Saturday, February 18, 2017


Earlier this week I saw the first crocuses of the year:  white and purple (three white inner petals; three pale purple outer petals) set within deep green leaves.  Daffodil stalks have begun to emerge from the earth, and the furred buds on the tips of the magnolia branches are growing larger.

All of this activity takes place within the low-angled golden sunlight of late February and early March, the counterpart of the slanting sunlight of late August and early September.  The light of Paradise.  A World aglow, in which all colors take on deeper and richer hues.  This is particularly true of the meadows and the lawns, which are heartbreakingly and wistfully green.

For now, I am here,
but can one trust the future?
No, not in a world
     that teaches us its ways
          with the morning glory.

Izumi Shikibu (c. 970 - c. 1030) (translated by Steven Carter), in Steven Carter, Traditional Japanese Poetry: An Anthology (Stanford University Press 1991), page 120.

Ian MacInnes (1922-2003), "Harvest, Innertoon" (1959)

The joy of arrival and the sadness of departure.  At all times, and in every season, this is what the World teaches us.  It is the story of our life, isn't it?

Each spring, I am delighted to come upon the first crocuses.  Implicit in this delight (but unstated) is the knowledge that this arrival betokens an eventual departure.  But seeing the crocuses is never an occasion for sinking into a melancholy meditation on mortality.  Quite the opposite.

And so it goes with each of the beautiful particulars of the World.

Betty Corrigall lived on the island of Hoy in Orkney in the 18th century. When she was in her late twenties, she was abandoned by her lover after becoming pregnant.  She committed suicide.  Given the circumstances of her death, a kirkyard burial was not permitted.  She was buried in an unmarked grave out on the moor.  In the early 1930s, her coffin was discovered by peat diggers.  In 1949, a visiting American minister performed a burial service for her.  A white marker was placed on her grave in 1976.  It reads:  "Here Lies Betty Corrigall."

George Mackay Brown wrote a short story about her, an imaginative rendering of the final months of her life.  The story begins with an introductory paragraph:

"In the moorland of the island of Hoy in Orkney, right on the boundary that separates the two parishes of Voes (Walls) and North Hoy, a gravestone and fence have recently been erected by some islanders.  Underneath lay, peat-preserved for well over a century, the body of a young woman who had obviously committed suicide.  Only her name survives:  Betty Corrigall."

George Mackay Brown, "Betty Corrigall", in Northern Lights: A Poet's Sources (edited by Archie Bevan and Brian Murray) (John Murray 1999), page 225.

Brown also wrote a poem about her.

          Betty Corrigall

The girl buried in the moor

     in the blue scarf of wind
          begin to dance

     in the yellow coat of sun
          ripeness is here

     in the gray sheet of water
          steep your griefs

     lie robed from looms of earth

George Mackay Brown, Ibid, page 231.

It is said that Betty Corrigall's body, having been interred in peat, was well-preserved when it was discovered.  "And while that generation of islanders withered slowly into death, one after another, and after death rotted more urgently until they achieved the cleanness of skeletons, the deep peat moss kept the body of Betty Corrigall uncorrupted; though stained and darkened with the essences that had preserved it."  George Mackay Brown, "Betty Corrigall," Ibid, page 230.  Persephone in Orkney:  queen of the underworld and goddess of spring.

Stanley Cursiter (1887-1976), "Orkney Landscape" (1952)

Yesterday afternoon I stood at the entrance to an avenue of trees.  The two rows of trees are bare, but beautiful, at this time of year:  an endlessly complex network of branches, not a twig out of place, set against the sky. For a moment, I brought to mind how the avenue looks in each of the seasons, and I imagined that I could see an entire year of branches and leaves pass in sequence before my eyes.

We are time-bound, but it is possible to experience timelessness and eternity.  "They will endure beyond our vanishing;/And they will never know that we have gone."  (Jorge Luis Borges (translated by Stephen Kessler), "Things.")  I find comfort in that thought.

The Ring of Brodgar is a stone circle located on the Mainland of Orkney. George Mackay Brown wrote a sequence titled "Brodgar Poems," which consists of 28 short poems, each bearing the number of one of the standing stones in the circle.  The sequence begins with a prose introduction:

"The poem sees the work on this Neolithic stone circle as lasting two or three generations at least.  'She who threw marigolds over you . . . is a crone now with cindery breath . . .'

"It may have been a meeting-place, a temple, a hymn to the sun and the stars.

"Even as a civilisation is being established, its history is beginning to crumble.  Strange boats from time to time sailed along the horizon, going north and west, threatening the precarious settlements.

"But a circle has no beginning or end.  The symbol holds.  People in AD 2000 are essentially the same as the stone-breakers and horizon-breakers of 3000 BC."

George Mackay Brown, from "Brodgar Poems" (1992), in Archie Bevan and Brian Murray (editors), The Collected Poems of George Mackay Brown (John Murray 2005).

"A circle has no beginning or end."  We can be acutely -- and heartbreakingly -- aware of the arrival and departure of the World's beautiful particulars, yet still feel a sense of constancy and continuity.  Is it possible that nothing ever truly vanishes?

               The Eleventh Stone

They say, never such loveliness between the lochs
As that girl.
In the pause between two stones
She became a swan.
She flew from us into sunset and stars.

George Mackay Brown, Ibid.

"The Eleventh Stone" brings this to mind:

The beauty of Xi Shi's countenance -- where is it now?
In the tips of the wild grasses, swaying in spring wind.

Yüan Chen (779-831) (translated by Steven Carter), in Steven Carter, Traditional Japanese Poetry: An Anthology (Stanford University Press 1991), page 127.

Ian MacInnes, "Yesnaby" (1979)

Are these ruminations about arrivals and departures, timelessness and eternity, nothing but wishful thinking?  Whistling past the graveyard? Perhaps.  Yet why eliminate any possibilities?

I harbor no illusions: we live in a crocus and morning glory world.  Silence awaits.  But is silence the end?


Suddenly a stone chirped
Bella's goodness,
The numbers
Of Bella's beginning and end.
It sang like a harp, the stone!

James-William of Ness
Put a shilling
In the dusty palm of the carver,
Fifty years since.

Wind, snow, sun grainings.

The stone's a whisper now.
The stone will be silence.

George Mackay Brown, from "Seal Island Anthology, 1875," in Voyages (Chatto & Windus 1983).

Stanley Cursiter, "A Farm in Orkney" (1952)


Denise said...

Dear Mr Pentz, I stumbled upon your blog by chance yesterday after reading Clive James column in the Saturday Guardian. He mentions the poet Jokun and his lines...

I intended
Never to grow old
But the temple bell sounds.

In Japan at the start of the year the bells of the Buddhist temples are rung 108 times as a reminder of the 108 sins.
Stumbling upon your blog in this way is rather like suddenly digging up a treasure chest. Wonderful. Thank you so much.

George said...

Yesterday I read The Winter's Tale and encountered

... O Proserpina,
For the flowers now, that frighted, thou let'st fall
From Dis's wagon! daffadils,
That come before the swallow dares, and take
The winds of March with beauty; ...

We have had a warm winter, and the crocuses are up in Washington, DC, also, though it has been cool and dry enough that the grass is at best a very yellow green.

Stephen Pentz said...

Denise: Thank you very much for your kind words about the blog. I'm delighted that you found your way here.

That is a lovely haiku, isn't it? I read it every year near the end of the year, and, as you may have noticed, it has appeared here a few times in the past. I lived in Japan for a year (long ago), and I was able to experience the ringing of the temple bells at the turning of the year -- a wonderful experience.

Thank you again. I hope you'll return soon.

Stephen Pentz said...

George: Thank you for those lovely lines: what a nice coincidence. The name "Proserpina" brings to mind Dante Gabriel Rossetti's painting "Proserpine." (With that wonderful pomegranate!)

Soon you will have the cherry blossoms back there! I am seeing the buds here now. One advantage of our rainy, not-too-cold winters in the Pacific Northwest is that the grass stays green throughout the winter. I remember my childhood years in Minnesota, when the world was various shades of brown, tan, and grey after the snow melted and before spring arrived.

As always, it is a pleasure to hear from you. Thank you for visiting again.

mary f.ahearn said...

These poems move me deeply - I am in your debt for them. Several years ago I bought Sam Hamill's "Crossing the Yellow River" due to a discovery on your pages. Now you have given us more treasures.
And yes, the lessons of the crocus and the morning glory. Here in Pennsylvania I am looking to the aconites, sunny as buttercups, and my beloved snowdrops as well as the soft purple early crocus.
A bow of gratitude and thanks,

Stephen Pentz said...

Mary: It's a pleasure to hear from you again. I greatly appreciate your kind words. Thank you. I am always happy to discover that the things I love may resonate with others as well. (Crossing the Yellow River is wonderful, isn't it? I return to it often. I think that Hamill, Burton Watson, and Arthur Waley are the three best translators of Chinese poetry into English -- three successive generations of the 20th and 21st centuries in terms of translation.)

I have been on the lookout for snowdrops, but haven't seen any yet. And thank you for "aconite": I am horrible with plant names, but I looked it up on the internet after reading your comment, and now I know the name of a flower I have been enjoying for many years! Thank you for that.

As ever, thank you very much for stopping by, and for sharing your thoughts.

John Ashton said...

Stephen, I saw my first snowdrops clustered beside a stream in local woodland last week and purple crocus pushing through the grass on a roadside verge. We have daffodils on our allotments too, which should soon be in bloom.

The weather has warmed and dried the soil to a perfect condition. I was digging at the weekend preparing the ground for potatoes and listening to the bright commotion of birdsong and thinking, how grateful I am to be able to hear this and see the colour of the flowers. That it is here for such a short time makes it doubly precious..

Your words reminded me of this delightful verse from Norman MacCaig’s poem, Spring Morning;

This girlish morning
comes straight out of old stories
when girls wore sprig muslin
and spent their entire time
being happy…

or these lines from a poem I found in an anthology of Chinese poetry, Spring Dawn by Meng Hao-Jan;

In spring sleep, dawn arrives unnoticed
Suddenly all around, I hear birds in song

The beauty of early Spring after the darkness of winter makes us more aware of the beauty,and though we are in time it seems to me there is timeless time too.
Moments when we are taken so deeply into the heart of the experience that for a while we transcend it.

Thank you for the George Mackay Brown poems, all of which are new to me. I have a copy of his Collected Poems on its way to me as a gift from my sister in law, but due to circumstances too tedious to relate here been a delay in receiving it. I am very much looking forward to arrival.

Stephen Pentz said...

John: I think the climate here is very similar to that of England, so it sounds like the snowdrops, crocuses, daffodils, and others arrive at nearly the same time. Your point about the contrast between the darkness of winter and the increasing light of spring is a good one -- I am sure it is part of what accounts for the beauty of the slanting golden light at this time of year.

Thank you for the lines from Norman MacCaig and Meng Hao-jan. Regarding "Spring Dawn," it looks as though that is the translation by David Hinton. As you know, the final two lines of that poem are lovely as well, and capture another side of spring:

A loud night. Wind and rain came, tearing
blossoms down. Who knows few or many?

Here is another translation of the same poem by Sam Hamill (from his anthology Crossing the Yellow River, which Mary mentions in her comment above). He titles the poem "Spring Dreams."

In spring, I dream through dawn,
but hear birds everywhere, singing.

O voice of all-night wind and rain,
do you count the petals that are falling?

The variations between the two translations are interesting. I prefer Hinton's version of the first two lines, and Hamill's version of the last two lines.

You will be very happy with George Mackay Brown's Collected Poems. I obtained a copy a year or so ago. As I'm sure you know, his individual collections, particularly the older ones, are hard to obtain, and he omitted a great number of poems from the editions of Selected Poems that were published during his lifetime. Thus, there was much that was new to me (including "Brodgar Poems") in the Collected Poems. I am still exploring it.

Thank you very much for sharing your spring thoughts, and I hope you continue to find time to get outdoors to enjoy the season. As always, thank you for stopping by.

John Ashton said...

You are correct Stephen of course. It is the David Hinton translation. I agree the final two lines are lovely, the first two seemed more appropriate to quote in the context of what I was saying. I agree with you about the last two lines in Hammill’s version. I think they are preferable to Hinton’s.

I own a couple of individual volumes of George Mackay Brown’s poems; Fishermen with ploughs and Loaves and fishes, but as you say the Collected poems contains so much more. As you can imagine I await its arrival eagerly.

I thought you might be interested in these lines about spring by Ted Hughes. Though he is not one of my favourite poets, there are undoubted moments of brilliance among his writings. On the whole I find his writing a little overblown and too full of posturing. These few lines however from his collection, Season Songs, written primarily for children are,in my opinion beautifully done.

Spring Nature Notes

The sun lies mild and still on the yard stones.

The clue is a solitary daffodil--the first.

And the whole air struggling in soft excitements
Like a woman hurrying into her silks.
Birds everywhere zipping and unzipping
Changing their minds, in soft excitements
Warming their wings and trying their voices.

The trees still spindle bare.

Beyond them, from the warmed blue hills
An exhilaration swirls upward, like a huge fish.

As under a waterfall, in the bustling pool.

Over the whole land
Spring thunders down in brilliant silence.

Stephen Pentz said...

John: Thank you for your follow-up comments. And thank you as well for the poem by Hughes. My feelings about his poetry are the same as yours, but this poem (which is new to me) is lovely. I particularly like "an exhilaration swirls upward, like a huge fish" and "spring thunders down in brilliant silence." But the entire poem wonderfully captures the feeling of the season.

Thanks again for the further thoughts.

Lee Hanson said...

A little early in terms of the title but I am reminded of Edward Thomas's 'March' and particularly its first line, 'Now I know that Spring will come again...'. Also the words of Blake from Auguries of Innocence, 'To see a world in a grain of sand, And Heaven in a wild flower, To hold infinity in the palm of your hand, And eternity in an hour...' The illimitless and a sense of timelessness indeed can be felt. Lovely post, as always.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Hanson: It's very nice to hear from you again. Thank you for your kind words about the post, and for bringing to mind Thomas's poem and Blake's lines. I agree that "March" is apt, particularly the final lines: ". . . a silence/Saying that Spring returns, perhaps tomorrow." Those lines make me think of "Thaw," another of Thomas's poems that I'm sure you know well:

Over the land freckled with snow half-thawed
The speculating rooks at their nests cawed
And saw from elm-tops, delicate as flower of grass,
What we below could not see, Winter pass.

We have become so accustomed to Blake's lines that it is difficult at times to see them afresh (at least for me), so I thank you for sharing them here, and for relating them to the possibility of experiencing "the illimitless and a sense of timelessness." Even if it is something that we experience for only an instant, it reverberates throughout our life, I think.

As always, I greatly appreciate hearing from you. Thank you very much for visiting again.