean beauty dappling the web-like fretworks of the trees. Perhaps most usual of all among the winter sights are crows. Intermingling, is the jackdaw (Corvus monedula) who, as Cowper fancied in 1822, 
by his coat
And by the hoarseness of his note,
Might be supposed a crow;
A great frequenter of the church,
Where, bishop-like, he finds a perch,
And dormitory too.


Like black daggers slashing through white linen, the crows of Calderdale puncture snowdrifts upon the craggy uplands of the moors; they bounce from bough to bow, or crookedly hobble over dribbling becks and take their places on the wickerwork scaffolds of winter’s leafless trees. Smaller are the blackbirds, whose trilling song sounds like a fanfare urging the year to commence. With their apple-pip eyes and svelte, swarthy bodies, they skip across the frost, or dot the gardens pecking for worms, rummaging through primulas and clumps of daffodil. Immortalized by Paul McCartney and the Beatles, the blackbird is an age-old feature of the English ornithological stage. The females softly brownish, the males jet-black, blackbirds have become so embedded in our collective vision that to see one hardly raises an eyebrow; likewise they are so used to our presence, so confident in their numbers and time-honoured prominence on our landscape, that they seem blithely unconcerned by us. For Seamus Heaney, something in the cautious, ponderous, guarded but resolute blackbird was a mirror of his own uncertain self, his own human reserve, and demonstrative of a fleetingly transfigured but innate kinship:
The automatic lock
Clunks shut, the blackbird’s panic
Is shortlived, for a second
I’ve a bird’s eye view of myself

The higher reaches of the Valley are characterized by hardiness - by stoical heathers, rough hill scrub, rabbit paths wedged into millstone grit. Acid soils promote Ericas and other dwarf-shrubs, which feed the larvae of many lepidoptera. In turn, caterpillars - along with the ants and beetles that thrive on sandstone and acidic soils, are taken by many birds feeding up at the onset of the winter, such as the wrens sprinkled like skittering mice among the tree trunks. Although not as often seen as some, owing to its small size and shy, nimble nature, the wren - Troglodytes troglodytes - is actually Britain’s most numerous bird, with some 8,600,000 pairs breeding annually, mostly in deciduous woodlands and moors, making the Ryburn Valley an excellent location. Small, scurrying, and an obvious target for rats and other predators, wrens nevertheless possess something of the toughness that the winter moorscape ruggedly implies. The poor wren, says Lady Macbeth, trying to rouse her husband into violence, the most diminutive of birds, will fight, Her young ones in her nest, against the owl.
Wordsworth, examining the unassuming creatures’ nesting habits, wrote how:
AMONG the dwellings framed by birds
In field or forest with nice care,
Is none that with the little Wren's
In snugness may compare.

No door the tenement requires,
And seldom needs a laboured roof;
Yet is it to the fiercest sun
Impervious, and storm-proof.

So warm, so beautiful withal,
In perfect fitness for its aim,
That to the Kind by special grace
Their instinct surely came.

And when for their abodes they seek
An opportune recess,
The hermit has no finer eye
For shadowy quietness.

 

They are principally ground-dwelling, their dome-shaped nests at the bases of trees, within easy reach of a largely insectivorous diet. Worms and arthropods are firm favourites, and at times the wren will branch out into spiders. Berries, seeds and even amphibians might feature also, and some birds have even been observed to venture into water to find fish.

Water is, of course, another of our region’s dominant elements. Not only is the valley cleaved by the river to which it owes its name, but it is glistening with canals and reservoirs imbruing the surrounding prospects like the branches of a tree. Dippers bounce upon the cold blue surfaces, gulls swoop and squawk along the lapping shores and skirt the borders of the motorway. 

 



 Further towards town, the geese are veteran residents. Flocking on the banks and nesting under the bridge, they are part of the furniture, sometimes waddling over roads and halt the traffic on the way to Ripponden. Canada geese soar overhead, or dip and dodge their ways across the stony streams at Sowerby and Luddenden.



The water birds, including mergansers, muscovies and cormorants, live among each other quite peaceably, and considering the area’s biodiversity, with different animal communities often living in fairly close proximity. 

 

 


Avian life is both adaptable and beneficial to the wider eco-system. In fields of cows and sheep, a stonechat may be seen, perched atop a fence-post or flitting between trees; fieldfares will crowd the telegraph wires. Mammals fertilize the soil and embed seeds; flies which could impede their health are eaten by the birds.You will also come effortlessly across more well-known birds like sparrows, dunnocks, bullfinches and bluetits.



One late autumn morning, just south of the Ryburn, I watched a kestrel circling a field, narrowing its movements into an almost stock-still hover, until it hung with silent menace twenty feet above the ground. Eventually, the bird descended. A kestrel will dispatch with merciful rapidity, diving in to snatch rodents and invertebrates, occasionally reptiles and spiders. Those seen here are Falco tinnunculus, and must consume the equivalent of around six voles each day to live. Every day is a struggle to survive, and yet the falcon I saw, suspended in air like a gun waiting to be fired, seemed stylishly lethal. It hunted with poise and deadly elegance. Yet an injured bird will seem vulnerable, and tame. In his 1968 novel A Kestrel for a Knave, Barnsley-born author Barry Hines depicts the juvenile world of Yorkshire schoolboy Billy Casper, whose lonely life is briefly illuminated by the presence of a hawk. Early in the book, we follow Billy into the barn where he has been nursing the bird, feeding her and confiding about home:
Rufous brown, Flecked breast, dark bars across her back and wings. Wings pointed, crossed over her rump and barred tail. Billy clicked his tongue, and chanted softly, 'Kes, Kes, Kes, Kes.' The hawk looked at him and listened, her fine head held high on strong shoulders, her brown eyes round and alert.
'Did you hear her, Kes, making her mouth again?...Gobby old cow. Do this, do that, I've to do everything in this house...Well they can shit. I'm fed up o' being chased about...There's allus somebody after me.'
Hines’ novel is an important examination of relationships between human and non-human, stretching deeper than the practical, the everyday: it is through the wordless kestrel that the schoolboy is able to communicate, not only with the world around him, but with himself. Across intangible barriers, an inner language is uncovered, new perceptions dawn. The stoical mystery of the hawks, their medieval triumph and aerial invincibility, lend to it the stuff of legend, of heroism, of a Biblical magnificence. It is hardly surprising that, almost a century before Billy’s journey of self-discovery, Gerard Manley Hopkins was to write:
I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-
dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! . . .


The valley is a microcosm of symbiosis and natural cycles, and not only in terms of animal interaction and predation. Plant life, also, is enhanced by the presence of our winter visitors. In the lower reaches of the valley, where hillsides splay out into factory forecourts and delivery yards, where the railway tracks are interspersed with wildflowers, and where canal boats bob beside the towpath overhung with mistletoe, rosehips and winter jasmine, you are likely to encounter finches, slotting in and out of bushes and berry-bearing trees. Prolific seed-dispersers, these glossy little birds brighten up a dark afternoon like confectionery, dancing between rowan trees and roses. Greenfinches are the most regular, and even when the birds elusively slip through trees beyond the eye, their twittery song is a winter serenade. Says the poet Francis Duggan,
I know the singer of the song though him I cannot see
His voice I knew in my younger years lives in my memory
The green he wears it blends in well with the foliage of the blackwood tree
The Ryburn Valley is a haven for winter birds. A walk along the canal may present you with a rich and colourful gallery of birds, from shy and surreptitious wrens, to water birds and ducks, from sleek, split-second predators, to soft, ethereal flutters of dazzling colour, like airy messengers of spring.


February 2014 (* - Denise Bennett: Green Woodpecker, Equinox poetry journal March 2005)