One last selkie tale

Grey seal and pup, Lincolnshire. Photograph by Dan Kitwood.

From "The Selkie Wife's Daughter" by Jeannine Hall Gailey:

    I always wondered why she sang so strangely

    at the spinning wheel, why her eyes held all

    the mourning of the darkest sea. And why

Grey seal and pup, Yorkshire. Photograph by Steve Race.

    she held me away,

    as if afraid of my skin, why my feet and

    hands were webbed with translucent sea–skin.

Grey Seal

    I used to bring her armfuls of yellow

    water iris to almost

    see her smile. I wondered why father

Grey Seal and pup, Norfolk. Photograph by Friends of Horsey Seals.

    never let me swim out against the waves,

    never let her walk the shores alone....

Grey seal pup, Norfolk. Photograph by Friends of Horsey Seals.

To read the full poem, go here.

Seal mother tickling her pup. Photograph by Elmar Weiss.

Words: The poem extract above, inspired selkie legends is from  Becoming the Villainess by Jeannine Hall Gailey (Steel Toe Books, 2006), which I highly recommend. All rights reserved by the author. Pictures: The photographs above are by Dan Kitwood, Steve Race, Elmar Weiss, and Friends of Horsey Seals (Norfolk). All rights reserved by the photographers.


The Otter Woman

Suspension by Kate O'Hara

Last week we were looking at "animal bride" figures: selkies, swan maidens, crane wives, and other half-animal/half-human creatures, trapped into marriage by mortal men who steal their animal skin or cloak of feathers. Such stories usually end when the skin is found again, releasing the enchanted spouse back into wild....

Today, I'd like to spotlight a thoroughly magical piece by Irish poet Mary O'Malley, which draws on old Celtic legends of the otter woman (or otter wife). 

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

Mary 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. For more about her beautiful work, you can listen to a good interview with the poet on American public radio here.

Newborn otter pup

Words: "The Otter Woman" by Mary O'Malley is from The Southern Review (Autumn 1995). All rights reserved by the author.

Pictures: The lovely painting above is by Kate O'Hara, an illustrator based in Reno, Nevada. The otter sculpture is by Ian Edwards, based in the English south-west. (He's best known for his figurative work, but you can see more of his animal sculptures here.) The first otter photograph is by Mark Hamblin,  based in Scotland. The second is from a news article on otters, and was, alas, uncredited. All rights reserved by the artists.

 


The animals returning

A Deer by Jessica Roux

"Animals Are Entering Our Lives" by Liesel Mueller

“I will take care of you,” the girl said to her brother, who had been turned into a deer. She put her golden garter around his neck and
made him a bed of leaves and moss."  -  from an old tale

Deer by Jessica RouxEnchanted is what they were
in the old stories, or if not that,
they were guides and rescuers of the lost,
the lonely, the needy young men and women
in the forest we call the world.
That was back in a time
when we all had a common language.

Then something happened. Then the earth
became a place to trample and plunder.
Betrayed, they fled to the tallest trees,
the deepest burrows. The common language
became extinct. All we heard from them
were shrieks and growls and wails and whistles,
Taproot illustration by Jessica Rouxnothing we could understand.

Now they are coming back to us,
the latest homeless, driven by hunger.
I read that in the parks of Hong Kong
the squatter monkeys have learned to open
soft drink bottles and pop-top cans.
One monkey climbed an apartment building
and entered a third-floor bedroom.
He hovered over the baby’s crib
like a curious older brother.
Here in Illinois
Zaftig illustration by Jessica Rouxthe gulls swarm over the parking lots
miles from the inland sea,
and the Canada geese grow fat
on greasy leftover lunches
in the fastidious, landscaped ponds
of suburban corporations.

Their seasonal clocks have stopped.
They summer, they winter. Rarer now
is the long, black elegant V
in the emptying sky. It still touches us,
though we do not remember why.

But it’s the silent deer who come
and eat each night from our garden,
as if they had been invited.
The Deer and the Oats by Jessica RouxThey pick the tomatoes and the tender beans,
the succulent day-lily blossoms
and dewy geranium heads.
When you labored all spring,
planting our food and flowers,
you did not expect to feed
an advancing population
of the displaced. They come,
like refugees everywhere,
defying guns and fences
and risking death on the road
to reach us, their dispossessors,
who have become their last chance.
Shall we accept them again?
Shall we fit them with precious collars?
They scatter their tracks around the house,
closer and closer to the door,
like stray dogs circling their chosen home.

(from Alive Together: New and Selected Poems, 1996) 

Red Squirrel by Jessica Roux

German-American poet and translator Lisel Mueller left us in February, at the age of 96.  Learning of her death, I pulled her books down off the shelves and have been taking them with me on my walks with Tilly, stopping beneath a favourite tree, or by the stream, or at the crest of the hill to re-read her life's work...marvelling again at how fine it is, and how much of it has steeped into my dreams and language over the years.

The piece above is Mueller's folkloric response to Phillip Levine's "Animals Are Passing from Our Lives" (named for a line in an Isak Dinesen interview). The Levine poem was published in 1968, but still resonates in our own age of factory farming and ecological crisis; while Mueller's response, published in 1996, seems remarkably pertinent now, in the "great pause" of the global pandemic, as wildlife resurges and reclaims space usually dominated by humankind. 

(For a previously posted Mueller poem, "Why I Need the Birds," go here.)

Tricksters and Wild African Dog by Jessca Roux

The art today is by Jessica Roux, whose work (animal lover that I am) I just adore. Raised in the woodlands of North Carolina, Roux studied at the Savannah College of Art & Design in Georgia, and now works as a freelance illustrator and stationary designer based in Nashville.

"I can’t get enough of history," she says. "Old lithographs and studies by early naturalists are some of my favorite things. I love medieval bestiaries and the early Northern Renaissance. I’m also really inspired by nature. There are just so many strange plants and animals out there that I want to know more about."

You can see more of Roux's art in a previous post, Skunk Dreams, as well as on the artist's beautiful website

Sleeping Fox by Jessica Roux

"Animals Are Entering Our Lives" is from Alive Together: New and Selected Poems by Lisel Mueller (Louisiana State University Press, 1996). All rights to the art and text above reserved by the artist and the author's estate. 


One more post for the feathered ones

Bird Girls by Terri Winding

Bird Mother by Terri Windling
Why I Need the Birds
by Lisel Mueller (1924-2020)

When I hear them call
in the morning, before
I am quite awake,
my bed is already traveling
the daily rainbow,
the arc toward evening;
and the birds, leading
their own discreet lives
of hunger and watchfulness,
are with me all the way,
always a little ahead of me
in the long-practiced manner
of unobtrusive guides.

By the time I arrive at evening,
they have just settled down to rest;
already invisible, they are turning
into the dreamwork of trees;
and all of us together --
myself and the purple finches,
the rusty blackbirds,
the ruby cardinals,
and the white-throated sparrows
with their liquid voices —
ride the dark curve of the earth
toward daylight, which they announce
from their high lookouts
before dawn has quite broken for me.

   

"Why I Need the Birds" is from Alive Together: New and Selected Poems by Lisel Mueller, winner of the 1997 Pulitzer Prize for poetry. Having long been one of my favourite poets, I was saddened to learn of Ms. Mueller's death earlier this year, at age 96. The New York Times obituary noted that her "elegant work drew on nature, her experiences as a parent, folklore, and history, including her own flight from Nazi Germany as a teenager." I particularly recommend her folklore poems ("Why We Tell Stories," "Reading the Brothers Grimm to Jenny," etc.), but the full range of her work is quietly devastating in its power.

Some years ago I plucked up the courage to write for permission to reprint one of her poems in my Armless Maiden anthology (raising money for at-risk children) -- and she responded by writing and donating a beautiful new poem instead. Her kindness will never be forgotten. May her memory be a blessing.

Bird Sisters by Terri Windling

Lisel Muller photographed by Lucy Mueller

Words: Alive Together: New and Selected Poems was published by Louisiana State University Press, 1996; all rights reserved by the author's estate. Pictures: The paintings and drawing above are by me today. All rights reserved.


Moving forward like water

Waterfall on Nattadon Hill

These words from Terry Tempest Williams' new book, Erosion, were written long before the global pandemic yet seem especially resonant right now:

"It is morning. I am mourning. And the river is before me. I am a writer without words who is struggling to find them. I am holding the balm of beauty, this river, this desert, so vulnerable, all of us. I am trying to shape my despair into some form of action, but for now, I am standing on the cold edge of grief."

Waterfall 2

The wet, green landscape I live in now is a world away from the Utah desert where Williams makes her home, and yet these essays speak directly to my soul -- and not just because I'm a former desert-dweller. Erosion is a work of beauty, sorrow, joy, rage, and bottomless compassion. 

"Let us pause and listen and gather our strength with grace," she writes, "and move forward like water in all its manifestations: flat water, white water, rapids and eddies, and flood this country with an integrity of purpose and patience and persistence capable of cracking stone."

Waterfall 3

Here on quiet hillside in Devon, as the springtime unfolds in all of its wonder and the pandemic rolls on in all of its horror, I've been finding strength in Williams' words, and also in the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke. Plagued by poor health throughout his working life (eventually diagnosed as leukemia), Rilke knew a thing or two about living with the dark. He is a writer I keep returning to, at every stage of life, and he never fails me. Today it's this, from Sonnets to Orpheus, that is giving me courage:

Quiet friend who has come so far,

Helen Strattonfeel how your breathing makes more
  space around you.
Let this darkness be a bell tower
and you the bell. As you ring,

what batters you becomes your strength.
Move back and forth into the change.
What is it like, such intensity of pain?
If the drink is bitter, turn yourself to wine.

In this uncontainable night,
be the mystery at the crossroads of
  your senses,
the meaning discovered there.
And if the world has ceased to hear you,
say to the silent earth: I flow.
To the rushing water, speak: I am.

Waterfall 4

Erosion

Water flow

Words: The Terry Tempest William quotes above and in the picture captions are from Erosion: Essays of Undoing (Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019). For a further taste of this exquisite book,  you can read one of William's essays online here. Please don't miss it. Rainer Maria Rilke's poem "Let This Darkness Be a Bell Tower" is from Sonnets to Orpheus: Book II, 29. This lovely translation is from In Praise of Mortality: Selections from Rilke's Duino Elegies & Sonnets, translated by Joanna Macy and Anita Barrows (Echo Point Books, 2016). All rights reserved by the authors.

Pictures: The drawing is by British illustrator Helen Stratton (1867-1961), who was born in India, trained in London, and spent much of her working life in London and Bath. The photographs are of the waterfall on our hill, swelled with rain.


On a stormy day on Nattadon Hill

Nattadon Hill

"Song" by Gabriela Mistral (1889-1957)
translated by Langston Hughes

"A woman is singing in the valley. The shadows falling blot her out, but her song spreads over the fields.

"Her heart is broken, like the jar she dropped this afternoon among the pebbles in the brook. As she sings, the hidden wound sharpens on the thread of her song, and becomes thin and hard. Her voice in modulation dampens with blood.

Nattadon Hill 2

"In the fields the other voices die with the dying day, and a moment ago the song of the last slow-poke bird stopped. But her deathless heart, alive with grief, gathers all the silent voices into her voice, sharp now, yet very sweet.

Nattadon Hill 3

"Does she sing for a husband who looks at her silently in the dusk, or for a child whom her song caresses? Or does she sing for her own heart, more helpless than a babe at nightfall?

Nattadon Hill 4

"Night grows maternal before this song that goes to meet it; the stars, with a sweetness that is human, are beginning to come out; the sky full of stars becomes human and understands the sorrows of this world.

Nattadon Hill 5

"Her song, as pure as water filled with light, cleanses the plain and rinses the mean air of day in which men hate. From the throat of the woman who keeps on singing, day rises nobly evaporating toward the stars."

Nattadon Hill 6

Autumn leaves

The prose-poem above by Chilean poet Gabriela Mistral is from Selected Poems of Gabriela Mistral, translated by Langston Hughes (Indiana University Press, 1957). The quote in the picture captions is from Women in  Praise of the Sacred, edited Jane Hirshfield (HarperPerrenial, 1995). All rights reserved by the authors and translator or their estates.


For Calling the Spirit Back from Wandering the Earth in Its Human Feet

Dream horses 1

From Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings by Joy Harjo (of Mvskoke/Creek Nation), the current U.S. Poet Laureate:

Put down that bag of potato chips, that white bread, that bottle of pop.

Turn off that cellphone, computer, and remote control.

Dream horses 2

Open the door, then close it behind you.

Dream horses 3

Take a breath offered by friendly winds. They travel the earth gathering essences of plants to clean.

Give it back with gratitude.

Dream horses 4

If you sing it will give your spirit lift to fly to the stars’ ears and back.

Acknowledge this earth who has cared for you since you were a dream planting itself precisely within your parents’ desire.

Dream horses 5

Let your moccasin feet take you to the encampment of the guardians who have known you before time, who will be there after time. They sit before the fire that has been there without time.

Let the earth stabilize your postcolonial insecure jitters.

Dream horses 6

Be respectful of the small insects, birds and animal people who accompany you.
Ask their forgiveness for the harm we humans have brought down upon them.

Don’t worry.
The heart knows the way though there may be high-rises, interstates, checkpoints, armed soldiers, massacres, wars, and those who will despise you because they despise themselves.

Dream horses 7

The journey might take you a few hours, a day, a year, a few years, a hundred, a thousand or even more.

Watch your mind. Without training it might run away and leave your heart for the immense human feast set by the thieves of time.

Do not hold regrets.

Dream horses 8

When you find your way to the circle, to the fire kept burning by the keepers of your soul, you will be welcomed.

You must clean yourself with cedar, sage, or other healing plant.

Cut the ties you have to failure and shame.

Dream horses 9

Let go the pain you are holding in your mind, your shoulders, your heart, all the way to your feet. Let go the pain of your ancestors to make way for those who are heading in our direction.

Ask for forgiveness.

Call upon the help of those who love you. These helpers take many forms: animal, element, bird, angel, saint, stone, or ancestor.

Dream horses 10

Call your spirit back. It may be caught in corners and creases of shame, judgment, and human abuse.

You must call in a way that your spirit will want to return.

Speak to it as you would to a beloved child.

Dream horses 11

Welcome your spirit back from its wandering. It may return in pieces, in tatters. Gather them together. They will be happy to be found after being lost for so long.

Your spirit will need to sleep awhile after it is bathed and given clean clothes.

Dreams horses 12

Now you can have a party. Invite everyone you know who loves and supports you. Keep room for those who have no place else to go.

Make a giveaway, and remember, keep the speeches short.

Dream horses 13

Then, you must do this:

help the next person find their way through the dark.

Tilly watches the dream horses go

Words: "Calling the Spirit Back from Wandering the Earth in Its Human Feet" is from Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings by Joy Harjo (W.W. Norton & Co, 2015). The poem in the picture captions is from Harjo's  How We Became Human: New and Selected Poems, 1975-2001 (W.W. Norton & Co. 2002). All rights reserved by the author.

Pictures: This series of photos, which I call "The Dream Horses," was taken in mid-July at the height of summer. When Tilly and I met the local herd of Dartmoor ponies on this particular path on the hill behind my studio, the quality of the early morning light made it seem like a magical visitation. A little later that month, in the very same spot, they went galloping past us with a thunder of hooves. I know they are earthly beings, but every once in a while they seem like something more....


Following the deer

The White Deer by  Adrienne Ségur

White-tail deer

I'm out of the studio today due to health care issues, but will be back tomorrow (Thursday). In the meantime, I recommend this for your morning reading: "The Supple Deer" by the brilliant American poet Jane Hirschfield.

The illustration above, for Madame D'Aulnoy's classic fairy tale "The White Deer," is by the French book artist Adrienne Ségur (1901-1981) -- best known to English-language readers as the illustrator of The Golden Book of Fairy Tales.

Books illustrated by Adrienne Ségur

Young Fallow Deer by Joshua Smythe copy


Spells and tunes for a Monday Morning

The Lost Words

The Lost Words, a magnificent book created by Jackie Morris and Robert Macfarlane, began "as a response to the removal of everyday nature words from a widely used children’s dictionary, but then grew to become a much broader protest at the loss of the natural world around us." This beautiful volume contains twenty of Robert's poems/chants/spells entwined with Jackie's paintings of larks, acorns, otters and other wild things, conjuring the names of common animals and plants back into our language.

In the Waterstones interview above, Robert talks about the magical power of words, and of a collaborative process not only between writer and artist but also with the land itself.

Below, Jackie summons otters from a blank white page while reciting Robert's words. The video was filmed in her studio on the wild coast of Wales.

Spell Songs is a companion project in which eight fine folk musicians (Karine Polwart, Julie Fowlis, Seckou Keita, Kris Drever, Kerry Andrew, Rachel Newton, Beth Porter, and Jim Molyneux) were invited to create new songs inspired by The Lost Words. The project began with a residency in the Herefordshire countryside in January; the songs were taken on tour in February; and the music is now being released as an album, followed by more performances -- including the BBC Proms.

Spell Songs

Easter Hare byJackie MorrisAbove: The Snow Hare, from Spell Songs. "The mountain hare, or snow hare, the only truly Arctic animal of Scotland, is under threat due to rapid ecological shifts. A creature that has evolved winter camouflage becomes immensely vulnerable when the snows don’t come as they used to. This song, led by Julie Fowlis and Karine Polwart, speaks to that fragility."

Below: Selkie-Boy. "Tales of the seal people are a big part of Hebridean folklore, especially in North Uist, Julie Fowlis's home island. Her fascination with these stories, of Norse royalty, enchantment, separation and isolation, led Robert to gift her with a new spell, Grey Seal. 'I began the selkie song thinking it was a drowning song,' he says, 'but by the time I'd added the final verses realised it needed to be, like the selkies themselves, neither quite one thing or the other, neither drowning nor dreaming, seal or human, land or sea, elegy or eulogy, and how it was taken would depend on how it swam into the mind of the listener.' "

Selkie by Jackie Morris

Birds from The Lost Words

Above: Charm on, Goldfinch. Beth Porter, who composed this song, was inspired "by her walks in Wigtown along the Martyrs’ Stake, where she often saw goldfinches along the path and in the trees, and by the end to Robert's new Goldfinch Spell, which forms the chorus: Charm on Goldfinch, charm on Heaven help us when all your gold is gone."

Below: My favourite of the songs, The Lost Blessing. "Karine Polwart suggested the idea of a blessing borrowing images and phrases from many of the Lost Words spells  (Bluebell, Dandelion, Fern, Heather, Heron, Kingfisher, Lark, Otter, Raven and Starling), as well as from new spells (Goldfinch and Grey Seal). The form is inspired by blessings in Scottish Gaelic, particularly from a beautiful collection of charms and incantations called Carmina Gadelica."

The album can be ordered here. To learn more about the book, go here.

Tilly and The Lost Words

Related posts:  Making friends with monsters & other advice for artists and The wild sky.


On poetry and paying attention

Ponies 1

From an interview with David Whyte (author of In The House of Belonging):

"I’ve written poetry since I was very small. I had very powerful experiences with poetry where I felt literally abducted, taken away by poetry and just like a hawk had come down and taken me in its claws and carried me off. I remember reading Ted Hughes when I was young -- and he must’ve been young then too -- and having that feeling, and a very powerful feeling, that this was language that adults had written who had not forgotten the primary visions and insights of childhood.

Ponies 2

Ponies 3

"But when I was 14 years old, I saw Jacques Cousteau, the famous French marine zoologist and inventor of the aqualung, sail across our little television set in the north of England. I really couldn’t believe you could have work like this in the world. You could actually follow the life of the dolphin aboard the good ship Calypso. I was so astonished by it that I gave up all my art subjects and put myself into the salt mines of biology, chemistry, and physics. Then I emerged with a degree in marine zoology many years later. Through sheer luck and fortune, I found myself on the shores of the Galapagos Islands as a naturalist guide. That was really astonishing, and experiencing those islands led me back into poetry and philosophy, really.

Ponies 4

Ponies 5

"I went back into poetry because I felt like scientific language wasn’t precise enough to describe the experiences that I had in Galapagos. Science, rightly, is always trying to remove the 'I.' But I was really interested in the way that the 'I' deepened the more you paid attention. In Galapagos, I began to realize that because I was in deeply attentive states, hour after hour, watching animals and birds and landscapes -- and that’s all I did for almost two years -- I began to realize that my identity depended not upon any beliefs I had, inherited beliefs or manufactured beliefs, but my identity actually depended on how much attention I was paying to things that were other than myself and that as you deepen this intentionality and this attention, you started to broaden and deepen your own sense of presence.

Ponies 6

Ponies 7

Ponies 8

"I began to realize that the only places where things were actually real was at this frontier between what you think is you and what you think is not you, that whatever you desire of the world will not come to pass exactly as you will like it. But the other mercy is that whatever the world desires of you will also not come to pass, and what actually occurs is this meeting, this frontier. It’s astonishing how much time human beings spend away from that frontier, abstracting themselves out of their bodies, out of their direct experience, and out of a deeper, broader, and wider possible future that’s waiting for them if they hold the conversation at that frontier level. Half of what’s about to occur is unknown both inside you and outside you.

"John O’Donohue used to say that one of the necessary tasks is this radical letting alone of yourself in the world, letting the world speak in its own voice and letting this deeper sense of yourself speak out."

Ponies 9

Ponies 10

And likewise, Mary Oliver said: "To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work."

For writing poetry, telling stories, making mythic art, and creating artful, thoughtful lives, no matter where they unfold: city, town, suburb...or the green hills of Devon, where wild ponies roam.

Ponies 11

Ponies 12

Words: The passage above is from "David Whyte: The Conversational Nature of Reality" (On Being with Krista Trippett, American Public Radio, April 7, 2016). I recommend listening to the full interview, which you'll find here. The poem in the picture captions is from Everything is Waiting for You (Many Rivers Press, 2003). All rights reserved by David Whyte and Krista Trippett. Pictures: Dartmoor pony foals on our village Commons.