26 May

I am a sucker for a beautiful smile, yet, at 55 it was an enormous shock to me that I could still fall hard for a baby. When I met my niece, Hazel, for the first time last year she was about 5 months old and just beginning to charm the world with her curly locks and big brown almond shaped eyes. My brother Simon, simply handed her to me when we arrived at their home in Pacifica Ca., straight from the airport. She looked at me and beamed. I was her servant from that moment on.


This little girl is as perfect as a poem.

The sonnet is a perfect poetic form.

One of my favourite writers of sonnets is the Scottish poet Douglas Dunn. Here he remembers his first wife – an artist cruelly afflicted by terminal cancer of the eye.


A constant artist, dedicated to

Curves, shapes, the pleasant shades, the feel of colour,

She did not care what shapes, what red, what blue,

Scorning the dull to ridicule the duller

With a disinterested, loyal eye.

So Sandra brought her this and taped it up –

Three seagulls from a white and indoor sky –

A gift of artistic comradeship.

“Blow on them, Love.” Those silent birds winged round

On thermals of my breath. On her last night,

Trying to stay awake, I saw love crowned

In tears and wooden birds and candlelight.

She did not wake again. To prove our love

Each gull, each gull, each gull, turned into a dove.


I find the wistful mood created by Dunn’s Elegies most perfectly resonates with my own from time to time, for whilst we feel his sorrow at the passage of time and the tragedy of his wife’s passing before him, we cannot ignore the vibrancy and life within the language and imagery of the poem. Sonnets are very exacting to write, and I suspect that the discipline required to write this may have helped him to face his grief.

So why should Hazel’s smile make me think of this sad poem?

It is difficult to capture a mood in a painting, or a piece of prose and only the most talented artists can take us there. Something in us complicates our experiences with analysis and description. Reason and memory become like old paint on a fine ceiling moulding, blurring the crisp edge of the original. My experience with Hazel was very uncomplicated, because she basically liked me and she let me hold her while she comfortably watched her mum, dad and sister, Percie going about their morning routines,  making appreciative baby noises and grabbing stuff. Put simply, I could share the rhyme of her.

It is this over-complication and analysis which lies at the root of depression. When faced with a situation where experience no longer matches the expectations we have constructed in our head we can become very disappointed, frustrated and angry. If nothing changes in us, we may continue to experience external reality  with an unprepared (and closed) mind. the effects can be long lasting and ultimately disastrous.

Making stuff with my hands helps to keep me rooted in direct experiential reality – anchored firmly to the now. Unlike meditation, which can allow all sorts of old unpleasant memories to surface, making requires concentration and focus – it frees the logical mind from introspection and ennui, because it does not allow space for the mind to create objections to reality. Miss with the hammer and you hit your thumb.

It is not without significance that I met Douglas Dunn at the cottage of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes in Todmorden whilst on a poetry course back in 1998. Lots of the other students were in awe of him. I did not at the time know him from Adam, so I offered him a glass of whisky – he relaxed a lot after that.

Many things happened that summer. I discovered my first wife (we had been together over 20 years) had been having an affair – a reality so shocking I was unable to make sense of it at the time because it really did not match my cosy mental picture of our family. Then, like a bolt out of the blue I met the woman who was to become my new partner and with whom I fell in love, on the train to Todmorden – Clare was the ‘Trolley Dolly’ on the TransPennine express.  She made me a nice cup to tea on the way back.  I also wrote my first sonnet after talking to a Rastafarian poet called Henry (my English namesake) who told me; ‘Ya man, ya need ta sloooow down!’. He explained that in order (for me) to skip out of the deep groove I had worn in my existence I needed to let the world go by a bit and see the other grooves running alongside. The adventure was just beginning.

So forget reason for a moment, just pick up the baby, or read a sonnet.



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