Barnstaple!

I have just returned from the Barnstaple Fringe Theatrefest and I had a fabulous time. This was the first year I had been, but I had heard such glowing praise about it from fellow performers that I couldn’t wait to see what all the fuss was about and it absolutely lived up to its reputation – it reminded me a little bit of Edinburgh before it became a bloated corporate monster, a little bit of PBH’s Edinburgh Free Fringe and a little bit of the avant garde theatre festivals I used to go to when I lived in Poland, but it had a charming camaraderie and ambience that was every bit its own.

Designed along the Canadian model, it strives to be as affordable and accessible for performers as possible – venue slots are allocated by drawing lots (so emergent and smallscale companies can’t be squeezed out by people with more money and/or fame than them) and the organisers charge only a £35 fee for use of a venue for 3-4 performances and do their best to find local families willing to put performers up for free (so the festival genuinely nurtures artists, rather than exploiting them as a money-making opportunity). It is small enough to be intimate (a large proportion of the performers met up for drinks every night after the shows went down), but large enough to be packed with more brilliant shows than one person could possibly see in 4 days.

While there were a lot of spoken word shows there, it is predominantly a theatre festival and, while it lent itself to experimental forms like physical theatre, to do well, shows had to appeal to a broad general audience, not just to arts connoisseurs. I learnt a huge amount about tailoring and pitching shows to people outside the spoken word bubble and came away extremely moved, entertained and inspired by the work that I saw.

I saw far too much brilliant work to fit it all in here, but this is a write-up of just some of the fabulous shows I caught.  I recommend the following, most of which are going on to Edinburgh, in the strongest possible terms:

One Foot In The Rave, a spoken word show written and performed by Alexander Rhodes, was an astonishingly brave and candid account of Alexander’s emotionally scarring upbringing in a strict religious sect and his struggles to adapt to a life outside it after breaking away. His immensely powerful writing and performance skills and the unflinching honesty with which he recounts the life of rock’n’roll excess with which he tried to staunch the wound left by his abusive childhood had much of the audience in tears at the performance I saw. Utterly astonishing and ought to be compulsory viewing.

Raw Materials Productions’ Tideman’s Piece was an absolute gem of a one-man show which blended folklore, rural oral history and fabulous folk fiddling in a magical fashion. Paul drew on tales of his paternal North Devon roots and his maternal Irish family and used accent and dialect, story-telling and music to bring his ancestors to life and paint a picture of a quirky and rapidly vanishing world. Absolutely mesmerising.

White Hippos Productions’ The Numbers Station was a brilliantly written and performed one-man play which managed to simultaneously convey both the bloodboilingly frustrating jobsworth bureaucracy of working for a large institution and the sinister hold that social media has over us. Wickedly funny and incisively analytical.

Losing my Mindfulness, a very, very funny comic play written and performed by Katie Macleod, accurately skewered the toe-curling awfulness of corporate training events in laugh-out-loud fashion, but then unexpectedly took a more serious turn to explore the issues of coercive control and emotional abuse with heartbreaking authenticity, made all the more moving and powerful by the fact that it was understated and projected through a comic filter. Anyone who has ever been forced to waste time they’d rather spend somewhere else sitting in a room with colleagues they hate doing deep breathing exercises and visualising fluffy clouds will love this play. Anyone who has been in an abusive relationship will love it even more.

I had seen Robert Garnham’s spoken word extravaganza, In the Glare of the Neon Yak, in Bristol a few days before it transferred to Barnstaple, but I was eager to see it again there (and not just because Robert is my friend, but because it’s brilliant). A surreal narrative that uses a bizarre nighttime train journey with a troupe of circus performers, interrupted by an appearance by a mythical day-glo beast which is a harbinger of change, as a metaphor for life, it has all of Robert’s trademark features – zany, off-kilter humour (his surreal tannoy announcements and a poem about having sex with a stranger in a miniscule train toilet had me aching with laughter) underlaid with subtle but powerful messages about LGBT issues and loneliness – but is a braver, more ambitious project than he’s ever done: less throwaway crowd-pleasing, more unapologetically poetic, and IMO all the better for that. Moving, life-affirming, exquisitely written. And he wears a ringmaster outfit!

I had also seen some of the material Harry and Chris present in their comedy jazz-rap show It’s Literally Harry and Chris before, but I could watch it again and again. So, so clever, jaw-droppingly technically accomplished, hugely engaging, really feelgood and unashamedly aimed at the non-artsy, casual viewer. You will leave it with a spring in your step and a silly song about a panda indelibly imprinted in your head.

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Propositions That I Vehemently Reject

  1. To be of value, a poem must be immediately accessible to everybody.
  2. To be of value, a poem must not be immediately accessible to everybody.
  3. There is no such thing as literary merit – it’s simply a matter of individual taste.
  4. Accepted criteria of literary merit are never influenced or distorted by fashion, whim, subjective cultural values, power or privilege.
  5. There is no such thing as populist page poetry.
  6. There is no such thing as literary spoken word.
  7. That good poetry always rhymes.
  8. That good poetry never rhymes.
  9. That not every poet is good enough to deserve a platform for their work.
  10. That every poet deserves the same platform.
  11. That an informed opinion about poetry, born out of experience and expertise, is no more valid than an uninformed opinion.
  12. That an informed opinion about poetry is always more valid than an uninformed opinion.
  13. That what you have to say in your poetry is less important than how you say it.
  14. That what you have to say in your poetry is more important than how you say it.
  15. That professional standard career poets produce the only poetry that matters and the therapeutic or community purposes of poetry are not important.
  16. That the therapeutic and community purposes of poetry are the only thing that matter and nobody should seek a professional career in it.
  17. That popularity is always a measure of quality and importance.
  18. That popularity is negligible as a measure of quality or importance.
  19. That all poetry events should be free and it’s always wrong to charge people to read/listen to poetry.
  20. That people won’t value poetry or take it seriously if we don’t make them pay for it.

Mid-Term Report

Header image by Adam Fung at Sharp Teeth, Bristol, Feburary 2018. It depicts me onstage with my mouth wide open, falling out of my dress, and provides an excellent view of the scuzzy tissue I have stuffed up my bra strap.

Regular readers may know that, in a rather rock’n’roll fashion, I gave up my day job last July to concentrate on poetry and spoken word. As it transpired, I didn’t give it up quite as much as I thought I had, as a few months later they asked me to come back on a very part-time basis (six and a half hours a week) and I accepted, but at the time it was a total leap of faith and even with the hours I eventually agreed to do it’s been a radical lifestyle shift. So how’s it all panning out?

Well, I’ve learned a lot. Performing more regularly to a wide ranges of audiences has made the sheer diversity of those audiences and their very different needs and expectations much clearer to me. My own performance skills have grown exponentially. I have got much better at asking for things and selling myself. On a more practical level, I have discovered Air B’n’B and Megabus. I have rediscovered backpackers’ hostels after a couple of decades’ hiatus. I have eaten more porridge oats and lentils than I have since I was a student.

Amazingly, I have just about been making it work financially, although not in a way that is sustainable in the long term and I am going to have to either come up with viable alternative income streams within poetry/spoken word very soon or go back to full-time (or near full-time) work.

It’s not all been shiny, fabulous and special. There are days when the months since I returned from Edinburgh appear to have constituted just one long list of crushing disappointments, both personal and professional. There has been no massive career move forward so far and I sometimes feel as though I am going to be stuck at Vaguely Promising Local Amateur Level for the rest of my life. I know I’m an exceptionally good writer and a reasonably good performer, but I’m not sure if that’s ever going to be enough and I sometimes wonder if I simply lack the innate charisma, stage presence and/or the content that resonates with audiences that makes the difference between a competent also-ran and a spoken word star.

There have been other downsides. I used to feel bemused when friends said they set two days of the week aside for admin, but now I understand why – it is so much harder to keep track of what you are supposed to send to whom by when when you are doing two or three gigs a week than it was when I only used to do two or three gigs a year, and I really worry I am going to seriously fuck up one day soon and get blacklisted by promoters . Also, for a mixture of financial reasons and the fact that I am often performing elsewhere, I have missed a lot of my friends’ and colleagues’ gigs locally and I feel less a functional part of my local scene than I have done for years. And it’s been way too easy to procrastinate, without a structured timetable to fill my days, as is testified by the fact that I have now reached Level 24 at Duolingo.

But there have been many, many upsides. I have benefited from amazing support and patronage from my incredible friends and colleagues on the scene and have been offered some wonderful performance opportunities for which I am extremely grateful. There have been a few gigs (e.g. my book launch with Raise The Bar Spotlight in Bath in January, Sharp Teeth in February) where I’ve come offstage feeling like a rock star and it’s felt like my moment has nearly come. The sheer buzz of performing on a weekly basis has been worth it. When people ask me what my job is, I can almost truthfully say, “I’m a performance artist”. My first book has been selling steadily and my second one is coming out soon. And I’m enjoying my day job more than I’ve ever done, now that it’s a manageably small part of my life, not something that is always looming over me.

I remember the first spoken word event I nervously attended just over four years ago, where I felt so cowed by the impossibly trendy, confident and glamorous-looking people around me that I could barely speak, and it didn’t seem possible I would ever be one of their circle – now, when I go to spoken word events, normally an army of people come up and hug me and in the last few weeks I’ve had several delightful, unexpected, friendship-deepening social moments with poets I vaguely know after a gig or slam together.

Earlier this week, as I was enjoying a midweek Megabus ride through the spectacular scenery of the Yorkshire Moors in glorious spring sunshine after a gig I’d hugely enjoyed, and where I’d met some amazing poets, I thought, “This is the life I want to be living.”

 

A Measure of Success

Header image by Adam Fung at Sharp Teeth, Bristol in February 2018. It depicts me, with my mouth wide open, falling out of my dress, and provides a very good view of the scuzzy tissue I have tucked into my bra strap.

I was an indie-loving teenager in the 1980s, so when I’m feeling down about how I’m doing as a poet/spoken word artist compared to friends and colleagues (in terms of number and prestige of gig bookings, how high I am on the bill, how hard the audience seems to clap, number of slam wins, number of poems published in journals and how high-ranking those journals are, number and kindness of reviews, what people are saying about me on Twitter and Facebook etc) it’s always good to remember that The Smiths never had a top 5 single in the UK, whereas Black Lace, Joe Dolce, The Goombay Dance Band…. In fact, most of my favourite records of all time (Secrets of the Beehive by David Sylvian, World Shut Your Mouth by Julian Cope, pretty much everything Furniture ever released apart from “Brilliant Mind”) were considered critical and commercial failures in their year of release. Popularity is not a measure of quality.

Well, it is a bit, obviously. To consistently get good feedback from audiences and/or experts in your field, you have to be doing something right. It’s easy to fall into the trap of grumping that it’s “unfair” that so-and-so is getting so much attention when “their work isn’t good enough to deserve it”, but if you think that, there is almost always something about their work that you’re missing.

But the spotlight of attention can be arbitrary and I know good, even exceptional, poets who have been plodding on for years just below the radar and never get the amount of attention their work deserves, in some cases because they are too self-deprecating, in some cases because their work, though exquisite, is niche and will only ever appeal to a narrow audience (or because they’re simply putting it in front of the wrong audience – I know other poets whose careers took off when they started going to open mics just a few miles down the road), in some cases, just because….who knows? I’m hopeful that in thirty years’ time it’s their work that will be remembered.

But let’s try to give everyone we know in that position more love now, yeah? Because I’ve never met a poet who didn’t need more self-validation.

I don’t mean to be funny, but…

Header image by Adam Fung, taken at Sharp Teeth, Bristol, February 2018

People who’ve read my book or seen me live will know I am fairly eclectic in my approach to poetry. I slalom between funny and serious, between populist and literary, between cerebral and instinctive. This is a reflection of my taste – I read/listen to and enjoy everything from Pam Ayres to T.S. Eliot, so I’m honestly not just an inauthentic weather vane who cynically changes my style to fit the whims of fashion. I write and perform in lots of different styles because I simply can’t choose. And sometimes it’s even less conscious than that – on numerous occasions I have written what I think is a dead serious poem and have been surprised to find that the audience found it hilarious.

There are distinct advantages to being versatile:

1. Variety is pleasing to the ear. I find it very annoying when I watch a twenty-minute set (let alone a one-hour show) and it feels like you’re just hearing the same poem over and over again, because everything the poet writes is so similar in style, subject matter and delivery. I’m hoping that the eclecticism of my style is always going to save me from the worst of that fault (although I imagine I am still frequently guilty of one of my own bete noires – continually falling into the same vocal rhythms, e.g. I’m going to start. By leaving gaps. Between my words. So you think. I’m saying something. Profound.)

2. In a live set or show, it gives me another tool to work the audience. People often approvingly say that my show or set has taken them on an emotional rollercoaster. I quite like starting with light comedy and then without warning switching to a serious poem on a hardhitting topic. I like watching the audience’s faces as they switch from laughing to laughing more nervously as they start to feel a bit wrongfooted and don’t know whether they’re reacting appropriately, to looking deeply uncomfortable and eventually (if all goes well) shocked and moved. I think there’s far too much complacency, far too much virtue-signalling and voyeurism on the part of both audience and performer in spoken word. I hate seeing people settle down to *enjoy* a poem about social injustice or sexual abuse and when you’re dealing with topics like this, it’s often more appropriate, more respectful to the subject matter, to take a risk yourself and to make the audience uncomfortable and appalled.

3. In theory, at least, having a diverse range of material should increase the number and range of bookings I get and, to an extent, it does: I have bookings coming up from rural comedy nights, edgy metropolitan spoken word nights and literary page poetry events. To an extent, I do try to tailor my set to fit the audience and can make my set more or less populist, more or less comic, more or less intellectual to fit the occasion, if asked, which is an option that poets who only do one style don’t have.

4. In a slam context, where judges will often give you extra credit for the range of your skills and it’s good to have an impressive party trick to roll out as your showstopper, having a suite of poems that demonstrates your versatility can sometimes give you the edge. And even if the judges aren’t impressed by versatility, you at least have the option of adapting your choice to suit their taste if it becomes clear that they hate comic poetry or find serious poetry too depressing/edgy, while in those circumstances poets who are purely comic or purely serious or purely populist or purely literary have no option but to do the poems they have prepared and tank.

But there can be disadvantages, too:

I sometimes feel I’m never going to be anybody’s favourite. People who like comic poetry may like my stuff, but they’re always going to like poets who do only comic even more. Meanwhile, people who like edgy, depressing poetry about pressing social issues might enjoy my poems on those subjects, but are always going to favor poets who don’t cut them with rhymey-rhymey poems about my shit lovelife and whimsical tongue twister or pun poems.

Sometimes my “emotional rollercoaster” doesn’t impress them – it just leaves them feeling confused and/or shortchanged.

Sometimes I miscalculate and do the wrong poems for the wrong audience. There’s nothing more depressing than launching into a 4-minute comic poem and realising 20 seconds in that the audience isn’t getting any of the references and you’re not going to get any laughs at all, but it’s too late to stop and you’re going to spend the next 3 minutes 40 seconds dying on your feet, leaving you with an uphill climb to rewin the crowd’s respect in the poems that follow (or, if it’s a slam, bomb out with a shit score). Poets without my range are less likely to disappoint in this way, because they’d never have got the booking in the first place.

Sometimes promoters misunderstand me and what I’m about. There have been a few times when I’ve gone to a gig with a set of mainly serious, literary poems prepared and then the host has introduced me as “The hilarious Melanie Branton, who will leave you aching with laughter” and I’ve had to hurriedly change my set plan. Other times I’ve been sneered at or passed over by chin-stroking “literary” promoters who I suspect have written me off as an unsophisticated grassroots doggerel manufacturer, while they’ve booked artists who actually don’t have as impressive a track record as me in serious page poetry. This matters to me because I am a diva and an egomaniac with an emotional age of about eight and I fucking hate being underrated and looked down on. Although it’s probably often my fault for sending them the wrong sample material. And, in any case, if they’re going to be that snobbish about the other kind of poetry I do, perhaps I wouldn’t want to be booked by them, anyway.

Material Girl

Header image by Adam Fung, taken at Sharp Teeth, February 2018

New material is a bugger. First, you’ve got to memorise it (and, having just gone through the menopause, I swear my memory is about 60% of what it was a year or two back) and then there’s always the dreaded possibility that, after you’ve gone to all that effort, it will go down like a lead balloon with audiences and you’ll have to scrap it. Lurking beyond those reservations is the deep, primeval angst that probably all spoken word performers have – what if nothing else I write ever goes down as well as my old material? What if the success I’ve had so far is a fluke and it’s downhill from now on? What if everything new I try from now on nosedives and it turns out I’m as rubbish at spoken word as I am at everything else? It’s not surprising that many spoken word performers cling on to old material for far too long.

I’ve had two other reasons for endlessly rehashing the old this past year: I have been touring a show and I have had a book to promote, so I’ve had to keep doing a fair amount of the material that’s in the show and/or the book when I’m booked for a 15-30 minute set, which has left me limited time for trying out new stuff. In fact, if I had to give one piece of advice to a poet about to be published for the first time, it would be, “Make sure you really like what’s in the book, because you’re going to be stuck with it for a very long time.”

This is advice I’m trying to heed myself at the moment, as I’m trying to put the final edits to my second collection, one with a more performance emphasis than my last. It’s hard to be objective about your own work, especially at this stage in the process: I’m now at the stage where I read it one day and think it’s going to be the BEST COLLECTION EVER PUBLISHED, and the next day I look at it and it all seems appallingly, embarrassingly bad, and there’s no days in between those two extremes. Logically, I know some of it must be sound (several of the poems are already successful parts of my live set, others have been published by reputable journals), but testing the untried bits of it out onstage is still very daunting. What if it just doesn’t work?

Most of my most successful poems died on their first outing. Some also died on their second, third, fourth and fifth outings and I was on the verge of ditching them when suddenly they clicked with an audience. Sometimes it’s just a case of finding the right audience for them (a poem that references Duran Duran or The Six Million Dollar Man is going to sail right over the heads of the under-50s, no matter how good it is; a parody of slam poetry is going to mean nothing to people who’ve never been to a slam; a rollicking, rhymey-rhymey Pam Ayres-style comedyfest is going to leave lovers of serious art poetry stony-faced). More often, it’s a case of getting to the stage where I feel entirely comfortable with the poem, and I can only make a certain proportion of that journey rehearsing in my bedroom in front of a mirror or down the phone to a friend – I need to be able to discover where the audience is likely to laugh, where they are likely to be surprised or shocked, how they will react if I suddenly drop my voice to a whisper on this line or speed up on that line or pause here or gesture there, how the reaction changes depending on where I place the poem in a set and what other poems it is juxtaposed with, and I can only find that out by repeatedly testing on an actual audience. And that means booking slots at open mics and going for it or throwing a couple of new poems in the middle of a tried-and-tested set, hoping I don’t make a tit of myself.

Last night I tried a poem that wasn’t ready at an open mic and I dried horribly. This was partly because I hadn’t memorised it as well as I thought I had, but not entirely, as I even stumbled on the bits I knew really well – nerves, tiredness, alcohol and the audience not reacting quite as I had expected all combined to throw me off my stride. I feel embarrassed, enormously apologetic to the promoter for wasting one of their slots and wish it had gone less shambolically, or that I had at least had the foresight to take a paper copy onstage with me as a back up (especially as there were a fair number in the audience who had never seen me before and who probably now think I am always that crap), but what would have been worse is if I had never tried it. Because I don’t want to spend the next ten years performing the same five poems in rotation, because I’m too scared to risk something new.

 

What I’m Reading At The Moment 3

Header photograph above by Adam Fung at Sharp Teeth, Bristol

Weston-super-Mare Library has an excellent selection of modern poetry books. I want people to know this, as I am scared that (as with so many other government-funded services) if people don’t appear to be using it, it will give them an excuse to axe it. It’s hard to find – it’s tucked away in a far corner, in the ‘Youth’ section of the library, so you feel a bit like a paedophile when you browse, as you’re hovering next to a bunch of teenagers doing their homework – but it is very comprehensive, seems to be constantly updated, and includes work by contemporary poets including Philip Gross, Selima Hill, Kathleen Jamie, Jackie Kay, Alice Oswald, Jacob Polley, Benjamin Zephaniah, to name but a few.

People often mouth off about poetry in general, and page poetry in particular, being “exclusive” and “elitist”, but financial barriers to reading quality modern poetry are few: there are many high quality free online journals and most of the paid journals have sample poems that can be accessed free on their websites; I have blogged before about the Poetry Library’s online database of poetry magazines; and then there is a poetry section in most local libraries, where libraries still exist, even though most of them may not be as good as Weston’s.

Yes, I accept that there are considerable cultural barriers to people from working-class and some minority ethnic backgrounds accessing poetry, and that the current school curriculum seems to have been designed with the express purpose of convincing droves of young people that poetry is boring, not for them, and that they won’t be any good at it. I also accept that there are some financial barriers to those aspiring to write to a professional standard – when I first started submitting to journals, my parents had just died, I had just taken a ten-year career break to care for them and after dozens of rejected job applications I feared I was completely unemployable, I didn’t have a pot to piss in and I was living almost entirely on porridge oats and lentils to save money and someone advised me, “I think your next step is to take an Arvon course” and I nearly hit them. Yes, I know Arvon do offer bursaries, but the competition is fierce.  And speaking of competitions, competition fees can add up and you do wonder if people who can afford to attend readings  and network with other poets are at an advantage.

But you can read a shitload of contemporary poetry and submit to a huge number of journals for free – compared with, say, music or sculpture, it’s a very cheap art form to enjoy and participate in. That stereotype of poets starving in a garret – the reason why we have that is you can still write poetry, even if you’re starving in a garret. It does not require expensive kit.

One of the poetry books I’ve been enjoying from Weston Library this week is Hard Water by Jean Sprackland (2003). Sprackland’s poetry is fabulous – Northern, conversational, grimly amusing, unpretentious, but also thematically and lexically ambitious, with dazzling use of imagery and staggeringly powerful exploitation of ambiguity.

Some of these poems are (presumably autobiographical)coming-of-age poems, capturing the part-tentative, part-swaggering nature of nascent female sexuality, such as ‘Shock’, where “Remember those thrills, the charge/ that went cracking through you?” alludes literally to the electric fence that her childhood friend dared her to touch, the homoerotic excitement of the dangerous friendship and the thrill of testing boundaries and finding your own way in the world, beyond adult rules. ‘Shadow Photograph’ captures the conflicting arousal and awkwardness of an early sexual encounter with a boy, “the first to try to define me with his tongue” (ooh! The double meaning there!) , “who was not the one, it was all wrong”, torn between the impulse to “kick the door open/scramble out into the sunlight” and to give in to bodily need, “suddenly loosed into stillness/by that silvery flickering”. Others convey mature sexuality and motherhood.

Other aspects of female experience are explored in the second or third person. The boy jealously throwing his sister’s doll, with its “dangerous legs”, out of the window in ‘Barbie On The Roof’ is both acutely-observed realism and an apt symbol of how patriarchy acts to subdue women, the girl “stretching till her fingers ached” to get back what she wants, before eventually accepting confinement and defeat: “The girl grooms plastic ponies/and keeps the window shut.” In ‘The Hairdresser’s Across the Street’, the familiar realism of a hair salon becomes a symbolic site where women play a part that’s expected of them and where an older woman is left in discomfort with wet hair while the male stylist attends to something more important, a potent metaphor for ageing:

Do you know how it feels
to be left like that, the water running off your hair?
You don’t like to sit up and call for service.
A few bubbles fizz close to your ear.
You start to shiver. The muscles are tight
in the back of your neck.

But then there are imagined narratives, sometimes touching on magic realism, such as ‘Losing The Dark’, where Sprackland conjures the delight-turned-to-dystopia concept of a world where the sun inexplicably stops setting, ‘An old Friend Comes To Stay’, where a dead friend returns for a 48-hour mini-break, and ‘The Light Collector’, about a man who, er, collects different kinds of light:

The cryptic blue cast by a computer. The smash-and-grab
of camera flash. The blade of light under the door

I’ve also been rereading a book of lyrical poems by  Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz (1894-1980) which a Polish friend gave me several years ago. Iwaszkiewicz has fallen out of favour because of his collaboration with the Communist regime and his early work is old-fashioned, formalist poetry, which won’t find many takers, anyway, but what beautiful poetry it is. This poem, which I assume is about his closeted homosexuality, has sublime imagery (apologies for the prosaic and probably wildly inaccurate translation – the original is in a trochaic metre with an elegant a b b a rhyme scheme):

Evening has come to the grey mountains.
Pines stand as if in mourning.
When I thought about you today
Red Mars came out from behind a cloud.

I don’t know what your lips
are bringing me: death or a kiss?
Night falls: a black drink
that chokes me like a scarf.

Everything augurs a curse on us,
threatens our brows with the black shadow of a thorn.
The owl hoots four times.
Is this wisdom or madness?