Jay Ramsay is poet and psychotherapist based in Stroud. Places of Truth: Journeys into Sacred Wilderness is a poetry collection in seven sections arising from Jay’s experience of ‘deep listening’ to landscapes over twenty years.
Each part arises from a different place (or places) and has a unique and individual flavour. However certain topics recur: love, peace, politics, the contrast between everyday and mystical perception, and the search for the divine. The thread tying everything together is ‘places of truth’: ‘You are what you are there. You become real’.
‘Trwyn Meditations’ was written during a week’s stay in a cottage on the edge of Snowdonia. The poems move from an impressionistic sinking into place to the intensity of ‘a billion stars’ ‘you could count them till you died’ to slowly gathering ivy to fury roused by the forest’s destruction:
‘raw lopped trunks
the shocked surviving trees
as powerless as I am
So I can chainsaw myself
with this anger? Do I
only add to a place’s blood?’
The resulting call is ‘to heal and bury.’
‘By the Shores of Loch Awe’ evokes how partners share experiences of places including visions running from their deep past: ‘Rob Roy, and you, Landless MacGregor- / Hounded by Grey Campbell and his Black son’ and a woman with a baby under her arm ‘And a knife in her hand, / Stabbing at the invading men.’
‘How it comes so out of time and place
To find us so unexpectedly in place
And what opens in us to meet it we have never seen.’
Likewise in ‘Mountain’ (which is about several different mountains and events) ‘What does it mean for your heart / to stay on the mountain? / To remain in love’.
‘The Oak’ is a fascinating series of meditations on/conversations with the sixth oldest oak in England, behind Edge Farm near Painswick in Gloucestershire. Split by lightning, the tree is described as wounded yet transcendent, masculine ‘erect’ ‘proud’ ‘I am your Father’ and feminine ‘between your thighs at the knee, under your / covered sac, in the dark, is her womb cave opening.’
The most arresting image is the oak as ‘a Samson that has broken his chains’, the ‘dead shadow’ of a fallen branch with a rusted chain beside him. Intriguing interchanges of being and energy take place: ‘in a flash, boy-flesh and bark are one’. The tree becomes a ‘living standing / beacon of blood’ ‘this is the heart of you, Father. Fill me.’
‘Culbone’ covers the historic layers of the village and ‘church at the bottom of the world’ from its first sage and woodmen through Jesus’ visit to its use as a prison, leper colony, occupation by ‘thirty-eight East Indian servants’ and squatters up to ‘Private ownership, estate management’.
The most striking section for me, perhaps because it’s so far from anything I can imagine experiencing, is ‘desert feast, desert fast’. This records the time Jay spent in the Sinai desert with Satish Kumar and his group on a three day fast.
‘In the silence’, a poem in twelve verses which is about the fast, forms this section’s heart. Jay describes his shifts in perception on the first day:
‘…when the hours
expand like inflated air with no limit
but the sun’s orbit in a cloudless sky
inching its way around the horizon
your only punctuation.’
Sickness is followed by a ‘glimpse of a desert father’. On the ‘Dark Night’ Jay sees Death ‘Staring eye sockets and nose, domed forehead / and his mouth, well, grinning!’ Yet afterward he finds the divine ‘… You / all around me everywhere as light / and soft’.
Jay’s relationship with deity was the most difficult thing for me to grasp. Sometimes it seems clear it is (?the Abrahamic?) ‘God’: ‘Father’ talking to ‘son’. At other times the divine presence ‘You’ is immanent within the landscape.
This is probably because my experiences as a polytheist centre on various individual deities rather than an omnipresent God. Jay’s poetry has certainly provided me with food for thought on the differences and similarities between monotheistic/pantheistic and polytheistic mystical traditions.
I would recommended this book to anybody interested in connecting with and listening to places and the deeper visions and experiences born from long periods of meditation. It forms an important waymarker in the development of mystical tradition in the present day and is well worth reading for students of mysticism from all spiritualities and religions.
Places of Truth is available from Awen Publications HERE.