I would like to begin 2023 thinking about how poets share their responses to our ecological world situation, the planet and poetry and consequent approach to time and place. In Axis Mundi (commissioned by the Centre for Creative Practices), Hungarian writer and poetry filmmaker Csilla Toldy, (based in Northern Ireland), has brought together voices from every continent (20 different languages), in reverence and respect for this precious planet, made for Earth Day, 2021.
But this work is much more than a straightforward poetry film. It may voice a sensitive and moving poem, where the poignant first line sets the tone ‘My Head is the Earth’ but it also addresses and interrogates how time, sidereal time, can be conveyed in relation to the embodied self in the moving image. Temporality, in all its constructs (both in editing and the subjectivity of the poet/poem as translated onscreen) is central to my research practice: and I explored the changing light patterns of a single scene, shot over an entire day, in my film of Lucy English’s poem Mr Sky (2018). As such I take a delight in Toldy’s use of film and montage to convey our complex engagement with place and its relation to a turning world. We recognise we are always in ‘one’ place as the world turns, yet we have a connected sense (or energy, call it what you like) of the universal, and moreover this sense is potentially shared by everyone on the planet.
As a fixed point she centres her footage on the Meadow at Rostrevor, where, over twelve hours, twelve shots were gathered, registering, in the style of Monet, the change in light and weather. In combination she chose to use a 360–degree pan, to echo the Earth turning around its axis, and as the translated voices speak (alongside whale song), we see their time zones from zero (GMT) coming back full circle; for example, Spanish appears at + 3 degrees. She also adds a salutary ecological note: ‘I shot on Kilkeel beach last summer and was shocked by the amount of rubbish, plastic washed to shore. I incorporated some of this footage to reflect on the idea that this is the tipping point, this is the time when we have to decide whether we can save the planet and ourselves. The singing whales in the film represent the oceans and they are the very creatures who have to cope with all that rubbish, including masks, that we pour into the oceans.’
I would add that the interjecting whale song hits a nerve, a direct nerve, as if full of pathos. It reminds us, as humans, we are only part of an ecologically rich planet, and registers like a plea for us to listen and take action today.
Overall, a philosophical interrogation of time flows in and out of this work, in collecting the footage, of how the poet’s quite simple yet effective words combined with such a delivery seem to traverse a dualist position (in its multi-cross-planetary voicing). And this thereby affects how the viewer is placed, as if here and thereat the same time. Ultimately, we are all the earth,– I am the earth – and the poet suggests how androcentric time needs to now get in step with sidereal time, the time of the planet, and the beauty and vastness that gives itself every day.
‘Based on my poem “My Head is the Earth”, written originally in Hungarian, I asked translators from all over the world to translate and recite my poem in their own language. On Spring Equinox we filmed in Rostrevor Meadow, Northern Ireland, from sunrise to sunset every hour. On this day of the year, night and day are equal in length, 12 hours. The footage concentrated on a 360-degree circle, shot with an HD camera from the same spot, focusing on the Cooley Mountain along Carlingford Lough. We start the film at sunrise 6.27 am and as the day progresses, we go through the time zones starting from GMT, around the globe with the recitals of the poem, according to the longitude and latitude of the capital where the corresponding language is spoken. I was very pleased to get the most diverse languages such as Maori, Zulu or Farsi, Algonquin or Hiligaynon for my poem and their musicality helped me to find the rhythm for editing the footage. The translators were given free rein in how to interpret the poem or how to read it, the only distinction I made was that if I had a male reader, the poem ended with the word: light, and if I had a female reader, the poem ended with the word: night, trying to reflect on the positive-negative- yin-yang, night-day duality of our existence. 20 languages are presented, including an extinct language, Latin, in the title. The poem is read in English twice, at the beginning by a male actor and at the end by a female. The translations are read by the translators themselves, who gave their voices.
I collected the footage on the shore of the Irish Sea and at the same meadow over winter, shot from the same spot in a circle. Some of the footage incorporates flotsam – rubbish washed to shore from the Irish Sea. The visual concept of the film is footage shot through the hours of the day, the seasons in the same meadow with 360-degree pans, reflecting the shape of the earth. We move from sunrise to sunset which is only 12 hours, but the languages take us around the globe, over 24 hours. Towards the end, as we come back to Europe, the density of languages accelerates, more languages follow each other and there is an urgency, while the footage is turning darker.
The aim was to create an eco-video-poem raising awareness for environmental pollution, and also for the simple beauty of the landscape we inhabit. The combination of the footage and various languages represents the diversity of the planet, as well as humans’ dependency on nature.
I created the film with the support of the Arts Council of Ireland and Northern Ireland, commissioned by the Centre for Creative Practices. The film was award winner at the Experimental Film Festival in Barcelona and at Toronto International Women Film Festival and it was selected for Amsterdam Short Film Festival and Berlin International Art Film festival, Stockholm City Film Festival, Europa Film Festival in 2022.’
Csilla Toldy, January, 2023
For further information an interview with Csilla on the making of Axis Mundi is available here
My head is the earth,
my skin the air
dusk is my hair.
I am the earth –
I open myself
and make love
with the sky.
On my horizon
and eternity cascades
with the night/light.
Csilla Toldy was born in Budapest and escaped from socialist Hungary in 1981. Csilla now lives in Northern Ireland and works as a poet, writer, poetry filmmaker and literary translator. Her latest publications are Bed Table Door (Wrecking Ball Press), a novel, and Healing a poetry collection (Salmon).
Her writing has been supported by British Screen, Northern Ireland Screen, the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, and the National Lottery. As a scriptwriter, she won the Katapult and Hartley-Merrill Prizes. Axis Mundiwas an award winner at the Experimental Film Festival in Barcelona and at Toronto International Women’s Film Festival.