Thursday, 23 June 2011

(33) St Weems

‘the waves lap the harbour wall

like a form of laughter’

– John Burnside, ‘The House by the Sea’

Our Obanazawa is St Weems, on the East Neuk seaboard; St Weems by evening is hummed asCorcovado

Our Seifu, well-to-do but not a petty mind, Ms Seifu, not so well off, but rich in heart

Our host of ways of being entertained are quiet nights, wee walks, old time fireside chats, doing the garden, you know the kind of thing

Her distant Miyako is Mont Blanc, where Ms Seifu sits in her tent in thunder & lightning, rain and sun, because she has to

Our women of antiquity are Alice, Emily & Lizzy, classic in their appearance

Not Oban but Obanazawa

33 Portrait of Ms Seifu
Alec Finlay, 2011

Basho and Sora take a 10 day break from their journey at Obanazawa resting by the sea, by the sea, with their old pal Seifu (Suzuki Michisuke).

My Obanazawa is St Weems, a wee harbour town with views to the Isle of May and Bass Rock, where as everyone knows little boys and little girls come from.

My Seifu is a Ms who I know I can rest with, and rest I need. So this trip I do alone, leaving Ken back in Edo.

so nice and cool

making myself right at home
sprawled out for a nap


lovely and warm
being right at home

sunken in
a garden chair

AF, after Sora

33 Ms Seifu's poem
photograph by Ms Seifu, 2011


33 circle poem, (‘pain like this pain like that’, after Creeley, AF)
Alec Finlay, 2011

‘Amongst those of old were many that perished upon the journey.’

– Basho’s Oku, station 1

I need rest because this is the first station after my big winter illness. I almost died, it needs saying that way, with the ‘almost’, but nevertheless. That makes this the most difficult part of the project to write. And in some ways the most important.

St Weems was where I would try to begin over again, hesitantly, as I have written this account, slowly, trying to find the right way in; puzzling how much to say, how to balance reticence with confession; recalling how Basho’s oku states a requirement of Ken and me: we are not journeying only to praise beautiful places, but to acknowledge other people’s lives, learn from them, and discover our own feelings; to find our reflection for what the old ginko poet found, giving a shaped truth to what happened; which means we must allow weakness, failure or fear into the poem.

33 circle poem (I try to begin)
Alec Finlay, 2011

Basho journeyed far in the last few years of his life, burning his shanks with moxa, spending more time on the road than in any of the huts and cottages that became home, dying at 50. This trip, from Edo to Ogaki, saw his companion Sora taken ill, so badly he had to abandon the road and go and stay with his family. Was illness – mine, Judith’s – fated; was it predicted in the road north’s anagrams which I’d found before we began?

Oh torn thread!
Thorn or death!

Of course, these cast phrases are not oracles. The illnesses happened because they happened. What’s for you will no, and all that. So, unsure how to begin, I asked the American haikuist Cor van den Heuvel to find me a signpost, by saying something about what Basho called his ‘old trouble’. Cor went further, directly to dying.

Basho’s Illness: Cor Van Den Heuvel

'One aspect of Basho's final illness that has always intrigued me was that the last haiku he worked on was a revision he made to a poem about the Kiyotaki River. The final haiku is

kiyotaki ya
nami ni chiri komu
ao matsuba

clear cascade
fallen into the waves
green pine needles

A number of Japanese haiku poets consider this to be his real death poem, since he wrote (or dictated) the revision after he composed the more famous "withered fields" haiku. Tadashi Kondo in about 1990 took me to see the Kiyotaki River (in a region of forested mountains not far from Kyoto) and in our hike along the river, he pointed out a large stone near where the waterfall that inspired the haiku enters the river. Basho's haiku is carved on the stone.’

(Cor van den Heuvel)

View of Kiyotaki, Shobido Tanaka
Postcard, Late 1930s

33 circle poems
pain like this pain like that, after Creeley (AF); today today today, after Ruskin (AF)
photograph by Alec Finlay, 2011

My illness

Marcus Coates, Journey to the Lower World, 2005

‘Suffering is nothing, apart from the relationship between the past and the future.’

Simone Weil

I’m an artist: it’s the only thing I can be. It’s the same for Marcus. Limit makes the creative life – its different measures of time, labour and value – all we can do, artists all we can be. No romance in it.

An old truth, scrape an artist and you’ll find a wound. Sometimes. Wounds have wisdom. Some wounds. Illness is strange, sets you apart. Art too. It’s a point of view.

33 bridge
Alec Finlay, 2011

That winter I began voiding bridges, tippexing out the blanks: faith suspended over a chasms of disbelief. Then the snow came, laying a sheet over the city, puffing the cars into iced cakes. I went to see my lover in Edo, stepped out a cab onto the icy kerb and ankled off at an angle / \ snapping the tendons. The pain was so excruciating I found that lying there on the cold I couldn’t form my mouth into words. I tried to hobble but found myself fainting and swungslowly slowly around a lamppost, like the spindle of an old mono record player, switching down the settings, flicking the song into a drone.

The ankle was fine, the nurse explained how there was no break. I could hobble. Then the flu jab, just a precaution, with H1N1 the nurse was so happy to tell me was in the needle. Christmas came and I turned dizzy. Had a dream of ‘them’ at the door, breaking it down with an axe. That ushered in the swine flu reaction, the violence of the image perfectly projecting my immune system’s total collapse.

A few days later, just before Tom Lubbock died in the hospice, I had another fever-dream: the word “abutting”, which drew one of Tom’s sideways smiles as he took it for his own. Abuttinghim, gone, the wall paper-thin. I could feel it, the proximity to extinction.

January, February, March, like the old Barbara Dickson song. Unable to breathe, sweating, pulsing, muscular pain. Fever shouldn’t happen over and over again; it’s supposed to be a burning, cleansing. This was no Waltons scene. It wasn’t breaking. Cycling between fevers and exhaustion, dizzy spells and a chest frozen solid with hypertension.

The doctor looked pained and suggested I wait for a few months and if it’s not gone, well, she never said quite what then. The one conversation that wasn’t going anywhere was about the wisdom of injecting 4 flu strains into the veins of someone who has a neuro-immune system illness.

Medicine can be wonderful in the equations it creates, creating a pure relationship: facts & words – symptoms & treatments. Sometimes symptoms are concealed by assumptions, and in that not listening words and common understanding are gone. To a poet it’s like allowing fancy to distort an image, making pretty lies. It isn’t done.

33 hokku-label
photograph by Ms Seifu, 2011

The thing I craved most of all in those 3 months was energy-for-thought. There were days when I found enough to tippex out one postcard. That was all the day could hold, that small something was still a thing to set on the bedside table, among remedies, painkillers and pills.

What’s life without the ability to let the mind float, free of pain, through a landscape where things breeze by one another, or collide gently, jar and divert. Pain is a lock and press. The truth is, I endured that time, but I knew that I would not go on indefinitely. There are limits that one needs to limit.

33 hokku-label
photograph by Ms Seifu, 2011

Why must I think of everything as earned’, that wonderful line of Creeley’s. During the illness each act flares up as a disproportionate cost, a whiplash effect. Evening shadows are beautiful in the way they stretch us, but where they are there’s also sun. One defining aspect of disability is that disequilibrium of things done and their resulting cost. That ratio has been a familiar of my life for 20 years; a neuro-immune system dysfunction that came on at 21 means that I have to weigh each walk. To go to this hilltop or that dun today will mean tomorrow and the day after given over to pain and fatigue. The cycle used to last 5 days, which is too much – being more than the joy any walk can bring. It comes down to a value thing. By last year I had rebalanced the ratio to 2 days, which is a cost I could bear, as the memory would sustain itself beyond that shadow. Now the jab reaction had set me back 20 years and I knew I couldn’t give another 10 to finding my way back again.

33 circle poem (my world seen through my wound)
from 12 poem-prints, Alec Finlay, published by Ingleby Gallery, 2011

Sometimes, if there is fine weather or even rain and the view ahead is too good to refuse the decision is made. Go on. Last summer I’d deliberately kept our walk to the water-lily lochan for the last day of the Argyll trip, so that I could take the lead in my legs back home with me and sit it out there. At Dunsinane I looked at the hill and it had an ordinariness, enough to be sensible, so I sat me down in the valley and let Ken and Kevin make the assault. Limits are a shackle, but imagination helps. There are other ways, other tasks: take a turn being John Anderson at the foot of the hill; dream the summit.


health &

Still, there’s no way to avoid the truth: bog-cotton places and wild lochans come at a cost. I end up ill in beautiful places; the very places I don’t want illness to darken. So, when Ken and I heard the delightful unexpected news that we’d got the award to do this project, it dawned on me, duh, that I would actually have to go to these far-flung, wild, inaccessible places. They couldn’t just be names. I felt a small circular void open up in my belly, tattooed ‘fool’, for my ‘old trouble’ would prevent me climbing mountains, or even hills of paply stature.

But projects are horizons: they show us the farthest places our imagination can gainsay, no further. But they also change the skyline, as we do when we walk. This was no flat expanse of moor or vale; this was a mountain-shaped idea. Was I inviting myself to go farther on or setting myself for a fall? Had hiding my illness been an act of integrity, or a lie that was about to find me out? How would I ever get everywhere that Basho said we should go? How could I negotiate the need to rest when we needed to keep a shift on? How could I not let Ken down? How could I protect this wonderful opportunity from failure and pain?

Together we have made it work, or mostly so. Basho has helped, seeing as he was feeling the effect of his years. Like us he sometimes celebrated places close by, without actually visiting.He let us include our failures, the holy well we couldn’t find, the afternoon the rain won. I’ve climbed no mountains. Ken does that, at a steady pace. Or I can make a virtue of my limits by inviting others to collaborate, as with this WORD MNTN Claudia delivered for me, bringing together the name and its skyline.

33 WORD-MNTN (Sgurr Alasdair)
Alec Finlay, with Claudia Zieske, 2011

In the Highlands there are magical places a stone’s throw from the verge. By reading the map carefully together we found the route that runs closest to the ring, dun or waterfall, dropped me off, or I have watched Ken’s frame get smaller, as he marches on. Walk on, Chonzie, walk on.

33 Lochan Duilleag-bhàite
photograph by Ken Cockburn, 2010

The winter illness was something else. An enormous rip torn right through the year of journeying. It allowed for nothing but being ill – not that cosy snuffly poorliness where you can dip into a book and feel your nerves relax. No sleeping myself better, no magic pill. No nurse.

The illness insisted: what am I, when the signals in my body turn murky, clag and pulse sharply. Pain, they say, is just over-energy. A needle signal, like treading on a nettle. But that pain’s a sharp warning to move on. It’s the duration of pain that dulls; dragging out hours into days into weeks, doing nothing but enduring. Under the surface of the lily pool there are dark muddy depths.

A day might come when I could write one line. Is it any good? What can we do within limit, and when those limits tighten? What is the travel literature of Counterpane?


33 Tom Shakespeare
photograph by Alec Finlay, 2011

Looking back on it all I was lucky that I could ask my pal Tom Shakespeare what he thought about creativity and constraint.

33 audio, Tom Shakespeare & Basho
Alec Finlay, 2011

The Nightmare (after Fuseli)

Figure with meat (after Bacon)

Dead Christ (after Mantegna)
Tom Shakespeare, 2009-10

33 audio, Tom Shakespeare
Alec Finlay, 2011

These are recent works of Tom’s; brave exemplary work. A departure, translating his role of spokesperson for disability which has touched so many people, to that of makar with which he will touch more.

Counterpane verses

33 hokku-label
photograph by Alec Finlay, 2011

And these are my counterpane verses, marking the journey back to health. Signature among them the hawthorn verse, for what finally released me from those recurrent falling fevers was a seasonal bloom, tincture of hawthorn, aubepine, which settled my boiling blood- pressure in a few days and allowed my lungs to begin their long healing. Self-diagnosis, the artist’s way. From the doctors, nothing. From tight rolled buds to the scattering of creamy flowers I slowly mended, shaping a regime of vitamins, minerals and poultices.

33 hokku labels on Ms Seifu's apple
photograph by Alec Finlay, 2011


after Celan

nights cave’s

from the


how much more
than halfway ?

rolled buds
on my birthday



the distance
from Counterpane to here

is measured
in breaths


this haw-
thorn blooms
in my




a strong

so as to

about in the


the heart’s a

the heart’s a


each time I’m ill
the shock

is the same
as the first time






getting down to it
putting our finger

either side
of the wasp’s waist

33 circle poem (today today today, after Ruskin)
Alec Finlay, 2011

There’s not a day goes by I’m not thankful to have found my way back.

Ripstock Idylls, Dunino Elegies

‘Strange to see all that was once in place, floating
so loosely in space.’

Rainer Maria Rilke, Duino Elegy 1

33 windsock
Alexander Maris, 2009

The bus winds south thru Dunino, which I insist on mistaking for Duino. The sea-edged fields remind me of missions I made as assistant to Zoe Irvine, back in the 1990s, in EMUH, her blue Volvo, tracking down the lost airfields of the East Neuk and Dundee. It’s coming back to me now, that this coastal strip was one. Dotted tell-tale brick and concrete ruins marking wartime RAF bases that were never much more than a field divided by a broad seam of concrete. Jets from Leuchars pass them in a blink.

Zoe sewed a windsock for each lost airfield, colourful ripstock which she’d have happily worn herself if Muji had sold it in trouser lengths. The socks were hoisted on an old netball stand and pole, held by clothes-pegs, or me hidden if the corn was high enough, for a blink of her camera-shutter. Marking time’s passing, contrails, angels and bandits, as IHF would put it. Or, as she liked to say, enough to


I loved those trips and I can see now they were a mini version of this oku. It was Zoe who I first outlined the idea for a journey through Scotland searching for Shirakawa, all those years ago. Ideas sometimes emerge from within, toward someone. That was her, though ours was not the journey to share. Our relationships worked best when she had hold the steering-wheel. Although my map reading was only that of a poet, more excited by river names than practised at roundabouts or junctions, there’s some pleasure to be had in being even a bit useful. Call me Sancho.

Shadowed too, those halcyon days, as the muscular exhaustion mounted and illness charged a cost the expeditions never deserved. In the door and straight into the bath. Still there’s that old frisson when I see the windsock at Leuchars, a soft orange pointer that dibs-and-dabs in a wee North Sea breeze.

Ms Seifu’s Bit

My journey to St Weems was delayed by copper.

33 hokku-label
(‘cable theft / on the railways // a journey / back to the 80s’, AF)
photograph by Alec Finlay, 2011

Ms Seifu met me from the first bus-stop, by the Wok & Spice.

my old pal
at the bus-stop

hair touched
with frost

Being serious I got straight down to my task: resting in Ms Seifu’s garden, doing some labeling while she readied the tattie patch.

33 wish, Ms Seifu’s apple
Alec Finlay, 2011


just this once
the gulls cry

a change in the weather
for the better


after LN

see this bucket
Ms Seifu’s yellow bucket’s

seen her through
to Spring


the gardener’s
new policy :

more tatties
less green alkanet


Ms Seifu’s poem

begins & ends
in the heart

They say that people in glasshouses shouldn’t grow poems.

33 Ms Seifu’s glass-house
Alec Finlay, 2011

The theme song for the weekend is Corcovado which Ms Seifu can sing in either tongue, if she’s minded. It goes along with her readying breakfast, for singing is her regime. Although the audio we recorded was only spoken.

33 audio, Ms Seifu & Basho
Alec Finlay, 2011

Her pulley makes its own wee poem.

drying at dusk
loveheart pants

make their own

33 Ms Siefu's soap
photograph by Alec Finlay, 2011

33 wish tying

photograph by Alec Finlay, 2011

In the evening we make a recording of Basho and some of Ms Seifu’s poems, along with a verse of Machado, for the rhyme with Corcovado.

On the second day Ms Seifu takes me for a walk modest for her, epic for me – toward the doocot,

when the tide
is high

take the path
through the graves

33 hokku-label
(‘imagine a world / in which every keep / was a doocot’, AF)
photograph by Alec Finlay, 2011

We stop off at Ms Seifu’s friends’ Quiet Garden – capitalized because it is shared with any visitor who wishes, as an act of generosity. There’s a summer house to add to our survey of huts and sheds, which they loan Ms Seifu for writing sessions; hot glass like the old porch at Stonypath, with straw hats on hooks.

33 hokku-label
(‘so dated / elderflower cordial / 26 June 2010 / butterfly cakes / Sunday School coffee morning’, AF)
photograph by Ms Seifu, 2011

Elderflower cordial and butterfly cakes in the sun; the kasane in bloom and a shelter of windbent old apples, view over the estuary sweeping from May – Bass – Berwick Law – Cockenzie chimleys – to brow of Salisbury Crag. View of their garden moon.

33 harled moon
photograph by Alec Finlay, 2011

photograph by Alec Finlay, 2011

Down at the harbour, homages to Angus Martin, Kate Bush and IHF.

33 hokku-label, NIL DESPERANDUM
photograph by Alec Finlay, 2011


the forward wheel-
house forgot

a skipper can’t steer
and shoot the net

(The Ring-Net Fishermen, Angus Martin)

33 Hope
IHF, 30 Signatures to Silver catches (Tarasque Press, 1971)

33 Circle poem
('what the day brings the night heals what the night brings the day heals')
Alec Finlay, 2011

And then we set off together for the Cairn.

The Cairn: Tackling Ackling

33 wish, apple, Cairn Gallery
photograph by Alec Finlay, 2011

When we began this journey I’d known we must go and see Tom & Laurie as they would have been near the top of Basho’s list. Their Cairn Gallery has been an exemplary model of generosity and constraint for three decades. I said we’d stop by to Tom, who replied in the Scottish manner.

come for tea
and cake
but no poetry

33 hokku-label
photograph by Alec Finlay, 2011

Making a label of his words for the flowering currant was an act of love and respect, not arm-wrestling.

33 circle poem (braid 1 for a crofter)
Alec Finlay, after Roger Ackling, 2010

The show at The Cairn is Roger Ackling’s. He thanks me for the circle poem stamp that I made of his story of what the weaver said to him when he ordered his new suit on Harris, which I’d heard from Chris Drury on Uist.



for Roger Ackling, Cairn Gallery, Sunday 3 April

Ms Seifu sings the string and clothes-peg notes.

33 Roger Ackling, The Cairn Gallery, Pittenweem

Just before I leave David Bellingham arrives with boxes full of Laurie’s buttercups.

33 Laurie Clark
published by WAX366, 2011

They returned home

Women in the silkworm room
all dressed simply
like women from antiquity

Sora’s hokku, translated by Sam Hamill

Already it was time to go home and the way back through the Kingdom was bathed in sun. I even found the ‘silk women’ Basho and Sora enjoyed so much for their old-style trews – one commentator suggests the women of Obanazawa were dressed in mompe work pants in a style called fugumi, which had the air of a simpler time gone by – Alice, Emily & Lizzy had something of that when we stopped off for a fish supper at The Hawes Inn.

Emily's day
was so

it stretched

her arms

all the way
and brought

them behind
her back

33 Forth Rail Bridge
Alec Finlay, 2011

Even the bridge was happy, so much so that it began to bend its arms.

coda: For Isabel of Bunessan, Mull

you knew the plants
you knew of the darkness
in the wounds we carry,
the sickness
we must know and love.
And with no less love
you could find
the simple, the herb
the words.

You found the words
to carry our darkness
to penetrate it
to look at it
and hold it
gently, with love
then, return it
to the sea
she herself
the best one
to bear it
the great surging sea.

Jayne Wilding
Homage to the Carmina Gadelica (morning star & ArtTM: Edinburgh & Inverness, 1997)

coda: email from Friendly Street

Drawing as breathing.

for you:

they say my shanks grow thin
as long as they still climb, expect me Yoshimo
in cherry blossom time.

And the dog. She has been digging.
Pop had a go whilst I was building.
I dug a hole so deep she never did it again.

I feel like I am giving myself 'an interview' – as my late master called them – speaking to you.
Within my frailty and to yours I say Yes.

I know that I do not know.
I am exposed to my weather
I rain I shine.

Seasons greetings!

Truly, D.


Cairn Gallery & Editions

Thomas A. Clark

Tamsin Clark

WAX366 publications are available through Ingleby Gallery

Tom Shakespeare’s blog

Alice Ladenburg


  1. 'Portrait of Ms Seifu - such a great photograph. If Basho had carried a camera what would he have chosen to catch but shadows?

  2. long,
    but nicely done,
    Haiku is said in one breath