Thursday, 30 July 2015


** fridays event in london completely sold out. Maybe some returns on door. Check Crick Crack Club for details" ***

Been missing Coleman recently. I have my very favourite Rumi book of his: "Feeling the Shoulder of the Lion" right next to me on this early-morning desk with my coffee and mug and the cat wriggling round my leg telling me I have to feed her. Ok I have to feed her. A little black lion. Back in a minute. Back. This old computer I am using today has no comma button - as you will see.

The soul is that way in the body
a royal falcon put in with crows.
It sits here and endures what it must
like a great saint - like an Abu Bakr
in the city of Sabzawar.

This little book has a different kind of intensity to it. Tremendously compact - austere - wild even. Not likely to make it to a greetings card anytime soon. Coleman says: "The power of the appetites is in the lion - the power to control them or indulge them. The lion is also associated with the sun. The lion wants more light. Sometimes that means fasting sometimes feasting. The spirit-lion is the dawn presence - the one who calls out - announcing the next."

I followed something of this in Snowy Tower: "the story of Parzival says that there is a lion in us: a lion who opens its vast jaws to the feasts of court - the intrigues of culture - the thin road of the pilgrim. The lion consumes emptiness and space with just the same vigour as it settles on fresh meat."

Coleman again - for all of us: "the chief lion attribute is his authority. It is an authority over himself - and it is also an authority that comes from living close to a deep sense of self that he will not betray..."

The farmer went out late at night
to check his ox. He felt in the corner
and rubbed his hand along the flank of the lion
up the back - round the shoulder - and around
the chest to the other shoulder.

The lion thinks "If a light were lit
and this man could suddenly see
he would die of the discovery.

He's stroking me so familiarly
because he thinks i'm his ox.

The greatest lion I know in any language is Mirabai. She's gets to it:

To be born in a human body is rare
don’t throw away the rewards of your past deeds.

My beloved has come home with the rains
and the fire of longing is doused.

At the first thunderclap
even the peacocks open their tails with pleasure
and dance.

Like lillies that blossom under the full moons light;
I open to him in this rain; every pore of my body
is cooled.

Mira’s separation and torment are over.

And she's clear to her lord:

Be with me when I lie down; you promised me this
in an earlier life.

If you come anywhere near my house
I will close my sandalwood doors
and lock you in.

Mira’s lord is half-lion and half man.
She turns her life over to the midnight of his hair.

(versions Hirshfield and Bly)

copyright Martin Shaw 2015

Thursday, 23 July 2015

the old, low note

The room is to walk from moonlight to sunlight.
Like a womb, glowing like the yoke of an egg.
In its centre is the small painting,
which seems the source
of the luminosity.

The rug has been pulled,
an ember leaps from the fire -
the king’s heart strikes an old, low note,
and he will never be the same.

From fairy tale "Faithful John", telling Martin Shaw.

I love the old, low note of the fairy tale. Tomorrow we gather at the school for our next deep immersion in the old stories and their florid tangle with the wider world we call the earth. It's in this wet and woven treasury that I hear the dark-root wisdom of Rilke again, speaking out:

When we win it's with small things,
and the triumph itself makes us small.
What is extraordinary and eternal
does not want to be bent by us.

...Winning does not tempt that man.
This is how he grows: by being defeated, decisively,
by constantly greater beings.

The Man Watching (trans Bly)

The telling and carrying of stories is being in the presence of constantly greater beings; and showing fidelity to the tremors of your own soul when you wrestle one that has absolutely claimed you. That's when submission appears, in its old regal fashion; about as far away from our contemporary fixation with isolated individuation as it's possible to get. We can guzzle all the wheatgrass smoothies we want and still be absolutely bereft in our wider psychic health without the arrival of this bigger event. Well, that's what the old folks say.

So looking back at Snowy Tower, I found a little of the introduction spoke to this 'wet and woven treasury' that we will be exploring. Here we go:

Certain myths, certain stories, are a bridge to the muscled thoughts
of the living world. These thoughts we could call the pagan imagination.
Pagan from the Latin—country dweller. When I write of the pagan imagination,
it is to illustrate the earthy spaciousness that really grounds
a human: not as a remote island to themselves, but a charmed, invested,
lover of place. Pagan not as a religious persuasion, but the feel of one
who strolls, complete, under the grey teeth of the rain, or who places a
hand on red turf and feels the subtle disclosures of an old friend; or who
points at the night sky and knows not unutterable distance but that the
stars are shield-rivets of the sun, and that they themselves shelter under
the vast indigo tent of the sky. They are one who dwells.

Some stories these days do not offer that kind of relationship. Like
a genetically modified crop, their intrinsic design is so shaken up, so
bent only to allegory, that this root connection is lost. Their taste is
briefly sweet but lacks texture and weight. Nuance is ironed out. The
story we are about to explore is not one of those. If the hand of the
human community is too impacted, then story becomes only pastoral,
an affirmation of what we already know. I don’t believe we need stories
like these. Many of us long for the prophetic, the unruly, the stories that
awake the bristling, tusked edges of our imagination.

At the same time, stories gathered from the wild places, if authored and
spoken by just one person, will lack the psychic weight that many fairy tales
hold. One human’s testimony was never meant to hold the entire soul-story
of the tribe. That’s too much weight for anyone’s shoulders.

Having sat round hundreds of campfires for twenty years hearing
powerful, transformational stories pour from the mouth of returning
wilderness questers—visionary—I have wept at their mythic truth, but
have not quite heard a myth. A subtle distinction, but important. They
carry the ‘I’ elegantly, but not always the ‘We’ that the great stories reveal.
They are beautiful rivers, but they are not the ocean. It was the waiting
tribe, many years ago, that would help the initiate dig the tributary that
took their river to the bigger tribal story. The ancient stories, rather
like our vast, majestic seas, may have occasional temporary pollutants,
but are not to be abandoned. They are to be cherished, worked with,
carried, honored. They carry silvery shoals of insight, slow moving crab
wisdoms that survive at great depth and under intense pressure, aquatic
revelations that give themselves up for our nets, time and time again.
Though on one level myth is not really about ‘a long time ago’ (but a
kind of numinous present), we know that the opening up to its images
through many communities and over long stretches of time deepens the
power and intricacy of its disclosures. Repetition has enormous weight. So,
although the myths usually refers to eternal concerns, the repeated practice
of invoking that very ‘timelessness’ is one of the elements that gathers psychic
vigor to the telling, like moss around a stone. It’s very mysterious.

Although some would rather be done with myths and folktale and
swiftly produce new stories of harmonious and stress free relatedness to
the living world, it is like trying to out run your own shadow. Naive. All
those power games, betrayals and paradoxes that myths and fairy tales
engage with—they keep revealing to us difficult inner-material, material
that comes with the labour of being a human—a human with a history
of betrayal, urbanity and a tricky lower intestine—and not always the
pristine mind of the elk or starling. That’s useful as we turn our head
towards wild intelligence. Its rather domestic grit reminds us of the
village we come from as well as the forest we long for. Human initiation
always calls for the messy business of dwelling in the crossroads of both.
With a great deal more investment and community (as well as solitary)
focus on wilderness, those individual stories from the wild may
indeed collude into something lasting. Meanwhile, the great stories—of
six swan brothers, a young girl riding the back of a goat waving a spoon,
of raven feathers that hang from the yurt of a Giant—the ones that challenge,
mystify and wake us up—to this very day contain vast doorways
to the Otherworld.

It is certain fairytales that carry the dreamtime of what came to
be called Europe, bedded down in the blue green forests and the nomad
lines from India and the Caucasus Mountains, its rich loam carrying
the loose wild fields of pagan thought clear of the accelerated logos of
Descartian advance. These stories are our chthonic shadow that stayed
close to plants and animals when we tried to become Sun Gods of
Empire. Things survived, down there, in the spidery gleam of the hearth
fire tellings, images of such animistic intelligence that they shoot brilliant
shivers of recognition into the orbit of anyone who gets near them.
They are Yeats’ “Wild Swans of Coole.”

So do we just tip toe away from this complex inheritance, and rattle
off endless cut and paste ’new’ myths after an afternoons brisk walking on
the Brecon Beacons? I think this would prove to have little sustenance. It
would lack authenticity. We need the experiential, the great unshackling,
but bardic thinking would entail that encounter then challenging and
deepening the existing mythos, not abandoning it completely. This is
where study arrives. We won’t get into heaven without it.

Copyright Martin Shaw 2015

Monday, 6 July 2015

current tracking device

the muddy crust

This is a recorded message: I'm currently out in the forest guiding a wilderness vigil. Here's a dish I prepared earlier.

..I will be up at the Edinburgh books festival on Sat august 22nd, collaborating with Mark Rylance and Paul Kingsnorth on an event called LOST GODS. I wish I could suggest you get a ticket but they've all gone i'm afraid. Our time together will circle around the relationship between imagination and the old gods of England, Paul's novel THE WAKE, some readings from it by Mark, and an unearthing i've made of a strange english fen story that is clearly the swampy twin to the old Grimms tale Iron Hans. In some lively manner we will weave readings, tellings and opinions between us and see just what arrives in the room.

You will probably know Robert Blys book, Iron John (a telling of the Hans story). You will be sympathetic to my surprise as I realised there was this muddy, seemingly east-anglian telling of the same story, with just enough exquisite changes of emphasis that it's rehydrated that wonderful old tale for me. Remember that feared place in the forest where a hunters dog gets pulled under the water? Pleasingly, no mutts were harmed, or even occurred in this telling.

Swamps are not forests, especially to the english, and the notion that we require an education under the immensity of mud, silt and slow moving water has been deeply moving to me. The story has something of Beowulf in it too. Seeing a story through the monsters eyes. It's the very same ground where Finn MacColl over in Ireland learns to swim with a dagger in his teeth - but this tale goes even deeper, under the swamp. It's this place of underlings, under-speech, under-thought that I think gives Kingsnorths book its power, and Marks fragile and eerie readings from it. There's something down there. Edinburgh will be my first proper unveiling, though students at the school may get more than a rumour at our next gathering. Having told the Grimms variant alongside Bly and with Daniel Deardorff for the 20th anniversary of the book, this is a lovely little gift to be curating.

So for all of us on our sunken ships, or hunkered down and wrapped round breaking timbers glimpsing a new, tender possibility of life, here's a few moments that may hint at what could be below the muddy crusts of grief.


(the arrival of the swamp-being, and his invitation to us)

As if out of the ground,
a great shuddering lump
sloughed with water
the source of all rivers
the tears in every eye
the mighty current,
the true drop.

Come get up on my back

He runs,
the ruddy bear,
fire-spark under moon
till at dawn he slowly
places the lad down
on firm soil.

little hands find ruddy cords of hair
like rope or binding vine, to keep him
secure as the beast-man starts
to lope further and further
into the ward

deeper stranger darker
till of a sudden the two sink
beneath the waters, the silt,
the mud, the rough grasses.

A crows wing
is wrapped around
the boy

mouth ears nose
fill with black sound and dark water
a churning sound a hundred wild geese
amok loose over ocean

And then he can breath again,
behold again.

Down below is a kingdom.

Below the waters
is a mead-hall:
kegs, storytellers, servants,
meadows, wild horses,
intricate walled gardens.

This is the residence of
the one-eyed-man.


(the boy receives an almost renaissance education under the salt marsh, and then finally begins a life on the surface. He experiences all the un-witnessing, betrayals, occasional malice and divine complexities that comes along with lifes passport. He's finally beaten and dumped in the swamp by a couple of high borns, not realising that they've actually dropped him in his ground of true psychic sustenance. Not the grand forest of the nobles, but the slow shifting waters, flicker-lights, and moisty fog of the swamp. It, in the end, is that energy that saves the east-people from the Norseman. Something truly marginal, something wyrd, not typically heroic by any shot, though this has a taste of it:)


He alone with the cattle of his fists
reaches into sullen northern waters
by sheer will
tips the dragon-boats back down
the whale road they come from
in his vast spasm
the norse-bandits flee they flee
into the seas foaming cum

Holy christ. The chief has never seen such a victory.

He is carried on the backs of the men
to the mead-hall.

They sing low
through the rising light,
a gentle scattering of rain

To this day their feast continues,
in the hill inside the hill.

We see this

as through a dark glass

but we see it


So here's to you and your swamp times and your victories and all the blessed rest.
Don't go easy. See you soon, wanderer.

copyright Martin Shaw 2015