Trees are cages for them, water holds its breath

Norman Maccaig: stars and planets

Where to look? From the back door, red lights twinkle on cranes neck-stretched above the chastened construction site of Edinburgh’s St James ‘retailopolis’. Builders banned. Animation suspended.  Coronavirus stills and silences city life as we have known it. 

I look up to the night sky. As a child I found that starry darkness a dizzying immensity, struggling with the eight times table my mind was never going to fathom infinity. Still can’t. No, I do know my times tables, but I can still go dizzy with the endlessly intoxicating dazzle of starlight.

That helps on a day when news is far from uplifting. One of our very best baby boomers, Edinburgh Festival (born, like me, in 1947), is cancelled until next year. So, necessarily confined to our own Covid cage, I find comfort in the liberating poetry and music I chose for Sceptical Scot last week. I hope you might too.   

A gleam of starlight from the window: poetry for a pandemic

Look up. Only look up. The night sky framed in my window is an escape from lockdown. Into darkness or light?

Two nights ago, on Thursday 26 March, windows and doorways spilled light and sound into strangely silenced streets. The nation’s neighbourhoods erupted in cheering and clapping, pouring out our full-hearted thanks for the NHS teams risking their lives to save ours. They are our precariously equipped frontline of defence against a seemingly vengeful virus.

Tonight ( Saturday 28 March) we’re invited to our windows again, but this time we are urged to put out the lights. Let the stars shine and planets glow. Earth Hour, first launched by WWF in 2007, has extra ironic significance in a socially distanced world. This year it is a digital event. We switch out the lights to click and connect with an online pledge to save the planet.

It’s hard to think that the earth is one –
This poor sad bearer of wars and disasters
Rolls-Roycing round the sun with its load of gangsters,
Attended only by the loveless moon.

Norman MacCaig

Let’s look up. Perhaps it’s a cloudy night. Never mind. Above the clouds on 28th March, astronomers say, there’s Venus and a thin sliver of a crescent Moon. Here’s poetry and song for the gloaming to fire imagination.  ‘For,’ as the poet Ben Okri writes in The Guardian urging us to fight the contagion of fear, ‘like fire, imagination can create or it can destroy.’

Stars and Planets

Norman MacCaig’s Stars and Planets seemed an inspired choice as Scottish Poetry Library’s poem of the moment. Just think, that was only a couple of weeks ago. Now the library is closed and who knows when it will feel safe to open to the public again. But poetry cannot be confined. [Indeed SPL in quarantine is working at home to ‘keep the flame of hope alive’ – you can keep up with that on their Covid-19 blog.] And MacCaig (1910-1998) is a perfect guide to wry reflection on the state we’re in – the lifelong pacifist served a term in prison for his beliefs during World War II.

Stars and Planets, probably written in the 1970s, is a succinct three-verse poem. So seemingly effortlessly written, I wonder if this was what he would have described as ‘a one or a two cigarette poem’? (He was, says SPL, always dismissive of the writing process).

For all its apparent simplicity, this is far from an easy ride into the heavens. The third verse ends with that clear, cold image of the loveless moon shining on our poor disaster-stricken planet and its load of ‘Rolls-Roycing gangsters’.  But I am drawn back to the first two verses where the stars seem suspended for us, so ‘twinkle still/inventing new spaces and huge explosions’ while water holds its breath for fear of smudging that gleam of light.   [Read the full poem here.]

A River of Stars

You burn with four thousand suns

And yet…

Your waves are cold to the touch

Sam Illingworth

There are echoes of MacCaig’s imagery in a poem by Sam Illingworth, a Senior Lecturer in Science Communication at Manchester Metropolitan University. His research involves ‘using poetry to develop dialogue between scientists and non-scientists’ but his website, The Poetry of Science, carries a curiously self-deprecating description: ‘This is sixth form poetry, not Keats or Yeats’.

He does himself down. The infinite wonders of space feature often in his poetry. River of Stars, written in February 2019, was ‘inspired by  research, which found a stellar stream of at least 4,000 stars that have been moving together for over a billion years, covering most of the southern celestial hemisphere.’

A billion years. In our time of isolation, whether enforced or voluntary, there’s something comforting in that notion of stars clustering together for so very much longer than human life on earth. [Read the full poem here]

Made from dust, and to dust you will return,

Your wavelets start to decompose

Scattering sediment across the empty void

From which new life will flow.

Sing the gloaming

Now for music that brings light and sound together.  Poets and songwriters reach for the right words but some words contain their own songlike sounds.  There’s a fascinating link between science, art, music and the power of words in this beautiful collaborative work by Simon Kirby, Rob St John and Tommy Perman, which first appeared as a sound installation in the Galloway Dark Sky Park in 2015.

Sing the Gloaming is an ongoing project based on the research of Edinburgh University’s Professor Kirby into the evolution of language, and in particular a group of words beginning with gl.

Gleam, glitter, glow – evocative words that feel good to say and sing – are, linguistically speaking, phonaesthemes. Not in itself a word that flows easily off the tongue but, as Simon Kirby explains, phonaesthemes are ‘words where a particular form (or sound) is paired with a similar meaning’.  There are other phonaesthemes in the English language and it could be fun of a housebound evening to look for the sound and meaning linked in words beginning with, say, fl (suggesting movement)… flurry, fling, flight. Or, perhaps too close for comfort, sn (dealing with the nose)…snot, sniffle, sneeze. 

A glimmer of hope: we can be as one

Right now gl words, associating their sound with light and vision, are more uplifting. The gleam in gloaming transcends the gloom. Working together, although separately, the professor and the musician/artists, are developing the next phase of their project, The magically haunting music of Sing the Gloaming – glorious, you could say – will be released as an album in the summer of 2020 by Blackford Hill.

The launch was to have been at the Glad Café in Glasgow on 20 June. That seems unlikely. But even if a physical event is not possible, the music which first sang through glowing speakers to the dark skies of Dumfries and Galloway, will allow us digitally into ever-expanding open space. Looking up, listening and imagining. At times like these we are, or can be, one.

Through my window, and I hope yours, a glimmer of hope.  

Featured image: Tommy Perman

First published on Sceptical Scot

Further reading:

Scottish Poetry Library: Poetry in Quarantine and We shall overcome

The Guardian: Ben Okri Fear of Covid19: a mental contagion we can fight

Stargazing: Ten of the best sites in Britain