Tag Archives: Edinburgh

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’).

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New Year, Blue Skye

SCOT:LANDS Old College

I was asked by ATLAS Arts to blog BLUE:SKYE LAND, an afternoon of music which they programmed at St Giles Cathedral, Edinburgh. This was part of the larger SCOT:LANDS event which took place at a number of venues across Edinburgh on the afternoon of New Year’s Day.

You can read the blog here.

ECLIPSE: Enlightenment

DF Lunar Eclipse Solar Eclipse

Coinciding with the lunar eclipse on 4 April, and following the recent solar eclipse, David Faithfull’s ‘Moon draws Sun / Earth draws Moon’ has been projected onto the side of Castle Mill Works in Fountainbridge. As part of the Dark Matters project, we discussed in situ the installation and its connections with Enlightenment Edinburgh. (Thanks to Judith Liddle for the photos below.)

The Encyclopaedia Britannica was founded in Edinburgh in the 1760s, and early editions were printed in in Fountainbridge. The city at the time was just beginning to expand from the old town huddled for protection beneath the castle; and of its home city the EB states approvingly that “a plan of a new town to the north is fixed upon, and is actually carrying into execution with surprising rapidity, and with an elegance and taste that does honour to this country.”

I read parts of the ASTRONOMY ‘treatise’ from the first edition of the EB from 1768. While telescopes had given us a sense of the size of the universe, we had as yet no sense of geological time – that had to wait until James Hutton’s Theory of the Earth, elaborated in the 1780s and published in book form in 1795. And the author’s belief in a benevolent deity led him to this, to our minds certainly, surprising conclusion:

[There is] no room to doubt, but that all the planets and moons in the [solar] system are designed as commodious habitations for creatures endued with capacities of knowing and adoring their beneficent Creator. (…) From what we know of our own system, it may be reasonably concluded, that all the rest are with equal wisdom contrived, situated and provided with accommodations for rational inhabitants.

This, the author contends, extends even to comets:

The extreme heat, the dense atmosphere, the gross vapours, the chaotic state of the comets seem at first sight to indicate them altogether unfit for the purposes of animal life, and a most miserable habitation for rational beings ; and therefore some are of the opinion that they are so many hells for tormenting the dammed with perpetual vicissitudes of heat and cold. But when we consider, on the other hand, the infinite power and goodness of the Deity, the latter inclining, and the former enabling him to make creatures suited to all states and circumstances ; that matter exists only for the sake of intelligent beings ; and that where-ever we find it, we always find it pregnant with life, or necessarily subservient thereto ; the numberless species, the astonishing diversity of animals in earth, air, water, and even on other animals ; every blade of grass, every leaf, every fluid swarming with life ; and every one of these enjoying such gratifications as the nature and state of each requires ; When we reflect moreover, that some centuries ago, till experience undeceived us, a great part of the earth was judged uninhabitable, the torrid zone by reason of excessive heat, and the frigid zones because of their intolerable cold ; it seems highly probable, that such numerous and large masses of durable matter as the comets are, however unlikely they be to our earth, are not destitute of beings capable of contemplating with wonder, and acknowledging with gratitude, the wisdom, symmetry, and beauty of the creation ; which is more plainly to be observed in their extensive tour through the heavens, than in our more confined circuit. If further conjecture is permitted, may we not suppose them instrumental in recruiting the expanded fuel of the sun, and supplying the exhausted moisture of the planets? However difficult it may be, circumstanced as we are, to find out their particular destination, this is an undoubted truth, that wherever the Deity exerts his power, there he also manifests his wisdom and goodness.

Reading this, I am surprised Edinburgh was not also the founding city of science fiction literature.

DF Eclipse

Come dusk, the generator was switched on, and David’s installation played over the wall of the Castle Mill Works, a former rubber factory, earmarked to become the new home of Edinburgh Printmakers Workshop in a few years time.

And come dusk, we were all feeling the cold, and were glad of a chance to warm ourselves around the bonfire.

Bonfire

The Ash Grove

2013-05-24 16.31.13

The Ash Grove

a springtime ash, whose leaves emerge from black
an unlocked ash, so profligate with keys
a mourning ash, its branches heaped on pyres
a lettered ash, in the alphabet of trees
a hedgerow ash, which twists among the briars
a spreading ash, in summer’s heat a bield
a sporting ash, to take the shinty field

a warlike ash, for arrows and for spears
a lightning ash, and flame that flash provides
a hanging ash, a shade of dule and tears
a timeless ash, the horse which Odin rides
a steam-bent ash, which hoops the barrel staves
a buoyant ash, a charm against the waves
a blighted ash, whose crown is dying back

I wrote this poem recently and it now forms part of an exhibition, ‘Moving Forward from Ash Dieback’, which will tour to venues across Scotland – it is currently on display at both the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh and The Botanic Gardens, Glasgow. Find out more here.

2013-05-24 16.30.50

Letterpress & Typewriters

I spent Saturday at the Scottish Poetry Library in Edinburgh. They were running their annual bookfair, By Leaves We Live, and it must have been one of the best attended ever. I was mostly at The Caseroom Press table with Barrie Tullett, who brought a small selection from his typewriter collection to display, and be used. They were joined by Edwin Morgan’s Blue Bell (part of his archive held by the SPL), and a red Olivetti Valentine, which Angus Reid had bought for his daughter in a Stockbridge charity shop for a tenner, but which drew admiring and even covetous looks from those that know about typewriters.

Barrie recently drew on the old Pepsi advert to write a text about LETTERPRESSIN’, which he letterpressed as a poster, and asked if I’d contribute something similar about POETRY. I obliged, and the result is above. It’s in an edition of 25, at £25.00 each, and copies are still available from the SPL.

A good day of conversations, rounded off with a party for Hamish Whyte’s Mariscat Press, now thirty years young and still going strong.

~in the fields

After our collaboration on Ink, I’ve had the pleasure of working again with ~in the fields, and written texts for two works in their current show at New Media Scotland, Inspace, part of the Edinburgh Art Festival 2012.

Yen To See Distant Places features ‘3D’ images – images literally made up of three layers, that is background, middleground and foreground, or ‘The Sublime’, ‘The Beautiful’ and ‘The Picturesque’. There are fifteen of each, so 45 in total, presented in the gallery on stands, and they can be physically moved. When three are placed in a particular spot on the floor, they are ‘read’ by sensors, which create on a screen a three-part composite image.

from steep and solitary rocks, to
groves deep and high—
an air of majesty and dejection
*****
from gloomy raptures, to
the lonely down—
sepulchral yew

Each ‘ground’ also has its own associated line of text, and beneath the composite image a composite three-line text appears. Just as the ‘grounds’ are adapted from 19th century engravings drawn mainly from Sir Walter Scott’s ‘Provincial Antiquities and Picturesque Scenery of Scotland’, so the lines are drawn from 19th century texts, especially Scott’s. I think of these little three-liners as ‘Romantic haiku’. The composite images (though not, sadly, the texts) are then transmitted to St. Andrew Square where they can be viewed through a telescope located by the Edinburgh Art Festival pavilion.

Drifts Through Debris is a modern take on the 16th century book wheel of Agostino Ramelli. Ramelli’s wheel was made to allow comparisons to be made between different texts – you could have several books open at a time, and by turning the wheel you could compare and contrast their contents.

This wheel features video screens, and draws attention to the growing problem of oceanic plastic pollution. Footage includes archive material from the 1940s extolling the virtues of plastic as a way of utilising what would otherwise be waste products, and responses by two dancers – Sue Hawksley and Tony Mills – to images of sea-creatures constrained in various ways by plastic debris.

I wrote texts to the same images, and extracts from these are presented as part of the soundtrack to the video loops. The wheel is made of steel, with spaces at the hub for small projectors – a clever piece of contemporary design – but you turn it by pulling on handles made of driftwood, so it also has a nice tactile element to it.

The third work in the show is A Diagram of Floating Stones – in tall, thin aquariums, lace-knit wrapped stones from Shetland beaches are given buoyancy by plastic found on the same beaches.

I think it’s a great show – conceptually and visually strong, a fascinating mesh of old and new technologies, and acknowledging the gallery visitor as active participant rather than passive consumer. There are pictures of the opening, and of the works, here.

Seven Hills, Seven Questions

I walked Edinburgh’s Seven Hills as planned at the end of last month, mainly in warm unseasonal sunshine, though the day we walked to the Castle Rock was gothically haar-shrouded. [January 2017 – the various blogs about the walks (on another website) are sadly no longer available.)

The project culminated with an event at Fingerpost (formerly Croy Miners’ Welfare) last Wednesday (18 April), which is World Heritage Day – an exhibition / installation space animated by film, theatre, choral singing, my reading of ‘Seven Questions’.

I managed a walk on Croy Hill, where the Antonine Wall ran – the ditch (right) is the most obvious extant feature. The view above (centre) is looking north, barbarianwards.

Seven Hills: Poetry Walks in Edinburgh, 22-24 March 2012

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The lower summit at Blackford Hill

Edinburgh, like Rome, is a city built on seven hills. I’m running three poetry walks later this month to some of those hills, as part of the preparations for World Heritage Day 2012 on 18 April.

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Below Calton Hill

Here are the details:
Calton Hill
Thursday 22 March, 1.30pm–5.00pm, meet at Scottish Poetry Library, 5 Crichton’s Close, Canongate, Edinburgh EH8 8DT, where we’ll return after the walk

Arthur’s Seat
Friday 23 March, 1.30pm–5.00pm, meet at Scottish Poetry Library, where we’ll return after the walk

Castlehill
Saturday 24, 1.30pm–5.00pm, meet outside the Scottish Parliament visitors’ entrance (opposite the Queen’s Gallery); the walk will finish at Edinburgh Castle

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Arthur's Seat seen from the David Hume Tower

All the walks are free, but please book via e-mail as numbers are limited: kencockburn@blueyonder.co.uk

On the day please bring waterproofs and a notebook, and wear footwear suitable for rough underfoot conditions.

At the end of each walk we will spend some time discussing the walk, and reading what we’ve written; on Thursday and Friday at the Scottish Poetry Library, and on Saturday at the Education Room in Edinburgh Castle.

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Salisbury Crags and Arthur's Seat, seen from Blackford Hill

A bit of background:

‘Seven Hills’ is part of Shadows of our Ancestors, supported by Historic Scotland and UNESCO, which promotes and celebrates Scotland’s five World Heritage sites – Edinburgh Old and New Towns, New Lanark, the Antonine Wall, St Kilda and The Heart of Neolithic Orkney. A group of five artists – a poet, a sculptor, a performance artist, a photographer and a composer – will each work at one of these sites, developing work for the public celebration of World Heritage Day on Wednesday 18 April, which will take place at Croy Miners’ Welfare, North Lanarkshire, next to the line of the Antonine Wall.

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Brigid Collins's artwork for Shadows of our Ancestors 2012

All the artists are working loosely to the theme of ‘AD 142’, the year the Antonine Wall was begun. ‘Seven Hills’ will link to the theme by considering aspects of the land that broadly haven’t changed since Roman times – uplands and lowlands, coast and sea, the Scottish weather – as well as referring to the history of the Roman presence in the area, and considering the changes over time.

I’ll blog the walks to Calton Hill, Arthur’s Seat and Castlehill (as well as further walks I’ll make to Edinburgh’s other hills) and gather texts for the April  event. All those coming on the walks will be also invited to contribute work they make up on the hills  – poems, photos, recordings – to the project blog, and to the event at Croy.

Pandora’s Light Box

Lorna listening, White Gallery

Pandora’s Light Box is a collaborative project I worked on for over a year, from June 2010 through to September 2011. My brief, from Artlink, was to write a descriptive poem about the University of Edinburgh’s Talbot Rice Gallery, to be recorded and presented in the gallery as an audio work for visitors both visually impaired and sighted.
Georgian Gallery, reading

Access to visual art for individuals with a visual impairment relies on verbal description, and Pandora’s Light Box takes that ‘practical’ form and extends it into an artwork in its own right.
Listening post, Round Room

I wrote the poem for two voices, and a recording of myself and Lorna Irvine reading it has been installed in the gallery at three specially designed listening stations, downstairs in the contemporary White Gallery and the historical Georgian Gallery, and upstairs in the Round Room. You can listen to the poem here.

These were designed by Frances Priest and made by Ronnie Watt; the recordings and sound design were made by Martin Parker and Jung In Jung.

A friend of a friend sent these photos of some lines from the poem which seem to have escaped from the gallery; based on this blog, we think it was Dora, one of the project volunteers, but she’s not owned up yet! And this blog describes the project from the perspective of one of the visually impaired participants.