Niche, the fourth poetry book published by Jane Tims, is a neat configuration of six segments that elaborate and illustrate the poet’s original definition of the multiple meanings of her title word niche. It is very difficult to separate the author from the act of narration as her keenly observed and skillfully executed drawings, together with their verbal representation on the page, are so autobiographical and so much an extension of her artistic and professional abilities that the objective separation of writer and text is scarcely possible. It is hard to forget that Jane Tims was, and to a great extent, still is, a highly competent professional botanist. The harnessing of the professional botanist, with her unique drawing skills and scientific knowledge, to the poet and auto-biographer is a key factor in the reading and interpretation of this text in which acute observation blends with an intimate knowledge of the observed botanical world, both flora and fauna, and this allows the poet, in her role of poetic narrator and lyrical voice, to weave a network of poems that are, at one and the same time, objective and intensely subjective.
The author emphasizes this when she writes in the Preface that “In biological terms, the niche is the quality of a space occupied by a living thing, the sum total of physical, nutritional, biological, psychological and emotional needs gathered together in one place.” She also reminds us that in human terms “niche can be a metaphor for home, community or personal space” and it is within these metaphoric spaces that the poetry text is elaborated. The text becomes a linked mixture of visual drawings, iterative thematic imagery and associative fields, all centred on the multiple meanings of niche. These terms are both biological and human in nature and the poet’s named world meets at this juncture between the human and the natural.
The section occupying space (1-19) bears the subtitle satisfying need and begins with a setting out of what this means in the following 12 poems and 4 accompanying drawings. The poem ‘apples in the snow’ with its companion drawing stands out for me. The section strategy, subtitled solidifying position (21-43) outlines in poetic terms, how plants, animals, and humans ensure their own survival. The section praying for rain, subtitled, avoiding danger and discomfort (45-68), offers views on discomforts and dangers. It also opens the discussion—relocate or stay where we are? The section mapping the labyrinth or places I have occupied (69-83), which contains the wonderful sentence “When I get lost on the road ahead, I look to the road behind me,” throws open the multiple meanings of home. The section new ways for water, subtitled coping with change (85-98), offers a double landscape, first, external, the things seen, touched, examined, remembered and described, and then the internal landscape that reflects upon them and is reflected in them. Finally, forgetting to move, with its subtitle getting comfortable (99-111), presents an autobiography that links observer (the twin personage of author and narrator) to observed (nature, both flora and fauna, and the added element of autobiography and self) via the symbiotic relationship of botanist to botany.
Two moments stand out for me. (1) Sadness is in seeking the space that is never found. (2) Loneliness is in trying to return to a space once occupied but no longer available. The whole concept of the Welsh word hiraeth is summed up in these two lines. Carpe diem, Jane Tims’ poetry indeed seizes the day and, with its minute, intense observation, it preserves so many precious moments. It also pays attention to that which has been lost, those moments that are irretrievable. They will vary for each reader, but hopefully, like me, you will take great pleasure in discovering them for yourself.
Comment: Brian Henry of Quick Brown Fox picked up this review and published it on QBF. Thank you, Brian and thank you Jane, you both do me great honor. Here’s the link: Niche on QBF 14 March 2021
Angel Choir (on seeing the Northern Lights at Ste. Luce-sur-mer) Sonnet
Listen to the choristers with their red and green voices. Light’s counterpoint flowering across this unexpected son et lumière, we tremble with the sky fire’s crackle and roar.
Once upon another time, twinned with our heavenly wings, we surely flew to those great heights and hovered in wonderment. Now, wingless, our earthbound feet are rooted to the concrete. If only our hearts could sprout new wings and soar upwards together.
The moon’s phosphorescent wake swims shimmering before us. The lighthouse’s finger tingles up and down our spines. Our bodies flow fire and blood till we crave light, and yet more light. We fall silent, overwhelmed by the celestial response.
When the lights go out, hearts and souls are left empty. Leaving the divine presence is a gut-wrenching misery. Abandoned, hurt and grieving, we are left in darkness.
Comment: The Spanish mystics, St. John of the Cross, and St. Teresa of Avila, wrote, in the sixteenth-century, about the ‘dark night of the soul’. That dark night also arrives when the communion with the spiritual finishes and the communicants are left alone, in their loneliness, abandoned to their earthly selves. To leave the divine presence is a heart-breaking, gut-wrenching misery. To turn from the marvels of nature can produce lesser, but still deeply moving feelings of grief and sadness. The secret is to preserve that joy and to carry it with us always, warm, in our hearts. Doing so makes the pain of separation much more bearable.
Alebrijes step out from dried wood and stand in the shower of paint that falls from the brush’s tip. Yellow flash of lightning, pointillistic rain, garish colors that mirror those of the códices. The carvings take the form of fantasy figures, anthropomorphic animals, and mythological creatures. Sometimes one individual selects the wood, carves it, then covers it in paint. Occasionally an entire family takes part in the work of making the alebrije. One person collects the wood and prepares it for carving. Another carves and sands it. A third works on the undercoat, and a fourth applies the final patterns of paint. The great debate: does the form in the wood reveal itself to the carver or do the carvers impose their own visions on the wood? In the case of the team, do the family members debate and come to a joint conclusion? These thoughts, exchanged with wood-carvers in Oaxaca, have led to a series of interesting conversations. What exactly is creativity? Where does it come from? Do we, as artists, impose it upon our creations? Or do we merely observe and watch as new ideas float to the surface of our minds? How does the creative mind really function? And, by extension, how much of the sub-conscious creative sequence can be placed into words?
Are they half-grasped dreams that wake, wide eyed, to a new day’s sun?
Or are they alive and thriving when they fall from the tree?
Does the carver fish their color and shape from his own interior sea, or does he watch and wait for the spirit to emerge from its wooden cocoon to be reborn in a fiery block of color?
Daybreak: in a secluded corner of my waking mind, my neighbor’s dog greets the dawn with sparks of bright colors born from his bark.
My waking dream: dark angels with butterfly bodies, their inverted wings spread over my head to keep me warm. In the town square, the local artist plucks dreams from my head and paints them on carved wood.
“Rain, we need rain.” The bruja whirls her rain stick. Rain drops patter one by one, then fall faster and faster until her bamboo sky fills with the sound of rushing water.
An autumnal whirl of sun-dried cactus beats against its wooden prison walls. Heavenwards, zopilotes float beneath gathering clouds. Rain falls in a wisdom of pearls cast now before us.
Scales fall from my eyes. They land on the marimbas, dry beneath bar arches where wild music sounds, half-tame rhythms, sympathetic music like this rainstorm released by the bruja‘s magic hand.
Comment:Bruja: witch, witch doctor; Oro de Oaxaca: mescal, the good stuff; Zopilote: Trickster, the turkey vulture who steals fire from the gods, omnipresent in Oaxaca; Marimbas: a tuned set of bamboo instruments. But you knew all that!
Just by chance, I caught this cormorant. “Behind you, quick,” said Clare. I turned and ‘Click!’
Such a miracle: the first steps of flight taken over water. That first step heavy, the second one lighter, and the third one scarcely a paint brush pocking the waves.
The need to take flight lies deep within me. Fleeing from what? Running towards what? Who knows?
All I know is that the future lies to the right of this photo and the past lies to the left, and I don’t know the meaning of either.
But I do remember the words of Antonio Machado: ‘Caminante, no hay camino, sólo hay estela sobre la mar.’ “traveler, there is no road, just a wake across life’s sea.”
Comment: I revised this poem a few minutes ago and cut it down to its essentials. If you want to read the original and check the revisions, click on this link to the earlier poem. Any comments on the rewrite and the revision process would be welcome.