Sorbs, a poem by Alistair Noon

Spreewaldkanal by Lübbenau  – Photo by Dr Seuthberg – Used under  CC-BY-SA 4.0

Spreewaldkanal by Lübbenau – Photo by Dr Seuthberg – Used under CC-BY-SA 4.0

We meet where slow green water meshes
with swatting meadows. In Slavic shirts,
they hail our raid into well-drained marshes.

Traditional business here's to steer us
beneath the boughs and along the arms,
then serve us gherkins and farmyard stories,

to oar us up for open canoes
before we wrong-turn a channel
their land was left, and soak our knees.

Their teenagers bus to school in Cottbus,
grow up to squat the Berlin tenements.
Their roads are damp with moorhens and coots,

but expect their verse to trill with jays,
their dances to settle as colourful flocks.
They've cultural centres and anthologies.

And while the halls of greater states
proclaim their headlines and daytrip anecdotes,
right of the decimal point, the stats

ripple whenever they do the math
and discover Texas. Quaintly dressed,
the local tale is a pregnancy myth:

they got their Bible, but pools evaporate
where enlightened princes ban your books.
Now they build budgets and write their rights,

the woodlands where their nucleotides hid
are cleared for cattle, and only clutter
where leaves flop over our twig-dodging heads.

***

Alistair Noon's poetry collections include Earth Records (2012) and The Kerosene Singing (2015), both from Nine Arches Press. Concert at a Railway Station, his translations of the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam, was recently reviewed in the TLS. ‘Translocal Underground’, a short film about him by filmmaker Paul Cooke, appeared last year. He's lived in Berlin since the early 90s.

PEN & Paper Aeroplanes: James Miller for Nedim Türfent

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PEN & Paper Aeroplanes: Over the past few weeks we have been handing over the Elsewhere blog to a series of literary tributes from UK-based writers in solidarity with writers at risk around the World who are supported by English PEN. As they were added, all the tributes were collected together here. Today, for the final tribute, it is the turn of James Miller for Nedim Türfent:

Journalist Nedim Türfent published a video in which a Special Operations officer in Yüksekova, a province on the southeastern Turkish border with Syria, can be seen abusing Kurdish civilians lying on the floor, yelling racist remarks at them. He was detained on May 12, 2016 and sentenced to eight years and nine months in prison on Dec. 15, 2017 on charges of “membership in a terrorist organization.” The poem below incorporates some of Nedim’s final tweets (translated from Kurdish) before he was detained. 

985 Days

January 24th, 2019
Nedim Türfent has now been in prison 985 days.

985 days is 140 weeks is 23640 hours.
985 days for opening a window to the truth,
For showing the reality of a situation,
For showing what is.

A ‘curfew’ was declared in the villages of Mezra, Geman and Mergan, in Zawite, Koprulu and Minyanis.

985 days 

985 days ago, my daughter was not even a heartbeat on a scan, 
Not even a blurred shape in the womb.
A life waiting to be conceived, waiting to be brought into the world.

985 days. 

In the last 2 days: 24 Kurds, including journalists and politicians, were arrested in Van, Antep, Isparta, Silopi, Khorasan, Amed and Idil. The last 1 month, how many?

Now, my daughter is eighteen months is 547 days old.
Eighteen months abundant with life, eyes open, smiling, inhabiting the world.
Eighteen months is 547 days of sleeping and not sleeping.

In Gever a "security" outpost under construction today. Concrete blocks brought in by trucks all day long.

Eighteen months. Time to go from milk to food,
New teeth happily munching muffins, sausages, pasta, cheese
A face smeared with yogurt and berries.
Eighteen months enough time to learn to say “more” and “no” and jiggle in her high chair.
And then throw the food on the floor.

The attack on the police station in Giresun killed police officer, Senior Sergeant Zafer Caliskan.

Eighteen months is 547 days.
Enough time for a wriggle to grow into a sit up and a turn over.
547 days is 13,128 hours.
Enough time for a turn over to become a crawl, head forward, bottom up, hands down moving with curious determined purpose.
Enough time for a crawl to become a stand, on wobbling, chubby little legs.
Arms outstretched, a giddy smile.
Amazed at herself.
13,128 hours is enough time for a stand to become a totter, a precarious forward wobble.
Enough time for a totter to become a walk.
Almost enough time for a run.
More than enough time for a climb, a scramble and a slide.

Air-assisted military operation continues in Mount Goman. Heavy bombing from artillery and howitzer.

Eighteen months is 547 days is 13,128 hours enough time to learn to say
Hello, goodbye, Moma, Dadda, moon, star, car and nose.
Enough time to turn the pages of a book, to point and say
“Roar” at the lion, “Tiger” at the tiger.
Enough time for a little finger to point at the duck and say
“Quack quack.”

5th Day of Operation: Special troops and ammunition were downloaded to the areas of Mêrgesaw, Gorbadina and Çiyayê pane.

Eighteen months is 547 days is 13,128 hours is enough time to see autumn, winter, spring, summer, autumn and winter again.

Spring has come to my mountains, colourful flowers opened. The Frontier Battalion is a dagger in the heart of nature!

Seventeen months is 547 days is 13,128 hours is a very long time to see nothing, 
Shut from the light, cut from your freedom
Separated from your family, deprived of your children
Simply for seeing the truth, for showing others the truth.

So far Nedim Türfent has been in prison 985 days, which is 140 weeks which is 23,640 hours.

***

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About Nedim Türfent: Nedim is a Turkish news editor, reporter and poet who, after covering Turkish military operations in the southeast of the country, faced trumped-up terrorism charges following an unfair trial, during which scores of witnesses said they had been tortured into testifying against him, and is now serving an eight-year-and-nine-months prison sentence in harrowing conditions. He started composing poetry while detained.

About James Miller: James is the author of the novels Lost Boys (Little, Brown 2008), Sunshine State (Little, Brown 2010) and UnAmerican Activities (Dodo Ink 2017) as well as numerous short stories. He is senior lecturer in Creative Writing and English Literature at Kingston University. 

PEN & Paper Aeroplanes: Ellen Wiles for Dina Meza

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PEN & Paper Aeroplanes: Over the next two weeks we are handing over the Elsewhere blog to a series of literary tributes from UK-based writers in solidarity with writers at risk around the World who are supported by English PEN. As they are added, all the tributes will be collected together here. Today is the turn of Ellen Wiles for Dina Meza:

I was first invited to pay tribute to Meza as part of the English PEN Modern Literature Festival in January 2019. I took inspiration from a speech she gave on International Women's Day, in which she tells the story of a colleague of hers, Dunia Montoya: another Honduran woman journalist who was brutally beaten by police when she covered a protest against state corruption. Meza quotes Montoya as describing justice in the country as being as distant as ‘the stars in the sky’. Before performing my poem, I began by sounding three notes from a pair of treasured, hand-made bronze chimes were given to me by an experimental visual and performance artist in Myanmar, Aung Myint, who also bravely protested against a repressive military regime for many years, in different ways, and was also both censored and threatened. You can watch my performance of the poem here.

Starlight on Honduras

When justice is as distant as the stars in the sky
when fake-fake news fawns over military men
spinning truths as tasteless as cardboard tamales
when free speech and other rights are rendered illusory
when national security means violence with impunity 
and power is swiftly won with the help of a gun

people who speak up are warned to know their place.
and if a woman won’t listen, a rape threat might make her
or targeting another useful weak spot: her children
miming slitting their tarnished little throats should suffice.
the few who still won’t stop must expect to be surveilled 
and learn to see fear as an indulgence to be quelled.

When the body feels as fragile as a porcelain figurine
when the spirit is a petal floating slowly to the earth
when it’s hard to keep a grasp on hope’s fraying rope
when, all around, hard nationalism gains global ground
when oppression starts to threaten even those lucky citizens
who’re used to living cosily in liberal democracies

voice is still the best and only weapon to resist
formations of words can still move minds and heal rifts
so courageous women journalists defiantly persist
believing in the need to keep believing in each other
speaking out against abuse despite existential risks
deserving tributes far more starry than a small poem like this
packed with bleeding liberal metaphors, liberally mixed.

...

I spent the next few months reflecting on Meza’s life, often imagining what she was doing while I was ambling on through my own juxtaposed writer-mother’s life with my two children. I dwelt increasingly on what it would feel like to be forced to put your children’s physical safety at risk every single day through your writing, and particularly to receive sexual threats directed at your daughter – but I found this almost too excruciating to contemplate. When I was invited to perform a second time in tribute to Meza, at the Greenwich Book Festival, 2019, I decided to write a new piece – a piece of prose, this time – born out of those reflections. You can watch my performance of it here.

Wolf Mother 

My daughter surprised all of us by growing a loose, golden Afro as soft as a cloud.
What with her blue eyes, it causes a lot of people to assume that she and her dad aren’t related, 
and it’s a paradise for headlice, but it’s worth all the hours of painstaking combing.
She says t instead of ch
and f instead of th.
She pecks at dry cereal flakes like a little sparrow
eats only the white of egg
licks the honey off her toast
and makes every pancake into a letescope.
She’s exceptionally tall for her age – only just three but the height of a five-year-old –
and is implausibly Bambi-legged.
She could be a supermodel, I’m often told in knowing tones
but I’ll do all I can to keep her future adolescent body safe from judging gazes.
When she doesn’t get her way she throws back her peachy cheeks
and lets her epiglottis vibrate like a fire bell, at a pitch no
human can endure for very long. 
And she knows it.
When she’s sleepy and calm she strokes my face and hair
like I’m a new kitten.
And when I lean down to kiss her goodnight she’ll 
get me in a headlock under her arm, clinging to my skull
like a rugby ball she never wants to touch down.
When she sings, her timbre is as exquisite as
a blackbird’s and she’s bang in tune. 
Her favourite toy is a scruffy and malevolent chicken, whose
gimlet eye she mimics when she wants
to bend my will.

Her older brother is the world’s most beautiful boy.
He doesn’t know it yet, but his coppery skin, sleek black curls
and rainbow smile radiate energy and light 
and promise to open doors to life’s best kept secrets.
He knows all the dwarf planets and names of distant stars, 
can list the rarest dinosaurs like they’re old friends, 
and is intimate with the inhabitants of the Mariana trench. 
Last time we played twenty questions on the way to school, 
I gave up. 
‘Shall I tell you?’, he asked. 
‘Tell me’, I conceded.
‘A benthocodon’, he said, triumphant but mildly disdainful of my ignorance. 
(That’s a deep water jellyfish shaped like a bell, in case you, too, didn’t know).
He can leap like a gazelle, swing easily from monkey bars
and devour stories like Augustus Gloop did chocolate cake – 
he can listen enraptured for hours, snuggling up against me, until 
my voice is hoarse, and he believes that he, like Matilda, 
will one day learn to move objects with his eyes. 
When he doesn’t meet his own expectations of himself, 
he can descend into a furious grump, 
but within five minutes he’ll be sparkling as if nothing had happened.
He’s translated the bleep language spoken by his toy robot,
his alter ego is a peregrine falcon that can dive at 60 miles per hour,
and at five years old he’s so worried about climate change and its effects on animal life
he’s decided to become a vegetarian, which both pleases me and breaks my heart.
He’s engaged to a girl in his class, and saves her grapes at lunchtime,
he can scrape out Rigadoon on his cello, and dances the coconut calypso 
like his limbs are made of slinkies instead of bones. I can 
just about still pick him up and throw him onto our bed to tickle him, 
but it takes all my strength.

I lost him once. 
He was two, and his sister was a baby. 
We were out in the park, on a balmy summer day, and I was changing her nappy – 
and when I looked up he’d gone. 
I scooped up the baby and circled the fenced-off toddler area, 
once, then twice, keeping studiously calm. 
But he was nowhere. 
The panic churned; my feet picked up speed.
I told every adult I passed, speaking too fast, but they understood 
from my face alone, and we all fanned out 
like a newly-oiled machine
searching, calling. 
I headed half-blind towards the road – 
he’d always been good about roads before, but what if… 
The baby, who was being jiggled and grasped too tight, 
started to cry, as time slowed and fractured around me. 
How could I continue living if…?

And then he emerged, from a bush that he’d been imagining as his 
den in the Jungle Book, where he lived with Mother Wolf. 
And right at that moment, 
I was Mother Wolf, 
from heckled neck to claw. 
I was pure animal.

When I became pregnant for the second time
I was happy – but all the same I couldn’t imagine having 
an inch more space in my heart to love a second small person 
with the newfound fierceness I felt for my son. 
But then, when she arrived, new caverns opened up within me, 
at least as big again, yet without diminishing the size of the caverns 
that had opened up for him. 
It’s like one of those impossible pictures of houses 
with infinitely intertwining stairs. 
It makes no rational sense.
It’s just one of the illogical miracles of motherhood.

The writer Dina Meza has three children, 
and I’m sure she loves the third one 
as voraciously as the first two. Since learning about her work, 
while I do the school and nursery drop-offs, 
reliant on the knowledge that my children will be safe and nurtured, 
and that, if they need me for anything, I can drop the writing I’m doing freely
and come running – I often think of her
waving her three children off to school, 
while being watched over by bodyguards, 
heading off to report unofficially on a disappearance
that echoes her own brother’s tragedy,
being followed by a car crawling along with no 
number plate, that she pretends not to notice,
wondering whether to answer a call on her tapped phone, 
hoping that, if the voice on the other end issues a threat
the threat will be to her, and not to her children.

As I collapse onto the sofa with a cup of tea 
after putting my children to bed, I think of her doing the same
after returning home – to a new home where armed men have not 
yet broken in – before summoning the energy to return to her
desk and write the words that will rile still further with their truth, 
that will ratchet up the risk to her children once again
for the longer-term benefit of all our children. 
As I open up a school newsletter asking parents to 
support a project to plant a set of trees in the playground 
she, I think, might, this moment, be opening a letter saying: 
Don’t think you can carry on treacherously 
undermining our national unity and security.
We know where your children go to school now
all three of them, and their routes back
to your new home that you told them were the safest ones. 

I put the newsletter aside and creep back into my children’s bedroom. ‘
My daughter has shifted herself around on the lower bunk 
so that she is lying horizontally, with one arm dangling 
off the edge, overseen by the malevolent chicken
whose eyes gleam at me as if in a proprietorial challenge.
I bare my fangs at it and growl.
As I turn her around gently, she sighs and resettles, and I 
stroke the soft billow of her hair and 
pull the duvet over her skinny arms. 
Up on the top bunk, my son has one arm flung around 
his furry wombat, a present when he was born from a 
friend down under, and his head is tilted towards the creature’s 
whiskers, his lips slightly parted as if he’d 
fallen asleep while telling it an anecdote. 
The smooth line of his forehead 
glows in the marmalade light of the city 
and the moon that seeps through the blinds. 

***

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About Dina Meza: Dina Meza is an astoundingly courageous Honduran journalist and human rights defender. Her work was initially motivated by her brother’s disappearance and torture by the state nearly thirty years ago. She is the founder and President of PEN Honduras, and founding editor of the online newspaper ‘Pasos de Animal Grande’ where she publishes information on human rights violations and corruption in Honduras – despite receiving constant death threats to herself and her three children, including sexual threats to her daughter. She needs protection around the clock. Nevertheless, she persists. She is the recipient of both the special Amnesty International UK prize for journalists at risk and the Oxfam Novib/PEN International Freedom of Expression prize. You can read a piece she wrote about freedom of expression in her country here

About Ellen Wiles: Ellen is a writer, ethnographer and curator. She is the author of The Invisible Crowd (Harper Collins, 2017), a novel, and Saffron Shadows and Salvaged Scripts: Literary Life in Myanmar Under Censorship and in Transition (Columbia University Press, 2015). She is the founder of Ark, an experimental live literature project, and has recently completed an ethnographic PhD on live literature and cultural value. She was formerly a human rights barrister and a musician.



PEN & Paper Aeroplanes: Sara Upstone for Dawit Isaak

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PEN & Paper Aeroplanes: Over the next two weeks we are handing over the Elsewhere blog to a series of literary tributes from UK-based writers in solidarity with writers at risk around the World who are supported by English PEN. As they are added, all the tributes will be collected together here. Today is the turn of Sara Upstone for Dawit Isaak:

Dawit Isaak was born in Eritrea in 1964. He was granted Swedish citizenship in 1992. In 2001, having returned to Eritrea, he was arrested and imprisoned without trial for supposed anti-government activity involving his work as a journalist for the country’s first independent newspaper, of which he was a part owner. There has been no sighting of Isaak since 2005. #FreeDawit

Empathy

From the Greek, Empátheia
From the Greek, en- páthos.
In feeling.
In.

I am trying to step in. Not much, you say. Not angry. Or representative. Not of any real use, perhaps. 

But still. 

Two years old. Wheezing sea-sick in isolation room, porthole window in antiseptic white door. Three. A stranger in my unconsoling father’s house. Eight. A bathroom door, rusted metal lazy in a lock just high enough to reach. 

Somewhere else, a twenty-three year old man has all the doors unlocked, an arrivant from a furnace to Sweden’s western coast chill. Sadness but with a heart-held, already-known, future. Marry. Raise children. Write words. Perhaps. Not here, but in that first, difficult love. 

It is a name with the poetry of a fantasy. Eritrea. 

Eighteen. The girl along the corridor is in love with university halls – they remind her, she tells me, of her boarding school. In the night, I forget where I am. Pack my belongings into the back of the car. Mollusc-spiralled on the backseat, shivering. Going home.

The young man, too, is home. In the place with the fantasy name he makes already-known futures real. Swims on the exhilaration of promises – independence, democracy, free-speech.

He is full of hope. He has called his first born daughter Betlehem. 

Twenty-two. Dissertation. Keywords: postcolonial, politics, space. Diversion in the project to Rubin Hurricane Carter, African American boxer falsely imprisoned for twenty years on charges of murder. Carter refuses to be freed from his cell; he wakes only when the other prisoners are asleep, exercises only at night. 

My style needs correction. My ideas are too political. They award me the thesis. 

The young man, too, is fulfilled. Perhaps. He has a little money. Buys pages of his own. Loves cheese. And coffee. He has a tendency to oversleep. 

They come for him on a Sunday, not in the newspaper offices but in his home.  

Twenty-six. I investigate escape ladders. Plan night-time routes along flat roofs. Debate the relative merits of ropes fashioned from sheets and mattresses thrown from windows. Decline invitations to travel by plane, decline anything where the aisle is unavailable. Accept employment where I can leave the room. Speak too fast, always, in case a door is about to close. 

In Eritrea two days pass quicker than the last 3000. The young man – he is still young –  smiles. Perhaps. He stretches and remembers how limbs move; visits the doctor and watches bruises transfigure purple to yellow. Kisses his children with plum-soft lips. Inhales just long enough for the heartbeat to return to normal before the handcuffs are re-secured. 

His wife tells the newspapers that this is a family matter. 

Thirty-two. My pregnant body is inside out; I am waiting nine months to be delivered. In the MRI scanner I forget not to open my eyes and for a second – an unalloyed heartbeat – am buried alive. 

For his fourth-seventh birthday, the man is given the gift of the rumour of his death. It is a premature arrival.

Perhaps.

Thirty-seven. My new lover sleeps like Gulliver. I crouch downstairs, in a small sliver of light, invocating camomile-conjured disappearing spells. I know the meaning of imprisonment. 

Hume broke his own rules when he said we can imagine a missing shade of blue. 

In Gothenburg, a replica cell is created. Visitors come. They sit with the absent man, respectfully. They are affected. 

With the surety of resurrection, it is impossible to experience death. 

Thirty-eight. I am with love. John gives us the house with the sheep for the music festival. We perform our separation from the world, wallow in isolation. Revel in the stripping of time. Bemoan lack of phone signal whilst surfing Facebook from the stairway. It is so good, someone declares, to get away from everything. 

The man is perhaps no longer young. He has been in his cell for more than 6000 days. 

Or, if you prefer, 518,400,000 seconds.

Or, if you prefer, the time it takes for a man’s children to reach adulthood.

What is your preference?

In the house surrounded by sheep the children bluster us to the first landing, to a small metal hook in the wooden floor. Incessant clamour demands we lift the lid – show us the priest’s hole, they squeal. We try to give them a lesson: mutter vaguely about papists, queens, and dying for one’s beliefs. They roll their eyes. Reach for the light switch. Clamber down the ladder, squeezing into the hole. My own daughter refuses, declines coaxing, peers silently over the edge. A den of detritus, midnight feasts littering the floor. The walls are covered in markings, initials carved, the audacity of marker pens. You can write here what you like. If John catches you then he will charge you more to remove the offending mark. Your parents will pay if you get caught. 

Concert day and the house is full. An old English man, white haired and pale faced, climbs the stairs. He sees the children curling into the floor, disappearing. He has never been to the house, he tells us, not before today. It is a fine building, and he wishes he had come earlier. But he has heard all about the priest’s hole, he says, and glances at my daughter. He wouldn’t go down there; you’re right, he says, to stay up here. Sometimes people do things you can’t even imagine, he says. There is a cruelty in people you don’t expect. His grandson came here once, some years past, with a group of friends. When he climbed into the hole, he tells us, the other boys shut the lid and stood on it. 

Weight on wood. 

What is the opposite of empathy? 

I try not to imagine it. I must imagine it. 

I try to imagine it.

At it is then I hear the call, quiet but clear, the door opening, the ladder climbed, the face – this face both old and young – looking outwards, emerging amidst a dancing mist of words. 

***

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About Dawit Isaak: Dawit is an Eritrean-Swedish journalist who was arrested as part of the September 2001 crackdown on Eritrea’s independent press, and arrested along with other print journalists who have since been held incommunicado. Although alleged to be ‘traitors’, not one of them has been charged or tried.

About Sara Upstone: Sara is Professor of Contemporary Literature and Head of School of Arts, Culture and Communication at Kingston University, London. She is the author of three monographs, most recently Rethinking Race and Identity in Contemporary British Fiction (Routledge, 2017), but her real pleasure is creative work that explores the intersection of literary forms and interdisciplinary practice. She is a regular contributor to the online journal Versopolis, and editor of Literary London Journal

PEN & Paper Aeroplanes: Sam Jordison for Narges Mohammadi

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PEN & Paper Aeroplanes: Over the next two weeks we are handing over the Elsewhere blog to a series of literary tributes from UK-based writers in solidarity with writers at risk around the World who are supported by English PEN. As they are added, all the tributes will be collected together here. Today is the turn of Sam Jordison for Narges Mohammadi:

In May 2016, the Revolutionary Court of Iran sentenced Narges Mohammadi to 16 years in jail. Charges included being a member of an organisation called “Step by Step to Stop the Death Penalty” and “committing propaganda against the state.” 

One of the main focuses of that propaganda campaign was to stop the state killing juvenile offenders. 

Which is to say, children.

She’s now in the Evin prison alongside Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe.  There she sometimes endures solitary confinement. She’s ill. She has a neurological disorder which causes muscular paralysis…  Yet, Evin prison officials denied her access to an neurologist for over a year. It’s partly for that reason that early this year Narges went on hunger strike. Since then, her health has deteriorated further. And it’s all too clear she hasn’t had the help she needs.

There’s a lot more to her story that I’d urge you to look into. And, of course, when you read that story, you’ll want desperately to help. And for Narges, there is something you can do. If you visit the website her friends and supporters have set up, the first thing you will see is a gallery of photos of mountains from around the world. The website explains:

“Foremost, we hope to raise awareness for Narges Mohammadi’s case, so that she is released and free to explore all these mountains and places, along with her family.”

Narges Mohammadi’s hobby used to be mountain climbing. When she was a university student, she was banned from mountaineering because of her political and human rights-related activities. She has been kept from the mountains ever since – but now people are sending her these pictures. I don’t know if she can see them in prison, but there’s still something  about this gesture. The photographs represent beauty and freedom: an alternative world were Narges is able to roam where she wants, enjoy nature on her own terms and feel the wind on her face. These pictures are also touching as individual acts of kindness. The people who have gone to the trouble of sending them are really sending solidarity and hope. 

I’ve tried to take inspiration from those people in what follows. I want to give my own small gift to Narges, which will be a walk on the mountain I love the most.

Actually, it’s more of a hill. It’s called Whitbarrow and it lies on the edge of the Lake District. Its summit is only 705 feet above sea-level – but that summit does glory in the name of Lord’s Seat. 

The rest of the hill, meanwhile, a long, exposed limestone escarpment laid down in the carboniferous period 350 million years ago, is a site of Special Scientific Interest, full of rare habitats, glacial erratics, and unusual rock formations. 

It’s an incredible place – but don’t take it from me. In his book the Outlying Fells of Lakeland, the great bard of fell-walkers Alfred Wainwright describes a walk up Whitbarrow as “the most beautiful in this book; beautiful it is every step of the way. ... All is fair to the eye on Whitbarrow.”

Which is true. But I love it especially, because it’s the hill behind my Mum’s house and I go up there all the time. 

From her front door, I just turn left onto a farm road, and I’m climbing. 

I go through a wooden gate at the top of the lane, and up though a steep field where lambs play in spring, and where, in winter, if it snows, the sledging is second to none.  At the end of the field there’s a style leading into a small wood, carpeted with bright bluebells in April and May, or where in summer, the air is thick and potent with wild garlic in and in late Autumn everything is dark and dripping. 

A short slippy trudge through this wood takes you to three old stone steps up the side of the wall. Then, a steep diagonal path up a bank and on to a stony, muddy track (which is inexplicably marked as a road on some maps, and so, every so often destroys a luckless lost saloon car… )

Leave this path quickly, cutting upwards to the right, through another, field, stonier now and scrubbier. There are thick bramble bushes that deliver sweet and tangy blackberries in early Autumn ---  and scratches for the unwary the rest of the time.

Another gate, a short climb and then it’s just sky and the long stretch of the escarpment. The path cuts through a small declivity, so you don’t get the full view yet, but no matter. The hill top itself is lovely enough, a big empty expanse of brown grass and heather and rocks, punctuated by just a few wind-battered trees and hawthorn and juniper bushes. It’s bleak and stony – but that has its own rugged charm. Not to mention its own unique interest. There’s a limestone pavement to the left of the path. It’s a geographer’s dream of clints and grykes and a special, ancient place… 

And on we go. Don’t get too distracted because the track is generally pretty muddy and there are loose rocks to watch for. Also, gigantic hairy red cows with long horns. They don’t do much more than stand around chewing the cud and looking scenic, but let’s not bump into them…

The path is flat now, riding the top of the outcrop.  After a gentle, but nonetheless elating couple of kilometres, we get to a high dry stone wall, built over a hundred years ago, by unknown hands, one carefully selected rock at a time. It stretches out over the top, as far as the eye can see… After that a small pine copse, before the path leads you past some miniature limestone escarpments that look for all the world like scale models of the hill you’re on… Then take a sharp right for Lord’s seat and the summit…

Which is where the magic really begins. 

Because my mum’s house is so well situated for the hill, and because I’m a father and early mornings no longer hold any fear for me, I’ve quite often made it up there just after sunrise. I ran up there this winter just past on a day so foggy that it felt as if it was actually getting darker as the dawn progressed – until, at least, I got to the last slope towards the cairn at Lord’s Seat. That took me above the mist, and I found myself looking out over splendours suddenly visible under the rising sun. Morecambe Bay and the Kent estuary and the Irish Sea to the south, another temporary sea of rolling fog in the valley below and to the West and beyond that the outlines of the Lake District mountains brightening into sharp focus: Cartmel Fell, the Old Man of Coniston, the Langdale Pikes… The names are evocative enough in themselves. But it’s the feeling you get. The strange elation of mountains… Of their long campaign against time. Of their hugeness in the face of humanity. Of their stillness and silence. These are places we can’t touch, we can’t spoil. I can’t properly verbalise that feeling. But it’s the same excitement that moved the romantic poets to write about sublime nature – and, I’m guessing, which motivated all those people to send in pictures for Narges.

In the early morning there’s an extra selfish pleasure too. If you get there early enough, Lord’s Seat can be yours. You can be king or queen of the mountain. Later on there will be more panting joggers,.  Walkers will enjoy well-earned cups of tea here. There won’t be so many people that it ruins things, and everyone I’ve ever met at the summit has been cheerful. But there’s something special about feeling alone amongst all that beauty…

I enjoy this solitude especially, because I know it will soon end. In fact, most of the time when I’m there, I’m not even really alone. My dog will be with me, tail wagging, making the most of things, sharing and adding to the joy of being there. I also know that when I get back I’ll get to see my family… My Mum’s house has a glass front door leading to the kitchen, and as I approach I generally see my daughter sitting at the table having breakfast --- and that’s better than all the other views in the world. 

And I wish that simple delight for Narges. I wish the day will come soon when she can enjoy the companionable loneliness and freedom of mountains.

As it is, we know what she has to endure. Harder still, she’s a mother of young children and she has been denied the most basic and deepest joy of knowing that the next hello is just a short walk away. 

If I may, I’d like to finish with an extract from a poem she wrote in September 2017 called Three Goodbyes:

Three goodbyes and a separation, like dying three times
When Ali and Kiana were just three and a half years old

I was arrested by the security guards when attacking my home
Kiana had just had an operation and it was only a couple of hours I had come home.
She had a temperature
When the security guards were searching the house, they allowed me to put the kids to bed.
I put Ali on my feet, and rocked him, and patted him
And softly sang him a lullaby
He slept
Kiana was restless. She had a temperature, and was scared.
She’d felt the fear
She’d clung her arms around my neck
And I, as if gradually sinking,
Was separated from them
When I was going down the stairs, leaving the house
Kiana was left crying in her father’s cuddle
She called me back three times
Three times I came back to kiss her…

When Ali and Kiana were eight and a half, I got them ready for school in the morning
And they left
The security guards attacked my home again
This time Ali and Kiana were not home
I picked up their photo from the bookshelf
And kissed them goodbye
And was led to the car
With men who had no mercy
And now in September 2017

I have not seen them in two and a half years
My writing might not be correctly worded

But it has the certainty of feeling – the pain of mothers throughout history
The mothers who take pride in their convictions from one side, and feel the pain of conviction being away their children taken away.

Narges Mohammadi
September 2017, Evin

It’s June 2019 now. It’s time she was allowed to see them. 

***

About Narges Mohammadi: Narges is an Iranian journalist and human rights defender, who is currently detained in prison – the same prison as Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe – has frequently been kept in solitary confinement, and suffers from a chronic and painful health condition that is not being properly treated.

About Sam Jordison: Sam is an author, journalist and publisher. He is the co-director of the award-winning Galley Beggar Press. He writes about books for The Guardian. He has also written over ten non-fiction books including the best-selling Crap Towns series and a book about Brexit and Trump called Enemies Of The People.






Sleepers, a poem by Stewart Carswell

Sleepers.jpg

A curtain of ferns
spreads at eye height
to a child, and parts
from the push of a hand

to expose
the shrinking clearing
and the treasure at its centre:
an ancient sleeper

laying like a sunken casket
and shrouded by a puzzle
of oak leaves. The specimen
ornamented with metalware:

rusted plates and bolts,
brooches carried by the dead
to the next station of life.
Close the curtains. Change the scene.

A figure stands at the end
of the platform, his face masked
by a flag. Steam
spirals around him,

a spire above rows of sleepers.
There is one line
drawn from childhood
through junctions to connections,

and the destination close
to definition.
I feel the platform vibrate
from something about to begin.

The figure sounds his whistle.
His flag drops
and it is my face unmasked
and time to leave this dream

and I see it now. The trackbed
has lost its track and I have lost
track of time. I get up
to check my phone

but there’s no signal
and my daughter is asleep,
habitually dreaming
of a better life to travel in

and I see it now.
The ancient sleeper
is a relic, an inherited burden,
second-hand history.

I step outside
and the first engine of the day
sets out light and I see it now:
I know what to do.

***

Stewart Carswell grew up in the Forest of Dean. He studied Physics at Southampton University, and has a PhD from the University of Bristol. He currently lives and works and writes in Cambridgeshire. His poems have recently been published in Envoi, The Lighthouse, The Poetry Shed, and Ink Sweat & Tears. His debut pamphlet, Knots and branches, is published by Eyewear Publishing (2016). Find out more on his website or on Twitter.

Wells-next-the-Sea, a poem by Ian C Smith

wells by sea photo ian c smith.jpg

I am anxious driving through green England
always moving on, never stopping long.
In Norfolk, an argument east of The Wash
an old man wearing a cloth cap
strokes a horse’s whiskery nose in grey light.

A man, a horse, a cart, a sign.
Yes, she wants to take the ride
but with the reins in her experienced hands.
The old man hears us out, considers us,
before agreeing to a test drive.

He watches.  Scavenging gulls hover.
A merry-go round and round the empty carpark.
I talk her up, a city boy standing close,
clop, clop my praise overflowing.
You’d think she was Clancy’s daughter.

Our high seat might be a magic carpet,
morning air still, few cars, glimpse of sea.
Horse skiving, I ask how she knows the way.
The horse does.  I’m just along for the ride.
Some early shoppers stop, turn to stare.

The old nag’s pace increases.
We must be heading back, she says.
Aren’t you steering?  In control?
Hardly.  Stop waving, you show-off.
She seems happier now, in her element.

The horizon behind, I picture Europe beyond,
my mind fizzing with travel’s romance.
Then the old man, looking lonely, relieved.
He says, I knew you’d be all right,
his words a lighthouse beam of hope.  

***

Ian C Smith’s work has appeared in, Amsterdam Quarterly, Australian Poetry Journal, Critical Survey, Live Encounters, Poetry New Zealand, Southerly, & Two-Thirds North.  His seventh book is wonder sadness madness joy, Ginninderra (Port Adelaide).  He writes in the Gippsland Lakes area of Victoria, and on Flinders Island, Tasmania.


Spring In This Place – a poem by Will Burns

I choose the bee-flies for company today.
Sunlight on beech leaves,
cool sweat in the warm wood,
the blue flowers of the season.
Not numerology or some old painting
I think you might like.
Not a poem I hope you read for signs of life.
I fall hard for this place every day
the way we do for people we shouldn’t.

***

Will.JPG

As part of The People’s Forest project, the poet Will Burns is creating a series of new works inspired by Epping Forest. Over the year Burns is penning a collection of poems, one per season, in part reflecting on the unique nature of Epping intertwined with his own experience of the forest real and imagined – here we have had the pleasure and privilege to publish Will’s poem for spring.

The People's Forest

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We’ve been following The People’s Forest project with interest, rooted as it is in place and what it inspires. Co-curated by Kirsteen McNish and Luke Turner, The People’s Forest includes a programme of events, talks, gigs and artistic collaborations, and continues the history of great writers drawing inspiration from nature and the outdoors to present a literary programme designed to seek out new writing related to Epping Forest – London’s strange and wonderful woodland, and its unique history that has been shaped and maintained by man.

As part of the project,  Faber New Poet and Caught by the River poet-in-residence Will Burns will create a series of new works inspired by Epping Forest. Over the year Burns will pen a collection of poems, one per season, in part reflecting on the unique nature of Epping intertwined with his own experience of the forest real and imagined, and we are extremely pleased and proud to announce that we will be publishing one of the forthcoming poems here on the Elsewhere: A Journal of Place blog.

Burns has proposed a long walk from Wendover Woods to Epping Forest, revisiting the physical act that his mother made in her lifetime, and as a family unit twenty years ago. This journey will in part shape the latter part of the series and will revisit family history, memory and these two forests many miles apart. This journey will cross the rivers and chalk streams and hillsides of this odd and lost middle land between the capital and the bulk of the country. He will also be exploring what this strip of lush, wooded country means - this dividing line, in this divided time.

Will’s first poem “The Word For Wood” appeared in Caught By The River’s online journal in March that conjures up themes of isolation, crisis and crossroads:

The fertility symbols of other, older cultures
harass me through the cold wood.
The sounds of jackdaws going berserk
(though the sound is not their name…).
I might as well come clean—
all this is to impress somebody else
though they have long given up interest.
First I read they had left the conversation,
then I watched them leave the house,
finally I heard they left town

Speaking about the project and his connection to the location, Burns said:

“Epping Forest has loomed strange in my imagination since childhood. I grew up just outside its shadow, in Enfield, and my mother was born in Epping itself without ever knowing the place. Since moving out of London at 10, I have always loved woods – either 'my own’ out here in Wendover, or others that I’ve visited. They are places unlike any other in our imaginations and I feel as if there is a whole chapter of my memory linked to that part of London but somehow missing. I hope to recover it through a year of walking and thinking and writing in the forest.”

We are really excited to read more from Will as the project continues and we hope to bring more from The People’s Forest to our readers in the coming months. For the full programme of events taking place, click here.

Everything I Didn't Find in Vancouver

Painting by Jase Falk.

Painting by Jase Falk.

By Jase Falk:

Warm light and wanting circle in through my earbuds. Patterned question marks and safety lights line the aisles of the plane. I’m missing you already as you write poems and drink matcha in Winnipeg. We weren’t steady in our love then and we aren’t now either, but in this distance and exchanged letters it felt like there was a growing—we wanted there to be a growing.

I stepped off the plane, my gender caught up in tangles of hair. The way you used to run fingers through the knots and listen to the slow hum of my heartbeat pulling up through veins traced down the length of my forearms taught me the meaning of safety. A latticework of language formed the shape of us. I needed shape to myself; had I no shape to myself? Years passed through me like how grandma used to whisper stories while the world slipped by, our cups of tea shimmering to its beat, leftover paska bread, eggs dully cooked, yokes a disintegration of yellow in the pan.

Float through Vancouver like a ghost; spectres of me dance down alleyways in graceless imitation of you. I’ve always envied the way linen hangs differently on your shoulders, like soil grew and wove it there. No lack of confidence in your cursive. My stumbling into coffee shops, penning words like you penned down words. My wanting you bore such resemblance to my wanting to be you. Your letters gave me form like the inside of my bones.

Flashes of red and yellow as I travel through the underpass. Loud sigh of my bicycle break’s un-oiled song. This city’s grid is not interrupted by muddy water. I kept peeking over the boardwalks on Granville Island only to see faint ripples of my face return.

Drift back from apartment on Davie street to wet lines and rainbows sliding down Commercial Drive. All is queer at night, but in the day we hide ourselves. All is poured out here, but back home I hide myself.

Night of fairy lights, soft guitars paired with words falling petal-like on the small crowd bundled up in wine stained blankets. There is a kind of softness that knows how to cut out space in a world which does not want it. I’m all broken open up in tasseled fissures. Never knew words that could work their way through such a thicket of skin. Afterwards, a woman shares her smoke with me. We talk by the fence while groups of warm bodies move aglow like candle light nearby. I hope to find identity. I don’t quite identify. Her words cluster and form hickeys above my collar. She knows but doesn’t say. I know, but don’t know how to say. I told myself I would not serve, but here I am passing wine amongst loving faces under porch lattice, vines carry their long bodies down to play on our shoulders. We are graced. We sing grace though we don’t know it. Don’t know who we’re singing to as wax spills over tablecloth, the light almost out. She would have asked for a kiss goodnight, but saw my unknowing for she had known it before. Warm arms fasten body to ground then fall away like the smell of rain carrying me into the night.

Your wanting spurts out in a phone call, alone with its uncertainty. I change my flight and leave a week early. The seat buckle tightens around my waist and the flight attendant asks “sir, would you like a drink?” I gather question marks from around my feet, tattoo them onto skin. You curl loose fingers around my shoulder and don’t know me. I grow into you—toss my questions in the messy corners of your room. Return the fullness of myself; put this body in motion. We tangle into one another, we still don’t have the right words, but brush chalk dust off and name each other till we find a stillness. Vancouver listens, patient in the distance, for anything to awake in the absence of its cedar.

***

Jase Falk is a non-binary writer who spends time in archives daydreaming of cedar trees and different futures where we have a chance. You can find them on Twitter here.