A strange fork in the road

A certain ghost walk guide here in Cornwall finishes his tours with an enigmatic proverb:

A person often meets his destiny on the road he takes to avoid it.

This is the opening line in Jean de la Fontaine’s fable, The Horoscope. On the one hand it seems paradoxical to say that by departing from your destiny you may realise it; on the other, fatalistically, whichever road you take then becomes your destiny. The latter reading suggests free will but the meaning of the proverb might simply be that destiny is something inescapable. In his account, de la Fontaine dismisses the art of fortune telling and proposes that destiny is always in flux but this slippery phrase illuminates how cryptic and mysterious our idea of fate is.

Romances of the Djinn

This new Uffmoor Woods Music Club release is mostly about the adventures of fantastical beings, such as Swamp Thing and Axl Rose. I wrote the songs some time ago but it took a while for me to realise that they shared a theme and recording aesthetic. The stunning cover art was drawn by my friend, Matt Kelly.

Romances of the Djinn is available on iTunes and Spotify.

The landlord’s wisdom

We’ve arrived in Cornwall. Moving home can be arduous but before we left our landlord imparted some advice which I’ll share here. On the subject of deciding what I’ll do with my life now, he said, “conserve your energy. You don’t see animals running around like lunatics in the wild. They wouldn’t last five minutes. Wait for the right moment and be ready”. When we were deliberating whether he or we would take a miscellaneous item he pointed out that it was the kind of thing you could carry around for years, hoping it would finally prove useful. In short, a waste of energy to be jettisoned. Finally, he advised against forcing things to happen as this usually leads to a mess. “Keep things simple and let them develop naturally.”

The Clay Body

A clay body, or corp criadhach, is an ancient Scottish curse. Once placed in a stream, the clay would disintegrate and with it the body of the victim whom it mimicked. Only by finding and preserving the clay body could the sufferer forestall the spell.

i.

Part of me loosens in a stream
where mountains tumble to the brook,
and the clear floodpath of a storm
encourages what’s left to break.

My body and the clay body
have each become the other’s muse,
rain-battered and anonymous.
Rheumatic, rhyming, our blood will dye

grey marsh-water. But the curse
pained me most when my family
patrolled its swollen mud-rivers.
My wife swam, breath-holding for a mile

with salmon and slim-finned trout.
She rose between dark-speckled parrs,
clothed in the river’s swill, and brought
three fish out. They were a fine prize

with angry markings on each head
but I was reminded by their dull
gaze, dashed by brick, that no clay doll
was tickled from the riverbed.

ii.

My daughter looked under the wheel
that drove the mill. Its rhythm
strung a harp with tendons and wool.
Workers there plucked a broken theme

but she walked the lake in winter,
dancing over an ice-skinned bruise
until she dropped through it to raise
a cursed doll from its delicate knit.

We waited three months for the thaw,
then she emerged: cold and caressed
by weeds and rushes. The miller saw
her waist-deep in a mirror, dressed

to her wrists in small reflections.
Three babies from a silted clan
huddled beneath the waterline.
Instead of names they had cautions

which they did not answer to. Tears
glistened on their cheeks like damp clay.
The miller came out of the trees
to help carry them across the bay,

along the cart road where they met
an upwind blowing out of tune
through birches. The full-bellied moon
made everything more animate,

swelling ghosts, reviving shadows
that puddled, adult-shaped, from small
wet feet. They glided through meadows,
nocturnal blooms, chaotic smells

cloying the world around their grace.
More than a family conjoined
by silhouette, their stumble gained
coherence as they ran on grass.

People stood in doorways in the town,
couples with children at their calves
brought lamps into the church. They shone
like candles in demure alcoves

dribbling red wax over white.
Emptiness blued the lead-lined glass.
Their brightness came from angles
carved as windows to another light,

flickering as I passed the wall
to where my daughter let the cold
take part of her. I pulled a shawl
around her shoulders and the child

she’d carried. When the crowd had gone,
we heard a nightingale sing out
over the beams and prayed our doubt
would let us have this as a sign

built from collective half-belief,
causality and long-drummed wars:
that those denied a chance to live
swim first among the rank of stars.

iii.

My son drowned in the salt marshes,
that’s all we know. A knife went through
the shape of him: its blood-rush drew
water from godless parishes

into his lungs while broken lips
blew at his side. I found a blade
washed up on the flats, dulled by scallops
and ropework. Brown traces of blood

painted its memory of his ribs.
One of the old trials was to swim
around the island, where birds swarm
until long-travelled blue robes

disturb their rest. They say he dived
among them for another lad
last year, was able to divide
water from itself, and would, if called

upon to prove it. That’s how drink
acquainted him with small-time men
who ran their errands when the moon
lit nothing and the sky was ink.

I taught him to follow the curves,
breathing between the sea and rain.
It’s the shape of the wave that moves,
collapses and appears again,

not the water itself. The trick
is passing through it like a thought
forgotten, moving without
end or origin. Every stroke

becomes a game, part of a dance
passed on and misremembered
through countless shifts of incidence,
renewing the shapes we’ve borrowed.

On warm nights, when the town is still,
we hear his crawl. Once, a wrecked fish
flew like a saint out of the wash,
showing my wife a barb-torn gill.

It was reclaimed into the black
beyond us, tide-tugged by moonlight,
and what remained was wrenched by lack
more permanent, deeper than night.

iv.

So every part of me belongs
to the river, and has always.
The world is a dream to the wise,
no more or less real than our songs.

Clay body, rivers, seas and lakes
vanish like bubbles in the gleam
of dawn before a sleeper wakes.
The dreamer, too, fades with the dream.

 

 

Look ye also while life lasts

The wonder of the world
The beauty and the power,
The shapes of things,
Their colours, lights and shades,
These I saw.
Look ye also while life lasts.

These lines are tucked away at the beginning of Benji Davies’ beautiful children’s book, The Storm Whale. At first I thought it might be a quotation from a crow’s nest reverie in Moby Dick. In actual fact, these wise words appear at the start of every book by another children’s author, Denys Watkins-Pitchford, or, to use his pseudonym, BB. BB’s father found it inscribed on a gravestone. Where that gravestone is, or whether it is still legible, who knows.

That puts me in mind of another gravestone inscription, a heavier memento mori my mother noticed in the churchyard at Zennor.

As you walk by pray cast an eye,
as you are now so once was I.
As I am now, ‘ere long you’ll be.
Therefore prepare to follow me.

So, forget this talk of ebooks. Weightier thoughts are etched in stone. Think on that, ye pantheists!

The inattentive life is not to be lived

Before he was sentenced to death by hemlock, Socrates rejected the court’s clemency because it was offered under the condition that he cease questioning the people of Athens. The philosopher responded that, ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’. Many have considered the implications of this and the force with which the unexamined life should be rejected. One translation has it that ‘the unexamined life is not to be lived’ which seems more reasonable*.

The circumstances of Socrates’ trial related in Plato’s Apology make the context of this remark clear. Socrates held a mirror up to Athenian society and the nobles and serious men of the day were not usually flattered. It is often interpreted as meaning we should critique our motives, those of our peers, and the conventions and power structures around us. I always felt fully signed up for the examined life (how could you not be?) but, in practice, it can be difficult to know where to begin. Before you can get started you need to examine what will be examined, how you will examine, how long for, in light of what? All very worthwhile things to consider, of course, that point to a way of being in the world.

Let us try a variation of Socrates’ maxim that has been said in countless ways through the ages: that the inattentive life is not to be lived. It’s possible to imagine that part of what Socrates means when he proposes an examined life is that we should live in full awareness of our experiences. We shouldn’t let thoughts, sensations, events just happen to us while we daydream or calculate or simply not see. To use the term associated with meditation, we should be mindful (although unfortunately, I am frequently not). Meditation is a route to self-knowledge, and perhaps a good way to satisfy the other, related, maxim expounded by Socrates, to ‘know thyself’. As zen master Keizan said, ‘To practise zazen is to throw light on yourself’.

Attentiveness touches the spirit of how Socrates lived his examined life. It’s the gentle pressure that unravels the thread in his hapless interlocutors’ arguments. The gadfly philosopher was reported to frequently sit as still and mute as a statue in the centre of the market, deep in thought and awareness of what he called his ‘daimon’, which seemed to be a kind of inner convening, perhaps like meditation, that guided the philosopher intuitively.

To live every moment of the day with full awareness and appreciation is an ideal to strive for and it’s not surprising or to be regretted that we often fall far short. But the reward for trying is life itself. If we are not attentive to the unfolding of our lives, then in what sense are we living? If the unexamined life is not worth living, the inattentive life is not lived.

 

*I learned this via Mitch Green’s Know Thyself MOOC, but can’t recall the name of the scholar who makes a case for ‘not to be lived’ rather than ‘not worth living’.

So long, Thomas Warton

As we’re about to leave Basingstoke after nearly seven happy years, it might be appropriate to mention Thomas Warton who was born on the site of Glebe Gardens, not far from here. Warton was poet laureate between 1785–1790. This sonnet is dedicated to the River Loddon, which, now culverted in places, is said to run below ground at the rear of our house.

To the River Loddon

Ah! what a weary race my feet have run
Since first I trod thy banks with alders crowned,
And thought my way was all thro’ fairy ground,
Beneath thy azure sky and golden sun;
Where first my muse to lisp her notes begun!
While pensive Memory traces back the round,
Which fills the varied interval between;
Much pleasure, more of sorrow, marks the scene.
Sweet native stream! those skies and suns so pure
No more return, to cheer my evening road!
Yet still one joy remains, that, not obscure,
Nor useless, all my vacant days have flowed,
From youth’s gay dawn to manhood’s prime mature;
Nor with the muse’s laurel unbestowed.

— Thomas Warton

I’ve run all over Basingstoke after work and on weekends. I’ll particularly miss jogging through Manydown Farm, where the fields begin, on summer evenings. My friends and I racked up some miles here. We ran the hills of Farleigh Wallop in the Basingstoke half marathon, so the first line at least rings true.

Warton’s long poem, ‘The Pleasures of Melancholy’, is an anthem for introverts and recluses. I quite like it.

These are delights unknown to minds profane,
And which alone the pensive soul can taste.

— Thomas Warton