Sunday, March 29, 2015

The Black Earth

Last Sunday we were at the Sir John Soane church at Bethnal Green for the third and final performance of 'Landscape', three sets of new music by Rob St. John, Laura Cannell and Richard Skelton.  The last time I was at the church, Rob played some songs on his guitar; this time he came with two collaborators, a synth, a screen and an overhead projector.  The music and visuals - shadows of water, leaves, and disintegrating tape - were from his new record, Surface Tension.  For this he has drawn sounds from the dirty water of our local river, the Lea, as the Thames21 website explains:
'Tape loops of the field recordings as well as new music composed for the project were soaked in tubs of polluted Lea river water – duckweed, decaying leaves, oil slicks and all – for a month. When replayed, the loops slowly disintegrated, the river etching new channels and tributaries onto the tape, which slowly peeled off and faded away. The negatives of the film photographs were given the same river water treatment, with their prints developing odd new microscopic marks, layers and flares.'

Whilst Rob's music contains physical traces of the landscape, Laura Cannell reworks fragments of early music - Hildegard of Bingen, The Cantigas de Santa Maria, Henry VIII.  Her album, Quick Sparrows Over The Black Earth, is named after one of those extraordinary condensed poems in Anne Carson's If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho.  She plays two recorders simultaneously and reconfigures her bow so that it is impossible to lift it from the violin strings, creating a continuous drone.  One of the recorder tunes, she explained, echoes "the sound of deer barking in the woods by my house" - it was a lonely sound, floating out in the cold air under the church's high bare ceiling.  In her sleevenotes for Quick Sparrows Over The Black Earth she writes about the experience of recording the music in a different church, standing isolated in the Norfolk landscape:
'The cold winter daylight
pouring through clear leaded windows

The wind shifts against the stone walls
It bangs on the ancient oak door

Like the clang of a distant wherry
over the marshes...' 

Finally Richard Skelton and Autumn Richardson took to the stage to perform the forthcoming album Belated Movements for an Unsanctioned Exhumation August 1st 1984.  They were dressed, as Luke Turner says in his review in The Quietus, 'for a mildly blustery day on the tops, with sturdy jackets and solid knitwear'.  We still had our coats on in the audience - there was something chilling about this dark church, with its candle-lit paintings of Christ suffering on the way to the crucifixion.  Lindow Man, the bog body exhumed in 1984 may have died at the same time; the British Museum website dates his horrific ritual killing to between 2 BC and AD 119.  It would be a very different experience to the concert I wrote about here last year, where Richard played with the Elysian Quartet in another church, St Lukes, against a backdrop of leaves.  ‘We will begin with a collective symbolic descent into the soil',  Richard had said in an interview a week earlier, 'to the fox’s “earth beneath earth”, from where we’ll summon “Canis, Lynx, Ursus” and return, with great violence, to the surface.’
Listening to the first piece, ‘Petition for Reinterment’, it was apparent that the music would change very slowly.  As Richard describes it, this string elegy 'gently begins to disintegrate, to distend and rot, as if the music itself is being subsumed in soil and subjected to the natural cycles of decay and renewal. It is interesting to note that, whilst the skin of bog-bodies is often very well preserved, the bones undergo a process of decalcification - they literally dissolve from within.'  Eventually the music subsided with a kind of tolling sound and then merged into the second movement which I have embedded below, ‘To Your Fox-Skin Chorus’.  This refers to the arm covering on Lindow Man (the title is from an Edmund Gosse poem 'Old and New', contrasting BC and AD).  Once this too had receded there was a final slow build of intense, unsettling sound, with an insistent skewed keyboard pattern under the churning treated noise of a disinterred violin.  This last movement represents a 'downward delving to the bones of animals long made extinct in England by humans: the wolf, lynx and bear - animals that haunt the popular imagination.'  How long this lasted it would be hard to say.  Then, suddenly, the gale of sound abated and the last remnants of music faded gradually back into the ground.

Sunday, March 15, 2015


You might feel you have read enough about Landmarks over the last few days - an essay by Robert Macfarlane in The Guardian introducing his new book (which, as I write this, has been 'shared' 39,000 times), reviews, excerpts, interviews, even an unfunny parody.  I will not add much to all this here, although as the book explores the literature of landscape as well as its language, there are many pages it would be nice to quote.  I will restrict myself to one example, from a chapter devoted to 'Edgelands', where Richard Jefferies (writing in 1883) is read as a philosopher of vision, anticipating geography's phenomenological turn and those contemporary artists and authors who approach landscape as bodily experience.
'Often Jefferies wobbles our sense of reliable vision, showing the impossibility of achieving a privileged position of perception: 'Even trees which have some semblance of balance in form are not really so, and as you walk round them so their outline changes.'   If you 'walk all round [a] meadow ... still no vantage point can be found where the herbage groups itself, whence a scheme of colour is perceivable.'  Repeatedly, phenomena refuse to resolve into order: a wind blowing across water makes 'wavelets' that 'form no design; watch the sheeny maze as long as one will, the eye cannot get at the clue, and so unwound the pattern.''
The pattern may be indiscernible but the phenomenon can be named.  In Landmarks the 'Waterlands' glossary offers for wind-blown ripples on the surface of water the word cockles.  In Gaelic there is a term for the 'first slight ruffling of the water after a calm' (caitein) and in Scots there is a word for 'a splashing or dashing in small waves or ripple' (jabble).  Jefferies worried that we fail even to see such things and it is the details in landscape that Landmarks celebrates, rather than its broad sweep.  Under 'Pools, Ponds and Lakes' the words for the largest bodies of water are well-known to anyone who has used a map in the British Isles - llyn, loch, lough, tarn.  But focus down and you reach less familiar terms - large ponds are grimmers and hassocks, small ponds are mardles and pulks, puddles are swidges and blatters, little puddles are pudges.  The Gaelic word lodan can mean both a little pool and 'water in one's shoe.'

Some Robert Macfarlane readers coming to this after his previous books may expect more action and less quotation.  No doubt there will some arduous activity in Underland, the book he is now writing on caves.  In Landmarks he does praise the 'unostentacious bravery' of Roger Deakin, borne along in the swell of a tide, 'locked in by the current, with no obvious means of escape', and he quotes the 'exceptionally intrepid' John Muir, surfing an avalanche in the Sierra Nevada ('on no part of the rush was I buried.  I was only moderately imbedded on the surface or at times a little below it...')  However, the only hint of risk-taking is in the Cumbrian fells where Richard Skelton invites him to explore a tunnel in an old quarry.  Earlier that day, before the rain set in, Robert had been reading a story (in Richard's journal Reliquiae) from The Kalevala in which a similar cleft in a hillside must be entered by the hero to find 'the lost words'.  The coincidence provokes 'an eerie tremor of recognition'.  They explore this tunnel by the light of a weak torch as water courses through the roof, 'showing silver in the beam, like silk.'  After a few minutes they retrace their footsteps and return to the path, now running with water, wet but unscathed.  'I could feel feel rain streaming down the inside of my trousers and into my shoes.'  Water in one's shoe - lodan.

This blog is listed under the heading 'On Language and Landscape' in the Landmarks select bibliography.  The best way to find relevant posts here is to click on the 'language' label, although I suspect I have not been rigorously consistent in the way it has been used.  I have tended to append it to posts talking about words themselves, like the one I wrote this week on the old rune poems, but other entries may also be of interest, like those I wrote earlier this month on landscape as metaphor in the poetry of John Donne and the Chan Buddhist monks of China.  Looking back I see that the second post I ever wrote on this blog, back in 2005, was on language and landscape.  It quotes one of the books that influenced Landmarks, Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez.  'For Lopez, language is not imposed on the landscape, it evolves from a conversation, and “a long-lived enquiry produces a discriminating language”.'

Friday, March 13, 2015

Bark of rivers and roof of the wave

Is byþ oferceald, ungemetum slidor,
glisnaþ glæshluttur gimmum gelicust,
flor forste geworuht, fæger ansyne.
These lines come from one of the old rune poems, in which descriptive verses were associated with letters of the runic alphabet.  They refer to the rune Isa, which means 'ice', and can be translated from the Anglo-Saxon as follows
Ice is very cold and immeasurably slippery;
it glistens as clear as glass and most like to gems;
it is a floor wrought by the frost, fair to look upon.
That second line is nice but it does sound better in alliterative Old English: "glisnaþ glæshluttur gimmum gelicust..."  Two other rune poems have survived, in Norwegian and Icelandic, and here are their descriptions of this same ice rune:
Ice we call the broad bridge;
the blind man must be led.
Bark of rivers
and roof of the wave
and destruction of the doomed.
These imagistic definitions of natural phenomena can be seen as an early form of nature poetry.  Here are three more examples from the Anglo-Saxon rune poem, which dates from the 8th/9th century and is preserved in a copy made in 1705 (the original manuscript perished in a fire in 1731).  The first, for the rune called Berkana, describes a poplar, although it is given as a birch in the other two rune poems.  The second, for Eihwaz, praises the yew tree, 'greenest of trees in winter' according to the Norwegian version, and in the Icelandic, source of the bow, speeder of arrows.  In his guide to the runes, Bernard King writes that 'the hunting God Ull built his hall in Ydalir, Yewdale, and the bow was regarded as his sacred weapon'.   The third, for Algiz, describes 'eolh-sedge', a kind of sedge grass which would cut you if you brushed against it.  According to King, this rune 'implies defence and protection, possibly even in the form of an amulet or temple sanctuary, and related words are the Gothic alhs, temple, and the Old English ealgian, to protect. There may also be a relationship here with the mysterious runeword alu. The meaning has also been equated with the elk, mentioned by Caesar as sleeping upright leaning against a tree to elude the hunter more easily, and thus in some measure a symbol of preservation in the face of adversity.'

The poplar bears no fruit; yet without seed it brings forth suckers,
for it is generated from its leaves.
Splendid are its branches and gloriously adorned
its lofty crown which reaches to the skies. 

The yew is a tree with rough bark,
hard and fast in the earth, supported by its roots,
a guardian of flame and a joy upon an estate.

The Eolh-sedge is mostly to be found in a marsh;
it grows in the water and makes a ghastly wound,
covering with blood every warrior who touches it.

Sunday, March 08, 2015

Clouds break over the land, spring light stirs

From a 1996 interview for the Paris Review on the Art of Poetry:
Since we are talking about Chinese poetry I wanted to ask you about the Han Shan translations, Cold Mountain Poems. It is curious because Chinese poetry is so canonical, and Han Shan is not in the canon. I think at the time there were people who thought that you made him up. I wondered how you discovered him?
Gary Snyder:
Well, he is only noncanonical for Europeans and Americans. The Chinese and the Japanese are very fond of Han Shan, and he is widely known in the Far East as an eccentric and as possibly the only Buddhist poet that serious Far Eastern litterateurs would take seriously. They don't like the rest of Buddhist poetry—and for good reason, for the most part.'

Given this (mostly) negative assessment of Buddhist poetry it would be interesting to know what Gary Snyder makes of a recently published anthology, Clouds Thick, Whereabouts Unknown:Poems by Zen Monks of China.  In his introduction Charles Egan says that 'poetry from the monasteries comprises a distinct tradition of rich imagery and profound reflection, spiced liberally with wit and humor.'  His book covers the writings of Chan (Zen) Buddhist priests but also stretches to former monks who were more central to the literary tradition: Jiaoran, Guanxiu, Jia Dao (I'll be using pinyin versions of names here).  A reviewer in the Journal of the American Oriental Society worries that their inclusion makes it hard to see a distinction between 'Chan poetry' and literati poems more generally. He notes that the title of the book is an unusual rendering of the final line of Jia Dao's 'Looking for a Recluse and Not Finding Him', turning one of many poems on this theme in Chinese literature into something that sounds more distinctively Buddhist, a kind of koan.  But even without such literati poems the anthology would interest me for the way it shows the mountain-dwelling monks expressing their religion through landscape.     

Li Cheng, A Solitary Temple Amid Clearing Peaks, c. 960
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Rather than describe the book as a whole, I will try to convey the atmosphere of its poetry by quoting couplets from seven poems that all have the same title, 'Living in the Mountains'.*    
'Mist rises, separating summit colors;
Rain falls, muting sounds of spring'

'I love pines, and leave the branches
  that hinder other men's way'                                  

'incense from a jade censer
     curls and roils;
water in a stone brook
     burbles and splashes'

'lazily watching white clouds
     rise on jasper peaks;
quietly hearing clear chimes
     fall in murmuring water'

'willow catkins are all flown,
   green shadows merge'

'Clouds break over the land, spring light stirs;
A faint scent of plum blossom, whence does it come?' 

'thinking back on the past,
it seems like madness now.'
Mi Youren, Cloudy mountains, 1130
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Finally, for my own benefit but perhaps of interest to others, here are some notes drawn from Charles Egan's endnotes, forming a brief guide to nature imagery in the anthology.  Some have Chan associations, most would apply more generally to Chinese poetry.
  • Bamboo, pines and plum trees, the 'three friends of winter' were metaphors for 'one who maintains moral principles even in adversity'.
  • Butterflies - a symbol of unreality and uncertainty, from the famous story of Zhuangzi who dreamt he was a butterfly and then, on waking, wondered if he was not really a butterfly dreaming of being Zhuangzi.
  • Chrysanthemums - blooming on into the autumn they became an image of longevity.
  • Cicadas - in Chinese poetry their sound could be optimistic (a symbol of rebirth through the transformation from larva to insect) or mournful, as a sign of autumn.
  • Clouds - might denote the freedom of wandering monks or in other contexts the way that ignorance obscures the true path.  Their shadows symbolised emptiness.
  • Cuckoos - their cry was a sign of separation.
  • Dead trees - no longer subject to change, they symbolised detachment from the world
  • Grass hut - the home of a recluse.
  • Monkeys and gibbons - they conveyed either 'the insatiable curiosity of the uncultivated mind wholly immersed in the world of causation', or the original buddha mind, 'spontaneous and free of time and space'.
  • Peaches - represented immortality; I wrote about the story of the Peach Blossom Spring in an earlier post.
  • Reeds - specifically associated with Chan Buddhism; the First Patriarch Bodhidharma crossed the Yangtze on a reed.
  • Reflections - the illusory nature of reality. In a recent post I mentioned the association in Chinese literature between mirrored pools and the mind.
  • Rivers and streams - crossing them represented the process of enlightenment.
  • Sunflowers - they always face the sun, rather than the wind, just as a Chan practitioner 'should remain focused on the buddha nature'.
  • Vines and lichens - associated with the hermit life.  Descriptions involving the creeping fig (ficus pumila) and bearded lichen (usnea longissima) referred back to the opening lines of 'The Mountain Spirit', one of the 'Nine Songs of Chu'.
  • Waterfalls - traditionally they symbolised dynamism, purity or proximity to the source, but they could also be a rushing torrent of worries preventing enlightenment.
  • White egrets, cranes or stalks - the enlightened mind (the origin of this association is the Daoist immortal Wangzi Qiao who flew on the back of a crane).  The white-on-white of egrets standing in snow was an example of a kind of metaphor showing how different phenomena all ultimately derive from the same Source.
  • White lotus flowers - buddha nature

*  The seven poets:
  • Changda (d. 874), who had 'a purity akin to that of a white heron', wrote eight poems on this theme and lived on Mount Lu
  • Guanxiu (832-912), a famous poet, calligrapher and painter, spent some time in a temple on Mount Shishuang
  • Danxia Zichun (1064-1117), 'of a lofty disposition and stern appearance', was the abbot at various mountain temples
  • Changling Shouzhou (1065-1123), also abbot of several temples and also said to have been stern and severe: 'he gained the nickname Iron Face'
  • Botang Nanya (fl. 12th century), another abbot at different monasteries, he said of this poem: 'True clarity is reflected therein'
  • Hanshan Deqing (1546-1623), a famous Buddhist priest who meditated by a stream on Mount Wutai until he could no longer hear the sounds of spring torrents
  • Yongjue Yuanxian (1578-1657), another eminent priest who was abbot at Mount Gu and later directed charitable relief work during the Manchu invasion.

Sunday, March 01, 2015

When I behold a stream...

 The river at Pyrford Place,
where John Donne lived at the start of the 17th century

John Donne's sixth Elegy contains a remarkable landscape metaphor in which his inconstant lover is compared to a river that makes for itself a new course.
When I behold a stream, which from the spring
Doth with doubtful melodious murmuring,
Or in a speechless slumber, calmly ride
Her wedded channel's bosom, and there chide,
And bend her brows, and swell, if any bough
Do but stoop down to kiss her upmost brow;
Yet, if her often gnawing kisses win
The traitorous banks to gape, and let her in,
She rusheth violently, and doth divorce
Her from her native and her long-kept course,
And roars, and braves it, and in gallant scorn,
In flattering eddies promising return,
She flouts her channel, which thenceforth is dry;
Then say I; "That is she, and this am I."
There is another reference to erosion in Donne's most famous prose passage.  'No man is an island entire of itself,' he wrote in Meditation XVII.  'Every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were.'  It is tempting now to misread these words in ecological terms, as temperatures rise and our coasts retreat.  We are all diminished by this process, even if we live far from the sea.  'Any man's death diminishes me,' Donne continued, 'because I am involved in mankind. And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.'