Sehnsucht

Look what was lying on my mat when I got in from teaching in Dungannon today! Galway’s Skylight 47 with my poem Sehnsucht secreted inside. My first time to hold this publication in my mitts and what a gorgeous layout and style of publication. Great to be in company so many esteemed writers and many thanks to the editors, Bernie Crawford, Nicki Griffin, Marie Cadden and Ruth Quinlan.

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Funded!

PrintI am delighted and honoured that the Arts Council of Northern Ireland has given me a grant from the General Art Award Scheme (National Lottery funded) under the Support for the Individual Artist Programme. This will contribute towards the costs of completing a draft of my first novel. Ironically, I received word of the award, just as my prose writing group were meeting. These folks (you know who you are!) have been such an important support and inspiration to me as I have been writing this novel, that it felt only right that they were among the first to know and to share the good news with.

I would also especially like to thank Damian Smyth, Head of Literature and Drama, for the consideration given to my application, and ACNI’s generosity and support, especially in these straitened and uncertain times. It will make a real difference to me and to my novel.

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Dinosaurs of China

The spectacular exhibition of the Dinosaurs of China at Wollaton Hall has been on my to-do list for months. I read about it first in The Guardian, way back in July and it seemed particularly serendipitous that the fossils made accessible by this exhibition came to my attention in the very month that my poem ‘The Opposite Birds’ was published. This poem also features in a Lunar Poetry Podcast (go to minute 40:25 to hear me introducing and reading the poem).

That was swiftly followed by the Guardian publishing an article on a baby enantiornithine, so  in the way of these things, it felt as if everything made seeing this exhibition a priority. But so many things got in the way that, in fact, it wasn’t until last Wednesday 18 October, I found my way to Nottingham, where I met with Dr Adam Smith (the benefits of a combined poetry and science background!), of the Natural History Museum that is located in Wollaton Hall. Dr Smith has been pivotal in bringing these fossils not only to the UK, but to Europe for the first time. He was extremely generous with his time and his detailed insights into the exhibits.

And what a coup they are. I have now seen an enantiornithine, from the genus Proptopteryx:

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This little fossil is Proptopteryx feningensis, from the early Cretaceous, about 125 million years ago (mya). It’s somewhere between the size of a sparrow and a starling. The feather impressions are clearly visible around the head and neck. However, the lighting makes the tail feather impressions less clear in my photo than they are in the real thing, so below is the same fossil  from the exhibition booklet with its accompanying diagram:

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The identification of the alula in the diagram is significant because the alula (thumb/bastard wing) indicates that enantiornithes had achieved very fine control of flight. In modern birds, the alula is essential for manoeuvrability, and managing air flow around the wing to prevent stalling when slowing down or landing.

The star of the show for me, however, was Microraptor gui, (Cretaceous, about 120 mya)I can’t believe (neither could Adam!) that the Chinese lent this spectacular fossil, the holotype, the standard reference for the species. I have seen this fossil in photographs in books about bird evolution such as Dyke and Kaiser’s Living Dinosaurs or Feduccia’s Riddle of the Feathered Dragons, but I never dreamed I’d actually see the real thing myself. But there it was, about the size of a chicken, with the feather impressions of its four wings (on fore- and hind-limbs), for me to lay my own eyes on.

(It turns out the Chinese didn’t actually lend the whole thing. They held onto the teeth which are currently being examined by researchers).

The creature is so long (about 3/4 of its length is tail) that I couldn’t fit the whole thing into a decent photo (it turns out I’m not the world’s best photographer and confronted with the remains of these animals, I go into some kind of trance). So the first two photos are taken from the booklet, with close-ups taken by a gobsmacked yours truly.

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The dark feather impressions emanate from both fore- (above) and hind-limbs, as well as from the tail (below):

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I can’t resist including the catalogue no. of this specimen …

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…  that’s right, the IVPP!!! (Yes, I’m still a nerd!).

I was there to see the fossils with a view to eventually writing poetry about them (ie, not gushing too much about them here). But a couple of others were very striking. One was moving. Mei long, which would fit into the palm of my hand, is the sleeping dragon, a fledgling-sized Troondontid (although the specimen is thought to have been a young adult), curled up with its muzzle tucked under its forelimb, in typical sleeping posture of a bird. Which of course demonstrates a behavioural link between therapod dinosaurs and birds:

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(This is a model – 3D print – of the original fossil)

There were other stunners, like Sinosauropteryx prima, which was the first feathered dinosaur ever described (1996), the one that showed that feathers can no longer be considered a sole characteristic of birds; that granted massive confirmation of the analysis by Thomas Huxley when he took issue with the C19 superstar anatomist, Richard Owen, over the latter’s description of Archaeopteryx and Compsognathus; and that kicked off the mid-1990s revolution in avian phylogeny that is still ongoing:

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Caudipteryx dongi, with its spillage of gastroliths from its gizzard – like so many modern birds (alongside more feather impressions):

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And my last one (for now!), Confuciusornis sanctus, that is one of the commonest fossils of the Jehol biota (Yixian Formation). It is not directly related to modern birds, but like them, it had a toothless beak, the oldest known bird to do so. Wonderful preservation of long tail feathers in approximately 50% of specimens have led scientists to conclude that the species was sexually dimorphic. The specimen on show in Nottingham was of course, a presumed male. (Well they always do get more attention!).

 

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I left entirely exhausted by the dazzling variety and form. And somehow, perversely reassured that the fauna of the Cretaceous, so long gone, have something to teach us.

Thanks again to Adam, and to Martin, a volunteer at the exhibition, for all their time and attention. The additional insights and knowledge they gave me were brilliant.

 

 

 

 

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No Landing Place

I was in the Court of Appeal yesterday to support Chris Murphy and Doris Noe who took up the David and Goliath challenge, as part of the SAVEHEANEYCOUNTRY campaign, to NI’s Department of Infrastructure to ‘red’-route the A6 upgrade (there is an alternative brown site route alternative but that has not been chosen) adjacent to Lough Beg.

There was no fairy tale ending. We lost. It has left me feeling bruised and sad. But the outcome is not a surprise. The whooper swans will be returning from Iceland in a few weeks to an utterly changed landscape.

This morning, I found myself remembering this poem by Mary Oliver, its last lines replaying in my head. It’s mostly about lilies, but as a flower of wetlands, that is perhaps appropriate; and about van Gogh, who as the poem puts it, ‘wanted to save’; and arguably, through art, did save a part of himself.

Anyway, I will let the poem speak for itself. This is ‘Lilies’ by Mary Oliver, from her collection ‘House of Light’ (Beacon 1990).

 

LILIES

I have been thinking
about living
like the lilies
that blow in the fields.

They rise and fall
in the wedge of the wind,
and have no shelter
from the tongues of cattle,

and have no closets or cupboards,
and have no legs.
Still I would like to be
as wonderful

as that old idea.
But if I were a lily
I think I would wait all day
for the green face

of the hummingbird
to touch me.
What I mean is,
could I forget myself

even in those feathery fields?
When van Gogh
preached to the poor
of course he wanted to save someone –

most of all himself.
He wasn’t a lily,
and wandering through the bright fields
only gave him more ideas

it would take his life to solve.
I think I will always be lonely
in this world, where the cattle
graze like a black and white river –

where the ravishing lilies
melt, without protest, on their tongues –
where the hummingbird, whenever there is a fuss,
just rises and floats away.

 

 

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Reading at the Carleton Festival

I was delighted and honoured to read at the William Carleton Festival (it seems at bit of a misnomer to call it a summer school in mid-Sept;  but the calendar change seems to have worked well in terms of attendance and interest) in Corick House, near Augher, in the beautiful Clogher Valley in Co Tyrone. I was made very welcome, despite the faintly intimidating invitation in the light of my late uncle John Montague having been a patron, frequent attender and reader over so many years.

Indeed, the Carleton has a lot of family history for me. I remember my late parents attending when I was young – it was always an opportunity for my father and his younger brother to get together. Later I attended in my own right, and later again I read there in 2007, a year John himself could not be there. The twists and turns of my own life diverted me from poetry from some years, so it is only lately that the Carleton, and other literary festivals, have come back into my annual rhythm again.

 

 

With all that background, and in the year following the death of my prestigious uncle, it was a great honour to be invited to read, which I did on the opening day of the festival. I was delighted to meet so many familiar faces again, including the poet Noel Monahan, and Kay Muhr and Brian Lambkin, as well as fellow Ederney native, Philomena O’Neill (née Cassidy), with her husband Cathal. I was particularly pleased that Philomena was there to hear ‘Homelands of Glendarragh’, as I was sure she’d get every nuance of the litany of townland names that thread through that particular poem.

The poems I read were:

  • Cabot Trail (Black Wolf on a White Plain, Summer Palace, 2001)
  • Anatomy of a Horse (Tribe, Dedalus, 2008)
  • The Taking of Christ (Washing Windows? Arlen Press, 2017)
  • The Opposite Birds (Poetry Ireland Review, 122, 2017)
  • Homelands of Glendarragh (The Townlands of the Glendarragh Valley, Ederney Festival Committe 2010)
  • 3 Letterboy Road (The Interpreter’s House, 63, 2016)
  • Sehnsucht (forthcoming in Skylight 47, 9, 2017)
  • Apparition (Poetry Ireland Review, 120. 2016)
  • The Silent Pianist (Black Wolf on a White Plain, Summer Palace, 2001)
  • Feral (The Spark, 30, 2017)

The audience was particularly receptive and warm and I am grateful for their attentiveness and appreciation. I mentioned that I was sorry that the painting of Lustre by George Stubbs, whose work inspired ‘Anatomy of the Horse’, was no longer hanging at reception in Corick House (I had inquired but the staff on duty did not know what had come of it). The final poem, ‘Feral’, was in memory of my late uncle, John, who partly inspired me to write it.

I am indebted to Pat Montague for his fulsome introduction and insight into my work. We also had a good conversation about our common ancestry.

I would also like to thank Alison Humphreys of the Carlisle Bookshop in Omagh who very kindly took my books to sell (with some success!).

I would like to again express my thanks to the William Carleton Festival Committee for their kind invitation to read. I am delighted that the Carleton has survived into its second quartile as Aughnacloy historian Malcolm Duffey put it. I would also like thank Jack Johnston, President, and Michael Fisher, Chair and current Director, of the William Carleton Society, for their hospitality, and to Eileen McKenna who arranged the invitation. It was a lovely experience and I hope to return in the future.

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William Carleton Summer School

I’m honoured to be reading at the William Carleton Summer School on Friday 15 September at 3:15pm, in the beautiful Corick House, between Augher and Clogher in Co Tyrone.

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The Opposite Birds

It’s arrived! I had the great pleasure of Poetry Ireland Review (122), edited by Eavan Boland, landing on the mat with my poem ‘The Opposite Birds’ therein. I’m in great company with a host of poets that I admire – Moya Cannon, Enda Wyley and Nessa O’Mahony among them.

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Behavioural Plasticity

Landing Places has prompted me to give this concept some thought. It was the theme of my PhD. Behavioural plasticity is the ability of organisms to respond behaviourally to a changing environment. The whooper swans of Lough Beg have already shown considerable behavioural plasticity; but that does not mean that they are capable of coping with the latest development.

From a literary point of view, migrating swans and geese have contributed so much to Irish and Celtic legends and mythology that it seems staggering that we are risking undermining that heritage by putting more pressure on these birds. I blogged (on my PhD blog, chasingavianvoices) about related issues after hearing a wonderful talk by David Cabot on our migrating barnacle geese. Before that again, I wrote a poem, The Visitors, about the whooper swans of Landing Places. At that stage, my main concern was the effect of climate change on their summering grounds. Ahead of Saturday’s reading, I am trying to write a follow-up, But on re-reading my first poem, I was struck by how I’d already incorporated many of ideas of behavioural plasticity: while it’s elastic, it has limits.  Chris Murphy is leading (and personally financing, hence Saturday’s fundraiser – if you can’t make it, please consider donating here), the legal challenge on behalf of the whoopers and other rare species. Like him, I greatly fear that the rerouting of the A6 will push the wintering whooper swans beyond the limits of their ability to respond.

So, ahead of Saturday, I’m posting the original poem, The Visitors, as it foregrounds some of the environmental changes that the swans have already coped with so admirably as a way of perhaps highlighting the danger of stealing any more of their resilience. The poem was published New Hibernia Review (vol 12, no.4) in winter 2008.

(NB: the visuals of the poem suffer here because of the refusal of wordpress to allow me to indent. But the content/lineation are as in the previously published version).

 

The Visitors

Another winter flown by
and I didn’t take the scope, stop at Toome
and welcome the Whoopers with proper fervour.

Weekly, this year, I’ve bussed past, eyes
sharpening to their flecks of purity,
a microscopist’s skill resolving them

from dish-rag smudges of sheep.
How unlikely this territory
is now for their wintering!

Once, I suppose, the lough’s hinterlands
made a marshy refuge: spongy ground tufted with rushes,
shaggy with willows; shallow pools ragged with sedges and reeds;

a damp undramatic country
to counter the sear of polar light, a summer’s
exertions, the long hazardous flight;

misted quietness to dabble and drift winter by.

Now it is farmland, claimed, drained,
to a flat uniformity, the silt of ages
greening its pastures;
and still the swans come,

faithful to the ways of their ancestors,
grazing like miniature aurochs, hazed
by their distance from the road.

 

 

They adapt, these birds. I’d thought to write
of their great white wings, the chill of blue light
they bring south; a poem of legend and magic;

but somehow it wouldn’t fit these avian herbivores.
They are almost domestic, urban. What did they make
of the re-engineering of their winter grounds

the autumn the by-pass was finished? – that arc of the new bridge,
its purple neon glowing like some hooped rod
to ground the aurora borealis?

How topography morphs: a country road snakeskins
to dual carriageway; buildings yo-yo;
the land is sliced by new scars.

 

I could wish for ancient patterns to maintain
long after the drains, the sheughs, collapse; swamps
return; that blebs of wildness still flourish

when the bridge’s brightness has slumped
into a marsh; a humanless world scab over;
and, true, these bustling arctic burghers

lend that hope. Creatures cope;
until they can’t; and it’s not this road, this vehicle
and the like that will break them – changes

related, insidious, will, out of sight,
high on the cap of the planet, rob their nesting
grounds from under them. We are not destroyed

by dangers we can see: it’s the unpredicted,
unlooked-out-for, consequence that steals
resilience, pushes a body beyond its measure.

The swans
look comfortable with their wintering.

It’s their summers I worry for.

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Landing Places

Landing_Places

Landing Places is an event not to be missed. Poet, playwright and photographer Maria McManus is spearheading this fundraiser at the Crescent Arts Centre as part of the SAVEHEANEYCOUNTRY campaign ahead of the final hearing on the 11 August 2017 re the routing of the A6 through the wintering grounds (Lough Beg and adjacent territory) of the whooper swans. (For more details, see Maria’s blog post here, and if you can’t make the event, please consider donating here). I am privileged to be among the poets taking part. Come along and be part of it. The swans need our voices and our support.

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FOURXFOUR

Very pleased to have had new poems (The Reckoning; The White Dove; Action; Healing) published in Poetry NI‘s FourXFour, (Issue 22 Summer 2017, which can be downloaded here). I’m in great company with Maura Johnston, Therese Kearney and Anita Gracey. Thanks to Colin Dardis, editor, for this honour.

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