BurnedThumb

Website of poet Elizabeth Rimmer


The Well of the Moon


  • 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!


  • The Gift of Sovereignty

    Once upon a time I did a Masters in Medieval Literature about the concept of the hero in The Matter of Britain under the excellent supervision of the wonderful Felicity Riddy. It didn’t cover King Arthur, but it did include characters who were extremely famous for several centuries, but who have dropped off the current radar – King Horn, Bevis of Hampton and Guy of Warwick – also the baffling anti-hero Richard the Lionheart. If you are into the Marvel and DC films, you will probably find the stories familiar. I wanted to subtitle the chapter about Richard: ‘Don’t make me angry – you wouldn’t like me when I’m angry’. Guy of Warwick is disconcertingly like Captain America, and Bevis is probably closer to the Green Arrow, but you get the point. Secret identities, trials of strength, exile and return in disguise, dramatic captures and suffering, frequent rescues of the beloved, restoration of order, happy ever after.

    We came to the conclusion that these are maturation stories – how to grow up and take your place in the world. I started reading Jung, and realised that his take on the process was very different from the old romance writers. In Jung’s world, a boy (don’t get me started about his take on women) first learns how to operate and succeed in the social and material spheres, building a career, establishing himself in society, and then tackles the inner work of building intimate relationships or spiritual maturity. For the medievals, the work of growing up came first, love and mature relationships within the family are part of the process, and social and personal success, symbolised by kingship, comes as a reward for self-mastery.

    I haven’t thought about this much over the last thirty years, but it has been forcibly brought to my attention lately. The concept of kingship as theatre and sleight of hand, while actual power becomes harder hold to account, has been forced on us over the last few weeks, and it isn’t particularly interesting. We are plagued with a breed of politicians who do not recognise the need to regulate their own desires and behaviour. Demands are made of us to pledge loyalty to people who do not recognise the responsibility and mutuality of relationships. This is not sovereignty as any other society defines it. It is the politics of the playground. But the concept of ‘sovereignty’ (abused as it has been by the brexit debate) has something to offer.

    In folktales and ballads of the ‘loathly lady’ type, we see the trope of ‘sovereignty’ as the woman getting her own way. If she is indulged and obeyed, she becomes beautiful and loving, and the treatment is often comic. But it has a more positive aspect. Loathly lady stories show a demand for women to be respected as autonomous human beings, with the rights to judge situations, pursue desires, set boundaries and make decisions, even in marriages which may have been undertaken as a political expedient or acquisition of power. The loathly lady doesn’t have to conform to conventional standards of beauty or manners. She doesn’t have to apologise for having needs. But she is able to negotiate.

    The maturation processes of women may not be as different from those of men as Jung thought, but they do often have different arenas to learn in. We might learn to be loathly ladies rather than kidnapped princesses, and I’m thinking about it, particularly as I share The Well of the Moon more widely, which has a fair few of them in it. And we might think a bit more about what we mean by sovereignty in most of our relationships, remove it from the sphere of narcissistic testosterone-fuelled ‘heroes’ and claim it for ourselves, personally and politically.


  • 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?


  • The Place of the Fire

    fireplace at Tappoch broch, ashes overgrown with fern and bramble

    This is from Tappoch Broch near Larbert. The hearthplace is clearly still used every now and then by people camping out, and I found that continuity rather moving when we visited last September. The hearth as a metaphor for home has a long history, so I have chosen it as a reference for the new territory, although we are moving to a modern house with no actual fireplace. I will have to have a firepit outside! Fire struck me as a good reference point, because it is in a coal-mining area with a long tradition of ironworking, and I was already thinking of fire while I was finishing The Well of the Moon.

    It is a more hilly place than here, and on higher ground – though nothing spectacular. The territory of rain is at sea level, and the place of the fire is only about a hundred feet above, but it makes a difference. The new house faces east/west rather than north/south, and the garden is more open to the sky, without our tall hedges. I expect I will miss the sparrows! There are plenty of oak and beech and hawthorn trees, some ash, but not, as far as I have seen, many willows – which I will miss – but I don’t think the land is much drier. Maps show several drainage ditches emptying into a network of burns flowing down towards the Clyde. I haven’t yet had too much opportunity to explore, partly because of activity here, but mostly because I’ve had a bad flare-up of my rheumatoid arthritis, which has made it difficult to walk. (It’s getting better now, luckily.) You will see a lot more about it when I do, however, under the Place of the Fire category.

    This is also going to be the catchall for my next writing projects. The publication of The Well of the Moon, and the move prompted me to focus more on how I work and what else I might do. There is a whole new look planned for this website, with an extra page for non-fiction. It will cover the process of settling into a new landscape, and the issues it throws up for learning to belong in new communities, but will also cover the research I have done on herbs, poetics and the philosophy behind it all.

    seedheads of thistle, dock and hogweed

    It won’t be long now. We have started clearing the old house, which is gradually filling up with cardboard boxes. I’ve packed twenty boxes of books already (including David Morley’s Fury, which is why I haven’t yet posted my review of it!) and there are ten still to do, although Callander Bookshop got an awful lot. The herbs to go have been potted up, the kitchen is next, and the dreary process of informing everybody who needs to know the change of address has started. It’s all beginning to feel real, and a lot more exciting!


  • A Sup from the Well

     A geo, deep cliffs tide flowing in
    The Gloup

    I think of The Well of the Moon as a transitional book, perhaps more personal than the previous ones, certainly more ‘human’. There are a few poems about the brain-glitches that happened under stress, in revisiting painful memories or under medication (for migraines in this instance), glitches that made me feel lost, depersonalised, not properly ‘a person’.

    The genesis of the book was an incident in 2017 when, for about a minute and a half, I literally lost my mind. This phenomenon has a posh name, transient global amnesia, which is – to use the technical language of the doctor who gave me a check-up afterwards, ‘a weird stressy kind of thing that happens in your brain’. It passed almost before I had time to notice, but I got fascinated by what was in it when I got it back – the kind of things that let you know who you are – language, perception, memories, connections of all sorts, work, and artistic expression. It made me focus on how important questions of connection and communication are to my work.

    There is a lot of all those things in the book. I’ve used Old English and Oriental verse forms, and included translations from Latin, Old Norse and Old English. There are folklore references from Greece, Rome, Ireland and Iceland, and some local archaeology from the village of Cambuskenneth where I live.

     In spite of the dramatic opening, I hope it is mostly a joyous and hopeful book. I’ve revelled in all the connections and expressions of creative responses to the world I’ve found, and though it wasn’t possible to avoid the whole pandemic upheaval completely, with all the troublesome issues it threw up, I do hope I’ve crafted a way through and out.

    Here’s a taster, from the first section, Thought and Memory. The geo in the picture is The Gloup in Orkney.

    Geo

    This place reminded me of home,
    but wasn’t, though the red Victorian
    tenements looked right. Then I was gone.
    My memory emptied itself like a geo
    between tides, leaving wet echoing cliffs,
    and glimpses of small damp things making
    for the dark safety of the crumbling rock –
    and the words, ‘I haven’t lived there for years.’

    The broken paving slabs were solid under
    boot-soles, street lights changed from red
    to green. The empty husk of me walked on,
    even talked, I think, but showed distress,
    not knowing who was walking.
    It asked itself how old it was, and how
    did it keep walking with no-one in it?

    A rising roaring tide – salt, heavy, bitter –
    flowed in, filled up the empty caverns
    with time and place, the weather of the day,
    the busy sandstone Ibrox street. 
    Memories like kittiwakes alighted
    on ledges in the rock, and made their nests.

    Not knowing how old I was turned out to be really odd. It would appear that knowing your age is much more than knowing how to behave in an age-appropriate way.

    A narrow dark burn cascading over rocks
    The Logie Burn before it flows into the Forth

    I’ll be writing more about geos next time – Jen Hadley has a Shetlandic Gyo in her fabulous new book The Stone Age, which I want to discuss.


  • That Spring Feeling

    Wren on a pot of ivy

    The birds are teasing me this year. Wrens and blue tits have checked the pot out several times, but they are just eating the spiders and moving on. There are plenty of birds actually nesting here though – blackbirds, tree sparrows, robins, blue tits and great tits, chaffinches, and wrens – though where the wrens are I don’t know. There’s a male singing from the top of the birch tree and it’s already seen off two blackbirds and a couple of sparrows, but I can’t see where he goes. In fact the amount of (non-human) fornication and frolic in and around the garden has been unbelievable. Pigeons have been pushing each other off branches and rooftops for weeks, and there was a pair of wagtails chasing each other across the bridge.The frogs were late to the party, arriving only two weeks ago, but they were extremely prolific, and the tadpoles are growing nicely in spite of the frost and magpies who are nesting in next door’s big cypress tree, and all the other creatures who are likely to eat them.

    In spite of the frosts all this week and the sunshine most days after it, the ground is very dry, but the primroses and anemones have had a very good spring

    wind anemones

    and the woodruff and tulips are just coming into their own. There are bumble bees pollinating the gooseberry and redcurrant blossoms, and outside there is plenty of wild cherry and blackthorn flower. The trees are greening and the orchard is gearing up for its annual blossom carnival. The last of the pink-footed geese headed north on Tuesday and the chiffchaffs are here. I haven’t seen swallows yet, though some people nearby have, and the ospreys have arrived at the nearby reserves.

    Because of the housemove, I haven’t sowed too many seeds, and the garden is on care and maintenance only, but there arelettuces germinating in the greenhouse, and some annuals so the place doesn’t look too bereft once the bulbs are over. As the herbs begin to bulk up, I’ll be taking cuttings to take with us, but otherwise my effort is going into longterm planning for the next house, the next territtory I’ll be walking and getting to know. This tree has shaped so much of my perception of where I live now, it will be very odd to have different trees and birds. I notice that when I look at locations for potential houses, I always check for the nearest river!

    A big willow tree in a field, Abbey Craigs in the background

    Spring is hitting the poetry too lately. I am beginning to take bookings for when life opens up again, and there are two readings (one in June and one in October) and a potential workshop which I’ll talk more about nearer the time – no firm news about a launch of The Well of the Moon just yet – there is a lot of backlog to clear after all the chaos of the pandemic, but there will be more news as soon as I can share any. I am so looking forward to being out in the world again!


  • Change Gonna Come

    crocus tomasiana just opening

    These crocuses have burst out over the last weekend, and the birds are chasing each other over the garden. There is more birdsong every day, and I had washing on the line yesterday. So clearly, there are changes afoot.

    The first is that I submitted the manuscript of The Well of the Moon yesterday, and there will be news of publication soon. It feels like this book has been like an owl pellet, building up for what felt like ages, then coughed up all in a lump, and I’m still looking at it, wondering what it’s made of! I’ll be talking more about the many random things that somehow got tangled up in it over the next few weeks.

    The next is probably going to be much more of an upheaval. Both my husband and I have lifelong health conditions which make our current house less suitable for us, and after almost forty years, we are planning a move to be nearer our children. I am preparing the garden for other people to look after, and wondering how we will deal with all the books, cds, kit for hobbies and memorabilia we have managed to accumulate over the years. There is a lot of outgrown stuff to shed, as we go forward, more than possessions. Lockdown has given me a chance to think more about the kind of life that works for me, and being on buses and trains so much to see friends and get to poetry events isn’t part of it. I’m going to have to cut back on the things I get involved in, but hoping to be able to commit more deeply to those I choose to keep.

    I am researching good places to live, near green spaces and public transport links, and making plans to get to know a whole new territory, with its different microclimate and wildlife, new trees and rivers. The herbs are coming with me, of course, and the writing will go on, prose as well as poetry. I’m looking forward to the new perspectives change and rooting somewhere else will give us. And I look forward to being able to welcome people to the new homeplace we create.

    a clump of soft rush on a riverbank

  • Lockdown Birthday

    afternoon tea, with cakestands containing sandwishes, savouries cakes and meringues

    Everyone else has had to deal with the phenomenon of birthdays under lockdown conditions, and I was no exception. I was lucky in that my family had got their heads around the situation by now, and we had an amazing and very beautifully presented afternoon tea delivered by the excellent local firm Molly and Flo. Distant family members were on Zoom, and Celtic Connections was on line, and we watched the last episodes of Spiral, so all in all, it was the best birthday it could possibly have been under these conditions!

    I have been working on the last few poems and revising the manuscript for The Well of the Moon, and there will be a few readings – on line, as everything is likely to be for the rest of the year – dates to be confirmed later. Launches will be a very different experience this time – no squirrel cookies for a start! And no signings – though you will be able to buy copies via the Red Squirrel Press website, if you want signed copies, you will have to get them from my shop. (I am up for signing copies you bought elsewhere on those blessed days when we can finally be in the same room though.) I’m still not going to charge for P&P within the UK (and RSP doesn’t either), but I will have to look into the additional export costs of sending abroad (watch this space).

    Spring is on its way – there are blue tits and blackbirds singing already, the witch hazel is a golden blur, and I’ve started this year’s gardening. There is a serious lack of poetry chatter on this blog just now. I’m hoping things will improve shortly, as I’m reading plenty of stuff to be excited about, but there is also a big family thing going on that has absorbed a lot of my attention, and looks like doing so for a good while yet. Hopefully, there will be reviews, a bit of chatter about the more entitled style of criticism that seems to have reared its ugly head again and the usual stream of territory photos as soon as possible. And, very optimistically, a newsletter out in the next fortnight.

    tutsan throwing out new leaves


  • 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


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