The feeling of walking: a poetic journey on foot
The following poem is an account of a journey on foot through a part of Wales that I took a week or so ago. It is that and, for me, much more. When I got back I sat down and wrote about the walk for almost a day. At the end of the day I was dissatisfied. I had spoken about the walk but had not touched the walk itself, the imaginative or creative spirit of the walk-the feeling of it. On the second day I wrote what I have chosen to share.
It was James Hillman that offered up a definition of soul as the ‘imaginative possibility of our natures’. In exploring soul this way, experienced through dream, image and fantasy, Hillman suggested that the idea of soul referred also to that component in each of us that makes meaning possible, deepens events into experiences and can be known whether through love or religious experience through its special relationship with death.
If we attend to Hillman’s words; love, depth, meaning, religious experience and death we come to see that the territory of the Imagination is indeed the territory of soul making, that it is intimately related to matters of the heart and represents the real work of a lifetime.
To live fully has to do I think with living closely to the forces that Hillman speaks of. I have come to experience poetry as a means by which it is possible to do just that, to move , to journey even, between the worlds that form and inform (sometime deform) so much of our lives. Poetic work inhabits and navigates the world of meaning making, experience, death and so forth as no other medium of language can. In the space between my inner landscape and the outer world I meet a capacity for Imagination, the capacity that Coleridge called ‘the shaping spirit’, something that seems to be both personal and universal in nature.
William Blake declared that Man is ‘all imagination’, Yeats saw Imagination as the conduit through which each of us might seek to remake the world according to the impulses of the Great Mind, the Anima Mundi. It is through the Imagination that we shape the world, that we come to know it, that we come to change and to be changed by it.
An olive tree is what it is until we see what Van Gogh sees. The woods around Capel Y Fin where I was walking last week are ‘only woodlands’ until they come under the gaze of the artist David Jones, until he can show us as every artist and poet must-just what we are missing. The world numinous is none other than the world fully imagined.
In his essay on the founding of the Arvon Foundation, John Moat, a poet who I had the very good fortune to know, described imagination as ‘a formative force’ that he felt was ‘universally inclusive’. He wondered whether;
‘ the failure to grasp how this formative, determining mystery, properly reverenced, as the guide and unfolding force of the lives and venture of every individual and their society and above all their education, amounts to a serious missing of the mark. One that leave individuals and society…unfit for purpose’.
Were the Imagination to venture forth in each person, as a primary way of knowing the world, which in John Moats estimation it surely could, being the gift of us all, I would contend that much of what we allow today in the name of culture or society or education would become quickly intolerable.
In his essay on Ted Hughes and the mythic imagination, Keith Sagar reminds us of the performance of Aristophanes’ The frogs at the Great Dionysia in 405, at the point when Athenian civilisation was close to collapse. In the play Dionysus is sent to Hades to bring back the greatest of the dead poets. The ghost of Euripides asks him what he wants a poet for and Dionysus replies’ to save the city of course’. Sagar makes the point that what’s remarkable here is that Athenian society might imagine that a poet could indeed be the very person to save a city, something that would be little understood today in our own society.
And yet, is there not something essential in this observation, something that we should actually take seriously? Who else, (what else in ourselves) should we turn to when our trouble, our crisis, is one of absolute exile from ourselves and the natural world around us? Is that not at the root of the malaise and ennui that we see all about us? To quote Ted Hughes;
The story of the mind exiled from Nature is the story of Western Man. It is the story of his progressively more desperate search for mechanical and rational and symbolic securities, which will substitute for the spirit-confidence of the Nature he has lost.
The spirit-confidence that Hughes speaks of is what has indeed been greatly lost. It is a lovely phrase because it lifts up the sense of confidence, not as hubris but as something closer to its original meaning of ‘with trust’ and in so doing it has something to do with faith.
To engage the Imagination is the pressing work of our time, it is nothing less than the work of soul making. It is everyone’s work and everyone’s privilege since Imagination and heart are not merely the province of the few but the greatest gift of us all. That we foster and encourage the gift matters because it enriches our lives and our shared world, connecting us to one another and the vital pulse of the earth itself.
As John Keats said, we do this work with the material of our lives; the hurt, the suffering the delight of our experience. This work is both heart breaking and healing.
How we imagine our life, the story we tell about it, is what makes us and it is through Imagination that our lives become our personal and collective healing fictions. In the poem I will share now the great split in the oak is both its wound and its gift. The Ravens dance out a dance for all time. The waters of the well of a murdered hermit can heal. What happened, happened.
It is through and with Imagination that we address the facets of the soul for meaning making, depth of experience and work with the forces of love, of religious concern, of death. It is the gift to each of us who are given life and breath and it can be reclaimed. That done it is a work of discipline that requires us to hear and stay with the call, as Philip Larkin meant it, to be serious-to get to work with the gift we have been given. When we hear it with faith, with good heart, we might just be met.
The feeling of walking: a poetic journey on foot
The mountain is uttering
Blood and again blood. Ted Hughes
A window into the world
Outside the first sky is a patchwork of slow moving whales, blues and greys
In Wales, in a dream.
The treetops sloping left to right are hints of the valley that was hidden last night and the snow is gone and the day is bright.
The mountain looms larger then I recall but what is memory anyway in this place?
White topped peak, close and far away at once. My breath fogs the glass, the mountain disappears
The sun has returned from a long night crossing, shipped oars, he flushes the hillside unexpectedly with a gift of newly minted gold. The bushes and hedgerows, burst into life, the colours and lines pulled out of themselves while the northern hill casts a sullen look
The radiator ticks and the stairs creak. The old barn has a new face, I make my way downstairs to
A kitchen, a pic sits wrapped in a towel that kept it warm last night, a freshly baked freshly offered gift. Currants, eggs, mixed spice, caster sugar, flour-warm, slices thick, dripping butter. Tea never tasted better.
Boots sit by the door. Waterproofed and solid on the stone tiled floor, patient as a dog before the scent of a walk.
Wear clothing that knows the elements are gods that would kill you without any change of face. The terrain, the way things can turn on the mountain in a moment. Always fickle.
Such is the way with gods.
Sure footed, ankle deep, tough toed, strong gripped. Like a compass, they know themselves precisely. The feet find their way in, the laces pull up
The sound of buttons, the sound of zips,
Shucking the rucksack, the sound of clips,
Locking into place, the sound of our breath when the
Door shuts tight the warmth behind, out here
The air is cold.
Snow lies patchy, dripping gently under a cold sun and a breeze, not too much on the lee
But the clouds tell me that the mountain will give us the full force of the wind
Which is riding down from the north, what news from the north will it bring?
Lambs leap and daffodils doze in the quiet corners, water trickles everywhere, a million streams and rivulets are a prayer to the land both to and from itself.
First steps and the pattern of the boots begins, the track starts here, the traces of my being here, these footprints are barely markers for those that follow lasting only until the weather washes all away. The grass is greasy, slipping, sliding, giving no purchase, slowly climbing up into the valley where the mountain waits.
I am in a wood. The trees are as old as the hills. Oak and ash, beech, rowan, birch, cling to the side with gnarled roots fingering out, the path of broken rocks falls indistinct .The track winds its way high into the foothills out of the valley which narrows and steepens down to the tumbling river runs lyrical, slight and full of song.
Her song finds me here, her rhythm of labour, glistening sun, easy and urgent, smelling the Usk, smelling the sea, she knows she must go on. She longs for home.
O I see a ship
Sailing on the sea
And her mast is made of
The Ferun tree.
Here is where I meet the fox. Here is where we exchange the look that’s ours for a lifetime of work
Down by the stream I am all fox.
I smell the flowers and the water, the first hint of ramsons and the scent of earth is strong. I see a man, up on the ridge; like looking through water, what kind of animal is this? He watches me curiously, he is still, I have no fear.
We exchange eyes. I see the fox and the fox regards me steadily. Engaged but what kind of marriage is this? I am not the first to be visited by fox, the strange housekeeper and friend of Macha, she of the horse;
Welcome to the great world she said
It’s a nothing, a nowhere I’ve walked into he said
Beware when the animals come
What kind of animal I am?
I hold my walking stick, cut hazel, forked end;
I took a knife to it to make a few marks of significance.
The fox and the river make their slow way down hill, following the scent and I too am following in another way. Is there a scent that the mountain gives? Am I called by bell, pelt, flower, church, the earth of old red sandstone? What am I longing for?
I am in a tree. Up above the treeline where the sheep graze, where the land was cleared, where the forest used to be, long stone walls and a ruin are today
What were you once? I was home, store, shelter. See how the rowan prospers here
I am in a tree, an ancient ash, split top to tail on its northerly side. From the south it stands sentinel. From the north it is entrance to another world.
Opened up, the tree invites me in to close again. There is barely room but I am in and down. Inside the tree I breathe and the breath makes sounds against the rain stained wood.
The red stained wound.
How so alive? How rooted still, how reaching still after all this time and trouble?
A temple here thinly disguised in which I
Sing softly, and call down a hollow branch- a didgeridoo to the world, to the river, to the fox. It could close up anytime and then what?
Downwards or upwards or simply standing still.
A shaman’s way out-to the animal beings to the spirit beings. Can you hear the sounds of the drum calling? What sounds do I recall?
The hut, the wheel of a cart, the razor, and the prickly beards of shepherds, the barren moon, the flies, the damp cupboards, the rubble, the lace-covered saints, the wounding lines of eaves and balconies……
That was always the sign of life. Here is a place for prayer sure enough.
The sky is blue. Clouds cut south in streams, the wind catches leafless branches, they bend and give, sag and sigh-I feel the giving-ness.
Forgivingness surrounds me from the tip of her crown to the deep down work world centre of the earth where the roots the filaments end.
I am much says the tree. I am much. There are wounds that never heal. Therein lies the strangeness, the inventiveness of the work.
Guardian and Threshold.
Wounded and healed at the same time and in the great crevice, out of the vulvic crevice, born again into the day. The tree is nothing but itself. A skylark and a kite sing out, cry out, death and life.
I feel the sweat on my back from the climb, I feel a sigh run through me river deep, filament deep, through my solid boots, into the thin grass and down. Sweat from my brow will dewdrop the earth.
We drink together.
Bog and heather.
How the name is recalled like a distant boat.
The way comes and goes the mountain grows the stream runs down between the thighs of the foothills and the path cuts away on contours that suit the climb. The fox follows the stream, traffics away from the path of men and the paths that they make through heather bells and bilberries, civilised.
Where the fox runs home is thistles and broken stones and the cold water that quenches thirst. Home as marginal as life. With fox there is neither map nor discipline. Remember this-
Snowline, the sun breaks out above the mountain and lights the world-emphasises the immensity in cold, biting wind that hits the face hard as stone. Buttons click, zips, water from the flask, red faced, heart surge out to the peaks that rise out surly to the west.
The snow settled here, deep and more to come, an ink blot sky bleeds out before the sun.
Ravens have found the wind; the wind and the Raven are dancing out the great duende. Fox watches on.
I remember Jerez de la Frontera, how the old Spanish lady arrived last to the dance with the water waisted girls all raven haired and she raised her arms, threw back her head, a single stamp and won the day.
A country open to death. Sweeping the earth with its wings made of rusty knives.
The duende works on the dancer’s body like wind on sand. The ravens are wind and sand, whirling up, caught up in the blast of things.
Behind the great pillars of stone, the backbone of a dragon or so many dice scattered by giants playing for bones. Behind the great rocks there is only stillness.
In the foothills Blackthorns are gathered in a witch’s circle, washer women at night they tend the stream by day, feed it blossom in spring and dark berries when autumn comes. How old is the lichen that clings to the branches, how the wet roots finger these places how they ignore the dead one, plucked up in a storm, where decay worms slowly in.
The witches do their work. Magic is everywhere
We are the keepers of Samhain, when the veil is most thin. We are crone, we are strife. Mark us well
We are those that made a crown for the one below
Now there is smoke, smoke from lazy fires of peat and coal and wood. My feet have rhythm my voice is a song that the birds can understand.
Like a ghost, smoke wanders through quiet lanes unpeopled though the ghosts of the past are everywhere. The school bell is silent though the bell and the laughter are still gathered here in a dark recess of memory
Soft cherry blossoms of spring- not at the school gates but home in bed and sick while the sun danced outside, while the curtain lifted in the first warm wind of spring while the children were at play
A first exquisite solitude. I have never forgotten that day.
A poem springs to mind, a poet, the track near blind, wants the river, insists on bringing the sound nearer to my ear, by the bridge, houses huddle and take in the mountain, perpetually astonished by the view, backs to the gentler hill and ancient woodlands where a royal beech spreads itself wide as a king the silver birch on the march where deer work the land with sharp ears where merlin walked and a hermit found his way to a final resting place.
Here was the home of a hermit once. Perhaps he came the same way through these dense woods and found his god , resting by the stream a crown of thorns put to one side and water wetting that bristled beard. Still the eyes pierce deeper than any thorn. The man almost naked, naked as any poet should be, saving the cloth around his waist- all sinews, he was Baskins hanged man once, full sized, wood carved, each line cutting out a life knife sharp from the world of time.
The stream is called nant mair. Marys stream.
Mary the mother says the man of thorns under his own breath
The duende wounds,
We will have a straight fight beside the well.
The duende wounds and in the healing of the wound which never closes-is the prodigious, the original work of man.
Here says the naked man, kneeling, and never taking those blue eyes from the hermit, piercing, let me give you water. On this path, not for the muse or the angel, we are baptised in this dark water.
Issui built a home here a hermit’s cell and drank dark water from the dingle well.
A traveller came and in some dispute, was there a struggle- we cannot say-Isuui fell down dead.
Where does death lead except to life it seems then back again slowly or suddenly it winds us in and on, serpentine.
In sudden death we find the footmarks of pilgrimage. Here, out of the blood, out of the suffering, out of the wound I put my fingers in, rises water, a well and a sharped eyed hawk. Here is a place of healing and poetry.
People have been healed here. On the other side of the mountain, the tree split from top to toe, her filaments reaching all the way to the dark well where we are baptised out of blood and into life. If we cannot smell death there can be no fight. No life. We will not come they said.
Mana breathes. Mana lives here by the dingle stream. The cross is only small but the goddess is another thing, she the source of everything, this terrible life, the substance of all substance born to die. Mana will come to you sufferer, as your own response to the deep hurts that you bear. She is healing and medicine. She is redemption. You pay for it here with your suffering.
Mana is the source of this and every well worth the name.
In the moment of unbearable pain, I begin to flow she says.
What is the total wound, the head to foot wound that you carry?
That is the question. The Agony rent for agony to be redeemed.
That is the work here where Issui fell and still falls with the light tumbling from his eyes.
I drink the water. Time here is written in blood. Whitewashed more than once as though time were some kind of heresy, still it pushes itself out again or so it is said, a man of work, a spade, a scythe, an hourglass. Beneath time a hollowed trunk of oak where the men of god would keep their valuables thrice locked. Here the stones speak;
Menhir made me, in the time of Genillin.
A thousand years of incantation, Menhir and Genillin are joined forever in stone and time watches on.
Bread for the birds, welsh scone and butter, a gift passed on, never better, snow hints at the red earth, the water is sweet, the wound deep. The goddess ascents and the man of thorns returns his gaze to the stream and distant lands. Nant Mair. Carry me home.
Spiral up, above the hills, the red earth oozes,
A red kite seeks out death,
Eyes search out signs of weakness in the flock jostling earth.
The track divides and the cairn is a single footprint, an earthprint not in stone,
Here mud marks the way as the snow finds itself in a flurry of hoods and gloves.
A long march by mud pools and a group of boys rise up like young horses shy at the top of the second mountain. I ask them where they will sleep tonight and the mountain ascents to keep them here away from the petty worrying of home
The voices begin to break, and Adams apple swells. A new hair on the chin in the morning
The nick of a knife.
Here is a sense of the real Eden where the boys in huddled shelters dream of serpents, dream of Eve and here the cry that screams across the mountain side. Murther Issui, Murther. Innocence dies here where Pan walks even in times of desolation.
Here you will discover with Herrera that the snow does not kill though it bites.
The ache of Baskins legs are in me. Walhaz, or a dream or maybe both, the place where the world thins easily into silence, the mud here speaks, like stones.
The greater sea moves here in that which is not seen, in what is in the deeps
Or by the well where we are baptized darkly from our suffering,
Where we travel from sleep to sleep
The fox follows the scent downstream as the river does.
Issui falls and in falling is redeemed.