Why Look at Herons? – 16 March 2024

I offer a short newsletter this weekend with two imperatives:

  • Read John Berger.
  • Come to poetry.

You may do these in varying orders. You could read Berger, then come to poetry. You could come to poetry, then read Berger. You could make an inverted Berger burger, if you like: Berger-poetry-Berger.

Poetry is tonight at 5pm and we are hearing from three Bristol poets. (I am calling them that even if one has a distinctly American accent and says “moss” with a minimum of two syllables.) Lisa Lopresti and Maisie Franklin are writers whose tone and insight I always admire and find moving. I am so looking forward to the chance to hear more from them. Tony D’Arpino’s latest collection, Sky Tree Sky, is brilliant. I read it sitting cross-legged on the floor thinking about trees and plant names whilst drinking it all in. Each word feels so carefully chosen and so specifically placed on the page – I loved the poems and their intelligent conversation with David Douglas, the botanist after whom the Douglas Fir is named.

I hope to see you in the shop, shortly before 5pm for drinks, ready to hear from these three thoughtful poets.

Poetry and John Berger both tend to ask one to slow down. One cannot continue worrying about unanswered emails or spreadsheets whilst reading a poem told by a mountain pine beetle. (That’s D’Arpino, again.). Nor can one write another to do list or look at Instagram at the same time as reading Ways of Seeing – one has to dive all in with the rapt focus of a child. Even if you want to disagree with Berger on looking and knowledge, art and wealth, civilization and criticism, the argument needs your full attention. Nor can one think of rushing to the next meeting whilst reading the lines in and our faces, my heart, brief as photos:

My heart born naked
was swaddled in lullabies.
Later alone it wore
poems for clothes.
Like a shirt
I carried on my back
the poetry I had read.

Stillness, silence, pausing, doing nothing but thinking: I think these are the things that my reading this week have prompted.

I have Berger on the brain because there are new editions of two of his books. Canongate have re-published one of his novels, The Foot of Clive, which is about a murderer, sentenced to death while being terminally ill and likely to die of his own causes, inconveniently before the state can hang him. Canongate has also released a collected edition of his writing and image-essays on miners and the 1984-5 strike, The Underground SeaThere is an urgency to the message about power and justice. Yet, to feel that urgency I found I must take plenty of time to study each of the pictures and the way they have been arranged. 

Even without these new editions, several years after Berger’s death his works occupy my thoughts and still attract new readers every day: medics at various stages of their careers often wish to discuss A Fortunate Manhis exploration of the GP John Sassall’s relationship with his patients; devotees of Ways of Seeing find challenge and wisdom again in Understanding a Photograph; as well as the story of Berger’s excellent response (printed in full here) to winning the Booker prize, readers enjoy the thought-provoking and witty novel, G..

Here in the heronry, the question that swept the internet, how often do you think about the Roman Empire?, is happily replaced with, how often do you think about John Berger?

In my case, even more so now that I have discovered his pictorial essay on smoking, further advocacy of the need to slow down and contemplate. (As well as being a witty insight into the world of a new outlaw, the smoker, banished from public spaces while we all go about our lives polluting the atmosphere in so many destructive ways.)

May your weekend be contemplative, even with the opposing force of three rugby matches to squeeze in,

A John Berger list for your delectation:

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