the road north (selections)

the road north is to appear as a book, published by Shearsman, in October 2014. In the year or so after we completed the journey, Ken and I reviewed our days on the hosomichi and played over the themes that had emerged. A long poem emerged, different in character to the artist blog; mossier, more of a tour than a log, just as Basho's Oku is a carefully constructed work of retrospect, written in the guise of a diary.

We have also recorded an abridged version of the poem as a free download, with sound design by Geoff Sample, performed by myself, Ken and Lila Matsumoto – released this the Autumn. Elements of the road north archive have appeared in the Walk On touring exhibition, and the poem is being performed as part of Remote Performances, a series of radio broadcasts on Resonance FM, at Outlandia.

The cover image for the book is adapted from one of the pieces I made in collaboration with Tomohiko Ogawa; it seemed to capture the splicing of an imagined Japan and real Scotland that we journeyed towards.

The first of two selections posted here describe gardens: the first at Falkland Palace, where I spent an afternoon in the orchard, while Ken climbed East Lomond; the second, the singer Annie Briggs's garden at Kilmiddlefern. 

Falkland was our pair for Ueno, where Basho begins the journey described in Oku-no-hosomichisaying farewell to his friends among cherry blossoms. 

Annie Briggs was our Tosai, a reclusive and valued friend of Basho's.

Falkland, Fife

Basho’s Ueno                                        
is Sonia’s orchard                                   
cupped in the hollow      
at the centre of it all

leaving behind olives
almonds and peaches
Sonia found herself
this cottage garden
and northern view

settling down snug
where the heir of air
is flecked by blossom
falling in pinches
she’ll soon sow

   button-headed scabious
   moon-rayed oxeye
   lady's smock
   lilac with a liking for
   the Maspie's damp

she never forgets
the winter prune
perched up the ladder
shaping a canopy
of cropped Ys

she’s added a millennial
scattering of natives
to the old commercials,
small stunted malus
with nary a petal to shed

   Early Julyan
   Lass o’ Gowrie
   The Bloody Ploughman
   White Paradise


Sonia is the gardener at Falkland Palace; the Maspie Burn flows through the orchard; the apples are old Scottish varieties.


Kilmiddlefern, Argyll                                         

Basho’s old recluse called Tosai at Fukui   (50)
is our Annie Briggs at Kilmiddlefern

his yugao, hechima, keito and hahakigi
her sunflowers, bugloss, weld and gourds

in Annie's garden
nectarines ripen
against the warmth
of the wall

grown from a stone
carried from the old
Tea-Garden at the end
of the track to Gylen

an array of scallions
drying in the porch
preserving flavor
between clammy skins

that last harsh frost
stayed the longest
stealing the blossom
from the plum

For many years Annie and her husband Pat used to run a bunk-house & Tea Garden on the island of Kerrera

In the early episodes of our journey we searched for 'Shirakawa', the barrier through which Basho enters the 'Highlands', the auld countrie. Ken and I wandered through way-glens and hosomichi – the wee B roads – of Perthshire, from Sma' Glen up to the Falls of Dochart. We felt closest to the portal of Shirakawa in the heartlands around Dunira and St Fillan's Hill.

if you're travelling
in the north country fair,
where the wind hangs heavy
on the border-line…

John Waite, ‘Girl from the North Country’

anticipation each day mounting… (13)

people ask us the way 
to the Shirakawa Barrier
and we reply, take it easy,
the Shirakawa Barrier
is everywhere

the map’s watershed 
is Shirakawa,
reading the names of
burns running south-east
allts flowing north-west

lovers' beeches’
gully-carved hearts and initials
are Shirakawa,
an intimacy
between settlement
and elsewhere

Comrie's confluence of
Lednock, Earn and Ruchill
is Shirakawa:
Edo to the east 
in the orderly market-town,

Oku to the west 
in twilit deer, pheasants 
lacking road-sense, 
tumbledown gardens
and close-ranked pines

any wee road
where your fingers
brush meadowsweet verges
is Shirakawa,
when you let the wheel turn

through the glen
with all your attention
on  the encounters and minor 
dramas of PAS-

any one-street village with
shops stocking FANCY GOODS
and a butcher’s that sells
a new brand of oatcakes
is Shirakawa

any clicked latch
of a gate that
makes a space
for things to come
is Shirakawa

The beeches carved with lover names were seen by the River Lednock and River Bran.

Finally, a more retrospective episode, considering some of the walks I made that year, their pains and pleasures.

I take a long look
back at rocky wastes
and tussocky paths
from Pillow Hill                                             

so long a stranger
struggling with
the stinging lactic
that shadowed

so many walks
I’ve found other
ways to wander
in the wilds

other ways to be
where Suzanne said 
I could never belong                                       
sharing the warmth

of Ken’s quiet company
or sitting by the fire
counting 6,
7, 8, no, that’s 9 hours

he's been gone
plodding up Schiehallion
and down Slioch
carrying my eyes with him

while I’ve walked
along the old paths
at whatever pace
I’m able

running my fingernails
around the contour-lines 
gauging the incline
and fatigue

that will result
letting myself wonder
what would I have been
well, a climber, father to?

would we could
live our lives
as a novel
read backwards

secure in our ending
as a tied rope
or taut stay
each strand untwisting

a moment
tense with shock
giddy for joy
when love becomes

our delirious ending
we slowly un-wind
to the tight knot
of that familiar

difficult beginning
would we could glimmer
the perfect form          
of an idea

emerging complete
in its own right
from out some vague
insubstantial object

only every now
and then we may
be brave enough to dare
a handstand

emptying out our
pockets, seeing
inside a world
turned upsidedown                                                                  

Pillow Hill, from R. L. Stevenson, 'Land of Counterpane'; lactic acid, symptom of Myalgic Encephalomyelitis; Suzanne Piper, post-urban artist.


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