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Website of poet Elizabeth Rimmer


poetry


  • 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.


  • Group Hug

    white hellebores in flower

    This is from our previous garden, but I noticed this morning that the hellebores I planted here are just coming into flower. There are iris reticulata out now too, and all the snowdrops and primroses. Daffodil shoots are more prolific than I remembered (did I really add so many?) and hyacinth, tulip and anemone have surprised me as much as they did last year. My seeds are beginning to germinate, even the immensely problematic dittany, which is very exciting, and the sarcococca, which seemed very unhappy in its pot, is thriving now it’s in open ground.

    We are just coming to the start of Lent, traditionally a season for conversions and makeovers, trying harder, cleaning up your act, but this year, I’m using mine for something slightly different. As poetry comes back, as we have started going to more events, it has become much more noticeable that the last three years have been A LOT. We’ve been so busy celebrating things getting going again, and making up for lost time that I think we are in denial about how burned out we all are. We had a long time of anxiety, bereavement, loss. We missed out on holidays, weddings, opportunities, the chance to say goodbye to people properly, the chance to meet new babies. Some jobs went and never came back. Some people died and we didn’t go to the funerals. People got sick and we couldn’t get the right help for them. We were alone and sad, and we couldn’t have hugs. And I haven’t even started on the political stuff – that is for another time.

    I think we need a collective group hug, metaphorical sometimes, literal too if we can manage it. We can acknowledge the grief. We can thank each other for the care we all showed, because that was so powerful. We stayed in with Netflix and banana bread. We observed social distances from kindness not fear. We created new ways of socialising, and developed some cracking gallows humour. Key workers from the NHS to the scaffies and delivery people kept things together, and neighbourhoods found diverse and creative ways to help each other out.

    Social media was my lifeline. I’ll never forget a distraught mother tweeting about her autistic child’s distress at not being able to get the only pasta he could eat, and then several neighbours left packets of it on her doorstep. I’ll never forget lots of anxious people taking to social media to express their concerns and politicians responding by asking for details and promising to deal with them. I won’t forget the zoom poetry and music that helped me keep going. I won’t forget all the pictures of the first reunions of grandparents and grandchildren when the lockdowns eased. And I won’t forget Janey Godley’s ‘Frank Get the Door!’ voiceovers that put everything into perspective. We were all lovely then, and if we’re less so now, it’s because we’re all exhausted, not because we changed.

    I think a puse for reflection and consolation might be indicated. I’ve been working on some ‘charms for the healing of grief’ for a project that’s in development, but I’m also going to use the next few blogposts during Lent to do some more extended creative things with it. But just for now, I’ll send you all a virtual group hug!

    snowdrops in dappled sunlight


  • Returning to the Light

    snowdrops coming up through snow

    If it seems like a long time since I posted here, it’s because it is. There was Christmas and New Year, with its cold and rain and merriment – we did have a very merry Christmas this year – and then my daughter who has a complicated bunch of ailments, had an attack of the one we had taken our eyes off, and she has been very ill. It’s a bad time to be ill, but her support services have been there for her exactly as we would have hoped. Things are slowly improving, so I can now think about other things, as the days slowly stretch, and there is a bit more brightness about.

    Although it’s been very cold today, it’s been sunny and we’ve been thinking about the garden. All my seeds for this year have come, and I’ll be setting up the propagator for chillis and tomatoes at the end of next week. My Christmas present tiny greenhouse is here and we have been clearing the site for it, which gave me a chance to spot the new shoots of fennel and wild pansy, to hear the birds – suddenly noisier – and see how much the bulbs have been growing.

    tulips daffodils and auricula - plus emerging willowherb and hairy bittercress

    Mostly the garden seems to have come through the cold, though there is one lavender that looks to have succumbed, but I won’t really know for sure for a month or two – last night with its temperatures down to -6 came as a shock! Outside, there are hazel catkins out beyond the haggard at the back of the house. All the burns are full and running fast, even the ditch beyond the back fence, and a lot of the grassy places are waterlogged. Robins are getting territorial and once the fireworks at New Year finished we began to hear the strange mating calls of our local foxes.

    There has been a lot spoken and written this winter about using the dark time of the year for recovery and reflection, and I’ve certainly been doing a lot of that. Last year brought me a lot of change and new understanding, not only of the place I now live, but of the way my mind works, and what I bring to the dialogue I hold with the territory. This is taking my thinking about poetry in a completely unexpected and exciting direction. I decided to spend a lot of the year reading Irish poetry, starting with Seamus Heaney and Eavan Boland, but also Yeats, Moya Cannon and Kerry Hardie, and it opens new possibilities in my thinking about the relationship between place, community and language. I have begun learning the Irish language – you would think I might have started with Scottish Gaelic, living where I do, but somehow Irish fits my brain and my ear much more sympathetically, and I hope this will give me a way into Scottish later.

    I have a full editing list for this year, too, which looks very promising, and a poetics project on the verge of becoming real in a couple of months which I hope start some good conversations. Throughout the pandemic, the possibilities for decent poetry conversation have been limited, and I have so missed it, but I hope that we are finally coming back into the light!


  • 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.


  • Wilding Unwilding

    a tangle of elder with berries, bindweed and brambles

    Beyond the brambles you can see shadowy spaces beneath the elder branches. They are the sides of a bank, four feet deep, that let you drop into a ditch. The undergrowth you can see in the foreground is wall to wall nettle. I was picking blackberries there last week – there were lots, in peak condition – when I slid down that bank, and only the elder roots stopped me hitting the ditch. If I had, I don’t know how I would have got out! I have lost confidence in the theories that grasping the nettle reduces the sting, also that it does anything at all to help arthritis. It doesn’t look as if I will be picking blackberries any time soon.

    This is a great pity, as it is a wonderful year for berries of all sorts, hawthorn sparks among the foliage, rowans a wild flame, hips burning a deeper red each day. We have had plenty of rain since the middle of August, and the garden is thriving, with sedum and phlox, marigold and marshmallow still flowering. I have saved seeds of marigold, poppy and echinacea, and I’m waiting for the marshmallow ‘cheeses’ to ripen, so that I can sow them. The snapdragons are over, however, and I have planted out wallflowers and bulbs of wild daffodils under the willow at the front of the house, and mulched it with ‘lakeland gold’ a bracken based compost which will add structure and tone down the alkilinity of the soil a bit. It is coming up to the equinox, and people are beginning to post on social media about the skeins of geese coming in for the winter. The air is colder, and my focus is shifting from outside to in, planning next year’s sowings, the sewing and knitting for the longer evenings, and more importantly, the new writing.

    Last week I wrote about my trip to Moniack Mhor, where I received a lot of help and encouragement with a book of essays I want to write about the poetics of human relationships with the landscapes and communities where we live. Think a synthesis of fifteen years of blogposts, but less rambling and reactive and repetitive, more structured and at a leisurely reading pace. It is harder than you might think to craft a language about this. I found a perfect quote from Gary Snyder about knowing a place, googled it, and found it used as the cover photo of a survivalist group in midwest USA, complete with a man brandishing an AK rifle. I’d have liked to use ‘dwelling’ to describe the permanent, committed relationship you might have with a home place, as opposed to the temporary alignment you might have with a place you’re in for work, or a holiday, or this phase of your dream life, but Heidegger used it for some questionable attitudes to favoured species and people, and it sometimes gives rise to nativist thinking and ‘blood and soil’ politics which would be distracting. I’m using the phrase ‘grounded’ to describe this axis of the book.

    But there’s also the ‘gleam of light’ axis – the phase of poetry which illuminates the tangles and tedium of the everyday, which celebrates, honours and inspires. It’s a more adventurous and experimental task, where we meet beings we never expected to meet, explore places and ideas we never wanted to go, and come back gifted, broken and remade. I believe that both these phases could combine and modify each other to make for ways of living with the world that are wiser, more creative and kinder. Or at least make for the kind of poetry you’d want to read!

    But also there is new poetry. The essays will be called Unwilding, but there will be a collection inspired by the local earth-spirit, the duende of this place. Here is a bit from one of the new poems:

    The garden speaks in sow thistle, mudstone
    spider and slug. I say to it ‘apple trees’.
    It says ‘elecampane’. It says roses here,
    not there. Leaf cutter and chafer live there.
    It gives me couch grass, bistort, ground ivy,
    red clover, buttercup, magpie, fox. I live here
    west of the sun, east of the moon. Orion
    strides up the wrong face of the sky’s hill.

    It will have the wild apple trees, the brambles and elder, and the voices of the burns – most local fairy creatures in Scotland live in water, not on the land, it would appear. It will probably have mines and metalworks, as I discover more about the past, monks and evangelical preachers, there’s a precedent for them, too. It will be called Wilding.

    The shadows beteen trees, rowan, hazelnut and beech. A grey squirrel is seen through an arch made by a fallen branch.

  • Make It New

    bureau desk, with leather insert

    This is the desk on which I wrote my Masters dissertation more than thirty years ago. I had a friend with a word processor who typed it up for me – that’s how much things have changed. I had very poor typing skills and no computer skills at all, and honestly thought that computers would have no impact on my life in any way.

    Anyway, this desk was bought with my very last salary as a teacher, and sat in a corner, bruised and battered and looking very neglected. During lockdown 2 I finally sanded and varnished it and ordered a new insert which my husband put in for me, because my hands are too shaky for knives as sharp as all that. It will never look new, or even like a cherished antique, but it looks as though I love it, and I do.

    This second phase of level 4 has been very hard, but in the way that mending a broken leg is hard. Tough as it is, it is possible to see strength and flexibility returning, recovering lost joy in free movement. Through it I have had to come to a deeper understanding of what inspires me, what I’m able to do, and, crucially, what I’m not. I had spread myself very thin, tried to follow so many different enthusiasms and causes, and battled with doubt and despair more than I allowed myself to notice. But this paring down of life and opportunity made me rest (goodness, that’s hard!) and look at where my heart is, the work that gives me satisfaction and joy, and how to deepen it so that I do it as well and as thoroughly as it deserves.

    But it reminded me of how much love and joy there is in my life, in my kitchen, my garden, the territory of rain, in the writing about place and poetry that delights me, the friends who strengthen me and the people who so kindly tell me they like what I do. I feel a bit like my desk, sanded down a bit, and refurbished – made new.

    There will be new poetry next year – some of mine, and at least two new books by poets I’m excited to be working with, a fresh look for the newsletter (more of that later) and more reviews for the blog, and maybe a workshop or two. Plus territory pictures and herbs as usual, that isn’t stopping any time soon. I do hope you will join me!

    robin in a birch tree


  • Maquis, Machair, Mearc

    snowdrop hedgeYou can just see the snowdrops coming out in the garden, and there is a blink of yellow in the witch hazel buds, though I think it will take another week of warm weather for them to develop. And according to the forecast, we’re not getting that any time soon. So I have been thinking a bit about the more theoretical and poetic aspects of the herb project.

    The eleventh design principle of permaculture is to ‘use edges and value diversity’ – you can find the rest here if you’d like to follow them up. The reason is that where two sectors overlap, the border region shares characteristics of both, and can support more (species, ideas, artforms, activities) than either sector by itself. Permaculture design in landscape tends to create a lot of margins, most notably in the iconic herb spiral, specifically to maximise the different crops which can be grown in a small space.

    Herbs are a great example of being on the edge. Herbs touch borders on a practical level with cooking, fabric crafts, housekeeping, medicine, magic, animal husbandry, but also culturally with values of simplicity, authentic living, connection with nature, feminism, healing, spirituality, value for the senses and the body, recovery of one’s personal identity, resistance, repentance, wildness, renewal. There’s a lot of potential in herbs, for all sorts of reasons. I’m going for a dander along the edges of the garden, the roadside, the riverbank – and the uncanonical margins of the poetry world.

    Now here I have to admit that I have been somewhat seduced by language. The headline of this post is a coincidental resemblance I’ve had in my head for some years, and it may be spurious. I was thinking of borderland country, marginal, a bit precarious, but which is charcterised by a wealth of flowering plants, and surprising survivals – black bees on the machair of Coll, or the French resistance, that sort of thing. But the maquis isn’t the fragrant hillside, full of bees and lavender and sage and hyssop. That’s the garrigue. And the mearc is a more political thing – the badlands where law doesn’t run, and monsters may lurk among the outlaws. The British equivalent of the machair is the hedgerow, with its associations with foraged herbs, sloes and blackberries, and also the hedge witch, the hedge school, the tramps and vagabonds. But all of these borderland places have surprising riches and revelations. They are places that should be cherished wisely.

    S

     


  • Remembering

    IMG_3125Over the years I’ve blogged a few times about war. I’ve even written a couple of war poems. You can find one here, a true story from my childhood about a neighbour who served in the first world war. Another poem, Hugh’s Farewell to Arms is about a friend who served in the second world war. The poem was published in Southlight 16 and you can find Hugh’s story on this post from 2010.

    I said then what I felt about the resurgence of armistice day sentiment, and that repugnance has only grown stronger over the last four years, as we are becomingever more willing to send our young people to die for us, more ready to sign away our personal freedoms, more fearful of strangers and less open to considering other ways of responding to conflict.

    My personal hero Chretien de Chergé was able to live in a society mauled by aggression and civil conflict without surrendering his principles or demonising those of his enemies, and to die for his beliefs without asking for anyone else to be punished for it. His death, along with those of his confreres in Algeria was the subject of a film called Of Gods and Men, which I reviewed here when it came out. After I posted this  a young Algerian engineer got in touch, keen to continue a peaceful dialogue, and we are in touch to this day. And in his name and in the name of all the brave men who answered their country’s call but who rejected the bragadoccio and the mercilessness of war, I am celebrating today by wearing a white poppy, and joining Pax Christi – an organisation that works to promote peace and reconciliation. I’ve got to the pint where I can’t do anything else.

     


  • Carrying the Songs Moya Cannon

    Reading this book was like coming home. The subject range is very familiar – landscape, language, home, emigration, music. There are a good number of poems I wish I’d written – Carrying the Songs, First Poetry, To Colmcille Returning, and even one, Pollen, that I swear, I was just about to write. But it wouldn’t have been as good.

    Moya Cannon is a more thoughtful poet than I am, more orderly, less fidgety and compressed. And there’s more personality – by which I don’t mean self-disclosure, but more of a persona, a sense of a fully engaged mind and heart, not just observing, but responding to her observations. Her poetry is more informal and irregular than mine:
    Have I stooped so low as to lyricise about heather,
    adjusting my love
    to fit elegantly
    within the terms of disinterested discourse?
    (Hills),
    whihch meant I had a hard time with the metre until I read it aloud, and then was won over completely.

    A sense emerges throughout the book of an irrevocable change through a rational education and emphasis on abstract thought, of a loss of capacity for faith, which leaves us withdimished means to articulate the power of landscape, home, heritage and community exerts upon us. Moya Cannon’s poetry is a magnificent attempt to redress this. Landscape and sea dominate the book – hills, wells, nests, shells, and the survivals of bones, nuts and pollen. Migration, loss and persistence shape many poems, the movement of birds, of people, of songs, and of language. The loss of language is the loss of identity (Forgetting Tulips, Murdering the Language) or relationship(No Sense in Talking). But words are carried, transformed, persist and re-emerge in place-names,(Oughterard Lemons) in local idioms(Banny), and in loan-words to other languages(Augers).
    There are small unassaible words
    that diminish Caesars;
    territories of the voice
    that intimte across generations
    how a secret was imparted –
    that first articulation,
    when a vowel was caught
    between a strong and a tender consonant
    when someone, in anguish
    made a new and mortal sound
    that lived until now
    a testimony
    to waves succumbed to
    and survived.
    Toam


  • Pastoral Poetry

    One of the many upheavals in the cultural world over my lifetime has been a reappraisal of pastoral poetry. In my youth pastoral poetry was regarded as an artificial and rather sentimental construct – all these highly cultivated (and presumably rich) people pretending to live the simple life and envying the happy peasant his careless poverty. The Romantics, of course were regarded as different, seeing engagement with nature as a spiritual or intellectual adventure, with no sense of wish-fulfilment or nostalgia. It was all a bit macho then, and we went in for the hidden violence in Ted Hughes’ animal poetry (that thrush, for instance, a mechanical murderer, like something out of Terminator – what were we thinking?)

    Well, we weren’t entirely fair to the pastoral as a genre – though there’s something to hang onto in there; it’s awfully easy to slip into something that sounds as if it belongs in Country Living – pastoral poetry has a serious job to do, and we are in just the situation where we need it. Pastoral isn’t really about playing Marie Antoinette – a bucolic holiday for spoilt or disappointed urban readers. It is almost always written in response to a time of social and political upheaval. It is almost always about renegotiating what’s really important about human life, our place in the universe as individulas and as a species. And there is no doubt that this is what is driving so much of our writing and thinking. From geopoetics, eco-poetry, permaculture and transition, the revival of interest in crafts and slow food, to the upsurge in nature writing and deep ecology and earth-based spiritualities, we are really open to questions that pastoral poetry invites us to consider.

    I’ve written before about this in Wilderness Poetry, but I’ve just started working on a translation of Virgil’s Eclogues. It will take me ages. I’ve forgotten so much vocabulary, and I was always a bit slip-shod in my translations even when I was doing it all the time,but it’s fascinating to take so much time to concentrate on the weight of each word.

    Take ‘lentus’ in the fourth line of Eclogue 1, for instance. If you look it up quickly, you get ‘slow’ like in music, or ‘tough’ which are both a little bit weird in the context. If you go on (I got an enormous dictionary very cheap in a booksale at the Scottish Poetry Library) you get words like ‘fixed’, ‘inactive’, ‘lingering’. Are we insulting our rustic shepherd – slow-witted, inert, a bit thick? No, not really. Although Meliboeus is comparing his hasty flight into exile with Tityrus’ contented stay-at-home idyll, he is also talking about resilience, roots, belonging. To Virgil, as to many of us these days, stability comes with engagement with the earth; it is the foundation of a proper human life. Whether it is pleasant or peaceful or happy is not the point. There aren’t any guarantees or illusions about it. But as we get into the Eclogues we realise that in more than one way, we are ‘grounded’.



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