This interview took place at Ruth’s house in Kentish Town, in the kitchen looking out on her garden, the epitome of an urban idyll, though the evening wasn’t quite warm enough for us to sit out. Ruth was just back from New York, having spent a sabbatical there working on – characteristically – a number of new projects, including a redraft of a novel and the beginnings of a new project on the origins of fire, which she would allude to in our conversation.
I had met Ruth fleetingly through mutual friends before we became colleagues in 2014, at King’s College London, where I spent three years as a visiting lecturer in Creative Writing and where Ruth is now Professor of Poetry. During our time as colleagues I was astonished by Ruth’s energy and capacity for multi-tasking: she had recently published her collection Learning to Make an Oud in Nazareth and was already at work on poems about Beethoven, an earlier draft of the novel and would, in time, write Tidings, her most recent poetry collection, a long, narrative Christmas poem for voices. Somehow, she also managed to fit in a full teaching and marking load, across poetry and drama, as well as organising a regular reading series in the college chapel, bringing together poets and writers from a variety of disciplines, from neuroscience to cartography. Towards the end of my time at King’s, Ruth’s mother passed away, while she was working on the collection of poems already titled Emerald. As well as the expected impact on her personal life, her mother’s death occasioned a shift in the collection’s focus, as poems to do with loss, with mourning but also with celebrating her life, began to announce themselves and soon refocused the book, which had previously been a more research-led exploration of the mining and history of emeralds, the political situation in Colombia and other matters relating to emeralds, Ruth’s birthstone.
What might have been a book that had much more in common with The Mara Crossing, or Darwin – A Life In Poems, has become Ruth’s most personal collection in years, certainly since 1998’s Rembrandt Would Have Loved You. Away from poetry Ruth has ties to conservation charities, to London Zoo and the Royal Society of Literature, as well as being a regular feature of prizes, either as a judge or recipient. Her work has been informed by collaborations with string quartets and outreach centres, and despite her undoubted place as a pillar of the poetry, and more widely the intellectual community in the UK, Ruth’s restlessness and magpieish willingness to follow the shine of her latest interest, or obsession, has ensured a breadth of output which is impossible to second-guess, with books on tigers, rock music and prosody sitting alongside a heavily garlanded poetry output.
I have long been an admirer of Ruth’s work, and her wide-ranging interest in everything from microbiology to classical myth, but tending most towards the personal poem, habitually. I have been especially excited by the direction of her new collection, and was thrilled to have a chance to spend time reading the poem, ‘Salon Noir’, under discussion, as well as with the proofs of her new, vulnerable and moving collection as a whole. Ruth, a polymath if ever there was one, was as illuminating and allusive as I’d come to expect, even in the final throes of jet-lag, and with her usual handful of pressing deadlines awaiting attention in the study.
I thought we could start by talking about the idea of katabasis. It’s something that you’ve written about in your book, The Poem and the Journey. And it seems this poem is in that tradition, in that it deals with the idea of journeying to the underworld, of going down to the dead. Going back to that essay, you mention that going down to the dead has historically been considered a duty for a poet…
When I was doing my PhD, which was on Greek religion, a lot of it was about what was under the earth. There’s a Greek motif that you find light – or the knowledge you need – under the earth. That is the katabasis tradition: Odysseus goes down to find out how to get home; and he meets the shade of his mother there too. While I did the thesis I was beginning to write poems and I read a little essay by Kathleen Raine called ‘The Inner Journey of the Poet’ – she’s hot on inspiration and Blake, and I found it a really interesting idea, that you have to go down into yourself, into memory, to bring back the true poem. That’s what Adrienne Rich does in ‘Diving into the Wreck’, and Atwood has talked about it too: you go down deep into yourself and the past, and it’s hard – you might see ghosts, or worse things than ghosts, which are in you. That’s where the poems are going to come from; good stuff comes out of the dark.
In writing this poem, I had no idea – I thought the book was finished. It’s now the last poem in the book. I was staying with friends in France at the end of summer a few months after my mother died, and I’d never been to any of the prehistoric painted caves. I had written about them! There’s an essay on Wild Court about Czesław Miłosz and the spotted horses of the Pech Merle cave, and when I was writing that I happened to be staying with my mother, and damn me she said she’d been to Pech Merle. She said in her sceptical way, ‘I didn’t believe in those spotted horses for a second’. I hope her sceptical self is going to come over in the book.
I had no idea that she’d been to any of these caves. I never had. It was about an hour’s drive away, last summer. I really wanted to go, and I enthused other people to go with me and in fact we all got so inspired we went twice. The extraordinary thing about those paintings, the horses and bison, is, why on earth would they paint them? You really had to go a long way down, through all sorts of caverns and twists, so how did they get in there? They must have had fire – it was before pottery. They just would have carried flaming torches to get to this great big cavern where they started painting these animals. An extraordinary thing to do. In that Miłosz essay, I talk about how the first art is representations of animals. And that was very important to my mum too – she was a biologist. But I didn’t have any of that in mind. Initially it was just… reaction.
Talk about parallels, they really had to earn that art – their own version of deep diving.
It was deep diving, and I did not know I was going to write a poem about it. We came back, we drank some wine, we talked about it, but it wasn’t until I got back here that I started. When I finished it, I showed it to my daughter Gwen, who was in Colombia, and she said, ‘It’s a journey to the underworld’. I thought, ‘Bloody hell. So it is.’
How did the poem first announce itself?
Through images. The experience itself was quite moving and a bit scary. We had some younger people with us who were worried about vampires. I was more worried about breaking an ankle – there were slippery bits of stalactites and everything…
It was. Also, I was with dear friends, that’s important – people I’ve known for 30 years or more – and one of them was in mourning too. We looked at the website in advance. I remember someone saying, ‘Of course I’m going to take my mobile phone’. But when we got there, we were told we couldn’t bring anything with us, couldn’t take handbags or mobile phones. We were divested.
Talking of being divested, one of things that struck me is that the opening of the poem is not an I, it’s a we. How important is it to this poem that it’s a collective descent?
It came completely naturally out of the experience, but stylistically it probably does come from George Seferis and the Mythistorima. I’m looking back now – he wrote a poem called Mythistorima, which means ‘novel’ in modern Greek, but it’s also myth and history and it’s in 24 poems. It was written in the 1930s before the war and based on the Odyssey, but it’s in the voice of the companions of Odysseus – there’s a ‘we’, it’s a collective experience.
This ‘we’ at the beginning seems strikingly different to what we think of as the Odyssean individual journey down – it sets us in different territory immediately…
I had written most of the book… I thought I’d written all of it! I began to realise I’d written something which other people might find reflected their own experience of bereavement. By bereavement standards, it was a very gentle one. My mother was very lucky and so were we – I didn’t have to focus on huge pain, on the agony of watching someone else in pain. It was more being there with her, in a transition that had to happen – and then with missing her.
We certainly get the idea of a journey, a transition. There’s also the idea of singing, and a mention of Orpheus that ties in with the idea of making art to bring someone back. There’s something here, and in your work generally, to do with having a duty to the dead, the ways poems might be able to be dutiful.
There are lots of things in there. One first thing – about the ‘we’ voice – there are some ‘we’ voices in the collection to do with feeling close to my brothers and sister, all the family, while we were around her. There’s a poem called ‘Nursing Wing’ in which I talk about waiting, about trying to phone wherever we could find a signal, running out of milk – all the things you’re doing when you’re snatched out of your normal life. It took three weeks. We didn’t know what was going to happen. She started dying and then stopped. We gathered round her first in the hospital, where the phones were ok, but then in the nursing wing of the home, where it was maddening – you couldn’t get a signal… and that seemed a metaphor for all kinds of things. There was also a gentleness around. All extended families have complexities, but we were all very helpful to each other: I held my phone to her ear in the hospital so she could talk to my daughter in Colombia, one of her grandsons in Palestine, another in Barcelona. And other people, cousins and friends, were weeping on the phone saying goodbye. And lots of people actually came, so there was a benign collective around her dying. One person said, ‘We went to visit her to cheer her up – and she cheered us up.’ This poem picks that up and radiates it out a bit.
But yes, Orpheus – earlier in the book there’s a poem called ‘Tuning Your Lyre Among the Shades’ about going down an emerald mine in Colombia. I didn’t actually do that because it’s too dangerous, not because of the mine but because of the guns. I did go to an emerald market in Bogota, and talk to a lot of people, and do a lot of research around emeralds. Emerald mining happens in carbon stone. Everything is black, and it’s hot – lots of warm water rushing down – and I imagined Orpheus suffocating, 40 feet down. So Orpheus comes up in that poem too. There’s also the sense of music: my family are all involved in music; my parents met playing music; so there’s this sense of music bringing people together. Orpheus comes into the book in lots of hidden ways, I think. As for a duty… maybe I don’t feel it’s so much a duty to the dead to bring them back, as he wanted to do, but a duty to your own sense of the dead person: that you want to celebrate them in song, to find something good in the experience, both of saying goodbye as they die, and of missing them.
You have to go into yourself and your memory. There are some Freudian parallels here, the mythical journey and the mental journey into one’s own underworld. In this poem you talk about the unconscious as ‘geological’.
My dad was a psychoanalyst, so my mum had a slightly conflicted relationship with Freud and psychoanalysis. I remember I took her to a meeting of the Psychoanalytical Society after he died, because they started a meeting with a very warm memorial to him. Then they wanted to get on with their meeting, and I took her out. As we were leaving she said, ‘I never have to go to another of those meetings again’. Of course, she was honoured and listened, and she was interested in his ideas. But it’s a big thing to live with, psychoanalysis! And I was interested too. There’s always a sense of excavation. Arthur Evans was digging up the Palace of Knossos in Crete just around the same time that Freud was writing about the unconscious. Freud himself was very interested in things that had been dug up. All those objets in the Freud Museum, which he brought by train from Vienna – he got out in the nick of time – are Greek or Egyptian archaeological treasures. He was a manic collector. I wrote a poem about them in The Mara Crossing called ‘The Freud Museum’ after attending a conference there called ‘What is an Object?’
This poem seems to be a product of influences from both the classical and the modern post-Freudian sense of self-excavation – what was the cost of doing that on yourself? It seems like you had to open the doors to childhood memory, and in that way feels like it has something in common with the Freudian talking cure.
I had never written a poem like it before. In the past, any personal poems I’ve written have tended to be love poems. I haven’t excavated childhood much at all. Perhaps in my second book, Angel, a little. My first book, Summer Snow, focussed on my daughter as a baby. Since 2004, I’ve been writing about science, migration, Darwin, the Middle East – I had no idea I was going to do this. And it now seems impossible. Already I’m thinking, how did I get there? How did I write that?
It feels like a rich seam and perhaps occasioned by the death of you mother you felt able to investigate your life, and hers, at different stages, not just the relationship you had as adults.
It’s interesting, coming to see her life from different angles. There’s a fruit and veg shop round the corner – the people are from Afghanistan. I was in there around the time she died and I said, ‘My mother has just died.’ And one said, ‘Mother – is love’. I found people did say important things, or I found them important: everyone resonates to that loss. But after she dies… You start to think about the person who has died in different ways, you wonder about their lives, their childhood. What did her childhood really feel like? What you know and what you don’t know.
There’s a sense that now that her life is complete you can only know what is known to this point – maybe that gives you a more heightened desire to preserve what is known
Also, to look back and think of what new ways of thinking about things you have always known. It’s another sort of excavating.
The moment the ‘I’ comes into this poem seems very apt: the line ‘where I was born’ – the ‘I’ begins at birth…
It’s also connected to the birthstone. The book was always going to be called Emerald. I did tonnes of research about emerald mining and the emerald trade; how the Spanish were exporting emeralds from the Andes to India already in the 1540s. The 1540s! I thought that was so interesting. I also researched the Emerald Tablet, which is supposed to be the founding text of alchemy, and what Jung said about it. And the idea of birth came up because emerald is for May, and spring: it is my birthstone. So I suppose you’re thinking of birth here, of something dark being brought to the light. And then, when I sing in the poem… because I do like singing in echoey places to see what the echo is like…
And here it’s almost unrecognisable as the narrator’s voice.
Yes. Our guide said the archaeologists wondered if the Ice Age artists chose to put the paintings there because it was also such a good acoustic space.
In The Poem and the Journey, you talk about guide figures – Heaney talks about them, as you say. I wondered, other than the actual guide in the poem, if there were any ‘guides’ in a broader sense within this poem, or the book as a whole?
I am very influenced by Heaney. Not only his poems, but also his critical voice, which is so rich. Critical is almost the wrong word – it’s a very conscientious, thoughtful, voice, but also of course very imaginative: it always seems to open doors. Every sentence opens a new idea – which is so unlike so much criticism, which often closes interpretation down. Heaney invokes Eliot, but also his Irish forebears, like Beckett and Joyce. Station Island is one of my favourite Heaney collections. But for me, I suppose there are the older Greek tragic poets, whose words I have spent so much time with. Hopkins too; the nature poems, but also his own indebtedness to Greek choral lyric. And Elizabeth Bishop – I love her scrupulousness.
On Bishop, that great noticer: you write that the most important legacy of your relationship with your mother is in the habit of noticing. That feels important here, and in your work in general – a sense of attending to the smallest details. How conscious were you that this is a poem that moves from the biggest to the most microscopic scale?
Totally unconscious – I didn’t know that’s what I was doing. But it’s also what Darwin did: a lot of his theories depended on very small creatures – coral, worms, bees or barnacles. He built his big theories on tiny things. My mum had been a biologist and was working in cancer research when I came along, but she gave that up to have children, as they did in those days. And when she first came to a poetry reading of mine, she said, ‘I see the point of poetry now. Poets notice things’. I’ve always thought natural history is sort of parallel to poetry because of that noticing. Both depend on relating the very small things you observe to the big things.
Noticing applies when you’re writing about people too. You notice in a particular way: not the bland generalities – this isn’t a sentimental portrait because the people are seen in the same way as you see the fox cub, or the snail. There’s a scientific rigour to it.
You leave it to the other person, the reader. You have to put the concrete evidence there, then stand back and let them feel what they want to feel. Keats said that no one likes a man who keeps trying to put his hand in your pocket. I’ve been quite sparing with adjectives, too. I always tell people when I’m teaching to beware of adverbs, which are the parts of speech that do the most ‘telling not showing’. I feel adverbs are very bossy. But I seem to have applied that to adjectives here, too.
I wanted to ask a few things about the making of the poem. There are a number of similes here that felt almost Homeric, a little like something we’d see in the Iliad: ‘I heard the hiss of time like the swish of tyres’; the surfaces ‘like different-coloured sugar poured in the same flask’. Could you talk a little about that?
I always thought the similes in the Iliad are windows out of the terrible world of the battlefield into another life. Like the moment in Book 4, where there’s the breaking of the truce. Menelaus and Paris are due to have a private duel – one will win and everyone else will go home safe. But that’s not what the gods want, so a god gets someone to shoot an arrow and it goes into a thigh, ‘like when a woman stains the ivory cheek-piece of a horse in a bridle’. And there she is, staining it, making something careful and deliberate, peaceful and creative, a complete contrast to what’s going on. And when the arrow is shot, breaking the truce, all hell breaks loose and we have the next 20 books of the Iliad. I’ve always thought of similes as windows. I was once in a Cézanne exhibition in Paris – it was a round room with the paintings all round the wall, and I suddenly saw them as windows out, into a completely other world, the world of his vision. I think that’s what images in a poem can be – a window out. As in Emily Dickinson’s poem, ‘I Dwell In Possibility’: ‘A fairer House than Prose – /More numerous of Windows – /Superior – for Doors –’
Another thing people pick up on in my work is how I keep connecting the ancient and the modern. I don’t do that consciously; it seems to be how my mind likes to move. There’s a poem in Voodoo Shop called ‘Writing to Onegin’: a version, made from three translations (I don’t know Russian), of a passage from Pushkin’s epic poem Eugene Onegin. Some people queried that I’d brought in modern things, screensavers etc, but to me it felt natural, moving between the past and the present. There’s a passage in ‘Landscape with Flight to Egypt’ in The Mara Crossingwhere I write that ‘Landscape is your life seen in distance, when you know //for just an interval of sunlight, how to join /time travelled with time still to go.
To go back to the making of this poem, one of the other things I wanted to talk about are these caesuras…
Spaces! I’m doing that through the whole book – there are only two commas in the book and they’re in the title of a poem. There are no commas in the poems. Instead there are spaces – like breaths. I think this was partly to do with tentativeness. And with taking your time.
Did it change the way you thought about the line?
It did. I was very interested in Ocean Vuong’s book – I was doing spaces like this already when I first picked it up in a Brooklyn bookshop, and I was delighted to learn from his line. I had been thinking about how you read aloud, how you give a poem to other people when you read it, wanting to mark the breathing spaces – like musical rests. Beckett was very interested in silence. I once heard a wonderful talk by a singer who’d worked with him, played music with him, about how in his plays he was very precise in how long he wanted the actor to pause. I think of it as a music thing. Something I don’t think I could do with just a comma. Maybe it was the subject, too: there’s a solemnity about dying, the feelings you’re having at the time and afterwards, and perhaps that offered a license to do it.
I was also thinking about the integrity of a line. I had a conversation with an American editor a year ago, in which I talked about the integrity of the line and how many British poets seemed to me to consider it more than some American poets: I wondered if he thought there was a difference there. He said, ‘Well you can call it integrity,’ and when I asked what else he would call it he said, ‘conventional’. I reported this back to the poet I was staying with. He said that Robert Creeley threw out ‘integrity of the line’ but it kept creeping back. Like when you destroy a spider’s web, he said, and it remakes it, but each time more faintly. I think it’s probably to do with musical phrasing. If you’re going to break notes that belong together, you need a good reason to do so.
And there’s an iambic ghost in there somewhere possibly, or at least if there’s a reaction it’s a reaction against that sort of rhythm.
We have line-breaks. That’s what we have. One of the first lectures at King’s on my poetry course is called ‘You Are Your Line Breaks’. We’ve got to use the line break. And keep thinking about them. I didn’t make a conscious decision not to use commas, I just found I was doing it. Maybe it came from being with someone who’s dying; you’re just terribly careful how she sits up, how she sips from a mug. Every small thing you have to be careful about.
I wonder if commas will return in your next book?
The return of the comma!
A phrase that stood out in this poem was ‘we are time’ – that seems to tie in with everything we’ve talked about so far, with death being a full stop but also the heightened responsibility of people left behind, that the dead’s only way of existing is in commemoration.
The speakers at that point are the stalagmites. 40,000 years of sediment and drip! It is they who are time. I suppose I wanted to take the reader down there, when it says, ‘watch out you’ll have to crouch’. I suppose I was half-thinking of Dante too.
Elsewhere you write that ‘even breath can destroy’ and that leads on to a wider idea of our impact on the world, not just in the family unit, but a sense of a footprint left, an awareness of being a small unit in a bigger organism. Having come from poems focused on the bigger picture, how different was it writing about this smaller unit?
It’s interesting that you bring up this idea of bigger and smaller. I think I’ve always had that, but I wasn’t so aware of it. For instance, at the moment I’m writing an essay about fire and Prometheus, and myths about the origins of fire. And way back in 1998, in a collection called Rembrandt Would Have Loved You, there’s a poem called ‘Myths of the Origins of Fire’, with a quotation from Frazer about how fire is a secret that is always lost and always has to be re-found. I believe we all have our own layers of imaginative connections, and images. And part of the job is going down into them, but also connecting them to the big things outside your own self.
I was talking yesterday to a group about Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant. I was quite shocked by the level of reaction in reviews to that book. They made me not want to read it, but when I did, I felt it was deeply about Brexit, about the world now. Its conceit is a mist emanating from a Buried Giant, which makes people forget everything. But at the end, there’s a question: do you really want to kill this thing? If you do, the forgetting will stop, but you’re going to bring back tribalism, revenge, feuds: all the stuff which has now awoken, horrible racialism and the rest of it. I thought that was a very interesting idea. Buriedness. The things buried in you are your poetic capital, but you can’t know exactly where they are, – no fracking, as it were. But sometimes when you’re writing, if you listen, they may float up.
How much of a part do you think your unconscious plays when you’re writing?
I don’t think when I’m writing in terms of conscious and unconscious, I just try to be open to connections. Sometimes a word will do it: sometimes if you think of a simile, or a synonym, other connections will arise which may lead on to something else. For me, it’s about being open and listening.
A case of following the images? Some of these are so resonant, so tied to memory, it feels like they have their own breadcrumb trail…
I love that! Probably I do have early drafts of this poem, but also there were so many stages to it. One extraordinary thing was that my aunt and my mum died at the same time, six hours and 100 miles apart. They weren’t blood related, they were sisters-in-law. Putting that in there set everything up, as a time apart. And then, in the cave, another time apart, there was being stripped. Some people were horror-struck to be parted from their phones.
There was one moment here that put me in mind of Life Studies, where Lowell has his skunk at the end. Here you end the poem on the image of the bison, who seem similarly resolute, and it’s perhaps a similar gesture – to resolve a personal poem with this natural resilience.
It was also the hills. When you came out from the cave that’s what you saw – the green hills. One of the motifs of the paintings in that cave is lots of backs of bison – the painters were practising sketching the lines of animal backs. That’s what you would see, if you saw a whole herd galloping away. The hills were like that too.
It’s a long poem, a journey poem, so how you exit is especially important.
I suppose one other influence is the last poem in The Poem and the Journey: the Miłosz poem about Orpheus. It ends with Orpheus lying on the earth – ‘he fell asleep with his cheek on the sun-warmed earth.’
Going back to Orpheus, that seems to tie in with this idea that ‘Anyone in the darkness longs for green’. There’s a wider point there, and it echoes something from the Aldeburgh poem you mentioned, that line ‘making is our defence against the dark’. There seems to be a need for art. For the artist, singing, cave painting – that darkness feels like a psychic darkness as much as a physical.
I think probably every writer will say similar things at this point: how else can you get through life but by making something from it? I’m re-writing a novel at the moment from the perspective of a character who is a painter, so I spoke to painter friends and I got very interested in the life of Cézanne. He was a compulsive painter: he would go out into the landscape to paint and sometimes just leave the paintings there! It was all about the making. Many of those landscape paintings seem to express a lot of pain. Even in looking at landscape, the intensity drives you to want to make something, and to make it, you draw on what is in you at the time.
You have these caesuras which are almost musical rests here, and of course the singing Orpheus – do you think of poems as songs?
They are very much to do with the voice. But not exactly singing – they don’t have pitch or melody. I feel that poems have their own music which is to do with their vowels and their patterns. For a while, I had a really tough time with my speaking voice. It was breaking, my throat felt constricted, I was worried something was really harmed. I went to a voice coach, who was great, and at one point she said, ‘Why don’t you sing that line instead?’ I did, and she said ‘there you are, it’s perfectly fine. Nothing’s physically wrong, but you’ve never had to use your singing voice to make yourself heard.’ For a woman, particularly, it can be hard to use your voice to be heard in a male environment. Sometimes, she said, actors can speak but not sing: for them it is the other way round. I sing naturally and freely but for a time I couldn’t use my speaking voice.
The first line of the book says that it’s to do with ‘being lost’. And in the mine there’s a sense of being lost, which speaks more widely to the person you’re writing: she is lost as an answering presence. You are in this new state; you don’t have that answering voice.
That’s fascinating. I wasn’t consciously thinking of the answering voice: it was more about loss of direction. My mum was always on the end of the phone; I would ring her when I was at the bus stop going to work, only it got more difficult because she couldn’t hear. Or when I was about to catch a plane. She was always there and she was a compass point. I went to New York last year after she died and stayed with a friend whose mother had also just died, so there was a sort of kinship. Then I lost my mobile phone, and if you don’t know where you are – although New York City is a grid system, it’s incredibly easy to not know which direction you’re going in – you have to ask somebody. There was this huge general sense of disorientation.
That’s interesting, the idea of a compass. And also of someone who sees you in a particular way.
Yes. Being known. That response, near the end of the poem, to ‘carry the true good burden of being known’: to say the story of ourselves truthfully, not pretend about bits of ourselves we’d rather hide. And so you go out, into the light.
When we went down into the cave
this summer in the Pyrenees after her death
had opened the vein to a year of reckoning
across the whole family everyone upset
both of them dead within six hours
on the same night a hundred miles apart
my mother and my aunt her sister-in-law
our gentle daring painter
whose children were rushing her in an ambulance
from the room upstairs
in the family house we all loved
where I was born
to a London hospital
just when for us it was all over
we were each a little afraid.
Also unprepared. The young apparently
were thinking of vampires. For me
it was breaking an ankle.
Take nothing said the guide a girl
from the green hills of the Ariège
who knew every centimetre of the caves.
all bags and mobile phones.
You’re not allowed to take pictures
and you’ll need your hands.
The path is slippery
You’ll have to crouch.
You’ll be carrying a heavy torch.
But don’t touch the walls
if you stumble. Even your breath
each in-and-out of oxygen
does a little destroying.
In the tunnel our torches
showed dangerous ridges underfoot.
Knobs of embryonic stalagmites
glistened like sea anemones. Beware
they said to our stout shoes we have time
we are time the texture itself.
The floor of the first
like quivers in the structure of a raga.
We were treading limestone waves
millennia of solid flood
breathing shallow as we could
then dark-blistered stone
The walls swirled too when I stopped
to play a beam on them in the dark.
Rough surfaces map-shapes
of amber russet grey
like different-coloured sugar poured in the same flask
and all around us black.
No ceramics no shards of biscuity pottery
we might piece together into a cup
touched by their lips
fifteen thousand years ago.
This was origin. Way before any potter.
So many ways to begin.
I heard the hiss of time like the swish of tyres
on a wet road as we faltered along
bowed our heads
felt the blowing of solar winds
and the need for fire
like the start cry of a race.
We slithered down a chimney of pale slime
then a tunnel opened out to the Salon Noir
and we saw the first human trace
red stripes and black vertical signs
a key-shape an arrow
like sleep-marks on skin
and our guide said to turn off our heavy torches
lay them down in the violet night on a bridge of rock
so she could shine alone
her power lamp of snowy halogen
and we saw bison flickering the black
circles of their eyes pupils eyebrows
ready to charge rippling on cream
stone as if over a canvas of the mind
and I thought of Freud how the unconscious
is constructed geologically by pressure a kind
of archaeological layering under the soul
inaccessible except in dreams.
Then horses appeared the tissue of their manes clear
against grey rock every tuft erect
scribble-shaggy bolshie necks stretched
eyes closed mealy-muzzled as an Exmoor
a whole wall of horses on prehistoric limestone
like a page of Leonardo’s sketch-book
whoever drew them had no idea
they would come to be our partners explore
with us canter to war with us change
human living. But I felt at home. Here
were the horses my mum used to draw
for me till I could draw my own.
She was never comfortable with elegance.
I never heard her say she loved
the exquisite flirtatious Tang horse
jewel of her father’s collection
prancing in the glass case
of the dining-room though of course she did
she didn’t mind a bit of prance in its place
but glamour was never her style.
I remember her pointing out the clay
statuette of a pack mule
a sack slumped across his withers
standing weary at the top of the stairs.
In the milk-flower ray of halogen
these beasts drawn down to the dark
from valleys above vseemed to move
as they must have done then
in a pitch-flare held for the artist.
As we took it all in
the delicate expressions
the questioning back-turned nose of an ibex
flaring nostril and lifted tail
of one bison challenging another
I felt my mother’s greatest gift to me
She taught us to be curious to wonder
at all animal life
the territory fights of a chaffinch
fox cubs creeping out at night
their skirmishes with cats.
Snails she murmured once
watching a TV programme
Life in the Undergrowth
on the behaviour of invertebrates.
Who would have thought a snail
could be so tender?
The guide asked if anyone would sing.
The Salon Noir she said is one
of many caves. We have wondered if
the artists over the centuries chose this
for the acoustic resonant as a stadium
or cathedral. Try. I wondered whether an echo
might set off an avalanche
and the whole cave-system the cracked
mysterious mass of hollow stone
would crash bury us under the mountain
but the notes when they came in black air
were incantation a flow of prayer a thread
of unearthly melody like the deep-space vibrato
of a theremin surely not from my throat.
The guide followed my song up with her torch
a wing-bone of white light floating into tiered
pinnacles and funnels of jagged stone
as if taking us on feathers of pure sound
to the point where all sound disappeared.
I thought of the voice of Orpheus his aria
to life and hope
ringing out in the kingdom of the dead.
Here in deep earth the black
blossom of mourning still sifting within me
I felt the power of green
and of the grass they depended on
these painted herbivores which humans
depended on too for food but also for their shaman
vision for guidance inspiration.
I remembered that emerald was my birthstone
and how an emerald mined in the dark
but lucent green as leaves
returning after a hundred thousand years of ice –
green for awakening for bringing life
back from the dead renewal in earth
and of the earth – is a token of re-birth.
I pictured the attic room where I was born
in that enchanted house none of us will enter again
where my mother gave birth in May
to me her first of five. Seven or eight
if you count the miscarriages the baby that died.
All she went through down the years. I heard
buried tears trickle of water over rock.
Here in this cave of making birth
of transformation and of art I saw
how anyone in darkness longs for green
and for the animal life that goes with green
the animal which speaks for us
and which like faceted crystal light in stone
lets us see the impossible our own lives
with their faults and wounds in a different way.
How the very idea of one stone for our birth
might make us try to say the story of ourselves
with a whole heart carry a true
feel of being known even by animal eyes
and not alone. Like the singer
who draws all life towards him
then goes down into the dark
taking his art into the earth. And art
takes him up to the light again renewed.
We came back changed. We saw the golden eye
of afternoon black rock jagged round the entrance
heard the whisper of running streams. Those who came before
the dancers the mothers were gone into the hill.
But the mountains rising one behind the other
were herds of green bison drifting away into the sky.
From Emerald (Chatto & Windus, 2018). Reproduced with permission of the author.