Ecopoet Helen Moore shares a poem inspired by Blake’s visionary painting The Ghost of a Flea — and her own close encounter with the insect. The poem features in her ECOZOA collection, which makes creative use of Blake’s mythology of the Four Zoas to address our contemporary experience of destructive industrial civilisation.
This poem was inspired by William Blake’s poem The Ghost of a Flea and my experience of moving (with the late poet Niall McDevitt) into a flea-infested flat, which the letting agents had to have fumigated.
I found their exorcism to be both desirable and morally uncomfortable, and the painting seems to hold that tension. In personifying the Flea, depicting a large, muscled, naked human figure, who seems like kin, Blake also makes him menacing, repulsive. I also saw links between the destruction of these creatures and the ongoing mass extinction occurring in our planet-home, as well as with our individual mortality.
The Ghosts of Fleas
After the painting by William Blake
Ah, the hooked tongues, the bristly thighs, those simple popping eyes that stare into their bowls,
empty now – no longer will these barber-surgeons let our blood; instead, rising in their hundreds
from above the house, a flicking, swelling extinction rite on August’s Blue Moon. And still our nerve-ends
jittered, maggot dreams creeping through the curtains – the unconscious mind knows the prisoner’s lice,
the cadaver’s wavy flesh. Be gone you carpet-dwelling fiends; be gone you leaping suckers!
This exorcism by a lethal gas that fogged the rooms, twisted mouth-parts & innards…
ah, these boards from which they flee; ah, the stars to which we’ll follow.
From ECOZOA by Helen Moore, Permanent Publications (2015)
Helen Moore is a British ecopoet, socially engaged artist, writer, Nature educator and facilitator of outdoor wellbeing programmes. She has published three ecopoetry collections, Hedge Fund, And Other Living Margins(Shearsman Books, 2012), ECOZOA (Permanent Publications, 2015), acclaimed by the Australian poet John Kinsella as ‘a milestone in the journey of ecopoetics’, and The Mother Country (Awen Publications, 2019) exploring aspects of British colonial history. She offers an online mentoring programme, Wild Ways to Writing, and works with students internationally. In 2021 Helen gave a keynote lecture on ecopoetry and landscape at PoesiaEuropa in Italy; and she collaborated with Cape Farewell in Dorset on RiverRun, an ecopoetry project drawing on fieldwork and research from scientists and farmers in Dorset to examine pollution in Poole Bay and its river-systems.
Helen’s collection ECOZOA is her response to the destruction caused by industrial civilisation. The foreword explains that theologian Thomas Berry named the approaching era — now commonly labelled along with the present under the human-centred name of ‘The Anthropocene’ — as the more life-centred ‘Ecozoic Era’. “The word ‘ecozoic’ has its roots in the Greek ‘zoe’, meaning ‘life’. In the complex mythology of William Blake’s epic poems Jerusalem and The Four Zoas, Moore sees the power of the imagination to address the ecological crisis we face. She contemporises Blake’s visions, showing how a rebalancing of the ‘four zoas’ enables us to heal ourselves and our planet, and to establish relationships with self and others that are embodied, heart-connected and able to get to the root of our problems. In this way, fear and limited thinking can fall away, opening up liminal spaces where our love of freedom can flourish and collectively we can sense the evolving futures we most desire.”
The Tate’s entry on Blake’s The Ghost of a Flea explains that artist and astrologer John Varley was a close friend of Blake and reported that “Blake once had a spiritual vision of a ghost of a flea. ‘This spirit visited his imagination in such a figure as he never anticipated in an insect.’ While drawing the spirit it told the artist that all fleas were inhabited by the souls of men who were ‘by nature bloodthirsty to excess’. In the painting it holds a cup for blood-drinking and stares eagerly towards it. Blake’s amalgamation of man and beast suggests a human character marred by animalistic traits.”
Finding Blake creator and filmmaker James Murray-White announces the completion of the film behind the project, reveals the trailer for the film, celebrates the inspiration behind this work — and asks what Blake would make of the changes we are seeing in the world today.
So — we have a film: a 90-minute feature doc, Finding Blake: meeting William Blake in the 21st Century, or – memorialising the vegetal ephemeral. It was completed, fittingly, on Valentine’s Day. And it’s been a long labour of love — three years, and all my life and experience before that: poured into this.
It’s been a long wild ride. As Patti Smith sings in My Blakean Year:
“all that I envisioned, all that I had held dear, met with grave derision.” — Patti Smith
So I write this with a sense of reflection, and both an opening to the new, and an ending of the old. I’ve been coming and going with this project over these three years: having to put it down to focus on commercial work and pay the bills; deepening my activism and my engagement with the human community in doing so, equally emphasising a deeper connection with the Earth and the soil and engaging in the work of rewilding, inner and outer. And yet, always mindful of returning to the layers and levels of understanding of Blake’s zoas, and seeking to integrate so many aspects of life and the love and joy and horror of it all coming at me constantly, so that I can truly exist somewhere within these four levels of spiritual development.
That is what Blake’s life was all about, and why he still is such a strong source of inspiration. As Luis Carrido, Blake scholar — and, with his wife Carol, the re-discoverer of Blake’s final resting place underneath the plane tree in the Bunhill Fields ‘dissenters graveyard’ — says early in the film:
“It’s a movement of spiritual enlightenment. Blake helps us reach up to the infinite.” — Luis Carrido
So, remembering this, and constantly working with Luis and his words and the other interviewees on screen, and the ever-present solid, calm craft of Lida Kindersley, the constant tap-tap-tapping of chisel hitting stone in her workshop — which I hope I’ve used to good measure in the film as a sound experience as well as a visual metaphor, chipping away at the fixedness of life — I’ve brought all the material to the editing chipping block. Chipped away, always trying to reach up to the infinite, with all its beautiful and wrathful manifestations we find upon the way.
Blake was born for this time
Having dived into Blake’s life and legacy, and responded to it all with this project, I wonder what Blake would have made of the massive cultural shifts and rise in consciousness we are seeing manifest. It is deeply encouraging to see folk — young and old, from every walk of life — rising to challenge vested power and political corruption.
Capitalism stifles and kills. Land ownership excludes and divides. Carbon production and emission destroys. And creativity, stilling the mind, listening, looking deeply — these are what re-invigorate and produce love and beauty and compassionate care.
Blake would love this time in the human story. He was born for it, and we thank him for the legacy of life that has helped bring this shift into being. I wonder if his energy truly went beyond, or if it was re-incarnated: to keep returning as bodhisattvas to guide us humbler mortals to enlightenment…
Wild weather and deep inspiration
Sitting down to edit often feels to me like sitting in the dentist’s chair and having my wisdom teeth pulled (I’ve had two out and still remember the pain and the size of the needles). There is an ominous phrase in the film world, often used by editors and all of us crafting away with cameras: ‘kill your babies’ — which really translates as ‘does your best material hold the story together and would the story survive without it?’ I’d much rather hand projects over — and I’ve worked with a few good editors on pieces of this — but ultimately it’s been my responsibility and I knew I must see it through.
“I must create a system, or be enslav’d by another mans I will not reason & compare:my business is to create”
It’s been wild weather outside the door: Storm Ciara was in full force when I arrived, and knocked out some of Cumbria’s water supply and left the land water-logged, cold, windy, and snowy up on the higher hills. And Storm Dennis is just coming up the land now as I finish the edit and write these words. Wonderful, wild weather to inspire my looking deep into this screen and allowing Blake to unfold…
I’m grateful to two dear friends who have been closely involved with Finding Blake since the beginning. Poet Clare Crossman and filmmaker Jonnie Howard both have been giving me constant advice and good guidance on this visual telling, and whose wise words I took with me to the editing retreat high up in the Cumbrian wilds.
Using film to find William Blake
To get my creative juices going, I took myself to see the new Terence Malick film A Hidden Life: a masterly telling of a true story of conscientious objection, and the soul-felt struggle of the individual who chose this path. The film isn’t about words, as with much of Malick’s recent work. He uses huge-scale cinematography to conjure emotions. Sweeping shots of mountains and the vast rolling (Austrian) landscapes, with beautiful intimate detail of grass and corn, and the vast deep joy of all of it.
One of the disappointments I felt at the big Blake exhibition at Tate Britain that finished at the top of this month, alongside the lack of A/V material, is that the big scale film panning across an artwork didn’t go into enough detail. What I would love to do with Blake is to use special lenses to really scrutinise some of the images — prints and paintings — in deep detail. Access to the images to do this requires a vast budget, and the institutions that hold the bulk of Blake’s oeuvre frown upon such deep scrutiny. There was a very fine film doing the rounds last year looking at Picasso’s early life, with magnificent slow close-ups of some of his work — a powerful way to really look at an image. Blake’s work would really benefit from this close observation by those with eyes to see.
I was up at Clare’s cottage a year ago last winter, and cut all the sequences in draft form. I have sat on them since, adding other bits of footage and doing more interviews, but wondering what was lacking in the overall project. Jonnie — a great filmmaker who has done some of the early camerawork for the project (including the beautifully shot David Whyte interview in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, where Blake quite literally sat upon our shoulders) has been continually saying I should inject more personal input: Why have I been doing this? What’s my story here? And so I have. I hope it works: it was never going to be all about me — that thought abhors me, but I realise that ultimately it’s both the personal and the wider perspective that tells the story, and this is where the craft of telling is, whatever the story.
Clare, a fine poet, highly capable of soul-diving to heft out words of the Earth to bring ethical diamonds to us — has also been telling me to work deeper with the Blakean words: pull out the wisdom of his legacy and craft them visually. So I’ve crafted small film-poems (one of my favourite art forms indeed — and I hope this entire film and project is in itself a larger film-poem to creativity and the human spiritual journey itself: from womb to soil).
I have to leave that to you, dear viewer, to judge for yourself. Feedback, of course, is welcome, when you get to see the whole thing on a screen someplace. We welcome reviews here, or email me directly. I’ll probably be out on a moor someplace or lugging cameras to film beavers or wild bogs, and it might take a while to respond (most of the film projects this year are responses to, reflections upon, and recording elements of this beautiful natural world, so far from the inner reflectiveness that Finding Blake has been).
Bringing Finding Blake into the world
There is a preview screening next month for those closely involved and those who chipped in to the crowdfunding campaign to get Finding Blake up and running all those centuries ago … Space is extremely limited but if you’re keen to come, email me and I’ll see if we can squeeze you in.
I’m talking to a prestigious venue about an official launch event, probably late Spring, and also to other venues around the land to take Finding Blake on a mini-tour later in the year. All details will be released here in good time. If you’d love to bring Finding Blake to a screen near you, with or without me to introduce it and do a Q&A, do shout — happy to negotiate.
For now, until Finding Blake manifests onto a screen near you, here to whet your Blakean appetite is the trailer for the film.
Finding Blake welcomes Yana Trevail, an artist preoccupied with interconnectedness. Last November — at the Blake Society’s evening entertainments in honour of Blake’s birthday — Yana gave a talk on recent artwork she’d produced. Here is her presentation, as part of a lively occasion of art, poetry, music, drama, wit and dancing held in a pub off the Strand.
I’m a painter and a printmaker and my work generally at the moment is concerned with the interconnectedness of all things and I’m particularly interested in expressions of energy.
My connection with Blake is rather tenuous in a way. My husband joined the Blake Society about a year ago. He has a very deep interest in Blake. So I’ve been along to various Blake meetings and events. I particularly enjoyed going along to the Cardozo Kindersley workshop to see the stone that was created for Blake and subsequently I went to the very moving event of the unveiling of the stone at Bunhill Fields in August. I didn’t think that I was particularly interested in Blake, although there were certain things that I was drawn to. I found the event very moving event, though I wasn’t inspired to do anything about it until my husband expressed to me his feelings about his experience, which also moved me very much. So that, coupled with the fact that I’d been there, actually prompted me to create an etching.
A minute’s silence
This piece of work is an aquatint (a tonal variety of acid etching). I don’t like to talk too much in depth about what I produce; I would hope that people are able to respond in a more visceral, less intellectual way, without verbal prompts to what is a purely visual artwork.However, what I would say about this is that it is a very direct representation of the energy that my husband experienced and that I also experienced at the unveiling. It was entirely intuitive how I came to make this piece of work, as quite a bit of my work is now. This is how I expressed that very moving time and I feel it expresses entirely what I’m interested in: expressions of energy and all of us and the universe. So I’m just pleased to be able to share with you what I and my husband and probably many more of you experienced, in different ways perhaps, at that event.
But this led on to other snippets I’d heard from my husband; for example, the ‘four zoas’. So although I can’t claim to know very much about the zoas I do have a certain understanding of them. This is a very intuitively produced aquatint etching. It came from my own experience which I had whilst doing some yoga overlooking the sea near Plymouth.
I live on the edge of Dartmoor and feel I have a very strong connection with nature. I spend a lot of time on the moor, running and cycling and swimming. It’s what nourishes my soul and keeps me sane. So this print can be regarded as representing spontaneous intuition and imagination and therefore can be connected to Blake’s zoa of Urthona. I don’t plan any of my work. It comes into me; I’m like a conduit. Years of experience of course; nothing comes of nothing.
This is a study for a much larger plate that I’m working on at the moment. It’s a two-plate print; one plate is an aquatint and the other plate has a grid etched on it. So I had to put the paper through the press twice with the two different plates.
This image is rather evil, I think, in a way; and also a rather sad image. It’s provisionally titled ‘Urizen’. That is how I see the manifestation of Blake’s mind-forged manacles we are prone to, due to our overactive left brains. The grid is an expression of that rigidity.
The etching also reminds me of that awful image in Abu Ghraib, of that Iraqi prisoner standing on a box. That notion came to me after I’d made the etching; so that’s not what it’s about. Various things feed into the work: it’s very cross-referential. But that idea of being totally tied up, of being a prisoner, trapped in the world of the left brain, is essentially what this is about.
Previously I had said to my husband, “No I’m not interested in Blake, but I’ll go along to some of the meetings when we’re in London.” So from not having had any particular interest in Blake, subsequently I found I’d created these aquatints which are very directly concerned with him. I’m glad to have been able to share my work with you.
Yana Trevail is a painter, printmaker and performer preoccupied with the interconnectedness of all things and, through the exploration of internal and external topographical themes, developing idiosyncratic expressions of energy.
Yana won the Chairman’s Prize in 2000 and the Meynell Fenton Prize in 2002 at the Discerning Eye Exhibition, Mall Galleries, London for which she was also an Invited Artist in 2003 and 2008.
Her work has been selected for numerous exhibitions including the BP Portrait Awards, National Portrait Gallery; The Hunting Art Prizes, Royal College of Art and the Royal Society of Portrait Painters. Her work is in many private collections in the UK and internationally.
In 1975 she met the painter Robert Lenkiewicz with whom she studied and sat for. She was his studio assistant from 1997 until his death in 2002. She lives and works on Dartmoor and you can find more of her work at yanatrevail.co.uk.