Sunday, July 05, 2015

Swarm collector

A good friend used to say he couldn't write in winter. It was too dark, too busy. He saved it all up for June when his teaching ended.

I have never analysed which time of year's most productive, but a skeleton's taking shape, sketched out by work I do for the Open University, my Royal Literary Fund reading group and a day's work (sometimes two) a week for a friend, which is providing an almost clear summer.

Late winter/early spring's been so busy I've been putting writing off, not even putting a notebook in my bag and I have a stack of cheap ones from Seawhites. I wrote in Venice in April. Nothing since then.

I often struggle to write. There's always a plateau after a new book comes out but that was 2013 and this is about more. Am I too easily distracted, as school reports, year on year, claimed. Is it possible to harness this?

I said jokingly to friends that I'd happily live on the allotment this summer. On the allotment I have no problem concentrating. Also, I've been reading Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake trilogy - am midway through Madaddam, the final novel - and I identify with the Gardeners. (It's hard to get out of Atwood's head, though, to cope with the day to day and not see doom in everyone and everything.)

Dystopias notwithstanding, I love the routine of spring and summer.

Planting the first lines of seed in the mini polytunnel.
The first rocket, the first lettuces, new potatoes.
The smell of elderflowers in the sun and tasting the first cordial.
Weeding to the honey scent of rocket flowers.
The stickiness of angelica flowers.
Keeping courgette plants alive.
The spread of squash.
Fresh artichokes. Raw peas. The first raspberries.
Calendula, ox eye daisies, foxgloves, borage, comfrey, poppies.
The blackbirds - foraging and singing.
Wren's wings against my face in the shed.
The wren's nest, its entrance lined with a feather.
Robins nesting twice in Rob's shed.
The blackbirds' warning calls that cats are around.

Summer's short and busy. Sometimes frustrating. Yesterday I transplanted two lots of lettuce seedlings. Today the rain's torrential and unlikely any of them will survive the slugs and snails that crawl out of the grass and from under planks.

I can relate to Atwood's Toby, talking to her bees, her belief in the power of honey and herbs. A couple of weeks ago I had to stop digging compost from one of the more twiggy piles because I disturbed a colony of earth-nesting bees.

Another allotment bee loves raspberry leaves. It flattens itself against the leaf and I think it cuts into it. The tiny bees love borage. Bumble bees apparently live in clumps of grass.

Recently I received an amazing email from the allotment department. The subject line was "Bee swarms on allotment plots".

This summer we have received a significant increase in the number of reports of bee swarms on allotment plots. If you have a swarm on your plot the first thing you will need to do is to identify the type of insect involved….Honeybees: Beekeepers are happy to collect Honeybee swarms but the volunteer Swarm Collector may ask for expenses/donations to cover their fuel….Bumblebees & Solitary bees: Bumblebees & Solitary bees should be left where they are and are harmless if left in peace. Swarm collectors will not collect them and pest control will not destroy them.

Swarm collector. Mmmm. The bees loved the angelica and are all over the comfrey and I was drawn to that phrase. It excited me so much that I had to read the email to a friend.

There was a swarm on a house in the street a couple of weekends ago and it prompted my neighbour to tell me I had mason bees in my house. She took me upstairs to show me where they were getting in. She watched them from her bathroom. And I was reminded of seeing the mason bees in Much Wenlock, hunting for a space in a stone wall on my way to the poetry venue.

I guess, I'd tell anyone anxious about not writing, that it doesn't matter. Live, read, dig and look.

And I have been enjoying reading, particularly Charles Simic's translation of Vasko Popa. I've enjoyed Popa for years, ever since I found his white stone pebble sequence.

Over 38 years he wrote 8 collections of poetry. There's so much else about Popa that I feel drawn to: a tantalising reference to him setting up a library of postcards (which I've struggled to find anything about), curses in his anthology of folk tales.

There's a sample of his last poems on the Anvil Press page and more of them here.

So in the struggle to write, Popa is some consolation: his trust in the old, the dreamlike, the dirt on the hands, the everyday, folk wisdom….and the phrase that Ted Hughes used about his work, "purged of rhetoric" like the natural world, like the allotment, where all that matters is the quality of the soil and the weather.