To sleep, perchance to dream

Extreme Poetry at Dartington, 2018

To friends & poetry lovers in the West Country:

You are invited to join two of Britain's finest poets, Alice Oswald and Peter Oswald, along with my dramatist husband, Howard Gayton, for an unusual and extraordinary night of Extreme Poetry.

When: Wednesday, 7 March, at 8 pm
Where: Dartington Hall, Space Studio 3, Totnes, Devon, TQ9 6EN
Tickets: Here, or phone the number above.

(Tickets will also be available on the night; you don't have to pre-book.)

I'm not sure how widely Dartington has publicized the event, so I'm doing my bit to spread the word. Please pass it on to all who might like to come. It will be deeply mythic and rather special.

To learn more about Alice's work: "Is Alice Oswald our greatest living poet?" (by Charlotte Runcie). Her most recent book, Falling Awake, won the Costa Award for Poetry and the Griffin Prize.

To learn more about Peter's work: "Rhyme and Punishment" (by Lyn Gardner). His play "Mary Stuart" runs until April 14th at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater.

The Sleep-Cycle at Dartington

This is the first event of series, with the next coming up on April 4th. More info soon.

Extreme Poetry at Dartington, 2018Howard in rehearsal for the first evening of the Sleep-Cycle Series at Dartington, 2018. Full masking & body-painting on the night will be by Angharad Barlow.

Saint Valentine's Day

Bluebell Honeymoon by Rima Staines

Rima Staines

by Adam Zagajewski
translated from the Polish by Clare Cavanagh

Without silence there would be no music.
Life paired is doubtless more difficult
than solitary existence -
just as a boat on the open sea
with outstretched sails is trickier to steer
than the same boat drowsing at a dock, but schooners
after all are meant for wind and motion,
not idleness and impassive quiet.

A conversation continued through the years includes
hours of anxiety, anger, even hatred,
but also compassion, deep feeling.
Only in marriage do love and time,
eternal enemies, join forces.
Only love and time, when reconciled,
permit us to see other beings
in their enigmatic, complex essence,
unfolding slowly and certainly, like a new settlement
in a valley, or among green hills.

It begins in one day only, from joy
and pledges, from the holy day of meeting,
which is like a moist grain;
then come the years of trial and labor,
sometimes despair, fierce revelation,
happiness and finally a great tree
with rich greenery grows over us,
casting its vast shadow. Cares vanish in it.

* An Epithalumium was composed to celebrate a wedding in ancient Greece and invoke good fortune from the gods.

My valentines

Today's post is for my valentines, one of whom is off doing theatre work in Edinburgh and London right now, while the other (furry and four-footed) pines for his return.

Happy Valentine's Day to each of you too, and to all the people, animals, trees, birds, books, fictional characters and magical places you've given your heart to.

Howard & Tilly 2015

Pictures: The beautiful art above is by Rima Staines, who spreads art, music, and magic all across the UK through Hedgespoken, the house-on-wheels she shares with poet & storyteller Tom Hirons. They're out on Dartmoor for the winter months, close to their community here in Chagford, preparing for further adventures. Go here to see more of Rima's artwork.

Photographs: husband and hound, in the garden and in my studio on World Book Day.

Words: "Epithalamium" by Adam Zagajewski is from The Atlantic magazine ( June 2010).  The poem excerpts in the picture captions are from: "The Country of Marriage" by Wendell Berry, from his book of the same name (Counterpoint, 1971/2013); "The moon rose over the bay, I had a lot of feelings" by Donika Kelly (The American Academy of Poets, November 2017); "Separation" by W.S. Merlin, from his collection The Second Four Books of Poems (Copper Canyon Press, 1993); and "Wedding Reading" by Ben Okri, from his collection Wild (Rider, 2012). All rights reserved by the authors. Related post: "The Narrative of Marriage."

The Peace of Wild Things


Today is National Poetry Day here in the UK -- a day to celebrate and share old and new works of poetry. The theme this year is "freedom." Here's my own favourite poem on the subject:

The Peace of Wild Things
by Wendell Berry

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children's lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.


What are your favourite poems about freedom, in any sense of the word? Please share in the Comments...or post one of your own.



The poem above is from The Selected Poems of Wendell Berry (Counterpoint Press, 1999). The poem in the picture captions is from The Armless Maiden (Tor Books, 1995) and The Poets' Grimm: 21st Century Poems from the Grimms Fairy Tales (Story Line Press, 2003). All rights reserved by the authors.

The words that matter

Charles Robinson

“For adults, the world of fantasy books returns to us the great words of power which, in order to be tamed, we have excised from our adult vocabularies. These words are the pornography of innocence, words which adults no longer use with other adults, and so we laugh at them and consign them to the nursery, fear masking as cynicism. These are the words that were forged in the earth, air, fire, and water of human existence, and the words are: Love. Hate. Good. Evil. Courage. Honor. Truth."

 - Jane Yolen (Touch Magic: Fantasy, Faerie & Folklore in the Literature of Childhood)

Aesops illustrations by Charles Robinson

"Storytelling, like rhetoric, pulls us in through the cognitive mind as much as through the emotions. It answers both our curiosity and our longing for shapely forms: our profound desire to know what happens, and our persistent hope that what happens will somehow make sense. Narrative instructs us in both these hungers and their satisfaction, teaching us to perceive and to relish the arc of moments and the arc of lives. If shapeliness is an illusion, it is one we require -- it shields against arbitrariness and against chaos’s companion, despair. And story, like all the forms of concentration, connects. It brings us to a deepened coherence with the world of others and also within the many levels of the self.''

- Jane Hirshfield (Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry)

The Fairy Tales of Hans Christian Andersen illustrated by William Heath Robinson

"Words are intrinsically powerful. And there is magic in that. Words come from nothing into being. They are created in the imagination and given life on the human voice. You know, we used to believe -- and I am talking about all of us, regardless of our ethnic backgrounds -- in the magic of words. The Anglo-Saxon who uttered spells over his field so that the seeds would come out of the ground on the sheer strength of his voice, knew a good deal about language, and he believed absolutely in the efficacy of language. That man's faith -- and may I say, wisdom -- has been lost upon modern man, by and large. It survives in the poets of the world, I suppose, the singers. We do not now know what we can do with words. But as long as there are those among us who try to find out, literature will be secure; literature will be a thing worthy of our highest level of human being."

N. Scott Momaday (Survival This Way: Interviews with American-Indian Poets)

William Heath Robinson

The art today is by brothers Charles Robinson (1870-1937) and William Heath Robinson (1872-1944), who were raised in a family of artists in Finbury Park, north London. 

The Little Mermaid by William Heath Robinson

Animal Medicine

The Tale of Original Kindness by Caroline Douglas

Come into Animal Presence
by Denise Levertov

Come into animal presence.
No man is so guileless as
the serpent. The lonely white
rabbit on the roof is a star
twitching its ears at the rain.

Lady of the Lake by Caroline Douglas

The llama intricately
folding its hind legs to be seated
not disdains but mildly
disregards human approval.

Embroidered Life, Hero, and Holy Roller Dog by Caroline Douglas

Sculpture by Caroline Douglas

What joy when the insouciant
armadillo glances at us and doesn't
quicken his trotting
across the track into the palm brush.

Two clay sculptures by Caroline Douglas

What is this joy? That no animal
falters, but knows what it must do?

Checkerboard House by Caroline Douglas

Two clay sculptures by Caroline Douglas

That the snake has no blemish,
that the rabbit inspects his strange surroundings
in white star-silence? The llama
rests in dignity, the armadillo
has some intention to pursue in the palm-forest.

Fox sculpture by Caroline Douglas

Fox Chair & Roller by Caroline Douglas

Sculpture by Caroline Douglas

Those who were sacred have remained so,
holiness does not dissolve, it is a presence
of bronze, only the sight that saw it
faltered and turned from it.

Relocating by Caroline Douglas

An old joy returns in holy presence.

Sculpture by Caroline Douglas

The art today is by American ceramicist Caroline Douglas, who received a BFA from the University of North Carolina and has worked in clay for over forty years, inspired by mythology, fairy tales, dreams and the antics of animals and children. Since sustaining a serious injury in 2000, Douglas has been exploring the relationship between healing and creativity in her dual roles as artist and teacher:

"Our imaginations are sacred," she explains. "At the deepest level, they can put us in touch with the collective unconscious that we all share. I create in clay a version of my intentions and dreams. Making something real in physical form makes it real on many levels. In my classes we travel a journey of transformation and exploration through art to find a deeper place, a more fulfilling place -- that place where stillness reigns and time stretches out and magic has its way with us. It is an alchemy of sorts, a turning of lead into gold. "

Please visit the artist's website or Facebook page to see more of her deeply magical work.

1925337_945537035467926_8541521880293740788_nThe poem by Denise Levertov (1923-1997) is from Poems 1960-1967 (New Directions, 1983). All rights to the art and text in this post are reserved by the artist and the author's estate.

Visiting the cloutie tree

Entering the woods

Black dog running

by Holly Black

Like coughing a bite of apple from a slender throat
Like a grandmother reborn from a wolf's belly

Black dog arriving

Like slipping a foot into a glass shoe
Like a frog prince thrown against a wall 

Cloutie tree in the winter woods

We slough off the skin of the old year
And wait for what's underneath to toughen.


Tilly beneath the cloutie tree

The photographs today are of the "cloutie tree" (or "wish tree")  near my studio, in its mossy winter guise. For more about the folklore of clouties, see this previous post: "The Blessings of the Trees."

Frost in the winter woodsHolly Black's poem first appeared in The Journal of Mythic Arts (2008). The poem in the picture captions is from The Thing that Mattered Most: Scottish Poems for Children, edited by Julie Johnstone (Scottish Poetry Livrary, 2006). All rights reserved by the authors.

Telling the story

Toshiyuki Enoki

Toshiyuki Enoki

Toshiyuki Enoki

Toshiyuki Enoki
I see her walking
on a path through a pathless forest
or a maze, a labyrinth.
As she walks, she spins
and the fine threads fall behind her
following her way,
where she is going,
where she has gone.
Telling the story.
The line, the thread of voice,
the sentences saying the way.

- Ursula K. Le Guin

(from "The Writer On, and At, Her Work")


More excerpts from the poem can be found in the picture captions. Run your cursor over the images to see them.

Toshiyuki Enoki

The magical art in this post is by painter and illustrator Toshiyuki Enoki. Born in Tokyo in 1961, he was trained in traditional Japanese painting, lacquer painting, and western painting techniques. Please go here to see more of his work.

Toshiyuki Enoki

Toshiyuki EnokiThe poem excerpted above, and tucked into the picture captions, is from The Writer on Her Work, edited by Janet Sternberg (Virago Press, 1992); it also appears in Le Guin's collection  The Wave in the Mind: Talks and Essays on the Writer, the Reader, and the Imagination (Shambhala, 2004). I recommend seeking it out to read in full. All rights to the text and art above are reserved by the author and artist.

Something we once knew

Nattadon Woods 1

Nattadon Woods 2Atavism
by William Stafford

Sometimes in the open you look up
where birds go by, or just nothing,
and wait. A dim feeling comes
you were like this once, there was air,
and quiet; it was by a lake, or
maybe a river you were alert
as an otter and were suddenly born
like the evening star into wide
still worlds like this one you have found
again, for a moment, in the open.

Nattadon Woods 3

Nattadon Woods 4

Nattadon Woods 62
Something is being told in the woods: aisles of
shadow lead away; a branch waves;
a pencil of sunlight slowly travels its
path. A withheld presence almost
speaks, but then retreats, rustles
a patch of brush. You can feel
the centuries ripple generations
of wandering, discovering, being lost
and found, eating, dying, being born.
A walk through the forest strokes your fur,
the fur you no longer have. And your gaze
down a forest aisle is a strange, long
plunge, dark eyes looking for home.
For delicious minutes you can feel your whiskers
wider than your mind, away out over everything.

Nattadon Woods 5

Poet William Stafford (1914-1993) was dedicated to the cause of pacifism, deeply in love with the natural world, and described himself as "one of the quiet of the land." His collection Traveling Through the Dark won the National Book Award in 1963, and he was the nation's Poet Laureate in 1970.

Nattadon Woods 7

''We may feel bitterly," wrote Adrienne Rich, "how little our poems can do in the face of seemingly out of control technological power and seemingly limitless corporate greed, yet it has always been true that poetry can break isolation, show us to ourselves when we are outlawed or made invisible, remind us of beauty where no beauty seems possible, remind us kinship where all is represented as separation."

Nattadon Woods 8"Atavism" is from Passwords by William Stafford (HarperCollins, 1991). The Adrienne Rich quote is from "Defy the Space That Separates"  (The Nation, Oct 1996). All rights reserved by the authors' estates.

Listen. Listen.


Sonnets of Various Sizes by Peter Oswald

Devon oaks in the making

In celebration of Peter Oswald's new book Sonnets of various sizes (Shearsman, 2016), my husband Howard has filmed him delivering each poem at Aller Park, on the Dartington estate, where Peter is Artist-in-Residence. These little films are scheduled to appear once a week on the "Sonnet Feed" of Peter's website, released every Friday afternoon.

The first two sonnets are online now...and they are simply gorgeous.

As devoted as I am to the printed word, I love listening to these pieces, sinking back into that old, old oral tradition...

Peter Oswald (for those who don't know his work already) is an award-winning playwright & poet, performer & storyteller...and co-founder, with Howard, of the new Foxhole Theatre company, dedicated to exploring verse and mask drama in all its varied forms.

Peter's plays have been produced at the Globe and the National, as well as in the West End, on Broadway, and around the world. He was Writer-in-Residence at the Shakespeare's Globe from 1998 to 2005 (under the mentorship of Mark Rylance, for whom he wrote two leading roles); and at Dartington from 1997 to 1998 -- resuming the latter position in conjunction with his wife, poet Alice Oswald, in 2016-2017. Last month, Peter and Alice took part in Stories in Transit, a project organized by Marina Warner in Palermo, Italy, exploring storytelling in relation to refugees, migrants, and other displaced peoples.

The Dartington estate, Devon

In addition to his other theatre work, Peter also gives solo performances of story-poems based on sagas and folktales at theatre venues and literary festivals in UK and abroad. His delightful rendition of Three Folktales (from the Italian tradition) will be of particular interest to the Mythic Arts well as the Viking saga he is currently working on with Howard. (But more about that anon.)

Here's a short taste of Three Folktales:

Oak leaves in autumn

The Otter Woman

Suspension by Kate O'Hara

Today, I'd like to spotlight a thoroughly magical piece by the Irish poet Mary O'Malley, which draws on old Celtic legends of the otter woman (or otter wife). This is a classic "animal bride" figure, similar to seal maidens, swan maidens, crane wives and other half-animal/half-human creatures, trapped into marriage by mortal men who steal their animal skin sor cloak of feathers. Such stories usually end when the skin is found again, releasing her back into wild....

Otter Sculpture by Ian EdwardsThe Otter Woman
by Mary O'Malley

He never asked why she always walked
By the shore, what she craved
Why she never cried when every wave
Crescendoed like an orchestra of bones.
She stood again on the low bridge
The night of the full moon.

One sweet, deep breath and she slipped in
Where the river fills the sea.
She saw him clearly in the street light -- his puzzlement.
Rid of him she let out one low, strange cry. . .

Otter photograph by Mark Hamblin

The lovely painting above is by Kate O'Hara, an illustrator based in Reno, Nevada. The otter sculpture is by Ian Edwards, based here in the West Country. (He's best known for his figurative work, but you can see more of his animal sculptures here.) The otter photograph above is by Mark Hamblin, a fine nature photographer based in Scotland. The photograph below comes from a news article on otters, and was, alas, uncredited.

If you'd like to know more about "animal bride" legends go here. For more about shape-shifting otters go here. And for more about Mary O'Malley's beautiful work, you can listen to a good interview with the poet on American public radio here.

Newborn otter pup"The Otter Woman" by Mary O'Malley first appeared in The Southern Review (Autumn 1995). O'Malley's poetry collections include A Consideration of Silk, Where the Rocks Float, The Knife in the Wave, Asylum Road, The Boning Hall, A Perfect V, and Valparaiso; highly recommended. All rights to the text & imagery above reserved by the author and artists.