Anne Berkeley

On the trail of the fritillary


Vita Sackville West called it ‘a sinister little flower, in the mournful colour of decay’. The poet and botanist Geoffrey Grigson referred to them as ‘snaky, deadly beauties’. Anne Ridler described it as ‘delicate’ and ‘rare’: ‘You enter creeping, like the snake / You’re named for . . . ‘. Denise Levertov would have it as ‘our talisman in sorrow’. It has been called the Leper Lily, Lazarus Bell, Drooping Tulip, Bloody Warrior, Turk’s Head and the Mournful Bell of Sodom. It’s dramatic, with its curved amethyst hood, like a fin de siècle heroine. And poisonous, the Lucrezia Borgia of the flower world. 


During our week in the Dordogne, as the guests of Anne Berkeley, Sue Rose and I were treated to the sight of a field dotted with snakes head fritillaries. Even there, where they are more abundant than at home (introduced into the English garden sometime in the eighteenth century) we had to search, skirting the paths along the Dronne, attempting to spot bright dashes of purple, like rare jewels in the grass. But there was a satisfaction in the hunt; eventually spotting them, flamboyant and shy at the same time, in the early April sun. We had missed their full blooming, caught them as they were on their way out, not to come again until next spring. Poisonous, beautiful and fleeting.


It’s a bit like writing, which we had assembled to do together (this activity we normally practice in isolation). Somehow going away with other writers provides a kind of team spirit – there is nothing so inspiring (and daunting) as the sight of another writer getting down to business, happily tapping away on her laptop. But maybe not so odd – after all, the poem is something you create for yourself first, but then you are encouraged to share it, to allow the reader to become part of the bargain you strike when you first put pen to paper (or fingers to laptop).

I have spoken here before about the freedom of writing away from home, how the anxieties and tasks of every day life are briefly forgotten when you are somewhere else. The joy of writing is that you need very little in the way of equipment to engage in it, and you can easily move from one place to another where there are fewer distractions (apart from the noisy nightingale, who seemed to be at it for much of the day as well).


Back home, it seemed I wasn’t quite finished with my fritillary spotting. As they had already departed my garden (where I’ve planted a small pot of them – not quite as exciting as finding them in the wild), I was thrilled to find a lone one among the cowslips in the churchyard at Tudeley in Kent. And here, another curious transplant – stained glass windows by Chagall in the medieval church. My friend Lynne Rees and I had made an excursion to see them, and the sun shone on our efforts.


Chagall was initially commissioned to design a window in memory of Sarah D'Avigdor-Goldsmid, who died in a boating accident in 1963. He subsequently designed the rest, making it the only church in the world to have all its windows by Chagall; the final one was installed in 1985, the year the artist died at the age of 98.

They are perfect in their surprising setting; exuberant, bright, but also somberly moving. It seemed appropriate to be there, back in my adopted country, looking at the work of a fellow Russian Jewish émigré, who made his home in France, where I’d just been.

And so we bloom where we are planted …

Home is so sad


Various discussions over the past week have triggered a preoccupation with the concept of home. As readers of Invective already know, I have made my home in London for the past 26 years, having spent the previous 21 years in New Jersey and New York. When I first moved here – with no particular plans, and probably no clear intention to stay – I found I was writing poems about my childhood in America, as it seemed I had gained the necessary distant to do so, not just physical distance, but also mental distance. At a certain point, when I started to establish a life for myself here, those American poems stopped. If it can be said that the majority of my poems are situated anywhere, it is London, or at least an urban location resembling or based on London. In my favourite poem by Cavafy, he talks about the possibility of ‘finding another city better than this one’ but the reality is that:

This city will always pursue you. You will walk
the same streets, grow old in the same neighborhoods,
will turn gray in these same houses.
You will always end up in this city.

Cavafy’s poem is relentlessly negative, concluding ‘As you’ve wasted your life here, in this small corner, / you’ve destroyed it everywhere else in the world.’ So the city becomes a metaphor for his failure, which he is fated to carry with him forever. Although I would contest his conclusion, I agree with Cavafy that a place you have spent much of your life becomes engrained in you, and any other place you visit is held against that dominant place, the place you call ‘home’. You do carry your city with you everywhere you go, like a garment you wear against your skin. But for me, that is a comfort rather than a burden.

‘Home’ is necessarily complicated for me, in that I consider London home, but I also recognise that I am not a Londoner. This is my adopted city, and perhaps for that reason, it is always precious, and I have never taken it for granted. If you think of writers like Conrad or Kundera or Nabokov, it is their otherness, the fact that they were from one place, and made a decision to reside permanently in another (and give up their mother tongue to write in the language of the place they made home) that charges their prose with a quality of surprise and energy. I have just switched from one kind of English to another (sometimes mixing my poems with both American English and British English, as I do in my speech). I think of myself as Anglo-American, and, like Plath or Eliot (if I could even begin to compare myself to them) my poems reflect the dual nature of who I am.

At the recent Place: Roots – Journeying Home weekend at Snape Maltings, the discussions began with Benjamin Britten and his commitment to place (in his case, Suffolk) in his music. The beginning of Peter Grimes just sounds like the beach at Aldeburgh; it makes sense of the place entirely, so that no other music can represent it so well. This idea of being firmly rooted was carried through to a discussion by Patrick Wright of the German writer Uwe Johnson, who, like Sebald and Hamburger, ended up in eastern England (Johnson rolled up in Sheerness, which even he thought was a dump, but somehow that awful place added a quality of stark alienation in his writing).


Wright made the point that ‘roots are also routes’, which makes me think of writers such as Bishop who was always searching for a home, and laid down roots in many places, only to uproot herself and start again. I always think of her line (in Questions of Travel) ‘Should we have stayed at home and thought of here?’ every time I embark on a journey elsewhere, impossible as it is to take away with you the ‘folded sunset’. It seems that lately I have returned to America, not physically (I have only been back once in the last six years), but psychically. When doing readings from The City with Horns in 2011, I found myself telling audiences that the New York I depict in my Jackson Pollock poems isn’t the New York I remember, but the New York of my parents’ generation, a New York that filled my early years with stories of glamorous book launches and classic cocktails. And now I am trying to recreate the New Jersey suburbs of the 70s in my novel – thinking of Cheever, and Rick Moody, and Tony Soprano, and my own childhood.

I’ll finish on this poem by Larkin, which Anne Berkeley and I were discussing during the Snape weekend – the definitive statement on home:

Home is so sad. It stays as it was left,
Shaped to the comfort of the last to go
As if to win them back. Instead, bereft
Of anyone to please, it withers so,
Having no heart to put aside the theft

And turn again to what it started as,
A joyous shot at how things ought to be,
Long fallen wide. You can see how it was:
Look at the pictures and the cutlery.
The music in the piano stool. That vase.


The fullness of time

Just back from a week at the glorious Château Ventenac where spring had arrived before us, and the wisteria was buzzing with fat black bees. We came together to discuss the poetic sequence, especially in relation to space (but also place) and time.

We started by looking at Georges Perec’s funny little book, An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris, a treatise to writers on how to observe, but also on how to immerse oneself in the moment. Perec recorded everything he saw in the place Saint-Sulpice over the course of a weekend (positioning himself, as any self-respecting Oulipo poet might, at various café vantage-points) without editorial comment or censorship, so that even the most mundane or pedantic details are faithfully listed. It reads like an exercise because that’s what it is. When we get down to the business of making experience into poetry, we select, so that certain details might be singled out, highlighted as significant. It is interesting to consider what we cross out in the process.

And that’s where the idea of a sequence comes in. One poem is sometimes not enough to contain all the things we need to show. Why not more? After all, poets love numerology, the idea of splitting language into a neat package of lines or stanzas. So why not five poems (like the fingers on a hand) or seven (like the deadly sins, or the days of the week), to show different points of view, angles, timeframes, narratives, etc? We moved from Perec to Stevens, and his Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird, which gives us such variations, like a Cubist painting or a jazz riff put into words. We thought about the symbolism of the blackbird, the number thirteen, and what Stevens is saying about fate and how language tries to express big things like mortality – and often misses – unless we can focus on the small details. We agreed that his blackbird never feels like an omen, an harbinger of bad luck (after all, Stevens is a champion of the commonplace rather that the fanciful – no nightingale for him) but rather a presence that is alive and moving in a static landscape …

Although it was actually the hoopoe who was sighted, sunning in the lower terrace, and of course, the resident black swans of the Canal du Midi. I include them here because I’m often asked what I have against swans – it’s their romanticising I resist. The black ones have a sort of mythical quality about them, although these two are hardly mysterious – they are used to being fed by tourists on longboat holidays, so they will swim right over to you, and demand attention, trumpeting loudly.

We attempted a group exercise (based on Anne Berkeley’s wonderful versions of Baudelaire’s Pipe) to identify the different ways we perceive language. We all looked at the same poem by Eluard, and came up with our own versions, ranging from fairly faithful translations of the original, to surreal statements based on a complete ignorance of French – increasingly more unstable as comprehension and meaning fly through the window.

And flying is what time did too. It seemed like a lot to pack into a week, and so it was. Naturally, it passed very quickly, in the excited mix of poems and chat, and food and wine. And suddenly I find myself back at my desk in London (where spring seems to have been and gone).

I began my week in the walled medieval citadel of Carcassonne, a place which is sealed in time, and so I end with a photograph, taken by poet Sue Rose, of a motif of decorative carvings – remains of larger structures – arranged on a wall to celebrate pattern and light. Like a good poem, or a series of poems, each one a little bit different than the one next to it.

In praise of dragonflies

Exactly a year ago I started this blog with a piece in praise of crows, which mentioned that greatest of crow-poets, Ted Hughes. So today, in celebration of the Invective anniversary, I give you dragonflies, and Hughes again. On a walk over Blaxhall Common this morning, I encountered (along with my fellow poets Anne Berkeley and Sue Rose, who took the picture) this fine male Emperor, Anax imperator. Sometimes a thing is so perfect, so beautiful in itself that you don’t need to write about it; it’s just there, making a simple walk significant. And you couldn’t do better than this poem, which is all about the issues of trying to capture nature in art (but Hughes manages to nail it, of course):


How To Paint A Water Lily

A green level of lily leaves
Roofs the pond’s chamber and paves

The flies’ furious arena: study
These, the two minds of this lady.

First observe the air’s dragonfly
That eats meat, that bullets by

Or stands in space to take aim;
Others as dangerous comb the hum

Under the trees. There are battle-shouts
And death-cries everywhere hereabouts

But inaudible, so the eyes praise
To see the colours of these flies

Rainbow their arcs, spark, or settle
Cooling like beads of molten metal

Through the spectrum. Think what worse
is the pond-bed’s matter of course;

Prehistoric bedragoned times
Crawl that darkness with Latin names,

Have evolved no improvements there,
Jaws for heads, the set stare,

Ignorant of age as of hour—
Now paint the long-necked lily-flower

Which, deep in both worlds, can be still
As a painting, trembling hardly at all

Though the dragonfly alight,
Whatever horror nudge her root.