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Sabrina’s Stream at Kempsey on Severn by Benjamin Williams Leader

High summer approaches. For me this time of year is very much associated with that most aetherial of birds, the swift. I’m waiting eagerly for them to arrive.  Remembering sitting in the garden at peace on summer afternoons; looking upwards into depth upon depth of blue, where the screaming swifts are seen looping through the sky in their great, unhindered gyres. So sad that their numbers have declined in recent years, not enough people have proper wooden eaves under which they can make their nests anymore.

The poet Geoffrey Hill, once in old age sitting on the banks of the Severn, wanted also to celebrate them, as part of his rich meditation on love, old age, the contradictions of reason and desire, and the alchemical power of imagination – Scenes from Comus. Earlier in the sequence, in the depths of winter, where a harsh Icelandic light seemed to irradiate the scene with nuclear intensity, he had established ‘that we are / at once rational, irrational, possessed by reason. / That this is no reason for us to despair.’ Then later in the year, by the river that holds so many associations for him, the high aerobatics of those birds seem to figure for him both reason in coils and in liberating guise:

Sharpened, sharpening, the swifts’ wings

track and loop back clear skeins

through vanished arches.

See in what ways the river

lies padded – no, dashed – with light.

Show whether the imaged clouds

are litanies or escorts.

A White Throated Swift

The scene is half real, half imagined. He appears to remember some long vanished branch line railway over the river through which the swifts in his mind are still swooping. ‘Clear skeins’ – the ambivalence of being knotted and yet without substance, the looping of memory around things invisible yet present, the V of the swan’s flying formation (its more normal useage for birds) echoing the arrowed V of the swift’s wings. And the light on the River too is ambivalent – both soft and sharp, revealing and concealing what it partly reflects of the sky above. So these things of the mind, clouds in the sky, may be litanies – the heart’s repetitions, past habits of petition & condemnation, or escorts, leading us onwards to the unknown future. Geoffrey Hill has helped me to understand why I love this bird and its looping flight so much. They are both the past in its coiling gyres and the unknown future with all its possibilities, searing the air with wild, joyful screams.

Railway viaduct over the River Severn with Shrewsbury in the background by Agnes Blunt
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I have just updated our website – let us know what you think of the new look. The featured image is now Blake’s engraving of Orc in the fires of energy, from his book America a Prophecy. Orc is Blake’s fiery spirit of youthful rebellion, who attempts to overturn the established order of society and bring new life and energy. He represents both political and sexual revolution. In America he taunts the controlling colonial power of Albion’s Angel. There are various theories about how Blake derived the name. So far as I’m concerned it is pretty clear that he adapted it from the Latin orcus – the name of a demon in hell who punished broken oaths, from the Greek Horkos, later becoming a name for the Underworld itself. In Blake’s later prophetic books it is Urizen, the embodiment of alienated reason who is at war with Orc. Goodness do they have at tough time:

His (Orc’s) fierce flames issued on all sides, Gathering strength in animating volumes, roaming abroad on all the winds, raging intense, reddening into resistless pillars of Fire rolling round and round, gathering Strength from the Earth’s consumed and heavens and all hidden abysses.

From The Four Zoas

Urizen resists with frozen storms and icy whirlwinds… Meanwhile the spirit of Imagination Los (aka Urthona) looks on horrified – sometimes taking one side sometimes the other. Orc cannot be denied, his energy must be faced and harnessed. Sadly recent events in the Middle East show us all too clearly what kind of destruction can be wreaked when this does not happen.

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(On tablet/phone best viewed in landscape format)

URTHONA Buddhist arts magazine covers contemporary and traditional arts from a Buddhist perspective. Our inspirations are William Blake, the zen poets of Japan, and all creative spirits who have pushed back the boundaries of human consciousness. Urthona, appearing once a year, is a beautifully designed, 68 page,  glossy magazine.

For essays on the transformative power of art and imagination  – see listings to right.

Editor’s blog: musings on art, literature & spirit of place – scroll down past information.

Current Issue: Urthona issue 33 – THE FRIENDSHIP ISSUE –

Buy at  Urthona Shop (Or  buy a sample back issue for only £5)

Urthona looks at friendships of the imagination, and discovers fine examples of influence, inspiration and mentorship: * Why is it not wonderful? Maitreyabandhu on his poetic mentorship with poet Mimi Khalvati. * Dante and Virgil – a friendship of descent…

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Become an URTHONA MEMBER for only £1 / month (£2 outside UK) – priority subscription & free access to back issues. More donation options on DONATE page (click on top menu)   

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Yes, the next issue of Urthona magazine is in production. The theme this time is the sometimes neglected genre of Science Fiction. Science Fiction at its best can explore regions of human experience that no other kind of literature (apart from perhaps the heroic epic) is capable of doing justice to. It can greatly expand our perspective – opening up immense vistas of time and distance – providing thought provoking ways of seeing the world by contrasting (for example) human civilisation with that of alien races, or the puny temporal blips of recorded history, with the evolution and involution of an entire cosmos. The best writers open up these vistas with due regard for the subtleties of human psychology and human frailties. Such writers are moving into the same territory that Buddhists have explored for thousands of years. .

Publication aims for late summer / early autumn 2018. Here are some of the highlights:

  •  An interview with doyen of British SF, Christopher Priest.
  • Our amazingly knowledgeable movie editor Ed Piercy on classic alien encounter movies.
  • A vision of Transcendental Science Fiction, with a focus on Olaf Stapledon, and the Chinese classic novel The Story of the Stone.
  • Dharmavadana on that modern seer, Phillip K. Dick.
  • A feature on Arthur C. Clarke, including memories of meeting him in Sri Lanka.
  • Plus as usual a rich selection of new poetry, news, reviews and photography.
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‘Unction and Slaughter’
Faith and Doubt in the poetry of Geoffrey Hill

by Ratnagarbha (Ambrose Gilson)

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This standing stone was spotted just outside Hatfield Forest, north east Essex. Although it has clearly been set up by a farmer just outside his farmhouse as an interesting feature, the stone itself does look very old and extremely weathered. It is some kind of conglomerate with many small pebbles ingrained in the rock. Surely someone trying to manufacture a megalith would not use this kind of stone as it doesn’t look especially mythic or impressive. However its shape is certainly very like some of the smaller standing stones at Avebury. So if a forgery a clever one…

PS I hear rumours of a church somewhere in Essex that is supposed to have a ring of buried megaliths all around the edge of the grave yard. I hope to report on this properly at some point in the future. Any pointers gladly received…

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Stourbridge Common – tracks to nowhere, the iron bridge, memories of the fair…

Stourbridge Common is the nearest piece of semi-rural land to where I live in Cambridge. It is only a five minute cycle ride away but on dark winter afternoons it can take on an epic doom-laden appearance… The straight track across its centre becomes a walk into the infinite instead of a few hundred yards towards the railway bridge.

As one walks collective memories of the distant past crowd around. For Stourbridge Common was the site of one of the largest medieval fairs in Europe, only eclipsed by the great fairs of Champagne in central France. Here thousands of people thronged, and you could buy anything from alchemical materials to humble vegetables. Supposedly Isaac Newton found here prisms useful for his researches. There are still streets running down to the Common with names like ‘Garlic Row’ which embalm the memory of the goods once battered here.

My aim today however is a much more recent relic. The iron footbridge over the railway which, since the nineteenth century, has rudely bisected the ancient common. As you walk the track it looms closer, the gloom lightens, and a strange dusky light spreads in the sky, until finally the graffiti in all its glory becomes legible.

Underneath a wee space sometimes used by homeless people for a last ditch place to sleep if all the hostels are full…

The bridge of course is nowhere near as old as the railway, and it is far from pretty. However, for some reason I rather like it in all of its boxy gaucheness. With its walls of welded steel in graphite gun metal grey. The best thing is the echoing clang as you ascend the stairs – you can imagine you are clambering up some sea-swept gantry on a large warship. The walls of the staircase are high to prevent accidents, you feel boxed in – safe but on edge at the same time. If such a bridge does not feature in the grungy Noir of the chase thriller Get Carter then they really ought to have put one in, worth it for the sound effects alone.

One feels a little reluctant to trust one’s weight to the decayed metal but I trepidaciously ascend the steep steps feeling like a seven year old on an adventure…

More graffiti on the caged walkway at the top. More reminiscent of Tower Hamlets than a village common…

One the further side one crosses a small brook, which as local psychogeographers know rises in the village pond of Cherry Hinton , snakes its way past the chalk quarries at the bottom of Mill Road, crosses the lesser known Coldhams Common, before going under the Newmarket Road and more or less following the railway line across Stourbridge Common on its short journey towards the Cam itself. A place for lads from the nearby estates to hang out and swing on the tree over the treacherously swollen brook…

As I return the light fades again, and the poignant, fractal silhouettes  of alders are outlined against the sky. Vernacular gloom, rusty nostalgia, the trudge through endless puddles…

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Some fine water colour paintings by Buddhist artist Sudhi S. Pooniyil. He finds inspiration in the village life of his native India, as well as scenes in the UK. More on his website at https://sudhispooniyil.com

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Some recent sightings in the backstreets of Cambridge, not exactly dingy but not well heeled either. Raffish encounters with odds and ends…

Golden tunnel

to nothing good

There never was a road

Nothing is barred

Walk through the wall…

Threads of Nothing

Just a bundle

of threads

blue wisps of nylon

frayed, unbound,

holding to nothing

but one corroded bar

draping to the ground

without a purpose

a lost story

Shadow Bike

No effort needed

no weight, no drive

just shadows on the wall –

what sort of person

without colour or substance

will ride this away?

Weed on the wall

Caramel

of decaying bricks

living

on crumbled

clay

SV

Surely victorious?

Suddenly vanished?

Memorial

to better times…

A blue plaque

that doesn’t let you down,

doesn’t remind you

of last year’s heroes…

Broken Panes

Reflected

in dingy

orange gold

front door

in broken glass

somebody’s hope

somebody’s dream

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