26 Fruits


Sun and moon

I’m working on a new 26 project that has writers partnering creatively with artists. This seemed like an interesting process, worth recording from the writer’s point of view – and perhaps later from the artist’s.

The project is called ‘A Common Place’. 29 writers have been randomly paired with artists associated with the Eames Fine Art gallery in Bermondsey. A few years ago we had done a different project that had worked well, called 26 Prints. It led to an exhibition, and that is the aim with this new project.

I’ve been paired with the artist Nigel Swift. The first step for me was to find out more about Nigel’s work https://www.eamesfineart.com/exhibitions/17-nigel-swift-colour-new-monoprints-and-pastels/overview/ I was attracted to its graphic simplicity and beautiful colours. And images of the sun and moon.

The brief asked us to find a ‘common place’ – not necessarily a physical place we each knew. Our first exchange of emails revealed that Nigel is working towards a new exhibition that draws on the mythology of creation – the opening pages of the Bible, but also wondering what came before? I wondered if the mythology of the creation of sun and moon might be a shared interest.

It happened that I had been watching a TV programme in which the historian Bettany Hughes retraces the journey of Odysseus from Troy through the Greek islands then home to Ithaca. I have always loved Greek mythology as the foundation (through Homer particularly) of European storytelling. In the documentary Bettany Hughes landed on the island Delos where there are temples to Apollo and Artemis, gods of the sun and the moon. A small idea was growing bigger.

I met Nigel at his studio, my first trip into London since before the start of lockdown. We talked and got excited about the prospect that our common place could be the sky that we each saw, and that we could use the myths of these gods representing the most familiar objects in the sky: the sun and the moon. I had also been inspired by a Dark Angels event recently, in which Elen Lewis read Alice Oswald’s poem ‘Tithonus’ to a group of us by a Zoom call as the sun rose on the morning of the summer solstice. Beautiful, mystical.

In my notebook I wrote down ‘dawn’ and rhyming words as a starting point – morn, born, worn, torn. Researching the Greek mythology further, the story opened up magically. Having been impregnated by Zeus, king of the gods, Leto searches for somewhere to give birth, but Hera (Zeus’s long-suffering wife) prevents her finding a safe place. The island Delos finally takes Leto in, and she gives birth first to Artemis and then to Apollo. They are twins, and they represent the moon and the sun.

My notes read: draws us to a time beyond time, born on Delos before time existed, born before the birth of time. Because these were all immortal gods. Time is for mortals. I also had a memory of the power of Christopher Logue’s version of Homer, particularly the boldness of its typography – this was going to be a project where the visual appearance of the words would matter.

I started writing words and thoughts, many of which came during early morning runs. It was the perfect time, soon after dawn, to be thinking of this. I wrote down words in my notebook quickly when I arrived home. Listening to the birds calling in the early morning fed into my thinking: doves in the morning, owls at night. Each of the gods would have a bird. Each bird would call the god’s name as first words.

I was now writing what was shaping to be a sestude (62 words exactly, the form to follow in the brief) but was already bursting out of its wordcount confines. I had suggested to Nigel that a visual diptych might be possible, ie two works that might echo each other. He’d been keen. So now I had to write two sestudes instead of one, but that fitted neatly with the fact that these were twin gods. Perhaps the words and the form could mirror each other?

The other mirroring aspect was simply the ‘rising’ – of sun or moon. And, of course, when they were first born, they would rise in the sky at different times of the day, perhaps rarely to meet. The most fleeting of meetings. Rhyme might still be part of this, but not in a conventional way. Perhaps in a way that could echo from a distance, suggesting a state of order trying to form out of chaos?

Remembering Homer too, and the epithets he would attach to people and places and times – ‘rosy-fingered dawn’. Phrases occurred to me: cloud-blankets, sea-circled womb, cypress-fringed. Each god was developing distinct and contrasting characters through the words to describe their individual places in the world. In simple terms, bold Apollo, shy Artemis, golden sun, silver moon.

I had enough to join the phrases noted down and make them into two sestudes. The first drafts were longer than 62 words, they always are. But I enjoy the process of whittling down because something new always emerges, it’s never just a case of taking out a word here and there. But there was also an opportunity to take further the idea of each poem mirroring the other in structure and language.

Over the course of a week, I changed the sestudes daily – for the better, I hope. Now they were exactly 62 words, and it was time to send them to Nigel. There’s great excitement on my part as I wait to see what visually will emerge from his holiday in Italy this summer. I’ll share the results when the work – along with 28 other pieces – becomes public in the autumn at an Eames Gallery exhibition.

2 Responses

  1. Therese says:


    I’d love to swap brains with you, even for just half an hour – you might have some long-term damage of course, from the transaction but I’d be light years on from where I am now! I think your collaboration with Nigel is going to be out of this world!

  2. bigbrandjohn says:

    The truly gifted make things look logical and effortless.

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