Tuesday, 22 December 2015

Tuesday Poem: 'Storm Warnings' - Adrienne Rich.

The glass has been falling all the afternoon,
And knowing better than the instrument
What winds are walking overhead, what zone
Of grey unrest is moving across the land,
I leave the book upon a pillowed chair
And walk from window to closed window, watching
Boughs strain against the sky

And think again, as often when the air
Moves inward toward a silent core of waiting,
How with a single purpose time has traveled
By secret currents of the undiscerned
Into this polar realm. Weather abroad
And weather in the heart alike come on
Regardless of prediction.

Between foreseeing and averting change
Lies all the mastery of elements
Which clocks and weatherglasses cannot alter.
Time in the hand is not control of time,
Nor shattered fragments of an instrument
A proof against the wind; the wind will rise,
We can only close the shutters.

I draw the curtains as the sky goes black
And set a match to candles sheathed in glass
Against the keyhole draught, the insistent whine
Of weather through the unsealed aperture.
This is our sole defense against the season;
These are the things we have learned to do
Who live in troubled regions.

Storm Warnings ©1951 by Adrienne Rich (1929-2012)
(from her first collection, A Change of World)

We are flooded again today - between 2 and 3 feet deep on the ground floor.  But fortunately everything that could be wrecked or ruined has already been wrecked and ruined. A skip full of debris, sodden furniture, fridges and washing machines, destroyed in the flood two weeks ago, has disappeared underwater and odd items keep rising from the depths in a surreal fashion and floating off down the river.  A fridge in full sail has to be seen to be believed.  We have been warned that we may flood again on Christmas Eve when Evil Eva is due to lash us with her stormy tail. So this poem seemed quite suitable for both the Solstice and the flood.

Adrienne Rich is a profound and political poet who has had a major influence on my life - she was my first brush with feminism.  Her work is amazingly consistent; from her first published poems (like Storm Warnings) to her later poetry, there is a recognisable voice and character.  Some of her poems are among my all time favourites.  Poems like Diving into the Wreck, What Kind of Times Are These?, Snapshots of a Daughter in Law, White Night, but particularly the long poem North American Time.  Stanzas from this are burned into my memory.

Everything we write
will be used against us
or against those we love.
These are the terms,
take them or leave them.
Poetry never stood a chance
of standing outside history. . .

Try sitting at a typewriter
one calm summer evening
at a table by a window
in the country, try pretending
your time does not exist
that you are simply you
that the imagination simply strays
like a great moth, unintentional
try telling yourself
you are not accountable
to the life of your tribe
the breath of your planet.

It doesn't matter what you think.
Words are found responsible
all you can do is choose them
or choose
to remain silent. . . .

There's a wonderful article about Adrienne Rich's work written by the Irish poet Eavan Boland, who comments that;  'For so many years Rich has been typecast as a poet of statement, anger, witness. But the meticulous artistry of poems such as “Diving into the Wreck” or “Power” deserves a closer look.

In poems such as these, the marvelous weaving in and out—of relations between line and line, between music and voice, between image and insistence—is intense and exemplary. The artful deployment of broken space on the page, the fractured syntax, and the absent punctuation signal stylistic decision at the highest level. Not just the poem, but also the history of Rich’s poetic independence, unfolds as we read.' 

Wednesday, 16 December 2015

Flood Diary - Part Two: The Aftermath

I woke just before dawn on Sunday morning, in a strange bed, listening to the rain on the windows.  It had rained for more than 24 hours and I dreaded to think what I would find at home.  I got up, dressed as quietly as possible (my friends were asleep) and slipped out of the house.  The weather was still fairly wild, but I could see, as I walked down the lane in the early light, that the river had gone down just a little.  I climbed back into the Mill through my neighbour's garden.  The electricity was off, but I had a torch and could see that the building was standing, though there was still the eerie sound of water sloshing around below me.  The river had retreated from the Mezzanine floor, but was surging through the ground floor, several feet deep, at speed.  I felt considerable relief that it hadn't been worse. At some point in the night the amount of rain falling and the rate of the river taking it away had obviously achieved some kind of equilibrium.
Retreating, but being in the house still feels like being on a boat.
All day, as we waited for the river to go down, news came in of the devastation that Storm Desmond had wreaked. In Appleby people had been rescued from their houses by lifeboats as the water overwhelmed the flood defences.
Appleby on Sunday afternoon, nearly two days after Storm Desmond began.
All over Cumbria roads had been swept away, there were landslides, and bridges had collapsed under the force of the water.  In Keswick, Cockermouth and Carlisle families were once more flooded out of their houses less than 5 years since the last time it had happened.  Some communities in the lake district were completely cut off. Appleby was one of them.

It was Monday before we could get into the town centre at all.  As we (and many other people) live on the opposite side of the river to the shops, it was a 15 mile round trip to get to town because both bridges were closed waiting for an engineer's inspection.

It was ridiculous to live only a few hundred yards from the town centre and have to drive miles to get a pint of milk!  In Appleby the devastation that local businesses have suffered (some of them only recently opened) is heartbreaking.  Small town shops struggle anyway and this could be a death blow to some of them - now facing months of closure. Jobs will inevitably be lost in an area that doesn't have a great deal of employment.
Mopping up on Monday.
For us, the retreating flood water gradually revealed the extent of the damage.  The watermarks on the walls told their own story. Our graceful 18th century ground floor windows had been smashed irreparably, two partition walls punched through by debris carried in the flood water, and the chipboard floor to the Mezzanine workshop and studio was sodden and spongy. A wooden floor over one of the former mill races had been ripped up and broken apart - the planks carried out on the tide. Outside, my garden fence and gate had been shredded and the garden was a waste land of mud and debris.

But the biggest shock was finally being able to open the door to the tenant's flat and see what families all over Cumbria were having to face.  Furniture and personal items, sodden and muddy, tossed around and piled up by the flood water which had reached up almost to the ceiling. Cooker, fridge, washing machine and every other kitchen appliance completely ruined.  We can't get flood insurance here, because we live on the river bank, virtually in the river, so replacements and repairs have to be funded ourselves and, like many others here, we face several months without income until the building can be dried out.  Luckily most of the tenant's belongings, upstairs, were intact.
The aftermath.
We count ourselves very fortunate that our living accommodation is untouched while so many people are homeless. There will be a lot of hardwork and financial angst, but at least we have a roof over our heads and a dry bed to climb into. All our worries are for the future.  We were trying to sell the Mill and down-size, but no-one wants a building that floods.  All over Cumbria, 'For Sale' signs are standing forlornly in drenched gardens and owners are being faced with the impossibility of moving. Climate change is making extreme weather events the norm. If this is a 1 degree increase in global temperatures then what will it be like when we reach the proposed 1.5 degrees?  Most climate scientists say that unless we can stop all emissions now (which seems unlikely), we're on track for 2 degrees, which doesn't bear thinking about.
Some of our neighbours
I used to love the sound of the rain pattering on the roof, but now it doesn't sound so sweet. We have been flooded 4 times in 15 years, though this was by far the worst. Storm Desmond brought a record rainfall for the British isles - recorded on Honister Pass in Cumbria at 341 mm of rain in 24 hours, which is about 14 inches.  For hundreds of years, the millers have recorded flood levels on the sandstone cliff that the Mill is built into.  Desmond is about 2 feet higher than any previous recorded level.  So far the building has withstood the river's force, but every structure has its limits. That is what will keep me awake at night.

Monday, 14 December 2015

Tuesday Poem: Margaret Atwood, Red Fox

The red fox crosses the ice
intent on none of my business.
It's winter and slim pickings.

I stand in the bushy cemetery,
pretending to watch birds,
but really watching the fox
who could care less.
She pauses on the sheer glare
of the pond. She knows I'm there,
sniffs me in the wind at her shoulder.
If I had a gun or dog
or a raw heart, she'd smell it.
She didn't get this smart for nothing.

She's a lean vixen: I can see
the ribs, the sly
trickster's eyes, filled with longing
and desperation, the skinny
feet, adept at lies.

Why encourage the notion
of virtuous poverty?

It's only an excuse
for zero charity.
Hunger corrupts, and absolute hunger
corrupts absolutely,
or almost. Of course there are mothers,
squeezing their breasts
dry, pawning their bodies,
shedding teeth for their children,
or that's our fond belief.
But remember - Hansel
and Gretel were dumped in the forest
because their parents were starving.
Sauve qui peut. To survive
we'd all turn thief

and rascal, or so says the fox,
with her coat of an elegant scoundrel,
her white knife of a smile,
who knows just where she's going:

to steal something
that doesn't belong to her -
some chicken, or one more chance,
or other life.

© Margaret Atwood
from 'Morning in the Burned House'
Houghton Mifflin

This poem seems very appropriate just at the moment, and probably Margaret Atwood thought so too as she's just posted it up on her Facebook page. I've always been a bit ambivalent about Margaret Atwood's poems - some I love and some I don't. I've often found her wordy and a bit abstract.  But this collection is anything but. This is Margaret Atwood at her most political, writing with a very sharp point indeed. I have quite a few favourites in Morning in the Burned House.  One is February : - "February, month of despair,/ with a skewered heart in the centre,". The poem is centred around her cat, who behaves just as cats do;  "In the pewter mornings, the cat . . . settles/ on my chest, breathing his breath/ of burped-up meat and musty sofas,/ purring like a washboard."  But the cat becomes a metaphor for something else, just as the red fox does in this poem.

Also in this collection is In the Secular Night, which perfectly describes those early morning moments, what I call the Terrible 3 ams, though Margaret Atwood's seem to be half an hour earlier. "In the secular night you wander around/ alone in your house. It's two-thirty./ Everyone has deserted you", and your whole life revolves around your brain as you wander the silent rooms.

But by a long distance Red Fox is my favourite poem. It's about so many things when you start peeling away the layers. And I love the images, particularly 'her white knife of a smile'.  I can see the fox as she writes.

Morning in the Burned House
Margaret Atwood
Houghton Mifflin, 1996.

The Tuesday Poets are taking a break from posting on the hub site - sheer exhaustion and the workload of our members - but individual Tuesday Poets will still be posting on their own blogs and the links on the hub site will still be there.  Today is the last of our official Hub poems and it's a collective effort edited by NZ poets Mary McCallum and Claire Beynon.  Please click the link to read 'I know now what I didn't know then' by all of us.

Sunday, 13 December 2015

A Watery Saga or The Miller's Tale

A week ago we were under water. It began on Friday afternoon - a blustery, sunny day, but we had been mildly flooded the night before.  Over night on Thursday the river had come bounding over its banks, after ten days of storms, and lapped over the cobbled driveway outside the mill, making every expedition beyond the house a welly boot job. Minor roads were wheel-arch deep in water and almost every river and beck full.

The footbridge outside the Mill on a normal day.
We were still drying out from that when, on the Friday evening weather forecast, they flagged up the imminent arrival of Storm Desmond, a tightly wrapped torpedo of a weather system with a long tail like a comet stretching out across the Atlantic.  The main eye of the storm would miss us, the forecaster said, but the rain and wind trailing behind would give us an uncomfortable 24 hours.  They weren't sure of the exact trajectory, but it was going to rain - a lot.  More than a 100mm was mentioned.  We often get forecasts like this in the Lake District, but weather is so local here, a few miles can make everything different.  However, there was something about the look of Dastardly Desmond that said he was not to be underestimated.

It started to rain as it got dark, not particularly intense, but steady and purposeful.  By midnight the river was a surging brown torrent, level with its banks and beginning to explore the margins.  I went to bed and tried to sleep, but the wind was buffeting the windows and driving squalls of rain like gravel against the glass.  There were bumps and bangs outside.  At 2.30am I gave up the struggle. The river was rising much more quickly than usual - it was now over the banks, over my garden and lapping the steps outside the building.  The Mill is built on a plinth above the river bank to keep its feet out of the water. There are six steps up to the front door - about 4 or 5 feet. We measure the rise by how quickly each step disappears.  It was still raining heavily. By dawn the view from our front door looked like this: -
Dawn - the water has already reached the ground floor and pouring through. 
The TV weatherman was warning of at least another 12 hours of intense rain still to come and at that point I knew it was going to come into the building in a serious way.  I've lived here for 25 years and been flooded 3 times before, so have a fairly good idea of the way the river behaves.  I knew we were in trouble.  Once the river comes up, every hour of heavy rain is another step under water. So 12 hours is the steps outside and about 4 feet of water through the ground floor.  By 4.30am it was another 2 feet deeper and I rang the Local Floodline and heard a recorded message telling me that flooding was inevitable, there was a danger to life and property, to collect my valuables and move out.
The footbridge lunchtime on Saturday
I rang Neil in Italy as soon as I thought decent and told him to get on a plane - this wasn't going to be an ordinary event, but something catastrophic. They were now talking about 24 hours of rain.  The comet's tail was loaded with moisture and intent on dropping it all on already sodden Cumbria.  Then I woke my young lodgers in the granny flat and warned them not to flush the toilets and make everything safe.  Fortunately their rooms are above any previous flood levels.  They very kindly came down to the ground floor and began helping me to move some of the heavier items like washing machines up to Neil's workshop on the mezzanine level. They also offered to help evacuate our lodger on the ground floor, but he wasn't at home so there was nothing we could do. Then they went off to stay with their parents.  Good friends and neighbours arrived to help me take off the main doors of the Mill so that they wouldn't be swept out with the flood water.  It does less damage if the water can just flow straight though. There was too much water outside now to allow us to board up the windows.  On my own, without the help of friends, much more would have been lost.
Almost up to the top of the ground floor windows, Saturday morning
While we were working there was a surge in the river, which suddenly hurled itself across the ground floor like the Grand Rapids.  The water, which had only been ankle deep, was now at the top of our wellies .  I heard one of the windows smash.  It wasn't safe to be in there any more.

There is nothing anyone can do at this point.  We put off the electricity at the mains so it wouldn't short out once the water reached the switches. And then we started moving everything up one more level.  Even the mezzanine floor, which has never flooded in the whole history of the mill, was no longer safe. Fortunately, because of the flood risk, our main living accommodation is on the upper floor, but the forecast rain was so extreme, there was no telling whether that would escape.  There's also the worry about  structural damage.  The Mill, like a bridge, is built out into the river and takes the full brunt of the river's power once it floods. What is in summer a beautiful view, turns into a potential killer.
Rear entrance about to be cut off
I stayed as long as I could.  I didn't want to leave the building, but by now it was thrumming like a drum with the pressure of the water on the outside walls and the sound of the river going through underneath the floor was terrifying.  By late evening it was a foot deep on the mezzanine floor and in uncharted territory. For the first time I really saw the point of Twitter. Everyone was sharing information about which roads were passable, where flood help was available, and even identifying people who needed rescuing.  My small home town was inundated and other towns, downstream, in the Lake District were beginning to flood.  So many roads were underwater, it was now impossible to go anywhere in the county. Neil had managed to get as far as Preston in Lancashire but was stranded because there were no transport services running and all roads were closed.  Cumbria was completely cut off.
6 inches deep on the Mezzanine level and still raining 9pm.
I moved all our valuables, photographs and other precious things, into the part of the Mill that is built into the cliff, hoping that if the floors further out gave way, that part would still be intact. Then I climbed out of the top floor into my neighbour's garden (with their permission) and went to stay with our wonderful friends.  Not that it was a comfortable night - like many, many people in Cumbria I didn't know what I would find went I went back home.  Things were obviously never going to be the same again.

To be continued . . . .

Tuesday, 8 December 2015

Tuesday Poem: River Rising - for a flooded Appleby

From the window
the weir's constant conversation
has vanished -
by a brown silence.

We watch the water push
its way around the mill house
dangerous and unexpected.
Measure its rise
step over step
towards the door.

We rescue carpets
stack sandbags.  Decide
what we most value.

Gently it laps across
the flagstones, casually
exploring cupboards, cellars
boot-deep.  Then -
a thud, a surge; the force
that drove the mill wheels powers
through windows and doors.

From the safe stairs' island
we fish floating furniture
with a broom.  All our geography
is different - now we are
part of the river's narrative.

It rushes through rooms,
every window's view;
everything is river.

Beyond the gaping doors
a street lamp blooms
yellow in a brown sea.

© Kathleen Jones

My garden and first floor windows are under the water.  River 20 feet above normal level.
This poem was written for an earlier, much more benign, event.  The flood we have just experienced topped anything previously recorded.  341 mm of rain in 24 hours produced a raging torrent that swept away roads and bridges, stopped rail services and inundated houses and businesses.  Our ground floor was flooded several feet deep and it encroached a foot deep onto the upper mezzanine floor.  Windows have been smashed and there is mud and debris everywhere. We are lucky in that we still have a dry bed to climb into.  But it has been terrifying and, because we can't get flood insurance, will be very expensive. My thoughts go out to everyone who is homeless and struggling to cope. 
Ground floor window after the river goes down. 

Thursday, 3 December 2015

How to turn politics into art - Ai Wei Wei

All around the world writers and artists are struggling with censorship in harsh political regimes. How so many of them manage to achieve creative work in these conditions always fills me with admiration.  The Chinese artist Ai Wei Wei is one of these.

While I was in London for the Climate Change COP21 march, I managed to get into the Royal Academy to see his exhibition there. They're opening until midnight at weekends - I had an evening ticket and the RA was packed. I didn't know what to expect - some political work is more about the subject than the form - but I was knocked out by this exhibition from the moment I walked into the courtyard and into his forest of trees, bolted together from pieces of wood collected in the mountains of China. There is both spiritual and political significance behind these objects.

The curator of the exhibition comments that:
'When I was in Beijing for my first meeting with Ai Weiwei I went, as most people do, to visit the Forbidden City. I was astonished to see people taking photographs of themselves next to a dead tree in the Imperial Garden at the far north of the complex, adjacent to the Hall of Imperial Peace. In China, trees are venerated as important counterparts to the dead on earth, the realm between heaven and the underworld. This particular long-dead tree clearly held particular significance, perhaps as an indicator of the venerable age of the temple, linking the past to the present. When I saw this, it made me immediately think of Ai’s Tree series that he started in 2009.'

Ai Wei Wei's materials may be political, but it is almost always the form that is the most important thing about his work.  The basic material of sculpture is often dictated by what artists can easily obtain, and the first things in the exhibition are objects made from domestic furniture.  But in the first big room there's a wonderful section from AWW's  relief map of China, 'Bed' made from pieces of ironwood salvaged from the thousands of Buddhist temples demolished across the country by Chairman Mao. Both the ripple effect and the cross-section profile are fascinating.

Ai Wei Wei's father was a poet who was banished by Mao, with his family, to a work camp for 're-education'.  He spent twenty years there and that is the context of AWW's upbringing.  Not surprising that he grew up with a burning political conscience. Corruption - both political and commercial  - is one of his targets.  In the massive earthquake of 2008 in Sichuan, many of the dead were school children and students, because building regulations (particularly steel reinforcing) had not been met in public buildings due to corrupt officials and companies.  Ai Wei Wei salvaged steel reinforcing rods from the schools and colleges - one for each student killed - hammered them out and used them to make a sculpture called 'Straight'. It is a river of metal - different from every viewing point.

The students' names are exhibited on the wall beside it.

Chinese authorities have not approved Ai Wei Wei's work any more than their predecessors approved his father's. He has been arrested, imprisoned, held under house arrest, forbidden to leave the country, accused of tax evasion, despite his increasing world wide fame.  But this has not stopped him. When his studio was bulldozed by the government, he used the rubble to create a sculpture.  This was one I really liked.

He was forbidden to talk about his time in prison, so instead he created 'boxes', dioramas with an aperture that you can peer into, and inside is a room with sculpted figures showing some of the things that happened to him.  I was fascinated by the fact that the furniture in his cell was wrapped in plastic padding to prevent it being used as a weapon or as an object of self-harm.  The walls of the cell are padded, presumably for the same reason.

I also loved his painted ceramic pots, arranged in a colourful group.  Though even here, politics plays a part.  Why, he asks, should old ceramics from a previous age be more valuable than the work of potters creating new pots now?

Other 'fun' sculptures play with perspective, like this resin cube

and I liked these Chinese puzzles.

But the centre piece, hung under the huge glass dome of the RA, is his chandelier made out of bicycle wheels and frames.  Bicycles are very sculptural objects and Ai Wei Wei has welded them together and strung them with crystal and lights to create something very beautiful.