A Garden of the Mind

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I shall be a gardener

IN 1925 Attila József, one of Hungary’s best loved and most famous poets, wrote a simple poem called Kertész leszek – I shall be a gardener. This is the first verse:

Kertész leszek, fát nevelek

kelő nappal én is kelek

nem törődök semmi mással,

csak a beojtott virággal.

I shall be a gardener, I’ll grow trees

with the early sunrise – I’ll rise too.

And nothing else will bother my head,

except my tenderly grafted flowers.

But Attila was not a gardener. And he grew up far from any garden or flower. Born into abject poverty in the ninth district of Budapest – a tough, industrial, working class corner of the city – Attila lived a semi-feral early life. A self-confessed street urchin, he scrabbled to survive. His mother Borbála died of cancer when he was still in his teens. His father, a soap factory worker, had abandoned the family long before. Attila and his two sisters were like wild flowers, pushing through the cracks in the tough urban pavement.

Minden beojtott virágom

kedvesem lesz virágáron

ha csalán lesz, azt se bánom,

igaz lesz majd a virágom.

Every flower that I have planted

will be my favourite one of all

and if weeds grow – I won’t care

each flower of mine will come true

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Planting myself in the soil

Attila got some schooling in the end, when his brother in law paid for him to attend. He even went to university, with dreams of being a teacher: but he was sent down for writing poetry deemed seditious by the state.

He travelled and studied in Vienna and Paris. He read Hegel and Marx, joined the – then illegal – Hungarian Communist Party in 1930, but was expelled from that too, for being too maverick and independent a thinker.

Tejet iszok és pipázok,

jóhíremre jól vigyázok,

nem ér engem veszedelem,

magamat is elültetem.

I shall drink my milk and smoke my pipe,

and closely guard my own good name,

no danger will ever reach me now,

I’ve planted my very self in the soil.

If the world should end…

How Attila longed for the peace and quiet of the garden. But it was never to be his. He suffered terribly from depression and schizophrenia. He was abjectly poor his whole life long. His brilliant mind was tormented to death. On the 3rd of December 1937, he died under the wheels of a train on the railway tracks at Balatonszárszó, whilst staying with his sister. Was it an accident – or suicide? He was just 32 years old.

Kell ez nagyon, igen nagyon,

napkeleten, napnyugaton –

ha már elpusztul a világ,

legyen a sírjára virág.

This is needed, so much needed,

with the rising and with the setting sun – 

and if the whole world should one day perish,

may there be flowers laid on its grave.

In the century since his death, Attila József’s exquisite poetry has become embedded in the very soul of the Hungarian people. He never grew flowers – never planted trees. But the poems that he wrote, created a garden of the mind, as profound in impact as the desperation in which they were written.

*This was written in response to a mighty project with the Performance Ensemble, directed by Alan Lyddiard, with whom I regularly write and perform. It is called The Garden and will be a month long installation and performance in Leeds Playhouse, in the spring/summer of 2021. We will be exploring all things to do with the garden – from a single flower pushing through the ruined pavement of a bombed city, to an idyllic lush green oasis of flowers, trees and fruit. We all need a garden. In our minds and in our hearts and bodies. May that garden flourish.

**I have a long and loving connection with the beautiful, troubled country of Hungary. If you would like to read more about that, please take a look at my Blog and Features archive elsewhere on the website. And here is another piece about the remarkable Attila József Poems and Pálinka.

August

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haiku

when words seem worthless

listen for the wood pigeon

calling to your heart

When I was growing up, the wood pigeon’s cooing was a familiar sound in my parents’ Essex garden. Today, as August begins, and another  retreat is called for, from the confusing world of Covid 19, I sat for a few minutes in meditation, on the orange cushions in my back room, overlooking the garden. So tired. So very, very tired. And the thoughts –  a beating incoherence in my head. Through the open window, I heard the fleeting distant sound of a wood pigeon, quietly warbling. It reminded me of then. Of childhood. And of now. Late adulthood. Many missing people, many years flowing in between. But, in the sound of the bird, for a few precious seconds – all one.

Sail your little boat

Unlocking the hidden door

WHEN RAY speaks, it is barely a whisper. You have to get very close to him, to hear the fragments of his words. His head, too, is bowed down, so that the clearest view he has, is of the floor. As he takes the little boat in his hands – hands bent with arthritis, and with age – there is the hint of a smile on his lips. He starts to describe the wooden boat to the gentle male assistant sitting next to him, using words that are careful and considered. The boat is rustic, he says, the wood is chipped, almost a shipwreck! Brings back memories, he says, of when he was a boy, and he sailed on the sea himself. Another smile. And the hidden door of his mind is slowly unlocked. A poem emerges. (See below).

We are sitting in the bistro of a warm and friendly care home in Seacroft, Leeds. This session is a poetry workshop, part of Leeds Playhouse’s Creative Cultures project, aiming to engage older people – particularly those who may be challenged by physical illness, by dementia, or by the isolation of being a refugee, an asylum seeker – someone for whom English may not be a first language – in creative self expression. As a writer, I am using poetry to unlock that hidden door. Elsewhere, there will be music and visual art. The message of the project is clear: only connect, and you will be amazed at what you might achieve. And the few words that Ray finds, to describe forgotten memories, buried feelings – to sail his little boat, if only for a few moments on a Monday morning –  is proof that the effort it takes, to make these sessions happen, is worth it. A million times over.

Isolation and Connection

As a writer, I have spent many hours, days – years – sitting at my desk, willing the words to come. And thousands of words have indeed come, and been published, in newspaper articles, in magazine features, in three published books, and now this website, too. I enjoy the solitude of a writer’s life. Love to dig down very deep, to see what emerges from the murkiness of my own subconscious. And the form of my writing, only encourages this introspection. I am a memoir writer. Writing from deeply personal experience – of grief, of loss, of rising like a phoenix from the ashes, time and again. But this process can be a lonely one. And sometimes, downright unhealthy. Apart from going out “on the road” to talk about my books, my author’s life can be TOO isolated. Too much fret and worry. Too much isolation. Not enough connection. Sometimes, thinking about the words so intensely, can stop them up altogether. And for me, it was reaching out to others, that released that stopped-up flow.

Finding your tribe

Nearly ten years ago, I started working at Leeds Playhouse on their Creative Engagement team. It was older people that I worked with most – and still do. Anyone over 55, can join Heydays on a Wednesday. There are a wealth of classes on offer. Sometimes I dance with them – but mostly it’s about the words. And for me, as a writer, it has been a joy to see people writing poems and short stories, which teem with life and with the richness of experience. These people have LIVED – and the words that they write unlock that liveliness, that verve – and give me a sense of belonging, and of place. The lonely writer, once out of her dismal garret, simply loves to play. And being amongst people who are not professional writers – although many of them are very talented –  is liberating, too. No competition. Just sharing the pleasure of words. Sailing our little boats together.

Reach out and touch

But it is the people who have most difficulty with their words who have touched me the most – the people living with dementia, who come to the Playhouse’s Our Time project , (one of whom has blossomed so much that we have written a play together, which you can read about here); and the elders I am visiting now, in care homes and at support centres, who may seem, on first meeting, to have little to say or to offer, in the way of poetry or creative insight. It takes a little time. It takes a lot of encouragement. It requires that you sit, and wait for the words to come – sometimes in a whisper, sometimes in a shout. But come they do. And the result is always a piece of magic. When memory has gone dark, when age seems to offer only pain and struggle, then writing a poem with someone is like a little light shining in the darkness. And the boat sets sail again.

FISHING BOAT   by Ray and Jamie

Shaped like a creature                                                                                                                       It’s a fish                                                                                                                                           From a bird’s eye view

A shipwreck.                                                                                                                                 Deserted.                                                                                                                                        Chipped wood.                                                                                                                                  Rustic.

Brings back memories.                                                                                                                       Of when I was a boy                                                                                                                            And a passenger on the sea.

This boat knows                                                                                                                                         Its journey in life.                                                                                                                                 A ruler of the waves.

 

Elizabeth Sings

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HAIKU

Elizabeth sings

Too long her voice was silent

Her throat swells open

The image here is of a Clematis Montana ‘Elizabeth’ in my May back garden in Leeds. It has taken a few years to establish, and its flowering was delayed by a long winter. But now, here she is! The haiku celebrates the May blossom. It also commemorates my beloved paternal grandmother, who had the most beautiful contralto voice. I am named after her. I, too, sing.    My grandmother and I, each in our very different ways, were silenced for long periods of time, by circumstance, sex or (in her case) class. Difficulties not withstanding,  both our voices have been heard. To all Elizabeths everywhere: sing on!!

Homesick

HUNGARY 1989

Hungary calls her – this curious, displaced, skinny English girl

pulls her under its blanket of Cold War snow

draws her to its jealous magyar breast

and suffocates her.

Heimweh.

Honvágy.

Home?

 

Just before the wall comes down,

just before the end.

 

And always she is struggling here,

in the bone shattering winter – city statues wrapped against the crack of cold,

and the stifling heat of an East European summer.

Such melancholy in that fresh, bright, cherry blossom spring.

 

How she longs to be in England –

on those dirty London streets,

where people know her name

and say it in a language that is forever hers.

 

Clear the call to leave:

but her heart is split in two.

 

Homesick.

Heimweh.

Honvágy.

 

And when she does go home

in that hot, hot summer of 1989

when the borders are flung open – and the West says “Come!”-

and the people sing their long lost songs of liberty,

it is too late for her, too late.

 

And she is homesick once again,

for a place relinquished,

for a man who has refused her,

for a country – harsh and full of paradox –

its language a mystery and a music forever on her tongue,

where she will always be on the outside, looking in:

nose pressed to the sash window,

as the heavy wooden blind falls shut.

Frontier to a vanished freedom – no longer to be crossed, or found.

 

Barney Bardsley

This poem was inspired by a call for submissions to an international anthology on the theme of HEIMAT or HOMELAND, by a group of German writers in Dortmund, which is twinned with my home city of Leeds, UK . The project got me thinking, right away, about my long connection with Hungary, and how I feel pulled – both towards and away – from this home-that-is-not-my-home! After the intense experience of my youth, encapsulated above, I was absent from the country for the next 20 years. But when I returned, in 2009, the feeling for the place was just as strong, and now I study the language seriously, have a wonderful circle of friends there, and return every year. Nothing is quite so powerful in my mind and heart, however, as the memory of those first days, in 1988 and 1989: spent in a country locked behind the Iron Curtain, yet open, warm and loving, to a stranger in their midst. Magyarország, annyira szeretlek. 

https://www.autorenwelt.de/verzeichnis/aufrufe/heimat-beiträge-für-internationale-anthologie-gesucht

 

 

Sheer Poetry

IT”S NATIONAL POETRY DAY! To celebrate this, I have chosen the first part of a favourite Hungarian poem, by Attila József, and attempted a rough simultaneous translation into English. See below. It was the Hungarians who first got me mesmerised by poetry, and I love this poem in particular, which I write more about here . And by some strange synchronicity, it is the two countries of Britain and Hungary who are twinned to host the European Capital of Culture 2023, with my home town Leeds as a mighty contender in the bid. Here goes then… Here’s to the power of poetry and internationalism. (The picture above is a typical Budapest corridor inside a block of flats.)

Reménytelenül/ Hopelessly   by Attila József (trans. Barney Bardsley)

1. Az ember végül, homokos,

szomorú, vizes síkra ér

szétnéz merengve és okos

fejével biccent, nem remél.

He is one who comes to rest at last

by that sad and sandy, dampened shore.

He looks around him, undistressed,

nods his head, and hopes no more.

2. Én is így próbálok csalás

nélkül szétnézni könnyedén.

Ézüstos fejszesuhanás

játszik a nyárfa levelén.

And I, too, try to turn my gaze

without deceptions, gracefully.

The swish of a silver axe now plays

on the soft leaves of the poplar tree.

3. A semmi ágán ül szivem,

kis teste hangtalan vacog,

köréje gyűlnek szeliden

s nézik, nézik a csillagok.

On a branch of nothing sits my heart,

it silently trembles from afar,

gathering gently, round they come –

and watching, watching, are the stars.

 

 

 

 

Flowers of Spring

THE CLUMPS of snowdrops in the garden and in the park. Stems of daffodils, standing to attention on the high banks, yellow crocus in fat bud, lining the avenues. Even the squat and star-shaped leaves of bluebells, already lying in wait for their moment, later in May,  in the little local wood. Everything tells the same story – down to the sour clods of mud, stuck hard on the bottom of boots, and the feathered fringes of my Thursday dog’s fur. Spring is on its way. And even the thinnest ray of sunshine, filtering through our grey northern clouds, brings a little skip to the heart, a lightness to the step.

We follow the seasons particularly closely, in a creative arts project I help to run at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds, for people with dementia and those who care for them. Bringing in the fruits of autumn – pumpkins, squash – and the signals of winter – bare branches, images of snow – helps stabilise us all, within the rhythms of the natural world. It is a concrete reminder, to minds that may be confused, and hearts that are sometimes sore with loneliness and worry, that we can always rely on one fact: the world that disappears, like Persephone, deep into the underground at the end of every year, will always return, come the spring.

Snowdrops are the first harbingers. Then, hot on their heels, come the gaudy yellows of narcissus, the soft mauves, whites and blues of the woodland flowers, and then the heavenly mass of forest bluebells. Everybody loves spring flowers.

And though there is talk in our sessions, sometimes, of a dark  and wintry mood – of sadness at things lost: a once-nimble mind, a youthful body, friends and family that may  be dead or far away – there is always a ready access to joy. People with dementia are often more direct, less inhibited, in their emotional expression: as if the pipeline to their mind, which has grown furred and blocked, has been re-directed, opened wider, straight into their hearts.

Singing, writing song lyrics and poetry, and dancing to the powerful rhythms of spring, brings genuine delight to this group – and to those of us who lead it. Always, people’s  humour is diverting. Always, their creativity surprises and delights. Always, their own words and ideas are faithfully recorded and celebrated. In the last two weeks, new beginnings have been the dominant theme. Spring is calling everyone to attention.

Snowdrops have brought forth a tune of survival…”Snowdrops, snowdrops, snowdrops…Soft white petals, musty and sweet…smells like winter…pushing through the earth… Heralding the spring!” Parallels between the natural world – and the human need and determination to survive, to thrive, whatever the odds – are never far away. “The light makes the shoots come through/Coming out from the dark earth/Flowers dancing, swaying, springing back/They won’t break/I won’t let them…”  The whole of life is starting to pulsate. “One bird feeding… a whole flock comes gliding… dancing through the sky.” “Lovely to feel the sun on your face…What a relief!… Spring has sprung.”

My colleague, singer songwriter Fran Woodcock, co-presents the dementia-friendly Our Time workshops and provides all the glorious music that accompanies our exploration of  images, words and movement.  Visit her website here.

Nicky Taylor, Community Development Manager at West Yorkshire Playhouse, has pioneered all the dementia-friendly work in the theatre. Her latest triumph is a ground-breaking festival of theatre for people with dementia. Read about it here