Wednesday, 27 April 2016

Joy of Swimming

Just read this quote on the ever-stimulating Brain Pickings blog(  “As you swim you are washed of all the excrescences of so-called civilization, which includes the incapacity to be happy under any circumstances.” (Ana├»s Nin)  Man, I need to get back in the pool!

A poem will suffice till then:

Lane Swimming

The Victorians kept frogs in poolside tubs
as exemplars of sharp kicks and a certain poise
atop the water, and still at my local club
an amphibious gait’s the stroke of choice,
where swim-caps drift in lines like orange buoys,
except for one whose feet erupt with spray:
a Chinese student makes his way.

Backstrokers lead the non-conformist set,
along with one who wreathes her hair
in a Sainsbury’s bag to stop it getting wet.
Eyes cloistered in goggles feel safe to stare
at these, and at a shape emerging for air,
a tadpole wriggling, its tail newly splayed:
a Chinese student makes his way.

The fast lane brims and sways, a surface blanched
by bodies racing towards personal bests,
legs pedalling mechanically, arms arch,
shaping the water with a cut and press,
a crawl pattern from which few digress.
But there’s one pioneer who won’t obey:
a Chinese student makes his way.

And though I aspire to the heights
of these who haul their bodies along like freight, 
I’m often distracted by the sight
of him beneath the pool’s silken weight,
of him squeezing inside this other state,
reversing the miracle of his first day:
a Chinese student makes his way.

Sunday, 27 March 2016

Easter Sunday 2016

I wrote the piece below for an event in Winchester which celebrated the 900 year anniversary of Hyde Abbey. The background image to this blog is taken from an ancient manuscript found in the abbey. It depicts the resurrected Christ and Mary Magdalene at the tomb and bears the inscription ‘Noli me tangere’ (‘Do not cling to me’ in Latin, the words John’s gospel attribute to Jesus). But the scripture doesn’t speak of Mary ever touching him – is Jesus warning her not to, or does the text leave their embrace out? What else is missing from the passage? It is written using a medieval alliterative form….

Noli me tangere

Jesus said to her, “Do not cling to me…”
                                                  John 20:17

The pair are pale as paper,
their eyes like the empty tomb,
his spotted hand speculates hers
barely reaching from her breast,
fingers fluttering up to his,
all making for so sedate a scene
as if the clawing nails, the clamping
arms, at his waist the warm wet
breath as if she would bury
her very heart in him,
had been traded in translation.
That’s unless this is a moment more –
his hovering hand
a final grazing grace?

Wednesday, 3 June 2015

God as She

The Telegraph published an old article of mine this week, following the debate about whether the Church of England’s official liturgy should include female references to God. In fact, it’s a discussion which has been going on for decades, as this fascinating blog post by Rachel Mann explains, but it has been re-enlivened this week.

My article (here) makes the point that in all the Abrahamic faiths God is understood to transcend gender, despite the fact that historically we have always used male pronouns. 'For he is not a man, as I am.' (Job: 9.32)

 A friend and theology student recently shared with me the idea that using gendered language for God is the same as using any metaphor (just like rock or lion or lamb) - of course it's not meant to be read literally. The idea of gender as a metaphor for God appealed to me, speaking of God’s ultimate otherness – we are just grasping at who she is through linguistic techniques.

But we also need to be cautious here, because metaphors can get stuck in a time warp. If referring to God as female, Christian theology uses stereotypical images (a hen gathering her chicks etc.) and so we end up associating God with just one traditional, outmoded version of femininity – as if motherhood is the one and only defining female identity. Society is starting to acknowledge that women can be many things – worker, provider, even warrior.

So if we are going to move towards a more equally balanced language about God, we must do so mindfully. To quote my dear friend, 'we must be careful not to create a new dualism by only using the feminine to affirm stereotypically feminine norms. The female must be used as normatively for God as the male. In other words, it should enable us to think about what it means for a female God to allow suffering or to judge or to condemn as well.'

Let's have a go then... "The Lord is angry with all nations; Her wrath is on all their armies. She will totally destroy them; She will give them over to the slaughter." (Isaiah 34:2)




Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Rediscovering the hymns of the Chartists

This recent article I wrote for the Church Times was absolutely fascinating to research: To read some powerful poetry about gospel-inspired social justice, take a look at the only surviving copy of the National Chartist Hymn book:

Thursday, 3 October 2013

Final lines about summer swimming

Here are the last few tweet-poems from my river-swimming jaunts in July which I forgot to post at the time...

15 July

My neighbour joins (a fellow mum), our children stranded inside,
The current pulses against pale thighs: we are re-entering our lives.

16 July

I wait for the sun, counting down to one, feeling resistant,
Once in I can barely swim, the river churns and thumps - equally incalcitrant.

17 July

A man eyed me from the bank, dangling his flaccid limbs in the stream,
His stares diminished by the undulating phalanx flowing in between.

Friday, 12 July 2013

More tweets from the river...

I have (so far) followed through on my commitment to swim daily in the river and let each swim provoke a few lines of 'tweetable' poetry. Here are the results of the last 2 days:

11 July 

A swan with cygnets hissed, I gave space,
‘You bring your unnatural ways,’ it said,
‘Now we eat your bread,
But leave the children of this place.’

12 July

A mistimed dive meant I got a nose-full,
All the green and rock and root the river had rubbed against
Dripped sweet on to my tongue.

Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Poems from the river

I’ve just read Al Alvarez's book Pondlife: A Swimmer's Journal in which he chronicles his daily dips in Hampstead Heath ponds. As a poet and critic, he draws many parallels between his beloved pond water and many great literary themes – birth, life, death, nature – referencing several writers along the way. For example, preoccupied as he is with his own ageing and ailing health, Alvarez cites John Cheever’s short story, ‘The Swimmer’, in which the protagonist grows old in the space of just one afternoon’s swimming – ‘the animal delight of youth running out… seeping away…’. (Another really wonderful book to read if you love both swimming and literature is Haunts of the Black Masseur: The Swimmer as Hero by Charles Sprawson.)

Alvarez’s swimming diary has inspired me to keep one of my own for a week or so, except I’m going to write short poems instead – ‘tweet-sized’ poems to be exact, a few lines each day that can be fitted into the 140 characters allowed by Twitter. Although I don’t have Hampstead Ponds, I do have the very beautiful River Itchen at the bottom of my garden which I will endeavour to get into every day…

Here is today’s effort:

It seemed the river had turned its cold, dark back to me,
But then I dived, its grace flowed over my head - not aloof at all, just free.

Follow me on twitter for a daily river poem…