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Website of poet Elizabeth Rimmer


Poetry


  • World Wetlands Day

    boardwalk in the Avalon marshes, grass and willows surrounnd it

    Today is World Wetlands Day. I have form with wetlands, since my poem about blanket bogs was used in an installation by the Royal Botanical Gardens of Edinburgh, and even featured on the side of a bus to advertise it. This is a later poem, however, from The Well of the Moon, which deals with the Avalon Marshes in real life, but also the landscapes of our hearts and heritage, and the myths we create to try to express them.

    Lost Roads
    I am haunted by wet places, the lure
    of rivers, reedbeds and green lands of ash
    and willow. The drift of water, pooling
    between the autumn stems and wind-frayed flags
    of common sedge and reed, is like the course
    of blood, of thought, deep in the mulch of me.
    There is talk of lost roads, boardwalks
    of planks and narrow handrails
    hid deep beneath the quaking ground
    with its stealth of buntings, stepping heron,
    its shattered tops of bulrush, spilling
    cottony seed for birds like new coins
    at a wedding scramble. The hidden past,
    with its myths of Romans and lost queens
    of the Iron Age, threads its careful way
    through thickets of imagined story, and I,
    not immune to this casual appropriation,
    imprint my own lost ancestors, finding
    or inventing the feel of home here, roots
    where there may be none, whole trees
    growing into the open wind and sky.

    I’ve been thinking about the celebrations that have happened this week, whether you call it the Feast of St Bride, Brigid’s Day or Imbolc. I am delighted that in Ireland it is being kept as a public holiday – goodness knows we could do with one at this time of year, and I’m not sure that Robert Burns Day quite has the impact. These spring celebrations are all about returning to the light, or bringing into the light things that have been nurtured in the dark, and so I thought I might write a little about my four poetry books, that don’t seem to have seen the light of day much lately.

    Wherever We Live Now came out in 2011, published by Red Squirrel Press. It has a lot of seasonal poems in it, a few about exploring my Irish heritage, and a sequence about the Orpheus myth, which was the closest I ever came to an artists’ practice statement. It has a cover image by the film-maker Alastair Cook, a Berneray landscape showing the land merging with sea and sky.

    The Territory of Rain came out during a very scary time in 2015 when my husband was hospitalised with myasthenia gravis, which probably explains the rather high proprtion of death poems in it. The hospital was wonderful and they discharged him just in time to come to the launch. This is the most explicitly geopoetical of my books, and has a very special cover image by Gerry Cambridge on the front. How special it was I didn’t realise until 2019, when his book The Light Acknowledgers (Happenstance Press) and I found it was a picture he had written a poem about.

    Haggards came out in 2018. It was centred around herbs and dealt with social and environmental collapse and regeneration. I think it is the most popular of my books, having been reprinted twice. Gerry Cambridge excelled himself with the design, providing not only the beautiful cover image, but a tiny wren hopping about on the title page of the sequence The Wren in the Ash Tree.

    The Well of the Moon came out during the pandemic. It has a lot of plant and herb and landscape poems as you might expect, but was inspired by mental health issues (my own and other people’s) which lead me to reflect on what ‘a person’ is, and what the sense of identity is made of. Gerry’s cover image this time features a crescent moon and a feverfew plant, which appears in the first poem in the book.

    The two most recent books are still available from the publisher, but the first two are out of print. I still have the last remaining copies, however, if anyone would like them. You can buy them from my shop, and I don’t charge for p+p in the UK. You don’t need Paypal either as I’ve enabled credit card payments.

    All of that was three years ago, and it’s probably time I was thinking of a new one. The news is, I am indeed. So far it is called The Midsummer Foxes, and is about land and belonging, magic and death, the self and the other – and music. It won’t happen for a couple of years yet, but yes, it is coming into the light!


  • Christmas Wishes

    a house, slightly on a skew with christmas lights in all the windows and a wreath on the door.

    I have struggled with a Christmas poem this year. I was reminded of the story of Christian de Cherge at the Mount Atlas monastery, saying to the terrorists who came to the monastery, “This is the birthday of the Prince of Peace, and you come bearing weapons”. The terrorist leader apologised and left the weapons at the door, at that time. Peace is a hard concept to think about just now. Then I went out to the garden.

    Ausculta is the first word of the Rule of St Benedict, and it is usually translated as ‘listen’. But it’s more than that, It means an active attention, engagement leading to understanding, and a heartfelt response.

    So here is my Christmas message – wishing you happiness, good company, delight, and also peace.

    Ausculta
    The wind is in the cypress tree, a long shout
    over the hawthorns, ruffling the dignity
    of the magpies’ showy livery. The sun glows
    on the new bulb shoots and the random
    unseasonal violet. The leaves are all down,
    turning to cold mulch around the rogue seedlings
    of last year’s neglected berries. There’s a riff
    of starlings around the feeder and a single
    collared dove among the groundling pigeons.
    I can hear spring begin to whisper beneath
    the drone of distant traffic, in the heave
    of frost-lifted ground and the quiet undersong
    of the little burn. Dark is gathering, but light
    waits, in the hush where we might hear the song
    of angels, and a voice that speaks of peace.


  • The Words of Mercury

    The words of Mercury are harsh after the songs of Apollo. You that way: we this way.

    Shakespeare, Love’s Labour’s Lost

    I have been musing on the Sea Swallows episode of Karine Polwart’s Seek the Light programme on Radio 4, and the relationship and the differences between song lyrics and poetry. I started my writing life as a folk singer and a fantasy writer (don’t even ask!) and my first efforts were songs both for myself and my characters. I was very influenced by ballads – the ‘muckle sangs’ of the Scottish tradition, such as Tam Lin and The Twa Corbies, and I still am. I learned simplicity and directness, and not to waste words on hints and explanations and ‘scene setting’. I realise too that I still think of poetic rhythm in terms of dynamics and time signatures rather than stress and metre, which gives scope for variation and complexity, and I write by reading aloud, because poetry is something you hear as much as read.

    I wasn’t very good as a song writer, not only because my melodies were simplistic and full of cliches, but because back then I didn’t understand the demands music makes on lyrics. If we have to choose, I’m for the words of Mercury. I work really hard at words. A good poem can create links and resonances that overload a melody. You can go forward and back, pick up echoes, go slowly through a stanza, stop at a phrase or skip a line. You have time and attention for layers of meaning or step outside a poem altogether to enter a whole new landscape. And you can afford to make every word, every line, new and different. A reader has the headspace to pay attention.

    Listening to a song is very different. Familiarity is important. Simplicity and space is important. Rhymes matter, because a good rhyme might be predictable, but it is as welcoming as a well-prepared cadence. It doesn’t matter if you have filler syllables the way it would in a poem:

    The weary earth we walk upon
    She will endure when we are gone

    Karine Polwart Rivers Run

    because the voice makes good use of them. Words are there to guide you through the music, and the music is there to interpret the words. You may visit the realms of thought and imagination, but more likely you will find your emotions stirred and become deeper acquainted with your heart. Writing a good lyric is a synthesis, and requires knowing what not to do, how to create space, when to leave well alone. A poem that falls flat on the page (like most of Burns, as far as I am concerned) can fly as a song.

    All this makes Karine Polwart’s work extremely interesting. She is braiding spoken word and song, stories that are more potent than anecdotes, music that brings together thoughts and ideas in a richer and more wide-ranging than songs. Words and music that Shakepeare sends off the stage in separate directions are brought back together.


  • Finding the Form

    a tangle of sweet peas, st John's wort catnip and borage. A bumble bee on the st john's wort

    I have been so glad of the garden lately. The mix of sunshine and showers has brought everything on, and every day there is something new to look at. It isn’t just the herbs, either. I have had our own lettuce, strawberries (never more than four at a time, but so tasty!) and potatoes for a few weeks now, and on Friday I got the first tomato.It was a new variety to me – Ruthje – which is an elegant peardrop shape, and not too big. I think I was a bit impatient, as it wasn’t really ripe, but there are plenty more to come, so we’ll see. The sweet peas have done well, and the poppies have been amazing – bright shots of colour in what would otherwise have been very gentle misty pastels. My grandson has been fascinated by the developing seed pods, so I hope he will help me harvest them when it comes to seed saving time.

    Now that my husband is home again, the bird feeders are better maintained and we have flocks of sparrows and starlings clustered around them like fat bunches of grapes. We’ve even seen an ambitious magpie trying to twist itself into the right angle to get hold of a fatball, and there was a greater spotted woodpecker one quiet morning. I think there might be a hedgehog visting at night, because there was something moving in the shade of the fence in the dark. I have been woken several times by an owl flying in, calling, and its claws grating on the fence as it landed, and one spectacular night I looked out to find three foxes, almost full-grown, but clearly still adolescent, playing and chasing each other across the rough grass behind our house.

    This had me thinking. When I first heard the sounds, it wasn’t animals I was thinking about. Now that the schools are on holiday, there are young people wandering about at all times of the day and night. Mostly they are just going home after parties, or setting off to catch early flights on holiday (that particular lot were far too lively for four o’clock in the morning!), or hanging about chatting and skylarking, away from their parents. Pretty much like the foxes, to be honest. I wonder if I would have felt more ambivalent about human prowlers? Yes, a hostile human can do more damage that a fox, but our neighbours are not our enemies, even when they are teenagers, are they? Sometimes they do seem as alien as the foxes – I’ve heard older people describe younger ones as ‘roaming in packs’ – but it’s natural and necessary, at some periods in your life, to distance yourself from the authorities in your life and from what’s expected of you, and renegotiate the boundaries between yourself and the world. And it isn’t easy to live with for a neighbour as much as a parent.

    Somewhere in my head the wandering boys and the foxes are getting mixed up. There’s an Irish ballad called Sly Bold Reynardine, about a were-fox who seduces unwary maidens, lures them to his den on the mountains of Pomeroy and drowns them. And I remember that some people used to refer to the Faeries as ‘the good neighbours’ so as not to provoke them. There are poems here, and notes for the non-fiction book.

    I feel as if I have been spinning my wheels on the whole writing thing for a long time, not only while my husband was in hospital, but since we moved, since I finished The Well of the Moon in fact. I’ve done a lot of reading, and a lot of editing, and a lot of planning and drafting and to-do lists. I went on a course last summer to learn how to write proper essays, only to be told I should ‘be more poet’.

    It turns out to be right! There is a fox poem, possibly one of a sequence, and I’ve found my way in to the non-fiction. I’m following the ballads and the charms into the liminal spaces, renegotiating boundaries and allowing the poetry to shape the prose. It seems that if you find the form, the words flow much more freely, and I’m looking forward to finally making some progress with my own work.

    a stone archway in a wall,  overgrown with ferns and heather. A rocky path through it


  • The Well of the Moon Live Launch

    You may have noticed the news post about the Red Squirrel Press showcase at the Scottish Writers’ Centre next week. It’s a chance for those of us whose books came out during the pandemic to have a live launch and nine of us will be reading. At this point, I’m feeling the miss of William Bonar and Ruby McCann who should have been with us, but won’t, as they both died in 2022 – particularly grievous as they had so much wonderful poetry to share with us.

    I am picking the poems for my set, and trying to get back to what I was thinking about when I wrote them. I was reminded of some of it at StAnza, where there were several poets writing and talking about grandmothers, and a good few poems about dissociation, both of which were triggers for the book, but it also included a lot of reflections about how we see the world and our relationship with it, our memories, so unreliable in one way, but so important and illuminating in others, and the nature of hope, and where we find it.

    In Haggards I wrote about the world as ‘a web of speaking beings’, and, though The Well of the Moon is a more personal book than that, it built on and developed that concept. It’s one I got from Julia Kristeva, who used it to help children with mental health difficulties, particularly victims of abuse. She stressed the importance, to a person in difficulty, of being able to speak your truth, and know you are heard, and, through my own experience and that of members of my family, I have come to value this very much. But The Well of the Moon is also about something else. I believe a human person is not only a ‘speaking being’, but a ‘listening being’ – a being in dialogue.

    Oh, world, my mirror,
    my just-like-me, I know myself in you.
    We are most when we are most connected,
    when who we are, is who we listen to.

    From Ma Semblable, Ma Soeur

    Other things sneaked into it. There are more poems than I realised at the time about violence against women, and the particular wisdom of women, more about friendship, mental illness and grief, and there are a lot of poems about birds. I got a bit hung up about fire too, which was a pity, as we have since moved from a house with a coal fire I loved, to one without any fireplace at all. There are some translations, from Latin, Old English and Old Norse and a complicated poem about the rainbow which is really about the process of translation, and of course there are poems about plants and the garden.

    How am I going to pick?


  • Far Field by Jim Carruth

    Polygon books £10.99 95pp.


    Far Field is the final part of a trilogy Jim Carruth has been working on for the last twenty-five years, and forms a magnificent culmination to what feels, for more than one reason, like a life’s work. Like its predecessors, Black Cart and Bale Fire and the standalone poetic novel Killochries, it deals with farming life in rural Renfrewshire, but this volume is more personal than the others. It focuses on his own family life, the family farm, the handing on of skills, property, and tradition.


    The first section, Landscape with Cattle deals with representations of rural life and features many poems about pictures by the Glasgow Boys, Crawhall, Guthrie, George Henry and EA Walton, who were famous for depicting rural life in less romantic perspectives than had been common. Yet Carruth finds even these pictures of ‘hinds’ and manual labourers self-indulgent, patronising and ignorant of the lived realities of the lives they depict, which are dark and harsh certainly, but also rich in family bonds, empathy with the beasts the farmers care for, and the beauty of accurate observation – cows standing in a river, in Crawhall’s Landscape with Cattle defy the artist’s attempt to recreate their calm presence, and the contrast with the fidgety birds that flit round them.


    As Carruth’s hind’s daughter says: This painting that does not show me true.


    The second part Earthstruck, builds on this sense of empathy with the animal life of the farm, the parallels between the life of the beasts and the life of the farmer, birth, death, illness, courtship, love, loss. The boundaries between animals and lovers, animals and family, blur with references to a review of Lady Chatterley’s Lover as a gamekeeping manual, a misread conversation where the roast lamb on the table is mistaken for a comment about the speaker’s lover, and the deaths of farm animals compared to the deaths of farmers. Some of the poems are humorous, nostalgic, sarcastic or affectionate, but most moving is Gone Out where a child’s tantrum because his father has slipped out to look at the animals without him is recalled at the father’s death.

    Somewhere beyond the cries of loved ones
    You’re walking your dogs in that far field
    Watching the herd, waiting for the next life.

    Gone Out


    In the final section, Stepping Stones, we move out to the wider community, to the landscape, to memory, and reflections of the future, and the book closes with Planting Aspen Saplings, father handing on the tradition and the responsibility to son. Aspen is an endangered species, but an important one to the Scottish landscape:

    You tell me of the tree’s offer
    To gall midges, birds, hare, deer

    The importance of relationships
    The interconnectedness of everything

    They do not thrive in shade, need light
    And space to grow.

    Planting aspen saplings,
    Son and father.

    Planting Aspen Saplings

    The echoes of Seamus Heaney I find in these poems do not feel derivative, but establish a connection between two poets aware of the influence of landscape and farming on their work, but each with their own different and unique perspective on it. An Irish/Scottish tradition which enriches us all.


  • The Absolute State of Poetry These Days

    As a one time reviewer who used to be praised for my honesty, I think I should probably declare that reviews in Northwords Now et al under the name of Elizabeth Rimmer are not those attributed to Ishbell O’Sullivan in this article
    https://www.rlf.org.uk/showcase/the-round-lovely-ones/?fbclid=IwAR0Bwd3EcnegI6H9g2mCdO_Gdn2eQmgC5M5FnT08uch5ljkC0L1KSWGB6z

    though I’m fairly sure I was enough of a nippy sweetie to please Gerry Cambridge. No, they were by me, and I still don’t like Robin Robertson’s work, although I do admire his skill.

    I disagree with a lot of what Gerry Cambridge has to say, both about reviewing and about poetry at large, though I do see where he is coming from, and it has made me a think about the function of reviews, and why I do it. I don’t review so much these days, I don’t even write as many reviews on this blog as I would like, and reviews of any sort, and particularly poetry reviews, are hard to find anywhere. Neither Haggards nor The Well of the Moon have ever been formally reviewed, and though it hasn’t done sales any harm (would you mind if I casually mentioned that Haggards is being reprinted for the third time?) I think it would be nice to get more extended feedback than the comments I’ve had which were kind and insightful, and not solely complimentary.

    I do miss good extended poetry criticism. It isn’t generally taught in academia, and a lot of tutoring focuses on the creative and technical side of writing – no bad thing in itself, but it leaves a gap, a feeling that there isn’t a broad overview of a poetry scene that is busy extending itself in all directions. Newspapers and journals don’t publish many reviews, and pay for even fewer, so those of us who do it are doing it for love, focussing on what we’ve liked, and neither writers nor readers have time to waste on books which waste our time.

    So why do it at all? It doesn’t have any impact on sales, and it isn’t just to make friends and influence people. Firstly, to record the poetry that I’ve read and loved and want to go back to. So much poetry is published now that it’s very easy to read a good poem and like it, and then forget it instantly. When you come across something that really matters, you want to flag it up, not only for yourself, but for everyone else trying to filter the onrush of new books, pamphlets and journals.

    Often I write to try and understand what I liked about it, how it influences my thinking and develops my writing practice. Under this heading comes the analysis of the poets who hit that concept, image, technique I’ve been searching for, or that writer who shares my passions and instincts, that I want to have a conversation with. I don’t always agree with these poets, but they fascinate me.

    Often I want to have a conversation with friends and readers about what I’ve read, and let me tell you, you get more engagement if you have something positive to say than if you start by describing Rilke as the Jacob Rees-Mogg of poetry – which I did do once. I don’t believe in indulging silliness, pretentiousness or shoddy work, but a wanton display of savagery to amuse readers is no more likely to encourage honesty than a focus on the good stuff – and there’s plenty of that about. Let me share my treasures with you – I may get a bit excitable, but trust me, you will find something you like.


  • National Poetry Day

    I’ve been keeping a ‘lookout journal’ for the last few months, so, for National Poetry Day, here’s a bit of it.

    July
    hedges and roadsides hang
    swags of wild rose and honeysuckle
    knapweed and bedstraw

    boxes unpacked, all the books
    safe on new shelves

    the old family Bible
    faded leather, records kept
    since 1808

    Rimmer, Oldroyd, Milne
    handwriting hardly changed

    by Calder Water
    blackthorn, hemlock, meadowsweet
    sun, bees, meadow brown

    first garden berries
    burning scarlet under leaves

    covid and high pollen
    dizzy, shaking, coughing all day
    summer passing us by

    August
    the latest dark
    a fox calls beyond the garden

    dog day’s sun, hot glare
    westerly breeze shakes the leaves
    brings no breath of cool

    rooflines of starlings
    night sulks, waiting for thunder

    September
    rain, mud, cleavers seeds
    harvest of brambles ripe and heavy
    beyond my reach

    marigold hooks brown
    poppy heads swollen, seeds saved
    and sowed. Autumn

    the Queen is dead
    long queues to see change coming

    scent of vinegar
    jam cooling in the kitchen
    new season’s apples

    October
    equinoctial gales,
    the house creaks and wavers

    the branches of a wild apple tree. Beyond, a hawthorn tree with berries and a birch

  • Moniack Mhor

    landscape looking to distant mountains. A cloud inversion fills the valley

    This was my view a week ago. It couldn’t have got more gorgeous if it had tried, though the starry night which preceded it tried very hard, and this photo definitely doesn’t do it justice. I was here, at Moniack Mhor a week ago, learning how to make coherent essays out of the least random of my blogposts, and let me tell you, it was wonderful. I met a wide range of interesting people, and had a lot of encouragement from two excellent tutors. Oddly and most unexpectedly, the consensus seems to be that when it comes to essay writing, I should be more poet. I love this, and have in fact printed this slogan out and put it over my desk.

    Herb garden with mint, chives, oregano and sage

    This is the herb garden, obviously my first port of call. Moniack Mhor has a vegetable garden and fruit trees as well, and they are saving up for a polytunnel, to improve their sustainability. It was a place in which I felt thoroughly at home, among lovely scenery, a place full of generous and thoughtful ethos, warm and kindly hospitality, and unlimited creativity. I have come home bursting with inspiration, and determination to realise the promises I made to myself.

    But first, I have an appeal to make. Last spring there was a flood, and 80% of the books in the poetry library were destroyed. They have started building up a replacement collection, but their finances are very stretched. Poets, publishers, poetry readers – if you could donate copies to this wonderful resource for writers, please do! It would be very gratefully appreciated!

    Please contact info@moniackmhor.org.uk for more information, or send to:

    Moniack Mhor
    Teavarran, Kiltarlity
    by Beauly, Inverness-shire,
    Scotland, IV4 7HT

    hobbit house, hay bale building with wooden porch and green roof

  • Scotland’s Soils and Stories

    rocks thickly covered with moss

    Yesterday we went to Benmore Botanical Garden, partly to celebrate our forty-fifth anniversary, but also to see the trail installed there as part of Scotland’s Soils and Stories. At five viewpoints around the garden there were storyboards showing extracts from some Scottish literature relative to the soil or landscape or trees growing there. Authors included Sir Walter Scott, Robin Jenkins, James Robertson, Kenneth Grahame, Sara Maitland, Kathleen Jamie and (ulp!) me. And here I am, in a beautiful mossy setting (though furthest away from the gate, and up a very high hill).

    self portrait next to storyboard with the text of Blanket Bog

    The poem chosen was this one, which was first published in TheTerritory of Rain (Red Squirrel Press) in 2015:

    Blanket Bog
    Blanket bog clothes the land
    like a black melancholy, shrouding
    the slopes in the weight of its slo-mo layers.
    Grudges and peat break down slowly.
    Bones of old loves and hates
    are kept intact for ever.

    Sphagnum can absorb
    twice its own weight in tears.
    Crazy insectivorous plants
    thrive on trapped flies and imagined slights,
    and lost birds wail, raking through pools
    and stirring the endless mud.

    Keep it safe, keep it undisturbed.
    Under these tons of peat and apathy
    enough carbon is sequestered
    to melt the last chips of polar ice
    and burn up every one of us
    on the whole raging earth.

    I was especially pleased by the background information which put the poem in the context of a discussion of buried ancient structures, and the concept of landscape time, which is something I’m quite intrigued with just now. I am very grateful to the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh who organised this display, and have made something lovely of my poem. The book is out of print just now, but I have a few copies left which you can buy from my shop if you are in the UK.



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