My story starts with a wood, Bardsea wood…
… and an intensely remembered childhood moment of writing a poem after becoming mesmerised by the wind-swaying branches of two silver birches feeling that if I let go I would become part of them. As a child I only dimly understood that it was a seminal moment in my life. What did the experience mean? How could I become part of the birches? It was an experience that propelled me into wanting to gain an insight into this kind of imaginative encounter. It’s been an itch to be scratched, a mystery to be solved, a ‘something’ I need to address. It’s a lifelong quest and it led me into looking at other cultures to help me understand it.
Leap forward about 10 years and you’ll find me in Heath’s bookshop,
Barrow-in-Furness, browsing the shelves, alighting on a
book called “Touch the Earth, a Self-Portrait of Indian Existence” by T.C.
McLuhan. If you hover just behind me you won’t see the effect it had on me, you
might feel it though. At last something that made sense. Here were people
saying how they felt about the land, how they recognised its importance on the
spiritual and physical health of people:
“I wish all to know that I do not propose to sell any part of my country, nor will I have the whites cutting our timber along the rivers, more especially the oak. I am particularly fond of the little groves of oak trees.”
– TatankaYotanka, or Sitting Bull, Sioux Warrior.
This book has been part of my life for almost 40 years. It led me to want to visit
meet with people who reverence the earth, as I do. America
But I’m leaping ahead. Other languages and dialects also played a part in forming and informing who I am, what my poetry and prose is about.
When I was a child of three an older brother, in trying to teach me French, Spanish and Greek, introduced me to the pleasure in the sounds of other languages, without understanding meaning. From an early age accents, dialects, colloquialisms and other languages fascinated me. Whether the rough burr of farmers at an Ulverston auction market, or the lilt and fall of family-visiting Irish, Polish, Italian and American relatives in Cleator Moor and Whitehaven, mingling with west Cumbrian dialect and its why-use-two-syllables-when-three-can-make-a-word-into-a-song? For example, to-o-wast, for toast, or dad’s ‘Ista-ga’in tae Gaa-ity tae blawtha’ nowuzan’mak’ a scuttle?’ Meaning, ‘Are you going to the Gaiety Picture House in order to blow your nose and make a noise?’ or the Durham miners, convalescing from the 1940’s on into the 70’s at Conishead Priory, now the Manjushri Institute.
As a child I travelled with them, the
miners, on the school bus, back and forth from St. Mary's RC junior school,
Ulverston, in the 1960's to our council house home. Conishead Priory was a home
to them, to recuperate ... they gave us sweets, us kids. Gave us sweets and
spoke with a lilt and a hinny and they too proved to be part of my singing,
when I eventually dared tip toe into writing poetry never believing I could be
a poet. But men and women such as them, my mum, dad and Nana and Granda gave me
the grit to ultimately say, yes. I am a poet. Durham
As I type this, I’m realising that it’s a series of journeys, of turnings and re-turnings. I returned to a place recently, one which has strong emotional and physical ties and which has helped lead me on this poetic journey. The place is called ‘
Borneo’, named by my Great Uncle
Richard ‘the beachcomber’ after he found a Dutch ship washed up on the shore.
He took some of its planks for repair purposes and firewood and nailed the name
of the ship to the hut. It’s a family beach home – though on a cliff top – in
specifically a cliff to the west of a village called Nethertown, which itself
means ‘furthest most point.’ The family joke being if it was any netherer it’d
be in the Cumbria Irish sea!
Even though it has gone through many incarnations and been battered by the elements it remains a place of refuge, perched on a cliff top, overlooking the sea. The cliff on which it is situated is itself almost a tiny island, cut off from the mainland by a railway line. ‘Borneo’ has at once a rootedness, yet also a feeling that at any moment it could be swept up by the wind, Dorothy-like as in the Wizard of Oz, and blown inland to
Or out to sea, over the Isle of Man, then over Ireland
to land in . New York
I grew up not knowing whether I was Irish or English, with a mother who would point out
Ireland to me –
“Over THERE’s the Mountains of Mourne, you can see them when it stops raining
and beyond THAT is ,
where your Great Aunt Lucy went.” – and a father who listened to Irish rebel
songs. I recall hearing my parents discuss the Night of the Big Wind and The
Irish Potato Famine (always spoken in capital letters.) They would turn to me and say, “That’s when
the Coyles’ and Fitzsimons’ came and settled HERE in west America .” It’s
small wonder that I’d sit on the cliff top, listening to the shush of the sea
on one side, the occasional train rattling past on the other, watching swallows
and sand martins swoop and dive in spring and summer. Sniffing saltwater and
gorse, surrounded by sea pinks, my chin pricked by tufts of grass, I’d stare
out across the Irish Sea and daydream of going to Ireland one day – or even
Before travelling to
Spain, Greece, Oklahoma,
New Mexico, Kansas
my perceptions of these places were informed by what had been fed into me
through literature, history and popular culture. For example: Spain, Picasso,
Bullfights, Lorca, Machado; Greece: mythology, Seferis, Cavafy, Odysseus
Elytis; Oklahoma: wagon trails, wind, Plains, Indians, Cowboys and Carter
Revard; New York City: Empire State Building, Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island,
9/11; Whitman, O’Hara; New Mexico: Lawrence, Taos, search for spirituality,
cactus, thin air, Los Alamos, adobe huts; Kansas: Wizard of Oz, red shoes,
wagon trains, jazz and tornadoes. New York
My fascination with North American Indian culture was questioned by a friend who asked me a couple of years ago: “What do you want to go writing about Native American Indians for? You have your own ethnopoetics right here!” This perceptive remark made in conversation with me by Jerome Rothenberg points towards the issue of the ethics of appropriation. Is it ‘right’ to write in response to a country, or culture, or a person’s experience that is not your own?
I’m aware of the sensitive nature of this issue. Of how, for example, a person from a culture that has experienced colonialism could take offence if a poet from the previously dominant culture was perceived as appropriating their myth, music, language, culture, geography or history. Being brought up in an Irish Catholic family I had the notion embedded in me at an early age that it was English colonial rule that lay at the root of many Irish problems. Perhaps it was this influence at a young age that caused me to feel drawn to others who perceived that they also lived under similar colonial rule. I felt then, and still feel, drawn to those whose lives and writings are perceived as being at the margins.
Writer John Burnside observed in his article in The New Statesman, 31st January 2013, that he was “willing to use anything – begged, borrowed, or stolen – to recover those transformative and connective presences.” I’m the same.
This urge to connect has led me to seek out and listen to stories, sometimes first-hand, sometimes read and reflected upon on my walks. Stories told to me on my trips over the last eight years or so to North America, such as this from Victor Robidoux, Iowa Nation Eagle Sanctuary,
When we butchered a buffalo out in the field, there, [pointing to the bare red earth of the slaughter ground] the big bull came up and watched. Then they all stood in a circle and watched. When the blood ran the buffalo went wild, pawing the ground and sniffing. The day after, when the buffalo was butchered and before the body was moved away, the males came up, sniffed the ground, tried to nudge the dead buffalo, knelt down, then got up, did a stiff legged dance. Then the cows came up and did the same thing, then the calves. Then they all left, in single file. They did the same Day Two, Three, Day Four. And that’s where we get our dances from.
Or the story of a person from
who, like many others had to leave their home because of Hurricane Sandy; a
story I transformed, translated into the poem “No Place.”
Or the experience of watching the sun set over the Tall Grass Preservation in the Flint Hills,
to which I responded by writing “Breathing in a Prayer.” Kansas
Or being told by a shop keeper in
the tale of ‘La Llorona’, meaning ‘the wailing woman’ who drowned her children
and then herself. Forever after her ghost went searching for them, reaching out
from the river and drowning other children because she was lonely. The New
Mexican legend called to mind a tale Mum told me of a woman called Ginnie
Greenteeth, who lived in a tunnel near Whitehaven Docks, had hair of green
slime, green teeth and ate little children. Rio Grande
As well as places what also makes travelling special are the people: People such as LaCretia who came up to me after the collaborative presentation George Wallace and I gave at The Gordon Parks’ Centre, Fort Scott, Kansas, telling me excitedly that if I’d had a mike they’d have been whoopin’ and hollerin’ in the aisles when I read Maya Angelou’s fine poem ‘And Still I Rise.’ Or Carol who told me my poetry was effervescent and that she’d felt she’d been on helium. Or Martha, who gracefully offered us tea at her home, refreshing after a hot day and energetic performance in front of Gordon Parks’ moving photos of the downtrodden, the neglected in society, whose inner dignity and grace he caught so well on camera.
Whether through poetry or prose, anecdotes or travel notes the aim in writing ‘
Salt Road’ is to
share the wonder I feel in my encounters with others on my journey through this
bewildering, messed up, yet still astonishing world.