All posts by Ken Cockburn

Ken Cockburn is an Edinburgh-based poet, translator, editor and writing tutor.

Gaelic Birdsong (1)

As Spring Fling x Wigtown Book Festival Writer-in-Residence for 2019, I’ve been creating new work exploring the links between birds, art and the landscape, inspired by my experiences during Spring Fling. The new work will be revealed at Wigtown Book Festival (27 September – 6 October) but in the meantime here are some insights and sneak peeks…

I’ve been researching place-names in Dumfries and Galloway which relate to birds. There are many, covering all sorts of ground, from coastal rocks to inland moors and up into the high hills. Many of these place-names are derived from Gaelic, spoken in Galloway until the 18th century.

Here are three, given with their English meanings, together with a description of the place taken from the Ordnance Survey place-name books compiled in the 1840s and 1850s. The map extracts are taken from OS maps published around the same time.

Benyellary OS Sheet 13

Benyellarie (N of Glentrool)

“A large lofty rocky heathy hill on the farms of Palgown… on its eastern side is a large precipice called “Scars of Benyellary.”
Benyellarie, from beinn iolaire, the eagle’s hill

Cairnywellan Head OS Sheet 31

Cairnywellan Head (by Port Logan, S of Portpatrick)
“A head land which terminates Port Nessock Bay on the South side. It is a Conspicuous object & well known to mariners.”
Cairnywellan, from cárn na bhfaoileann, cairn of the seagulls

Drumadryland OS Sheet 11

Drumadryland (E of Cairnryan)
“A Broad heathy hill on the North side of a large Moor or marsh, and on the farm of Delhabach”
Drumadryland, from druim na’ dreolan, ridge of the wrens

The OS information can be found at https://scotlandsplaces.gov.uk

Translation as Conversation

“I like the elements of ‘serious play’ in Arne’s work. ‘gingko leaf fairy tale’ links the Brothers Grimm and Hiroshima to suggest, touchingly, both a loss of innocence and a reconciliation with the past… ‘the forgotten dream’ makes succinct comedy from inarticulacy.”

“The conversation with Christine has been, like her readings, measured and occasional. Her work deals in nuance, glimpse, intuition, and part of its appeal for me is that I don’t always understand it entirely.”

Extending the Possibilities: Translation as Conversation is a piece I’ve written for the Year of Conversation website. It outlines my reflections on translating the work of Arne Rautenberg and Christine Marendon, over many years.

DSCF4965
Arne Rautenberg & Ken Cockburn, St Andrews, 2019

I was lucky enough to read with Arne at this year’s StAnza festival, and to hear Christine read at the Portico Library in Manchester.

Mail Attachment-1
Christine Marendon, Portico Library, May 2019

“A Year of Conversation 2019 is about us all celebrating, initiating and exploring conversation in our lives. There will be some events involving many people at places you might expect – festivals for example. But there will be many conversation events that are smaller and more intimate too. What is a ‘conversation event’? It’s simply something that’s been planned – that you might have planned – in which conversation plays a significant part or which gives rise to conversation. So it may be a performance of some kind or it may be a group of people (you have) chosen for a special reason to share a meal. There will be information about events on the website, but there will also be space for you to reflect on your own experiences of conversation.” Tom Pow, Creative Director, A Year of Conversation 2019

Primary Four’s Edinburgh

As last year, this spring I led another project at Leith Primary School with Lorna Irvine and Suzanne Butler, and supported by the church of St James the Less, Leith. We worked with the two P4 classes on poetry, drama and song, focussing on their impressions of Edinburgh, and keeping fit and healthy. My group wrote about the games and sports they play, visiting Holyrood Palace, and the food they like to eat, as well as saying hello and goodbye in several languages. They also created a series of individual letters, which I collaged together to create ‘headings’ which were projected during the performance.

My thanks to the school, and especially the class teachers, Mrs McDonald and Mrs Kinneil. Here are some extracts from the script.

Hi – sup – heya – yo –
Bonjour — Salaam aalekum – Nihau – Priviet –
In other words… Hello!

*

We’re going on the bus to Holyrood Palace.

Outside the palace we looked around and saw
a tower that was 500 years old,
shields that had a unicorn and an eagle,
a bath house and a flower garden,
the learning centre and Arthur’s Seat.

Inside the palace we saw
the room with all the jewelry,
the king’s gorgeous jewels and golden swords –
some swords had diamonds in the middle.

We went into the gallery with 96 paintings
but barely any furniture
and our challenge was
to find a sword slash in one of the paintings
and a secret door that leads to the kitchen
and to count all the paintings

and we had to do all of that in 2 minutes!

*

In the evening we go home,
We’re hungry and want some food.
My mum’s banana split and coffee –
That sounds really good!

And when we go to the café
What we want to eat
Is toast or macaroni cheese –
What a delicious treat!

*

We hope you have enjoyed
Spending the day with us
In our Edinburgh.

Au revoir – Gudafis – Zytien – Papa –
So long – See you later – Cheerio – Missing you already –
In other words… goodbye!

Spring Fling x Wigtown Book Festival

Sellars birds
Urpu Sellars, Birds

I’m working as the Spring Fling x Wigtown Book Festival writer-in-residence 2019. My chosen theme for the residency is birds.

Gallant wrens
Jo Gallant, Wrens

Over the Spring Fling weekend (25–27 May) I visited artist studios across Dumfries and Galloway, from Gatelawbridge to Port William, speaking to artists and visitors. As well as seeing a fantastic range of bird-themed artworks, I spoke to lots of folk who shared their sightings and memories of birds.

Hooper Friends from the North
Lisa Hooper, Friends from the North

Over the next few weeks and I’ll be reflecting on my Spring Fling experiences, and writing a new piece of work to be presented at the Wigtown Book Festival in the autumn.

Sammons Arctic Terns
Amanda Simmons, Arctic Terns

In the meantime here’s a selection of birds from the weekend – some spotted during conversations and workshops, some glimpsed as I travelled, and some contemplated in  studios and galleries. My thanks to everyone involved.

Stewart origami bird
Sarah Stewart, origami birds

Conversations
I heard of an oystercatcher nesting on a roundabout, a crow that kept banging into the window, and jays burying acorns. I was told there are no magpies around Kirkcudbright and Wigtown – some say they were exterminated, others that they can’t co-exist beside carrion crows. I heard of swallow fledglings standing in a line on a beam, sometimes for three or four days, before they launch themselves, of thrushes littering the garden with broken snail-shells, and of a buzzard swooping to lift a frog from a pond, like an osprey takes fish. I was told of stock doves nesting in owl-boxes, and that there are more egrets now, but fewer lapwings and swallows. I heard from a member of a rowing club who enjoys seeing gulls, sandpipers and herons up close, and a member of a golf club who sees mostly magpies. I was told of a sound like someone in distress, which turned out to be a barn owl, and of green woodpeckers, red kites, small owls and bittern in Cambridgeshire. I heard of a heron which stands in the pond that’s not full of newts, and of a raptor which, falling on chaffinches gathered at the bird-feeder, misjudged its flight and crashed into the fence, before picking itself up and flying away embarrassed. I was told of a thrush singing at Carstairs Station, of blackbirds flying out from the bay tree, and of a hen pheasant which planned to nest in the field behind a house until the neighbour’s cat disturbed it. I heard of the bell in the County Buildings remaining silent when the ospreys didn’t return, and of sedge warblers which sound like techno and hiphop.

KG Goldfinch
Goldfinch, on a chair by Bill Johnston (1893–1974), in Kirkcudbright Galleries

Observations
From the car I notice a woodpecker land on the verge, its distinctive black-and-white striped head, while a large puddle in a lay-by that loops off the road has attracted a duck and several ducklings. The looping flight of siskins around a flowering laburnum tree, oystercatchers heard through an open door, the songs of a Galloway hedgerow in late May. At the Cairnholy stones, a blackbird flies from the nearby house to the far side of the valley in seconds. From within an evergreen a thrush emerges, stands speckled on the threshold a moment as if deciding where to, then off. A buzzard circles above the green slope at Port Castle Bay, now seen, now hidden.

Buzzard Port Castle Bay

Oxford-Weidenfeld Prize

I’m delighted that Heroines from Abroad is one of 8 books on the shortlist for this year’s Oxford-Weidenfeld PrizeThe prize is for book-length literary translations into English from any living European language. The winner will be announced at the prizegiving and dinner at St Anne’s College, Oxford on Saturday 15 June 2019.

Heroines from Abroad was published last summer by Carcanet. It’s a first collection of poems by Christine Marendon, with her poems in the original German alongside my translations.

HfA front hires

StAnza schools

In February and March I ran schools workshops for StAnza, Scotland’s International Poetry Festival. I worked with lower secondary pupils at Madras Academy, Waid Academy and St Leonard’s School, as well as with a group of home-schooled pupils from Lothian and Borders.

We looked at three poems as starting points: Zbigniew Herbert’s ‘Journey to Kraków’ (which I’d used with Edinburgh secondary schools last autumn), and two poems about birds – Alastair Reid’s ‘Daedalus’ and Alexander Hutchison’s ‘Gavia Stellata’. ‘Journey to Krakow’, written in the 1950s, describes a scene on a train in which ‘a boy / with a book on his knees’ responds to a stranger’s interest in his reading with brief comments on books he’s read, expressing both ‘rapture and condemnation’. I asked the pupils to reflect on their own reading – and watching and listening – preferences, and to present their work as bookmarks. The voice of ‘Daedalus’ is a father describing his son who ‘has birds in his head’, while ‘Gavia Stellata’ describes the red-throated diver by way of elaborate questions and simple answers. I used both poems to suggest ways the pupils could write about birds using both knowledge and imagination.

The sessions with the Madras pupils took place before StAnza, which took place in St Andrews from 6 to 10 March. During the festival their poems were displayed inside and outside the Byre Theatre, as well as in the garden of the Preservation Trust Museum.

I worked with the home-schooled group in the Japanese garden at Lauriston Castle. We read some haiku and mesostics, went for a walk, wrote poems on labels and made a temporary anthology on a small pine.

My thanks to all the teachers and pupils involved, and to StAnza for making the sessions possible.

Trees for Life at Dundreggan

Dundreggan Jack Heath

Meet me,
On the slopes of Binnlidh Mhor.
Meet me,
Where the shielings were before.

Meet me,
By the bushy juniper.
Meet me,
Where the pinewoods once were.

Hamish Read, after Robin Robertson’s poem ‘Trysts’

DSC08216

The landscapes we see around us today are simply a snapshot in time; they were, and will be, different from this. As part of the Trees for Life project Rewilding the Highlands, in June 2017 I ran walking and writing sessions for two groups of S3 pupils from Glen Urquhart High School in Drumnadrochit. We spent one day at the TfL estate at Dundreggan, and the following day at school. The aim was to teach pupils something about local habitats, especially in terms of flora and place-names, and to give them opportunities to respond to these landscapes.

At Dundreggan we followed the route of the Juniper Walk, stopping by the waterfall (loud and midgey); the drystone walls (lichen and wildflowers), and the burn (gorse, thistles, nettles and raspberry). After a break for lunch at the Lodge, we climbed the track towards Binnlidh Beag as far as the lazybeds, again stopping to reflect on what we noticed (sounds, creatures, vegetation) as we progressed. There were some complaints as we climbed, but they were soon overcome by a general euphoria when we reached our destination, beyond the current edge of the forest, as views south and west over Glenmoriston opened up.

The next day at school I led the pupils in a series of writing exercises drawing on their experiences of the previous day, extending that by looking at a selection of Gaelic place-names from across the Highlands (drawn from a larger collection made by Alec Finlay).

Gaelic Couplets Alistair Nicholson

The names referred to flora and fauna, once there, now absent, but which might return: rustling leaves at Leitir Beithe, Birch Face; or rooting trotters at Sgùrr an Tuirc, Boar Peak. Pupils wrote circle poems, acrostics and mesostics, simple walking narratives (comprising short verses about each stop we made on the hill-climb), and poems drawing on real and made-up place names.

From their feedback, what they most enjoyed was walking up the hill, and seeing the creatures we came across, especially a couple of slow-worms.

They appreciated how walking helped them write: “it gave us a lot more ideas and a varied vocabulary… it helped me describe what was there better.”

Through the place-names they glimpsed something of the history of the place: “Gaelic place-names tell us about what was there before and things that aren’t there any more.”

And they were pleased to discover that the name Drumnadrochit comes from Druim na Drochaid, meaning ridge of the bridge.

When asked if they’d like to return to Dundreggan, most said yes, and several had a specific aim in mind: “to climb up the higher hill”.

Teachers also saw benefits for the pupils: “the workshop was really effective in inspiring the majority of the pupils and they really enjoyed learning outdoors for a change.  It made many of them much more aware of what we have on our door step.”

 

Zbigniew Herbert in Scotland, 1963

Herbert Collected Holy Iona

In Zbigniew Herbert’s Collected Poems 1956–1998 I came across a single reference to Scotland, in the poem ‘The Prayer of the Traveler Mr. Cogito’ or, to give it its Polish title, ‘Modlitwa Pana Cogito – podróżnika’. Here is the relevant section in the Polish original, followed by Alissa Valles’s translation from Collected Poems.

a także Miss Helen z mglistej wysepki Mull na Hebrydach za to że przyjęła mnie po grecku i prosiła żeby w nocy zostawić w oknie wychodzącym na Holy Iona zapaloną lampę aby światła ziemi pozdrawiały się

and Miss Helen of the foggy island of Mull in the Hebrides for offering Greek hospitality and asking me to leave a lamp lit at night in the window facing Holy Iona so that the lights of earth would greet each other

The poem is taken from Herbert’s 1983 collection Raport z oblężonego Miasta / Report from a Besieged City. I was curious to know more about the time he spent in Scotland, which was in fact twenty years before this collection appeared, in autumn 1963. According to Andrzej Franaszek’s 2018 biography of Herbert, using public transport Herbert travelled north from London, stopping in Leeds, York and Durham before arriving in Scotland, where he visited Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Inverness, Oban, Mull and Glasgow, before returning via Carlisle to London.

Franaszek quotes from a postcard Herbert sent from Edinburgh on 18 October:

Wdrapałem się na górę koło Edynburga i oczywiście spadłem trochę (niegroźnie). Tak trzeba. Ziemio ty moja szkocka ukochana! Jutro jadę, ale dobrze nie wiem dokąd. Dziś w nocy narada sztabu z mapą. Jestem bardzo szczęśliwy, żeście mnie wypchnęli w świat. (…) Przede mną góry i skały, kozice i georginie. Naprzód! Hej!!!

I scrambled my way onto a mountain near Edinburgh and I fell down a little (not dangerously). Maybe a good thing. My beloved Scottish earth! I am leaving tomorrow, even though I’m not sure where I’m going. Tonight there will be a conference of the High Command over the map. I’m very glad that you pushed me out into the world. (…) Ahead of me mountains and cliffs, mountain goats and dahlias. Onwards! Hey!!!

In another postcard, sent from Inverness, he described his mixed feelings about the country: he was ‘exhausted but happy, head over heels in love with Scotland; its beauty exhilarates the tourist. But life without sex… one has to go back.’

He returned via the west coast and, finding himself in Oban, decided to cross to the nearby Isle of Mull and from cross there to Iona or, as he consistently called it, using the English adjective, Holy Iona. ‘Holy Iona, czyli kartka z podróży’ (‘Holy Iona, or a page of travel’) was written in 1966 for the West German radio station WDR, and published posthumously in the collection Mistrz z Delft (2008). Of his perspective of islands, he wrote:

Wyspy nie należą do krajobrazu mego dzieciństwa. Urodziłem się w środkowej Europie, w połowie drogi między Morzem Bałtyckim a Czarnym. Pejzaż mojej młodości to podlwowskie okolice: jary i łagodne pagórki porośnięte sosną, na której najpiękniej kwitnie pierwszy sypki śnieg. Morze było tam czymś niewyobrażalnym, a wyspy miały posmak baśni.

Islands were not part of the landscape of my childhood. I was born in Central Europe, halfway between the Baltic and the Black Sea. The landscape of my youth was the area near Lwów, crevices and gentles hills covered in pine on which the first dry snow bloomed beautifully. The sea was something unimaginable there, and islands had a scent of fairytales.

The crossing to Iona had something otherwordly about it. It was 29 October, his birthday, and the ferry was no longer sailing. The landlady of his B&B at Fionnphort phoned a local fisherman, who agreed to take Herbert on the short crossing. In his radio talk he described their meeting-place:

Zimny, wilgotny, siwy ranek. Stoję w pobliżu jetty, która jest po prostu betonową ścieżką wchodzącą w morze. Ocean jest wzburzony, wysokie fale rozbijają się na skałach urwistego brzegu. Nagle z mgły wyłania się mała łódka rybacka płynąca w moim kierunku. Było to jak podanie ręki marzeniu.

A cold, damp, gray morning. I am standing near a jetty, which is just a concrete path going into the sea… which was stormy, high waves crashing against a rocky coast. A small open boat appeared from out of the mist; it was like extending your hand to a dream.

Once on Iona, Herbert explored the recently rebuilt abbey complex. He was particularly struck by his encounter with a sculpture, Descent of the Spirit’, by the Lithuanian-born Jewish sculptor Jacques (Jacob) Lipschitz (1891–1973), who fled France for the USA in 1940.

williammarnochionaabbey2008
Photo: William Marnoch, Iona Abbey, 2008

Its inscription, in French, reads:

Jacob Lipchitz juif fidéle à la fonde ses ancêtres a fait cette vierge pour la bonne entente des hommes sur la terre afin que l’esprit régne

Jacob Lipschitz a Jew faithful to the heritage of his ancestors made this virgin for the accord of men on earth so the spirit might reign

Herbert, who had witnessed the destruction of Polish Jewry during the Second World War, appreciated the paradox of recovering signs of community in this, to him, remote place. He expressed gratitude to ‘the Jewish artist who had heard so many words of hatred and responded by reaching for the words of reconciliation’.

Herbert returned to Mull, and the Fionnphort B&B, that same day. The evening brought him the image of light which he later incorporated into the ‘Prayer’:

Po kolacji gospodyni prosiła mnie, abym postawił małą lampkę w oknie wychodzącym na Holy Iona. Taki jest zwyczaj. Nocą światła obu wysp rozmawiają ze sobą. (…) Nie wiadomo, co przyniesie przyszłość i jak długo trwać będzie rozdarcie świata. Ale dopóki w jedną bodaj noc roku światła tej ziemi będą się pozdrawiały, niecała chyba nadzieja jest pogrzebana.

After supper the landlady asked me to put a small lamp in the window overlooking Holy Iona. That is the custom. At night the lights of both islands talk to each other. (…) It is not known what the future will bring and how long it might be until the world is torn apart, but as long as one night of the year, the lights of this land will offer greetings, hope is not buried.’

 

My thanks to Robin Connelly, Grażyna Fremi, Michał Kuźmiński, Basia Macmillan and Robert Macmillan for their help in sourcing and translating material on Herbert’s trip. As well as the books mentioned above, online there is, in Polish, a useful article from 2007 by Piotr Toczynski about Herbert and Iona, and a recording of Herbert talking about Scotland (scroll down to the heading ‘Szkocja’).

Poets in Rome

I visited Rome for a few days earlier this year. These are some of the many poets, ancient and modern, I encountered there.

Homer Musei Vaticani

A herm of Homer in the Vatican Museums

Two versions of Sappho –
a herm in the Capitoline Museum, and a statue in the Vatican Museums

Goethe, with his feet up at home in the Via del Corso, c.1787; and his expenses book for his Roman stay, with regular entries for ‘ciocolatta’

Keats’ grave and memorial in the Cimitero Acattolico. The inscription on his grave reads,

This Grave
contains all that was Mortal,
of a
YOUNG ENGLISH POET,
Who,
on his Death Bed,
in the Bitterness of his Heart,
at the Malicious Power of his Enemies,
Desired
these Words to be Engraven on his Tomb Stone

Here lies One
Whose Name was Writ in Water.
Feb 24th 1821

Shelley’s grave in the Cimitero Acattolico, with lines from The Tempest

Marinetti

Marinetti’s house on the Piazza Adriana

Corso Cimitero Acattolico 02

Gregory Corso’s grave in the Cimitero Acattolico

Finally, Raphael’s ‘Parnassus’, in the Room of the Segnatura in the Vatican museums,  painted between 1508 and 1511. Its central figure is the Apollo (playing the violin rather than the more traditional lyre), surrounded by the nine Muses. To the left, Homer is flanked by Dante and Virgil, while Sappho sits beneath them; to the right stand Ariosto and Boccaccio.

Sale di Raffaele Poets

 

Gleann Badraig

Earlier this year I wrote a sequence of poems about the Isle of Jura, for a book by the photographer Charles March. Charles contacted me out of the blue, thanks in part, I think, to a poem I’d written many years before about the island.

I visited Jura at the start of February, and was taken by boat to Glenbatrick on the west coast, where Charles had taken his photographs over the previous four or five years. Above the beach, and the rugged coastline either side of it, are a number of raised beaches, created by the land gradually rising after the glaciers melted. Looking inland, the Paps of Jura dominate the skyline – Beinn na Oir, Beinn Siantidh and Beinn Chaolias.

In May and June, Charles’ photographs were featured in an exhibition at the Palazzo Borghese in Rome, where a sample copy of the book was on display.

I received copies of the book just this week – I’d forgotten how large it was. The images are beautifully reproduced, catching the shifting and subtle colours of the Hebrides.

Gleann Badraig is published by Distanz Verlag, Berlin.
390 × 275 mm
96 pages, 60 color images, hardcover with linen
ISBN 978-3-95476-248-4
June 2018
€58.00

I have a few copies for sale – contact me if you’re interested in buying a copy.