Friday, 13 March 2015

with tony, NY autumn 2014

the comb of a fighting dragon

Something to wave farewell to late winter with, and, I have to admit, give praise as spring starts to reveal her elegant hand. One of the lyric poems I have been working on (with Tony Hoagland), and a local story with a touch of walking its bones. Year course is now FULL with big waiting list - the ONLY available School of Myth event for the next 12 months is the Ted Hughes weekend with myself and the brilliant Hugh Lupton (1-3rd May scroll down to flyer). I will be at Crick Crack lecture series on May 6th, THE ONE THEY TRACK WITH SILVER - my lecture and telling on Trickster. Google i'm sure is hoarding all relevant details - London, Swedenborg House my memory is telling me.

From Dafydd ap Gwilymn, Welsh, c. 1325 -1380, and Irish, unknown; eleventh century.

No world but white.

Even words of a girl won’t
shift me from the peat-fire.

Here's what I say to her:
that I would arrive
as white as the clothes
of a miller.

Not a grand look
for romancing.

Flakes land like feathers,
ridged down my back
like the comb
of a fighting dragon.

God has issued his decree -
from January on,
we are to be hermits.

This winter, my Irish cousins
tell me of the misery
of the wolves of Cuan Wood:
so bent with cold they cannot rest;

The eagles of Glen Rye
are breaking icicles
from the bitter winds
with their deadly beaks.

Full lakes
are frozen seas;
tiny meres are full lakes,

Horses spin
on the these iron fields
like priests with brandy;

fishes plough the grey waves
just to keep warm.

Snow mounts higher
than the mountain.

Bells are frozen in the black chapel.

The shield hangs idle on the warrior's shoulder.

What Price to Lay an Eye?

The Church House Inn stands firm at the crossroads of Holne, whilst a silver torrent churns down past its solid oak door. Everything I survey is dripping, soaking, has had any possible shred of warmth drained from it. Through a shrouding mist plods one horse rider, replete with luminous top; other than that the hamlet seems utterly contracted.

It does not seem, I admit, the perfect beginning to a great Dartmoor spirit-story. The story begins in an old cottage at the edge of the village, but as I glance round, all i’m seeing is an array of satellite dishes racked precariously up on small, shuttered up, modern houses on the road out of here.

I start up the road from the village, past the old red-phone box, past the barn that briefly held the trellis, ribs, roof and neatly folded greying canvas of my yurt when I could no longer find a quiet place for it.

It is always a longer journey than expected up to the cattle-grid that is really the guardian stone for that entry point onto the moor. That slight tightness to the thigh, the deep gulping of oxygen-fat air - you feel that you have earned the unfolding views. The yellow of the western gorse pokes through the mists. To the right arches valley after valley, tor after tor, a rippled blur like a buzzard's wings skimming the surface of a grey pool, all feathered browns and cool teal. Punk rock sheep wander around looking miserable, blue fur sprayed as identification for farmers. It’s really cold. Again. And I have many miles to go. So, as I walk I begin the story, speaking its myth-line to underneath the tarmac. The occasional car passes, school kids pointing and laughing at the muttering man with his odd gestures to buzzards and far off hills.



Night. A storm on the moors. Rain battered a harsh tune on cottage windows, cattle sheds shuddered as if needing rope. The old midwife, Morada, had stoked the embers, had just crawled between her blankets, was settling to sleep. It was then she was disturbed by a knock at the door of her Holne cottage.

She pottered down through the flickered shadows of the creaking house and opened the door. Peering into bright rain and flooding track, she was greeted by what she recognised as an earth-soul, a Benji, a fairy. A slim figure on horseback, he leant down - a murmur in the agitated night - and offered her ten gold guineas to deliver his child. His voice was strange, like water passing over stones.

She swiftly agreed. That was a great deal of money. He bound her eyes in a handkerchief and they took to the green lanes, up to the high moor and into mighty gusts of wind and rain. Past Vennford lake, over the bridge at Hexworthy, past the old chapel and then on in the general direction of Bellever Tor.

Old arms grip
a slim waist,
alive in the surge.

This rooted oak
now hugs tight
her fey chauffeur,.

A girl again
straddling the rain-horse,
the glitter bright track,
this clattering night.

Somewhere out in the fusty acres of grizzled weather they got to the Benji’s cave. A few waxy candles spluttered next to pools of brackish water and mossy humps, indeed the entrance was little more than a small hole, deep ridged with brambles.

Inside it was utterly different, like the longhouse of some ancient moorland king. Ornate patterning skilfully hewn into thick pillars, the floor cosy with animal skins, a fire glowing, its smoke was sweet, like dried herbs. And there was music: music so tender it would have pricked tears from your eyes. Morada crouched by the fairy-wife and settled to her task. Fairy or not, this ritual she knew. By candle light she delivered the baby, wind screeching through the sodden branches outside. The whole moor was a-shake that night.

Part of her instructions were to rub an ointment – a kind of mud - on the baby’s eyes. She did so, but, of course got antsy to try a little herself. Just the one eye. What could be the harm? Well, it stung a little but that’s it. After a time, she was delivered home to her door, pockets heavy with gold.

Hard to forget
such a meeting
with the
hidden dignitaries
of Dartmoor.


Sometimes in the
furthest stable,
the last field
between the farm
and the forest.

Who horses never tire,
who’s musics never cease,
who’s food must not be tasted.

Quite a secret.

Like tasting the kings wine.

A day or two later she wandered down the lanes and into the market town of Ashburton, and everything was different. The stars were clearly visible in the daylight, cats were as large as hounds, salmon leapt from the river Ashburn with the faces of foxes – the whole world was rocked, luminous, awake. She tried to steady herself with a whisky in the snug back room of the Exeter Inn, just off the market, but even that didn’t work. Maybe buying supplies would sober her eye. But at the bustling market she, of a horror, spotted the fairy rider ambling slow and unseen through the throng. In a fraction of second he turned his attention to her. She almost stopped breathing. He cantered forward and leant down on his saddle, his face obscured by a battered old hat. “Which of your eyes can see me?” he breathed. When she slowly pointed to the left he, in a flash, scooped it out with an icy blade.

She carried a dark pit where her left eye should be for the rest of her life. Children would run to the door of her cottage and then away again, just to say they had. When she finally died of old age, they cleared her house and found those ten gold guineas under her pillow. As the villagers gleefully picked them up they became oak leaves, withered and fell apart.

what price to lay an eye?


Monday, 2 March 2015

this weekend: very few places left

late winter light

Some Lorca fresh from the hut:

The Six Strings

Escaping the
round mouth
of the guitar,
is the bellied-sob
of roaming souls:

And like a tarantula,
she spins a great star -
to catch sighs that float
in the guts
of her

trans Shaw/Harding

A couple of years ago i got a late night call from New Mexico from
David Abram. You almost certainly read him, and I bashfully confess I
hadn't up until he brokered a conversation -
a conversation i'm pleased to report has continued to this
very day. So here's something about an area of his work that rubs
up clearly against my own. As usual, be prepared for a few references
for things that are not in this small piece. As should be clear,
his work is a swell place to visit.


To David Abram, the move to the vivacity of alphabet is not something
dismissed, or even quite disapproved of. It’s held in appropriate awe. But
awe can highlight danger, and his work choreographs - like a fox
weaving a minefield - the losses and the gains involved. Both The Spell
of the Sensuous (1996) and Becoming Animal (2010) are land mark texts.

Rather than banishing the written word, David amplifies its potency:
the work gets us conscious of its power. That the human animal has
woven it’s steady way to a truly bespoke form of animism, but a kind of
aliveness that only reflects our nature. Like Narcissus transfixed by his
own reflection, written words give us a swift insight on ourselves - what
some call a mirror - but at the same time can trap us to a wider picture.
Oral culture - when speech volleys up and into the wider canopy of bird song
and hedge-rustle - catches glimpses of a shared conversation wider than just
the grind of our own mental kingdom. Speech gets tenderised and inflected
and challenged in a manner most unlike when squatted over the glowing
screen of a laptop.

But let’s own up. Isn’t it glorious to do just that? In a world seemingly
growing so abstract, a universe so unutterable vast, the split-second
reward of a finely crafted sentence can feel like something tangible,
robust, something to shelter under. And hours later, glutted by language,
doesn’t sometimes the wider world seem a little greyer, a little further
away in comparison? That’s the word-power of the alphabet.

It enables me a wonderfully false sense of security.

Do you remember, a few pages back, talk of the medieval universe?
Remember the moves of Copernicus to seemingly reveal the wizard
behind the curtain, that we revolved around the sun, rather than the other
way round ? That kind of thing rattles a sensual being. As Abram writes,
it replaces qualities with quantities (Abram 2010 :155-56). Our own
emerging, scenting, intuiting, way of being in the world is, in a moment,
absolutely secondary to the mechanisms of an exterior universe,
quantifiable but staggeringly huge. Who are we to presume our little
stories of the oak with the moss on the north flank, or the night that the
river Exe became an adder are anything but whimsy? But stories are like
cobwebs; they collect a hundred secrets in their net. Impacted, intentional
secrets between wolves and pines, trouts and river people. Well, that
storied world and its implicit relatedness has mostly fallen around our
feet. A few hundred years of this and it’s not surprising we are nervous

And where does that vast, aboriginal interior go? Entirely into the
confines of a human body, a frame woefully too small for its majesty. But
we have to get a sense of an interior, of being held, from somewhere, and
so we finally draw it reluctantly into the bone-house of our own body.
And it’s there that we enter the temple of Narcissus. There that we
build our little house of words to cope with a cosmos wrenched asunder.
It makes us feel better, at least for awhile. But down the line, are we not
busy devising a kind of hallucination? In Devon there is old folklore that
insists it is fatal to catch to catch your reflection in still water. Dartmoor,
and its preponderance for fast moving streams and rivers is more like the
oral tradition - words fly by you - but the still pool of literacy is more
like the magicians circle, a greater compression to the conjuring. And, as
with all magic, there is a cost.

When I go to the trees, and the long pale beaches of our south coast,
and the rutted little streams of Dartmoor, they don’t provide me with easy
mirrors. They do away with me feeling in control, or on top of
something. I don’t necessarily feel powerful. So, let’s be pragmatic a
second: what does that look like?

It looks like me walking a stretch of ground telling a story and bearing
witness to how the earth reacts. The long fettered silences, the moment
when a buzzard lurches from a tree, the bubbled sigh of foam on sand
enable me (to use literary terms a moment) an entirely different sense of
punctuation, full stops and adjectives. They get to work on my
imagination, they seep into the spoken words and re-arrange some of the
rhythms. I don’t see myself mirrored back to me. I see myself flooding
into some far bigger. The mirror has cracked from side to side, and I slip
through the eye of the needle.

I leant over the side with my fisherman's net, and got pulled into the big

So much of anything worth admiring in my own work I can’t take much
credit for - other than being a faithful witness. In the living world the
stories don’t immediately bounce back to me, they don’t reflect
necessarily what happened with me at my kindergarten when I was five.
They take me on Walkabout.

Hours later, soaked, sobered or a little high, depending on the journey,
I may arrive at my little hut and scrawl a few lines. But when I glance up
there may not be that tin roof any more, but a hundred million stars
whispering in their high, cold language, and no solid timber underneath
my boots, but a fragrant rug of pine needles.

Nature will show more than ourselves, back to ourselves. That’s one of
the inestimable privileges of a life. A core of aboriginal thought. No one,
least of all Abram, is calling for book burning, or unthinking hysteria.
But I think he calls for a proper appreciation of power, and how,
somehow, written words could actually enable ways to re-hydrate the
terms of our Narcissian relationship to the alphabet. We need breathing
holes for the seals in our syntax, lush passages of word-grass for Scottish
cattle to bend their hairy, gingered skulls to.

This is not just a flight of fancy, this can be practice. Localised,
maintained practice. When i tell a story to a group of people, i’ve already
been soaked in the responses of the natural world to it. Wit has arisen,
tensions have been defined and unexpected flights of imagination
negotiated by the sturdy presence of the Dart river. So a kind of braiding
to the living world can take place before a wider human sharing. There’s
already the fragile print of a starlings claw in its mud, the perfume of
apple-blossom some way back in the odour of the telling. Your conscious
mind may not catch it, but some way back, your animal body shifts in the
bracken and says yes.

Another move from Abram. At some point in this kind of conversing,
a good soul will often stand up and berate the speaker for attaching
any kind of human characteristics whatsoever to the living world. That
it’s all still anthropocentric to claim a cloud as grumpy, or the wiggle of
a bush as ebullient. They have a point.

If our emotional education has stretched no further than our fiercely
protected inner-self, they have a point. That it’s nothing but a land grab to
start prodding plants and passing rooks and describe their moods. Cheap.
But that’s not what David says we did. For thousands and thousands of
years, that’s not what we did. When you wander freely in the wider
psyche, then a ruby dark sky filled with juddered thunder is inexorably
bound to the sharp thump of feat in your gut. It’s not an affectation, not a
metaphor even, but immediate, beautifully devastating relatedness. That
very thunder is the initial educational image for a young girl on the
plains, a-swarm with anger for her sister. Earth is where she draws self
knowledge from.

If we listen, first, to the sounds of an oral language - to the rhythms,
tones, and inflections that play through the speech of an oral culture - we
will likely find that these elements are attuned, in multiple and subtle
ways, to the contour and scale of the local landscape, to the depth of its
valleys or the open stretch of its distances, to the visual rhythms of the
local topography. (Abram 1996 :140)

This is wise thinking, properly spell-breaking syntax. The use of alphabet
to actually wake us up from its often-trance-capacity. We witness here an
enormous clue as to how to re-braid ourselves to the living world. To
take ourselves out into, I suggest, a fairly small stretch of earth and
simply re-consecrate our speech to its contours and grit.

Again, I say this isn’t whimsy, this is something that can be learnt.
This is a tangible skill. Re-read the section about telling stories as a way
of them being shaped by the earth and start there maybe. Move back into
the sensing range of your own body. Commit to a decent stretch of time.
Not an afternoon, not a workshop, but real damn slow. Like a rock is

This reason why Abrams work is so arresting is because it’s not just
startling poetics, not just philosophy, but that it instigates something in us
honestly deep. It does chthonic work. Something rare. It instigates, dare-I-
say it - remembering. A remembering that is hard when beset by the
twenty thousand things you have to do before lunch, but it’s there. Now
that’s magic.

In the caribou-dust of your bones, it’s there. In the pre-history of the
flames that lick your hearth, it’s there. We’re old y’know. Whatever they
like to tell you on the television. When we bend our head and sob
without reason entering an old oak grove, that’s not sentimentality,
it’s animal memory.

copyright Martin Shaw 2015