Looking for the Stanza Stones

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An overcast but dry day waited for us to get going on our hike up Ilkley Moor. The moor, for those not familiar with the geography of Yorkshire sprawls above Ilkley a small town north of the West Yorkshire city of Bradford.

https://goo.gl/maps/h96mEC7qwYh2a9kE6

Moors are wild and often bleak places, uplands of low-growing vegetation, heathers and bracken with high rainfall and peaty soil which is a rich store of carbon. The website of Friends of Ilkley Moor tells us: “It is estimated that there is twice as much carbon stored in Britain’s soils as there is in its woodlands.” https://www.ilkleymoor.org/discovering-ilkley-moor/conservation/

On this typically British summer day, cloudy and just the right side of warm (perfect for a hike) my companion and I had a mission, a destination in mind. We were heading to the Beck Stone, one of seven large rocks located across the Pennine Watershed, each with a poem by Britain’s Poet Laureate Simon Armitage carved into its surface. This project was conceived by the Ilkley Literature Festival in 2010 who commissioned Armitage to write a series of poems for the South Pennine Watershed. Armitage wrote poems which, in his words, celebrated “the element which gave shape and form to this region, namely water.” Each poem describes water in a different form: Beck, Puddle, Mist, Rain, Dew and Snow. The seventh Stanza Stone was placed in a secret location and remains unfound to my best knowledge. Pip Hall, letter-carver, carved the poems with her assistant Wayne Hart and the Stanza Stones Trail, which covers 47 miles between Marsden, Armitage’s place of birth and Ilkley was devised by landscape architect Tom Lonsdale.

We set off on our walk from Darwin Gardens Millennium Green close to Ilkley town centre. The Millennium Green was built to celebrate the turn of the 21st century and incorporates its own carved stones to honour Ilkley’s famous one-time resident. We had fun tackling the stone flag maze at the Green’s heart.

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My companion cheerily told me it wasn’t far at all to the Beck Stone, only a mile. When we were, later, scrambling up some rocky stretches at times unstable underfoot, I remarked in response “Maybe only a mile but you didn’t tell me it was a mile straight up!”

As well as the most obvious heathers and ferns, we also came across cottongrass, crowberry and bilberry and, as we climbed, a stunning vista opened when we turned to look down on the town we’d left behind.

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In his introduction to the Stanza Stones trail guide Armitage refers to the tradition of carved stones across the moors. From pre-historic standing stones, boundary stones placed throughout time right up to contemporary graffiti, people have been placing and inscribing stone in the wild environment for millennia.

When we reached the Beck Stone it did not disappoint. Backstone Beck, trickles then rushes down the hillside and getting close up requires a small jump across the stream and a bit of a clamber onto an adjacent rock. I did it! I perched on the rock and read the poem out loud. Here it is:

The Beck Stone

It is all one chase.
Trace it back the source
might be nothing more than a teardrop
squeezed from a Curlew’s eye,
then follow it down to the full-throated roar
at its mouth – a dipper strolls the river
dressed for dinner in a white bib.
The unbroken thread of the beck
with its nose for the sea
all flux and flex, soft-soaping a pebble
for thousands of years, or here
after hard rain, sawing the hillside in half
with its chain. Or here, where water unbinds
and hangs at the waterfall’s face, and
just for that one, stretched white moment
becomes lace.

©Simon Armitage 2010

This poem evokes a perfect image of the beck, its persistence through millennia carving the landscape as the words are carved into the stone.

Our next goal was to find the Poet’s Seat promised to us beyond the Beck Stone. There, walkers and aspiring poets are invited to write and post a poem in the clever postbox which then spits out another poem left by a previous visitor to the Seat.

We walked on and gradually climbed and reached the Poet’s Seat where a family, mum, dad, uncle and kids were busy writing and talking about poetry. When asked if she had written a poem to post, one of the girls told us perkily, “Parent’s doing it”! Clear division of labour in that household.

We had brought poems to post but realising the intention to encourage on-the-spot composition, my companion took up the challenge and wrote a short ditty about coming across Simon Armitage on the moor. 

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What more to desire — fresh Yorkshire air, glorious vistas of moor and communities below and poetry!  I’m looking forwad to finding another of the Stanza Stones on our next adventure.

Here’s a review of “Stanza Stones” the book by Simon Armitage, with Tom Lonsdale and Pip Hall
(Enitharmon Press, 2013); hbk, £15

https://dura-dundee.org.uk/2015/02/18/stanza-stones/

Procrastination atop the Yorkshire moors

The stark and promise full moor beckons.
I might venture up to Stoodley Pike,
grand obelisk, peace built
into every brick, nothing surrounds it
taller than scorched tussocks, scrubby grass.
I could turn north, strike out for Haworth Moor.
What chance to come upon Emily dreaming there?
Perhaps a half-glimpse of her ethereal skirts turning
in a swirl of mist or her voice on a whisper of air.

If I head down toward the wooded valley,
dark gatherings of trees press close
to stone houses ranged on the hillside.
I can swish through knee-high grass in the field,
a picnic table beside a gnarly apple tree,
good rest stop. But still the need
to consider Blackshaw Head,
to imagine all its seasons beyond this
slow-breathing summer. Rain
lashing in at 45° or snow stacked against stone
like a battlement. Never a soft enfolding.

Also the necessity of bathing.
A huge breakfast cup
to stream water over my head
indulgence of bubbles, slosh of water
over my shoulders, breasts and belly,
water in big splashes, playful
and somehow surprising.

After dressing there are the plants
to water: greenhouse tomatoes, cucumbers
and all around the house, pots and baskets;
pelargoniums, hostas, petunias,
impatiens, and lined against a wall
or in a space between path and grass,
the ones easy to miss.

At last, I approach the blank page,
after I find the right spot, summer house
and bench in the garden too hot.
On the swing-seat I can sway, push into a rhythm
find words to match, fill paper
with this place.

Mum

img_0657My mother has just turned ninety years old. She lives alone in her house on the boundary of south Manchester and Cheshire, close to the now sprawling Manchester Airport. She and my father moved there in 1961 when Manchester was beginning a massive programme of “slum clearance”, demolishing thousands of Industrial Revolution era dwellings. Street after street of “two-up – two-down” or even smaller houses had provided homes for factory and millworkers and their families since the 19th century. They were tight-knit neighbourhoods and, in some ways, for demolition crews to suddenly move in with the bulldozers, distributing families far away to new Council estates in what was then Cheshire seems heartless. Neighbours who had shared their lives, ups and downs for long years, generations of families growing up on the same streets were suddenly parted, miles away. Very few working class people owned cars then so they might never see some of their old friends again. Bus rides possible but the fares difficult to afford. As for the houses, they were cramped, damp and insect infested with only one cold tap for inside plumbing (toilet in the back yard), clearly sub-standard by 21st century standards. Yet my memories of living there are all happy ones. One of my fondest is of bath night on Saturdays when Dad would carry the tin bath in on his back from the yard and Mum would boil water in the “copper” for our once a week family ablutions in front of the fire. Youngest, I was always first followed by my brother and Mum and Dad got their turns after we were in bed.

Mum has told me she and Dad thought they had been sent to Paradise when they first occupied the three-bed semi she still lives in. Situated next to a farm, a field of cabbage or potatoes right next door and the farmhouse and out-buildings a short walk away, the new house offered many rural delights. We spent many hours walking the nearby lanes, watching out for wildlife and the seasons’ changes in hedgerows and trees. That our house was part of what was then the largest Council estate in Europe seemed of no matter at all. We looked one way onto thousands of similarly built brick homes and the other onto fields, brooks, oak and ash trees, glowing sunsets. As Manchester, along with many cities in the UK, began to ban coal burning and cleaned up its blackened buildings, we truly breathed fresh air.

Mum’s memories of this time and times before from her childhood, growing up and into her married life are often at the heart of our conversations these days. At ninety, Mum’s recollection of short term events becomes difficult but she easily re-enters the scenes and events from past times. Mum has written about some of these times in her poetry. Her fiction draws on her life experience but is, for the most part not autobiographical. Poetry and art and music have been Mum’s lifelong interests. I’m currently assisting her to put together a collection of her writing, poems and short stories, planning to publish them this summer. You can read some of Mum’s poems on her webpage at thepoetlil@wordpress.com You will also find some of her paintings there.

Spending more (and much closer) time with Mum this past year has inevitably led me to write poems for her.

Wings

( for Mum )

Your small hands
porcelain pale, threaded with indigo veins,
like gossamer and glass-winged butterflies,
your delicate skin slides
under my fingers, I massage, stroke
every arthritic bump and curve.

One hand lifts, then the other,
like winged creatures
making figure-eights
through music-filled air, piano, violin,
percussion; you shift sound.

You fold your hands in your lap
still and silent as nightfall.

 

For Lilian on her 90th Birthday
May 24th 2020

1930 was quite the year!
Mickey Mouse entered history
And way up in the atmosphere
Pluto was first seen, distantly.

Closer, across the clear blue sky
An airship floated off to Canada
And Amy Johnson waved goodbye,
Flew her plane, alone, to Australia.

Back down on Earth
A Gorton family awaited
A very special birth
And, a remarkable life was fated.

Lilian Morris, born in Manchester
A tiny babe, wrapped in oil and cotton wool.
From that Saturday on, all who met her
Would witness a life, brimful.

A sickly childhood, a school far away,
She formed a strong and determined will.
Inside her grew a love for art and poetry.
It blossoms in her still.

Music, too, has always filled her life.
Her sweet soprano in a workers’ canteen
Struck Gordon’s ear, he knew he’d met his wife.
68 years together, nothing could come between.

Now here we stand in 2020.
We raise a glass to this singular woman!
May your days unfold contentedly

MANY HAPPY RETURNS, LILIAN!

Oh To Be in England….

Painswick Park

I arrived in England in early May, a little later than Browning’s thoughts at the start of his poem but certainly well in time for blossoms and birdsong. In fact, one of the things that I’ve been most enchanted by, staying at my mother’s house close to seemingly unstoppable airport expansion but on the edge of a blessedly still wild field, has been the constant trilling of birds. They go at it all day. I’m fairly useless at recognising the birds who entertain me so, but Mum tells me the loudest and most persistent is the blackbird. I think I’m able to distinguish a thrush too and some days we have visits from a collared dove with its gentle deep-throated coo.

Yesterday, Mum and I went for a walk through our neighbourhood and after stopping by the pond to watch the various water fowl waddle, peck at bread thrown by eager children and sail by, Mum told me about the time before the park was created. She described a large field, untended and bordered by tall nettles, dandelions and buttercups. She said that though it wasn’t at all picturesque, it nevertheless offered a place to sit on a spread blanket with a flask of tea and a few biscuits and perhaps imagine being in a more salubrious setting. A break away from the daily round.

These days, the park is a generous stretch of green, lush with mature bushes surrounding the pond which is home to mallards, Canada geese, moorhens, coots and sometimes, swans. Families play games and feed the birds there everyday. The grass areas are perfect for games of “footie”, there is an actual football pitch over on one side and the playground has been entirely re-modelled with equipment that satisfies 21st century mores around child safety.

I don’t remember at all the pre-park days and when I read its history I learned:

The site was originally farming land until the late 1950s. Its function then changed to a landfill site which in time was grassed over to form a mound. In 1962 the site was handed over to the council and an artificial lake constructed to serve as a holding pool for surplus flood water from the nearby Baguley Brook during severe rain storms. Painswick Park was officially opened 1968. The lake is stocked with a variety of fish and used by local anglers.

Its opening in 1968 was great timing for me as a mid-teen in the late sixties, in need of a place I could retreat on Sunday mornings, away from the curious gaze and questioning of parents, to sit on a bench and gather myself together from the hangovers I suffered after my Saturday nights out with friends, dancing my hopeful hippy heart out at school dances, illegally entered pubs and discos in Manchester. I have no idea if the pond was home to so many birds then as my eyes were mostly closed, catching up on lost sleep.
Sharing Painswick Park with Mum, when we are are both at such different stages of life, is an entirely new experience for both of us. I don’t think we ever went there together as it came into being when I was past my playground days. We have so much more in common now. Both women past menopause, we have our bodily changes, aches and pains to deal with. We have, each of us, spent many years of our lives with partners who are no longer in our lives. Mum has lots to remember and sustain her from her 68 years of marriage to Dad before he died. I look more to the future as I move on from a divorce after 30 years of wedded not-always bliss. We are learning, once again, the fun we can have together whether it be listening to the music of my childhood or Mum’s era or walking round the pond being entertained by all those birds.

Home Thoughts from Abroad

Robert Browning (1812–89)

I
OH, to be in England now that April ’s there
And whoever wakes in England sees, some morning, unaware,
That the lowest boughs and the brushwood sheaf
Round the elm-tree bole are in tiny leaf,
While the chaffinch sings on the orchard bough 5
In England—now!

II
And after April, when May follows
And the white-throat builds, and all the swallows!
Hark, where my blossom’d pear-tree in the hedge
Leans to the field and scatters on the clover 10
Blossoms and dewdrops—at the bent spray’s edge—
That ’s the wise thrush: he sings each song twice over
Lest you should think he never could re-capture
The first fine careless rapture!
And, though the fields look rough with hoary dew, 15
All will be gay when noontide wakes anew
The buttercups, the little children’s dower,
Far brighter than this gaudy melon-flower!

 

Now and then

Today, I push you to the park.
Wheelchair resists the slope,
I lean in, listen over your shoulder,

Look, reflections…

sky                       drifts
between island clouds,
sun finds open water.
Your hand escapes your blanket,
reaches toward Canada geese
pulling their goslings in their wake
to water’s edge and bread tossed
by wide-eyed children.
Coots and moorhens want their share,
flap about on stick legs,

Oh! Dancing ducks!

Yet mallards stand apart
snooty-beaked.

We sit by tranquil water
and you recall days before
the building of these lawns
spread with the spring snow of daisies,
before run-off was channelled into a pond,
water iris planted, (now waving yellow flags).

I liked to walk out, just sit here in the field…

ragged grass, tall nettles, thistles and hawthorn.
You escaped kitchen, kids, wifedom.
This place-apart for you
to lay a blanket, lean back,
stretch out your legs,
pour tea from a flask, raise a cup
to blackbirds and sparrows flitting
tree    to     tree.

What to do with the love poems?

“Pleasure’s a sin, and sometimes
sin’s a pleasure”

—Lord Byron

I’ve just finished reading Edna O’Brien’s short but gripping biography of Lord George Gordon Byron: Byron, A Short and Daring Life. I was thoroughly entertained and rather in awe at the accounts of the man’s lifestyle, his exuberance, certainly his daring in both love and war. I think I was perhaps a bit taken aback though, despite knowing of his reputation as an homme fatale. Byron, to use a contemporary colloquialism, definitely “put it about a bit”. By the age of 36, when he succumbed to an illness (and no doubt the doctors’ treatment of bleeding him which likely weakened him and even introduced further infection) Byron had had dozens of lovers both men and women (some little more than boys and girls). His greatest love may well have been his half-sister, Augusta who bore his child. He was also the object of almost hysterical infatuation from women in London’s high society. He lived through the Regency era when life for the aristocracy in London was far from reserved and pious but full of gaudiness and frippery. There was an awful lot of jumping into the sack, women taking as much advantage of the societal approval (or at least disregard) which seemed to prevail.

Reading all of this led me to think of my lovers. Compared to Byron, I’ve had very few – in his terms I should be embarrassed to admit how just how few! And contemplating the lovers brought up the issue of the love poems. What to do with them when the love has died and been well buried? Byron’s, of course, live on in all their beauty and passion.

[To Caroline Lamb]

Yet fain would I resist the spell
That would my captive heart retain,
For tell me dearest, is this well?
Ah Caro! Do I need the chain?

Mine, for the most part, lurk undetected in the depths of my computer in various Word documents and unseen by anyone past their first flush of mad creation, shared between the “he” and me. (for me, there have been only male attractors). And there, undoubtedly, they will stay. Not strong or universal enough to put out into the world, they are small pieces of my personal history tinged pink with my regret and embarrassment.

Not to say I haven’t written any worthwhile love poems. When a poem emerges, its intention well expressed through structure and imagery, it gains a life of its own and I can fasten its coat and pull on its hat and send it off to find its fortune. Sometimes, these adventurers find new admirers and future homes in journals, books or on poetry websites.

Here are a few.

For my longest and truest (but not forever) Love:

Dream Winter

Sunday mornings,
quilt pulled up to my chin,
I listen to trees lamenting
the memory of sun

and you serve me tea and muffins,
the butter drips, you lick it off my chin
and climb back under the covers
to break our bodies’ fast.
We are not interrupted by children.

Afternoons we walk for hours in the rain
ignoring the storm – as we stumble,
fake the need to catch each other
then fall again into a bed of moss
where rain becomes a distant phenomenon.
Like aging and aching backs.

Winter evenings we share silence.
Each of us living another world inside books,
only occasionally smiling
or letting our woollen socked toes meet
by careful accident.

There is me. And you.
And then I wake.

( Unpublished, 1989)

Dahlia

Huge-headed flower fills my vision
as I sit here with you
in this garden by the sea.
He loves me, he loves me not
would take forever. The dahlia’s petals
curl like tongues, too many.

Instead, I give you the bloom,
take it and know it grew
with light and care,
coaxed from a wizened corm
that held inside the beginnings
of this busy, articulate yellow.

( Unpublished, 1997)

The Artist’s Wife

Wake to an empty space beside you
sheets undisturbed after the nights he spends
with another love, unable to leave
the sensuous lines on a smooth canvas skin.

Languish in the sharp-edged smell of turpentine,
linseed oil or damar varnish.
It hangs in the air for days
through all attempts to let it out:
windows and doors thrown open, or to smother it
with the scents of coffee brewing, muffins baking,
armsful of roses carried into every room

It’s a life of lies
as he tricks you into believing
three dimensions project from every flat surface.
He entices you along forest paths
to the edge of cliffs
and up into the vaulted ceilings of cathedrals.
You believe him. Then its gone
with one sweep of his brush.

He brings these certain inconveniences
but your eyes grow accustomed to noticing the sky
washed with the subtlest violet hue,
the monotone of a rock face splintered
into yellows, blues and greens

and when he does lie beside you he talks
through the screen of night,
paints the fabric that is your life.

(Antigonish Review and Quintet, Themes and Variations, Ekstasis Editions: 1996 )

And more recently, for perhaps my most unfortunate fall into a love trap:

You Are Here

Walking my neighbourhood streets,
unaware I’m in need of direction,
the map addresses me boldly: YOU ARE HERE!
I consider the arrow that points
to a snake of paths.
Houses along the way marked
as little dark boxes.

And now, light and bright,
another small box
with the welcoming smile of a facilitator
and a hopeful semi-circle of chairs.
I sit beside you, follow the Powerpoint: prognosis, radiation therapy,
androgen therapy, prostatectomy…. glass walls
show me an unstained sky
while knowledge grows in me the way mistletoe
invades a tree, takes hold.
No, not here.
I have not a shred of interest
in being here.

I want my place beside you, my head on your chest,
my fingers tracing ribbons on your skin.
Your breath deep and slow, eyes closed.
When I lift my face, look up, sure enough
there’s a big golden arrow pointing to us.
You Are Here.

( Another Dysfunctional Cancer Poem Anthology, Mansfield Press: 2018)

Swallow

Best when the snowflakes are big and slow,
when day has expanded
beneath the tension of a filling sky

until all movement, conversation, the rush of traffic
halts and the world accepts
that sky will shift solid grey
to shimmer, a buzz of frozen air,
then it’s time to open my mouth,
let snow fall in, seal my lips and swallow.

So little to let melt then slide, no more
than a tickle, unlike the small rock
that lodges when my throat closes
on words
that rise and swell
from my belly,
when I go inside the tomb
of a once-upon-a-time lover,
gone but ever present,
who is now nothing to me
but was all.

It snowed overnight and nothing yet
has spoiled its perfection. I remember
how I used to swallow snowflakes.

I lift up my face
wait for the sky to burst.

I ask my question again, “what to do with the BAD love poems? It seems fairly clear to me as I write this that I have answered my own question in this version of my question: bad poems. So, print all, rip and deposit down the toilet? Or go for a little more drama with a small bonfire (perhaps the photos can be thrown on top too). It’s possible there might be an on-line depositary for unwanted, no longer “felt” and yes, bad poems but then they’d have to go anonymously.

Byron, I’m sure, gave no thought to discarding any of his poems and neither have any of his subsequent editors as the tomes on my desk now attend. (The Complete Poetical Works, Volumes I – V, 500 pages each). To be fair, Byron is often referred to as “one of the greatest British poets” and “one of the leading figures of the Romantic Movement in early 19th century England”. I’m not quite up there. I’ll therefore happily strike a match and put it to the papers that no longer speak from or for my heart – maybe I’ll throw in a little dance around the fire just for the hell of it.

Poetry Matters

WHY POETRY MATTERS

The rhythms of poetry, not very different from the rhythms of breathing, reach back to primal feelings, just as surely as its images open windows to the larger experiences that are central to life” – Gary Geddes.

Poetry matters because it helps us to pay attention to the details that might otherwise pass us by unnoticed. The pace of life has sped up and for the most part people no longer take the time to use all their senses to attune themselves to what is going on around them. Poems demand that we slow down, listen to words chosen carefully to convey a special message in images that we can visualize or imagine smelling, touching, tasting. When we tune in to the “small stuff”, the process results in our becoming more open, more aware, more able to respond to the myriad of events, the “larger experiences”, that occur on a daily basis.

Poetry matters because it connects us with our core, to our heart beating rhythmically, our breath going in and out. Like music, poetry serves a basic need in humans: to find satisfaction, pleasure, even joy in joining with a beat. Children know this instinctively and delight in the playful rhythms of nursery rhymes. Children play with sounds and words as they develop language. Many of us lose the focus we all had as children on this innate need for rhythm or we allow it into our lives only in a limited way.

Poetry matters because it is alive! My poetry education when I was at school taught me about the work of numerous poets whose poems were inspiring and important but who were all dead. I am glad I learned about Shakespeare, Milton, Keats, Rosetti and so many others. Their work gave me the grounding in knowledge essential to an appreciation of literature. But, now, I’m glad I also later discovered the work of living poets, people who have made poetry a part of their everyday lives. Knowing that so many poets are actively creating new poems every day helps me to connect with poetry, to feel it’s not only “okay” but it’s also essential.