Jane Simmons on her first collection of poems

I am grateful to the editors of The Blue Nib, for this opportunity to write an article about my first collection – poems inspired by the Book of Kells exhibited in the library of Trinity College, Dublin.

The aim of the collection is to tell the story of the Book of Kells from its beginnings, over a thousand years ago, to the present day. I have long been fascinated by old manuscripts, but particularly illuminated religious texts – and I don’t think I will ever forget hearing Rabbi Lionel Blue’s description about how he opened such a book and fell into holy England.

Iona, the opening poem, is spoken by St. Columba who tells how he and his monks came to the island and established a monastery there. Although I knew about this before writing the poems, I have never visited the island – although I have visited that other ‘holy’ island, Lindisfarne, and so the picture of the island presented in my poem is the result of research into the flora and fauna of Iona, and my memories of the atmosphere of Lindisfarne:


So came we
to this small island, no more than a rock
in a western sea; a rock to the west
of nowhere, beyond the back of beyond
where the land slips away between the sea

and the sky
where this world ends, where the next begins
a hard, harsh land and a bleak battleground
of the elements this rock lashed by winds
battered beaten by storms on all sides

trees stunted
by wild winds contorted uprooted torn
from the earth to the gulls’ screaming squawking
wheeling above the fierce crashing waves
break, break, breaking on the broken shore

this same rock
on a rare day in high summer a place
of such great beauty celandines primroses
wild hyacinth ivy-leaved toadflax  thrift
sea pinks thistles wall pennywort roseroot

wild iris
yellow flag birdsfoot trefoil buttercups
daisies clover silverweed sea-holly
heath-spotted orchid heather and harebells
in grass where the wild hare leaps from hummock

to hummock
and a rainbow hill to hill God’s promise
a holy place where earth meets heaven and
any man might meet his Lord on any path
on this small rock in this wild western sea

Here built we
Our bee-hive stone huts beneath these high skies
Where gulls give way to fulmar, kittiwake
Rock-dove yellowhammer corncrake by day
And where Stars stud praise-be heavens by night

To create an impression of Columba, both the man and the visionary, I wrote two further pieces. The first of these, Columba’s Dream, is an invented account of the man’s dream which shows his human frailty

I did fear then for my life … hopeless, helpless and heart-sore

The second, St Columba’s Vision, intended to show Columba the mystic is composed of lines and phrases taken from the religious poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins. This gives Columba a different voice, one which is intended to oblige the reader to work harder in order to understand the singularity of the speaker’s thought. As I was working on this poem, I was struck by the seeming closeness of some of the later religious poet’s ideas and techniques to those found in certain Anglo-Saxon poems.

I had already used alliterated lines in Iona to echo Anglo-Saxon alliterative verse and give a sense of the long-ago time which I was writing about. This technique reappears in many of the poems in the collection, sometimes combining with more Modern English language and grammatical structures. Using alliterative verse reminded me of other Anglo-Saxon poems and fragments, including riddles – the Exeter Riddles, in particular. I revisited these and translated a few for practice before drawing on this tradition to write my own poems, Riddle and Metamorphosis of a Seabird.

These two poems lead in to the next section of the collection which deals with the actual making of the Book of Kells. I say making rather than writing because the poems include the processes for making the materials used as well as the processes of scribing, illustrating, and embellishing the text. Once again, I researched the processes involved – and even attended a workshop to learn about illuminated manuscripts and practise the techniques myself.

The story of the Book of Kells is told by many different characters in this collection of poems, and I tried to give each of these narrators his own distinctive voice. This can be seen in The Four Quartets, a series of four poems each in four stanzas, which are the Songs of four craftsmen – the Parchmenter, the Artist, the Scribe, and the Binder – and in the poem which follows them, An Illuminated Bestiary

On these numinous, luminous pages,
wild beasts prowl thicketed margins
watched over by bright-winged angels.
A snake sloughs his skin perpetually,
spirals, writhes, arises, resurrected;
a moth bursts from a chrysalis, renewed;
as a peacock parades jewelled plumage,
proud to symbolise incorruptibility.
Christ is a bright fish in an otter’s mouth,
a man, a calf, a lion, an eagle,
in his birth, death, resurrection, ascension.
Vines wind, entwine, bear fruit – His blood.
Gold-haloed evangelists bear his books
and a dove His message of peace.

After this, the insistent repetitions of a villanelle convey the threat of waves of Viking raids in Fear’s Stranglehold, and a traditional Celtic verse form is adapted in from light into darkness, the two poems which lead up to the final poem, from darkness into light in which the Book of Kells itself is given a voice to tell its own story through the ages:

from darkness into light – an extract

I lie here –
long have I lain now in this low loneliness,
bearing witness to the word, the word made flesh,
that word made flesh and dwelling among us –
in the beginning the word, these words my beginning.

I lie here –
longing for the lost sounds of my long-lost life:
slow scritch-scratch of sharpened quill;
painstaking sweep of finest brush;
swift strokes, slow loops, slowest curlicues.

I lie here –
amidst these memories of my own creation:
soft feather and fine fur; hard hands, and soft skin;
flesh of man, bird and beast – all bent to the task,
for all time tied together, tied now, tied forever.

I lie here –
longing for tint and tinct of the time’s blackest ink,
those bright ruby reds, those rich lapis blues,
those paints of great worth, pigments of humble earth,
gold all a-glow gleaming, and fine silver a-glitter.

I lie here –
missing crisp, cold air on clear winter mornings, 
seen in fair filigree on frosted glass,
flicker of candle-flame in a chilly draught,
wild water frozen hard in a world made still.

I lie here –
longing for swish of robes, slap of sole on stone,
that hush in the air held, hanging there –
sacred stillness suspended on the thread of a thought,
warp, weft and weave, word woven into world.

I lie here –
a-dream and a-dreaming of devotional chants,
communion and canticles carried clear on the air,
polyphony and prayers, pure psalms and psalters,
earthly notes high, higher, rising ever high heavenwards.

I lie here –
kissed, and caressed by my creator’s hand,
a-burn and a-blazing and all a-blessed –
the scribes’ scripts turned into holy scripture –
God’s gift is given, God saved me for this.


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