BurnedThumb

Website of poet Elizabeth Rimmer


The Territory of Rain


  • 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!


  • 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.


  • Mixed Messages

    Ochil hills light snow, mist

    We do have snow today, a mere icing sugar sift over the garden, already melting and inclined to slush. More is forecast tonight, and temperatures will drop to -5 (Centigrade – if you are in the US, this is a relatively balmy 25 degrees, but it’s increasingly rare here). But just now it is above freezing, and as I came in from the supermarket, there was a great tit singing as if spring had already been promised.

    The Thaw
    Just two degrees of difference.
    The air softens and dulls, grass blurs.
    The privet heights are quick with sparrow-bustle,
    blackbird hop, wren flit, a new colony
    born in craic and kerfuffle.

    A great tit trapezes birch-stems
    nibbling the catkin sheaths,
    the see-saw strop of ‘teacher, teacher,’
    sharpens the morning, adding fizz
    to spring’s still coolness.

    Ebb-tide is swimming with ducks,
    upended, spinning, suddenly noisy.
    Paired swans, humped leavings of snow,
    melt into the drained river.
    The slick banks slump into silty furrows.

    Damp is gathering with the first drift of rain.
    Earth relaxes ice-bound muscles,
    lets out the sharp sour stink of thaw –
    mud and leaf-mould, and frost-burned grass
    collapsing into wetness, rot, fertility.

    This poem comes from Wherever We Live Now, my first collection which came out in 2011. It is officially out of print, but I do have a few copies here. The same goes for The Territory of Rain, which seems to be getting a bit of attention, because it is the collection that is most landscape based of all my work. This poem featured in The Nature Library’s most recent newsletter.

    A House for Winter

    The sky opens blue windows
    between shutters of grey cloud.
    Winter peers in.

    Brittle sunshine slants
    between skeletonised trees,
    thin relict leaves at twig tips.

    A breath of frost melts
    on the cold frame, split curls
    of seedpods glued to the glass.

    The dark glassy river is choked
    with panes of broken ice,
    curdled with falls of new snow.

    The warm pigeon-feathered hollow
    between railway bridge and river,
    is a pot a-bubble with soft coos.

    A white snow-mist climbs
    the black walls of the hill.
    Winter settles in.

    I am getting mixed messages from the weather today, as in so much else!


  • 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


  • Turning into Winter

    skein of geese against a blue sky

    Winter here is a time of opening out, rather than closing in. When the leaves begin to fall, great gaps open in our horizons and we can see further out across the fields and towards the hills out eastward and the castle to the west. Evenings and mornings, skeins of geese fly over the house, west in the mornings towards Flanders Moss, southeast at night, down the river to Batterflats and Skinflats. The light is dimming by half-past three, and it is dark by five. There are fieldfares – one crashed into our bedroom window last week – and redwings, quarrelling with migrant blackbirds for the last of the rowan berries and I heard three robins singing against each other in the early twilight across the river, and long-tailed tits peeping to each other in the hedges. The fields have been ploughed, and some of them have already been sown. The deer sometimes come back to the riverbank now the building work has finished. There have been frosts, heavy rain, and some very strong winds.

    Gardening is all but finished for the winter. Only the marigolds are still pushing out the last few rain-battered flowers, and the first winter jasmine has appeared.

    winter jasmine in flower against a wall

    I am about to package up the seeds I saved – marigolds, evening primrose, teasel, nigella, and the tiny seeds of nicandra physalodes (the shoo-fly plant), which are hidden in its exotic papery seedcase, which you can see here, stained with inky blue. I have put it in a vase with honesty teasel and nigella seedheads because it will keep that dramatic colour through the winter.

    nicandra, showing flowers and seed-cases

    My attention has turned to indoor activities, cooking, learning to make sourdough bread, thinking about Christmas (already? I know!) and planning sewing projects for the dark nights, and new poetry and herbal blogposts for the new year. But there is still plenty of autumn colour,

    Birch tree, lots of golden leaves

    and plenty of berries for the migrating birds. These are cotoneaster berries, which might even attract waxwings if the weather is cold enough. Far from shutting up shop, the territory of rain is opening its doors to winter.

    cotoneater berries

  • Older Books

    book cover
    Wherever We Live Now 2011
    book cover
    The Territory of Rain 2015
    book cover
    Signs of the Times 2017

    All of these books have reached the point where the publisher no longer holds any copies. However, I still have some, so if you want them you can still get them from me via the shop. (You can find poems from them on my poetry page, if you would like to try a sampler.) Wherever We Live Now and The Territory of Rain are still on the database at shops like Waterstones and Foyles, but any requests would still have to come to me, so why not approach me directly, and get signed copies? I don’t charge for postage and packing within the UK, and though the shop runs on PayPal, I can accept other methods of payment if you email me via the contact form.

    You can still get Haggards from the new Red Squirrel Press website.


  • Back from the Holidays

    DSCF1008While the English are still in the middle of their summer holidays, our school-children are going back to school today. Disappointing as this is, when the weather has only just improved, there does seem to be an appropriate feel to it. The blue tits are back in the garden, there’s a grey squirrel pinching the last of the strawberries, there are goosanders on the river again, and the sound of geese in the sky at night. These are not the winter migrants, I am told, but the resident ones dispersing after the breeding season, but you know there’s change afoot when you hear them calling. The very young black-headed gulls have their winter plumage, and the rowans are red, even on our tree which is usually the last. The colours are autumn-bright, the mullein is in flower and the first japanese anemone is out. And there are feathers on the grass. Some of these are from the moult which most birds go through at this time of year – the sparrows are looking particularly ragged just now – but sometimes they are not. Sometimes you get a scatter of feathers in one place, and you know that the sparrowhawk is back. It’s a turning point in the year.

    DSCF1009

    The garden has done surprisingly well, all things considered. So many of my herbs come with the warning – needs good drainage, likes sun, hates sitting in cold wet soil. And this summer in Scotland has been cold – seldom over 15 degrees, and extremely wet. And yet, most things have flourished. The chervil hasn’t – it seems to have disappeared altogether, and the seed coriander has been a disaster. There are rushes growing in the pot! I think one of the neighbourhood cats chose that particular spot for territory marking – it certainly didn’t smell like coriander!

    It has to be said that the garden hasn’t had much love form me lately. That has mostly gone to the NHS, where, thankfully, answers have been found and diagnoses made, and solutions are on their way. But poetry has come back from its holidays too. The proofs of The Territory of Rain have been signed off, and I’ve had a first look at the cover. And I will be reading tonight at the StAnza showcase as part of the Just Festival in Edinburgh. It’s a weird time to start a new year, but I’m ready.

     


  • Hunger Mountain by David Hinton

    The subtitle of this short book of essays is A Field-Guide to Mind and Landscape, and it was written by the man who published the translations of Classical Chinese poetry which I wrote about in a post called Wilderness Poetry. Hunger Mountain is a study of Chinese poetics, closely bound up with Taoist and Zen philosophy, It is concerned with the transience and mutability of ‘the hundred thousand things’ comprising the universe, and rejects the idea of a separate with-held observing self. We are the universe, and there is no actual distinction between human, animal, mountain, bird, sky.

    This is a point of view made very familiar in Kenneth White’s concept of geo-poetics – that a poet should write as if the universe was writing, as if earth, river, trees were simply earth, river and trees and not extended metaphors (or stage settings) for what is going on in the human mind and heart. I like this a lot – in fact, most of The Territory of Rain was written under the influence of this kind of thinking. We need the sense and knowledge of our environmental context as much as an understanding of psychology or politics and economics. But I’m finding a few reservations as I go deeper into the poetics of the next book.

    Kenneth White has often been accused of a lack of interest, even of contempt for the human mind and heart, which he denies, pointing out that writing itself implies the presence of a mind in the landscape. David Hinton makes it obvious that what humans think and feel is related to what happpens in the world around us, given the enormously destructive impact of our industrial utilitarian philosophy on the other species on this planet.This is a vital redressing of the balance when politics and market forces combine to see the environment as a romantic consolation, a resource to be exploited, or (worst of all) a treasure or a treat for the elite to keep for themselves. But if so, what we think and feel is as much part of the universe and its continual transformation as autumn or the phases of the moon. If we are the universe writing, are we not the universe grieving, loving, building, fighting, forgiving?

    Poetry has to be more than redressing a balance, more than drawing overlooked insights to a flagging attention. What poetry needs is to provide a way of negotiating the dialogue of consciousness and the environment, a transforming deep and intimate relationship rather than a dissolution into an undifferentiated cosmic morass.

    One interesting sideline of this book is that David Hinton draws attention to several women poets in the Classical Chinese tradtion. I had not previously realised that women had particpated at all in what has been presented very much as a masculine ethos. But far from it. Some of them were among the most radical and original of the whole period, a quietly pleasing reflection to finish with.

     


  • The Territory of Rain

    You can pretty much walk across the pond on the rafts of frogspawn there are floating in it. Rabbits are chasing each other like greyhounds around their warren site on the river bank. Geese are heading north and wrens are yelling from every treetop as if it was may. You’d think there was something going on.

    Well there is. There are still a few ancillary tweaks and administrative bits and bobs to be added, but the manuscript of The Territory of Rain is finished, and almost ready to be submitted. Here is the introduction I’ve written to go on the cover:

    Elizabeth Rimmer was born in Liverpool of Irish heritage and moved to Scotland in 1977, where she has grown herbs, brought up a family and studied for a MLitt on Medieval Romances. She has been active in eco-literary movements such as the Dark Mountain project and the Scottish Centre for Geopoetics, and her poetry has been widely published in magazines and on-line. Her first poetry collection Wherever We Live Now was published by Red Squirrel Press in 2011.
    The Territory of Rain, set in the village in the Forth Valley where she has lived for the last thirty-two years, is her second collection, and deals with the different ways humans make their homes in a particular landscape – their observations and interactions with it, the structures they build or abandon within it, the myths they create about it, and the way they shape and are shaped by it through what happens to them there.

    All being well, it should come out at the beginning of September.



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