Not Yoshino in April
when blossom-fringed branches
bow towards the ground in prayer
beneath an early moon
illuminating the frailty of
where friends gather
to sip sake and petals flutter
to the ground pale as moths
but deep January in Islington’s
Highbury Fields where these
tender buds this early spring
will be the death of us
I am full of galaxies,
a black hole where each nerve,
each synapse connects me
to a fishnet of stars.
this glass-spun constellation,
this matrix of beginnings and ends.
In time everything collapses,
planets, houses, love, crumbling
like the dust of old bones.
Three in the morning
and a patina of moonlight
slips beneath the curtain’s murky edge,
filling the curved emptiness with
a sheen of cosmic dust, a helix
of light in the deep dark mauve.
She begins, and the little one joins in.
Six and eight they hold hands,
fingers shyly twisting the edge of their skirts,
sweet voices just hitting the high notes
as if reaching for a future.
And how I want that to be lovely.
A place where the gnarled lilac
still blooms in the old garden
they never knew,
a crush of wild garlic
in evening the air. Summer rain
dripping from tall beeches.
I’d have them sing up a world
they can live in,
with air they can breathe,
where badgers build sets
in the deep dark wood
and sea horses team in green oceans..
Sing, sing my little ones,
and may your tender voices
reach towards the indifferent stars
that they look down
on you from their icy spheres
and take pity.
Tell us a bit about your latest novel, ‘Rainsongs’ published by Duckworth, and in particular the part nature plays in the story.
For a number of years I was visiting Kerry on the west coast of Ireland. I wrote a series of poems there – published, originally, by Occasional Press, with drawings by the Irish artist Donald Teskey. During my many stays I got to know the rhythms of the place. It’s still very wild and unspoilt – on the very edge of Europe – there’s nothing but sea until you get to America. It feels very old. Still connected to its pre-Christian and early Christian past. Where I was staying was opposite Skellig St. Michael, a 6th monastery to an order of reclusive monks built on a rock which sits 10 miles out in the Atlantic. The weather is extreme, with rain clouds and storms constantly coming in from the west. At night it is so dark you can see every star. I completely fell in love with the place. Living in a remote, very basic cottage, I felt like Thoreau. Although I live in London now, I had lived for many years in Somerset, and this reconnected me to a much simpler way of living. The novel is centred on Martha, a widow who returns to her deceased Irish husband’s holiday cottage in order to sort out his affairs. At a time of grief, this savage landscape becomes a source of solace and healing as she navigates the ghosts of her past, and the time spent within this small community. In many ways the landscape is the central character of the book.
Many people will be familiar with ‘Eurydice’, your poem in the London’s Southbank Underpass. What do you see as the role of public art, and could it have a role in tackling the climate emergency?
‘Eurydice’ has had a chequered past. Originally commissioned by the Arts Council and BFI during the building of the IMAX, the idea was to make an inhospitable underpass more welcoming. The poem is centred on the story of Eurydice descending into the Underworld but then coming up into the fragile light. This is an image of hope. The poem has twice been destroyed by Network Rail and, subsequently, reinstated due to public demand.
Now it is to be officially moved to a new home – as the original tunnel is to be closed. I think the long-running survival of this fragile poem in a hostile urban environment is a metaphor for the conservation of what is small and vulnerable. Like nature, public art can give the spectator a quiet space for contemplation. Of course, it can’t ‘tackle’ climate change but it can have an effect upon how we respond to our environment.
What do you think is the role of writers in the Anthropocene?
I don’t think writers or artists can change anything. As George Steiner wrote after the Holocaust: ‘Central to everything I am and believe and have written is my astonishment, naïve as it seems to people, that you can use human speech both to bless, to love, to build, to forgive and also to torture, to hate, to destroy and to annihilate.’
The point is, that through creativity, we can strive to be the best of ourselves. To keep alive the best of the human spirit in order to illuminate our shadow side. The very act of creation continues to confirm our humanity, even if it cannot directly alter events.
Is there a specific thought or idea that motivates you into taking action over the climate and ecological emergency? (or, if you like, what frightens you the most about the crisis?)
I write a good deal about memory. I have children and grandchildren. I want them to grow old, to live in a world where memories and connections to our culture and landscape are still possible and they can be in touch with the healing potential of the natural world.
What is the most powerful piece of writing that you have read about the climate and ecological emergency?
It still has to be Rachel Carson’s The Silent Spring. The first book I ever came across on this subject. It dealt with the corrosive power of pesticides: “..a strange blight came over the area… mysterious maladies swept the flocks of chickens, the cattle and sheep sickened and died. Everywhere was a shadow of death.” This was written in 1958.
Do you have a vision for a regenerative future? Does literature have a part to play in creating this future?
Literature – poems, stories and essays – can allow us to connect with the lost parts of ourselves, to slow down. It can help us to understand the emergency that’s overwhelming us, reminding us that we need to stop, listen, learn and see. Early lockdown gave us a chance to hear birdsong usually drowned by traffic noise, to breathe clean air and look up at blue sky unpolluted by planes. It gave us time to think, read and to re-evaluate. As long as there is poetry, there is hope for the human spirit because it reminds us that there are different values and ways of being in the world to those of the dominant culture.