twisted branches

twisted branches
the blackbird retreats
into his song

Having faffed around for the best part of an hour, trying fonts of various colours (including a stunning marigold to match the blackbird’s beak) I finally decided that the photo was good enough and should stand alone. After all, I’d already stalked this blackbird around the garden for quite a while in order to get as close as I could, and time never seems to be on my side!
The final version of the haiku came a few days after the photograph, and after an email conversation with poet Sue Riley, whose advice and support I value greatly. If there’s one thing I’ve missed during lockdown it’s those face-to-face conversations we have about poems that occur outside workshop situations, conversations that might not even be about poetry but that feed into it all the same.
So, thanks Sue, for helping me come to some sort of conclusion on the poem (Sue’s Ginko prize-winning poem is to be featured in an anthology about climate change published by Valley Press in May).

edge of day

Hard to believe that this photo was only taken last Friday- this afternoon it’s been about 15 degrees warmer. Interestingly, the word ‘edge’ seems to have been cropping up quite a bit in my haiku recently. On the surface, I think it’s to do with the walks I take, which often follow field boundaries marked by dry stone walls. Millstone grit is a feature of the landscape here, and the walls are a couple of hundred years old at least. The stone is mapped with lichen of various colours: yellow, green, white, and after hard weather the iron deposits oxidise and the stone becomes rust-coloured.
But, back to the word ‘edge’. Perhaps it’s signalling where my work is right now, sort of on the fringes, between making and doing. Somehow haiku demand more ‘doing’, more living. Nothing seems to surface unless I’ve been out walking, crossing the fields while it’s still quiet, listening, thinking. I walk everyday. The end of last week was hard because there was a bitter East wind. The start of that week was even harder because I was still self-isolating. But my period of self-confinement was short. Some people have been isolating for the best part of a year. I can’t imagine how that must feel, what it must do to a person. I found myself constantly going to the spare room window to look out over the fields, almost as if I needed to check they were still there. I didn’t write much either. Okay, I was working online, so I didn’t have a huge amount of spare time, but I usually manage to write and work, so I can only put it down to the restrictions of being locked in. I’m very grateful I wasn’t ill (despite the much-publicised inaccuracies of lateral flow tests, the two I did that week were negative). Still, self-isolation has made me more aware of the freedoms I have, and how lucky I am to live in a place where it’s easy to wander, and lose yourself in the landscape.
Now the days are lengthening and the birds are singing. The forecast is for mild weather all week. If it rains, I’ve promised myself I won’t complain. I’ll take it in my stride and be thankful just for the simple fact that I’m able to go out.


Taken from The Haiku Calendar 2021, available from Snapshot Press.

For the last six years I’ve worked as a teaching assistant in a primary school. Last week, one of the children in our class tested positive. So, suddenly we’re all at home, working online. It’s been a strange week, one where time has slowed right down, where I’ve felt a deep longing to be outside, cold as it is, with the wind scouring my cheeks and the dog at my side, uncertain about whether he really wants to be out in the harsh weather or inside, curled up in his bed by the radiator.
Today it’s my birthday and I still can’t go out. I’m watching the wind blow tiny flakes of snow across the garden, watching how it whips round on itself, changing direction. Earlier, I put extra food out for the garden birds and then watched as the jackdaws sailed in from nowhere, borne on this bitter East wind, hardly flapping their wings at all, just cruising in to take what they wanted. Not that I begrudge them. In fact, I quite like to see them: stooping, ponderous, unhurried.
My mother likes to remind me that when I was born the snowfall was heavy and treacherous. I was a home birth (who wasn’t in those days?) and the midwife was young, on one of her first jobs. Afterwards, my mother haemorrhaged. There was no phone. The doctor had to be called on in person. Dad set off through the snow to fetch him, while, as the story goes, I was wrapped in newspaper and placed at the bottom of the bed (all the towels had been used up trying to soak up blood). It was touch and go for my mother, although the bleeding did eventually stop. It’s hard to imagine how the poor midwife must have felt at the start of her career.
Later, when I was thirteen, I remember going to Barnsley with my Mum, and a woman came up to us in the street and introduced herself. It was the midwife. All those years had passed and yet she recognised my mother straight away, no doubt because of the trauma both women had endured.
The story of my birth has been told so many times in our family that it has gathered a lot of detail, such as the snow had drifted against the door so Dad has to dig his way out, that the doctor was in bed, that the doctor was drunk, that the doctor told Dad to get Mum in the car and take her to hospital (the car of course, was snowed in) that the towels were a wedding present, that the newspaper I was wrapped in was the Daily Express, or maybe the Barnsley Chronicle, that Dad was in his overalls because he’d just got in from his late shift drawing furnaces at the wire mill. I could go on.
It turned out my mother was anaemic. And there’s no doubt that it was a life and death situation. That’s why the midwife never forgot it (I can clearly recall the expression on her face when she spoke to my mother in the street thirteen years later). As for the details?
Well, it’s like making a snowman, you start with a small mound of snow and roll it over so it gathers more snow, and you keep rolling it until it’s so big you can’t push it any further. With a bit of luck, someone comes along to give it an extra roll and it gets even bigger. So it is with stories. Truth gathers fiction. That’s why I chose John Stevenson’s haiku for this post. It lends itself to many readings. I’ve told my own story here, because that’s how this haiku resonated with me, though it will be different for every reader. Some people will read it as a comment on the unpredictable nature of the weather at this time of year. Others will see it as an admission of the difficulty of pinning down the seasons, in this case spring, to a calendar date (when does a season really start or finish?). Others still will see it as a comment on writing itself, more specifically the writing of haiku and the need (perhaps) to be authentic to experience. And there’s that line break, ending on ‘not’, suggesting that the season’s story, or perhaps our own, does not exist, though we nevertheless try to construct a narrative that describes it. I keep returning to this poem and finding new ways to look at it, but I won’t say anymore – I’ll leave it for you to ponder. It’s only the start of February, not too late to treat yourself to The Haiku Calendar from the wonderful Snapshot Press.

holding my breath

holding my breath
the dragonfly’s
stilled wings

I’ve not been particularly poetic, or productive, this week. Tired from work, tired from the cold weather, maybe tired of the gloom that surrounds us mid-pandemic. But January’s like that sometimes. I keep telling myself spring is just around the corner. The days are lengthening a little, and I hear the birds singing when I go out with the dog. I’ve done the RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch this weekend – 2 male blackbirds, a pair of collared doves and a scattering of house sparrows. I was hoping for more variety as we often have goldfinches and blue tits, and now and again the trauma of a sparrow hawk. Anyway, I had to be content with what I saw.
The colouring/ collage above is from a mindfulness colouring book someone bought me for Christmas. I had more time over the Christmas holiday, and rather than just colour, I also used collage techniques to fill some of the pages (see below). Anyway, the dragonfly page lent itself to a haiku. I’m going to qualify this by saying it’s not the way I think haiku should be written. They need to come from experience, rather from a given image, but as I said, I’ve not written much this week, so I’m going to allow myself this one!
By the way, the book is Animal Kingdom by Millie Marotta (Batsford 2014) if you fancy giving it a go.

night frost

Thanks to Dave Bonta for sharing his brilliant photo haiku on his Woodrat photoblog, I was inspired to play around with this image. There was a real nip in the air on Wednesday afternoon which created frost ferns on the Velux windows in our kitchen. I stood underneath and took some photos, and although it wasn’t dark outside and there was plenty of light, the flash kept going off, so I assumed all I’d get was a blur. In fact, I got these finely beaded images, frost ferns pearled with light from the flash, almost like underwater photos of coral. It was the sub-aqua atmosphere that gave me the word ‘surfacing’, and originally I had ‘frost ferns’ in the poem, but that seemed too obvious, so I was left with what appears above. Looking at Dave’s work, maybe I could have been a bit more adventurous with the font, but it was a fine line between foregrounding the font/ text or the image. Either way, I enjoyed the process. Thanks Woodrat!

Reflections …

Published by Snapshot Press 2014

In Matthew Paul’s post on the haiku of Thomas Powell last week, he made the point that ‘Haiku concerning reflections in water (especially ponds and puddles) were done to death in classical Japanese haiku let alone English-language haiku of the last half-century’. With this in mind, he says that’s it’s difficult to write a poem about reflections that is in any way original. As I’m very much feeling my way in this discipline, I appreciate Paul’s comments (click on the link above to read them in full). The poem he chose to illustrate the point that ‘reflection’ poems do sometimes still hit the mark, is the following:

peat-tinted river
the squirrel’s reflection
eating a mushroom

(taken from Clay Moon by Thomas Powel, Snapshot press). I think this is a beautiful example – that ‘peat-tinted river’ is such a strong opening, conjuring the setting and mirroring the rufous fur of the squirrel (yes, they’re rare, but in my mind’s eye I’m picturing a red squirrel).

To this, I’d like to add a haiku by another Snapshot Press author, Ron C. Moss. A poet friend of mine, Sue Riley (winner of the 2019 Ginko Prize) leant me The Bone Carver by Moss and I’ve loved it from start to finish. The ‘reflections’ poem I’m going to quote is this one:

highland lake
burnt button grass
on both sides of the moon

Firstly, I’m impressed that this ‘reflections’ poem doesn’t actually mention the word ‘reflection’. We see the image of the ‘highland lake’ as a mirror in which the moon appears without the writer having to hammer it home. The idea that we can see ‘both sides of the moon’ somehow suggests, to me at least, that not only can we imagine the reverse, the dark side if you like, but we also see a half moon rising above the water, with the other half reflected below. If so, this might also indicate the time of day – twilight.
The very specific type of grass, ‘button grass’ locates the poem in the southern hemisphere (Moss is a Tasmanian writer and artist, plus Wikipedia will tell you that button grass forms part of a unique habitat in Tasmania). The alliterative use of ‘burnt’ is precise in its evocation of place too (Wikipedia says ‘buttongrass is relatively flammable and the ecological community is adapted to regular burning’). So, within three lines the poet has managed to convey both the visual image of the moon on/ or reflected in, the lake, draw a comparison with the button grass’s spherical flowerer heads and the rising moon, and also imply a contrast between the heat of the bushfire with the quenching waters of the lake. In the author information, it says that Moss serves as a volunteer firefighter, but it’s not necessary to know this – the poem subtly conveys his knowledge and experience without needing to state it.
So, I want to say thank you to all those mentioned in this post. You created a web of connections that led to me focus on this poem and write down my thoughts on this chilly Sunday afternoon. Outside, the paths are slippery with wet ice and the dog is content to lie on his back near the radiator rather than go trekking across the fields. Nevertheless, I shall be going out shortly, well wrapped up, to experience the thaw, such as it is, and hopefully to take inspiration from it for a ‘reflections’ poem of my own.

New Year’s Day

This wistful haiku appears on the back cover of The British Museum Haiku edited by the late David Cobb (British Museum Press, 2002). I’ve only scratched the surface of this genre in 2020 – there’s so much to read, so much to listen to, so much to learn. If I have anything like a resolution this year, it is simply to remain a novice and learn, not only from fantastic practitioners, past and present, but also from the practice itself.
As I write this, the snow is thawing in the back garden and unseen birds, sparrows I suspect, are making their chatter. The dwarf bamboo in the terracotta pot has bounced back after being weighed down with snow for the last couple of days, although the bird bath still has a pile of slush in the middle. Inside, we have the heating on full (a feeling of unease creeps over me when I think about the bill) and the dog is sleeping off his long walk which we did yesterday afternoon (photos below, taken from Hartcliffe, Penistone). As I have done throughout the pandemic, I count my blessings.

Have a happy and peaceful New Year.
Julie x

winter light

This mahonia has been in my garden three years now. This summer I was tempted to dig it up as it never seemed to flower. We used to have one outside the kitchen window, and it was always full of bright yellow flowers. It attracted lots of blue tits and it was lovely to watch them flitting about between the spikey leaves. When we had to uproot it to make way for our kitchen extension, I thought it would be a simple job to replace it. However, as I’ve said, the successor has kept us waiting! I realise that there’s a lesson to be learnt here. It’s about being patient, being prepared to wait; it’s about hanging on when things don’t seem to be moving in the right direction. I’m not trying to draw any direct comparisons to the pandemic, or, on a more personal level, the ups and downs of being creative. I’m simply trying to focus my attention on what’s important, the here and now, the wonder of these sprigs of yellow in an other wise dull garden in December. Nature has a way of rewarding us, if we allow it to. Under different circumstances, we would probably have been away on holiday this week. The current restrictions have put paid to that. But if we’d gone, we would have missed this first flowering. Let me say that for this, and so much else, I’m extremely grateful.