David Nash and Impermanence

A few days ago we went to the Towner Gallery in Eastbourne, Sussex, specifically to see the Eric Ravilious paintings and prints on permanent exhibition there. There was also a large exhibition by the sculptor David Nash, who works with wood on a large scale. The fact that the whole exhibition, which also included a gallery of paintings, prints and a couple of small installations, and was intended to highlight the effects of the Climate Crisis, was the first one ever curated by Caroline Lucas M.P. of the Green Party was an added bonus for me.

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As much as I enjoyed the Ravilious, I was blown away by Nash’s sculptures. To see wooden sculptures on that scale is unusual in itself – usually that would be the preserve of stone or metal – but that very scale plays tricks with the mind and the eye. Boxes and bowls many times larger than one would expect meet the eye as you walk around the galleries, and many of the pieces also deceive where perhaps one looks to be made from several separate pieces of wood, but on closer inspection are carved from a single block like the boat shapes in the top picture, or the ‘stack’ in the one below that.

Much of the work is left rough-hewn, but even this can be deceptive. Some pieces have been carefully finished to give that appearance.

Sculpture is the art form that seems to exist to interact with the natural world. A number of the works here are based on natural forms, but there are also stories of projects Nash has undertaken where his sculpture is either living, in the form of carefully planted and managed groves of trees, or interact in other ways.

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‘Boulder’ is one such project. One of the first large-scale pieces Nash made was to cut a boulder-shaped chunk from a tree (illustrated at the top of Nash’s charcoal drawing above) in 1978. This was then transported to a stream near to where he lives and works, in the Welsh hills, and rolled into the water. Since then, it has slowly made its way downstream until it reached the estuaries and inlets of the sea, where it finally disappeared in 2015. Nash documented its travels in a series of photographs and films made regularly all the while, and presented in the exhibition as a film.

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Nash’s sketch of a Larch trunk

It feels as though there is something of this meeting of art and the natural world in old ruins overrun with scrub and grass. They frequently seem to have a sculptural quality that complements the landscape around them, in a way that more pristine buildings do not.

And I like the sense that an artwork, like a ruined building, is not permanent and that eventually the natural world will absorb it back into itself. That it will reclaim it. Perhaps the artist and the environmentalist in me merge here.

My own sculptures are in wood, and some of them are set out in our garden where they gradually degrade over the years through the action of sun and rain, until they appear strangely like some weird plants that have sprouted unexpectedly there.

All The Lost Words

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Last night I dreamed I sank into the depths of some great ocean.

I went down, right down to the bottom of the sea and

There I saw a wooden chest.

And then a mermaid appeared and smiled, and indicated

That I should open it.

 

But having done as she had asked,

I thought at first I had made a mistake,

For I beheld countless stars shining in the depths of the chest,

Which appeared to be as large and as wide as the sky.

And even as I thought this, those stars rose up and surrounded me

And then, dismayed, I saw them floating up until they reached

The surface of the sea,

Where they were taken by the tides and currents

And swept away to every corner of the Earth.

 

***

 

When I awoke, I felt sad for the loss of those stars.

But then I realised it had been a dream, and

I fell asleep again and dreamed I laboured down a mine.

And I was hot and weary and grimy as I crawled

Through low passages, searching for precious stones.

It was tiresome work but finally,

Rounding a corner, I saw a distant glow and

As I drew near, I saw a gem that shone amidst the darkness.

I found then I carried pick and hammer, and

Any number of chisels, so I set to work.

 

After much labour I held the gemstone in my palm and

The light from this treasure seemed to flow out from my hand,

And illuminate every corner of the mine.

This gladdened my heart, but one appeared who I had been dreading,

Although I had not known it until that very moment,

And they took the jewel from my hand and disappeared,

I knew not where.

 

***

 

And so again I awoke and then

I slept a third time – troubled sleep! – this time

I dreamed I walked on crowded streets

And watched the many who surrounded me

And listened to their talk.

These were the conversations carried on

By every man and woman who had ever lived,

Or ever would.

 

But after time their speech became confusing;

I could no longer distinguish any words, and then

The world fell silent, although they still spoke,

And still I watched and found that I could see their speech,

And all their conversations floated on the breeze

Before me,

For their speech was made of stars and gemstones,

Mingled now with flowers and with ash.

Mingled now with night soil and with butterflies.

 

And I was content with that, and now slept deeply.

 

The New Viking

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Long, long ago, (although not in a galaxy far, far away) I posted a poem about Vikings which was called, astonishingly, Vikings. (It can be found here should you wish to re-visit it.

This is a rather tongue-in-cheek follow up.

The New Viking, a Reformed man

 

He brought death and terror to these Saxon lands,

Taking iron and fire to fearful hamlets,

But he was defeated by a woman,

A yellow-haired woman, soft and pliant.

And now the screams of battle are the

Bloodcurdling cries of infants.

 

He beats his sword into a ploughshare,

And grows rows of turnips and cabbages.

His axe cleaves firewood.

Maybe he’ll name his house ‘Dunplundering’.

 

He no longer lives within sight of his beloved sea,

But he watches trees ripple in the wind;

An ocean of billows topped with brilliant green spume.

 

Casting long shadows in warm sunlight,

These immobile giants roaring and sighing,

Desperately attempting to free themselves

Of their earthen shackles

Feel uncomfortably close to home.

 

Those northern winters still call him.

The fire, the mead, the fighting,

The tales of monsters and warriors.

 

Hamstrung by instinct

He shifts uneasily, guiltily, on his chair by the hearth.

His sword fingers twitch and tap and he

Looks for reasons to pick arguments

With his neighbours.

 

Anything would do.

Refugees

I posted this poem a year or so ago, and I think it bears re-posting again now. In fact, I think I should post it repeatedly every year until everybody understands the situation most of these people find themselves in through no fault of their own.

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The first time she ever set eyes on the sea,

She was forty seven.

 

It was a long road there.

She set off with little enough,

And arrived with much less.

 

She had a home, once.

A house,

In a well-to-do area of the city.

Life was good.

 

But fear came,

In the form of bullets, shells and bombs.

Once, gas.

Then everyone lived in fear.

 

Her house is rubble, now.

Memories and possessions buried,

Alongside her husband.

 

Alongside her daughter.

 

Alongside her middle son.

 

Her hands are scarred from the digging.

For weeks,

Her palms were raw and bloody,

from blocks of masonry,

Too large to move.

 

Dust and tears.

 

It was bad enough to lose everything,

But when you’re caught in the cross-fire,

And the food runs out,

What else can you do?

 

Her eldest son paid for the crossing,

With borrowed money.

 

Somewhere,

He is ‘paying off’ the loan.

A bonded labourer.

A slave.

 

She fears for him.

 

Her youngest son was washed away.

The dinghy was too small,

The passengers too many.

Fear.

You could smell it,

Alongside the despair.

The panic.

There were fewer of them when the sun rose.

 

There is shelter here,

Of a sort.

But when the wind blows she shivers,

Drawing near to the oil drum blaze.

 

There is food,

Once a day.

Of a sort.

 

There was a welcome.

She soon learns what sort.

 

Now, she walks down to the sea.

 

She wonders whether she should,

Whether she should just,

Just, slip under,

The waves.

 

Refuge

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The first time she ever set eyes on the sea,

She was forty seven.

 

It was a long road there.

She set off with little enough,

And arrived with much less.

 

She had a home, once.

A house,

In a well-to-do area of the city.

Life was good.

 

But fear came,

In the form of bullets, shells and bombs.

Once, gas.

 

Her house is rubble, now.

Memories and possessions buried,

Alongside her husband.

 

Alongside her daughter.

 

Alongside her middle son.

 

Her hands are scarred from the digging.

For weeks,

Her palms were raw and bloody,

from blocks of masonry,

Too large to move.

 

Dust and tears.

The pain came later.

 

It was bad enough to lose her home,

But when you’re caught in the cross-fire,

And the food runs out,

What else can you do?

 

Her eldest son paid for the crossing,

With borrowed money.

 

Somewhere,

He is ‘paying off’ the loan.

A bonded labourer.

A slave.

 

Her youngest son was washed away.

The dinghy was too small,

The passengers too many.

Fear.

You could smell it,

Alongside the despair.

The panic.

There were fewer of them when the sun rose.

 

There is shelter here,

Of a sort.

But when the wind blows she shivers,

Drawing near the oil drum blaze.

 

There is food,

Once a day.

Of a sort.

 

There was a welcome.

She soon learns what sort.

 

Now, she walks down to the sea.

 

She wonders whether she should,

Whether she should just,

Just, slip under,

The waves.

Oh I Do Like To Be Beside The Seaside!

A standalone excerpt from a work in process – a series of linked poems with the overarching title Breeze.

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You see, I never do things by halves. Unfinished novels, short stories and poems, too.

I’m sure a psychologist would have a field day.

On the late season sea-front we press our hats to our heads,

And shout to make ourselves heard.

The rain stings faces, and dribbles miserably down necks

It hoses noisily up and down abandoned streets,

As we struggle to stay on our feet between the chip shop and the variety theatre.

 

‘Shall we go for a drink?’

‘What? I can’t hear you!’

‘I said…’

 

Cables beat maniacally, ringingly,

Against rusting and white paint chipped flagpoles.

 

Piles of deckchairs like collapsed marionettes shift uneasily

On the shingle among the lolly sticks and sweet wrappers,

The bladdery seaweed and the old egg sacs,

Beneath the rounded overhang of the promenade;

Their fabric thrumming and whirring

And flapping.

 

The weather forecast said a thirty percent chance of rain.

 

An empty drinks can follows us noisily across the road.

 

‘That’s better.’

‘Gosh, that wind’s strong today!’

‘It’s almost like winter.’

‘What’ll you have?’

‘Better make it a strong one!’

‘Yeah. Make that two.’

 

Leaning on the bar, waiting for the drinks.

Staring gloomily out of the window.

 

Darting gulls,

Silver light,

Drinking silently,

Glancing at each other.

 

‘Tell you what. Why don’t we just go home?’

Vikings

I began writing a short story about Vikings last year, which took a totally unexpected turning and ended up as a different story that I had not foreseen at all.

But what was left over, also unexpectedly, became this poem.

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forest dawn detail

 

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It is going to be a busy couple of weeks, now, so I probably won’t be able to post or reply to comments as much as I’d like, but I’ll check in whenever I can.

All the best to you all!