Do you believe in augury? The ancient Roman art of understanding the ‘Gods’ through watching the behaviour of birds.
I am not sure about augury in itself, but I do think it a privilege to take note of the birds that I come a cross at different junctures in my life and impose on them a personal meaning, so perhaps I am not so different from an augur after all. There will be no binoculars and bird book and camouflage beige for me, I prefer to just be aware of them, little wild things in the bustling city. Why even today, a scraggly raven crossed the road before me, looking rather weary and disgruntled, the feather’s on the back of his head rather hen-pecked, though I am sure if ravens could speak, they wouldn’t lower themselves with such a comparison. It wasn’t until I remembered that it is moulting season and it can make poor raven feel rather undressed, in their ‘post-nuptial plumage’ ( as it is officially called).
Many writers are birdwatchers – including myself and I find them often in the forefront of what I am writing. Sometimes it feels birds are everywhere, people are putting birds on everything (thanks Portlandia), but mostly it is the only connection I have with nature.
So it was with great joy I discovered that Emily Dickinson had a love for birds and her own collective noun for them, a spicing of birds. She wrote approximately 200 of them displaying her love of birds:
A bird came down the walk:
He did not know I saw…
She was an augur too, no doubt – observing, casting, and writing with avian witnesses to her life.
But it is curious how many tales I have heard of unusual birds appearing at critical moments in peoples lives, whatever they are, they are surely ‘spicings’, enlivening and reminding us of the natural world.
Have any of you had any augury moments?
Recently I had to have some fancy photos taken for promotional purposes and it made me start to think – does how a writer look really matter? In ye olden days, none of this would have mattered so much, a photograph or a portrait, something made for loved ones, someone from the inner circle – not for wider public consumption. But ye olden days is gone. And not all of us can make ourselves as glamorous as Susan Sontag:
Of course I tied to make myself look my best – I washed my hair even and bought some blush and tried to avoid placing my hand under my chin in that weird pose that writers tend to pull, as if holding up the weight of all those fabulous ideas in ones head. At least an actor can project a role or a tradesman rely on their tools as props, but to photograph a writer writing is somehow more ephemeral – because a lot of writing takes place off the page. For me a lot of it happens between the gaps of normal day life – pushing the pram, having a shower, sitting on a train. The unconscious prepares and the hand just follows.
But still I am not immune to the power of the image, having postcards of writers propped against my desk throughout my life, talismans of a sort, hoping to imbibe a little sparkle into my own work from their gaze.
One of my favourite writer images is this one, of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and her son, Pen. Her with her possessive and proud face, his fey golden curls and far away expression – the way they are holding hands. A great portrait I think, not just of a writer, but a mother and woman ahead of her time. I always feel she is looking at me. Is she looking at me? And what are those eyes saying? So many things?
Do any of you have a writer’s portrait propped against your desk that talks to you ( metaphorically or literally, I am all ears) ? Is it a curious Edith Sitwell with her wonderful nose and bangles or a dreamy D H Lawrence? Whoever it is, please share.
photo credit : Susan Sontag by Jill Krementz
There is magic in the thingness of pen and paper.
When was the last time you received a letter with that wonderful and familiar handwriting, that carried with it the something of the voice and spirit of the sender? So different and intimate compared to the rash and harried twitch of a thumb running across a telephone screen in a fleeting SMS. For me, I have always loved the thingness of pen and paper:
“Writing by hand is laborious, and that is why typewriters were invented. But I believe that the labor has virtue, because of its very physicality. For one thing it involves flesh, blood and the thingness of pen and paper, those anchors that remind us that, however thoroughly we lose ourselves in the vortex of our invention, we inhabit a corporeal world…I know that I talk about pens and notebooks the way the master of the seraglio talked about his loves slaves…” Mary Gordon from Writers on Writing Volume 1 Collected Essays from the New York Times.
All writers have their superstitions and rituals from writing with a certain pen or paper – myself included, give me a Clairefontaine notebook any day and my favourite ball point pen that my better half found abandoned, and since then could find no better home than in my hand. There have been a few adventures into fountain pens and coloured inks, my handwriting skidding across the page were ice and my fingers skates.
But it is not just the flirtation of other pens and ink that has affected my handwriting. So it was with great pleasure I discovered this joyful article by Philip Hensher in the Guardian on his book The Missing Ink : The Art of Handwriting ( and why it still Matters).
Who will join me with this call to arms ( hands and fingers)?
(apologies for font dramas, spacing etc – alas having some wordpress problems with accepting edits and fonts…)
When I think of Emily Dickinson, this image comes to mind and it is this one of her as a young woman in the mid 1840’s with her top lip weighing onto the bottom and those dark widely spaced pools of eyes, slightly freckled and a little gangly and a whole lot of mysterious. Her hands distractedly hold a flower, but her eyes fix the camera and don’t let go.
Dickinson described herself as:
I had no portrait, now, but am small, like the wren; and my hair is bold, like the chestnut bur; and my eyes, like the sherry in the glass, that the guest leaves. Would this do just as well?
So it was with great delight I read of another discovery, another, new Emily Dickinson daguerrotype of 1859 and it is a different Emily I see.
This Emily is startlingly different and equally as wonderful. Her gaze is still unwavering and the lips just the same, except for the curious little smile that she shared as she sits next to her friend, Susan. To sit for a daguerrotype require a long exposure, special head-rests and were usually taken out in the sunshine for optimal light. Daguerrotypes are no quick snap taken with a telephone and beamed around the world, oh no. The reason why subjects rarely smile in early photographs is that a smile would be too fleeting and ruin the exposure and the picture. A pose had to be sustained.
So when I look closely that is what I see in Emily Dickinson’s face, a smile she can’t suppress, as a leopard cannot reverse its spots:
Civilization — spurns — the Leopard!
Was the Leopard — bold?
Deserts — never rebuked her Satin —
Ethiop — her Gold —
Tawny — her Customs —
She was Conscious —
Spotted — her Dun Gown —
This was the Leopard’s nature — Signor —
Need — a keeper — frown?
Pity — the Pard — that left her Asia —
Memories — of Palm —
Cannot be stifled — with Narcotic —
Nor suppressed — with Balm —