'The Gates of Light' by James Aitchison (Mica Press)
I recently heard Tim Smit of the Eden project talking on the radio. 'Climate change is going from a political issue to a spiritual one – with a small s' he said. 'Plants and nature are going to fight back in our psyche. We're going to rediscover awe'.
And this made me think of James Aitchison's book. Nature clearly has a firm place in his life and psyche, reflected in the compassion and admiration for nature in his poetry. He writes about birds foraging in winter snow, and trees which are treated as commodities by humans, used for profit, or cut down for convenience. He celebrates many of nature's enduring qualities, both in the wild and in the cultivated spaces of gardens. In several of the very fine poems in this collection, he shifts from the human perspective to the cosmic, and shows how entwined they are. As in 'Eclipse':
The planet slanted
to a new equator and new magnetic poles
A field away
a heron stands on the edge of morning light
and in 'You are Here', he shows how map and territory intertwine:
brains's blue neurons
make a loch-like locus in my head
The cartographer reads the landscape of my mind
and his 'Winter Lines' reflects the fragile beauty of a spider web:
...so thin-spun a strand
it could have been an eyelash glistening
in the dazzle of mid-winter sun
Next morning when I looked the thread was there,
furred with hoar-frost in the freezing air
James Aitchison takes concepts of apparent simplicity – looking back to childhood roots, difficulties that accompany the ageing process, nature, gardens, trees, but in the expression of personal experience we find a universality that we can relate to. For behind the individuality of the experienced subject matter, play the themes of life's growth and its endings. This is 'an examined life' documenting change or transplant of domicile, a sense of separateness, of not fully absorbing or being absorbed by the new surroundings and then the return to a more familiar place.
The process of examination questions the more subtle connections we have with place, ones that go beyond clear endings or beginnings, physical extremities and boundaries of what is self and what is other, into the realms of feelings, habits and rituals, language and its inflexions and rhythms, the many perceptions on the edge of awareness that are only truly noticed in their absence. How much of life experience then is to do with absence, with what is not there, but may be present in memory or imagination and all the more potent for that?
To live in the present is vital but our present, it would seem, is lined with our past which can't really be stripped away. So James Aitchison recognises the weave and texture of our lives as multi-layered.
The poems are finely crafted, with enduring rhymes and rhythms and there is an elegance in the language, not just in the words themselves and their meaning, but also with their placing and relationships with each other, their pauses as well as their sounds and rhymes.
This collection was a pleasure to read. The poems shift through seasons and the vast elements of sea, land and air, with particular attention to the birds that move with apparent ease from one to the other; and all of us, trees, birds, humans and planet, affected by that great star that sheds the light that permeates these poems, as the title suggests. Sometimes the light is dim, at other times blinding; sometimes it is the light of intellect, of insight or compassion, and in the last few lines of 'Winter Wrens', it is shown to be love.
I loosen loyalties. I lose old friends,
I ignore the unnatural world's affairs
I practise my belief
in you, us, gardens, words and winter wrens