Sunday, 10 December 2017

Birding the landscape

The fickle British weather has proved me wrong (again).

In my last post I wrote 'There is no snow on the mountains' in my 'Little Egrets' poem.  Very soon afterwards I looked out of my bedroom window and saw that Yr Wyddfa (Snowdon) had turned a glittering white overnight.

Yesterday all the surrounding hills and mountains were clothed in snow.  One of the most prominent from this direction is Moel Hebog.  Reading A Journey through Birds by James Macdonald Lockhart I was reminded that hebog is Welsh for a hawk.  This has puzzled me - did this mountain have more hawks than its neighbours?  Then I realised that of course it's because of the shape - its rounded shoulders are like a hawk mantling its wings.  Another name for Snowdon is Eryri.  Eryr is an eagle.  The dramatic triple-peaked ridge that reveals itself when the clouds part is like the outline of a soaring eagle.

In the back of an old Welsh dictionary I found a list of birds' names.  A coot is iâr y gors - 'bog hen', a jay (which I see frequently round here) is sgrech y coed - 'shriek of the wood'.  My favourite is  aderyn du'r dwr - 'blackbird of the water'.  I like the way the birds' names place them in the landscape.

By happy coincidence the Picador Friday Poem was Kathleen Jamie's 'The Dipper' set in 'winter, near freezing'.  She writes of the bird's 'supple, undammable song', that it 'knows the depth of the river / yet sings of it on land.'  Yes, blackbird of the water.

[You can read the whole poem if you google Picador Friday Poem 8 December 2017.
Apologies to those who know dwr should have a circumflex on the w - and advance thanks to anyone who knows the correct short-cut keys to get it on a Mac!]

Thursday, 30 November 2017


What is the first word that comes into your head in response to the phrase ‘All Change’?

This was the question posed by Moniza Alvi at her recent Second Light workshop (see previous post).  We went round anti-clockwise at speed.  I found myself going second after ‘revolution’.  I proffered ‘restoration’.  I confess it was the sound association not the sense.

I thought of the great Scottish poet, Edwin Morgan, whose motto was ‘Change Rules’, and Rebecca Solnit’s ‘Never turn down an adventure without a really good reason’ (in her wonderful book The Faraway Nearby).

I remembered a conversation I overheard in a supermarket -
            Child:     Why are we buying this?
            Parent:  Because we always buy it.
            Child:     If you do the same things all the time you become boring.

Then there was the famous 70s book, Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock, about ‘too much change in too short a period of time’.

Moving from Cumbria to Penllyn has been a big change in my life, but it has also been a restoration, a coming back.  In the harbour at Pwllheli I have been delighted to see little egrets   they have come back too.  Centuries ago these small white herons (looking from a distance like gawky pullets) were so common that a thousand were killed for the banquet celebrating the enthronement of the Archbishop of York in 1465.   Hunted to extinction they were absent from our shores for centuries, but twenty years ago the first little egrets bred in the south of Britain and since then they have been gradually moving back to coastal habitats. 

Little Egrets

In the years when I wasn’t watching
the egrets returned.

They leave claw-prints like hallmarks
in a patch of silvery mud.

There is no snow on the mountains
reflected in the harbour stillness,

only the whiteness of these elsewhere birds
which have made this place their home.

© Mary Robinson 2017

Sunday, 19 November 2017


I walked the pavements trodden by Virginia Woolf and T S Eliot, I stayed at the Penn Club (where John Wyndham - he of Triffids fame - lived for several years) and I went to the Second Light Poetry Festival.
As winner of the Second Light Poetry prize (short poem category) I was invited to take part in an  evening reading, so, on Saturday night I read my winning poem, 'Six Studies of Pillows' (based on a Durer pen and ink drawing), my commended poem, 'Clustog Fair' (set on Bardsey Island) and a few other poems in the elegant Georgian surroundings of the Art Workers' Guild in Queen Square (a bust of Ruskin on the stairs kept an eye on everyone).  I enjoyed the reading very much - a relaxed and intimate setting and an enthusiastic audience.
The reading was the culmination of the two day poetry festival.  The whole weekend was a literary feast! Myra Schneider, Penelope Shuttle, Kate Foley and Moniza Alvi led workshops over the two days - full of good things to inspire and provoke.  On the first evening Penelope and Kate gave a reading followed by an open mic.  Aa Myra had started her workshop with Les Murray's '1960 brought the electric' I read 'Girl with a lamp', the poem I might have started in the workshop if I hadn't written it already!
Thanks are due to Dilys Wood and Anne Stewart who organised and ran the weekend so smoothly and made sure that there were enough cakes, biscuits and hot drinks to fuel our brain cells.  I picked up my new edition of Artemis and was delighted to find my winning poem and the commended one printed in the magazine.
I came back to Wales, dogged by the lack of organisation of the railways.  All went smoothly until Chester.  Then there was an hour's wait for a rail replacement bus (Sunday maintenance work) to Llandudno Junction, then another hour's wait for the Bangor train.  But we were compensated by a spectacularly beautiful autumnal view of the Vale of Clwyd when we went over Rhuallt Hill on the A55.  All the metallic colours of the not yet fallen leaves - gold, platinum, bronze, copper.  I thought of Gerard Manley Hopkins at St Beuno's, his love of this wide valley and the way the landscape and  the Welsh language fed into his poetry.  A long way from London.

Sunday, 12 November 2017


Now the starlings are gathering in big flocks over the stubble field.  They make patterns against the sky.  I stand and watch them, fascinated by their rapid shape-shifting.  They divide, unite, swirl in ever changing directions, sometimes making a dark inner nucleus thick with birds.  Ornithologists say that these murmurations are a way to defy predators or to exchange information (there is certainly a lot of excited chattering going on!) but I wonder if the starlings experience a sense of sheer exhilaration in being part of this vast movement of birds.

I was thinking of patterns - or rather the apparent lack of them - when I visited the current Gillian Ayres exhibition at Oriel Plas Glyn a Weddw yesterday.  Gillian Ayres is described in the gallery information as 'one of the most important and original abstract artists in Britain'.  My interest was aroused when I learnt that she lived and worked at the Old Rectory, Llaniestyn for about 7 years until 1987.  I was surprised that I knew nothing about her, although I had spent a lot of that time at our cottage only a mile away from the village.  It was a particularly happy and productive time for her.

There were only four large pictures in the exhibition - 'thickly painted, with the surface manipulated into gestures and patterns using brush, fingers and paint squeezed directly from the tube.  The texture became just as much a vital component of the work as the colour.'  The paintings were enormous.  At the time they seemed - dare I say it? - 'daubs', but afterwards I found myself thinking about the vibrant colours and random shapes.  They expressed an exuberance which seemed very positive.

Earlier in the week I went to Ensemble Cymru's contemporary chamber music concert at Neuadd Dwyfor in Pwllheli.  The concert included a clever witty piece, 'Block', by Claire Roberts (she was in the audience).  The piece was described as exploring 'deliberately the boundaries of tonality ... the music is pushed to the limits.'  A very different take on patterns in music.

I'm still working my way through the bumper summer edition of The North poetry magazine (blame the move) and read the review of Anne Carson's Float.  The poet describes her work as often seeming to turn into 'a few flakes of language roaming near the margin, looking as if they want to become an art of pure shape.'

Randomness and pattern - I've been tossing these ideas around in my head with no definite conclusions as I watch the starlings from my study window.  Julia Blackburn catches something of the fascination of the 'murmurations' of starlings:

'Starlings help.
The way they pull between a celebration of living
And an intimation of things unseen,
The sound of them rustling the air
The flickering sound of them.'

(from Murmurations of Love, Grief and Starlings with photographs by Andrew Smiley - Full Circle editions, 3rd printing, 2016)

Tuesday, 7 November 2017


'... A hill lights up
Suddenly; a field trembles
With colour and goes out.'

How R S Thomas captures the patterns of weather in 'The Small Window'.  This poem speaks to me so clearly of the rapid changes of sunlight and cloud in the landscape of Penllyn.  Here we are in the back end of the year reluctantly accepting the early darkness now the clocks have gone back, but rejoicing in those sudden transitory moments of light amongst the scudding showers of rain and hail.  And there have been rainbows this week.

Winter bird flocks are gathering.  A party of long-tailed tits came foraging along the banks of the lane outside my kitchen window one day.  On the telephone wires large numbers of starlings assemble, making a feathered abacus between the each pair of poles.  The winter thrushes - redwings and fieldfares - are back, flying up urgently from the trees if disturbed.

The stubble field next to my garden (it was fairly disastrous as a crop after late sowing and very late combining) has attracted flocks of pigeons, yellowhammers and bramblings.  Most noticeable of all is the daily convention of corvids that gather in the middle of the field.  Restless black flutterings that are finding plenty of food.

Patterns of flight - endlessly changing.

Saturday, 28 October 2017


Five hundred years since Martin Luther struck the spark that ignited the Reformation and changed the course of history.  Traditionally the date when Luther posted his Ninety Five Theses on the door of the Castle Church at Wittenberg was 31 October 1517.

My poem, ‘Martin Luther and the Swan’, is based on a visit to the Mariakirchen, the Lutheran church in the old Hanseatic city of Bergen.  The church is exuberantly decorated, endowed by the rich Hanseatic merchants, but I was intrigued by the portrait of Luther which seemed oddly out of place.

Martin Luther and the swan
(In the Mariakirchen, Bergen)

No guide – just a silent cleaner
working hard at God’s house-keeping,
her rubber gloves flesh-coloured pink
as she dusts the glitzy altar.

Those Hanseatic merchants were
shameless: all around the pulpit
cavorts a cornucopia
of bare-breasted Bergen hussies.

You were an embarrassment, faith’s
token portrait in the shadows –
black robed, the white bird at your side.

The swan was your feathered familiar –
he would take the bread from your hand
but his wing beats could stop your heart.

©Mary Robinson 2010, 2107

(from The Art of Gardening Flambard 2010)

When I visited the church Luther’s full length portrait was tucked into a corner.  What struck me most was the swan standing next to him.  I discovered that one of Luther’s predecessors, the Bohemian Reformer, Jan Hus, who was burnt at the stake in 1415,  is reputed to have prophesied Luther’s coming by saying, ‘You are roasting a goose [hus is Czech for goose] but after me will come a swan’.


This is the first post I have typed in my study in my new house.  The carpet went down last Monday and I am slowly unpacking my books.  The cardboard packing cases are piled up by the window.  The postman keeps asking me, ‘When are you going to finish emptying all those boxes?’