Several years ago, I was very impressed when some members of Adelaide’s Friendly Street Poets reported that they had taken on the challenge of writing a poem a day for a month. While secretly wondering whether this exercise had any real value, I was also impressed by their self-discipline. But not for me, I thought.
Until last year, when we were travelling around Spain, a slow rambling trip by car, staying sometimes in big cities, sometimes small out-of-the-way spots, but enjoying the sense of freedom and time.
Time. Our travel span was a month, and after a few days I found myself needing to write. And so I wrote the first poem sitting on our balcony at the Alhambra Palace Hotel in Granada, as I watched the small swifts that dotted the skies, wheeling endlessly through the clear bright blue of a Spanish summer evening. Suddenly I sensed how writing the poem had fixed this spot, this moment, in my life and memory.
A month. Why not try the challenge to myself of writing a poem a day as we travelled? It would be easy to backtrack several days to our arrival in Madrid, and I had detailed journal notes to rely on. The missing days could be filled in without any problems, as I searched back for odd moments during the early time in Valencia, still vivid in my mind. Then I could go on.
So was born A Poem a Day, now a coffee table book for friends and family, where each day has a double page with a poem on the right-hand side and a matching photograph (yes, I’m a compulsive photographer) on the left. Thirty-three days and thirty-three poems later, we left Spain – with great regret.
I would have to say that this was no chore, but one of the most satisfying experiences of my life. There was no problem in finding things to stimulate writing, and they were by no means always Big Things, more often just small significant moments that made me say “Aha. That will be today’s poem.” Like driving through a small town between Arcos and Santiago, and seeing high on the church steeple three storks, which led to this record of the sight:
Monday, July 15, 2013
Sky Babies (en route to Santiago)
“Quick! Stop the car!” I beg.
He looks and sees them too,
pulls off the road beside an old stone wall,
and waits while I walk back.
A Spanish church,
a steeple, belfry,
higher yet, the ragged outline
of a nest.
Huge, perched aloft,
surely a breeze would topple it?
But there, in silhouette
against the burning blue of midday sky
surveying, from their vantage point,
this little country town.
And there between them
is a third, a little one.
The locals at the tables
of the roadside café
watch me as I focus,
photo after photo,
at crazy foreigners.
He raises eyebrows
as I manouvre back
into the loaded car.
“Not out delivering babies
anywhere today?” he asks.
“Got their own instead!” I say.
Or the day our bus on a day tour was caught in traffic and halted near a group of shops, where I noticed the piano keys that had been painted on the music shop’s front step. But then I looked further:
Thursday, 4 July, 2013
Along the Cuesta del Bailio (Córdoba)
Across the doorstep of the music shop,
he’s painted an eye-catching pattern,
black and white.
I see them from the tourist bus.
A bike lies straddling them.
But then my eyes are drawn
directly to the couple on the pavement.
passionate, but delicate.
He cups her face in hands
that slide, caressing.
She’s olive, beautiful,
emerging classic Spanish beauty.
He’s young – a caballero.
are drawn again together.
A burly man emerges.
Gestures fiercely towards the bike.
A parking problem?
He sends the boy away,
and then, peremptory,
he motions to the girl.
She goes, reluctantly,
casting backward glances.
And I wonder.
Late for work?
Or was that Papa,
on guard duty?
The tourist bus moves on.
I guess I’ll never know.
Sometimes there were moments of personal questioning, raised occasionally by the lavish ornamentation of the elaborate Spanish churches, both cathedrals and in tiny towns:
Monday, 8 July, 2013
In the Parraquoia Iglesia de San Pedro (Arcos de la Frontera)
One euro to the old man at the door,
who stands aside to let us enter.
Grey soaring Roman arches
span simple walls
that are adorned with splendour.
Retablo with its rich and lovely carving,
a mass of gold and colour,
elaboration of side altars,
chapels to arouse the adoration of the worshippers,
glass caskets holding precious relics.
“But what would Christ have thought?”
asks my companion, critical.
“That money could have helped the poor!”
“Man does not live by bread alone!”
I say sententiously.
(The devil always could quote scripture
for his purposes …)
But as I gaze around my spirit lifts
in awe and wonder, and I know
my words were true.
Sometimes, they were impressive sights, well-known throughout the world, like Segovia’s famous Roman-built aqueduct. Here it was both the splendid and awe-inspiring sight that captured my imagination, but also the possibilities of seeing it from a different perspective:
Wednesday, July 24, 2013
Beneath the aqueduct (Segovia)
Think of Segovia.
Those stage-set rearing arches
of grey stone
that span the city skyline –
a challenge to the sky.
This aqueduct’s the city’s heart
and soul – both symbol and reality.
It’s beautiful, magnificent.
We touch huge building blocks
and marvel at perfection of the sweep
of arches – higher, higher, till
imagination soars to heaven.
What Roman matron watched these rise,
two thousand years ago?
Did her heart lift in wonder?
Or was her only thought,
‘At last there’s certainty
of water for the town?’
Does one need to travel to take on this sort of project? Of course not. Everyday life is filled with such moments, and the recording of them is an enriching experience.
First, it adds a special awareness of the significance of the passing hours: one is much more alert to what is happening in one’s life and how it could be viewed. Second, it’s not just viewed, but also transformed. In the act of writing – the shaping of the moment, the search for the right form, the right words, the right perspective to bring to it, one lives the experience so much more intensely and thus more richly. Thirdly, if I’m searching for spin-off, is the value in the sharing. The fact that so many people have looked at this poetic record and experienced Spain in a new way with us has given me (and, I dare to hope, them) great pleasure.
But just the writing in itself has been valuable, and it’s a project that I would recommend strongly. Writing is a skill that needs practice as well as inspiration. This was a great way to foster both. If I could add to the credibility of what I’m saying, it would be to tell you that I have just had three weeks in Ireland – and a similar set of poems has been the outcome.
We left Spain sadly, knowing we might never go back. Even at this time, the final poem helped to ease the pain of parting. Here are its closing lines, the last few of the thirty-three poems in this collection:
We grieve such endings.
The richness of this month
is held now only in our memories.
“Repeat the past?”
The Gatsby question.
How wrong he was!
never can be lived again.
Even were we young,
with time enough to plan return,
we’ve learned this truth:
it is not possible
to cross a second time
the river we have crossed before.
A knowledge that one must retain
or life would be impossible.
So goodbye Spain.
We thank you for the month
that we have had,
the treasure house of memories
you’ve given us.
We will remember you
when we are stirred by art works
you have shown us,
or caught quite unawares by scents
of orange blossom in hot summer nights
or distant echoes of an Ola in the air.
We leave you,
but you still are in our hearts.