Tuesday, 18 February 2020

Walking on the Water

I wrote Walking on the Water while studying Creative Writing in 2010 with the Open University. It received a distinction. I then produced the poems and photographs in a limited-edition hand-stitched pamphlet, and first performed the sequence at 10 Red in Leith.

The sequence has been performed on many occasions since, in a variety of styles and collaborations.

The poems and photographs were reproduced in the art magazine, After Nyne, edition 5, and the fourth picture was featured in HERE+NOW’s installation, Hold Me Dear, in Edinburgh. As an exhibition piece, the pictures and the pamphlet were featured in Kalopsia Collective’s Octavo Fika event in 2013, and as poetry and photographs, the work has been exhibited in many venues, including The Forest Café, St Margaret’s House, and Henry’s Cellar Bar.
Hold Me Dear exhibition, Rodney Street Tunnel, HERE+NOW

The final poem of the sequence, ‘The Paraclete,’ was awarded Special Merit in the competition, Inspired? Get Writing! run by the Scottish National Galleries, in 2013.

The Gormley statues that were in the Waters were removed until last May, when – to my astonishment – they were replaced; some in the wrong order and different places. My sequence, therefore, is testament to the original 6 Times installation, and is reproduced for the first time in full on this blog below.

A recording can be found here

to Canon Brian Hardy, in gratitude for his wise counsel over the years

Walking on

the Water

An installation of photography and poems

based on Antony Gormley’s 6 Times






6 Times is a landmark sculptural project by celebrated British artist, Antony Gormley.  The work consists of six life-sized figures positioned at six points across Edinburgh, from the Scottish Gallery of Modern Art to the sea, by way of the Water of Leith.”

(National Galleries of Scotland)

1.  Humility (Figure I - HORIZON)


                                                                 Psalm 69. Salvum me fac

SAVE me, O God :
for the waters are come in, even unto my soul.
 I stick fast in the deep mire, where no ground is :
                I am come into deep waters, so that the floods run over me.




The Tarmac softened

I sank deep into the ground

Head-and-shoulders proud




Leaves patted my head

Stroked my pate until it shone

With condescension




Under a white sheet

Sealed in a stone-cold pavement

Regal: rusted gold




Sap seeped up my back

A child looked me in the eye

My shadow shortened

2.  Candlemas (Figure II - GROUND)


Take me out of the mire, that I sink not;

O let me be delivered from them that hate me,
and out of the deep waters.


Candlemas; crocuses were poking through,

and daffodils adorned the window-boxes.

In church, the stained glass in the sanctuary

was painstakingly replaced, pane by pane:

a gap for the whistling springtime wind

made the altar candles wobble nervously.


An opening Hymn, Collect, Psalm and then

The Gospel where, according to Saint Luke,

at the temple they presented Him,

with a pair of turtle doves – or two young pigeons.

Right on cue, a pigeon flew the full length of the nave

And perched upon the rood cross, cooing piously.


I walked to the water and waded in by the weir.

The garlic tang of ramsons on my tongue,

and all around, a procession of snowdrops

flickered like gentle tapers in the breeze.

The water cooled my ankles, and in the trees

A wood-pigeon warbled ‘Nunc Dimittis.’


A Second provided an imperfect cadence:

‘Quia Viderunt’ – then both departed in peace.


NUNC  dimittis servum tuum, Domine,

secundum verbum tuum in pace:

Quia viderunt oculi mei salutare tuum


NOW,   Lord, lettest thou thy servant

depart in peace, according to thy word.

For mine eyes have seen thy salvation.

(Luke 2)

3.     Gethsemane (Figure III - SKY)


Let not the water-flood drown me,
neither let the deep swallow me up;

and let not the pit shut her mouth upon me.



This was not my finest hour.

I said to them, wait by the shore

while I keep an eye on the clock.

The seasons came and went

like friends remembered not.

I felt my limbs lock into place,

and tears fixed fast upon my face.

The waters froze around my feet,

a scourge of sleet sliced into my back;

snow lodged like mocking epaulettes;

icicles as sharp as stings obscured my view.

The clock chimed on, the cockerel crew,

I was denied, denuded, and alone.

Several times I fell, and hid below

the surface, harrowed by the undertow.

How long, I cried, how long will they disown

me?  My God – who will melt this bitter cup?

Will spring, or some other covenant, lift me up?

4.  Ecce Homo (Figure IV - RIGHT)


As for me, when I am poor and in heaviness,

thy help, O God, shall lift me up.


‘Is there a story,’ asked the infant,

nonchalantly pointing at my manhood.

There are, I figured, three dimensions:

my Shadow on the murky surface;

my Reflection in the water;

and above it all, my Self.


LOVE bade me welcome; yet my soul drew back

Guilty of dust, and sin.

But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack

From my first entrance in,

Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning

If I lacked anything.

                                    (George Herbert)

5.  Love Forbad (Figure V - LEFT)



I called her Dawn –

although her name was Maudlin.

Every day she greeted me; 

as the morning-star twinkled

she sprinkled the waters

with the ointment of her eyes.

The wind whipped through her skirts,

making havoc of her hair.


I fixed my stare to where she stood,

up on the walkway by the railings,

lone voyeur to her solitary stance. 

She ebbed towards the bridge,

climbed over, picked along the nettled bank.


In the corner of my eye I saw her

stripping silently, slip into the silken stream,

then behind my back, draw nearer to me.

I asked myself: what is this thing I lack? 


I could hear the plop of pebbles

as her tears dropped in the pool;

the first stone, then another,

until my feet were blessed with

the precious unction of her heart,

the perfume of her penitence.


Wrapping her pale arms around my chest,

I felt her thighs lash like willow-switches

up against my legs, she pressed her soft breasts

into my unyielding frame; her long hair flicked

and wiped away the moisture from my eyes.


Still blind, I asked myself again:

was this the thing for which the Seraphim

stood guard, hard against the garden gate?

She drew back, no longer full of dust and sin.

6.  The Paraclete (Figure VI - HORIZON)



The humble shall consider this, and be glad:

seek ye after God, and your soul shall live.


Criss-crossing across the battered planks

Of a rotten, tatty, abandoned jetty,

I stepped onto an empty plinth,

staring out towards the Firth of Forth.

By my side, a cormorant spread its span,

stood stock still like an Angel of the North,

drying its blackened wings in the setting sun

while seagulls jostled for position on my head.

Next day, the skies opened with a promise

from the East lifting the sun to its zenith.

I sensed a stranger bird soar silently above

my muted crown, and as the laughing gulls

mocked the heavens with their echoing mirth,

I heard my maker’s voice. And he was pleased.


Let heaven and earth praise him:

the sea, and all that moveth therein.



poetry and images, ©J. A. Sutherland, 2011



Saturday, 18 August 2018

Burying the Past

In certain quires and places where I sing (more for money than God, if truth be told) The Robin Chapel is dedicated to the memory of someone who died in the war. It’s an ecumenical place of worship, which means we have visiting preachers from various denominations. The theology, I must say, is varied and the quality, mixed. But it is a chapel of reconciliation and, above all: love.
Recently one of the preachers was speaking about Prophets. When he said that prophets saw the world not as it is but as it should be, it rang a bell in my brain. After a bit of mental sifting, I realised it was almost the same words as a line in one of my short stories from my Fringe Show of five years ago called Phone Box Tales.
Since I’ve been performing some of these tales this year during the Festival, I thought I’d post it on this month’s blog. Imagine it being told by a slightly shifty guy with an estuary accent.
Scum.  Scavenging scum, that’s what they are.  Now I’ve got that off my chest, I’ll tell you another thing. 
            Identity-Theft is a complex form of envy.  I see it all the time at poetry-readings. Yeah, the audience are all thinking as the poet reads her words: I wish I had her eloquence, her turn of phrase, her ability to see the world not as it is, but how it ought to be.  I wish I had her poetry.
            I asked her afterwards, how many drafts do each of your poems endure?  Writing poetry, I’m told, is not about Romantic Inspiration.  It is a process, a craft, a sculpting of language.  Even so, when she told me, hundreds, I guessed she was exaggerating.  I said, no honestly: at what point do you pull the plug?  She conceded: after ten attempts, if the poem is un-publishable, I bin it.  Stunned, I put it to her: the Baby out with the Bathwater?  Maybe, she agreed; cutting off the poet’s nose.
            From that point, I began to follow her about.  Not just her performances, where I sat in the shadows, but around the town where we both lived.  I observed what she put in her trolley at Tescos, saw what books she browsed in Blackwells; I sat (several rows) behind her in the cinema. Sometimes it was Arthouse; sometimes, Hollywood. 
            She spent several hours a week in Galleries; and on her way home took snapshots on her camera.  Bin-Rakers round the back of Waitrose; the old man who always stops for a rest on that bench; graffiti on the phone-box (my handy hiding-place) at the end of her Avenue. She lived alone in the tree-lined streets where suburbia meets the town-centre; an end-of-terrace flat with its own front door and paper-recycling tub.
            I saw a TV programme once, on how to forge fake identification from information rifled out of someone’s bin. Then she called a locksmith, got into the house, and fleeced it bare.  My poet was away at some Book Festival (I knew her itinerary, but waited in my phone-box ’til the coast was clear.) There, in her re-cycling was a wad of discarded poems: a full collection. ‘Un-publishable’ she thought? Seems she was wrong.
            Appreciating that poetry isn’t exactly lucrative, I wasn’t expecting huge returns on my heist; nor was I expecting that anyone would spot my… was it, crime?
            Finders-Keepers is not the same applied to so-called Intellectual Property.  In court, I tried to argue I was doing her a favour, rescuing the poet’s baby from the… it was then she recognised me. When she told the local paper of my stalking, my cover was blown. They dredged the dirty laundry of my past, raked the rubbish, scavenged from the bins of all my former, phone-box hide-outs where I’d ‘spied on’ (I preferred to say, observed, in every town I lived) celebrities, sportsmen and women, TV-presenters, film-stars and finally, writers.
            I should have chosen journalists. Scum. Scavenging fucking scum.
Today is an interesting day for me, for two reasons. One is that I have reached a point where I feel I can put my past behind me. It will still be there (a bit like the poor bugger in the story above) but I refuse to be defined by it. How did I reach this point? That will be the other reason.
Today is a significant saint’s day. In the Eastern Orthodox Church, Helen (or any derivative of that saint’s name) is celebrated in May, but in the West, her day is today. So my dear friend and muse, who also goes by the name ‘Odet,’ can celebrate her name-day today, even though she is far away from me (ironically, in her homeland.)
I am no prophet; I am far too trapped in the past. My ability to see the world as it ought to be is hampered by the lack of belief in my own poetry. But with friends like ‘Odet’ – and many more who have loved and supported me on my difficult journey – I feel I am finally ‘moving forward.’ 
You could say it’s ironic, that I use the same quote from last month’s blog-post as an epigraph. But it’s true, and I’d like to think I believe in the truth.
Odet and the Poet
            Life can only be understood backwards,
            but it must be lived forwards. 
- Kierkegaard.
At the wrap-party you introduced me
to the assembled company –
also gathered for your name-day –
friends, colleagues, and fellow artists.
“This is so-and-so, actor, and this,
my co-director; such-and-such, 2nd camera,
runner, another actor; and here is my D.O.P.,”
and then you came to me. “And this is...”
You attempted to define my role but,
lost for words, you went for: “Just a poet”
 – to the great amusement of your guests.
I knew I meant more than ‘just a poet’ to you,
and you much more to me (and slightly less)
than Odette in À la recherche du temps perdu,
or a swan in a certain ballet by Tchaikovsky –
although I am prone to nostalgia and regret.
You didn’t mean it in any way derogatory.
English – as you remind me frequently –
is not your first language. You tell me that
in your native Bulgarian you have wit,
vocabulary, eloquence. Frustrated by
your inability to articulate it with that
same nuance, nonetheless the word ‘just’
became for the two of us a source of jest.
Is it any wonder that you’re confused,
eluded by the so-called subtlety of words
when English is so tangled and abused
by those who use it? With so much syntax,
grammar, and mangled meaning,
nobody knows the difference (it seems)
between an adverb, noun, or adjective,
I can forgive you any misunderstanding.
I wonder how linguistic evolution
can be seen as progress? In these days
of newspeak, euphemism, advertising,
corporate lingo, jargon and neologism –
developed not for beauty of words spoken,
but to drive a bargain – we no longer say
“in future...” when attempting to address
a problem emanating from the past.
Now we (or ‘they’) say, “Going forward,”
when addressing future plans or strategy.
This piece of business-patter irritates me.
God forbid we should dare to criticise
by saying ‘in future’ when we strategize
commercially. What other way is there
to go than forward! Should we chalk
our mistakes up or down to experience,
then scrape the slate clean? I’m one to talk:
forever looking over my shoulder, plagued
by history, in search of lost time. Longing
for resolution, mired in regret or loss,
I want to change the perils of the past,
to add a veneer, a varnish, or a gloss.
The last place I want to go is forward,
so I rehearse and dream and speculate
and plan without the slightest intention
of bringing life’s little play to fruition –
although, like every melancholic
I plan the curtain-call at my dramatic
completion, and have written my epitaph.
“You’re a poet – of course!” I hear you laugh.
The fact is, in the threefold dimension
of time, I cannot share Eliot’s assertion
that time present and time past are both
present in time future, or in my ending
is my beginning, or that ‘*every day
won from such darkness is a celebration.’ 
It is the present tense that scares me most.
And if that sounds intensely weak, pathetic,
I can’t be much of a poet, whose words
are meant to be enlightening, prophetic.
To see the world not as it is, but as it’s meant to be:
that’s what I hoped to achieve in my poetry.
Instead, I look to the ephemeral for inspiration:
beauty, music, art, and nature – things that,
in their numinous impermanency,
might give to my writing ‘agency’
(another expression whose novelty
has turned meaningless in its ubiquity.)
Then, then, I remember you, Odet;
you who once called me just a poet.
You, a film-maker, actor, statistician,
philosopher, dancer, mathematician,
traveller, talker, storyteller, also a poet,
a painter, editor, singer, musician,
a writer, a muse, and above all, friend –
the list could go on and on without end!
My attempt to understand life backwards
is hampered by the inertia that prevents
me from ‘going forward.’ It’s absurd
to try and define you in a single word.
You are present: in the here and now
that needs no adjective, verb, or noun.
I am ‘just a poet.’ But you, Odet, are
so much more than that. You are ‘a poem.’
So we come to the end of this month’s post, and perhaps, to the end of this blog. I’ve been writing my thoughts here for nearly ten years, and I think it’s time that I concentrated on a different online presence.  Besides, my work is available in various formats – online, in print, at exhibitions, and as limited-editions of art-books – and I continue to perform and have my work performed live.
When I say ‘perhaps,’ it is because I don’t know what the future holds. Who can? We can no more construct the future than we can retrieve the past. Linear time is meaningless: I could say “see you later” but ‘later’ doesn’t exist. There is only ‘now.’ That’s where I am. Or where I’m at.
I may post the odd link, or the occasional poem; open the window for a bit of air, or celebrate the opening of another door. After all, ‘there are far, far more than 26 doors between my house and yours,’ as I said in my sequence for Odet. And yet; and yet... no: I’ll end now, without regret.
Do not look backward, children.
A sticky burning sea still lies below.
The harsh air stings like sand
and here among these salty pillars
the unforgiving stand. Take
the mountain  ledge, even though
it crumbles into dust. Walk or crawl,
you must let the rocks cut into your fee without pity.
And forget the smoking city. God punishes regret.
                                                            Elaine Feinstein.
               The Chapel that I mentioned at the start of this entry is one of Edinburgh’s hidden gems. While I ignore the nod to its military and royal connections (which I abhor) it doesn’t glorify the war that killed its dedicatee. As I said above, it is a place of reconciliation and, above all: love.
               It also has an extremely good professional choir – but then, I would say that! Furthermore, it has some stunning stained glass windows with depictions of scenes from Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress – one of literature’s most famous allegories, written in Bedford Gaol in 1678.
               This book has always been a part of my life, for many reasons. I could go into them, but I’m trying to wrap things up here, now. Even so: one key image that sticks with me is when the main character, Christian (or ‘Pilgrim’ as he’s called in Vaughan Williams’ Morality/Opera) casts his burden upon the Lord. Here is an illustration from a picture-book I had when a child (and still, evidently, have.)
               That sense of ‘unburdening’ the past is so important if one is to live with a feeling of peace and reconciliation. The modern prophet, Nelson Mandela, knew this when he was released from prison and sought to heal his people. Why bear a grudge? After all, ‘our little life is rounded with a sleep.’
                So having chucked in a bit of Shakespeare for good measure, I’ll end this post, and possibly this blog, with a poem by that cheeky old Bard, after a quick blast of dear old Joni, and a wee bit of me.
                Thank you for reading. I’ll see you... whenever.
Charlotte & The Charlatan
and other cautionary tales
click to play!


     If we shadows have offended,
 Think but this, and all is mended—
 That you have but slumbered here
 While these visions did appear.
 And this weak and idle theme,
 No more yielding but a dream,
 Gentles, do not reprehend.
 If you pardon, we will mend.
 And, as I am an honest Puck,
 If we have unearnèd luck
 Now to ’scape the serpent’s tongue,
 We will make amends ere long.
 Else the Puck a liar call.
 So good night unto you all.
 Give me your hands if we be friends,
 And Robin shall restore amends.
                        (Midsummer Night’s Dream)
where one door closes...