29 September 2016

Poem: The Cliff

The Cliff
(after Anselm Kiefer)

I make a lexicon       of things that can be        white

         linen             lace        sea foam           face

but these     small dresses      nightshirts   doll-sized robes
       are spattered               grey     and        maculate

stone ghosts of birds            snagged       on a wall of ash

I wonder                 how they           were stitched

smock       shirr         pick         cross               feather

        but it’s                   impossible             to tell

their seams           have rotted               in the spray

I think      how they once were cut     from patterns

        facing    yoke    placket     pocket        welt

but the waves   have flung      this flock of empty children
         against                           a squalling bluff     

all memory of making                           has been lost

Above the cliff  the sky            is cracked like mud

I make a lexicon of things     that are        unravelled


Sally Douglas

'The Cliff' was a prizewinner in the 2015 Exeter Poetry Festival Competition, and was originally published in the Festival pamphlet, Threads.

9 June 2016

Nana on a Dolphin and other poems...

I'm delighted to have three poems featured at Exeter University's poetry journal, Canto. One is a response to Niki de St Phalle's wonderful 'Nana on a Dolphin'; one has its roots in Russia, and another was described on Twitter by WN Herbert as 'a fine elegiac poem about eyebrows'. (Thank you!) You can now read the poems here.

To whet the appetite, here are a couple of related images:

Grinling Gibbons Hampton Court.JPG
A carving by Grinling Gibbons

By Camster2 - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6521009

Nana On A Dolphin.jpg
Nana on a Dolphin, by Niki de St Phalle

By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=30813065

17 May 2016

'Writings on the Wall' Reblogged

I've been thinking a lot about boundaries and borders recently - if you see any news from Europe or the US, and many other places, it's a recurring theme.

I wrote this piece a few years ago. It was Autumn then, not early summer as it is now, but the walls still stand, and walls are still being built. More than ever, I feel that we should really think hard about why we build walls, and whether all of them are really necessary.

Robert Frost and the Berlin Wall

This time of year, when all the green stuff is beginning to die back, the bones of the countryside start to become more visible. Here in Devon, the networks of hedgerows and dry stone walls are suddenly foregrounded; their structure and relationship to the land revealed now that the lushness of summer is receding. They seem organic, these boundaries, part of the nature of things, since many of them have been in place for hundreds of years or more, but of course they are all man-made and need to be maintained.

In Robert Frost’s great poem ‘Mending Wall’ two neighbouring farmers walk the length of the dry stone wall which separates their properties, each on his own side, repairing the holes after the winter weather, making the boundary between them once more complete. ‘Something there is that does not love a wall’, muses Frost’s speaker, pondering the damage that occurs when no one is there to see. But he still goes though the spring ritual of mending: one day a year to ‘set the wall between us once again’. 'Just another kind of outdoor game,' he says.

Dry stone wall in the yorkshire dales detail

This particular wall serves no useful purpose as far as the speaker can see, since all it does is separate one kind of tree from another, and as he says ‘My apple trees will never get across/ and eat the cones under his pines…’. His neighbour sees things differently: insists, as his father did before him, that ‘Good fences make good neighbours’, and as readers we may smile at this old cliche, this unsophisticated parochialism. But then we read Frost's description of him picking up the fallen stones ready to put them back in place and mend the wall:        
...I see him there
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed
and we realise that to the neighbour this is something far deeper and darker, more primeval, than just a game.

There’s something very ancient in this need for boundaries, for marking one’s territory. History is criss-crossed by the bones of boundaries: Bronze Age field systems on Dartmoor, castle walls, city walls, Hadrian’s Wall, the Great Wall of China. Frost’s wall, like all these walls, is a social and psychological construct as well as a physical one: to the neighbour it is a representation of ownership, and of tradition, of something which must remain fixed. For Frost as poet, it seems to represent the barrier between two people’s points of view.

Point of view about boundaries and territory is addressed in another Frost poem, ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’.The poem starts
Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
The speaker is riding through some woods which are not his, but the trespass seems to be implied not in the passing through, but in the stopping and looking. Perhaps taking pleasure from something that is not yours is a crime, even if by doing so you hurt no-one? Certainly Frost seems to feel that his speaker has crossed some kind of moral boundary. ‘He will not see me stopping here/ To watch his woods…’ has a very different implication from a possible alternative that Frost didn’t use: ‘He will not mind me…’. So even without walls, the social boundaries of territory exist.

In English, the word ‘wall’ is a kind of catch-all. We have to use the same word, whether we mean the internal vertical surfaces of a room, or an exterior dividing agent. German is kinder, and allows speakers to distinguish between an internal wall (Wand) and an external one (Mauer). The most famous German wall is of course the Berlin Wall, a barrier between two diametrically opposed points of view – those of Communism and of Capitalism.

The division of East and West Berlin took physical form on the night of 12th August 1961, when East German troops and workers tore up the streets adjacent to the border, and laid barbed wire and fences to prevent anyone crossing. The first bits of actual wall (concrete and blocks) were laid by August 17th, and soon there was a wall along the whole border. In 1975, however, the East German border troops started building a new type of wall along the border: the Grenzmauer 75. This was made from 45,000 sections of reinforced concrete, each 3.6m high and 1.2m wide. It was painted a bright, inviting white. Graffiti was of course forbidden in East Germany, but by the beginning of the eighties, artists had decided that the Western face of the wall was a massive canvas waiting to be filled. Many artists, known, unknown, or anonymous, painted on the wall. Sometimes a painting was only there a day before it was painted over. Anyone could paint. The wall, a symbol of oppression, became a place of expression – but only to those on one side. The Western side was riotous with colour, the Eastern side plain and greying.


In the Bible, (Daniel 5: 1-31) the ‘writing on the wall’ foretold the demise of the Babylonian Empire. While it would be pushing it rather to pretend that this is directly analogous with the Berlin Wall and its graffiti art, given the events of 1989 and after it’s quite a pleasing idea to prop, rather like some flimsy but decorative ladder, up against it.

More than twenty years after Reunification, few parts of the Wall remain, although on those stretches that do, the Eastern face is now covered with graffiti too. Pieces of the fallen Wall have made their way all over the world and can be found displayed in embassies, parks, schools, hotels and museums. But there is still a vestigial wall, albeit invisible. Germans talk about the ‘Mauer im Kopf’: the wall in the head. (Incidentally, it’s interesting how the spatial specificity the German noun – its externality – makes its paradoxical placing within an internal space – the head – so much more striking.)  Polls have indicated that some Germans regret Reunification, and feel that the erosion of cultural differences between the East and West is a negative thing. In other words, they wish the Wall was still there.

Which brings us back to Robert Frost’s neighbour, who wanted the boundaries kept solid, visible, unbroken. Knowing that the boundary was there in abstract was not enough. To him, the wall in the head needed be made manifest by the wall on the land, even though to Frost’s more pragmatic persona, there seemed no point at all.

So, what is the 'something' that makes the gaps, the something that doesn't like a wall? The something that
…sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun;
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
It’s frost.

Image Credits
Image 1, Drystone wall:  Lupin at English Wikipedia (Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons.) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons
Image 2, Berlin Wall: Noir at the German language Wikipedia [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons

9 February 2016

Chinese Poetry: Su Shi

Su Shi, also known as Su Dong Po (Detail, Fei Lai Temple, Qingyuan)

I had not really read much Chinese poetry until I went to China earlier this year - just some by Du Fu, and a couple of really well-known ones by Li Po - but obviously, if I visit somewhere, I've got to get to know at least a bit about its literature. So I bought the Penguin Classics edition of the poetry of Li Po (also known as Li Bai) and Tu Fu (also known as Du Fu), searched out my copy of Jonathan Waley's Spring in the Ruined City, translations of Du Fu, and bought Chinese Literature: A Very Short Introduction. I was glad I had read a bit, because when our hosts found out I wrote poetry, they were very keen to discuss the subject with me, and having done a bit of research I was able to not come across as entirely ignorant!

It was on a trip to the Fei Lai Temple, near Qingyuan, that I was introduced to Su Shi (1037 - 1101 CE), also known as Su Dongpo or Su Tungpo. I loved the frieze that depicted him reading his poetry among the mountains and the winds, so when I returned home, I added him to my reading and research list.

As I read more about Chinese poetry, I became more and more excited by it. As far as I understand it, Chinese is an almost totally uninflected language, so the relationships of words to each other in a poem are far more fluid than in English and other European languages. This allows a translator a lot of freedom in the rendering of a poem into their own language.

Here is Su Shi's Mid-Autumn Moon in Chinese and in Pinyin:

Text from http://www.chinese-poems.com/s10.html
And here is the literal translation from the excellent website Chinese Poems:

Sunset cloud gather far excess clear cold
Milky Way silent turn jade plate
This life this night not long good
Next year bright moon where see

I am now working on my own version of this almost thousand year old poem, and will post it here when it's done. In the meantime, I would encourage anyone with the slightest interest to have a look at Chinese poetry. I certainly wish I'd known more about it sooner.

Su Shi,(Complete panel, Fei Lai Temple, Qingyuan)

Poems, Li Po and Tu Fu, tr Adam Cooper, Penguin Classics
Spring in the Ruined City, Selected Poems of Du Fu, translated by Jonathan Waley, Shearsman
Chinese Literature: A Very Short Introduction, Sabina Knight, Oxford University Press