It started with a painting in the garden office of the woman I admire the most. Each time I visit her, a rainbow-lit candle glows from above her desk and flickers at the edge of vision. It is impossible to ignore the vitality, the hope, the almost musical use of colour in the painting.
‘Candle, Eigg’ by Winifred Nicholson
‘Candle, Eigg’ by Winifred Nicholson (1893–1981) was painted in 1980 during a stay on the island with the artist’s great friend, poet Kathleen Raine (1908–2003). The two women rented what was then known as Gamekeeper’s Cottage (immortalised by another of Nicholson’s paintings, ‘Gateway to the Isles’).
‘Gateway to the Isles’ by Winifred Nicholson
‘Winifred painted and I wrote, or walked off gathering flowers, many of which Winifred painted’.
Raine was a poet infused with guilt and sorrow, her love for Gavin Maxwell (author of Ring of Bright Water, a line from Raine’s poem ‘The Marriage of Psyche’) unreciprocated and their friendship suffering irreparably after the death of Maxwell’s beloved otter, Mijbil, whilst Raine was looking after him. Both she and Nicholson had visited and worked at Maxwell’s home on Sandaig, near Skye. Carrying these two creative greats in my mind as I traveled to Eigg myself, I was determined to be inspired by the places they had seen, to visit where they’d stayed and to pay homage. I had no idea that the island was about to introduce me to its latest embodiment of ‘big women’.
Bright Ringed Water
(after ‘Eigg Flowers’, 1980 by Winifred Nicholson)
By the way of the sun
By the dazzle of light
By the path across the sea
Bring my lover.
– Kathleen Raine
Here, take these bluebells,
vetch gathered out walking
on the boggy moors this morning
not thinking of him sleeping
remotely across the Sound of Sleat.
Take them, please, away from me
before I desecrate them petal by petal.
Arrange them in a jar,
a modest vase perhaps,
set them on the windowsill and paint
them in your unseen colours.
I’ll build us a peat and driftwood
fire as you work, boil pailfuls
of well water for tea, nettle soup.
Later, I’ll scramble down to the bay,
collect mussels, cockles and razorfish
in my apron pockets – not stopping
to gaze at his bright ringed water.
No. Sometimes I dream
he’s a raven come to seek me. I
wake wanting him in my arms, my bed
empty, nothing to hold but a dark
slick feather resting on my pillowslip.
* * *
I had been worried about the effects of isolation on my mind; about my ability to manage entirely alone; about what I would do if there was an emergency at home. Researching Sweeney and his madness during my stay became a permission–giving exercise; a slow realisation that for all its elemental wildness – and no matter how violently Storm Gertrude kicked off and tried to cart wheel the bothy into the sea – Eigg is a place of warmth, of healing and containment.
Birdman of Beinn Bhuidhe
(after Trevor Leat)
Up there among half-lit, half-
mapped crags, you might catch him
ankle-snagged between two
rocks. And if you don’t catch him,
you might catch sight of him –
his fleeting back: its pelt of willowy rods
twisted inward, packed downward
into spindles of ribs seasoned
from green to rust long before
his downy buds could erupt.
He squats on the cusp of movement,
eyes high over cairn, cist and cliff,
one withy arm outstretched
as if to lob a shot or call down
his gods from their beak-battered
shells. Days when there is no sighting
him, you might catch the sense
of a bird or a mind in flight;
a mind unsoothed by silence;
a mind rattled by its own animal
sounds: weeping, breathing, eating;
the rush of flames in the grate;
a demented bellowing wind.
Like Sweeney, I have wandered
these seven years, flitting
from island to island state, uncloaked,
naked, protected by precious little
but this patchy birdwork mask –
its single unpluckable feather fletched
to the back of my draggled head.
The bothy has a way of impressing itself upon you to let you know first what it is that you need, and second how to give it to you. I had been certain I only needed space and time to write uninterrupted by the noise and mess and mayhem of family life. I wrote a negligible amount during my residency and worried about this constantly. I walked, chopped, daydreamed, combed, wept and baked – all of these interspersed with long stretches of just looking, staring through the window at the view of Rùm in quadriptych.
At Sweeney’s Bothy
I am Sweeney, the whinger,
the scuttler in the valley.
– Seamus Heaney
Come here when you’re broken
& take refuge in this plywood space
with its window wall framing
a view of Rùm in quadriptych.
Kneel before the hamper on the floor
stuffed with fire-lights, sooty gloves,
the torn up box of a long-gone year
of whiskey. Feed the ravenous stove &
cherish the splutter of the plump
orange kettle on its top. Nap in the nook,
the book-lined nook as modern-day cist
or cairn or cave. Work at the desk,
antique binoculars at hand, lamp bent
away from the page & the gentle scent
of lavender sprigs in a butterfly-printed
vase. Evenings, with your face to the sinking
sun, sit on the bench hammered
from abandoned sleepers. At night
take flight to the mattress in the rafters,
a stripped young birch nailed as a rail
to keep you in… or to keep what’s troublesome
out. Let it hold you curled safe as Sweeney
up his tree. Eye the island in all its darkness
as it reduces to nothing but this black cube:
the wind, the hail, the crackle of the fire dying,
your occasional sighs like ashes settling
into themselves. Take in all this
and be no closer to knowing if it’s a lunacy
that drew you to this place or if you wandered
here to set your madness free.
Afternoons, as the light shifted across the Atlantic before guttering out completely, I’d curl up in the book-lined nook for a mug of fennel tea, a nap, then a chapter of Camille Dressler’s Eigg: The Story of an Island, which has informed many of the poems I’ve since written, and is also where I first read a translation of the island’s original name, Eilean nam Ban Mora, as ‘Island of the Big Women’, the name I have subsequently given to the pamphlet of 25 poems I have written in response to my week on Eigg.
 from Winifred Nicholson in Scotland by Alice Strang, 2003.
With enormous thanks to all at The Bothy Project, most especially Lucy Conway & Eddie Scott.
Monday sees me make my solo trip (along with Darcy, the SPRI mascot) to northern Finland for a week to research Sami culture, shamanism reindeer herding and traditional Finnish food… and then to think about how to incorporate what I’ve learned in my new collection with reference to section six of The Snow Queen. In this section, Gerda visits a Lapland Woman and a Finland Woman in her quest to find her lost playmate, Kai.
Apart from the Robbergirl, these women are my favourite characters in the fairy tale. They both intrigue and unsettle me simply because of their dualities. Both of them are hardy, resilient and fierce yet both are kind to Gerda, feed her and let her rest before continuing on her journey. Gerda is grateful to them both, but also terrified, repulsed even. Here is Gerda (and the reindeer’s) first encounter with the Lapland Woman:
‘They stopped at a little hut. A wretched hut it was; the roof very nearly touched the ground, and the door was so low that whoever wished to go either in or out was obliged to crawl on hands and knees. No one was at home except an old Lapland woman who was busy boiling fish over an oil lamp.’ (Andersen, 2002:77)
And this is how Andersen describes her meeting the Finland Woman:
‘Hot, very hot was it inside, so much so that the Wise-woman wore scarcely any clothing; she was low in stature and very dirty.’ (Andersen, 2002:78).
The Snow Queen shows Andersen writing at his best, the whole fairy tale is a masterclass in sustaining the metaphor of opposites: male and female; hot and cold; intuition and logic; nature and science; movement and stasis; desire and apathy; control and freedom etc… But I’m curious about the connection between attraction and repulsion that Andersen is making with the Lapland Woman and the Finland Woman, and making twice by using the same character trope in quick succession as though to underline or reassert something he felt was important. I’ve always wondered why he created two characters who appear to serve the same function: they are both old women who live alone in harsh and almost barren landscapes; both of their homes are isolated and unusually difficult to access; neither women seems to want or need regular human contact.
Often in fairy tales, a character’s physical appearance is a signpost as to whether they are a goodie or a baddie: a warty nose, a crooked back or feet too large to squeeze into a glass slipper, for example. As readers, or listeners, we gather the snippets of information the author drops in our path in order to be able to piece together something that resembles a whole character. Older female characters in fairy tales are typically either presented as all malignant, and therefore a witch or all benign, and therefore a fairy godmother. Why has Anderson made both the Lapland Woman and the Finland Woman a little bit of both? Is he making an argument for reality over fantasy, for balance, for being ultimately only human?
I’ve been struggling a little bit since the summer to get back into a good, productive routine of poem-making. This collection has an entirely different feel to it, unlike Milk Fever which came in such a hurry it was like experiencing a traumatic, speedy labour.
Call Her Alaska wants to take its time; wants to really feel things before committing them to words. The poems are coming slowly and infrequently, yet when they do arrive I seem to be editing them less, as though the longer gestation period has done some of this work for me somewhere dark and unseen. Although I’m not entirely comfortable with this state of affairs, I recognise it as right for this book. As much as I’d like to be scribbling furiously for hours each day and brandishing a fresh, white-hot manuscript, there’s something less frenetic at work now, something deeper and deeply rewarding.
Earlier in the year, when I was trying to write ‘Silverskin’, a poem about Gerda and The Lapland Woman, it took me several weeks to get just a first line that felt right. Instinctively, I knew over and over again which beginnings were false starts, but the right beginning, although vaguely sensed in my mind as a feeling, would not present itself to me in words. I found this infuriating, I railed and sulked and shook my fists at my laptop. All I had for a long time was the phrase ‘love like paper cuts’. I didn’t know what it meant or how I was going to use it, but I knew it was integral to the poem. Day after day the poem refused to come into being and I became more and more miserable. My colleagues would ask me: ‘is that new poem behaving itself yet?’ and I would sigh and shake my head. But then an epiphany, a moment when I was able to listen to what the poem wanted to be rather than what I was trying to force it to be. I laughed out loud when I realised that this particular poem (ostensibly about herrings) wanted to look like a fish… yes, that’s right, it wanted to take the form of a filleted fish. With this surprising new knowledge, I was able to break through a pain threshold that ultimately afforded me something more creative and spacious, a little bit innovative even. Soon after, the poem was born and featured in The Snow Queen Retold exhibition here at the Polar Museum. With enormous thanks to graphic designer, Stuart Holmes, here is how it turned out:
Finally, I was both shocked and excited to learn from my publisher that the hardback version of Milk Fever had sold out over the summer. After being briefly unavailable, but probably not a collector’s item, you can now purchase it in paperback.
Huge excitement here at the Polar Museum in Cambridge as plans get underway for the launch of our Snow Queen Retold text and textiles exhibition in August. For the past six months, I have been collaborating with the astonishingly talented and endlessly enthusiastic costume designer Lindsey Holmes on a project that reinterprets Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytale through costume and poetry.
My next collection, Call Her Alaska, is a contemporary re-imagining of The Snow Queen. The poems aim to invoke the spirit of the fairytale rather than re-tell it. Lindsey has read the poems and is creating an incredible costume in response – and yet costume seems to slim a word for an installation that functions as a Snow Queen’s cape, a map and a storytelling tent all at once!
I was still at the researching stage, making the most of the library, artefacts and archives in my new role as Invited Poet at the Polar Museum when Lindsey arrived one blustery day. She was a costume maker without a story, I was a poet with the bones of a collection and nothing to hang them on. The fairytale had resonated deeply with us both since childhood and the rest, as they say, is history. As we met up to discuss, explore and play with ideas we became fascinated by the fairytale’s dualities: the hot feelings explored in a frozen landscape; the imperfect natural world struggling against logic, mathematics and reason; the innocence of childhood doing battle with the bitterness of adult greed and envy. Where else could host a display of these polarities than the Polar Museum?
Fairytales can be brutal, surprising, surreal – much like the physical and mental landscapes of explorers in the polar regions. We wanted to create a safe space to oppose these forces. From the very beginning of our work together, we shared a vision: that the collaboration should should somehow function as both an item of clothing, but also as a den – a place to hide away and yet also to place explore the fairytale; a place for both children and inner children to kick off their shoes and crawl about inside, a completely interactive space. Many of the items Gerda gains or loses on her journey are secreted inside the poetry-embroidered tent – why not come along and see how many you can find?
The Snow Queen Retold: Text & Textiles exhibition runs from Friday 16th – Saturday 31st August.
Last week I went back to school after a 21 year hiatus to judge a spoken word poetry competition. It was like returning to the scene of a crime. So much had lain undisturbed for all that time, memories mostly, gathering dust and in hindsight warping themselves into things they never were. Very little had changed: the same smell, the same atmosphere, the same girls with the same flicky hair seeming to enact the very same dramas – though this time with different faces. The library still had the same books I used to thumb looking for answers I wouldn’t find, the assembly hall had the same lectern and there was still the same ancient phone box under the polished, curved stairs where I used to fantasise about phoning my mother in floods of tears (but never actually did). I can’t quite explain the oddity of going back as an adult, but only having access to my childhood feelings about the place. It felt wrong to go into the staffroom for example and call teachers by their first names, I had a vague sense of not being good enough at what I was doing and being on the cusp of getting told off, I wanted to giggle during assembly when I was asked to speak about my life as a writer.
The girls astonished me. I was judging (and reading to) years 7-9. They were attentive listeners and asked me interesting questions, the Year 8 group did a 10-minute writing exercise and produced the first drafts of some pretty decent poems. Then, one by one, as their names were called, they stood up and recited poems they’d learned by heart. I could not have done that at their ages, I would have run away screaming and locked myself in the toilets (in fact, I think I did actually do that once during a Public Speaking exercise in a History lesson). Some of the girls were actresses, some were comedians, some had the most enormous capacity for memory – all of them entertained me. But then there was Kitty*, a slight, shy girl who seemed all lost and uncomfortable in her too-big blazer. She looked terrified and as though she wasn’t sure what she was meant to do, she went red, she pulled at her shirt sleeve and bit her lip. She looked at me before she spoke and I wondered if she was going to cry, all I could do was nod in encouragement. And then she spoke and for the next few minutes, I was mesmerised – to such an extent that I couldn’t write anything down. She wasn’t churning out something she’d learned by rote, she wasn’t pretending to feel something she thought she should feel, she wasn’t trying to impress me, her teachers or her friends. She was experiencing a poem that mattered to her (The Sunlight on the Garden), almost channeling it from Louis MacNeice’s pen to my ears. She was awesome.
I suppose, in some ways, Kitty* reminded me of myself at that age – perhaps even myself now (especially just before a reading). I was uncertain at 13, I was bashful, frightened and small-voiced. I was also at the mercy of two defining forces: The first was a very big and very secret passion for John Clare at a time when most of my peers were having similar feelings for our friends’ brothers or members of Aha. The second was a very big and (as much as I tried to hide it) not very secret crush on my female French teacher. I adored this woman with an intensity that made me tremble. I daydreamed she would adopt me or save me or just merely notice me at a time when I was searching for understanding in the Claudine novels by Colette; The Rainbow by D. H. Lawrence and my still, all time, favourite Olivia by Dorothy Strachey. My crush was agonising, protracted, humiliating and exquisite. It wasn’t a sexual desire that the teacher awoke in me, but such a longing to matter and to be special to her. For three long years I thought she didn’t have a clue who I was, or if she did she thought I was an idiot or an oddball. So last Thursday, sitting in the staffroom with the grown ups, I winced when the Geography teacher who had taught me at the time asked: ‘Are you still in touch with Mrs -?’. I shook my head, cheeks burning. ‘That’s a shame…’ she said, ‘…she was incredibly fond of you’. I looked at her with what I can only describe as a Huh?! expression. ‘Yes…’ she said looking a bit confused and gathering up her books for the next lesson, ‘…you were always her favourite. Didn’t you know?’.
I had no idea that I had made an impact on anyone at all while I was a pupil at the school, least of all on the object of my affections. I was silent, lazy and not academically gifted like my sister; I preferred to daydream and write poems about the school magnolia tree than learn my periodic table; I hid in bushes at the end of the garden and smoked instead of attending my Italian oral lessons; I did anything rather than show a willingness to explore my own intelligence and drove most of my teachers demented with frustration because, as Sister Ursula wrote in my English report when I was 13, ‘Kaddy seems to be the unfortunate mix of great potential and great fear‘.
Although there’s a certain sadness in receiving this information 21 years too late, only now do I see how knowing it at the time could have stalled my burgeoning career as a poet. If I had known that I had mattered then, I wouldn’t have felt the vast amounts of agony that fuelled and filled my teenage notebooks. I showed the girls those notebooks as part of my talk last week and realised for the first time that they are quite beautiful: they are scruffy, creased, falling apart and taped together – but they are the scrapbooks of my mind; the documents of a self becoming a self. They are at the root of all my writing and I am so glad to have them and the experience they came from.
*Not her real name.
Last week, SPRI (the Scott Polar Research Institute here in Cambridge) hosted a day for creative writers. Our poet in residence through the Thresholds scheme, Jo Shapcott, invited some of her MA students and colleagues from Royal Holloway (plus the recently T. S. Eliot Prize nominated poet, Sean Borodale) to come and explore the museum and talk to the staff and students based here. The aim of the day was to bridge the gap between science and fiction, to see how one can inform the other and just how reciprocal the relationship can be. There were a series of mini lectures ranging from the effects of climate change in the Arctic to a particularly poetic video collage of the colour spectrum of ice to the exploration of and fascination with the poles in literature… and more. The day was informative, rewarding and surprisingly playful (experiments involving slime, ketchup and some impromptu bell ringing). I felt exhausted, yet excited by the end. I have been writing in the library at SPRI for several months now and I hadn’t realised how fascinating, approachable and indeed human these scientists are who I pass in the hallways everyday. I had a notion that their currency was mostly fact where mine is mostly feeling; I thought it unlikely we’d find common ground. How wrong was I?
I am closer to the beginning than the end of my second collection Call Her Alaska, (a contemporary re-imagining of The Snow Queen). I’m excited and terrified in equal measure. Research is going well, my notebook is filling, the first 30 poems are outlined. I’m lucky to be able to work with SPRI, to have a desk in the institute library and access to archives, maps (I spent most of January down in the map room researching Gerda’s route to the north pole). I haven’t quite hit my stride. I’m full of doubt and worry. The last thing I wanted, but perhaps the best thing that could have happened, was to have one of my poetry idols turn up and take the desk opposite mine. Talk about intimidating. It’s easy to be overwhelmed, in awe. But apparently the uncertainty, the worry, the fear of never writing a decent poem again isn’t exclusive to poets writing their second collection.
So far, my top three pointers from Jo are: (1) Research is like an obsession and it’s good to be obsessed with your poems, (2) Poets need to play, in fact, poets MUST play (which may have had something to do with our willingness to dress up in polarwear the other day)…
… oh, and the third piece of Jo Shapcott advice? Never leave the house without checking www.raintoday.co.uk.