6pm. Trowbridge Town Hall Arts, Trowbridge, Wiltshire
British eco-poet Helen Moorewill speak about and read from her new collection of poems, The Mother Country, published by Awen.
Optional theme for Open Mic: Belonging. Please join us to listen, read, converse.
Helen’s first two poetry collections are Hedge Fund, and Other Living Margins (Shearsman Books, 2012) and ECOZOA (Permanent, 2015), acclaimed by the Australian poet John Kinsella as ‘a milestone in the journey of ecopoetics’. Her new poetry collection explores British colonial history and themes of personal, social, and ecological dispossession.
Recently there has been an upsurge of interest in trees. Some of this arises from research done by Suzanne Simard that gives us a picture of what is now known as the Wood Wide Web; and building on this is the amazing book by Peter Wohlleben, The Hidden Life of Trees. There are now a great number of tree books around (of which some of the most inspiring and comprehensive are the three in a series by Fred Hageneder).
Japan has recently dedicated the equivalent of millions of pounds to the study and promotion of Shinrin-Yoku, forest-bathing, as a therapeutic aid to humans.
I myself have been leading a course called ‘Tongues in Trees’ for about five years now. In its most recent incarnation it’s a year–long online course, beginning at the winter solstice 2018, rooted in the Celtic tree ogham alphabet/calendar.
What joy, then, a few months into delivering this course, to receive a review copy of Glennie Kindred’s newest and most comprehensive tree book to date.
Kindred is the motherlode, or ‘hub tree’, of tree lore in the UK, and many people will know her several lovely, originally hand-made and -stitched, pamphlets, as well as books, on trees, plants, our relationship to the natural world, and earth wisdom more generally, all beautifully illustrated with her own drawings.
This new book is also graced with her images, which have the blended skills of loving observation and the accuracy that comes with close looking in tandem with magical insight and sensitivity. (You can buy the book, and prints, on Kindred’s website: http://glenniekindred.co.uk/)
There is not a lot that Kindred doesn’t know about trees. From this book, it’s also clear that the vast proportion of her knowledge is from her own depth of experience and communication with the tree realm. She doesn’t study them; rather she ‘builds a bridge’ to enter tree consciousness and brings back some of their gifts. ‘[M]ore than once I have found myself standing at the edge of my conditioning,’ she states in the Preface, ‘to sense an awareness of something more … a sense of communion and communication between myself and the plants and the trees, and an absolute certainty of the interconnectedness and sentience of all life.’
Walking with Trees describes what Kindred calls the ‘Council of Thirteen’: like myself, she goes with a 13-consonant Celtic ogham alphabet based on 13 native trees. (There is much disagreement about the number of ogham trees and some disagreement about their corresponding feadha, or letter-symbols.) She and I take slightly different perspectives in that one of her 13 is the beech tree, which is a later arrival on British shores (still several thousand years ago, of course), and is not associated with the Celtic uplands where one finds the other native trees, or with their mythology. However, I don’t disagree with her choice, and it’s true that, along with the small-leaved lime and the elm, beech marks an absence in the 13-month tree calendar that Robert Graves proposes and which resonates for so many of us.
Kindred’s book is ‘an urgent appeal to be part of the human changes that the Earth so badly needs us to make … The trees teach us. We learn from them; grow and expand, regenerate and deepen, as their wisdom permeates through to our depths and helps change us from the inside.’
I’m very much in tune with her perspective, especially at a time of global deforestation, and with the introduction of 5G ‘requiring’ that vast numbers of trees that are ‘in the way’ of receiving signals be felled.
My own tree course is an attempt to focus awareness on trees – in and of themselves, but also as utterly essential components in providing oxygen, keeping the hydrological cycle going, preventing soil erosion, offering habitat, shelter and foods for many millions of species of flora and fauna, offering medicines and foods to humans, and effecting positive changes to our immune systems.
They also act as mediators on a psychic level. By introducing people to the experience of being with individual tree species and trees, I hope to shift participants’ perspectives from the anthropocentric to the ecocentric via, in this case, the arbocentric.
Then, as we heal ourselves, so we heal our relationship with the other-than-human.
To learn to cherish, I believe, in anything other than the abstract, we need to know that which we wish to cherish; we need to be familiar with its ways; we need to learn to understand and love it. It would be very clear that Kindred has a deep love of and relationship with trees even if she didn’t declare it: ‘I can honestly say I’m in love with trees. They fill me with delight and awe in equal measure. I collect their leaves, blossom and fruit for my medicine cupboard and they gift me with layer upon layer of medicine for my soul. Being in their presence nurtures me, and the more sensitive and open I become to their sentience, the more levels of interaction and communication we exchange.’
The book is carefully constructed. Kindred divides each tree chapter into the characteristics, legends and folklore, and gifts as Part 1 for each species (and including information on growing the tree, plus food, medicines, and crafts associated with it); Part 2 focuses on both the wider picture of that tree in its environment, both physical and more subtle/energetic, and also inner-world correspondences, and the tree’s place in the Wheel of the Year. She includes notes on her own personal relationship with each tree. And each has several of Kindred’s relevant delicate drawings.
This is a book you’d be proud to have on your shelves – as inspiration, for information, as a thing of beauty.
Roselle Angwin is partway through writing a second book on trees and tree lore herself, partly inspired by spending some of each year in a magical Brittany forest associated with the Brocéliande of the Grail legends, which forms the subject of a preceding (as yet unpublished) book, and partly inspired by her Tongues in Trees teaching work.
A poem by Kevan Manwaring from his collection The Immanent Moment, posted on his blog in homage to his beloved motorbike that was mindlessly stolen and destroyed last week. It was his only transport and he is running a crowdfunder to help replace it.
Expect themes of mothers, environmentalism, postcolonialism & future generations.
Free entry, drinks available to purchase
The Mother Country by Helen Moore (Awen Publications, 2019)
Under English law a parent has the right to disinherit their offspring. The Mother Country – exploring British colonial history in Scotland and Australia, and themes of personal, social and ecological dispossession – is a poet’s response to being written out of her mother’s will.
Some contemporary scientists give the impression (whether deliberately or not) that the gap between what is known and what is yet to be discovered about life and the universe is too small to accommodate the existence of a deity. And yet, that gap remains and, to my mind, always will remain infinite.
From El Pensador Solitario by Alejandro Hijo de Nada
Alain Robbe-Grillet and Campbell McCluskie began their writing careers at roughly the same time, in the years immediately following the Second World War. Alain Robbe-Grillet started work on his first novel, Un Régicide, at the end of the 1940s, but it was not published until 1978. During the 1950s, he went on to write the four novels upon which his reputation rests: Les Gommes (The Erasers), Le Voyeur, La Jalousie, and Dans le Labyrinthe. His international reputation grew with the release of L’Année Dernière à Marienbad (Last Year at Marienbad), a film for which he wrote the screenplay and which was directed by Alain Resnais. Although little read in the United Kingdom, Alain Robbe-Grillet became highly regarded in the United States, where he taught in various universities. There is no evidence that he ever knew the work of Campbell McCluskie, although an obscure French writer, Edouard Charogne, who was briefly associated with the authors of the Nouveau Roman, did write an essay on McCluskie’s play Deeds and the Crow. It appeared in the journal Tel Quel in 1962, with an introduction by Philippe Sollers, so loaded with irony that it made both Charogne and McCluskie appear like figments of his imagination. Ian Alexander McDuffy, writing about Deeds and the Crow in his biography of McCluskie, rather overstated the impact the playwright had made on the writers of the Nouveau Roman.
McCluskie’s brief period of fame ended with his murder in 1954. In the following years, he was virtually forgotten. The revival of The Irresistible Rise of Tam McLean in the Glasgow Citizen’s Theatre in 1968 did little to restore his reputation, and for most people the playwright remains a rather spectral figure, akin to a character in an unpopular novel.
Outside the United Kingdom, Alain Robbe-Grillet never became as marginalised as Campbell McCluskie, but he fell under increasing criticism for the prominence in his films and novels of troubling scenes of sexual sadism. Some literary critics almost wrote him off. John Fletcher, for example, though recognising his importance in literary history, considered that his work in the 1970s had led him into a blind alley; that younger authors, like Ian McEwan, were taking the novel in fresh new directions. But even John Fletcher found promise in an autobiographical fragment written by Alain Robbe-Grillet in the late 1970s, which was later expanded into the book Le Miroir Qui Revient, translated as Ghosts in the Mirror. It is this unusual work of autobiography which I am going to consider now, and to compare with Ian Alexander McDuffy’s equally unusual biography, The Tragicall History of Campbell McCluskie; a book that remains sadly, for most people, the only way to experience McCluskie’s ground-breaking literary works.
“I have never spoken of anything but myself. From within and so this had hardly been noticed.” Such was how Alain Robbe-Grillet opened the short autobiographical fragment that was originally published in the late 1970s; a perfectly reasonable opening for an autobiography, but it appeared to the group of writers and intellectuals with whom he was linked at the time to be a flagrant betrayal of their orthodoxies. Radical literary theorists had argued that Robbe-Grillet’s work represented a complete break with the humanist concerns of conventional realist fiction. He was famous for his objective descriptions of objects. His characters were often reduced to mere cyphers indicated by the initial letters of names that were never given. They seldom had the invented pasts that readers traditionally demanded of literary characters. His novels were filled with repetitions of scenes, apparently unfolding in the present, with no indication of chronology, and none of the techniques used in conventional fiction to differentiate imagined or remembered scenes.
In his most famous novel, La Jalousie, the reader gradually comes to understand that the entire narrative, such as it is, is given from the point of view of the absent husband; the whole work being nothing more than the unfolding of his obsessive, jealous suspicion that his wife, A, is having or has had an affair with Franck, the owner of a neighbouring plantation. The husband repeatedly observes his wife through the venetian blind (in French, ‘jalousie’ – a pun lost in the English translation) covering her bedroom window, or he continually goes over the few occasions he has seen Franck with his wife, seeking any indications of her infidelity.
Robbe-Grillet’s work in the late 1960s and 1970s represented an even more radical break with traditional realism. The novels Topologie d’une Cité Fantôme (Topology of a Phantom City) and Souvenirs du Triangle D’or (Recollections of the Golden Triangle), published in 1976 and 1978, respectively, were assembled from various collaborations with visual artists which had been published earlier in that decade. Scenes and events seem to arise from nothing, unfold in a series of extraordinarily precise descriptions, and then shift abruptly to other scenes, to which they are only tenuously linked. There are human figures whose appearance and gestures are exactly described. They are given names, but they have no histories or character traits. They perform sometimes violent and sadistic acts, but without motive or passion. Scenes are repeated, with variations or expansions. There is no attempt at verisimilitude. There are no coherent plots, no single story moving towards a denouement; just a series of meticulously assembled and vividly evoked episodes; and yet for me these novels still have a haunting, hallucinatory and suggestive quality that is impossible to describe without repeating them word for word.
Alain Robbe-Grillet began Le Miroir qui Revient (Ghosts in the Mirror) by pointing out that everything had changed dramatically in the seven-year interval since the opening words of that autobiographical fragment were written. It was 1984. Clearly, in France, as in the UK, there had been a shift in society away from the radicalism of art, literature, music, and politics which had characterised the previous two decades. Conventional realism once again became the dominant form in literature and cinema, if not in art. Although it seems to me that this had more to do with the kind of capitalism that was being ushered in during the 1980s by people like Margaret Thatcher; in which the accumulation of wealth began to be seen as an admirable pursuit in and of itself, and in which monetary value was to become the sole measure of success in any field. Consequently, in 1984, Alain Robbe-Grillet thought his decision to write an autobiography would be welcomed by the new orthodoxy that was then coming into being. In his opening paragraph he hinted at these changes, but nevertheless he concluded that he should persevere in his project, because ‘the same questions still come up, perennial, haunting, maybe pointless’. He then wrote the words, ‘Who was Henri de Corinthe?’ – just as a puzzled reader might well ask, ‘Who was Campbell McCluskie?’
The English title, Ghosts in the Mirror, rather gives the game away, as is the case with some translations, when the publisher wants something more commercial for a title, or the translator wants to give the reader a clue as to what the book is about. The French title, Le Miroir qui Revient, could more accurately have been translated as ‘The Returning Mirror’.
Robbe-Grillet introduces Henri de Corinthe as a friend of his father, whose erratic, eagerly awaited visits would always occur in the evening. For a reason that was never made clear to the young Alain, his father did not want him to meet Corinthe, and so, despite having earlier written a very clear description of Corinthe warming himself at the fire, he later confesses that he is not sure that he has ever even seen him. He even questions his description of the house, which is much grander than Robbe-Grillet’s childhood home. Chronological discrepancies are also introduced, which gradually cast doubt on Corinthe’s very existence, while he is yet evoked in a series of beautifully described scenes that on the contrary make him appear as real as Robbe-Grillet’s mother, as his grandfather, as the wild Breton coast near which Robbe-Grillet grew up, as the sea that used to terrify him as a child, as the fearful legends of sea monsters that used to haunt his dreams.
The key episode of the book occurs when Corinthe is riding his white horse near the coast on a calm moonlit night. As he comes close to the shore he hears a rhythmic noise coming from the direction of the sea. Robbe-Grillet uses all the virtuosity of his writing to describe Corinthe riding down on to the beach. his realisation that the noise is coming from an oval mirror floating on the waves, and his tribulations with his frightened horse. When he finally struggles out into the increasingly rough sea, and against all the odds drags the heavy mirror back to the shore, he sees by the moonlight in its ‘cloudy depths’ the reflected face of ‘his lost fiancée, Marie-Ange, who was drowned on a beach in the Atlantic near Montevideo and whose body has never been found’.
Elsewhere the book reads like a traditional autobiography. He recounts the history of his mother’s family, provides anecdotes from his childhood, describes his father, who was badly injured in the First World War, in which he served as a sapper, battling the enemy in nightmarish makeshift tunnels under No Man’s Land. Often these are sentimental scenes of the kind abjured by his literary followers. However, he constantly undermines his descriptions of these scenes by pointing out how far they stray from the reality of lived experience. At the same time, he shows how these remembered scenes have cropped up in his writing, and films. Controversially, he openly discusses his parents’ extreme right-wing sympathies and his own sadistic sexual fantasies which started in his early childhood. These fantasies and his terrors about the sea and its imagined monsters represent for Robbe-Grillet the ghosts that haunt his writing, like the ghost haunting the mirror.
During the Second World War, he was conscripted by the German government to work for a year in a tank factory in Nuremburg. This experience was to be the defining one in determining the kind of writer he was to become, much as Campbell’s wartime experience in Normandy would offer him the stimulus to write his first play.
As a French foreign worker, Robbe-Grillet was treated relatively well by the Germans. Initially he saw nothing to clash with his parent’s admiration of the orderly German nation, which they felt showed up the manifold failures of the French Third Republic. But Alain soon saw evidence of the horror lurking behind the façade: the shop signs forbidding Polish workers and Jews from buying cakes, or the brutal treatment of a Russian prisoner in the hospital attached to the factory. However, it was only the revelations of the concentration camps after the war that disclosed the full extent of the madness underlying the Third Reich, and it was then that Robbe-Grillet ceased to share his parents’ views. Henceforth, he began to distrust order and the psychological, philosophical, and political systems that seek to uphold it. That is not to say that he completely relinquished his need for order, but he considered that the struggle between this need and the opposing attraction to disorder are present in different proportions in every human being. He concluded that writing experimental fiction was the best way to explore this conflict.
In editing The Tragicall History of Campbell McCluskie, I very soon realised that Campbell’s plays reveal in their ambiguity a similar distrust of order to that expressed by Alain Robbe-Grillet, although the plays are not in any obvious way like Robbe-Grillet’s novels. There are strong characters, most notably the central male characters in the plays, who pursue their various ambitions and desires in clearly delineated settings. There is none of the chronological and spatial dislocations of Robbe-Grillet’s novels, and yet there are odd, unsettling details (like the presence of diamonds in The Irresistible Rise of Tam McLean, which seem to predict future events in the play, or the details of stage design in The Massacre which suggest a possible order underlying the chaotic city, or the way the character’s madness is expressed in Deeds and the Crow through lighting effects clearly visible to the audience but not to most of the characters on stage) which I would argue create small gaps in the narratives as profound as the more overt dislocations created by Alain Robbe-Grillet. Moreover, in one very evocative paragraph Robbe-Grillet describes the sensations he experienced at nightfall in the winter city, which he says impelled him to write in the first place and which seem to parallel the epiphanies Campbell experienced in his youth at the sight of Clydebank and the Clyde valley as seen from the hills to the north, or when his Aunt Dorothy arrived at his house for the first time.
Then there are the more obvious links between Robbe-Grillet’s autobiographical project and Ian Alexander McDuffy’s biography of the playwright. In The Tragicall History of Campbell McCluskie, the descriptions of Campbell’s plays are set against the narrative of Campbell’s life, in the same way as Robbe-Grillet sets his own work against the autobiographical sections of Le Miroir qui Revient. And so we are shown the brutal misogyny of Campbell’s maternal grandfather and its impact on his daughters; the troubled relationship of Campbell’s parents; Campbell’s haunting experiences during the Second World War; Campbell’s complete split with his father, which remained unresolved at the time of the playwright’s death. Unlike, Robbe-Grillet, however, McDuffy is not seeking to question the relationship between his descriptions and the reality of Campbell’s life. On the contrary, he is seeking a meaning in the playwright’s life which will explain why his mother died giving birth to him, and he doesn’t always appear to notice the numerous contradictions and ambiguities arising from his sources. Nor does he seem to have any awareness that he shares his mania for meaning with Inspector Grieg, whose investigation of McCluskie’s murder has such dire consequences.
In editing McDuffy’s biography, however, I found something that I have not been able to discern among the contradictions, gaps, and erasures in Robbe-Grillet’s work. It seemed to me that I was constantly catching glimmers in The Tragicall History of Campbell McCluskie of a kind of underlying meaning; like a watermark running through the text. This was not the irrefutable meaning offered by the totalitarian systems of the Nazis and the Communists. Robbe-Grillet argued that these were closed systems that brooked no opposition, and were therefore like a kind of death, if death is viewed as an absence of possibility. He also argued that Freud’s ideas represented a similar closed system, in that Freud would overcome any opposing argument by reducing the individual who made the argument to a category of his own system of thought. It would seem to me that such systems are currently offered by extreme religious groups, who offer one fixed meaning of holy books that are often ad hoc assemblages of contradictory and ambiguous texts, or even by scientists, who create unsubstantiated theories, such as the existence of dark energy, in order to iron out observations that contradict the Big Bang.
In Le Miroir qui Revient, Alain Robbe-Grillet makes clear that he is not advocating one approach to writing. He is merely setting out the ambiguous and changing approach he has taken to writing over the years, to prevent his ideas from becoming dogmatic, and to carry out the impossible task of overcoming his own ambiguous and ill-defined nature. At one point, he compares characters in novels to ‘the unquiet dead forced by some evil spell or divine vengeance to live the same scenes from their tragic destiny over and over again’. Just as Campbell McCluskie is doomed repeatedly to follow the same sequence of events from his birth to his violent death, in minutely described scenes that seem at the same time chaotic and inevitable. And yet, if you reread The Tragicall History of Campbell McCluskie several times, as I have had to do in the course of my work as editor, you too may find, in its odd repetitions and inconsistencies, tiny gaps (like that mentioned by Hijo de Nada in the above quotation translated from his ineffable and only published work, El Pensador Solitario) that open on to the infinite wonders and possibilities that are our only consolation, and where a God or a void might equally exist.
Helen Moore’s third major collection of poems, The Mother Country, is published by Awen on 1 May 2019. Helen is a poet of passion, power, and precision. She writes with a commitment to the world – the ecological, the political, the spiritual – which fits perfectly with Awen’s vision. She has also garnered a considerable reputation in the literary world, having published many poems in top-notch periodicals and performed at major festivals and conferences.
In Helen’s case, the UK’s loss is Australia’s gain: she has just moved to Sydney with her Australian-born husband. The first section of The Mother Country, about Australia, reflects this present trajectory in her life. However, Helen will be back to launch the book with a whole tour of events through May, June, and July. I’ll give you the dates below, but first some information from the back cover of the book:
Under English law a parent still has the right to disinherit their offspring. This book is a poet’s response to being written out of her mother’s will. Exploring dispossession in a range of forms – from colonial legacies in Scotland and Australia to contemporary impacts of industrial civilisation on human health, planetary systems, and our children’s future – The Mother Country is simultaneously a journey through sorrow, a quest for poetic justice, and a movement towards forgiveness and ecological restoration.
‘She makes us see, hear and experience not only the grief of things across the planet but also the memories of the damaged and vanished worlds from which it rises … Perhaps in these perilous transitional times we are all disinherited now, and Moore’s poems perform an important duty by making us feel the pathos and the righteous rage of that condition.’ Lindsay Clarke
‘I love the vastness of Helen Moore’s vision and the unflinching way she puts it into the world … But Moore’s Blakean vision, tackling the toxic tyrannies of our own times, is always tempered by minute details which convey her deep love for what is under threat.’ Rosie Jackson
‘In these verbally dextrous, deeply rooted poems, Helen Moore demonstrates the truth of her quotation from Blake: “A tear is an intellectual thing.” … If our world is to awaken to its own danger, it will need ecopoets such as Moore.’ D.M. Black
8.30pmRegular night at the Greenbank, Easton, Bristol for poetry, spoken word and beyond. Tonight launching ecopoet Helen Moore’s new book The Mother Country, alongside Callum Wensley, Bristol poet and spoken word artist, with open mic.
Monday 13 May
Frome Poetry Cafe
7.30pm Launch of Helen Moore’s new collection of poetry, The Mother Country.
Creative writing retreat facilitated by Helen Moore.
Thursday 6 June
Lyrical, Trowbridge Town Hall 6pm. Our aim is to blend the Open Mic + guest poet format with conversation and also expand the slot to include talks, book launches and workshops. This month’s guest is ecopoet Helen Moore reading from her new collection, The Mother Country.
Join us on Saturday 4 May for Jay Ramsay: A Celebration of his Life in Music, Poetry and Words at St Lawrence Parish Church, Stroud at 7pm (6pm for vegetarian Indian food).
Jay Ramsay, psychotherapist and poet, passed away earlier this year. The author of nearly 40 books, including non-fiction on alchemy and relationship psychology, and translations of classics of eastern philosophy, he was an influential presence on the alternative poetry scene, and an ambassador for transformative spiritual, political and psychological awareness.
The event will be hosted on the night by poet Adam Horowitz and Hawkwood’s Katie Lloyd-Nunn. It will be a feast of Jay’s words, of memories, music and poetry with many contributors joining together to celebrate Jay’s extraordinary life and work. A further feast of vegetarian Indian food will start the event from 6pm! With thanks, too, to Revd Simon Howell for all his support.