Steps In The Sand

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Issue 317
November/December 2019
Where Do We Grow From Here?

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Review

Steps In The Sand
by

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Cover: Repair by Baracco+Wright Architects with Linda Tegg. Photograph: Roy Gardiner

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Martin Palmer delights in the poetry of the extra-ordinary. Pilgrimage: A Journey to Love Island by Jay Ramsay. Awen, 2018. ISBN: 9781906900540

St Martins cross on Iona, Scotland. Photo by Nick Gibson

St Martins cross on Iona, Scotland. Photo by Nick Gibson

How typical of this wonderful poet and thinker, critic of modern ridiculousness and voice of profound spirituality to put the words ‘Love Island’ into the title of his book! This was one of Jay Ramsay’s greatest gifts – to point out the ludicrous nature of much of the contemporary world – and this, his penultimate book, takes us on a rollercoaster ride through time, place and meaning.

Pilgrimage is a long poem written almost three decades ago as the outpouring of a summer journey from London to Iona with a multi-faith group, and we follow the author literally day by day. The book has now been brought to light by the publisher Awen – and how timely it is…

In the first few verses, we get a feel not just for where this poem is going to take us, but also of Ramsay’s lifelong ability to take the ordinary and reveal to us the extraordinary depths therein. We are on an adventure of faiths, landscape, passion, history, warnings, love and wonder. We roll through places such as the ‘1652 Country’ and meet in Cumbria the exceptional preaching and visions of George Fox, one of the founders of the Quaker movement, and the beautiful little meeting house at Briggflatts, where Ramsay finds a blue plaque that says, “LET YOUR LIVES SPEAK.”

And at last we arrive at Iona, Ramsay’s Love Island. Here he finds his cross and his Christ in the living rock, in the people and prayers. His encounter with people and place is woven into a love poem to the companion he has found and fallen in love with, and the poem flows seamlessly between the eternal and the moment, as here when he comes out of the service in the Abbey on Iona:

May I come to stand
In the fullness of what I am
And may I have the courage to be
Whatever it is You want me to be… I meet you outside in the cloister, smiling
With the warmth of the day inside you.
We decide on the mountain, to see the sun set
The way it does in your eyes, with expectancy…

Ramsay set off on another pilgrimage, another journey, on 30 December last year. It was too soon, but it happened. A passage from this wonderful adventure of a book was read at his funeral – these words from his final day on Iona, Day 23:

And as I walk I can’t remember what’s behind me,
Nor can I see ahead. It is all unknown –
There’s only this breadth of You, and the whole-hearted giving,
Where the river reaches the sea and swells, fanning into the ocean. The rain soaks my head and the backs of my legs;
The whole earth comes wet and gleaming here – like a birth –
And we say take the journey to the end and it ends in bliss
ends in One Being – and it ends in our solitude
As we scatter slowly out across the plain… One by one, we walk on the sand
one by one, we walk in the rain like images
One by one, in each pause of our thinking
as we come back to the mystery of what we cannot know. These steps in the sand the waves will wash away;
These sand-steps the waves will wash clean.

If you seek Jay Ramsay’s epitaph, look about you and wonder at creation and love, and remember these words written by one of our greatest poets.

Martin Palmer is a writer and environmentalist, and friend and collaborator of Jay Ramsay.

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