Author Archives: Iain

In gratitude to Paula Meenhan

I have been neglecting this blog for a number of reasons that are of little consequence here.

My return to writing here is prompted by two events. One is the death in a car accident of Judy Tucker, with whom I set up LAND2 back in 2002. The other is the arrival of Paula Meehan’s The Solace of Artemis. The first left me feeling numb and disbelieving. The second has undone that numbness and brought me close to tears. This is an appreciation of a woman whose poetry means more to me than I am able to say.

In an essay that I’ve had to abandon, I wrote that Paula Meehan’s biography, read literally, might be taken to number her among those individuals with a peripatetic and multi-centred relationship to place. But what emerges from reflecting on her biography and work together places her differently. (I’m drawing primarily, but not exclusively, on her 2016 Ireland Chair of Poetry lectures, Imaginary Bonnets With Real Bees In Them, and her 2022 poetry collection The Hungry Ghosts).

Meehan was born to working-class parents in Dublin. Her parents periodically went to London in search of work, so she spent time both there with them and in Dublin with her grandparents. The family later returned to Ireland to live in Finglas, a north western outer suburb of Dublin. Expelled from school there she again lived with her grandparents in an inner city Dublin suburb. At seventeen she began her studies at Trinity College Dublin, during which she took a year out to travel through Europe. After leaving college she again travelled widely in Europe. took up a teaching fellowship in the USA, and later returned to Dublin. She’s travelled, given readings, and taught in Ireland and internationally. She currently lives in Dublin but also spends time on the Greek island of Ikaria. Despite life-experience that can clearly be identified as “peripatetic” and “multi-centred”, it’s easy to imagine a literary publicist claiming that she’s “really” at home in Dublin. Both categorisations, while not simply “wrong”, would neglect the complex and tensioned sense of place that I find in her texts.

One aspect of this relates to a “Dublin” that brings the now absent city of her forbears, childhood and youth into the present. A historical sense of place that has a visceral sense of decaying inner city tenements and social housing, of streets populated by a now absent community that includes her great-grandparents, grandparents, parents, friends from her youth, neighbours, her family’s landlord, and the nuns who taught her and whom she defied. The ghost-haunted “Dublin” of her lectures, of five poems in For the Hungry Ghosts and over thirty in the anthology As If By Magic: selected poems. (Not to mention the eleven in the Museum section of the new book).

The presence of this “Dublin” haunts her work, offering both the poet and her readers a vivid, if absent, “home place” constantly revived and deepened. Attending to the absent city of her grandparents’ childhoods in Monto, at the time the largest red light district in Europe, its reality becomes present to her, despite never having been spoken of by her family. It’s perhaps unsurprising then that, once she felt confirmed in her vocation as a poet, she went back:

‘…home to the deep filthy breath of the river, back to the turf-smoke of north inner city Dublin, the smell of my childhood, to a decrepit room on the elegant Georgian crescent of Beresford Place, on the banks of the river I have loved above all rivers … ‘.  

Nowhere in this do I find evidence of the ‘nostalgic associations’ with “roots” the geographer Edward Relph refers to in his discussion of types of placed-ness. Meehan’s “Dublin” appears marked both by the clear-eyed, unsentimental, tone of her poetry and by her social activism – I refer to her running workshops in the community, in prisons, and in recovery programs.

The publicist evoked earlier might argue that the poet’s roots place her in the mid-twentieth century Dublin of the Catholic, working-class poor. But that would be to ignore her relationship with the Greek island of Ikaria, mythologically Dionysus’ birthplace, which she identifies as a ”home” in the poem The Island. An “Ikaria” that appears to ground Meehan’s mythic sense as it’s developed since, at sixteen, she began studying with the classicist W.B. Stanford. Drawn to the island by W. H. Auden’s description, in Musée des Beaux Arts, of Breughel’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, for whom the island’s named, it satisfies her belief that she’s ‘genetically predisposed to live where lemons grow, where the olive grows, in the bee-loud glades and mountains where the bees feed on wild oregano and pine …’. Additionally, it’s on Ikaria that she feels able to:

‘…meditate on the nature of failure, on our contraptions that plunge to earth, again and again and again, but were worth the lift into the blue rapture of what is, after all, inner space. Whatever the cost. For we use the myths as mirrors, as we use dreams, as we use poems’.

Her “Ikaria” appears to place her need for a sensuous portal into the metaxy, the inner space-between, the “thin place”, created by poetry, and out of which both poetry and dreams appear. A “thin place” where the powers of mythic imagination can meet and be reconciled with the presence of her absent, yet hungry, ghosts.  

This brief speculative account of Meehan’s “placed-ness” as I understand it, for all that it is inevitably reductive, suggests that Meehan’s “Dublin” and “Ikaria” might be taken as poles of a tensioned arc between the historically extended community of the “Dublin” of her “roots”; and an island that sensuously grounds her imaginative “flight”; the “thin place between” where she is equally aware of the limitations and failures of such “flight” in ways that echo the thoughts of the poets Don McKay and Miroslav Holub. This productive tension between our need for “roots” and “flight” is a significant part of what I find so valuable and so deeply moving in her poetry.

‘Arcadia for All? Rethinking Landscape Painting Now’ 

The exhibition runs from 26 April – 29 July 2023 and is at The Stanley & Audrey Burton Gallery, Parkinson Building, University of Leeds. 

An online catalogue is available at:

https://issuu.com/sabgallery/docs/arcadia_for_all_catalogue_full_low_res_pdf

Somewhat to my surprise (and much to my delight), I was invited to contribute a work to this exhibition by one of the curators, Dr Judith Tucker. Below are some images from the exhibition.

My piece is called Notitia 6: Suburban Edge and is one of a series of works in which I tried to carry some of what I learned from my deep mapping work back into the process of making small-scale studio pieces. (The work is quite small – you can find an image of it by scrolling down!)

Image credits:

(above) Leeds University Library Galleries;

(below) Iain Biggs

Mutual Care

Given the world in its current state, I find it hard to find ways to write that are both honest and positive.

I spent much of today physically being with a fairly large group of people, the first time I’ve done that since the beginning of the covid pandemic. Not only was it wonderful to have exchanges unmediated by a computer screen, but I was actually able to meet “in the flesh” three people who I have only known virtually. All of which made the day very special, as did the lovely informal presentations and exchanges that took place.

The resulting sense of being entangled in a growing mesh of networks based on mutual concern and shared creative and environmental interests was deepened by returning home to find an email from my friend Sheila, who is currently working with artists and psychologists in Kiev. I had seen her at a virtual gathering the night before and sent her good wishes, but it was really wonderful to have a long email back from her detailing something of the work she is doing there and passing on links to recent projects. It’s these, and with them a sense of mutual care and positivity, that I want to share here.

Transcending Uncertainties. Art healing for uprooting timeshttps://www.seilafernandezarconada.net/artistic-logbook–blog/transcending-uncertainties-art-healing-for-uprooting-times
Germinating Futures: Collaborative art and care for eco-social (re)balance https://www.seilafernandezarconada.net/artistic-logbook–blog/germinating-futures

About ‘re-wilding’ (again).

Back in March 2022, I put up three linked posts about the thorny issue of re-wilding in response to George Monbiot’s book Feral.

That issue came up again during a recent conversation with Lindsey Colbourne in relation to work we’re both involved in with a collaborative called Utopias Bach. I won’t rehearse my objects to Mombiot’s book again now. Instead I want to share something of what arose from that conversation with Lindsey. A sense later given sharper focus by my starting to re-read Kerri ni Dochartiagh’s Thin Places. (It’s a book by an author who, in many ways, is Monbiot’s antithesis in terms of gender, social background, and lived experience).

What prompts me to reflection here is the convergence of my experience working with Utopias Bach – a collaborative almost entirely made up of women – and the tenor of a brief section of ni Dochartiagh’s book (pp. 14-17). There she reflects on a run she took in Derry just prior to Brexit. An experience that results in an evocation of the inclusiveness of nature, an evocation of openness to nature placed right in the midst of human addiction, degradation, anxiety and violence. What I see as central is that it’s an account that brings her to listening; an account entirely devoid of the curious mix of righteous anger (some of it justified), shaky machismo and tacit escapism that runs just below the surface of so much of Feral. An evocation of the necessity of finding an all-inclusive understanding of our relationship to nature through privileging listening that has been confirmed and strengthened by my contact the Utopias Bach collaborative.

What will 2023 bring?

I’ve written nothing here for some while. 

Mostly this is because I set myself the task of trying to use this blog to make some sort of “positive” contribution to our thinking and feeling, however oblique. That has seemed increasingly difficult to do that. Such small efforts in that direction as it has seemed possible for me to make have been attempted elsewhere, for example, through my interactions with members of Utopias Bach .

So why return to it now?

One way of answering that is to say that I have just finished reading Hilary Mantel’s Giving Up the Ghost (which is an extraordinary account of her life, in particular her childhood and illness), and am now half way through reading a collection of essays by Alex Danchev – On Good and Evil and the Grey Zone, published in 2016 by Edinburgh University Press(I had recently read his biography of George Braque, which I found inspiring, and wanted to know more about his thinking). The first two chapters of Danchev’s book, along with his discussion of Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus, have me hooked. His discussion of Vasily Grossman’s notion of ethics in his Life and Fate – a book I started but did not finish and to which I will now have to return – focuses on the importance of small-scale, apparently private or unwitnessed, human kindness seems to me to fit closely with something central to what the Utopias Bach collaborative is doing. The second chapter, on witnessing, also strikes a powerful cord and is perhaps, along with Mantel’s book, the prompt for returning to this blog. 

Both books suggest to me very strongly that it’s necessary to write something about what I witness in my daily life. Namely, the accelerating destruction of Britain as any kind of genuinely humane society. A project that, at least in its particular current form, seems to have been initiated by the late, unlamented, Margaret Thatcher. Almost weekly, now, either my wife or daughter comes to a midday meal with news of the death of someone in their community of contacts among those who are socially neglected because chronically ill or disable. These deaths vividly provide the names and particular circumstances that shed a personal light on the consequences of policies shaped by the current Government’s ideology.

Policies put in place by men and women who, in the majority of cases, seem to share Jacob Rees-Mogg’s view that the voluntary support given to food banks is “rather uplifting”, rather than the reality of the situation. Namely, that the need for such voluntary support should be seen as both indicative of political failure and a national disgrace. A clear indication of the growth of an inequality that folds into a deeply inhumane aspect of our society. Ress-Mogg’s notion that this voluntary support “shows what a compassionate country we are” is typically and bleakly disingenuous, the use of a partial truth about one sector of society used to deflect any possibility of responsibility for addressing that inequality by those with the power and wealth to do so. As such it’s on a par with his view that the current Tory Prime Minister is a “socialist”, or that UNICEF’s analysis, and resulting practical concern, over child poverty in Britain was “a political stunt”. And this is the man who, as I write this, is reported by the Daily Mail to be weighing up whether or not to make a bid to run for the leadership of the Tory party should it fail badly at the next general election.

The deaths that form a regular feature of our family life are usually the result of either suicide or medical neglect. (Reading Mantel’s book, her experience often seemed to parallel ours as a family that, of necessity, largely revolves around our chronically sick daughter). Although it is far from the whole story, I tend to feel those suicides and our constant awareness of medical and psychiatric misdiagnosis or neglect as symptoms of a broader social decay. The result of both personal and collective choices predicated on an ultimately less-than-human blindness to the reality of others exemplified by the  ideological policies of the current British government. Since the start of the Brexit campaign the British, and in particular a substantial section of the English population, have seemed hell-bent in bowing to tendencies that can are already leading towards civic collapse; tendencies emboldened by those happy to listen to the self-serving liars who have dominated political life in “Great” Britain since the Brexit debate began. This despite the obvious reluctance of many of the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish (and, indeed, a significant minority in England) to join in the Tory death-dance, the death-dance of the fundamental socio-environmental relationality on which we all ultimately depend.     

Sadly, I fear that in 2023 things in general will only get worse. That being the case, we will each need to increase our dedication to small-scale, apparently private or unwitnessed, acts of human kindness.         

22 Postcards for Utopias Bach: postcard twenty-two

Garden in a landscape

‘We consider ourselves to be developing a miniature culture as one of our attempts towards a Utopia Bach’.

                                                            UB

I was tempted to continue, to follow up on Filippa Dobson’s work on Skye around a woman buried with some ceremony along with willow catkins, water lilies, red campion and holly flowers. A woman who may have been a doorkeeper, guardian, or the last servant of the Goddess. Work that explores the cave’s closure and of the possible relationship between the woman and two infants buried there, all roughly contemporary. They lived around CE 28–230, and may have been implicated in the carrying of pneumonic plague to Skye. I told myself that to do so would close the circle on a world under threat from pandemic. But to continue would have been to fail to see that this hunting for traces in the past could become both academic and addictive, could undermine my ability to live the connections between hinterlands and what is present day-by-day. 

What changed everything was a chance event witnessed while waiting for N. in Alston. A sighting that answered my question about the “grounding” of all Artemis stands for. A willowy tomboy in cut-off jeans and sweatshirt, maybe eight or ten, appeared from the back of a beaten-up old Landrover. She radiated an absolute self-possession that seemed all of a piece with her make-shift bow – a flexed wand of wood bent taut by its string – that was slung across her shoulder. She then half strode, half danced towards the Co-Op, followed at a respectful distance by her father and younger brother. All three disappeared inside and I saw no more of them. 

I took her appearance as a sign from the Grey-eyed One that my work was done, that I should now start spending more time growing back down into the everyday world again. A signal that it was time to let go and move on. I almost wrote “to go home”. But as we prepare to return south again I am, as always, troubled about not knowing where, exactly, “home” is. Then I remembered two lines by Naomi Shihab Nye about her father:

            …in the huge air, your one real home

for all the days you walked among us. 

(2015) op. cit. p.170).

Lines that took me, in turn, back to David Abram’s words in The Spell of the Sensuous:

‘For the Navajo, then, the Air – particularly in its capacity to provide awareness, thought, and speech – has properties that European, alphabetic civilization has traditionally ascribed to an interior, individual human “mind” or “psyche”. Yet by attributing these powers to the Air, and by insisting that the “Winds within us” are thoroughly continuous with the wind at large – with the invisible medium in which we are immersed – the Navajo elders suggest that that which we call the “mind” is not ours, is not a human possession. Rather, mind as Wind [Naomi Shihab Nye’s ‘the huge air”] is a property of the encompassing world, in which humans – like all other beings – participate’. (1996) The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-than-Human World New York, Vintage Books p. 237).

22 Postcards for Utopias Bach: postcard twenty-one

The Cailleach and the cat

The mycelia that link Artemis and the Cailleach might suggest alternative ways of exploring what’s implicit in Genette Paris’ statement. 

Effie Ross gave the Skye folklorist Frances Tolmie material, including ‘the song of the grugach, the guardian spirit of the cattle, which killed a girl in Glen MacAskill after she insulted an intractable cow’. Tolmie, who also took down verses composed by Màiri nighean Alasdair Ruaidh from Skye singers, would write in 1911 describing Effie (long after she had died), as an elderly woman who had lived alone, as follows:

She was a kind creature, but wild-looking and apt to turn crazy if unduly provoked; she had immense front teeth, tawny locks of hair straying from beneath her cap over a high peaked forehead, and her old skirts hung in fringed tatters over her bare feet. Effie’s conversation usually turned on the ancient lore of the district, and to my extreme satisfaction she sang old waulking-songs as we went over the moor, carefully teaching me the refrains. She was elderly but could not tell her age. When talking about the beauty of the world one day, she confessed to having gone down on her knees to a magnificent cloud overhead, stating her conviction that in doing so she had not committed a sin’ [italics mine]. (Frances Tolnie (1911) ‘Notes and Reminiscences’ Journal of the Folk-Song Society , Dec. 1911, Vol. 4, No. 16 Dec. 1911 p. 144. Downloaded from: https://www.jstor.org/stable/4433967).   

I want to link Effie Ross’ ‘magnificent cloud’ to The Cloud of Unknowing, the anonymous medieval text that advises abandoning thoughts and desires, particular religious activities and attributes, and instead having the courage to surrender both mind and ego to the ultimate mystery (one that some people refer to as the Godhead).

22 Postcards for Utopias Bach: postcard twenty

Rain and forest tomb

The distinction between “Christian” and “pre-Christian” beliefs was very blurred in the early modern period, particularly on a popular level. Many common people … saw no inconsistency in juggling their fairy beliefs alongside their Christian beliefs.               

Emma Wilby (2005 op. cit. p. 97).

When MacKinlay was about eighty-eight he was sitting beside Loch Treig looking out of the window and sighed. His daughter was looking after him and asked what was wrong. He told her he saw as beautiful a stag as he’d ever seen and was troubled that he couldn’t shoot at it. She said to ignore it. But instead he asked her to prepare his bow and best arrow. Supporting himself on the window, he drew the bow and let the arrow fly, felling the deer. (The effort almost killed him too). Then he made his final request. Knowing that he’d killed his last stag, he asked his daughter to skin it and prepare the hide so that he could be buried in the deerskin in Cille Choirill. ( It is possible that this choice relates to an older magical practice. William of Malmesbury’s Gesta regum Anglorum, tells of a “witch” ‘known to practice divination, particularly “ancient augury” a form of divination involving birds’, asking that her children ‘sew her corpse into the skin of a stag’ as part of an elaborate attempt to protect it after her death. See Helen Parish (2019) ‘”Paltrie Vermin, Cats, Mise, Toads, and Weasils”: Witches, Familiars, and Human-Animal Interactions in the English Witch Trials’ in Religions 2019, 10/2 https://www.mdpi.com/2077-1444/10/2/134). He told her not to place him on his back, looking up towards the promise of heaven, but facing Loch Treig and the moors where his hope was that his mind would travel every day. A request for an unorthodox burial, made for love of a place with which a poet had a close, life-long relationship. Not the hero’s presumption of Actaeon but a desire to return as one of the deer so closely linked to the Cailleach in folklore, a love of being in the world that echoes the form of spirituality John Cage attributes to Morris Graves? 

22 Postcards for Utopias Bach: postcard nineteen

Other sun (for Denise Levertov)

Some say she was the moon, but this was before the dim days of the moon worshipers. (In Gaelic too, as with all the Celtic peoples, it is not the moon but the sun that is feminine). She may have been an ancestral Brighde, or that mysterious Anait whose Scythian name survives elsewhere in the Gaelic west, and nothing else of all her ancient glory but that shadowy word. 

                                                                                                         Fiona Macleod

The analytical psychologist Genette Paris writes: ‘Usually, when a woman withdraws into a territory closed to a male, she is perceived as a pariah, a sorceress, or a crazy woman’ (Pagan Meditations Dallas, Texas, Spring Publications Inc. p. 109). The second lecture reproduced in Paula Meehan’s Imaginary Bonnets With Real Bees In Them is named for her poem The Solace of Artemis. I now realise how much my hinterland wandering has been shadowed by that Great Lady, who is also named in The Forgetting, a “spell poem” in which Grace Wells asks for forgiveness from her sleeping daughter Holly for our culture’s “forgetting” of so many goddesses (2015) ‘The Forgetting’ in Fur Dublin, The Dedalus Press, pp. 54-55).

How, today, to acknowledge Meehan’s sense of Artemis? We have no ritual equivalent to the burial of the “young person” (the archaeologists won’t say more than “almost certainly female”), whose cremated remains were folded into the section of a bear pelt. A find in an early Bronze Age cist on Whitehorse Hill, some six hundred metres up on Dartmoor. An figure perhaps also wrapped in a sense of Meehan’s Mother-Bear and, as the archaeologists tell us, buried with the scent of the meadowsweet that returns in Kathleen Jamie’s poem. Was “she” somehow linked to  Artemis Bear-Mother, the Mistress of the Animals, the  Loathly Lady, the Cailleach, the Old Mother, the shape of the land itself as the Oldest “Mother” to us all? Whatever the case, it’s the Cailleach, divine hag and Ancestor, who offers a path to an historical grounding through the last request of the poet and hunter Dòmhnall mac Fhionnlaigh nan Dàn (Donald MacKinlay).

It all began when he meets the Cailleach of Ben Breck. In return for sparing one of her hinds, she ensured that the deer never caught wind of him when he was out hunting. She may have been part of an ancient deer cult overseen by women who ‘never appear in the tales as priestesses but as witches’, as ‘bean-sidhe or supernatural woman’ who give ‘hunters blessings and charms to procure them success in the chase’ (Quoted in Sorita d’Este & David Rankine Visions  of the Cailleach  London, BM Avalona p.81). The story proceeds as follows (In the next card I will paraphrasing the account given in Hunter-Bard: Donald MacKinlay of the LaysTuesday, 10 September 2013 at: https://calumimaclean.blogspot.com/2013/09/hunter-bard-donald-mackinlay-of-lays.html#).

22 Postcards for Utopias Bach: postcard eighteen

Old man and the duende

The duende is an enabling figure, like Freud’s idea of the uncanny or Proust’s perception of involuntary memory, because it makes something visible that might otherwise be invisible; that has been swimming under the surface all along.

                        Edward Hirsch (2002) The Demon And The Angel: Searching For The Source of Artistic Inspiration Orlando, Harcourt Inc. p. xiii.


Not all cunning folk were women. I think it’s relevant that Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill writes, remembering John Berryman, that a “female energy” is accessible to the male poet who never assumes the possession of a distinct and separate “self”. She also writes of being saved from madness through ‘transformation and release into a world of multiplicity as opposed to duality’; a release she attributes to living in the ‘completely different’ linguistic worlds of Irish and English. She links this in turn to the Irish language’s capacity for “falling out of historical time”, for facilitating moving freely in and out of the ”otherworld”’ that ‘exists beyond the ego-envelope’ (2005: op. cit. pp. 19-20). Observations that remind me of the role of ambiguity and context in Gaelic. I also see parallels with moving between written and other forms of artistic “language”. However, perhaps the central issue here is James Hillman’s insistence that ‘self is an internalization of community’, in which we must include the dead, if only genetically, and that we are ‘constituted of communal contingencies’ (1994 ‘”Man is by nature a political animal” or: patient as citizen’ in Sonu Shamdasani & Michael Munchow (eds) Speculations after Freud: Psychoanalysis, philosophy and culture London & New Yok, Routledge, pp. 34-35)? Poetry released Ní Dhomhnaill into a relational world of multiplicity through a process that Robert Bly sees as going ‘much deeper than the ego, and at the same time is aware of trees and angels’(Robert Bly quoted in Edward Hirsch (2002) op. cit. p. 210). Both poets seem attuned to the ancient notion of ‘daimones… associated with particular places’ (Edward Hirsch (2002) op. cit. pp. 61-62), liminal beings that Christian orthodoxy associated with paganism, demons and “black” magic rites, with Daumal’s “sub-human”. 

Dorothy Carrington encountered a world of multiplicity, of poetic expression and extraordinary psychic ability similar to prophesy, by meeting a Corsican mazzera (Dorothy Carrington 1995 op. cit. pp. 98-99). I marked a section of Carrington’s account of that meeting when I first read The Dream-Hunters of Corsica and wrote above it “KR?”(the initials of Kathleen Raine, to whom the book’s dedicated). My question to myself was prompted by Carrington’s description both of the mazzera’s exceptional personal qualities and the fact that she was ‘totally enslaved to her calling’ and an absolute belief in her own destiny (Ibid. pp. 99-100).  This raised a question about Raine’s “cursing” Gavin Maxwell which, he believed, resulted in his subsequent and considerable misfortunes. Raine states both that her words ‘came from beyond myself’ and a belief both in ‘the power of thought to accomplish events’ and that ‘a curse always recoils upon the person who utters it’, seeing hers as taking ‘full effect, both on Gavin and myself’ (Kathleen Raine 1991 op. cit. p.312). Thus a poet dedicated to “white” poetry also acknowledges the power to curse? In Yeats, The Tarot And The Golden Dawn she shows guarded approval of ‘an unbounded eclecticism’ which she accepts, while it may be ‘unscholarly’, often accompanies ‘vital movements of the arts’ (1976 Yeats, The Tarot And The Golden DawnDublin, Dolman Press p. 2). The Golden Dawn’s mystical philosophy and magic were, in Yeats’ words, ‘an enlargement of the folk-lore of the villages’, a recalling of: ‘certain forgotten methods’, concerned chiefly with ‘how to suspend the will that the mind become automatic and a possible vehicle for spiritual beings’ (Ibid. p. 7). Yeats himself identified with the Tarot Fool ‘who exchanges the illusion of permanence, security, and identity for the blind pilgrimage which is everyman’s destiny, and therefore in some sense sacred’ (Ibid. p. 33).Despite her desire to enrol  Yeats to her own position, Raine acknowledges his ultimate allegiance to the ambiguities of The Fool.