BurnedThumb

Website of poet Elizabeth Rimmer


News blogposts


  • Down the Rabbithole

    I have been down several rabbit holes since I last posted. Many of them are to do with the updated translation of the Charm of Nine Herbs I’ve been working on in a random fashion for a while. I have been pondering words like ‘poison’, ‘venom’, ‘plague’, ‘in-flying infection’. I’ve been thinking about ‘elf-shot’ and the notion that tooth-ache is caused by worms gnawing at decayed teeth. I’ve been wondering what it was like to try to heal people when you didn’t know much beyond the basics of anatomy, and didn’t have access to microscopes.

    I discovered historical records of a ‘yellow plague’ that ravaged this area in the 5th and 6th century, killing at least one local king, which led me to wonder about the other colourful diseases mentioned in the text. Epidemics, food poisoning and diseases caused by polluted water must have been common – are the words ‘plague’, ‘poison’ and ‘venom’ just the best guess for the causes of illness too small to see without the naked eye?

    I’m also querying my identification of atterlothe – I went for ‘burdock’ for what seemed to be good reasons – it is an alterative, native and well-known, exists in more than one species (because the only other use of the word refers to the ‘smaller’ atterlothe being used with betony for coughs) and generally fits the bill. But on the other hand, there is another Old English name for burdock – ‘clate‘, and down the rabbit hole I went. I looked at speedwell, which was indeed used with betony for coughs, self-heal (no mention in Old English texts), bistort, cockspur grass, Viper’s bugloss, which Culpeper says was used as a substitute for speedwell, and now I’m eyeing up cinquefoil and vervain (I would love it to be vervain!). The trouble is that Old English scholars tend to be poor at botany, and botanists tend to blank Old English. And both are a bit rubbish about monasteries. But that is another rabbit hole, and yes, I did go down it!

    I’m following up Kapka Kassabova’s excellent book Elixir, and some poetry following my venture into Irish last year. Obviously you’ll know Seamus Heaney and Eavan Boland, but can I recommend Doireann Ní Ghríofa? Brilliant!

    I have now deleted my Mailchimp account, following their decision to scrape all newsletters for AI content, and I’m in the process of building a new letter at Buttondown, which seems to be free of all such shenanigans. I kept a list of all my contacts, and when the first issue is ready I will email everyone ONCE to invite you to sign up. I won’t harass anyone after that, and I will delete the address of anyone who doesn’t, so there will be no spam.

    Ceasing Never has taken a back seat as we try to sort out some accommodation problems for a family member, and I’m knee deep in judging the William Bonar Competition. Also Celtic Connections is coming up, and I have a significant birthday fairly soon. But in February I hope to add some new essays and reflections – please feel free to comment or add to the discussions.


  • A Few Updates

    bookshelves floor to ceiling, two wooden steps in front of them

    I have a new computer, which is very lovely in many ways, but I am struggling to find the photos I uploaded yesterday, so until I learn the file management system on this beast, there will have to be old photos. This is one of my library, which was set up last year. Although it has a lot of books in it, it is mostly used for a chill out space for those of us who need a break from the chatter when we’re all together, and for crafting. Sometimes I feel rather uncomfortable about having so much space and access to books, when some people, especially the younger generation, find themselves struggling with access to resources to support their writing, so I’d like to find a way to share this. If you are a writer who needs to borrow or consult books that I have, let me know and we’ll see what can be done.

    This is a bit of a distraction from my main intention which was to remind everyone about the poetry event at the Little biggar Festival on 28th October. The Facebook posting reads:

    Biggar-based publisher Red Squirrel Press invites you to an afternoon of Red Squirrel Press poets and friends in aid of MacDiarmid’s Brownsbank, held in Biggar & Upper Clyde Museum on 28th October.

    Featuring some of the best-known names in poetry, WN (Bill) Herbert, Dundee Makar and Professor of Poetry, Sean O’Brien, multi award- winning poet and Emeritus Professor, Colin Will, writer, musician, former Scottish Poetry Library and StAnza International Poetry Festival Chair, award winning Biggar-based poet Lindsay Macgregor, Andrew Forster, poet and literature development worker and was previously Literature Development Officer for Dumfries and Galloway. Elizabeth Rimmer widely-published poet, reviewer and editor, author of four collections from Red Squirrel Press and editor of the eco-poetry discussion website Ceasing Never.

    Tickets available from https://www.biggarlittlefestival.com/literature/red-squirrel

    There is another upcoming reading in Stirling on 4th November as part of Paperboats Day for Nature, but I will post more about this later when further details are available.

    Also, I am sorry to announce that I am going to stop sending out my newsletter. I used Mailchimp, but as the parent company has announced its intention to scrape content in order to train AI, the potential for copyright infringements eems too high to be worth it. I’m looking for alternative ways of keeping in touch, as there are some subscribers who don’t follow me elsewhere on social media, but in the meantime, I can be found on BlueSky, (mostly poetry) Mastodon (mostly politics and environmental stuff) and Instagram (herbs, cooking and gardening). That’s a lot, and I’ll probably refine it as the platforms develop, but that’s where I am just now.


  • Where I’ve Been Lately

    table with pot pourri, a tangerine stuck with cloves, jug, candlestick and bowl. Evergreens and berries behind.

    Christmas preparations are under way. Where we live now is very extraverted, and there are lights and inflatable figures and reindeer everywhere, so this is very low key. On the other hand, we have room for a much bigger tree than last year, so this weekend we will be making up for lost time, and inviting the grandchildren to come and decorate. They made a gingerbread house yesterday, which is still intact, though welded together with an unfeasible amount of royal icing.

    But apart from that, I have been to a couple of live events. I was at the relaunch of Stirling’s Forth Fridays at the Smith Museum on the night Storm Arwen struck. She was a feisty one. I nearly got blown off my feet at one point. I was at the station watching one train after another get cancelled, when we were finally informed that not only were there no trains at all, the station frontage was in danger of falling down, and we would have to leave by the back gate. The upside of this was staying with my daughter and grand-daughter, and taking them for an American breakfast with waffles and maple syrup (in my grand-daughter’s case this also included breaded chicken but we won’t go into that!).

    The second was quieter, though there was snaow involved at one point. I met my friend Anne Connolly, whom I hadn’t seen since covid, for lunch, browsed a couple of second hand book shops, and went to deliver at poetry workshop for a community garden group called Greening Our Street. They are very active, welcoming group, growing flowers and herbs and vegetables, sharing with other groups and welcoming people from all backgrounds and nationalities. They were looking to develop their creative writing as a new way to share what they have enjoyed about working together. I can’t think of anything better or more creative than that. I hope to keep up links with them as we go into a new growing year!

    People who subscribe to my newsletter will have found it a bit quiet lately because of the move, and subsequent upheaval to my writing processes. I am beginning to formulate the next steps, and it looks as though it will be quarterly rather than the random way I tried last year, but the Christmas card has been chosen!


  • Change Gonna Come

    crocus tomasiana just opening

    These crocuses have burst out over the last weekend, and the birds are chasing each other over the garden. There is more birdsong every day, and I had washing on the line yesterday. So clearly, there are changes afoot.

    The first is that I submitted the manuscript of The Well of the Moon yesterday, and there will be news of publication soon. It feels like this book has been like an owl pellet, building up for what felt like ages, then coughed up all in a lump, and I’m still looking at it, wondering what it’s made of! I’ll be talking more about the many random things that somehow got tangled up in it over the next few weeks.

    The next is probably going to be much more of an upheaval. Both my husband and I have lifelong health conditions which make our current house less suitable for us, and after almost forty years, we are planning a move to be nearer our children. I am preparing the garden for other people to look after, and wondering how we will deal with all the books, cds, kit for hobbies and memorabilia we have managed to accumulate over the years. There is a lot of outgrown stuff to shed, as we go forward, more than possessions. Lockdown has given me a chance to think more about the kind of life that works for me, and being on buses and trains so much to see friends and get to poetry events isn’t part of it. I’m going to have to cut back on the things I get involved in, but hoping to be able to commit more deeply to those I choose to keep.

    I am researching good places to live, near green spaces and public transport links, and making plans to get to know a whole new territory, with its different microclimate and wildlife, new trees and rivers. The herbs are coming with me, of course, and the writing will go on, prose as well as poetry. I’m looking forward to the new perspectives change and rooting somewhere else will give us. And I look forward to being able to welcome people to the new homeplace we create.

    a clump of soft rush on a riverbank

  • Lockdown Birthday

    afternoon tea, with cakestands containing sandwishes, savouries cakes and meringues

    Everyone else has had to deal with the phenomenon of birthdays under lockdown conditions, and I was no exception. I was lucky in that my family had got their heads around the situation by now, and we had an amazing and very beautifully presented afternoon tea delivered by the excellent local firm Molly and Flo. Distant family members were on Zoom, and Celtic Connections was on line, and we watched the last episodes of Spiral, so all in all, it was the best birthday it could possibly have been under these conditions!

    I have been working on the last few poems and revising the manuscript for The Well of the Moon, and there will be a few readings – on line, as everything is likely to be for the rest of the year – dates to be confirmed later. Launches will be a very different experience this time – no squirrel cookies for a start! And no signings – though you will be able to buy copies via the Red Squirrel Press website, if you want signed copies, you will have to get them from my shop. (I am up for signing copies you bought elsewhere on those blessed days when we can finally be in the same room though.) I’m still not going to charge for P&P within the UK (and RSP doesn’t either), but I will have to look into the additional export costs of sending abroad (watch this space).

    Spring is on its way – there are blue tits and blackbirds singing already, the witch hazel is a golden blur, and I’ve started this year’s gardening. There is a serious lack of poetry chatter on this blog just now. I’m hoping things will improve shortly, as I’m reading plenty of stuff to be excited about, but there is also a big family thing going on that has absorbed a lot of my attention, and looks like doing so for a good while yet. Hopefully, there will be reviews, a bit of chatter about the more entitled style of criticism that seems to have reared its ugly head again and the usual stream of territory photos as soon as possible. And, very optimistically, a newsletter out in the next fortnight.

    tutsan throwing out new leaves


  • The Well of the Moon

    view down over the river, through ash trees, at New Grange

    This was taken at New Grange, looking over the Boyne Valley, where Finn got his wisdom. The famous story, which you’ll find referred to on the poetry page is about cooking the salmon of wisdom and is all about how destiny will get the good stuff to the right person, but there is another story, referred to in Lady Gregory’s Gods and Fighting Men, and nowhere else, as far as I can see, about how Finn went to the Well of the Moon, which was guarded by the daughters of Beag, son of Boan (the goddess of the Boyne river) to get the sort of wisdom poets need. They wouldn’t give him any water, but when he tried to take some, one of them emptied a bottle of it over him —

    The result (allegedly) is a pair of poems which are frequently anthologised, on the subject of summer and winter. I like Lady Gregory’s translation, because it includes the line: ‘the talking of rushes has begun’. The whole landscape seems alive, waterfalls calling out, seas asleep or awake, plants talking to each other, horses and people alert and active. These poems make the point that poetry is a matter of attention to all the beings of the world, listening trying to understand and communicate.

    Which is a long way of getting to a bit of news that I sneaked out on Twitter last week. Thanks to the phenomenal organisation of Sheila Wakefield, battling through the havoc created by the pandemic, Red Squirrel Press have given the next collection a publication date – in May – and, after a lot of swithering, dithering and distraction, I have a final title: The Well of the Moon. This is also the title of a sequence of five poems, including Burnedthumb, which are the heart and pivot of the book. Because of the Burnedthumb motif, there are a few rather free translations or perhaps, responses to translations, in it, from Old English, Old Norse, and Latin. Honestly, I didn’t realise how much of this I had done, and why it was so important to my work.

    The Latin one is a hymn to St Felix by a poet called Paulinus of Nola, whom I found in The Wandering Scholars, by Helen Waddell. He was a bishop of Nola (354-431) whom Waddell mentions as a pupil of the poet Ausonius (310-395), in connection with poems Ausonius wrote to him, lamenting the fact that Paulinus didn’t visit. This struck a chord with me, because no-one is visiting anyone just now, and as it turns out that it is the feast of St Felix today, I found myself writing this:

    For Distant Friends

    Written on 14th January 2021

    It is the feast of Felix, and though the snow
    makes roads a penance, I am working
    on a springtime poem from a long dead man
    in Italy. He serves a shrine to Felix, ransoms slaves,
    sends loving poems to his teacher, missing him.
    The teacher comments, ‘He answered many things,
    but did not say that he would come’.
    My friends, I can’t come either. More
    than winter weather, bad roads, the fall of empires
    keeps us apart, but like Paulinus, I send you
    poems of love, of memory, of debts I owe you,
    hope for better times, a promise to keep you
    close to my heart, although I cannot come.

    waterfall
    waterfall at Glendalough

  • Declaration

    I was at the opening event of Celtic Connections Yesterday, to hear a commissioned piece inspired by the Declaration of Arbroath and played by the Grit Orchestra which seems to include almost every musician in every genre in Scotland. Words by Liz Lochhead were included: ‘A declaration is a clear and open statement about who we are, and what we stand for. And what we do not stand for.’ It was quite a striking statement, but I was more moved by Greg Lawson’s words later: ‘Don’t just tolerate difference and diversity – welcome it, explore it’ and ‘Freedom that comes at the expense of other people’s freedom is not freedom at all. It requires inclusivity, tolerance, kindness, forgiveness, empathy – and then freedom becomes about your identity, and it is global.’

    This was about as political as it got, and if it was fair to say that independence supporters were, on average, likely to be more comfortable with it than the embittered unionists who complain so much, it was a useful corrective to the kind of people who want ‘freedom’ to mean ‘I’ll do as I like and you can just take a hike if it doesn’t suit you’. It is also a spin on what I understand as ‘identity’. It isn’t just who you are, or feel yourself to be; it’s who you recognise as being like you, who your peers are, who you feel you have obligations to, or common interests with. It isn’t something monolithic or pure and self-contained, your sense of identity shows and shapes your connections and relationships with the rest of the world. In my case, as regular readers will know, this extends to all the ‘more than human’ beings, down to the wind and rocks and rivers.

    I feel that we are increasingly being exhorted to see ourselves as individuals, sold a package of liberties and choices that are supposed to be uniquely our own, exhorted to see our destiny as entirely our own creation, regardless of truth, physical reality or community. And the only outcome of this atomised conjunction of insecure and aspirational individuals, is a social media characterised by anxiety, anger and shame, and a politics of naked greed, narcissism, aggression and fantasy.

    Which is where I come to the purpose of this blogpost. In view of the isolationist decision of Britain to leave the EU, and in the light of the Scottish preference for a national identity defined by inclusion, openness and connection with our neighbours, I have decided I don’t want the .uk suffix to my domain name. As of the 31st of January, this website will fly under the .com label. There will be a redirect for a good long while, so that anyone using the old address will still find me, and plenty of warning.

    I would also like to give you the first intimation of the publication of the new book. Thanks to the kindness and generosity of Sheila Wakefield (without whose faith in me I can’t imagine having come so far), Burnedthumb is due to be published in February of 2021, by Red Squirrel Press. It is a reflection on the many kinds of knowledge and connection which go to make up our awareness of ourselves as ‘persons’, and the the kinds of conversations we have with external reality that make it possible. And the Burnedthumb poem, which you will probably have seen on the front page of my site, will take its place there. It deals with listening and diversity and patience – and the accidental gift of being able to do it – and it is my personal ‘declaration’.


  • November News

    I have been pretty poor on the writing and photography front, with a combination of being ill, family members being ill (nothing too exciting, just the cold), editing a poetry collection for Red Squirrel Press which will come out in March of next year, but I do have a little nice news.

    Today my poem On the Calendar has been published on the excellent online journal Ink, Sweat and Tears. It is one of the few of my poems with identifiable people in it, but it was a long time ago, and I’m sure they won’t mind!

    And in the new year, I am going to be writing a regular column for the blog of Interlitq, based in Argentina, but with a wide international readership. Check it out, and see what a rich and varied range of topics it covers! I am very honoured by this proposal, and very grateful to the president, Peter Robertson, for asking me. I will let you all know when my first column appears – it will cover the same areas as this blog – poetry, creativity, environmental and cultural issues, and so on, but hopefully it will be a bit more focussed, and try for more extended thinking, rather than these jottings.

    And since I have finally realised that the next batch of poems for Burnedthumb won’t write themselves, I started thinking about art and craft in the lives of women, and went to see the exhibition of May Morris’ work at the Dovecot Studio in Edinburgh yesterday. I have meant to get there for a long time, and found the building itself very beautiful (nice cafe, too!), and like the exhibition very much.

    May Morris was so completely overshadowed by her father William, that her own talent and achievements have gone without due recognition, but I was impressed by her designs, by the simplicity of her stitching, combined with her very sophisticated use of line and space and colour – also her preference for the smaller and less flamboyant flowers – clover, violet, and borage. I took photos for reference, but this was the only one that came out well enough to share. You’ll have to go and see the exhibition for yourselves!

    embroidery of grapes and vineleaves

  • Third Imprint of Haggards

    cover of Haggards

    A very short post today, just to say that I have new copies of Haggards, in its third imprint, if anyone would like a signed copy. I don’t charge for posting and packaging within the UK, but please email to ask about the cost of sending it further afield.

    You can also get it from the Red Squirrel Press website, now updated and humming along beautifully in its proper domain. Red Squirrel Press doesn’t charge for p&p in the UK either, and you might see some of the other lovely books for sale there too.


  • February Happenings

    terracotta pot with blue iris

    When you see these flowers in bloom you know that spring can’t be far off. I’ve ordered my seeds, but not sowed any yet, nor written any new poetry, but there are some special circumstances. So far February has been a very busy month, with book editing, a trip to London to see the Anglo-Saxon Manuscripts exhibition in the British Library (I’ve seen the Beowulf manuscript! I’ve seen a letter written by the scholar and bishop Alcuin to Charlemagne!), a trip to Liverpool with most of my family to celebrate my sister’s sixtieth birthday, and my daughter having a major operation, and living with us while she recovers.

    hazel catkins fully open

    I have been trying out the paces of the new camera. It can do a lot – it can practically talk to me – but it can’t do close ups so well. I’m going to need a macro lens for the flowers, and maybe a long range one for birds – this is getting expensive! but it is worth it for the way it makes me see things in more detail and in their proper context.

    I’m hoping to translate this into new and rather different poems. I’ve been reading Vahni Capildeo’s Venus as a Bear, and it is like fireworks going off in my brain – the connections between words, lines, subjects and responses are not sequential but sensual, mostly visual, like mind maps. There are plays on sounds and language and visual as well as semantic connections, and you could almost read them in any direction. I am fairly sure that I couldn’t do anything like that – I get lost too easily. But after reading those poems my brain was ready for what happened next.

    I am in the middle of reading Leechcraft by S Pollington, alternately impressed by the depths of his scholarship and startled by the limits of his actual experience. His identifications of plants refer to many learned sources, but I’m not sure he has ever seen any of them in his life, and he doesn’t seem aware of the many vernacular healing traditions recorded in Europe. But then I came across an exhaustive analysis of the many uses of the word ‘laec’ which became ‘leech’ and was later sometimes used as a synonym for ‘doctor’.

    Pollington says that this was not the way the word was used in Old English, and quotes many sources where the word is used to mean ‘healing’, ‘exercise of skill’, ‘play’ or ‘a rite of sacrificial offering’. I once heard Patrick Stewart use the word ‘laiking’ for being variously ‘truanting from school’, ‘on holiday’ and ‘out of work’, and when I pushed this, something fell into place. ‘Laec’ is the important stuff you do when you aren’t ‘working’ – what my Church used to call ‘servile’ work’ – all the life admin, busywork, earning a living, mundane day to day stuff. ‘Laec’ is ‘recreation’ spelled re-creation as the self-help books do, holiday spelled ‘holy day’ as they used to do in the Middle Ages, the difference between ‘relieving symptoms’ and ‘healing’. It’s no wonder that industrialists and politicians like to confuse it with idleness and amusement, because it’s the stuff that can’t be bought and sold, and no-one else can do it for you.

    This provided the link between my random musings about colour, craft, tradition and memory, the sense of self and the bond with community. I’m off on a poetic journey, but before I go, I’ll leave you with another spring-time picture from my garden.

    white and purple hellebores



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