A Poem in a Bowl


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I give out to myself for listening too much to the radio, but occasionally it does help me discover things that I would never find in any other way. I hear poets interviewed sometimes and mostly they do nothing to change my mind with its view that modern poetry by people under the age of forty is mostly very bad.

Amendment: It may not be Bad. It may be in fact very good, very worthwhile – but I do not like it. I do not connect to it. It does not speak my soul’s secrets in the way that poetry by Gerard Manley Hopkins, or Emily Dickinson, or Michael Longley does, and I can’t fully explain why. Maybe because it is mostly modern, and I don’t think I’ve ever quite come to terms with the fact that I live in the 21st century.

But I was walking home on a cold day last April looking at the river through the rain, and this woman’s voice – her name is Michelle O’ Sullivan – came on the radio and she was reading her poem called “The Flower and the Frozen Sea.”

As if inoculated against winter wind and rain
you move further and further through the fields.
The sky darkens into the sleeping trees.

Like the river, what moves beneath this surface
is what moves you. This is the climate you’ve come to:
where hoar incises cold and the thermometer sinks.

The birds are beginning to return, small arrivals
that will grow to modest; wind-voices warming
from ribcage to throat.

Across the meadow a bullock dissolves
in half-hearted mist. He’s like a relic, his static
silhouette merges into the river’s unmade bed.

A finger to the lips shapes your silence.
No wilderness here – only wild expanses
as familiar as your hand.

Blue-greys distressed as battered old metal.
the sun’s gold piece lost in a pocket of cloud.
And these trees committed to thrive another winter.

I was almost shocked by how powerfully these words affected me. The Flower and the Frozen Sea.

It made me remember a day I had forgotten for a long time, when I was very little and my mother brought me to a little shop in Bennetsbridge, a tiny village that lay about twenty minute’s drive from where we lived. The shop was owned by some very good friends of my parents, named Mary O’ Gorman and Mark Camden.

They were potters, making lovely mugs and bowls and plates with fish swimming palely round their edges, leaves twining gently. My birthday present was going to be a special bowl – decorated with whatever I wanted.
I was so shy that I didn’t speak at all in the shop, but I did look round very hard, and I remember smelling the clean smell of clay, like the smell of the fields around our house transmuted into something fresh and unfamiliar and just a little frightening.

“What do you want on your bowl?” Mark Camden was there, asking the question. He had a soft voice to go with his soft hair. I couldn’t have answered Mary – with her hair bright and shiny as copper and a voice that rang metallic and unforgiving – I couldn’t have spoken to her.

I don’t think I had spent long deliberating what I would have on my bowl, but I also don’t remember any hesitation – I knew exactly.
“A Whale – and a flower.”
“A whale and a flower?” Mark’s voice sounded surprised. I couldn’t understand why. It made perfect sense to me. My favourite animal was the blue whale. I loved their tremendous silence, and I needed a flower to go with it, because I was a flower – known as “petal” to my mother – “Come on now Petal, we’re just going to stop here for a moment.” “Petal, it’s time for school.”
Although in truth I doubt very much I rationalised my choice as much as that. I just wanted a whale and a flower.
“Anything else?”
“Emm…” I felt anxious. I couldn’t think of anything.
“No no Mark, that’s fine.” Now my mother spoke for me. She knew exactly when to take over, she was better than anyone else at sensing when I needed her to be my voice.

The bowl, when it was ready, had a blue whale swimming in a green-and white ocean painted inside it, on which a flower was floating.
I don’t have it any more – I’m supposing it broke, the way almost everything does if you give it long enough – and I’d almost forgotten it until something in the poem by Michelle O’ Sullivan broke that frozen sea of memory with its own flower, its own frozen sea beneath which whales might swim, its fields that are more evocative of the fields where I used to walk than those same fields are now, on the rare occasions I go home.8074982_orig

The memory has a precious, fragile feel to it. Anything that puts me back in my child’s mind is a gift. I could not now answer the same way to that question: What do you want in your bowl? If you asked me that now, a million things would flash through my mind – pictures I’d seen in magazines, in various places on the internet – deliberations about what kind of bowl I wanted it to be, and would it fit with the rest of my delft, and did I really need the bowl after all, and whether I wanted the bowl to reflect Minimalism or Quirkiness or to Look Vintage or any of those other people’s notions I’m always picking up and putting down.
At the moment I feel frustrated a lot because I can’t decide how I want to be. I’ve a million – and I mean a million – thoughts and notions and values pulling me different directions every day, and few of them really feel like my own.
I suppose that is partly what this blog is for. To help me figure it out. A scrapbook of sorts.

“The Flower and the Frozen Sea,” by Michelle O’Sullivan, is The Flower and the Frozen Sea (2015), reproduced by kind permission of The Gallery Press’.



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