BurnedThumb

Website of poet Elizabeth Rimmer


Burnedthumb


  • 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

  • Living La Vida Lockdown -The Burnedthumb Ring

    a hand with a ring on it, shaped like a tail fin

    I expect a lot of us have made random purchases during the lockdown. I know one family who bought a tap floor for dance practice, and a lot of people who got seriously obsessed with Animal Crossing. Then there are customised facemasks and wish-listed box sets, plus all the things we bought to help out the small independent producers or because supermarkets couldn’t supply our usual stuff – I probably won’t go back to supermarket bread flour, or big brand soap and shampoo even when this is over. My purchase, which I would never have bought without the weirdness we are living in, is the Burnedthumb ring.

    If you’ve been around since I started this blog, you’ll know how important the legend of the salmon of wisdom, and how Fionn mac Cumhaill burned his thumb cooking it, and accidentally became able to understand the languages of all living beings, is to my poetry. This poem is from The Territory of Rain, published in 2015

    Land Speaks
    Land speaks to the seed
    of rock and sand and water
    in the language of rush and heather,
    deep-rooted trees and scavenging gorse.

    Land speaks to the builders of nests
    of wind and rain in the scour of river banks,
    the burn’s swift rush of water in the creeks
    the deep moss-cushions, the sway
    of tall firs and the lie of wind blows.

    Land speaks to the crawlers
    of frost and sun, soft going and dry,
    in the bleached grass, and cracked seed-case,
    the rise of small flies to the swallow’s beak.

    Land speaks to the trees
    of growth and blossom and failing
    in the depth of pine needles on the forest floor
    the decay of last year’s leaves, and the green dust
    of new seedlings on the wet mulch.

    Land speaks to the buzzard
    of running voles, and rabbits nibbling
    the soft stems of clover and primrose flowers.

    Land speaks to the bat
    in lengthening days, warm nights
    of insects swarming, circling over the grass.

    Land speaks of summer and winter
    in the language of warbler and waxwing,
    in rose and ivy flower, mist and lightning,
    tree-rings, lichens and weathering stone.

    and the central image of The Wren in the Ash Tree is the ‘web of speaking beings’ that is the earth and everything in it. I have been revisting it as I write the big scary poems that I need to form the heart of the next collection, and when I browsed Instagram (at a particularly low point!) and found this ring, with its shape inspired by the tail fin of a salmon, I frankly couldn’t resist it. And then, in a moment of pure serendipity, I discovered the concept of Deep Mapping in a soon to be published pamphlet by Rebecca Sharp and Simon Whetham (watch this space), which has brought so much thinking into focus, and has set me back on the right track.

    Thank goodness for random purchases!

    a ring in a papier mache box, shaped like a stone


  • 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’.


  • Introducing Burnedthumb

    When I first developed an online presence, this is what it looked like. I was providing authentic Latin for a computer game my daughter was developing – Latin, it turns out, was made for alien court cases – and I thought I might do a lot more of this, as well as translations. It never happened. People who wanted ancient languages for curses, spells, prophecies or plain ordinary geeky purposes were very soon able to learn , everything from Old Norse to Elvish and Klingon on the internet, and didn’t need me. And I found myself increasingly absorbed in my own poetry – and eventually, editing. But the idea I dimly felt when I started and later expressed in the Burnedthumb poem, was that it is a poet’s job to cross the boundaries between one language and another, and between one species and another, listening and learning wisdom.

    This came out in the Eurydice sequence in Wherever We Live Now, in the Huldra poems in The Territory of Rain, and was behind the ways of knowing poems in Haggards, and more explicitly in The Wren in the Ash Tree. But since Haggards came out, there has been a slump in my poetry. I’ve written a bit, but I’ve been very ambivalent about it, wary of staying in my comfort zone and merely repeating myself. I’ve also been very busy editing, which turned out to be very helpful in ways I couldn’t possibly predict. And, if you’ve seen the events page you’ll see that lately I’ve done some readings, including newer poems, and a workshop. I’m not going to discuss those in detail, but all these combined factors have helped me develop the theme and structure of the next collection.

    Occasional comments about my work have seemed to imply that my personal life was missing from my work, and that this poet wasn’t so much ‘scarred, accidental, listening’, as invisible, perhaps in hiding. This threw up a dilemma that was psychological as much as poetic. It wasn’t just that I believed my personal life was uninteresting or irrelevant to the poetry – the poet is always implied in a poem, no? But I appeared, when I thought about it, to be invisible and in hiding from myself.

    There are people who take this to pathological extremes, lumped together under the heading of dissociative disorder. I haven’t experienced anything serious enough to classify as pathological, but I have had enough fleeting and partial experiences to realise that it is not the most creative or comfortable way to be. Recent events have forced me to reflect on what it means ‘to be a person’, and the kinds of knowledge someone has to possess to know that she is a person. Crucial to this is the work of Julia Kristeva whose concept of the human as a ‘speaking being’ inspired The Wren in the Ash Tree, the writings of a Scottish medieval philosopher, Richard of St Victor (who may even have lived in the Abbey of our village), as well as the writings about herbs which led me to think about the ‘ways of knowing’ valued by different cultures.

    I’m going to be writing about self-understanding and perception, about belonging to a place or a community, and artistic expression and language. Some of it may well be quite personal, but mostly it’s about being human in an age where that concept seems increasingly up for debate. Since I’ve started reading the recent poems, the book has come alive in my head, and it will be called Burnedthumb.

    Lettering in front of a stylised salmon
    Banner for the original Burnedthumb website


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