Tom Lowenstein

Tom Lowenstein’s latest collection is Ancestors and Species: New and Selected Ethnographic Poetry.

Poem: ‘Conversation with Murasaki’

Tom Lowenstein, 14 December 2006

Murasaki – I imagined a dye the colour of mulberries. A burnet moth’s underwing.

She brushes past Sei Shonagon. Sleeves in tension. Both brushes charged with silken resistance.

When she sang it was brocade. When she modestly whispered, a most delicate embroidery.

‘Her sash matched her robe. But did you notice the lining of her sleeve? I could have laughed all evening!’

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. . . A mist had come in and sunlight ran in shafts and pieces through it.

Then rising on the Point ahead was an arch of whale’s jaw-bones,

two mandibles curving against grey, half-hidden tundra.

The bones faced one another, and their broad ellipse narrowed

at the high point without touching, but stood open, enclosing in their tension

a long framed view, through which, as I...

Carved Cosmos

Tom Lowenstein, 5 August 1993

‘All conditioned things decay’, was, as roughly translated, the Buddha’s penultimate sentence. ‘The one who has woken’ (which is what the participle buddha means) was trying to reassure the monastic circle that his death was in the natural order of things. The Buddha’s views on an afterlife are ambiguous. The historical man, however, saw the future of his thought as part of a philosophical continuum within society, and he apparently conceded the necessity of a degree of post humous ritual. In texts which describe the Buddha’s final weeks we find him ordering the construction of reliquaries (stupas) for his ashes. These were to be placed symmetrically, as in many Buddhist propositions, on the sites of four life-events: his birth, enlightenment, first discourse and death.

Diary: Stories from an Eskimo Village

Tom Lowenstein, 16 February 1989

Last summer I returned to the Eskimo village in Alaska where, off and on, I have been recording traditional stories and oral histories since 1973. Here, on a remote peninsula jutting thirty miles into the sea, a whale-hunting community with a vast repertoire of ceremonial and lore has subsisted since the seventh century. Commercial whalers plying the Alaskan coast in the mid-19th century were the first outsiders to disturb this high Arctic society. Since the oil-boom of the mid-Seventies there have been explosive changes. In the summer of 1975, the village moved two miles east to avoid flooding. To accommodate both the fragile little houses of that period and future development, the beach-ridges and tundra of the ‘new town site’ were bulldozed to create a flat, undifferentiated plane of gravel. This site also had an ancient history. It partially covered the burial ground of a pre-Eskimo society which vanished around 500 AD. The ‘old town’, with its 18th and 19th-century earth-iglu mounds and whale bone monuments, was abandoned to the owls and foxes.

Read my toes

Francis Spufford, 5 August 1993

Seventeenth-century books of Arctic travels contained occasional reports of a kingdom in the far north of the Americas called Estoty: just out of reach over the icy horizon with its wealth, its...

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