Flowers they fade

Oriental poppyThree years ago, a packet of Californian poppy seeds, tipped nonchalantly into my flowerbed, yielded a passable crop of quite ordinary (dare I say, boring) plain cream and yellow flowers.

However, it turned out that the packet had included a flamboyant intruder – an Oriental, its deep purple heart surrounded by scarlet petals with frilly edges. There was just one bloom, and when it died I shook out the seeds from the pod, kept them in a brown envelope over the winter and sowed them the following year. Nothing happened. By the year after, I’d forgotten them, thinking they were dead.

This year – surprise! One oriental poppy sprang up from the earth. It flowered, again and again, each bloom staying no more than two days before the petals fell. It seemed a waste of such beauty, to last so short a time.

But it made me think of a poem by D.H. Lawrence, called ‘Fidelity’, contrasting flowers and gemstones. Of flowers he says:

O flowers they fade because they are moving swiftly;
a little torrent of life
leaps up to the summit of the stem, gleams,
turns over round the bend
of the parabola of curved flight,
sinks, and is gone, like a comet curving into the invisible.

O flowers, they are all the time travelling
like comets, and they come into our ken
for a day, for two days, and withdraw, slowly vanish again.

And we, we must take them on the wing, and let them go.

He might easily have been talking about my Oriental poppies. There really is a parabolic curve in the stem, where it bends over and ends in a hanging bud. Then the ‘torrent of life’ bursts into a spectacular flash of red. 36 hours later it’s just a naked seed pod, looking embarrassed to be on show, while the frilly-edged petals lie on the ground like feathers from a firebird.

I was lucky enough to catch sight of a shooting star in the Perseid meteor shower earlier this month. It had zigzagged across the eastern sky and disappeared in a split second. A comet, of the sort that D.H. Lawrence mentions, might be visible in the sky for a few weeks, even though it is actually travelling at great speed.

He’s right, though – we can’t hold on to a flower for ever. Its fleeting nature is part of its beauty, its essence as a flower. A photo can’t match the reality, and when winter comes and the flowerbed is bare, its brilliance will be almost unimaginable.

For this year, I must ‘take it on the wing, and let it go’. But you can be sure I’ll have kept plenty of seeds in a brown paper envelope.

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Wordsworth – puzzling poet

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Ullswater, Lake District

William Wordsworth – do I like him or not? I first started asking myself that question when I read a small selection of his poems for my O Level English exam, and then a few more for A Level. A recent visit to his home, Dove Cottage in Grasmere, central to the beautiful Cumbrian Lake District, got me thinking again.

I remember being both enchanted and suitably scared by the part of ‘The Prelude’ where he describes the Gothic horror of seeing a huge cliff-face rising before his eyes as he rows a stolen boat across a lake. The simple, poignant Lucy poems, about a young woman who lives and dies unnoticed by most of the world, were just as emotionally confusing. To read this stuff was like opening doors in a fascinating but creepy old house. Being a slightly depressive child and teenager, there was something I recognised in this melancholy beauty. I identified with it and felt its pull – but wished not to.

When I read now, as a happier adult, I can see that his constant focus on solitude is what makes me inwardly shiver. I think of poor dead Lucy, who ‘dwelt among the untrodden ways’. In the aftermath of the boat-stealing, his mind is overcast by ‘a darkness, call it solitude / Or blank desertion’. And to top it all, we have ‘The Solitary Reaper’, singing her songs of ‘old, unhappy, far-off things’ alone in an echoing valley.

Wordsworth insists on painting a picture of solitude even when, in fact, it wasn’t so. I learnt from the Dove Cottage tour guide that although, in his most famous poem, he ‘wandered lonely as a cloud’, the inspiration for those words actually came from a lakeside walk accompanied by his sister Dorothy. He was no hermit: he shared that small home with his wife, his sister and his sister-in-law. Their many visitors included Walter Scott, Robert Southey and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. He had five children. He seems to have been quite a gregarious fellow, fully involved in life, and yet his poetry tells a different story.

Setting these gripes aside, though, there are things I admire him for. He wrote mostly about ordinary everyday life, not old myths or abstract intellectual ideas. He was a keen observer of the natural world on his doorstep and of the way it made him feel. He was mindful, living in the moment, in touch with his emotional responses to people and places and objects; and his skill in painting word-pictures that pierce straight through into a reader’s heart and mind was unsurpassed. All of these qualities I can appreciate, being a haiku poet myself.

What’s more, I have to admit that, for a poet I ‘don’t like’, his words are as memorable as those of Shakespeare, D.H. Lawrence or Gerard Manley Hopkins, all of whom I do like. Whenever I stand on a bridge overlooking the River Thames in London, the words from his sonnet, ‘Earth has not anything to show more fair’, are right there at the front of my mind. The daffodils poem is one of the very few that I can recite from memory in its entirety (that is, as long as I say it in the rhythm of the song I learnt at school), and I always think of it in spring-time. Somewhere inside me, the melancholy teenager can still recognise a sympathetic mind.

So, William Wordsworth – do I like him or not? The answer’s yes – and no.

 

 

 

 

 

Cinquain 15

Bees wait
for tangled scent
of flowers yet to bloom;
I wait too, smelling only earth
and rain

Seedlings

Cinquain 14

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Stop. Look.
Arrested by
the neon glare of red
and yellow bold and bedazzling
tulips

Framed

When we first viewed the house whLizard room window viewere we now live, it felt right as soon as we stepped in at the front door. After checking out the living-room and kitchen, we climbed a flight of stairs to the middle floor and another to the top, where two bedrooms were built into the roof space. As I looked out of one of the narrow windows next to the sloping ceiling, across the neighbours’ back gardens to the green and blue stripes of fields and sky beyond and above, I suddenly felt tears prickling the back of my eyes. That’s when I knew for sure that this was the house I wanted us to buy.

Since then, a line of five wind turbines has been planted in one of those fields, right on the horizon. Luckily for me, I’m one of the few people who think they’re beautiful, not an eyesore. Perfectly framed in the top floor window, they catch the light each morning, glowing white against the sky.

Through the same high window, I can often spy on a pigeon or crow perched shakily at the end of the neighbour’s rooftop TV aerial, flapping its tail feathers to keep its balance. Each month, on a cloudless night, the full moon shines through, and every other month the window offers a perfect view of the International Space Station gliding across the sky at the end of its journey from west to east.

I do like windows. I even like paintings with windows in them – a frame within a frame. Especially from high up, looking out and across, there’s a sense of having an expansive view of the world outside.  And yet… as I stand in front of our top-floor window, I’m aware that the sounds outside – the rumble of passing traffic, the barking of a small dog, the squawks from the car park rookery – are muffled. I notice the hedges and tree-tops shivering in the breeze but I don’t feel the wind on my face. I see grey-bottomed clouds but I can’t smell the rain in the air.

The pane of glass that gives me access to the world outside also detaches me from it.

I’m sure it does you good to escape to the top floor sometimes and spend a few minutes staring out of a window. It clears your head and helps you to chill out in the middle of a busy day. But it’s also great to be involved in the world at ground level – and for that, a window isn’t good enough. You have to get out of the door.

Cinquain 13

These days
between seasons –
crows circle their old nests,
wings braced against the buffeting
windstorm

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The Force Awakens, or, Another New Hope

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Warning: minor spoilers ahead…

 

It took a bit of cajoling to get my 14-year-old niece to see Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens. A whole generation ago, I queued up, also aged 14, to see the very first film, Episode IV: A New Hope, with its groundbreaking special effects and full orchestral soundtrack.

For those of us who were teenagers or children when Star Wars first began, this new film was bound to be partly a nostalgia trip, with the three leading actors returning 40 years older. But would it also succeed in taking the story on into a future that we were interested enough to enter?

Many critics have commented on the plot similarities between Episodes VII and IV. The droid escaping with vital information, then rescued from scrap dealers, is both R2-D2 and BB-8. The talented young pilot tied to an unfulfilling job on a desert planet is both Luke and Rey. The secondary hero who abandons the rebel cause, only to return when he realises how much he’s needed, is both Solo and Finn. Starkiller Base is just another Death Star, destroyed this time almost with a flick of the wrist by the same little old X-wings.

So the film seems heavily weighted on the side of the past. The grief of the decades since the defeat of the Empire certainly burdens Han Solo, Leia Organa and (so we’re told) Luke Skywalker. Han has lost his youthful cockiness, replacing it with looks and gestures that say clearly ‘I’m past caring.’ The new characters struggle just as hard to leave old identities behind: Rey is held on Jakku by the empty hope that her family will return, and Finn is haunted by his stormtrooper upbringing. Meanwhile, Kylo Ren resists the call of the light by praying to a relic – Darth Vader’s melted helmet.

Even the film’s central non-living ‘character’, the Millennium Falcon, is heavy and cumbersome on her first outing, barely able to get off the ground. For me, though, the Falcon is the fulcrum on which the scales turn. This neglected piece of ‘garbage’ is an emblem of a mythical past, but, once unveiled, unshackled and soaring into space again, she remains the most beautiful starship in the galaxy, with the potential to carry forward an exciting reawakened hope.

My favourite new character, the wise seer Maz Kanata, is the one who voices the change of focus from past to future, telling Rey, ‘The belonging you seek is not behind you; it is ahead.’ The word ‘nostalgia’ means literally ‘home-sickness’. It’s tempting always to hark back to the well-loved homes of years gone by, but if the new trilogy is to capture our hearts in the long term, it needs to lead us to unfamiliar places that we can also call home.