Shoulder-of-Mutton Hill

Saturday. It is supposed to be hot – well, hot by English standards, but when you are used to cool weather, 27 feels hot – and I am going in search of the poet Edward Thomas.

It’s not the first time. Midsummer 2019, I went in search of the footpaths of Edward Thomas and his best mate, Robert Frost. They had matching cottages over the hill from one another in Gloucestershire and spent many fine, late summer evenings talking and walking through high grass on the path that connected them. Back then, I was in the middle of staring down the void – a ragged shell of a woman just after a series of ego-stripping life events culminating in being laid off from my dream job, the one I’d built my entire life and identity and friend circle around.

Three days alone, walking footpaths, climbing steep Malvern Peaks, one after the other: Midsummer Hill, Swinyard Hill, Hangman’s Hill, Millennium Hill, Black Hill, Jubilee Hill. Finally, Perseverance Hill, and this was the sort of metaphorical place naming synchronicity I couldn’t even take in fully at the time.

Years of perseverance, before and since, and now, we have reached June 2021. Well?

Back to this hot Saturday, and I pull on the lightest-weight mask I have (as there is now a choice of four masks, one for almost any occasion) and board a Southwest Trains service to Petersfield. I have been to this little town once before, and it occurs to me as I leave the station that Petersfield was, literally, the first place I ever really walked from. Sure, I had walked and hiked and all the rest of it. Most of my young life was hiking. But that trip from Petersfield was different. It was my first overnight across the South Downs in preparation for 2017’s coast-to-coast walk across England. I was haggard and in deep grief, my stepfather having passed away that week. I needed to cry, and spent 48 hours sobbing up and down chalk hills, through mud and rain; the Earth cried with me.

So, Petersfield is a special place.

Today, I am not going east to the South Downs, but instead, walk northwest out of the station, up over the A3 screaming with Saturday sunseeker traffic heading to the south coast, and into the hamlet of Steep. This Hampshire village was where Edward Thomas spent most of his life, moving from cottage to cottage with his wife, Helen Noble, and their family.

There’s not much in Steep. Some quaint homes and cottages. A large boarding school, where Helen Thomas taught for many years. A tiny, medieval church with a small yard full of wonky headstones – the windows on the south wall were apparently dedicated to Edward Thomas in the 1970s, but sadly the doors remain firmly locked on my visit. I go looking for the cottages where Thomas lived, but all are privately owned or difficult to find now.

Thomas’s name appears on a small but lovingly tended World War I memorial on the main corner of the village. Thomas came to poetry late in life at the prodding of his best friend, Robert Frost, and was only a working poet for about three years. His first poem, “Up in the Wind”, was published in 1914 and a slew of some of the finest verse on landscape, nature, solitude and love followed until he died in the trenches in France in 1917.

Thomas was a walker like me. He loved being in nature and revered the English countryside, and was lucky enough to have lived in it before the advent of motorways and mass tourism. Most of his poems address nature, many of them set in the hills around Steep.

These are the Ashford Hangers, a series of escarpments running north-to-south, west of Petersfield, perpendicular to the South Downs. A small internet wormhole into the etymology of the word ‘hanger’ yields very little, leaving me to believe these may be the only ‘hangers’ in existence.

A path leads me past a small waterfall marking the site of an old mill, through a dappled woodland, up a quiet country laneway and onto a steep forest path leading to the summit of the main hanger: Shoulder-of-Mutton Hill. At 750ft, it’s no Sandia Peak, but the rocky trail leading past pines to a view across what feels like all of Hampshire is perfect.

It’s hot and I’m sweaty and breathing as though I’ve been sedentary through a pandemic for a year. Partway up, I plunk down on a log and pull out my copy of The Selected Poems of Edward Thomas and turn to ‘When First’.

When first I came here I had hope,
Hope for I knew not what. Fast beat
My heart at sight of the tall slope
Of grass and yews, as if my feet
Only by scaling its steps of chalk
Would see something no other hill
Ever disclosed. And now I walk
Down it the last time. Never will
My heart beat so again at sight
Of any hill although as fair
And loftier.

‘When First’

Edward Thomas knew what it was to stare into the void. Later in the poem, he hints at a changing tide in the world, as whispers of the Great War were reaching Britain. Thomas vacillated and eventually decided to enlist in the British Army, motivated mainly by a desire to protect the pastoral life of the English countryside that he so loved. “Something, I felt, had to be done before I could look again composedly at English landscape,” he wrote to Robert Frost about his choice to go to war. He left England to fight in France in early 1917 and would never see his beloved landscape again.

Walking on this hot Saturday is easier than so many before it. For a good handful of years, I cried everyday. Purging things I didn’t know I needed to purge from childhood and maybe lives lived before this one. I was silent and felt broken, staring into the void. Walks were another place to commune with the darkness, and I found in those footsteps – one after the other – a form of meditation and healing that cannot be duplicated elsewhere.

Keep on walking! a friend messaged me during my coast-to-coast walk. There is no simpler and more profound a life meditation. These words are now etched on my heart.

Though many forms of movement can incorporate meditation – yoga being one I also practice weekly – it is only in walking that the body assumes a kind of methodical, gentle purpose. Running is too intense to be meditative and other sports occupy the mind in such a way as to distract. Only walking allows you to experience the void while moving through it with direction.

The day passes and the sun is high. I stop at the top of Shoulder-of-Mutton Hill to eat a warm chicken-and-tomato sandwich and some crisps in the company of a few pollen-fat bees. Today, there is only one other set of hikers – a mother and daughter, who I run into several times over the hours, each time offering one another friendly words of encouragement about the steepness of the trail and the heat. Keep on walking! I tell them.

By the end of the day, I haven’t come close to many Edward Thomas landmarks, but his soul is everywhere. And somewhere between back then and now along this long path of perseverance, I seem to have reached contentment.

Of the footsteps of life,
The friendliness, the strife;
In its beds have lain
Youth, love, age, and pain:

I am something like that:
Not one pane to reflect the sun,
For the schoolboys to throw at—
They have broken every one.

I am something like that;
Only I am not dead,
Still breathing and interested
In the house that is not dark:—

-excerpt of ‘Gone, Gone Again’

Poem on a thesis of romance

What is it you think
I want
some bouquet of conventions,
lame dinners, fakery,
cliched on balloons with coiled ribbons?
Sometimes my words are uncomfortable(y)
My mouth gets it wrong,
what my heart wants.
Romance: it’s not an arc-shot kiss
soundtracked by a hipster ballad;
it’s not anything except when –
being just you – that is enough.
But there are some things I think are romantic:

sending songs, instead of saying it.
whole playlists of feeling.
in-joke emojis
and in-joke everything
like that moment at a party
in a room full of people
you look over and a split-second of eye-contact, you just know.
Trying not to laugh at an in-joke
when someone else says something that is serious
but all you can do is laugh inappropriately
and can’t wait to talk about it, later.
Knowing that song sounds like me.
Kissing in the kitchen.
Making out in a forest;
surviving a night of wild camping
where an argument almost breaks out
and then the stars come out and
your problems are hushed by the universe.
Buying me a coffee
and looking past my facade of strength, the day after my
stepfather dies, to say
“You will feel this, you know. You need to feel this.”
Just being able to be,
let your hair down
swim naked
enjoy the realness of a body unadorned
and to speak out loud, in moments of quiet,
the things we are most afraid of, and still be admired
afterwards.
To fuck up, say the wrong things,
have everything go sideways
and know that you
will still show up.
To hold the memories of what we did
and almost did
in hot springs
so long ago and still wish
for more moments like these.
That you do not fear my wildness
you admire it.

I think that romance
is the courage of being
unafraid in the mirror of your eyes.

Longing; The Ride Home

It’s the kind of Sunday for lazing – maybe all Sundays are? – pouring a second, then a third cup of tea. Standing in the kitchen, cocked hip, savouring the way soy milk pours in thick swirls, wrapping myself in a long cardigan, pulling it round as if it will stave away shivers from the deep cold that has set in outside.

Never has a January felt like so much longing. I readily admit that I am a longer – one who longs – in general. I have that romantic, wanderlusty personality for which there always seems to be something just out of reach, something far away and unattainable. Last year was a year of learning presence and satisfaction in the neverending now, and releasing fears of what might never be.

But a little of that longing is good for the soul. It reminds me I am alive and that nothing is permanent. Emotional foreplay of things that have not yet come to pass – bread for a writer. The pandemic has taken so much away from us, stripped us all bare, making room for what is new and fresh and alive. There is hope in this longing.

When my mind strays, it goes to New Mexico – galloping across pink-red pastures and mountain passes so high the sun bleeds the colour away. Sandias glowing in the hue of melon flesh and an air blown dry and brittle in winter wind. My current existence being confined to a little London studio flat and the few terraced-house streets surrounding it, this is not difficult to understand.

This is a particular brand of melancholy adopted by a certain type of individual who chooses to make their permanent home far away from the land of their childhood. Sometimes you have to roam distances away from it to truly understand what home means to you, or who you are because of it. James Joyce, for example, hated Ireland and left it as soon as he could, living most of his adult life in Paris and later Trieste, Italy. And yet he remained obsessed with Ireland, writing about it in every work. He famously quizzed each visitor that came to see him on specific details: at what exact angle a sign hung skewed on a specific Dublin street, or the colour of the rain and the exact placement of a tree or which flowers grew under a statue in Merrion Square. Joyce had no desire to ever go back to Ireland – most of his books are scathing satire on just how terrible he thought the whole place was – yet he was deeply obsessed with the beauty in its details from far away.

Something of New Mexico lives in my soul and breathes out of me in every word I write, and in every cloud I see passing overhead, in whatever new and distant place I take myself. A mountain in the Lake District that, somehow, shades in the colour of the Sangre de Cristos. The sky over Tibet is the horizon on the high road to Taos. A sunset in Kerala the fire of a high desert evening. New Mexico is everywhere to me, everywhere in me.

We are all trying to find our place in the world. The people who came before us, our family lineage, those that lived in the rented house before us or centuries ago visited a place we visit and left their written record. I am trying to find my own self in this endless line of humanity. Who am I in this eddying galaxy of existence and what do I contribute? What is the fabric of my soul even made of? How will someone link with me long after I am gone?

I have recently been reconnecting with an old friend and lost love – one of a number of unexpected gifts proving 2020 was not entirely a shitshow. He seems to mirror back to me my longing for elsewhere by constantly reminding me that New Mexico is windy and dusty and hard to love when you’re stuck there. It’s raining and cold and gross here, I tell him. Rain makes things alive, he says.

My search for connections through time and place brought me to the poet John Curtis Underwood, heir to the Underwood Typewriter company, who owned and lived on my family’s land south of Santa Fe before it became my family’s in 1958. Can we say that land really ever belongs to anyone, though? I don’t believe that we can. We do not own land, we are guests on it; if we live openly, then we understand we are part of it.

I ordered Underwood’s book, Trail’s End, a poetry compilation he wrote in New Mexico and New York. It arrived in a strange A4 sized book, printed-on-demand from scanned typewriter (fittingly) pages complete with typos. The date and place in which each poem was written printed at the bottom like a strange, cryptic code.

Santa Fé 12 4 18
New York 10 29 19

I was in search of family history ordering this book. I hoped maybe to find something familiar – a corner of the old ranch house where he lived before my grandparents, or the fleeting light of a Lone Butte sunset – somewhere in his poetry. A connection that would bring me and this stranger together across space and time.

Most of the poems are about Santa Fe life; most seem to be written in the autumn/winter of 1918-19. Elsewhere, Armistice in Europe was bringing World War I to an end; Teddy Roosevelt passing away in his sleep; a Russian Civil War was setting the stage for a new era of history’s unfolding. Underwood lived out the Spanish Flu in my grandmother’s house, and a century later I’m living out another pandemic a world away across the sea, dreaming of my childhood through a stranger’s poems.

In the end, I’ve found little of my family home in Underwood’s writing, but deeper pieces of myself are all over it. He was prone to taking long horse rides across the dry, dusty pastures, looking at the stars on frigid desert nights, noticing the way the sky slanted through his studio windows; writing. Like me, Underwood saw the world through the romantic lens of poetry; he noticed shades of shadow on mountainsides and the colours of clay soil.

There are answers here, as there are in the search for darkness amid light. Existence is not a series of boxes to be chosen: live here or live there; prefer desert or rain; love then or love now. Everything is always moving, changing. Flowing water in a parched arroyo. We have to flow with it.

Everything is, all at once.

We do not, cannot, own land but land can form the fabric of a soul, and maybe this is what connects us all through space and time.

Through a corridor of mountains that opened on the stars
We rode without speaking a word and all the while we were drinking in
The silver flood of moonlight that made the night a miracle
And I wanted to go straight on and follow you
Riding forever through space to the rim of the range and beyond.
There in the air was our empire, and there we went riding,
Riding on the moonlight rim of a planet that galloped through the night.


-John Curtis Underwood, from ‘The Ride Home’, Trail’s End
Santa Fé, 11 18 18

monsoon

what am i going to write
about this far-flung evening
not so quiet
not so normal
not so
anything
seated alone on a south-facing porch
rain dripping off every surface
patter of droplets
chirp of frogs
everything is
damp
three hundred twenty tree species thrive
in the high western ghats
which one’s in shadow
which one’s towering above
are there cobras
are there macaques
sheltering the
downpour
what comes next on this journey
switch off the lights now
wait in the dark
let your eyes adjust
chirp, plink, splatter
croak, plonk, splash
i’ll go
tomorrow

munnar.JPG

separation

how long will i
sit in silence
while this cord stretches out
far, far, far
you in the space beyond
denying – trying – what’s
ours from forever
wait, wait, wait
a universe of
expectancy, patient
unconditional
love, love, love
for the
ages
keep on walking
into fog thick
trust, trust, trust
and i can hear your thoughts
and i can cry your tears
from across the globe
from south of the river

twin flame 孪焰

you can live a dream for awhile. i guess i just thought it would last forever. but here we are. you surrounded by armour, me under lit pagodas. the guizhou mountains laid with lights, blinking like my eyes in the authenticity of this pain.

cast-open wood windows, let in the scent of jasmine and the smell of the cesuo on a coming summer night; the wuyang waters glimmering like liquid crystal in shades of LED. people are ants, cells, tiny on a riverside footpath eating their suanla yutang out of simmering street pots.

all the advice says my heart shouldn’t be broken right now:

get up soldier.

stand and be a goddess.

own your power, love.

you are a being of light.

i came from the pleiades, andromeda – indigo girl in three dimensions, alien, healer, yinyang.

you came from the dog star – indigo boy in three dimensions, druid, mystic, green man.

somewhere behind the swaying red lanterns and near-distant pitch of street karaoke, a train rattles on raised tracks. and there, the universe always brings you back to me. escape, purge, go to the far side of the world. it’s still you on my astral plane.

i drink wine and channel li bai under the pink moon. so many before, maybe they come after, and we put this cycle on repeat until we get it right.

love, endlessly.

compassion, limitlessly.

amazement, perennially.

twin flame; exquisite inseparability. you knew me forever, i know you always.

and now lightning – silent over the tea horse road, flashing the souls of qing officials and tang poets. and us, in this everlasting dance.

oh how the quiet breeze brings me to life in this body; again.