Angela Locke lives in two worlds. She stands in “the almost dark/ To hold the last gold light/ Touching the summit” on a night when “The frost falls so swiftly/ Your lips crack with it/ The fells so clear they ring”. It is a “night you are part of” even though looking at the lighted window, “the table laid for supper”, “the busyness of other lives” you feel yourself shut out in the cold, that “you are outside”.
Many of the poems in her latest book reach for that inexpressible other in the spiritual places of the world, in Iona, Findhorn, Pokhara or Tibet and the Himalayas. “After the Hurricane”, set around her home in the fells near Mungrisdale, is more precise, sharper in its detail, and more subtle in its understanding. “All that slow growth and memory of trees is gone” as we “retile roofs, mend broken fences”. The sunlight “can paint earth with light/and plants will come which have laid sleeping until now.” There is loss and pain, but there is also new life: “Perhaps the wood, wounded almost to death/ has broken free.”
As she watches “Whales off the North Beach, Iona”, the “black, glossy tails glinting in sunlight” she hears “their inaudible whale language”. She is “drawn into the circle of their being” and senses “Creation weaving its web/ the rub of particle and molecule/ Between sea and land”.
Again in “Sacred Iona”, “Beside the turquoise, always turning sea/ I find my peace”. Freed from everyday concerns, “someone else will make my bed”, she can “breathe the long breath/ more slowly”, listen to the “quiet sounds of morning”, the fishing boats going out to sea, “caught in a net of light”. She feels that her pulse is the earth’s pulse: “I only need to hold my hand? Against the heart’s land/ To feel its beat/ its life.”
Her poetry is drawn to repeating, almost as a mantra, that sensing of the harmony of a spiritual beyond that can be felt in moments of stillness, in seeing the beauty of life and for a moment overcoming its otherness. In “Findhorn Light” she writes of “the simple loveliness of things”. The moment is caught in the vividness of the physical detail: “Pools, roughened by the wind’s kiss,/ Glitter”. In looking at things, in reaching out to the beauty that lies around us, we recover ourselves: “From the chalice of our inner life,/ We spill the fluid world into existence,/ Dream the dreams, spin this light/ In webs to catch us back.”
It takes courage to go on such a spiritual journey. “One day,” Angela writes, “I will launch myself/ Out There/ where there are no boundaries.” But even having weathered “wild country of the waves” to “some spice, some tang of strangeness” she will find that “In the distance/ the outline of my old homeland will appear/ mysterious on the horizon.”
The spiritual quest, the search for the other, returns us to ourselves.
Angela Locke’s recent work, her novel, “The Blue Poppy”, and “On Juniper Mountain”, her account of her journey, both physical and spiritual, to the Himalayas, has been concerned with this quest for an emotionally understood meaning. The journey she made may have been a spiritual one, but it had practical consequences. As a result of her experiences in Nepal, she founded the Juniper Trust, which provides clean water and educational support to impoverished communities around the world.
“Whale Language: Songs of Iona” celebrates that distant music of spiritual harmony, but the poems are at their best when they are closely crafted and securely founded on precise observation.