from BARDO

The stars are in our belly; the Milky Way our umbilicus.

Is it a consolation that the stuff of which we’re made

is star-stuff too?

– That wherever you go you can never fully disappear –

dispersal only: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen.

Tree, rain, coal, glow-worm, horse, gnat, rock.

Roselle Angwin

Friday, 18 April 2014

sea gardens

my breakfast view –
merganser, eider, greylag
and away over the loch's quiet shimmer
Ben Cruachan's snowy pate

Oystercatchers wake us. At the end of the little garden, beyond the daffs and flowering currants, three mute swans drift in the clear green tide. It’s not long past full moon, and I’m delighted to see that the spring high tide here is the same time as the springs 600 miles away on the Bere peninsula, my old home in West Devon (the tides vary enormously throughout the country).

Today it’s still and gentle, where yesterday a huge northwesterly beat the sea’s surface into a mess of foam out in the sound between here and the many islets that freckle the water before you get to Mull. One of them, ‘Holy Isle’ (another!), is reputedly where the Irish adventurer Brandon, or Brendan, landed, bringing Christianity to mainland Britain a while before Columba.

Wherever you go on this island geese voices follow you from the Canada, barnacle and greylags in the fields, in the bays.

Last night in the dusk a bellowing kerfuffle in the water turned out to be a big bull seal, blowing and grunting, flipping and waving in either fishing activities or sealy ablutions just yards from where we were standing.

From here I can see the ruins of the Kilchattan chapel (‘Kil’ means ‘saint’ in Gaelic), which boasts some fine graffiti from the early mediaeval period. One is a clear and distinct carving of a birlinn, an early slender Highlands galley built to resemble a Viking ship but altogether finer, smaller and more elegant, designed for these tricky waters.


The word ‘birlinn’ shivers me timbers, as they say in pirate stories. I first came across the word ‘birlinn’ in Adam Nicolson’s book Sea Room. Nicolson inherited the little Shiant Islands from his father when he was only 21, and the book is a kind of natural history of the islands. I was so captivated by his description of the building of the birlinn he’d commissioned to navigate the fierce waters of the Minch* that it took me weeks to get beyond that passage. Such a longing was set up in me to go and make one myself that I read the description over and over (yes, I know; I’m not normally that compulsive, honest).

Somerled, legendary mediaeval Lord of the Isles whose seat was at Castle Duart on Mull, and who is reputedly buried in the little St Oran’s Chapel graveyard on Iona, used one of these.

My campervan is wonderful, but heavy and slow, so on the first day we only (only!) covered 400 miles, and pulled off along the Solway Firth near Gretna, just over the border and into Galloway – an area completely unfamiliar to us. The strange littoral landscape was made hugely atmospheric by the rising full moon, and we looked out across the mudflats towards the Cumbrian fells one way, and an offshore wind farm the other.

I learned a new word, probably familiar to any of you who are northerners: ‘merse’, meaning marshy hinterland on the littorals. I imagine the ‘Mersey’ of ‘Merseyside’ comes from this; and I think it must also be ‘moss’, as in ‘Moss-side’, or, up here, The Moss, on the (stunning) Campbeltown peninsula. 

Daughter takes me to a couple of her favourite places here: Crinan, like a Scottish version of a small wooded Cornish harbour, and the stunning Ardfern peninsula where we look out on this sunny day on a string of islands from another ruined little church, Kilmarie, host to some ‘sculpture stones’ from the C16th>C17th, with one or two much older fragments.

Then there’s the famous series of megalithic sites at Kilmartin; but that’s another story.

My friend Francis, one of the friends with whom we’re staying, has just been awarded his fourteenth prize for poetry translation. He presents me with his latest book, a very beautiful bilingual edition of the work of Serbian poet Ivan Lalic, Walking Towards the Sea. Here, to sign off, is a little excerpt from ‘There should be gardens here’:

‘There should be wind here, stripped to the leaves
Like a swimmer, and plenty of unfrightened birds
On the shoulders of silence, in the eyes of light,
So everyone can vanish sleepwards on the grass...’

© Ivan Lalic/Francis R Jones

Sunday, 13 April 2014

going north

Today, in the courtyard, six swallows flew over. And I planted out some sweetpeas – fingers crossed there'll be no frosts.

And I fixed little things on the campervan, found other little things that no longer work properly – 'Clarissa' IS 20+, and sits around a bit, after all – and packed.

Because I was packing I didn't get the whole of this, but what a privilege to hear the Shetland poet Jen Hadfield reading from her work, in situ, to Paul Farley, on Radio 4 this afternoon (4.30pm; can't remember the series title). Wonderful too to hear the waterbirds in the background. And I learnt (if I caught it correctly), that 'bissus', which is the title of her most recent collection, is the word for the beard on a mussel.

She has a fine and original voice, and a good ear for diction. Many lines struck me, but this one stayed: 'A span of sea glittering with gannets / a faceful of piercings.'

Sun going down now behind the hills, in a clear sky. Tuesday morning brings a full moon in Libra, my sign, and a significant lunar eclipse; time for change.

And I'm heading north tomorrow, landing up in my beloved Hebrides, on three different islands, the last of which is of course Iona for the annual writing retreat I lead there.

So this is me signing off till I get into Wifi-land again, with a poem of mine from my first week's course on Iona about 14 years ago:

Iona: The Glass-Blue Day

The way sky inhabits the creases
smears colour that steals your breath

The sand so pale it might be grains of light

The big Hebridean night that opens its arms
and drops its creel of stars

towards our upturned faces

© Roselle Angwin 2000, in Looking For Icarus

Friday, 11 April 2014

this being alive

part of a beautiful oak-carved information board at Weir Quay, on the Tamar
First hot air balloon of the year glides over Dartmoor. As I cross the moor (alas not in a balloon) the first bluebells are out amongst the primroses, and the moorland pony mares are fat with foal.

Of course Dartmoor's beautiful in the sun, but its drama and atmosphere is suited to today's cloudplay and shadows, with splinters and staves of light breaking through and picking out the shoulders of Ripon Tor, of Hameldown in the distance, of Crockentor as I drive further west. The volcanic outcrop of Brentor, small though it is, is prominent in the distance on the northwest of the moor, a mini-Glastonbury Tor, topped with another St Michael Chapel.

A weasel scuttles across the road and into a bank; and on the margins some of the trees are out – chestnut, hazel – and some, like these elegant birches, on the cusp, their magenta crowns lightly tinged with a ginger.

I'm heading, via the dentist, to see my dad where he now lives in a care home close to the Cornish border.

This is always very poignant, and even as I enjoy seeing him and know how much it means to him I have to brace myself. To have two parents with dementia is heartbreaking (my mum died of Alzheimer's two and a half years ago, and my dad has progressive vascular dementia after a stroke, which brought him down off his beloved Exmoor heights and the wooden cabin that was his part-time hideaway for a wilder life than the soft pastures of the 'lowlands' of Devon and the marital home would allow him). I sometimes fear for my daughter: with three of her four grandparents succumbing to dementia – what are the chances for her parents?

You live – I live – with a twofold awareness in the face of a loved one's dementia. On the one hand, ever-present is my distress at the loss of the dad that I knew: the erudite, eclectic, vigorous, temperamental Celt, passionate and curious about everything, knowledgeable about everything; psychic, telepathic, a dowser and a great civil engineer who worked as consultant for the building of the Tamar Bridge as well as the Severn Bridge; a musician, an artist, a silversmith; a man who would bring home wounded animals and birds that he found on the roads for us to heal – who now remembers almost nothing of his previous life, or even of this morning (in some ways this is a blessing, because the old Dad would have rather been dead than in a care home where, actually, ministered to by several genuinely caring young women who look out for him and flirt with him, too, nonetheless he's doing pretty well). 

On the other hand is the fact that this is simply how it is, and I need to adjust: he is my dad, he's an old man who has become more serene, more relaxed, more amiable and, in fact, easier to love with age and illness, and who, like me, loves to look at every flower and tree and bird and boat on or by the river. To spend two hours with one of his daughters doing just this is what makes him happy now; and what a blessing that is, too, in comparison with the fiery driven hot-tempered impatient younger man whom no one dared cross.

So, knowing what pleasure it will bring him, I take him in the car a couple of miles down to the Tamar – the border with Cornwall, Kernow, and a river with an almost-mystical significance for those of us who come from that country; for country once it was, Brythonic Celtic like Wales and Brittany; neither the Romans nor the Anglo-Saxons penetrated, though the Vikings did a good job of berserking and the Spanish in the Middle Ages lent their dark looks to some of the inhabitants of the Penzance area; my mum, probably, among them. My family comes from forever from the very far west of the land, and my father is almost misty-eyed every time he sees the Tamar, and the major hills of Bodmin Moor, Brown Willy and Roughtor, above and beyond it.

He stares at the pair of shovellers wading in the mud, notices the flight of cormorants, speaks about the collared doves. And he is still my dad, memory or no memory. At times it really hurts: so often I want to share a knotty problem with him, he who was so sharp and insightful, who cared, who could always shed light on a situation, but who simply doesn't have the cognition or memory now to follow a conceptual train of thought, or offer advice. I have to repeat everything twice, and keep it very simple.

And at times I can let go of wanting it all to be different from how it is, and spend two hours strolling in fitful spring sun and talking about the hedge of young elm trees, only just succumbing to the disease that wipes out all our elms; or noticing with him that the oak is just brimming into leaf way before the ash; and he will remember with me the ditty:

If the oak before the ash we will only have a splash;
If the ash before the oak, then we will surely have a soak.

(It was wrong last year.)

This Devon side of the Tamar was once known as the fruit-and-flower-basket of England, earlier in its spring flowers and soft fruits than anywhere other than the Scilly Isles and the West of Cornwall, with the little local branch railway line shipping them into Plymouth and then to Covent Garden in the early hours. Some of the fields bordering the lanes are still full of daffodils, and everywhere there are escapees of every imaginable cultivar, so that the whole drive down to the Tamar is lit with lemon-yellows, butter-yellows, chrome yellows, canary yellows.

We wander down past the bench where, when my parents first moved down to the care home near where I was then living once neither of them was able to look after themselves, let alone each other, my mum, who couldn't walk by then, and I would sit together while my father would stroll along looking at the tide and the craft on the water. In the wild tangle of weeds by the bench someone has planted a great shout of yellow and red tulips; looking closer, I see a tiny metal plaque: MUM – MISS YOU. It catches my breath. We are not alone in our grief, but it's easy sometimes to forget that.

There's a new big information board gone up by the river, and we read it aloud to each other. Cornwall had three traditional trades: farming, fishing, and mining (now of course number 1 is tourism). My family has all three trades in its ancestry, and the board here is about the lead and silver mines that made this area very rich not so long ago. We're standing on the site of the South Tamar Consols, and my father remembers a spate of names of mines: Wheal Betsy, Gwennap Pit, South Crofty, Geevor, Wheal Josiah... (Tin mining began in Cornwall, as on Dartmoor, in the early Bronze Age, and by-the-by my great-grandfather was official dowser for the mines as well as for other things in West Penwith.)

When I remind him, my dad can just about recall a time a few years ago when I first brought him down here, and we found some rock that neither of us recognised. It was opaque and a beautiful clear green. I read now that the rock (presumably in which silver and/or lead occur/s) is fluorite, and that makes sense. We head down for the foreshore, and poke around a bit, happy as children when we find pieces with colour in them; in this case both a kind of blue and the green.

Two hours have gone, and what have we done? Strolled about a hundred yards, talked about the huge little matter of the various species that share our planet and the bedrock beneath our feet, listened to the water, and taken great pleasure in each others' company. Worth a basket of silver ore. I am ashamed that it was such a struggle to find these two hours (plus admittedly  a more-than-two-hour drive in a very complicated and stressful week), and reminded how little it takes to make one old man happy.

Wednesday, 9 April 2014


You will perhaps know that the writer Peter Matthiessen has died. We've lost a lot of literary luminaries over the last few months, and Matthiessen's book The Snow Leopard remains a lodestone for me.

This morning, Tricycle Buddhist mag sent this quote through, with which I can SO identify: my life feels so complex, and I crave simplicity. How difficult it is to achieve when one's inspiration is rooted in engagement with the world (and even the verb 'to achieve' suggests striving towards some goal, which is actually a misunderstanding in terms of Buddhist teachings; and a trap... 'nowhere to get to, nothing to do' is also the essence of simplicity as a mindstate).

'I dream of simplicity, but I'm as far from it as ever. That is my practice, how to be in the world and remain simple. One day perhaps I'll accept the fact that I am never going to find the simple life. Maybe the first step toward simplicity will be to accept that my life will never be simple even if I go live in a cave and subsist on green nettles like Milarepa.'

~Peter Matthiessen, 'Emptying the Bell'

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

why poetry matters

It seems a long time since I wrote a blogpost. It's been an extraordinarily busy few weeks, and now, on the run-up to my annual writing retreat on the Isle of Iona I seem to be whirling in a welter of Things Undone and Things Still To Do.

Most of my deadlines re writing projects and others' work (mentoring, commenting, offering creative 'tasks') have been met, but now come the small health issues; the practical issues like why Sky has suddenly become my broadband provider without my knowledge or agreement, and my switch to the Phonecoop, an ethical provider; the planting and weeding to do in the garden before 3 weeks away; the fact that the campervan, essential to my and my daughter's accommodation during the Hebridean trip next Monday morning, has packed up; the dog's op wound has not healed; and the fact that I have yet to prepare the course – and get some rest before that and the long drive north!

SO it's even more essential, right now, not to lose the sense of depth and spaciousness that a whole weekend of poetry created for me, and I hope for the others who joined me. (However, because part of me is still somewhat swamped in the practical, this post may not be very inspiring. Apologies!)

Spring is drifting up the valley in its damp Devon way, cherry blossom and birdsong in its skirts. With all the blossoming outside, poetry for me is a way of bringing things to flower inside, too.

I've been leading an intensive invitation-only poetry group, Two Rivers, once a month for 20 years now. Some of the original members are still with me. This last Saturday I decided to do something different, and instead of the freeflow writing followed by a specific exercise that is my normal workshop offering, we spent the morning looking at and talking about the impact of just one line of a published poem, a different one for each of us; and then writing in response to that. 

This was a surprisingly effective and deep session, allowing us to explore without any particular expected outcome the power of poetry to move us, to bring things to the surface, to allow us to examine responses verbally, to show us what we didn't know we knew, and why it is important.

The afternoon session, traditionally an intense 'crit' of the individuals' work but undertaken in silence and through written comments, I led as a freer open forum, which also allowed the verbal flow between participants to offer a more interactive response to the brought poems. I notice over and over how what characterises this group is an appreciative kindness to each other, and a willingness and ability also to offer genuinely honest and constructive feedback. In these conditions, people and their poetry both flourish.

Because the group members are invited not just on the quality of their work but also on how I feel they'll benefit the group as a whole, and its focus, as personalities, we seem to operate with no competitiveness and with a supportiveness that is inherent, I think, in the fact that every person in that group knows that our work is not 'just' about poetry, but very much about the life of the soul, though some people wouldn't use that word to describe it.

And this is what poetry offers, to me: a place, of course, for creative expression and for sharing the fruits of that; for meaning and exploring meaning; a place for making sense of our experience; a place for speaking of what is hard to speak of, and for which there are few forums ('fora'), in a materialistic culture; a place for healing and uplifting; a place for direct connection with soul; a place where we may bring together the transcendent and the immanent; a crucible for transformation, and so on (I've written at such great length in my various publications, in my online course and here too about this that I feel as if everything I write about the need for and meaning of poetry is both self-parody and grandiose, so I shall stop there. More or less.).

I believe that poetry is unique in our culture and even amongst artforms in that it speaks directly and simultaneously, via image, music and language, to both head and heart. A rare convergence is possible, which in itself has a cohering and integrating effect on the writer and the reader of poetry. When I immerse myself in poetry something fragmented is restored to wholeness.

What joy, then, to spend the whole of Sunday, too, in the company of other poets (some of whom travelled quite a distance to join us) and the inspiring poet, scholar and publisher Peter Brennan, who works as a tutor for, amongst other establishments, City Lit. Peter was facilitating a day for us on the spiritual aspects of T S Eliot: 'The Heavy Burden of the Growing Soul', the phrase a pivotal line from 'Animula'. 

Whereas my workshops focus on the creation of one's own particular verbal expression (and also as an undercurrent the creation of one's life as an imaginatively lived experiment towards one's unique way of being), P focuses on the understanding of what has already been written, by the Greats, in order to shed light. It's an approach that's complementary to my own, and for me it's so valuable to attend another's workshop, and to shut up (a bit!).

TSE's 'Four Quartets' remain for me THE work of the C20th. I know them inside out – or believe that I do. And yet, looking at excerpts from them along with excerpts of other poems through the erudition of Peter and the informed comments of the group members they shift and change under my gaze, reveal less and then more of themselves depending on how I look. This is hugely exciting; and always, reading poetry of depth and quality aloud allows a penetration below the surface, allows other possibilities to cohere into existence and hijack habitual modes of consciousness.

Peter is also an authority on the work of poets such as Keats, Coleridge, Blake and many others. I'm delighted to say that TM, scathing of much poetry, comes along to and engages with P's days. That is in itself a major testament. Let's hope P will be offering more such days in my little upstairs lair in this quiet Devon valley. (Contact me if you'd like to be put on the mailing list to know about such workshops and seminars.)

Meantime, 'These fragments I have shored against my ruins' (from The Wasteland), to bolster me towards the Hebrides, from where I'll post more (as usual). And it makes me chuckle to quote this fragment from Eliot, writing on Coleridge: 'Sometimes... to be a "ruined man" is itself a vocation.'

And if, like many of us, you are feeling tossed by life at the moment – for disasters seems to be occurring in every quarter, the dire effects of climate change are rushing towards us, everything seems unstable 'and the centre cannot hold' – be reassured that the cosmic climate is one of strife and turbulence with, astrologically speaking, the symbolism of significant planets in very challenging aspect to each other: a Grand Cross in cardinal signs, where the energy seems to shuttle back and forth along the same taut line until change has to occur. Not reassured? – I meant that you are not alone, and this too will pass.

Here's William Carlos Williams: 'Every work [of art] comes into being in the same way as the cosmos – by means of catastrophe.'

Write as if your life depended on it.

Thursday, 3 April 2014

four pathways

This is by artist Basma Kavanagh, on this site: As far as I can find out it's creative commons licensed, but since I'm not sure I may replace it with an image of my own
This blogpost is, in a way, a thin slice of a much bigger work, but I return to this aspect over and over, my personal and professional passion being to do with conscious relationship in its many forms. I've a book on all this in the writing.

My view is that everything is consciousness, everything is relationship. My conviction is that we can only know and love Other to the extent that we know and love ourselves. This seems an increasingly urgent task to me, and one that I address in every aspect of my life and work, albeit not necessarily overtly, and to a greater or lesser extent (that extent being down to the nature of the piece of work, but coloured also of course to the extent that I myself am living it). 

Conscious relationship and interconnectedness, with a particular emphasis on our relationship to the natural world and the other-than-human, will be the subject of a talk I'm giving at Prof Max Velmans' 'Consciousness Café' in Totnes in June.

I've long felt that the Jungian view of the four human faculties, and what we can learn from knowing our relationship to them, is an extraordinarily useful tool (and of course I'm also aware of the dangers of pigeonholing).

I'll speak of them in a moment, but I'm fascinated too with the way this idea interacts with other shamanic and/or esoteric ways of relating to the four elements, directions and seasons; something I draw attention to when we work in the little Bronze Age stone circle on my Dartmoor megalithic day, 'Ground of Being' (due to be resuscitated soon), and sometimes use in my individual mentoring work.

For now, I thought I'd just outline the four 'types', or functions, according to Jung (there is MUCH written on this, including in my own first book Riding the Dragon, so it's a very brief resumé).

The idea is that most of us have one highly-developed function; one or two less so, and one relatively unconscious. Our work here, we might say, from this perspective is to further develop the less conscious faculties. I have found that the least conscious faculty is also, as Jung and Jungians suggest, our 'doorway' into insightfulness, or enlightenment (not suggesting one arrives 'there', wherever 'there' is; simply it makes good practice).

One of the best summaries I've come across is from Elaine Aron, a Jungian therapist and writer working in the States.

She says: 'According to Jung, there ar four functions of the conscious mind, four ways of approaching the world. Each function is one kind of intelligence, and everyone has a specialty or dominant function... Intuitive types listen and look, process all the subtleties unconsciously, the start making intuitive leaps beyond the information given. The opposite of intuition is sensing [ie using the phsyical senses]–process the "surface" of information by simply seeing and hearing attentively. Compared to intuitive types, sensing types spend less time reflecting on what they see and hear and more time noticing what's actually present. They don't intuit additional possibilities. What they see is what is [ie the material world]. Magicians rely on them–they don't wonder so much how a trick was done. They prefer to read directions, follow recipes, want "just the facts"...

'The other two functions, thinking and feeling–also opposites–have more to do with the reasons for our decisions than how we process information... The thinking function uses abstract principles or theories as rules for decision-making. The feeling function is not about deciding emotionally, but about evaluating the human, personal impact, which includes the emotional impact. "Thinkers" and "feelers" can be equally compassionate (or selfish), but how they help can differ: A feeling type might first pick up an injured child and comfort it; a thinking type might review the rules of first aid and decide whether to call 911 [999]. WE need both types of responses in the world.' (see

More anon.

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