This week’s column is about dogs and poetry and death. I write from St Andrews in Scotland, a wee seaside town of immense beauty, dominated by students and seagulls and the great ruin of a cathedral. This is where the country’s most recent royal Mr and Mrs met. Coffee shops have placards in their windows: “Kate and Wills were here.” It’s where golfers make ardent pilgrimage, and where an annual battalion of poets descend for StAnza, the UK’s leading poetry festival. It’s where I will share stage with my biggest poetry crush, John Burnside—a poet who occupies the liminal territories of twilight, forests, mirrors and fog.
For days I wander about. It’s a town of just three streets, the sea, grass, stone, wind. I listen to Sujata Bhatt talk about the two tongues that live in her mouth—Gujarati and English. How she tried to spit out her mother tongue, but how overnight, while she dreams, it grows back like buds—pushing, opening, tying the other tongue in knots. And the Welsh poet Menna Elfyn on her own bilingual conundrums; on how a poem in translation is like kissing through a handkerchief. In the lovely cool crypt of a church I discover the intimate work of South African poet Gabeba Baderoon. And later, under lights, the Botswanan firebrand, T J Dema, tells how poems are bullshit unless they teach.
Poems, poems, everywhere. I forgot how generous poets can be. In the particular hierarchy of literary festivals, poets don’t always feature high on the food chain, but here, where there’s nothing but poems, it’s pure validation. I feel like a dome of accumulated ideas is building slowly around my head, and it’s comforting and dizzying all at once, like those cone-shaped things dogs sometimes have to wear to keep them from licking injuries. And then the news of death. Just the day before I had been telling 60 excited Scottish primary school children about my house on the beach and all the animals that live in it. Tree frogs, geckos, the occasional snake, and 18 dogs. Do they all live in your house? They wanted to know. Not exactly. They come and go like the women talking of Michelangelo. Beach dogs who have adopted me. The news I get is that five of them are gone. Poisoned by villagers for stealing chickens. Alive one moment, dead the next.
I walk to the graveyard in the cathedral that leads out to the sea. With me is the Polish poet, Tadeusz Dabrowski, who tells me that we are constantly running away from death and trying to accept it, to be close to it from both directions. Sunday afternoon. A day to get an ice-cream and turn up the collar of your coat. I think about Dylan Thomas, who said that all his poems were statements on the way to the grave. Of Carol Ann Duffy’s line, “They’re very close to us, the dead;/us in our taxis, them in their hearses,/waiting for the lights to change.” I think about my poor, sweet, dead dogs. And later that night, I listen to Paul Muldoon tell of how every Sunday afternoon for a family outing, his parents would take them to visit a graveyard. “It was the thing to do…. talking about the dead, how great they were, or not.”
The writer is a dancer, poet and novelist.