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Time Lines

24/09/2013 Comments off

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In the Stepping Stones interviews Seamus Heaney spoke to Dennis O’Driscoll about the ‘power of a dividing line’: the line of the first ploughed furrow; the laying of a house foundation; the marking out of a football pitch; the place of sanctuary behind the altar rails; the space between graveyard and road. Lines mark out spaces that are ‘utterly empty, utterly a source’.

Lines loop around and through Jo Slade’s most recent poetry collection The Painter’s House. In the poem ‘Twine’, time is the length of twine her father used ‘to set in straight lines a run of lettuce’; now it is a line that ‘draws distance in and out’, connecting poet and father. The parent’s hand in the earth is a conductor, ‘a bridge across forbidden space’ that reaches out to the writer whose hands are weaving together another line in ‘a braid of words’. 

The Painter’s House is a memoir collection, stretching back to great-grandfather clock-maker Joseph Wangler: ‘his nimble fingers placing the pins / his musical ear timing the cogs / his eye like a moon in the  ocular.’ There is the 1963 scene recalled of the poet’s father, Peter, ‘so beautiful / skating the lake / making a figure of eight’, and that of daughter and fragile mother, ‘her old back bent over / and sometimes the drag was immense – ‘. In ‘Last Journey’, the poet is an observer at the back of a cinema watching those she has loved in life flit across the screen, realizing that she still carries them around: ‘… they weigh me in / but they are blameless as shadows’.

The boundary line that marks the crossover into the artist’s inner space is at the heart of this collection. In the section ‘The Artist’s Room’ (previously published as a chapbook) the writer follows the artist Gwen John through Paris, at the same time pursuing her own artistic impulse: turning inward, becoming ‘so still at the still point’, ‘completeness contained’. In this collection we are led steadily and gracefully across the threshold line, inward into the artist’s house, ‘which is where she sits her easel tilted / to the light and there’s the painting / she makes with a house at its centre / and the nails she feels that hold it together.’

Graves Apart

10/09/2013 Comments off

Graves Apart

The controversial evangelist Edward Nangle died 130 years ago this week and is buried in Deansgrange Cemetery, Dublin. Almost two hundred miles away, the remains of his first wife Eliza and five of their children are interred on the slopes of Slievemore Mountain, Achill Island; the Achill Mission project of the mid-nineteenth century took a heavy toll on her and her children. 

See my piece in today’s Irish Times Irishwoman’s Diary here.

Saving Summer

03/09/2013 Comments off

West Clare August HedgerowSaving Summer
I always linger when I reach Querrin crossroads in west Clare to look down on the waters of the Shannon Estuary. It is just a few minutes to the pier from where I can gaze across to Scattery Island and its sturdy round tower. In August, the road between crossroads and pier is a medley of startling colour: orange-reds, shades of purple, gentle creams and delicate pinks blaze out and shock the eye. When I drive this road at night the car headlights stoke the hedgerows and it feels like I am moving through walls of fire such is the sparkle and flicker on either side of the car.
I am pleased with myself that this year I can name the individual plants which make up this lavish hedgerow foliage. Pride of place goes to montbretia with its drooping leaves and rust blossoms that lord it over all other vegetation like a tall, long-legged red-head drifting through a crowd. The purple loosestrife with its downy bloom gives the montbretia a run for its money with height and pervasiveness. The pale willow fern and buttery meadow sweet bring some calm to this superabundance of colour, while the discreet blackberry petals herald an autumn of fruit abundance.
This year I have impressed family and friends alike with my ability to identify the flora and plants of the Loop Head peninsula: the wild thyme at Ross, rock sapphire on the rocky shore, wild carrot at Rhynvella Beach, and sea pinks on the Loop Head moors. After astonishing my visitors with my knowledge, I let them in on my secret in the form of Carmel Madigan’s wonderful book The Wild Flowers of Loophead. A daughter of the peninsula – her family have farmed at the Bridges of Ross for over three hundred years – Carmel set out in the summer of 2007 with her young son James to record the plant life of Loop Head armed with pen and paper, camera, magnifying glass and books. The result is a nature tour of the peninsula’s moorland, beaches, verges and hedgerows through the seasonal changes, as Carmel uncovers the raw wild life of the Atlantic-washed landscape. The book is an amalgam of prose, maps, photographs, botanical references, poems, and Carmel’s own art work inspired by the area. Most of all, the wealth of detail allows me and others to identify, name and appreciate the natural bounty of the gem that is the west Clare landscape.
In recent weeks, on one of the wettest days of the summer, I took myself to Carmel’s Hedge School in a cottage at Kilballyowen in the village of Cross on the R487 that leads to the tip of Loop Head. I am booked into the half-day workshop on ‘Saving the Hedgerows’ which, I have been told, will introduce participants to methods of saving the produce of the local hedgerows ‘for decorative, fragrant, cosmetic and consumption uses’.
We get through the introductions with a cup of fresh-leaf herbal tea brewed in several of Carmel’s wonderful tea-pot collection. We select from a variety of tea combinations made from wild mint, marsh mallow, plantain, silverweed and rose petal. The oven is turned on low and more fresh leaves are being slowly dried over many hours; tied bunches of montbretia, loose strife and honeysuckle hang from the ceiling. Out the window I can vaguely see the Atlantic waters through the thick mist. There are hand-painted jars packed with dried herbs dotted around the studio, and Carmel’s luminous paintings adorn the walls.
For a start we tackle the making of a tincture which, I learn, is a concentrated herbal extract made from alcohol and herbs. Assorted local plants are already gathered. At one stage Carmel darts out into the garden and returns with plantain leaves – a great antiseptic compress, she tells us, if pressed against a sting, bite or wound. The herb collection is washed, towel dried and chopped, then packed into jars and immersed in alcohol. Left for two weeks to steep, the alcohol draws out essential plant compounds and nutrients. Carmel has some herbs that have already been alcohol-saturate and she strains this mixture through a muslin cloth across a sieve, pressing the herbs to extract all juices. She pours this liquid into small dark tincture bottles and we apply labels. Before leaving we will have another cup of herbal tea made with this rich tincture.
Most fascinating is the creation of ointments from oils already infused with extract from plants such as plantain, calendula and St John’s Wort. Bee’s wax is added to the oils and slowly blended over low heat until the liquid starts to solidify. We finish the workshop with a round-table group effort crumbling dried flowers and foliage into a pot pourri. Fragrances rise from meadowsweet, purple loosestrife, tufted vetch, pink bistort, montbretia, wild mint and Japanese rose. We pull leaves from stems, crumble petals, chat, raise fistfuls of pourri to nostrils and inhale the assorted aromas.
Each of us leaves with a bag of goodies: a hand-painted memory jar packed with aromatic pot pourri; a pot of seamay weed and yarrow ointment; a tiny bottle of marsh mallow tincture with a suggestion that a few drops will make a delicious tea combined with wild mint and blackberry. We all promise to return and sample some of the other Hedge School offerings like the rocky shore exploration or the rugged way walk at the Goleen on the Atlantic coast near Tullig Point.
Holidays over I set out for home, pausing at Querrin crossroads to look back at the still glowing montbretia above the Shannon Estuary waters. The hedgerow fires will be extinguished when I return to this place. There is solace, however, in the thought that my luggage contains jars and containers that have captured some of the essence of the hedgerows I am leaving behind. These, I know, will cheer me through long winter months.

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