Mary Oliver

It was Mary Oliver’s fourth anniversary a few days ago (17th January). I decided to mark the day by following her own perennial example. I rose early and went for a walk.

I’m within a short walk of the Lagan towpath. On my way there, along this stretch …

… I saw a cormorant flying downriver, head straining back towards the sea. Despite the frequency with which I spot them around these parts, and the knowledge that they often fly inland, I often feel ambushed by their presence. The slightly ghoulish body, the pterodactylian head, their air of the primitive. At the other side of the bridge, the dredger followed the cormorant’s flypast …

… and the underpass was (mostly) flood-free. I often worry about the height of the river. It was very disconcerting when flood defences were completed recently close to nearby apartments (causing the destruction of many mature trees), that the river-adjacent wall of the underpass barely lipped above the river, and the footway was impassable. On Tuesday morning, I hoofed it comfortably …

There was a heavy frost. I was relieved. Climate change is such an oppression on the mind, that sometimes I find myself dreading that I’ll never see frost or snow again. The early part of week just past was freezing and during my walk I was glad of it. I thought of all the years I lived near Learmount Forest in County Derry, how many times I tramped those woods with lines of Mary Oliver whispering in my head. Because the nineties and early noughties were my Oliver years. In my pre-internet life, and to my embarrassment now, I hadn’t a clue about Provincetown. I thought, like me, Oliver lived in the middle of nowhere. Because there’s hardly a mention of the town in the poetry, and certainly no hint of its artistic and alternative heart. There’s just the woods. The beach. The ponds. The sea.

I no longer have the Sperrins on my doorstep, with River Faughan just an amble away. Now I have this intersecting canal-river.

I’ve traded dippers for moorhens. And the odd kingfisher (unfortunately absent from this photo).

There are swans. This one’s white wings almost touched the shore …

I was introduced to Mary Oliver in the early 1990s, when somebody close to me lent me a David Whyte tape. Thus I heard Wild Geese and The Journey recited hypnotically before I ever read them. The first poem of Oliver’s that I remember actually reading was Some Questions You Might Ask, which opens her 1990 collection, House of Light. I looked up from that poem, and I know the astonishment must have shown on my face. Its delicacy and depth. The way it arranges its litany of questions to subtly excavate all the big ones. You could read that poem, and wonder as I did, what has just happened? How did she get that stuff in there? While appearing to write almost nothing at all.

That collection, with Dream Work (1986) and American Primitive (1983), were hugged to my heart for many a long year. And for many years, it seemed as if nobody else had heard of Mary Oliver. Not this side of the Atlantic, anyway. I got hold of her through the long-gone, and and sadly missed, Silver Moon Women’s Bookshop in Charing Cross Road in London. Later, the now also defunct University Bookshop in Belfast tracked her down by special order. Eventually, Amazon came along. And sometime after that, Bloodaxe published a selection. I don’t remember what it was, I probably have it somewhere. And then, suddenly, Mary Oliver was everywhere.

And then, as my own poetry led me slowly into conversation with others, I became aware that not everyone got Oliver. The Journey and Wild Geese had become so ubiquitously quoted that they were regarded as clichés. Some other poets queried my loyalty to her. She was sentimental apparently – this about the woman who wrote, among many others: Lonely White Fields; Finches; The Osprey; Foxes in Winter. My only possible response to such remarks was, have you actually read her?

She was a poet who never shied away from death and hardship. Who stared the brutality of predation and the sublimation of decay in poem after poem. And yet quietly, determinedly and persistently celebrated the joy of being embodied and breathing and moving. And seeing and tasting and touching. And of listening. And singing.

Maybe it was her privacy that annoyed some people. Maybe it was her spirituality. Certainly her accessibility, and ultimately her popularity. Popularity seems to be fatal to being taken seriously. Perhaps she should have avoided abstract terms like ‘love’ for the imperative driving a black bear (Spring), and referred some kind of Skinnerian impulse instead. But she was ecological in the broadest sense. And Darwinian. And Buddhist. And Christian. There was no separation for her. But she also insisted on the singularity of the individual life, of whatever species (‘…what I loved, I mean, was that tree – / tree of the moment – tree of my own sad, mortal heart –’ [The Oak Tree at the Entrance to Blackwater Pond]). She was also disinterested in her own reputation. She guarded her time and her writing. Her voice seemed to come out of an alternative world. She too was fired by her own singularity – and her sense of connection to the natural world that she knew herself to be intrinsically part of.

I met her once, in July 2005. We went to Wellfleet to hear her read. Her reaction on hearing that we had planned our whole holiday around that reading, was one of astonishment. Unknown to us, her partner Molly Malone Cook was ill, and would die the following month. I think Mary was conscious at how nearly that reading almost didn’t happen. But it did happen and it was brilliant. She was utterly disarming – and so funny! I didn’t expect her humour, but it threaded through the whole reading. She read the poem about Donald Rumsfeld and her little dog Percy (named for the poet dear to her heart) and she brought the house down. Afterwards, we queued to meet her, to get our books/poems, the carefully selected ones taken back across the Atlantic, signed. My chosen poems were Finches and Fox. These, from House of Light and West Wind, are personal favourites of mine. But in writing this now, it strikes me that they are both about one of Oliver’s main themes: praise.

The years of waiting for the next collection to come out are long over. She was prolific, and maybe she did write (or publish) too much. Not everything she wrote is of the same calibre of her best work. How could it be? But if I had not read Mary Oliver, I doubt that I would have had the courage to persist with my own writing. And her books written about poetry, Rules for the Dance, and A Poetry Handbook, were guides along the way. She is the poet I keep returning to, and am always the better for it.

My short pilgrimage led me through a frosted Moreland’s Meadow, past the little pond, I don’t know its name. It was iced over …

… I might start calling it Blackwater Pond.

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A long gap …

Dear me. It’s been a while. So long in fact that I omitted to post about my December Country Diary about Malin Head.

So it’s 2023. I have been thinking about this blog and the new year, and about my writing. I am such a slow writer. But although I’ve been on Twitter for over a year now, I am not really getting with the beat. Twitter does my head in, TBH. I can do it in spurts. In fact, as a pretty addictive personality, I get drawn in quite quickly. I enjoy lots about it. But it’s such a time-stealer. And such a comparison-inviter. So I always end up recoiling from it. There’s also the problem of the current owner. But more than anything, it creates too much admin. Hence the pinning my December Guardian piece there, but entirely neglecting it here.

So a new year’s resolution, even though I don’t do new year’s resolutions, is to spend even less time there and more here. I’m coming to the end of a very long writing project. And I want to write other stuff, but I’m shy about writing it. I also to write other forms but I’m shy about that as well. So I think I might try and do a weekly blog here, just about life in general, about what’s on my mind, what’s inspiring and annoying me. Ramblings. Of mind and body. Just to get me used to writing about whatever comes into my head. To try out new ideas with no pressure.

I used to journal/keep a diary. I haven’t done that for years, partly because of chronic pain issues that I’ve blogged about before, which means that writing with a pen for any length of time becomes painful for me. Writing on a keyboard is better, but even that requires a lot of management in terms of taking care of my body & timetabling in a lot of rest. So that also limits the amount of time I can sit writing. But almost more importantly, writing using a keyboard is an entirely different mood-experience. When I journalled, I used to drift off into a zone that was meditative. Minutes flew by as I stared out the window. And then maybe wrote a sentence or two. And then drifted off again. It was great for recording dreams; for starting poems. It was also great for revising poems. I loved the physical act of writing. I loved the way thought spiralled out from a pen onto the blank page. That thin cursive line that was a physical representation not only of thought but of feeling.

When I write at a keyboard, it’s more serious. The letters are not shaped by my own hand. The font, the structure, is less free. But I want to write more, and I want to explore new stuff so maybe going back to blogging is the way to do that. Now that blogging like this is kinda passé and all. Who will even notice what I’m doing here? I’ve hardly any followers anyway, so maybe I can push the boat out a little. Write for myself, but sort of also write with the knowledge that it’s not private. I think that might sharpen me a bit. Force me to take a bit more seriously. Recognise that time is passing and that I’ve things to say and want to say them and I can begin here. Beginning again, and all that. And given that my birthday coincides with the turning of the year (as all my friends know, I count myself lucky I wasn’t born a racehorse), maybe that why, inevitably, a new calendar year makes me think of what I want to do next. Take myself seriously. Come back home.

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Drumskinney Stone-Circle, Cairn and Alignment

The name is like a poem. But this is my latest Country Diary. I made a foray to home territory, my natal country, the place where I was “reared”, as we used to say.

While I was there, I had chance to rekindle old friendships. And make new ones. I also enjoyed exploring new ground in the great and knowledgable company of Danny Gormley and Mena Hegarty. I’d also like to thank Cyril Loane for the permission to ramble over his land. While the Stone Circle is a fascinating location, it was the continuity in terms of rock and stone that struck me while I was there. Someday, in the not too distant future, I hope to get back to write about them also. And maybe some of the townland names as well. Is there any answer to the mystery of how “Rotten Mountain” got its name?

I’d like to thank Paul Fleckney, the Country Diary’s editor, as ever, for accepting this proposal and for his input. I’d also like to thank Mena and Danny for all their lore and assistance. And for first introducing me, as a child, to Drumskinney and its environs, I’d like to thank the late Marie Morris and all her family.

This diary is for Marie.

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Eight Types of Love

I was delighted and honoured to be asked to read with Gaynor Kane as part of her launch of her 3rd collection of poetry, Eight Types of Love, from Hedgehog Press.

I was particularly pleased that Gaynor invited me to read at her launch, because I feel as if I was midwife to these poems, in the sense that Gaynor asked me to mentor her (funded by ACNI) as she was completing the collection. It was a brilliant for me to see the earlier versions of the manuscript and to be part of the journey of these poems to their final forms.

The launch took place in Bangor’s Carnegie Library on a sunny afternoon last Saturday, 13th August. Also reading were Karen Mooney and Damian Donnelly. It was a gorgeous event, full of laughter and pleasure – and lots of cake! – as well as remarkable poetry.

Gaynor Kane reading at the launch of her new collection, ‘Eight Types of Love”

This is such a rich collection. It’s based on the Ancient Greek taxonomy of different types of love. From Ludos to Agape, through Eros to Pragma and more, Gaynor has created a cornucopia of delights.

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Last Wednesday, 10 August 2022, Derry poet Mícheál McCann launched his gorgeous pamplet “Keeper” (edited by Ben Townley-Canning, fourteen poems press), at the Sunflower Bar in Belfast. It was a lovely evening. Ben came over from London to introduce, and myself and fellow poets Dawn Watson and Toby Buckley also read. It was great to have the opportunity to be part of this event, and many thanks to Micheal for his generosity in sharing the stage. Also thanks to a really supportive and delightful audience!

Mícheál reading from “Keeper”

Keeper is a wonderful collection. Read it for its quotidian grace, the maturity and tenderness of its poems. Mícheál is a rising star. Keep an eye out for him.

A wee sweep of the (sweltering) crowd

(more photos may follow!)

Ben Townley-Canning, editor of fourteen poems press
Toby Buckley
Dawn Watson
Yours truly
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Bangor Black Guillemots

Black guillemots at the end of the Long Hole’s pier

My latest Country Diary on the much-loved colony of black guillemots in Bangor was a joy to write. Well, it’s true to say that all my Country Diaries are a joy to write, even when they mean getting up at some godawful hour – because the godawful hour always turns into a secret exhilaration. But, of the writing part of it, a lot of the pleasure is following what emerges from the gamut of experiences and research around the topic and working it into a piece of such brevity. It’s always a snapshot, and I’ve always reams of material left that I swear to myself I will write up a proper essay. As yet, that has not happened because I’m constantly working on other things. And there’s life in general. However, I live in hope that one day I will get back to this enchanting species. 

Another wonderful thing about being a Country Diarist is that it’s a ticket to conversations and meetings with the most lovely and generous people. So, here we go for the acknowledgements: this piece was inspired by a talk by Daniel Johnston at the BTONI’s Wild Weekend. On that day, Stephen Hewitt of BTONI was, once again, crucial in putting me in touch with the right people. Both Stephen and Kevin Mawhinney of the BTO pointed me towards  Katherine Booth-Jones, and ultimately Shane Wolsey. I know Shane of old, but we hadn’t met in a few years so it was great to catch up with him. It’s thanks to Shane that I got to see the nesting, or post-nesting, black guillemots at close quarters via his small “tender” (I love when I meet a new word – or a word whose meaning has another meaning in a different context). Aka, the inflatable from his boat, “Lazaway”. Shane, thanks a million for that brilliant morning, your time, your enthusiasm, your knowledge, and your kindness. I really appreciate everything. And sorry, I didn’t get to use your word ‘confiding’ about the guillemots after all! – maybe another time. 

BTW, check out Shane’s blog – it’s a treat, and I particularly recommend the dolphins from June 16, 2022. Breathtaking! 

Thanks too to Paul and Gillian who showed me their balcony decking with their built-in black guillemot nestboxes beneath. Sorry I didn’t have space to get to that either! 

I can’t leave unacknowledged my debt to the work of the late, and sadly missed, Julian Greenwood, whom I had the pleasure of meeting a few times. It was Julian’s practical support of and dedication to the colony, and his research on it from the mid 1980s, that made a massive contribution to its success. This must be a factor in high regard, indeed the pride, with which the people of Bangor hold their “penguins”. I experienced this on several occasions when I went to watch the birds in prep for writing. I would particularly like to thank the early morning walkers and dog-walkers at the Long Hole, who saw me sitting with the guillemots, and gave us, or rather the guillemots, a wide berth and thus our privacy. 

Over the years, there are many people who have been devoted to both caring for and researching the Bangor black guillemot colony. However, I would like acknowledge the late Barry Lightbody, and Ann Lightbody. I never knew Barry, but I did get to know Ann through my work as a Queen’s Open Learning tutor. In that role, I delivered some birding courses in Bangor, and Ann was the person who cued me into the Bangor Penguins in what were my relatively early days as a permanent resident of Belfast. So for both Ann and Barry, many thanks for the introduction and all the dedication. 

As always, I am grateful to the The Guardian’s editor of the Country Diary, Paul Fleckney. 

The Hall of Guillemots – under Commercial pier – NB wooden nest box on the left
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Building a home for swifts

My latest contribution to The Guardian’s Country Diary celebrates the swifts of the Crescent Arts Centre; and, indeed, celebrates how the Crescent Arts Centre celebrates them itself, both in its care of the nesting colony, and through the Belfast Book Festival. Clearly that’s a lot of celebrating – not surprisingly with a species as exhilarating as this one.

The Crescent Arts Centre, Belfast: home to the North of Ireland’s largest swift colony

Many thanks to Sophie Hayles CEO of the Crescent Arts Centre, and to Peter Cush of the Northern Ireland Swift Group for their inspiration and information. Also to Gail Jones, Communications Manager at the Crescent. And thanks, as always, to the Country Diary’s editor, Paul Fleckney.

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A dawn of blackbirds

I didn’t stray too far from home for my latest Country Diary.

An urban blackbird singing. (photo by Malene Thyssen)

As always, many thanks to Paul Fleckney, editor.

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Wilfred Owen’s Strange Meeting

My much-annotated ‘Strange Meeting’

I was delighted, if that’s the right word, to see Carol Rumen’s analysis of Strange Meeting in today’s Guardian.

Like one of the commentators below the article, I too grew up during the Troubles and was educated in a convent school. I have blogged elsewhere about the inimitable Miss Reihill, who taught me English for O’level, and thereby introduced me to Wilfred Owen in that treasure-chest of English Poetry, A Choice of Poetry.

My school copy of A Choice of Poets. Yes folks, I’ve held onto it all this time.

However, like many adolescents, it was Owen who grabbed my attention. His work led to an obsession with both the Great War and the Second World War for some years. Perhaps those events felt like a safer way to grapple internally with the horrors of conflict than the low-grade war that I was actually living in the middle of.

Similarly to that commentator, I too knew Strange Meeting by heart; in fact, with very little prompting I still do. I recognise, as discussed by Rumen, that it is flawed; however its very flaws are part of its beauty. This article sent me off on a hunt to find my copy of ‘A choice of poets’, where I first encountered it. When I did, I chuckled at the scribbling that decorates most of the white space around it. While I was clearly an inveterate scribbler of notes, it’s not a surprise to me that this poem has been annotated intensely. I was clearly enthralled. I still am. It is such an important poem and at this time, with yet another tragic European war underway, it seems heartbreaking apt for the times. It’s also heartbreaking, as I noted above, (and I’ve no reason to doubt Miss Reihill’s word), that it was Owen’s last.

The end of Strange Meeting; aptly followed by Futility

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The last of the line

I was contacted recently by Summer Palace Press, who published my first poetry collection, Black Wolf on a White Plain. The launch of that book, way back in September 2001, was delayed by 9/11. I had exactly four copies left and had assumed that the book was entirely out of print. Not so. Kate, one of the press’s editors, told me there were a couple of boxes left of the original print run of 1000 books. Would I like to buy them (for an amount that included an extremely generous author’s discount) with the proceeds going to a charity for humanitarian aid for Ukraine? Of course I said yes.

It feels strange that this book has been bracketed by two wars, as it were. Its launch was marked by event that sparked the so-called war on terror; and a new war in Europe has prompted its final copies to come home to me.

Nevertheless I am very glad to have them. I wrote this book with so much hope and desperation, and out of the need for change in my life. I had no idea of all of the changes that would come. Many were good and have contributed to the extremely satisfying shape to my life today. I achieved what I wanted. My life is defined by writing, and far from losing touch with the biological sciences, my writing incorporates them, especially through The Country Diary. I use the experience of the (school) teacher that I was back in 2001 in every aspect of my facilitation and tutoring work. I have finally finished the novel I started way back in 2004. I also had the opportunity to do a Masters and redeem the 2ii that I was awarded for my first degree, a grade that scalded me for years (I got a Distinction in my Masters, so that kicked that well out of the water). That achievement led to my PhD, which had its necessary difficulties & hardships, but overall was sheer joy.

But. Getting hold of these remnant copies of Black Wolf also reminded me of some of the pain. How my poetry was thwarted for years by eldercare and financial issues involving the Office of Care and Protection. How a tremendous amount of time was stolen from me by circumstances outside of my control. How my love for my parents, and my labour and availability were exploited (I’d gone part-time, with the support of my partner, to devote more time to writing. That didn’t exactly work out, to put it mildly). It’s not an exaggeration to say that people I should have been able to trust nearly destroyed me. When my second poetry collection, Tribe, came out in 2008, it was almost a non-event in terms of progressing any nascent writing career. My father had just died and I fled to my Masters in Animal Behaviour. Retrospectively, I feel enormous gratitude that I had the means to do that, and ultimately it was the right decision. But it was also a decision prompted by my inability to write poetry any more. Events had driven out of me. Years would go by before I was able to come back to it.

In receiving these copies of Black Wolf, however, there is a tiny little feeling of redemption. God knows, it’s hubris in the extreme to compare with what I went through in the noughties to what the people of Ukraine are going through today; nevertheless, some emotional resonance feels true for me. How a life can be thrown off course by events that are entirely outside of one’s control. How you can be left bewildered, shocked, grief-stricken, utterly disbelieving at how structures suddenly collapse and the people responsible are blithely, callously, disregarding. Possibly even gleeful. Because you had a nerve expecting to be treated differently.

So I hope that the funds that Summer Palace Press are donating to the people of Ukraine make some small difference. Things will never be the same again – lives and dreams are smashed irreparably. But change will come. Lives will be rebuilt – differently shaped. The rest of us must be ready to help.

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