BurnedThumb

Website of poet Elizabeth Rimmer


eurydice rising


  • Farewell Summer

    ivy flowers

    And just like that, it was gone. Once the ivy is in flower, you know, but the signs were all there. All the flowers in the garden are busy setting seed, and the trees are bright with rowan berries, rose-hips, haws. The last field has been cut and all the small birds have disappeared from the garden after the spilled grain. The skies are cloudier, there’s a brisk westerly wind, and the resident geese are grabbing first dibs on all the good places before the northerners arrive next month.

    This is Sherriffmuir, where we went to see the heather.

    covered hillside

    My big ritual for this time is collecting brambles The haggard is full of them, and I took advantage of the good weather last week. The heavy rain and extended dry periods this year meant that many promising shows of blossom never set fruit at all, the earliest ones had gone over already and birds and wasps have been at the ones they missed. But it has been a generous year and there are lots left, shining with ripeness, making it worth the scratches, the torn jeans, the purple splashes from wrist to elbow. The best berries are always further in, higher up or on the most defiant tangles of thorn, and there seems to be an unholy alliance between bramble and nettle. But I hate to miss it.

    ripe blackberries

    It’s an autumn experience that is common to a lot of people and most poets have a blackberry picking poem somewhere. I have one myself as part of my Eurydice Rising sequence from Wherever We Live Now. In northern versions of the story, Orpheus gets Eurydice back, so I used both versions to talk about creativity, and mental illness and the kinds of relationships artists develop with their community. In the Breton romance, King Orfeo, Orpheus leaves the court, distraught after the loss of Eurydice, living wild in the forest, in a sort of shamanic disintegration. One day, he sees the fairy hunt passing, and follows.

    The next bit is quite significant. He remembers, ‘I used to do that, long ago’. Hunting was a social marker then, restricted to the nobility, and was seen as a useful contribution to the community, culling deer which might have destroyed crops. Orfeo has rediscovered himself, his humanity, and his role in the community. It is only then that he is able to recognise his lost wife Erodys riding among the fairy host, and to follow it back under the grey stone, into the otherworld.

    I decided that the role of hunting, especially as it is is practised nowadays, was not one I wanted to endorse, so I chose blackberry picking as an iconic memory, and a prompt to Orpheus’ recovery of human bonding.

    Moniage 1: Orpheus in the Wilderness
    Orpheus deserts his post. Her flight
    is like a magpie raid on his whole life –
    what isn’t gone is broken, pulled apart.
    Only the harp goes with him, and he plays
    in doorways, under arches, in the space
    between the human places. When he sings,
    the trees bend down to listen. No-one else will.

    He is lost without her, and demented,
    follows strange girls home, asks who’s hiding her,
    shouts obscenities at those who pass him by.
    He hears voices in the dark, and follows them
    out into wilder places, to be alone.

    He comes on children, picking brambles,
    noisy, carefree, quick and neat as birds.
    They do not notice him, and go their way
    unfrightened, and he hears the women call
    them home to breakfast. When they are gone,
    the silence stirs him like a changing wind.
    He says, “I used to do that, long ago.”

    He thinks of berries shining, intact, black,
    the small hairs tickling his outstretched palm,
    the scratches worn like war wounds, and the brag
    of secret places, where there’s loads still left.
    That’s when the door opens, the shadowed way
    beneath the grey rock, to the other place.

    stone archway overgrown with heather and fern

    This is Tappoch Broch near Torwood, as otherworldly as the central belt can get! (This will be next week’s post.) My bramble-picking only led me as far as blackberry and apple crumble, and very nice it was, too!


  • Back to the Source

    spring falling down a scree
    A spring along the Linn trail in Ayrshire

    I am reading Seamus Heaney’s Preoccupations, a paperback first published in 1985. Some of it was later reproduced in Finders Keepers in 2002, particularly the essays Mossbawn and the very timely Belfast, which recalls what it was like to live there at the height of the Troubles (how can we think of those days returning?), but some of the writing on Wordsworth, Yeats and Hopkins was new to me. I find that I don’t agree as much with Heaney as I thought I did, but he made me look again at the source of my poetry, and it has helped me clarify a few of the ideas swirling round in the back of my head. It has been a grounding experience, in more ways than one.

    Reading this kind of thing is a very different experience now that I have written enough poetry to have an informed opinion about the writing process. I am struck by how Heaney divides poets and poems into separate and opposing camps – poets of thought and poets of sensation, poems which seem to arrive as naturally as giving birth, and those which are forged and designed, poems which seduce and invite surrender, those which impose and convince. There is a masculine-feminine dichotomy going on in these essays, without value judgements or preferences, but clearly defined – feminine is going within, becoming inspired, responding passively to the vision granted, masculine is being captivated from without, shaping and designing.

    In the ‘feminine’ style, we aren’t talking simply about the innately gifted genius who produces without effort – it’s work, alright, but the Rilkean work on your life to get your ego out of the way and let the poem happen. And it isn’t simply about mastery in the ‘masculine’ – the effort is to liberate rather than dominate. But try as I might, I don’t get this. It doesn’t reflect my writing experience at all. The preoccupation of some writers with analysing the disparate ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ sides of their work and personality seems to me to be a very male thing. A woman, who frankly, has to take any writing life she can get, is more likely to think about being her ‘self’ – whatever that may be.

    Breaking Through Gravel
    for Deborah
    My Muses have nine children.
    They go mad, lose their jobs,
    live on rolled oats and vegetables.
    That’s how they write. In three languages,
    in trains, in kitchens, in libraries,
    on the back seat of the bus. They write
    about sex and history and fairy tales,
    the shape of a sonnet, splitting the atom,
    where the rent is coming from. Their lives
    are made of food, and soap, and meetings with strangers,
    the family china, slammed doors, a child’s stamped foot,
    the hurt silence, the stolen kiss,
    the need to write.
    The art of women is not a quest, like the whale,
    but salvage from a storm of perplexity.
    It is unlicensed, defiant, pervasive
    and inevitable as starlight,
    or the trajectory of the lily of the valley
    disregarding gravel, and breaking the tarmac
    with unapologetic, overwhelming joy.

    From the sequence Eurydice Rising, published in Wherever We Live Now

    Going ‘within’ does not seem to give me ‘vision’ or a hidden life. It is more like a gathering of strength which helps me pay attention to the world, rather than battering off the walls like a demented bluebottle, less like revealing secrets than being plugged into the mains. Considering the world ‘without’ is not to be inspired by something I must shape and master, but entering a conversation with what’s around me. Shaping a poem is more like a housewifely cherishing than forging steel. Writing, for me, is a more mutual and integrated, less polarised process than either style Heaney talks about, but this does not mean it is necessarily less strong or subtle, or on a smaller scale. It depends not on being seduced by or mastering my inspiration, but on being grounded.

    a vase of autumn flowers and berries
    rudbeckia and rosehips

  • fairy tales and reinventions

    In a casual throw-away line in my previous post, I said I should maybe try a Rumpelstiltskin or Baba Yaga sequence next, and the idea has grown on me since then. The Orpheus sequence was written as a fairly androcentric one, simply because the artist/muse thing seems to be such an androcentric issue, and it helped me think about some issues in a fairly uncluttered way. After all, the guy’s side of the story is so familiar, and there was quite enough newness in what I wrote without going completely off-piste.

    Also it’s still a given in some levels of cultural thinking that male experience is normative for human. It’s quite easy to assume that artist/doctor/traveller is male, and, in liberal quarters, that women can play too, now we’re liberated. And we do, some of us. We read ‘poet’ and we identify completely with the experience and understanding and where poetry is the thing, not gender, why not? Of course Orpheus is me as much as all those guys, and I’m not pretending I don’t have some of those illusions and pretensions either.

    But sometimes the experience is different. It’s not just biology or society or circumstances. Women’s work , women’s stories, women’s maturation happen across different territory, not all of it domestic. But then domestic is also interesting is it not? I am thinking seriously about all the girl fairy-tales – not just the reinterpreted ones, but the ones where girls are always centre-stage, and marriage is not the only outcome – Vassilisa the Beautiful, Cap O’Rushes, Mother Holle. There is a lot that will bear thinking about, not only the mother-daughter relationship – I’m not convinced anyone needs to write any more about that – but sisters and neighbours and communities of women.

    This will probably take quite a while. I am planning a new stage in the lúcháir project, which involves learning a whole bunch of stuff about photo-editing and HTML that I never expected to have to deal with, and family events and politics are claiming more of my attention than usual.

    Watch out for The Wave on 5th December.


  • The Orpheus Tradition

    Someone suggested that my Eurydice Rising Sequence was so complicated and illusive that I should write a whole essay on the romance and ballad tradition, so I have. I’d be interested in comments from anyone who knows about it.

    The Orpheus Tradition

    The classical story of Orpheus is simple and well-known – Orpheus’ beloved wife is stolen by Hades, and dies. Orpheus goes to the underworld to rescue her and plays so well that he is allowed to take her back, so long as he does not look behind to see if she is following him. He does look back, and she is lost forever, and Orpheus, distraught, is killed by Maenads because he refuses to play for them. It is told in many cultures and many formats, from Boethius’ allegorical understanding of Eurydice as Soul, beguiled into Hell by the pleasures of the senses, rescued by Orpheus as Reason, but lost through his weakness and want of dedication, to Offenbach’s irreverent satire on marriage and conventional thinking, in which both Orpheus and Eurydice are glad of the opportunity to set up with someone new. Everyone seemed to have their own take on what was happening, whether like the Orphic cultists, they believed that Orpheus had established the belief in life after death, or like Ovid, that he was the first homosexual.

    What fascinated me most of all as I got to know more about the tradition, was that as the story was dispersed and retold, many versions did not end with tragedy. As the story moved north, it happened more and more that Orpheus actually got Eurydice back.

    In the Breton lai, Sir Orfeo, Orpheus is both a knight and a king of England. His wife Herodys (I did recently hear an undergraduate without any classical background pronounce Eurydice like this – it made my day) is kidnapped by the King of Fairy as she slept under an ‘ympe tree’. This is a grafted tree, distrusted because such tampering with nature was thought to be unnatural. In medieval times such a tree was believed to leave anyone who slept there vulnerable to the otherworld, and the image of a grafted tree was sometimes used, as Perdita does in A Winters Tale to symbolise a lack of integrity. Orfeo is so distraught with grief that he leaves the court and goes into the wilderness for ten years – a ritual time of trial called a ‘moniage‘ . In Moniage 1 I have referred to the best known example of moniage in medieval English literature – the obscure but charming poem Maiden on the Mor Lay.

    At the end of the ten years, Orfeo sees the a hunting party and discovers that it is the Wild Hunt (slua sidh in Irish folk tales) – the Fairy people on an expedition to the everyday world. Oddly enough, he does not recognise who these people are, but is reawakened to his own identity by remembering his former hunting days. He sees Herodys among the court, but she is not able to respond to him, and he follows the hunt into an underground world filled simultaneously with horrific visions of lost people, those dead by misadventure, or women dead in childbirth, murder victims, and lunatics – people who ‘are thought dead and are not’ – and beautiful visions of the wealth and luxury of a royal palace. He sees Herodys both sleeping under her tree, and as a queen dressed in gold at a banquet.

    Orfeo performs as a minstrel and is promised whatever he likes as a reward. When he names Herodys, the King questions his fitness to marry her, but acknowledges that he has to be bound by his word, and he places no obstacle placed in the way of Herodys’ return. When Orfeo returns to Winchester to reclaim his throne, he disguises himself as a beggar to test his steward’s loyalty, and his welcomed out of loyalty to the absent king. The story ends with both marriage and kingdom restored, and the steward rewarded.

    The Shetland ballad, King Orfeo, although similar in many ways, is a more simple ‘fairy-taken’ story which draws on the Celtic bardic tradition. The king of Ferry pierces King Orfeo’s wife Isabel with a ‘dart’ and takes her away with him. Orfeo pursues them, but they disappear, leaving only a grey stone – the traditional gateway to the other world. He plays his pipes and is invited inside. Once there he demonstrates his expertise in the three modes of music expected of a bard : Goltraighe, ‘the weeping strain’, here called ‘da notes o’ noy’; or lament, Geantriaghe, ‘the laughing strain’, here called ‘da notes o’ joy’, or dance music; and Suantraighe, and ‘the sleeping strain’ or lullaby, which the ballad describes as ‘da god gabber reel/dat meicht ha made a sick hert hale’. In Irish tradition the suantraighe makes anyone who is awake fall asleep, and anyone who is sick becomes well. He claims, and is granted Isabel as his reward, and on his return, not only his wife but his kingdom is restored to him.

    The many symbolic values encompassed by Eurydice, who represents soul, conscience, maturity, muse and social identity, as well as lover, and the different outcomes gave me a lot to play with. It gave me the opportunity to see Orpheus as many different artists – Seamus Heaney, Ted Hughes, Mick Jagger, Bob Dylan, Thomas the Rhymer and Gerald Way from the emo-band My Chemical Romance. I could use the multi-layered tradition to examine the use of poetry – and art in general; the role of an artist in society, the way an artist integrates – or fails to integrate – the practice of his art with his personal life, the nature of love, and the very odd relationship between artist and muse. The old-fashioned exclusive language here is deliberate. Women, particularly women of my generation, negotiate this terrain differently – maybe I should try a Rumpelstiltskin or a Baba Yagar sequence next time!

    In my version, Eurydice is not dead or stolen by fairies;she is mad, and she and Orpheus are locked in a co-dependent relationship which may or may not destroy both of them. Whether either one of them gets out of hell depends on Orpheus’ willingness to come to a sound understanding of who he is, and set Eurydice free.

    This might be a good time to acknowledge the influence of my supervisor way back when I did my MLitt. Felicity J Riddy is not only a brilliant medievalist, but was also a wonderful teacher and mentor. And she wrote an essay on Sir Orfeo (The Uses of the Past in Sir Orfeo published in the Yearbook of English Studies vol6 1976) which started me on my interest in the Orpheus tradtion


  • Digging for Bait


    Picture by Paul Rimmer, a rock pool at Ardnamurchan.

    This is one of the poems from The Eurydice Rising sequence, which was published in poetry Scotland last year. It has a lot of Shetland references because I was originally inspired by the Shetland ballad King Orfeo, (it’s quoted in the first stanza), in which Orpheus is a piper, and actually gets Eurydice back. The title is also a Shetland reference. If you don’t want to tell where you got your bait for fishing you would say Sjussamillabakka or stakamillabakka – as non-committal as you could get!

    Digging for Bait

    Sjussamillabakka
    Da notes o’ joy.
    Stakkamillabakka –
    Da notes o’ noy.
    Sjussamillabakka –
    Da god gabber reel,
    dat meicht ha’ made a sick hert hale.

    Sjussamillabakka-
    Between the sea and the shore.
    Stakkamillabakka –
    Between the rocks and the shore.
    Sjussamillabakka
    Is where I got this poem,
    On water-polished shingle, where the sea
    Drains bubbling
    Over ribbed and wrinkled sand
    And popping bladderwrack.
    I found it in a rock-pool, cold as shadow,
    With a gull’s feather floating in it,
    And a thin blue sheen of petrol
    Hazed like a mussel shell.

    Sjussamillabakka –
    The place without landmarks.
    Stakkamillabakka –
    Don’t look back.
    Sjussamillabakka –
    Never the same place twice.



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