Fox stories

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Following on from yesterday's post on the fox in myth, legend, and mythic arts, I'd like to take a second look at fox imagery in poetry.

There are so many fine poems about foxes that I could fill the page attempting to list them all, but some of the very best include: "The Fox" and "Straight Talk from Fox" by Mary Oliver, "Vixen" and "Fox Sleep" by W.S. Merwin, "The Thought Fox" by Ted Hughes, "February: The Boy Breughel" by Norman Dubie, "The Fox Bead in May" (based on Asian "9-tailed fox" folklore) by Hannah Sanghee Park, "The Fox Smiled, Famished" by Mike Allen, "Michio Ito's Fox & Hawk" by Yusef Komunyakaa, and "Three Foxes by the Edge of the Field at Twilight" by Jane Hirshfield (tucked into the picture captions; run your cursor over the images to read it)...in addition to the fox poems quoted in yesterday's post, and A.A. Milne's charming children's poem about three foxes who don't wear sockses.

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My favorite fox poems of all, however, are by the great American poet Lucille Clifton (1936-2010), whose work "emphasizes endurance and strength through adversity, focusing particularly on African-American experience and family life."  Here's the first of them:

Fox Child, from one of my old sketchbookstelling our stories
by Lucille Clifton

the fox came every evening to my door
asking for nothing. my fear
trapped me inside, hoping to dismiss her
but she sat till morning, waiting.

at dawn we would, each of us,
rise from our haunches, look through the glass
then walk away.

did she gather her village around her
and sing of the hairless moon face,
the trembling snout, the ignorant eyes?

child, i tell you now it was not
the animal blood i was hiding from,
it was the poet in her, the poet and
the terrible stories she could tell.

The second poem is an absolute stunner: "A Dream of Foxes," written in six parts. You'll it find here.


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The gorgeous fox photographs today are by British wildlife photographer Richard Bowler.

"I've been passionate about the natural world all my life," Richard says. "This interest led me into angling, to get closer to a world hidden beneath the surface of a river or lake. Angling took me all over the world, to places well off the beaten track, North, South and Central America, the Indian ocean and my particular favourite, Africa. It was on these trips that I felt the need to learn how to capture what I was seeing with the camera. Soon taking pictures became much more important than catching fish, and now I'm much more likely to be found holding a camera than a fishing rod. I hope through my photographs to show the character of the animal and, through that, to make people care."

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Lucille Clifton

Words: The poem above is from The Terrible Stories by Lucille Clifton (BOA Editions,  1996). The poem in the picture captions is from Each Happiness Ringed by Lions by Jane Hirshfield (Bloodaxe Books, 2005). All rights reserved by the authors.

Pictures: The photographs are by Richard Bowler, and the little drawing, "Fox Child & Friend," is from one of my sketchbooks. All rights reserved by the artists.


A Spell for Opening

Back to the Stone by Simon Blackbourn

A Spell for Opening 1

Autumn leaves

A Spell for Opening 2

Autumn leaves

A Spell for Opening

Autumn leaves

We've been speaking about the giving and receiving of gifts in previous posts, and of shifting our perception of art and life away from our culture's fixation on the the market economy as the primary arbitrator of value, to one of gift exchange, reciprocity, generosity and community.

LeafToday is my birthday, and I grew up in the tradition of receiving birthday presents each year  (I expect that you did too) -- but as a folklorist I'm aware that this old folk custom is not universal. In some cultures, children present gifts to their mothers, or to both parents, in gratitude for the gift of life. In others, a birthday marks the opportunity for a giveaway: food, flowers, or gifts ceremoniously distributed to everyone in the family or tribe. 

In the spirit of the latter, I want to gift you all with the poem/chant/prayer pictured above: "A Spell for Opening." It's from my little book Seven Little Tales, which is part of the Seven Doors in an Unyielding Stone series from Hedgespoken Press, curated by Tom Hirons and Rima Staines. The poem was inspired by the series' name; I loved the mystery of doors in stone. I pictured this particular door in one of my favourite places on the moor: Scorhill, a circle of standing stones. What would it take, I wondered, to find that door and open it up...?

Please accept this gift of words...and then pass on a gift of your own to someone, somewhere, some day.

Seven Little Tales by Terri Windling Hedgepoken Press

Dartmoor Hawthorn by Simon Blackbourn

The beautiful imagery in this post is by local artist Simon Blackbourn, photographer and co-founder of the excellent Dartmoor Collective. Simon has spent the last ten years immersed in the wilds of the moor, photographing its colours, shapes, textures and moods, its trees, rocks, bogs, rivers, wildlife, and weather. To see more of his work, please visit his Instagram page and the Dartmoor Collective Gallery

For more on the subject of gift exchange, I recommend Lewis Hyde's seminal book The Gift: How the Creative Spirit Informs the World, and Robin Wall Kimmerer's remarkable Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teaching of Plants.

Dartmoor Pony by Simon Blackbourn

The North Teign River by Simon Blackbourn

The photographs by Simon Blackbourn are: Back to the Stone (Scorhill), Dartmoor Hawthorn, Dartmoor Pony, and The North Teign River. All rights to the text and imagery above reserved by the author and artist. 


The voices of the River Dart

The River Dart running to the sea

The River Dart, which gives Dartmoor its name, begins with two primary tributaries up on the high moor: the East Dart, with its source at Cranmere Pool, and the West Dart, starting north of Rough Tor. They join at Dartmeet, then the river flows south past Buckfast Abbey, Dartington and Totnes, turning tidal as it runs to the sea through the estuary at Kingswear and Dartmouth.

The name of the river most likely derives from the old Celtic Devonian language, possibly meaning "river of oaks," "oak stream," or "the sacred place of oak" ... and indeed, stretches of the the Dart still twist through low hills of ancient oak woodland.

Dawn from window

I love the Dart...as does Alice Oswald, a widely acclaimed poet (the first woman to serve as the Oxford Professor of Poetry in the position's 300 year history), and a family friend (her husband and mine run a theatre company together). Some years ago, when Alice was still living on Dartmoor, she walked the river from moorland to estuary to create a book-length poem titled Dart: a gorgeous evocation of the river's history, mythology, and shape-shifting presence in the life of the land.

At the start of the book Alice notes that the poem "is made from the language of people who live and work on the Dart. Over the past two years I've been recording conversations with people who know the river. I've used these records as life-models from which to sketch a series of characters -- linking their voice into a sound-map of the river, a songline from the source to the sea. There are indications in the margins where one voice changes into another. These do not refer to real people or even fixed fictions. All voices should be read as the river's mutterings."

The poem begins with the river's source at Cranmere Pool, seven miles from the nearest road:

Dart by Alice OswaldWho's this moving alive over the moor?

And old man seeking and find a difficulty.

Has he remembered his compass his spare socks
does he fully intend going in over his knees off the
   military track from Okehampton?

keeping his course through the swamp spaces
and pulling the distance around his shoulders

and if it rains, if it thunders suddenly
and all that lies to hand is his own bones?

Tussocks, minute flies,
           wind, wings, roots

He consults his map. A huge rain-coloured wilderness.
This must be the stones, the sudden movement,
the sound of frogs singing in the new year.
Who's this issuing from the earth?

The Dart, lying low in darkness calls out Who is it?
trying to summon itself by speaking ...

The walker replies:

An old man, fifty years a mountaineer, until my heart gave out,
so now I've taken to the moors. I've done all the walks, the Two
Moors Way, the Tors, this long winding line the Dart

this secret buried in reeds at the beginning of sound I
won't let go man, under
his soakaway ears and his eye ledges working
into the drift of his thinking, wanting his heart

I keep you folded in my mack pocket and I've marked in red
where the peat passes are the the good sheep tracks
cow-bones, tin-stones, turf-cuts.
listen to the horrible keep-time of a man walking,
rustling and jingling his keys
at the centre of his own noise,
clomping the silence in pieces and I

I don't know, all I know is walking. Get dropped off the military
track from Oakehampton and head down into Cranmere pool.
It's dawn, it a huge sphagnum kind of wilderness, and an hour
in the morning is worth three in the evening. You can hear
plovers whistling, your feet sink right in, it's like walking on the
bottom of a lake.

What I love is one foot in front of another. South-south-west and
down the countours. I go slipping between Black Ridge and White
Horse Hill into a bowl of moor where echoes can't get out

listen
a
lark
spinning
around
one
note
splitting
and
mending
it

and I find you in the reeds, a trickle coming out of a bank, a foal
of a river

The little cabin on the River Dart

From here the "muttering voices" include a fisherman, a forester, a water nymph, the King of the Oak Woods, a tin-extracter, a woolen mill worker, a swimmer, a boatbuilder and many others.

"I'm very interested in water," Alice says. "I'm interested in the way that it is a natural art form -- it actually pictures the world for you. You walk outside, and you are suddenly able to see a flat world reflected in the river. It's almost like nature's way of representing the world to you. But I think perhaps more than that, I'm an incredibly restless person, and I really admire the way water sheds itself all the time. I learn a lot from that. I aim to be as fluid as water if I can be. I don't like settling into one kind of character -- I like to shed myself as I go along."

Dart is a gorgeous book that seems to bubble out of the peat of Dartmoor itself. I urge you to seek it out.

Writing on the river

About the imagery in this post:

The first picture above shows the tidal portion of the River Dart after it comes off the high moor, running through the south Devon countryside to the sea. (It's a Wikipedia/Creative Commons photograph.)

The other pictures, also of the tidal Dart, were taken by me a few years ago, during a solitary writing retreat at a waterside cabin loaned to me by good friends. 

Water, light, and solitude

I lost my heart to the river during those long, quiet days, and the Dart has it still.

My river home

Misty morning

The passage quoted above is from Dart by Alice Oswald (Faber and Faber, 2002), winner of the T.S. Eliot Prize for Poetry. All rights reserved by the author.


A blessing for a Tuesday afternoon

River 1

A Blessing 
by Denise Levertov (1923-1997)

'Your river is in full flood,' she said,
'Work on - use these weeks well!'

River 2

She was leaving, with a springy step, a woman
herself renewed, her life risen

River 3

up from the root of despair she'd
bent low to touch,

River 4

risen empowered. Her work now
could embrace more: she imagined anew

River 5

the man's totem tree and its taproot,
the woman's chosen lichen, patiently

River 6

composting rock, another's
needful swamp, the tribal migrations - 

River 7

swaying skeins rotating their leaders,
pace unflagging, and the need

River 8

of each threatened thing
to be. She had met

River 9

River 10

with the council
of all beings.

River 11

                                    'You give me my life,'
she said to the just-written poems,

River 12

long-legged foals surprised to be standing.

Dartmoor pony and foal

The poet waving farewell
is not so sure of the river.

Pony in the mist

Is it indeed
strong-flowing, generous? Was there largesse
for alluvial, black, seed-hungry fields?

Dartmoor pony and foal

Or had a flash-flood
swept down these tokens
to be plucked ashore, rescued

Tilly and the pony 1

only to watch the waters recede
from stones of an arid valley?

Tilly and the pony 2

But the traveler's words
are leaven. They work in the poet.

Crossing the field

The river swiftly
goes on braiding its heavy tresses,

brown and flashing
as far as the eye can see.

Home through the lanes

The poem above is from The Collected Poems of Denise Levertov (New Directions, 2013). The poem in the picture captions is from Mary Oliver: New and Selected Poems, Vol. 1  (Beacon Press,2004). All rights reserved by the Levertov and Oliver estates. 


The writer's journey

The Wanderings of Odysseus by Alan Lee

What makes the writer's journey exhilarating, says Eleanor Cameron, is that "one never knows what will emerge from the unconcious, memories that, suprisingly enough, begin coalescing into a pattern, only dimly perceived at first. But before long, for some mysterious reason, this pattern begins taking on the substance and detail that tell the writer that another novel, not necessarily of the past, is coming into being.

"It is something to be grateful for because it can be devastating to see nothing in the offing. I remember Lloyd Alexander saying, when I congratulated him on his latest book, 'Oh, but I haven't an idea what to do next. It's terrible -- I'm utterly barren and it frightens me!' He had not the faintest notion that  The First Two Lives of Lukas-Kasha would appear within the next two years, not to speak of the Westmark Trilogy during the four after that.

The Wanderings of Odysseus by Alan Lee

"There are seven lines near the end of Cavafy's poem 'Ithaka' that particularly move me:

Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you are destined for.
But do not hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you are old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.

The Wanderings of Odysseus by Alan Lee

The Wanderings of Odysseus by Alan Lee

"As we sit at our desks, struggling to bring a conception into existence, we are always trying -- if we are serious and not simply working for money and attention -- to make ourselves worthy of the vision, no matter how modest the accomplishment. There, for me at least, lies the mingled hardship and true joy of writing, the journey taken."

The Wanderings of Odysseus by Alan Lee

''The life journey is a hero's journey," John Rowe Townsend agrees. "Although we may not feel very heroic, we are all embarked on the heroic quest, to live lives that have meaning for ourselves and others. We are on our individual Odysseys, our personal roads of trials. We have had our adventures, and we shall have more, but we shall come to Ithaka at last.''

The Wanderings of Odysseus Alan Lee

The art today is from The Wanderings of Odysseus by Rosemary Sutcliffe (1920-1992), a re-telling of the Odyssey for young readers, sumptuously illustrated by Alan Lee. Go here for an interesting interview with Alan on this book and many others.

And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.   
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you’ll have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.


            - translated by Edmund Keeley

Words: The Eleanor Cameron and John Rowe Townsend quotes are from Innocence & Experience: Essays & Conversations on Children's Literature, edited by Barbara Harrison and Gregory Maquire (Lothrop Lee & Shepard, 1987). The poem in the picture captions is from C.P. Cavafy: Collected Poems(Princeton University Press, 1975). All rights reserved by the authors or their estates.

Pictures: The illustrations above are from The Wanderings of Odysseus by Rosemary Sutcliff (Frances Lincoln, 1995). All rights reserved by the artist.