Archive for August, 2011

Sean O’Brien’s Fireweed

31 August 2011

My mother asked me about a poem in Sean O’Brien’s most recent collection, November, so I sent her a view of it. It turned out that I’d misunderstood which poem she meant, so I ended up critiquing “Fireweed”, the first poem in the collection, instead. It’s a long time since I’ve done any literary analysis, and I enjoyed it; it surprised me how much more richness a little research generated. Here’s the poem:

Fireweed by Sean O’Brien

Look away just for a moment.
Then look back and see

How the fireweed’s taking the strain.
This song’s in praise of strong neglect

In the railway towns, in the silence
After the age of the train.

Sean O’Brien lectures in Newcastle, as it says in his biography, and he grew up in Hull (and later studied there), and this is a poem about industrial decline: “in the silence/ after the age of the train”. Without being too literal I imagine he is evoking the railway-building towns, Swindon, Derby, York, where there is now mostly silence.

Fireweed tells its own story, but it is, specifically, rosebay willowherb, a pioneer species which quickly colonises open or cleared land.  There’s something filmic in this, of course, in the weeds taking hold of the disused site. And fireweed is particularly associated with the railways, Wikipedia tells me: its expansion from local rarity to widespread phenomenon was because it followed the railway lines as the soil was turned up to lay the rails. Indeed, willowherb is mentioned in Edward Thomas’ railway poem Adlestrop’. The rails are gone but the flower, or weed is left.

So far, so elegiac. But this is given a twist, an extra layer of meaning, by the fourth line, “This song’s in praise of strong neglect”, which also says that fireweed has its virtues too. This is perhaps underlined by the title. When in flower fireweed brings forth, as Wikipedia also tells us, “fields of colour” (I think we’re invited implicitly to contrast the drabber browns and greys and blacks of the railway town). So strong neglect brings forth colour, but other virtues, too:  the virtues of nature being allowed to remake the world, of the silence that it brings, of the benefits of fallowness.

And finally, one more layer of meaning. Again, from my newfound knowledge of rosebay willowherb, it seems that its seeds can lie dormant in the soil for many years, waiting once again for the soil and light conditions that are propitious for its growth. And perhaps he’s saying this too about the railway towns, that, with “strong neglect” they too might one day thrive in a new blaze of colour.

The picture of rosebay willowherb is from English Wild Flowers, and is used with thanks.

Lenin in the garden

29 August 2011

While in Tallinn recently, during our trip to the Baltic states, we took a short bike tour with the excellent City Bikes, a two-hour circuit that took in some of the sights beyond the city centre. As we went along a cycle path through a wood our guide pulled over, had us put the bikes down, and pushed through a screen of trees to a fence behind.

It turned out that this was the grounds of the Estonian History Museum, and a couple of salvaged statues of Lenin had been parked there while the curators decided what to do with them. Obviously the subject of all of the Communist-era statuary is a controversial one, even now, all across the former Eastern bloc.

In Lithuania an entrepreneur has opened up a theme park based around scores of Soviet-era statues; initially amid much criticism, it’s now a commercial success. Sadly, because it’s in Grutas, in the south of Lithuania, we didn’t get to visit it.

The photograph is by Andrew Curry, and is published here under a Creative Commons licence: some rights reserved.

Stating claims

7 August 2011

I’ve just been on holiday to the Baltic states, and when I left Vilnius at the end of July there were posters of the poet Czeslaw Miłosz everywhere. (And I mean everywhere; it was if someone had bought up the city’s outdoor advertising inventory for a product launch). Miłosz won the Nobel Prize for Literarature in 1980, and this year marks the centenary of his birth. There is also a newly unveiled plaque to Miłosz in the University in Vilnius, also to mark his centenary.

Now, normally, I’d have written ‘Polish’ in front of the word ‘poet’ in the first sentence of this post, but in the complex 20th century history of central Europe, with its shifting borders, it seems that things are not exactly as they appear.

Miłosz wrote in Polish, and lived and worked in what is now Poland for nearly twenty years, but he was raised in what is now Lithuania – but was at the time of his birth still part of Tsarist Russia. He also attended university in Vilnius. Researching this post, I discovered that he identified himself as both Polish and Lithuanian. A couple of quotes in his entry in Wikipedia capture this ambiguity:

“I am a Lithuanian to whom it was not given to be a Lithuanian.”.

“My family in the sixteenth century already spoke Polish, just as many families in Finland spoke Swedish and in Ireland English, so I am a Polish not a Lithuanian poet. But the landscapes and perhaps the spirits of Lithuania have never abandoned me”.

These multiple identities, of course, are common across many parts of the world, especially those marked by wars and migration. In the second half of his life, Miłosz lived in France and then the United States. And if you’re one of Europe’s newest states, it is important to make these claims: Lithuania, like the other Baltic states, first became independent in 1918, only to be invaded by the Soviet Union in 1940, regaining its independence only in 1990. The advertising is working; for I’d have known none of this had the city not been decked in posters advertising the country’s most famous poet.

The photographs in this post were taken by Andrew Curry. They are published here under a Creative Commons licence: some rights reserved.

Found: harmonium

6 August 2011

I stumbled across my copy of Penguin Cafe Orchestra’s Broadcasting From Home this morning, so naturally put it on. The opening track, ‘Music for a Found Harmonium’, is irrepressible. Every time I hear it, it lifts my spirits.

Eisenstein and Eisenstein

2 August 2011

Chunks of Riga’s new town were built quickly at the height of the gilded age of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and the result is a dense concentration of art nouveau architecture. Many of the most flamboyant buildings were built by Mikhail Eisenstein, the Russian architect who graduated from St. Petersburg. At the time Riga was part of Tsarist Russia. The detail is the devil, and the façades of his buildings are full of details, each floor of each house decorated differently.

More unusually, there are more than half a dozen of his buildings in the space of about 500 metres, most of them in one street, Alberta Iela, where he designed five buildings in a row.

He was also the father of the great Soviet film director Sergei, who, it’s said, hated his father’s work. “My father must have had nightmares putting all that detail into his buidings”, he is reputed to have said.

One hardly has to be a Freudian analyst to see signs of the son’s rebellion: instead of deeply decorated buildings for a rich clientele, the son preached the simplicity of the cut and threw himself into the Soviet revolution.

The photographs on this post were taken by Andrew Curry. They are published here under a Creative Commons licence: some rights reserved.