the friend online
16 January 2009

Arts reviews
When astronomers and poets meet…

darkmatter: poems of space, edited by Maurice Riordan and Jocelyn Bell Burnell. Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation. £8.50.

City lights diminish the stars. This autumn I was both surprised and gratified to come across a crowd camped out on a Norfolk heath who turned out to be amateur astronomers in pursuit of a darkness allowing clear views into space. But there is also a metaphorical ‘darkness’ that we all carry within. Jocelyn Bell Burnell, the Quaker astrophysicist, is well aware of this and when as a covert side-line some twenty years ago she started accumulating poems about space, both aspects were given due weight.

The outcome was this absorbing anthology where poetry acts as a mediator for the human experience of becoming aware of the strange cosmos in which we find ourselves.

A special feature of the book, the third in a series where poets are let loose upon science, is that the Gulbenkian Foundation commissioned some leading poets to write on the strength of encounters with working astronomers. The off-beat collaboration was appreciated by both sides, not least by the poet and scientist acting as co-editors. So in addition to the continuing interest among poets in the stars, with examples gathered here from the sixteenth century onwards, John Davies to RS Thomas, there is a clutch of new work from different parts of the world.
I was particularly drawn to a long poem by Antjie Krog, ‘I Am, Because You Are’, which started out written in Afrikaans. At the end of the book the commissioned poets write about meeting their counterparts.
This makes for a satisfying book, deeply drawn from the past, the present and with a promise of so much to come.
Bob Ward
Dark Matter: The poetry of space Institute of Astronomy, Cambridge, Thursday 5 February, 7–8 pm. Free.
What happens when poets and astronomers meet? Astronomers Jocelyn Bell Burnell and Paul Murdin in conversation with James Fenton and Maurice Riordan, with readings from darkmatter. Visit Institute of Astronomy for information.

Two ways towards truth

Quakers and Buddhism: the cutting edge by Anne Bancroft. Quaker Universalist Group. £3.00.

Anne Bancroft has produced a thoughtful, knowledgeable pamphlet on the similarities and differences of Buddhism and Quakerism. She uses the initial experiences of the Buddha and George Fox to show similarities that led both men to a direct subjective encounter of the Truth. She also demonstrates how their different cultural environments produced very different ways of depicting this Truth to the wider world. I would recommend her account of the enlightenment of the Buddha to anyone who knows little of Buddhism but would like to know more. Her deep understanding of the philosophical insights of the Buddha give her the ability to put this across with a clarity that much larger works on the Buddha often fail to do. Out of his direct experience the Buddha founded a religion without a god whereas Fox’s experience was revealed in the religious context and imagery of his times. I wish that Anne had used her own understanding of George Fox and the Quakers to explain Quakerism’s roots in the same manner she dealt with Buddhism.

Understandably she uses the words of Fox to explain himself, but the cadences of seventeenth century English do not fall so easily to a modern ear, nor does the biblical language and imagery help. From a purely personal point of view I find Christian language carries too much baggage with it and I would have preferred it if she had used her own words and given her own understanding of Fox’s experience. Doubtless I am in a minority among Quakers here and those steeped in the historical roots of Quakerism will probably prefer the format Anne has chosen. I found the pamphlet to be informative and stimulating and recommend it as a worthwhile read.
Fred Watson

Bob Ward & Fred Watson


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In this week's online edition... rss edition

News round-up
Oliver Robertson
Child soldiers campaigners look to 2009
Oliver Robertson
European Quakers seek way forward on climate change
Gerald Conyngham
What is a Local Ecumenical Partnership?
Michael Langford
Jackie Fowler & Barbara Forbes

Is this really what you meant to happen?
Judith Baker & Gillian Ashmore
Quaker art work project
Nick Tyldesley
Arts reviews
Bob Ward & Fred Watson
Gently Move
John Lampen & David Boulton
Originality and religion
Michael Oppenheim

Things to do, where to stay, people to see etc...

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