Tuesday, 9 June 2009

Metros and Haiku

I came across the WildInk blog a couple of days ago, and very much liked the new haikus I found there. Haiku is one of my favourite forms of poetry. To condense so much feeling and atmosphere into so few words is an art--and a difficult one. I have never managed to write one to my own complete satisfaction, but I shall keep trying. It is an art worth working at.
As a student I remember marvelling over Ezra Pound's In a Station of the Metro from "Contemporania," Poetry: A Magazine of Verse, 2.1 (April 1913), which I make no apology for repeating here in case there are those who do not know it:

The apparition of these faces in the crowd:
Petals on a wet, black bough.

With a boyfriend in Paris at that time, I spent a lot of hours riding the Metro and mouthing the station names of Denfert-Rochereau, Chatelet-Les Halles, Pyramides, Arts et Metiers, Sevres-Babylone (a poem in themselves, and so much more romantic than Marylebone, Ealing, Euston or Lewisham). I understood Pound's words exactly from my own experience, and even now they conjure up the frantic, crowded platform jostling, the harsh braying note of the closing doors and the slightly sweet smell of sewers and smoke from a million damp Gauloise cigarette butts which would say 'Paris' to my senses even if I were blindfolded.

Years after Paris, I made a trip to Japan, the true home of haiku. Riding the Tokyo Metro was a different experience entirely, and yet just as evocative in its way. Coming in from Narita airport I remember eating sushi from my first bento box and marvelling at brown-grey jagged hills covered in pine trees and moss, exactly like a Hokusai print--and that was before I'd even seen Mount Fuji.

In Japan I felt tall for the first time--but also alien, standing out like a sore thumb above the massed commuters on the platform, trying to read signs in a language I had no hope of understanding. Somehow, though, I trusted myself to one of the seemingly familiar coloured lines on the map and arrived where I was meant to be--a place where a friend had told me I would find a taste of the 'real' Tokyo, far from the blazing multi-coloured neon signs of Shibuya and the clicking cameras whirring outside the Imperial Palace. In Shinjuku I got lost deliberately--the best way to discover unexpected wonders. There was the tiny shop with a window full of wooden shoes, which I entered down three rickety steps to find a tiny grey-haired woman bowing to me. I bowed back politely, and suddenly the lack of language was no longer a barrier. With mime and hand gesture and more bowing, we communicated perfectly, and I left with three exquisite pairs of shoes, destined for the (then) small feet of the Gazelle Girl, her brother and my god-daughter, all wrapped in patterned paper with a little string to carry them by. I wandered deserted shrines with small offerings of food and flowers before them, and then found myself in a busy market where I was, once again, alien--the alien window shopper amongst a sea of hurrying, haggling housewives buying live chickens, leafy vegetable, roots large and small and rice from great hoppers as tall as the eaves.

There were many more metro trips along the coloured lines of Chiyoda, Marounouchi, Yurakucho, Asakusa and Oedo, but the final one took me to the peaceful woods of the Emperor Meiji's garden--tribute to his beloved Empress wife. Here's what I wrote about it. Not a haiku, but I like to think it has some of the idiophones which characterise other Japanese poetry.

In Emperor Meiji's garden

black bright carp


their slow drumbeat

on waterlily ripples.

The Empress Shoken sleeps

and nesting crows


requiems of flight

above the weeping trees.

copyright Lucy Coats 1998

Monday, 8 June 2009

Remembering Remarkable Trees - Part 3 - Reading Trees

Ingredients for the perfect reading tree:
1 climbable tree;
1 cushion;
1 comfortable fork with branch footstool and trunk backrest;
1 unputdownable book;
enough green leaves to hide under.

These days I prefer a slung hammock, but when I was (shall we say more agile?) climbing trees with a book was my perfect escape from weeding the strawberry beds, or lugging bales of straw and slopping buckets of water over countless fields, or any other undesirable job my parents could dream up for an idle, book-loving child.

My first climbing choice of inside the laurel clump made a springy green cave smelling of rich, rotting evergreen humus and was not terribly satisfactory as a perch, being rather unstable and drippy when it rained as well as dark and bad for the eyes. The Victoria plum tree was good in the spring and autumn but not in the summer when the wasps attacked the ripening plums and anything else in reach. It was also, latterly, near the bonfire, which meant that I read with smarting, smoke-filled eyes when the wind was in the wrong direction. The right hand of the twin chestnuts on the boundary had a wide horizontal and almost flat branch which was great for reading and also for lying and spying on the house (and on the next-door neighbours in their thatched cottage), hiding me from sight entirely. But when new neighbours moved in, less short-sighted and tolerant than old Mr and Mrs Smith, Complaints Were Made, and I was banned from climbing it on pain of dire punishment. A nosy child (I confess I did have a pair of binoculars on occasion) was not welcome, despite my protestations of innocence and the waving of books as proof.

It was the old cherry in the part of the garden where nobody went, just by the dogs' graves, which was best. That was where I stashed my rope ladder, and found a perfect snug fork just at the right angle for leaning against. It was there that I devoured R.M. Ballantyne's The Coral Island as well as Swiss Family Robinson, (the latter being especially suitable for treetop reading) among many others. The lullaby of the creaking branches, the wind, the rustle of pointed leaves, the occasional adventurous woodpigeon or little brown bird landing above my head, these were the sounds that informed my early reading life. Hammocks are good, but trees are the real thing. Climb one tomorrow plus book and see for yourself (if you are still able and lithe enough to do so). I wish I could.

Wednesday, 3 June 2009

Remembering Remarkable Trees - Part 2 - Beeches

Beeches are the quintessential Hampshire tree, and, if I am honest, my favourite. Spring for me is epitomised by the sight of that first mild sunshine of April shining through the new tender leaves of beech, slightly indented at the edges and still with the fur of their birth upon them. I love the smoothness of their greeny silver trunks, and the way their roots buckle and rear out of the earth in a glorious, chaotic muddle of growth. These are the dryad trees, elegant formed and whispering secrets in the wind. If you put your nose to a beech tree it has a particular smell to it of clean sap and green lichen dust with a hint of sharp mossy wildness, and if you break open the mast in autumn you will find the three-sided nuts in their fawn-velvet beds just waiting to be cracked open and plundered for the sweetness inside.

My father's job took him to the woods and hedgerows every day, and I spent many hundreds of hours sitting in different Hampshire woods, listening to the soporific cooing of woodpigeons and watching the branches and leaves of beeches against the sky. There was one particular clump I was very fond of. It lay beside the narrow chalk-dusted road to school, a perfectly round grove on top of a small hill, and I loved to visit it. It was, for me a magical place--a tree cathedral where I felt at one with nature and the world, though I didn't put it like that at the time, of course.

Then the motorway came. The little chalk-dusted road was blocked for months, and we went round the longer way while the diggers and blasters and tarmackers did their work. I wasn't allowed to go near because of the danger of being squashed by a JCB. And then, one day it was open again. I cried and cried. My beech clump had been sliced in half for a new road, wide and shiny and black. It looked so sad, so bereft of its brothers and sisters. It was my first consciousness that Man ruled the planet, and Nature took second place to convenience--and there was nothing I could do about it. The half beech clump is still there--I have driven past it thousands of times on the way up that convenient motorway to London. I feel a pang for its violation every time.

Tuesday, 2 June 2009

Remembering Remarkable Trees - Part 1 - Elms

Sometimes serendipity brings a book into my life which opens the door to memory. Such a book lately has been Roger Deakin's Wildwood: a Journey Through Trees, which I discovered, quite by chance, in an Oxford bookshop on my mother's 84th birthday. Roger was a remarkable man--among other things a founder of Common Ground (which links nature and the environment with culture)--whom the Guardian described as belonging 'to that tradition of topographical and literary writers who had one foot in the library and the other in distant fields'. His tree memories and journeyings set off a blaze of arboreal remembrance in my own mind, taking me back to my childhood.

Neither of my children has ever seen a mature elm tree (ulmus procera) in its full canopied glory, and yet elms were, for me, the backdrop to my growing up. Out of my bedroom window I could see a whole row of them at the bottom of the strawberry fields, and my bedtime lullaby was the cawing of the parliament of rooks who lived their busy, noisy lives in the high branches. The single elm which towered above all others stood in the fields to the left of the house. It was unimaginably tall to a child's eyes, and so it became The Greenwood Tree, perfect for playing games of Robin Hood and Maid Marian under. I remember quite clearly the delight of building a forbidden fire in its shade, and cooking illicit and stolen sausages on sticks for my group of Merrie Men aged about 7. Nothing has ever tasted better than those burnt and bark-flecked objects, held in our scorched fingers and washed down with lemonade mead.

But then the beetles flew in, burrowing under the bark and leaving spiral messages of doom where they ate and laid their eggs. Dutch Elm Disease destroyed all the trees in Hampshire in the 1960's, and I remember the shock of coming home from school and seeing the corpses of my beloved elm friends lying prone on the ground, waiting for the chainsaws to bite them into firewood. Now all I could see from my bedroom window was horizon--a poor substitute--and the rooks were homeless and silent. The Greenwood Tree was so huge that the thickest part of the trunk was left where it fell, and became at once a dragon to climb on, a robber's castle, a lookout post. Eventually, the bark fell off, and the inner wood became smooth and shiny and perfect for sliding down. It also developed a hollow inside, filled with a layer of wood dust and insects which smelt of decay. In those days I had a good friend in the village who was a bit of a tearaway. This is what happened when we played together on that old elm stump.... It's called Not Fair.

He stole the matches.
Nicked them off Mum's tray,
Last Tuesday morning, early,
When he came round to play.

I built a house.
A window and a door.
The open sky my ceiling
And wildweed for my floor.

He built a fire
In our old hollow tree.
Fuelled its hungry flames with grass.
I didn't see.

Evening wisps of subtle smoke,
Fire's tearing fangs.
Big red engines. Bells ringing.

Scolded. Banished. Punished. Weeping.
Turn the bedroom key.
Angry Mum. Crosser Dad.
Why did they blame me?
copyright Lucy Coats 1991 First published in Casting a Spell (Orchard Books)
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