An Ode to the Sea Lord: Neptune & the Poets

PlatoAtlantis

After all my musings on the astronomical and astrological Neptune, it was fascinating to explore the sea god’s literary lineage in two evenings at Fabrica Gallery this month, the first dedicated to poetry, the second to prose. Though Neptunian themes of illusion, fear, chaos, spirituality and transcendent beauty overlapped both nights, the poetry I found mainly explored submerged and interior worlds, while the prose pieces I chose also took us out into the heavens. Let’s begin with the poems.

In homage to the Greeks, who still defiantly call Neptune Poseidon, I started with the Homeric ‘Hymn to Poseidon’. This ancient song opens by acknowledging the earth shaker’s desolate domain, but ends with a trusting appeal to his better nature:

 

You are dark-haired
you are blessed
you have a kind heart.

Help those who sail upon the sea in ships.

from The Homeric Hymns (Penguin, 2003)
translated by Jules Cashford

 

Is this really a hymn to wishful thinking, Neptune’s powers of illusion, the remarkable human ability to see what we want to see in difficult people or tyrannical autocrats? Or did Poseidon in fact harbour a secret tenderness for us poor humans he had lost by the time the Romans got hold of him? Classicists, please enlighten us!

Contemporary odes to Neptune were harder to come by, but divine intervention ensured I found one that mentioned him by name. One of the highlights of my recent trip to Odesa, discussed here on the blog, was a visit to the literary museum, which houses a small collection of Anna Akhmatova’s work. The statuesque Russian poet, melancholic lover and resolute witness to the Stalinist terrors, was born near Odesa and spent her childhood summers in the region. The display included a palm-sized booklet of the long poem ‘Close to the Sea’, or as my host translated, ‘very close’: an intimate relationship. I looked it up in The Complete Poems when I got home and assumed it must be ‘By the Edge of the Sea’. The ballad of a fierce young woman willing the arrival of her beloved from the waves, the poem was too long for the workshop and extracts would not do it justice. A shame, I thought, setting down the 950 page book, which promptly fell open to:

 

In Vyborg
to O.A.L.

A huge underwater step
Leading to Neptune’s kingdom ―
There Scandinavia chills, like a shade,
All of it ― as a single shining apparition.
Song falls silent, music is dumb,
But the air burns with their fragrance,
And white winter, on its knees,
Observes everything with reverent attention.

Anna Akhmatova (1889-1966)
translated by Judith Hemschemeyer

 

Workshop participants were arrested by these lines, spending some time discussing  their ambiguous fusion of land and sea, silence and scent, pagan and Christian imagery. Perhaps all poems require us to take that ‘huge underwater step’ into a world of fluid associations – powerful enigmas also wash through ‘Convoy’ by Charles Causley, the Cornish poet and schoolmaster whose early work reflects his first career in the Royal Navy:

 

Convoy

Draw the blanket of ocean
over the frozen face.
He lies, his eyes quarried by glittering fish,
Staring through the green freezing sea-glass
At the Northern Lights.

He is now a child in the land of Christmas:
Watching, amazed, the white tumbling bears
And the diving seal.
The iron wind clangs round the ice-caps,
The five-pointed Dog-star
Burns over the silent sea.

And the three ships
Come sailing in.

Charles Causley (1917-2003)

 

Here the bright Christmas miracle merges with a cold sea tragedy – or many tragedies. For the anonymous drowned man evokes the Unknown Sailor, remembered in Odesa by a coastal obelisk – built to honour the sailors who attempted, on land, to defend the city from the 1941 Nazi invasion:

 

A small but rich poem, in two deft strokes ‘Convoy’ alludes to both Shakespeare’s Full Fathom Five and Auden’s ‘The Old Masters’, which famously ends with the image of a ship sailing serenely past the drowning Icarus. Causley’s three ships evoke the joyous Christmas carol, triumphant vessels that, in the poem, may have survived a human tragedy but in the cold eyes of commerce or war arrive complete. Or perhaps the paradox suggests something more consoling – the acceptance of loss, and the renewal of faith in life’s abundance after a harrowing bereavement.

Emotional loss was also the subject of the night’s last poem, Sylvia Plath’s ‘Lyonnesse’. We discussed the complex nature of the Lyonians’ god – no lusty Neptune, but a bored, cerebral giant, lonely and weary, in a moment of sensual langour abandons those who, the poem’s opening lines suggest, depend on him for their very existence. While compelled by the poem’s mythological grandeur, and not wanting to sink into a shallow autobiographical reading, we also wondered if it might be possible to interpret it as a metaphor for a family governed by a self-absorbed, absent father. Two Plathian scholars give their view here, but I’ll leave you with the poem, and perhaps, like me, with a desire to visit the Seven Stones reef between Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly, said to be the site of a beautiful land with 140 churches, lost to an earthquake and tsunami on the night of November 11th, 1099 . . .

 

Lyonnesse
No use whistling for Lyonnesse!
Sea-cold, sea-cold it certainly is.
Take a look at the white, high berg on his forehead-
There’s where it sunk.
The blue, green,
Gray, indeterminate giltSea of his eyes washing over it
And a round bubble
Popping upward from the mouths of bells

People and cows.
The Lyonians had always thought
Heaven would be something else,

But with the same faces,
The same places…
It was not a shock-

The clear, green, quite breathable atmosphere,
Cold grits underfoot,
And the spidery water-dazzle on field and street.

It never occurred that they had been forgot,
That the big God
Had lazily closed one eye and let them slip

Over the English cliff and under so much history!
They did not see him smile,
Turn, like an animal,

In his cage of ether, his cage of stars.
He’d had so many wars!
The white gape of his mind was the real Tabula Rasa.

All poems copyright the writers and translators, reproduced here and at the workshops for educational purposes and free of charge.

 

 

 

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Emerging . . .

Kidd Pivot Frankfurt Rhein Main "New Work"

Here it is, rising from the primordial chaos of inspiration and admin: my first post as the Fabrica Gallery Artist-in-Residence for the Simon Faithfull exhibition REEF. My role is to engage audiences with the themes of the exhibition; to write a blog and curate events that will ‘work with ideas of the sea as a metaphor for emotion, the imagination and psychological space.’ For those who don’t know me, I am a poet, science fantasy novelist, professional Tarot card reader and part-time activist for a just peace in the Middle East, and the potential of the brief to dissolve the boundaries between these various aspects of my life intrigues me more than I can say – though I will have a go!

As a poet I have used images of the sea to express deep, recurrent emotional states; as an SFF writer I am drawn to the magical hidden worlds of Atlantis, Lyonnesse and Solaris, Stanisław Lem’s compelling vision of a planetary ocean of repressed memories. As a Tarot card reader I work with the sea as a symbol of boundless creativity, of sensitivity, vulnerability and passion. And, finally, as a human rights activist I am concerned with the possibility of political, cultural and personal ‘sea changes’: fundamental shifts in perception and changes of narrative, opportunities for long-denied truths to emerge. The sea being a pretty big theme, I hope you’ll now allow me to entertain a big claim: in a time of climate change, renewed war in the Middle East, the devastation of Gaza, with both Islamophobia and anti-Semitism on the rise in Europe, and seemingly every day bringing another national revelation of the sexual abuse of children, institutional racism, the abandonment of the poor and disabled by a government racing to cut basic provisions and privatize our NHS – artists can make a difference. By applying our empathy and intelligence to urgent issues of justice, diversity and environmental catastrophe, and – however subtly – allying our personal vision with collective action, we can explore the complex undercurrents of social and political conflict, and, by diving deep into the human psyche, support real and lasting change.

‘Sea change’, then, has become the main theme of my residency, and its icon, for various associated reasons, the mysterious blue planet Neptune. Astronomically Neptune is cold and appropriately tempestuous – its surface racing with the strongest known winds in the solar system, up to 2100 kilometres an hour. In Roman mythology, Neptune was a god of springs, lakes and rivers, only later associated, like his Greek forerunner Poseidon, with horses, storms, earthquakes and the sea. In astrology – which can be viewed as mythology-in-motion – Neptune represents chaos, dissolution, temptation and illusion, the turbulent, overwhelming power of the sea; but also compassion, spiritual wisdom and universal love, the ocean’s pacific nature. In its movement through a chart, Neptune signifies the gradual breaking down of old psychological patterns, and the slow emergence of change for the better. Whatever you think of astrology – and I will write more about it soon – I hope you will agree this is a worthwhile aim.

Researching ‘sea change’, I learned – navigating full circle back to literature – that the phrase, like so many, was bequeathed to us by Shakespeare, in lines of The Tempest that, with their imagery of coral and submerged bells, converse over the centuries with Simon Faithfull’s project, deliberately sinking a boat in order to allow it to become an ocean reef:

Full fathom five thy father lies,
Of his bones are coral made,
Those are pearls that were his eyes,
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change,
into something rich and strange,
Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell,
Ding-dong.
Hark! now I hear them, ding-dong, bell.

The metaphor of a voyage from suffering to ‘something rich and strange’ will be the essential theme of my residency. Over the next two months I will be blogging on various aspects of the journey, but for now I just wish to introduce my main events for the gallery, to all of which you are most cordially invited:

Night Contact
A one night multi-media festival: Saturday Oct 18th.
Screening projections across indoor and outdoor spaces Night Contact showcases a range of still and moving works exploring ideas of collaboration, authorship and influence in relation to the photographic image and the screen. A map outlining a visual trail across the city encourages visitors to view film and photographic works in various spaces across central Brighton. As part of the activities surrounding this event – Fabrica will be staying open until 10pm. Between 7-9pm I will be in the gallery to chat about science fiction writing, being a poet, the significance of Neptune to astrologists and my role as a tarot reader.

Neptune Nights
Poetry: Tuesday 4 November, 7.30–9.30pm
Prose:   Tuesday 11 November, 7:30-9:30pm
I will be leading two creative writing sessions exploring the mythic, scientific, literary and astrological significance of Neptune and asking participants to reflect on its themes. Participants who wish to learn the placement of Neptune in their chart are asked to submit their date, time and place (nearest city/town) of birth. No previous experience of creative writing or astrology is required.

Sea Changers
Saturday 15 November, 7.30–9.30pm
The Fishermens’ Vestry, St. Paul’s church, West St, Brighton BN1 2RE
In front of the large open fire built to dry out fishermen before church services I will host performances and discussion from three artist-activists. British-Palestinian novelist and lawyer, Selma Dabbagh; spoken word artist, coach and diversity practitioner Akila Richards; and musician, actor, writer and accessibility/social inclusion consultant Mik Scarlet will use the theme of the constantly changing sea to present their work and to discuss the relationship between their creative and political activities.

The November events are free but places are limited and booking is recommended. To book please visit the Eventbrite page, speak to a member of the gallery team, or call 01273 778646. And if I don’t see you in person, I hope to meet you online – the comments are open!

Image from The Tempest Replica, a dance production by Vancouver-based choreographer Crystal Pite, created for her company, Kidd Pivot.