A feast of losses
Some poems yield deeper and different insights on each reading. One reason I love working in groups is, that when poems are read aloud, in different voices, there’s always a nuance or new register that brings the poem differently alive. I woke up this morning thinking about Stanley Kunitz’ poem, The Layers and was sure, because it’s such a favourite, I must have blogged on it before. It seems I only mentioned it in passing, as an example of a ‘talking poem’.
I’m away from my home in Canterbury – where I’ve lived now for almost two years, not far from the village where I mostly grew up, from age eight until I left home at seventeen. I’m staying in Falmouth, where I lived for five of the twelve years I was mostly resident in Cornwall. Like Canterbury, Falmouth is a potent place in psychogeographical terms. Both have relatively small populations but masses of visitors – lots of tourists and in the case of Falmouth, maritime traffic, and Canterbury, people drawn by the great and ancient traditions of the Church. Both have a large proportion of students to permanent residents. Being in these beautiful and significant places gives a sense of ‘walking through many lives / some of them my own’.
Being ‘back’ is both wonderful and emotional. With friends, we pick up where we left off but of course circumstances change. On Friday, I read at Warleggan Church as part of a Bach Pilgrimage, organized by Carn to Cove, alongside Charles Fox, as part of a tour by violinist Thomas Bowes. Warleggan is known as the most remote village in Cornwall and is high up on Bodmin Moor. The Moor is often a cliché of swirling mist and louring rocks but on Friday, could not have been more benign. The sky was a matt blue, the usually black water of Colliford Lake was turquoise, and the late-flowering hedgerows, an exuberant mix of flowers that are normally over by now, bluebells and wild garlic, mixing with red campion, Queen Anne’s lace and bright new leaf on the knobbly oaks.
It was heart-achingly lovely but poignant too. Several years ago, I lived on Bodmin Moor for six months after leaving my husband and I have mixed and complicated feelings both about the place and my time there. On this visit, I learned that someone I’d hoped to catch up with in the village had died recently and unexpectedly. There were choes of Kunitz’ lines, ‘I see the milestones dwindling / toward the horizon /and the slow fires trailing/ from the abandoned camp-sites, /over which scavenger angels/ wheel on heavy wings.
Beauty and loss. Tom’s exquisite playing conveyed a whole universe of emotion with Bach’s music somehow bringing order and harmony to what was a muddle of feelings. I suppose there are parallels with the riotous hedgerows which seem chaotic and yet within them, each individual flower and leaf fits a precise pattern.
But it has been wonderful to be here in Falmouth with my tribe, and to experience that sense of connection, reconnection and renewal, literally as I’m staying with friends who are in the process of a big renovation project.
People sometimes ask whether I’m ‘settled’ in Canterbury. The implied word is ‘finally’. I don’t think settling is what I do – but neither do I shed the many places I’ve lived in. Perhaps that’s why ‘The Layers’ came to me so powerfully today – that there are layers of me that are specifically and powerfully Cornwall. Here’s a question – do we ‘wear’ the places we live in, houses, towns, landscapes, like layers of clothing? Or are we are formed of them, in a geological sense, like layers of granite or chalk, with areas of fossils or flint?
Stanley Kunitz writes, ‘I am not done with my changes’. It reminds me of something I read by Geoff Dyer – in his book ‘Out of Sheer Rage’ that he had a sense of not ‘having lived in all my houses yet’. Also, thinking about the stories I tell myself about my life in Cornwall and elsewhere, I’m reminded of his statement about ‘Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It’, ‘Everything in this book really happened, but some of the things that happened only happened in my head.’ My time on Bodmin Moor was a bit like that.