Category Archives: memory

Place of Graves

I seem to be making more posts that I want to begin with “something a little different this time”. Hopefully that is a good thing. This time the different things are a short film, and that the poem is not my own. The short film is one that another poet asked me to make. The poet was acclaimed Scottish writer and Stanza founder, Brian Johnstone. Of course I was flattered to be asked, so, not really knowing what I was getting into, I said ‘OK!’

Brian sometimes performs with musicians Richard Ingham and Louise Major as ‘Trio Verso’, and he wanted to use improvisations Richard and Louise played around readings of his poem. Brian sent me an ad hoc recording he that he’d made already. I listened and decided I’d like to re-record it so I could make a new sound mix.

The problem I found was that the subject of Brian’s poem was both difficult, and something I knew very little about at all. This very short preface that he had written for the video explains the context:

“In the aftermath of the Holocaust a Jewish actress returns to her ancestral shtetl in Eastern Europe too seek evidence of her family’s former life.”

I didn’t even know what a ‘shetl’ was. I had to look it up. I learned that shtetls were small market towns in Eastern Europe with significant Jewish populations. The Yiddish word ‘shtetl’ means ‘little town’. They existed for hundreds of years, but by the 1930s they were in decline to some extent due to a variety of demographic and cultural changes. The Holocaust destroyed what remained of the way of life of the shetls. There is a great deal of excellent material available online. This is from a short piece by Joellyn Zollman:

“For American Jews, a majority of whom are of Ashkenazic (Eastern European) descent, the shtetl serves as a mythical point of origin. This simple, down-to-earth culture–guided by what seems to contemporary observers a colorful combination of religion and folk wisdom–is where we came from. And while shtetl life was inexorably changed by industrialization and modernization, it was destroyed by the Holocaust. Thus, shtetl life is sanctified with an aura of martyrdom.” [source]

I’ll be honest – this all seemed quite alien to me, and felt a long way from anything I knew. Brian had given me some cues about season, and winter. We also talked about an inscription in Hebrew I’d been surprised to discover in a rural church churchyard near where I live. These offered some possible points of visual access, but Brian had suggested the idea of the film to me at at point in the year where, even in driech old Scotia, the snows had mostly melted. On top of this, I wasn’t finding Trio Verso’s improvised musical take on the poem very immediately accessible. I needed something to help me connect. In the end this came from an odd place, an in-between place. Lost ground on the AM band of my car radio.

I’d noticed that when switching sources on the radio, there were places, not properly tuned in on AM where the radio produced odd rising and falling notes as I drove along: pops and crackles of radio frequency noise generated by machinery or power overheads, occasional radio echoes of distant voices or music, sometimes foreign, usually indistinct. In my own mind I’d called it ‘AM drift’. Sometimes now I just leave the radio there instead of tuning to a channel. It’s a strange sound, slightly ghostly. I find it oddly soothing. As the car moves through the outskirts of Dundee it feels as if the radio is picking through scratched layers of paint to older shades beneath. Like itching at an underskin of remote times and places, tuning in to vague shimmers of somewhere else.

I started bringing together samples of ‘AM drift’ with the recordings of Brian and Richard and Louise. The drifting static of forlorn radio noise, at once contemporary and remote, seemed to provide traction. Like the sensual roughness of surface that paper manufacturers call tooth, it offered to hold marks. I still didn’t find this an easy piece to make. I think that I felt I was an intruder in a place cherished by other people.

In retrospect I suppose the feeling was like when you enter an old cemetery as a tourist. You probably don’t know that much about the people who are buried there, or the people who might have come to mourn them. But you step quietly. You don’t want to behave poorly or give offence. It is a place that might be pastoral, perhaps even serene, but you know it is not a place that has been easy.

Place of Graves will be included in ‘Fields of War’ on Saturday September 7th at the Scottish Poetry Library in Edinburgh. 

 


Breaking the mould

Breaking the mould

In the box-van back a mirror cabinet
trembles leafy outer worlds under
a roller-back gate of steel, half open,
like the cloth-bound shell of my father’s desk,
a sticking portal to cryptic drawers, tiny shelves,
to faint unsmoked tobaccos of before.

Ahead, and through my windscreen,
outside inside, green shimmers framed
by the mover strapped hardwood mouldings,
whisper hints of a remote Narnian spring.

Breaking the Mould grins in lean sans-serif,
strap-line wry beneath the tailgate logo.
I pray granny’s paper-lined display case
will pass Dens Road’s potholes un-cracked,
that still somewhere seven more years’ luck,
or even fair Cair Paravel, might be found intact.

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Morning post

Morning post

hoarfrosted contours
time served by seasons
in another life
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Struck

Very pleased to have ‘Struck’ published at the Poetry Shed. 

This one was inspired by an object shown to me many years ago by the very knowledgable Sandy Edwards, who was curator of the Bell Pettigrew Natural History Museum at the time. Since then I have (amongst other things!) spent many years being fortunate enough to do ‘media odd jobs’ for researchers involved in studying the scope and meaning of sounds made by marine mammals. My knowledge of what they do is slight, but I continue to find what they discover remarkable and inspiring.

Struck


the shortest night

the shortest night

Nearly eleven p.m., dry and mild,
bright enough for reading outdoors.
Warm intimations of honeysuckle,
lemon balm, tiger lily’s sharper bite.

Sleepless through three thin hours undarkened,
fortified tea brewing dusk spun verses,
I fidget dust my tiny cabinet of
keepsakes found and curiosities kept,

rearranging these unsure talismans,
certain enough what each is, less clear why.
I find and re-read some childhood chapters,
and discover though changed they move me still.

Until, like a birthday dawn, bird sung dews
condense fresh light from thin and unslept airs.

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un-touched

In the tradition of something a little scary near Christmas…

Christmas fright

un-touched

Sometimes it seems my existence falters, my
touch fails on phones or pads or screens, is it
only aridity, or am I momentarily – gone?

Once upon a good laugh, the world paused,
after we smiled unflinching through another
late staked old un-scary tv movie.

It can’t be easy to be a Dracula Lee so
terminally camera shy always the mirror’s absentee,
a suavely dangerous kind of unkind quantum ghost.

Back then, after vanishing spot and a long sharp tone,
analogue static shushed the speckled shades of night –
no more stars to steer by, straight on ’til morning.

Washing afterwards, it usually began as a pull,
rapidly suppressed, a twitch tap touch somewhere between
the spine and one shivered shoulder blade.

Knowing nothing’s there, but following that compulsion
to take a rapid confirming rear-view glance –
how ridiculous, to have to check.

Doubt hangs somewhere in the looking, not behind,
but returning to the mirror, from face rinsed hands,
fearing an unseen absence reflected there.

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a tree speaks

In November there will be an exhibition at St Margaret’s House in Edinburgh called Grown Together. Timed to coincide with the launch of the Tree Charter, this will feature the work of nineteen artists with a shared interest in trees.  I’ve been working on video material for a loop which will be part of a small installation.  The videos combine ambient audio captured in some local woodlands with animated  text and readings of some of my poems from the small collection called Drawing breath.

Here’s a test piece for one of my videos.  (Please ignore the headphone graphic near the start – it’s just there to indicate that there is audio to passing visitors).

The poem takes a tree’s-eye-view of passing humans, coming around to memory and how remembering works, or doesn’t…

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