Washing my Hair With Nettles
Washing my hair with nettles, a collection of poems by Emilia Ivancu, newly transported from Romania by Diarmuid Johnson's voice, grants us entry into a delicious new world of mystery and wonder. Her poetry might be rooted in cultures of myth and symbolism but reading poem after poem, I have been struck by the brutal and searing realism of her lines, returning over and over to the darkness fluttering at the edge of human consciousness. But Ivancu's poems also illuminate our path, giving us clues about how we might harness these dark forces to reveal the possibilities they conceal.
A fortnight in the South of France at the end of July brought a rare luxury of dipping in and out of the collection, allowing Ivancu's imagery to slowly percolate my consciousness - only possible when a certain extreme of 'doing nothing' or a state of 'being mode' has been achieved. After all, holidays are our modern micro-versions of where we practice a speeded up natural cycle of growth, decay and rebirth to emerge renewed and refreshed. To paint the scene- I read the title poem 'washing my hair with nettles' pool-side, sheltered by grape vines jostling and twirling around the beams of a crumbling outhouse and accompanied by a soundtrack of cicadas and starlings dancing across the blue sky above. I was struck by how much these poems in the collection spoke to me during this holiday, a break which comes at the end of a tough year where I have been forced to mine new strengths and go right to the depths of what it means to be 'me'.
It is in this mental and physical space that I listen to Ivancu talking of 'dreams born of nettles' of the sting and pain we must undergo to achieve the prize of silken water that allows us to achieve our authentic dreams. I think what she is saying is that we must undergo the pain, the sting and burn of life before we can see the possibilities and beauty it holds. The theme continues in 'Each Step Reveals a Sign' - 'you shall learn to read them; only when you have been taught; to shut your eyes; so that night may illuminate your path'. Ivancu suggests it is by using darkness, not light, we will be guided through life and able to see more our way more clearly. Next 'In Every Garden' 'In every garden there ever was in Eden a serpent still remains; Just as between the pages of each book there lurks a demon; And the demon strikes us poised to strike.' Suggesting that we can't avoid the darkness of life but that we can and should harness it to grow stronger and more resilient. The Two Questions 'How much a man can lose in the space of a single day; What can man recover in the space of a day' as well as the 'Man is a Boat', 'The Air is All I Have', 'Carrying the Sky on our Shoulders' all time and time again remind of us of the heavy weight and delicate fragility that simultaneously dog the human existence.
Submerging myself in this collection was the perfect companion to my meditations on renewal during my two-week break. Ivancu's words and phrases provided respite but also new ways of thinking about my own struggles to bend, twist and adapt to a reality so often governed by the rules of others. The collection is a door-way to unfamiliar traditions of mystery and wonder but the parallels of Ivancu's poems to our common existence and solitary internal battles are an exquisite reminder that our own personal struggles can and do mirror the universal experience. As she reminds us 'The Air Is all I have' - all we all have. No matter who we are or what world we have constructed for ourselves, the existence of each of us depends on that simple inhale/exhale of breath. It seems to me that once we really start to grasp that, everything else falls away and we can start to learn how to really live.