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Active Silence

We're inviting you to take a break - peaceful, or quietly chaotic – from the ‘surround sound’ of whatever you’re caught up in, and reflect with us and some of the authors who may help us reconnect with that vital silence through poetry and other writing. Silence is a vital part of our humanity, yet it goes missing too often, especially in such a time as this. 

Vahni Capildeo, the current Writer in Residence at York has put together a series of ‘slow readings’ giving you a selection of texts and fragments. These recordings were made outwith the UK in conditions of total lockdown during the COVID-19 pandemic, without access to studio equipment, but with an intense sense of bridging distance and longing for presence.

When you listen to the voice recordings, be attentive to the gaps as well as the words; read for the spaces, stay for a little while, perhaps let the words pass without bothering with them at all. If you are reading aloud from the writings provided, pace yourself. Don’t be afraid of letting the sound die out in between times. This is active silence for our period of in-betweenness. Perhaps a word, or phrase, may hold you while the reading moves on; or linger with you, after the reading is done. Something may resonate with you, then seem to fade out, it’s okay, this is not about thinking.

No utterance is audible without a sense of ‘surround silence’. Enjoy, suffer, be bored, be metamorphosed.

If you'd like to be reminded when the next Active Silence instalment is out, sign up for email reminders.  

Week one - 'I Am No Soldier', Martin Carter

From Martin Carter, ‘I Am No Soldier’, in University of Hunger (Bloodaxe, 2006) 

O come astronomer of freedom
Come comrade stargazer
Look at the sky I told you I had seen
The glittering seeds that germinate in darkness
And the planet in my hand’s revolving wheel
and the planet in my breast and in my head
and in my dream and in my furious blood.
Let me rise up wherever he may fall
I am no soldier hunting in a jungle
I am this poem like a sacrifice.


Week two - ‘Till I Collect’, Martin Carter

From Martin Carter, ‘Till I Collect’, in University of Hunger (Bloodaxe, 2006)


The fisherman will set his tray of hooks

and ease them one by one into the flood.

His net of twine will strain the liquid billow

and take the silver fishes from the deep.

But my own hand I dare not plunge too far

lest only sand and shells I bring to air

lest only bones I resurrect to light.

Week three - 'Suite of 5 Poems: No. 4', Martin Carter

From Martin Carter, ‘Suite of 5 Poems: No. 4’, in University of Hunger (Bloodaxe, 2006)


I will always be speaking with you. And if I falter,

and if I stop, I will still be speaking with you, in

words that are not uttered, are never uttered, never

made into the green sky, the green earth, the

green, green love…

Week four - 'Devotion XVII', John Donne

From John Donne, 'Devotion XVII', in Devotions upon Emergent Occasions (1624)


The Bell doth toll for him that thinks it doth; and though it intermit againe, yet from that minute, that that occasion wrought upon him, hee is united to God. Who casts not up his Eye to the Sunne when it rises? but who takes off his Eye from a Comet when that breakes out? Who bends not his eare to any bell, which upon any occasion rings? but who can remove it from that bell, which is passing a peece of himself out of this world? No man is an Iland, intire of it selfe; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine; if a Clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Mannor of thy friends or of thine owne were; any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.

Week five - 'A Grammar for War', Shara McCallum

Shara McCallum, 'A Grammar for War', in This Strange Land (Alice James Books, 2011)

A Grammar for War

After a day when reports of casualties

crackle out of the car radio,

pursuing me as I enter the house at dusk,

eyes wide with seeing,

ears fitted with knowledge

I know neither how to hold nor let drop,

I lay keys on the kitchen table

and scan the air wishing

again I could invent

a lexicon for grief.

If language could recover losses,

words might offer solace

the way a flock of geese follows

a preset trajectory of flight,

the way dawn’s arrival restores the gingko’s

mottled shades of green,

the way the mockingbird sings its song,

conjugating the squandered night.

Week six - 'The Life of Saint Teresa of Ávila by Herself', St Teresa de Jesús

From St Teresa de Jesús, 'The Life of Saint Teresa of Ávila by Herself', tr. J.M. Cohen (Penguin, 1957)

To occupy the powers of the mind and at the same time to imagine that we can keep them quiet is folly. I say once more, although this is not generally understood, that there is no great humility in this. It may not be sinful, but it certainly causes distress, for it is labour thrown away, and leaves the soul somewhat frustrated, like a man who has tried to take a leap and has been pulled back. It feels that it has used its strength, and yet has not achieved what it intended to. Anyone who will reflect on the matter will perceive from the smallness of the gain achieved this slight lack of humility of which I have spoken. For humility has this excellent quality, that no work which is done in a humble state leaves any distaste in the soul. I think that I have made this clear, though perhaps only to myself. May the Lord open the eyes of those who read this, and grant them experience. For however slight that experience is, they will immediately understand.

For many years I read a great deal, and understood nothing […]

Week seven - 'Short Prayer to the Moon', Vivek Narayanan

Vivek Narayanan, 'Short Prayer to the Moon', in Universal Beach (Ingirum Books, rev. ed. 2011) [2006]

Short Prayer to the Moon

Moon, though your energies be uncertain, I beseech you,

protect him, protect all of us, from our nightly visions.

May the hero and the murderer withdraw gently from this, our despairing prescript.

May daylight return.

May we drink from the cup of gratitude.

May we last long enough to make note of our error.

Though burdened by knowledge, may we walk out into the open.

Though burdened by knowledge, may the clouds lift from our eyes.

Hour by hour, may we learn to free ourselves from prayer.

Week eight - 'Utter: 1', Vahni Capildeo

Vahni Capildeo, 'Utter: 1', in Utter (Peepal Tree, 2013)



Night drinks salt water from a bucket, draws

a sleeve from the sea, spills hand across mouth.

Night hands back the bucket to the sailor.

Night, blue-shirted, wades arrythmically.

Night hurries off uphill.

The sky fires up as if to say what

Tongue swells against teeth as if to say what

The coastline cuts up thick and fortified

Giving the time of day, stranger,

willing this dawn rain down and utter you.

Week nine - 'Utter: 2', Vahni Capildeo

Vahni Capildeo, 'Utter: 2', in Utter (Peepal Tree, 2013)



First I tried to hide it from itself.

Then I tried to hide it from myself.

I tried quite hard to hide it from you,

even when we knew that was no use.

After all this hiding, no surprise

it’s like a thing in translation:

eggshell-shy. A thumb’s worth of glory,

nesting near the coastlines of your palm.


Week ten - 'Inishbofin: II', Vahni Capildeo

Vahni Capildeo, 'Inishbofin: II', in Venus as a Bear (Carcanet, 2018)

Inishbofin: II

You do just have to listen to the boatman.

Let the boatman make the decision.

Week eleven - 'Holy Island', Vahni Capildeo

Vahni Capildeo, 'Holy Island', in Odyssey Calling (Sad Press, 2020)

Holy Island

The wind is high today.

The seals are hiding under rocks.

The seals have gone to the other islands.

Come back this afternoon.

Listen for the seals.

What do they sound like?

They sound like ghosts.

Week twelve - 'Until you too have journeyed', Kei Miller

Kei Miller, 'Until you too have journeyed', in A Light Song of Light (Carcanet, 2010)

Until you too have journeyed

Until you too have journeyed through caves,

through miles of damp and bats, the cool

of all that is not living; until your one torch

has flickered out and you have found yourself

in a dark so dark you forget your eyes

or if they are opened; until you’ve had to find

a way, inch by careful inch, stopping to invent

an arrow out of wind; until you discover

how the feel and sound of stone or pebble

can exist without an image, the very thought

of colour competing for the air; until you too

have lost the day and the day has lost you

and it dawns on you, how foolish to have come

willingly to where the dead are put; until then

do not scoff at what has become our common

language for tomorrow and hope, this bright opening,

this end of dark, this light at the end of the tunnel.

Week thirteen - ‘Alliterative Diamond’, Vahni Capildeo


Vahni Capildeo, ‘Alliterative Diamond’, in Light Site (Periplum, 2020)

when i was young   when younger I had
light stockpiled   stepwells of luminosity
seams of gleaming   inward glow
brightness had my back   hot buttresses
radiant underpinnings   unreserved reservoirs
my fashion walked sunrays   failings wheeled to sunrise
doing was floating   dear and perpetual
shining went into me   should not go out
look we have resources   my life you have my light

Week fourteen - ‘I Am a Poem about the Ants’, Nicholas Laughlin

Nicholas Laughlin, ‘I Am a Poem about the Ants’, in Enemy Luck (Peepal Tree, 2019)

Also the ants here are different,
they make nests high in the trees,
adorn them with flowers, adorn them with small birds
snared in webs of silk, iridescent and anxious,
the ants are fervent collectors of honey,
they keep their treasury high in the trees,
a fortune in honey,
so when it rains, the rain falls golden and sweet,
and the hummingbirds take refuge in their burrows.
Only the spiders dare parley with the ants.
Do not believe there is sugar in the sky.

Week fifteen - 'Lament (will rise again)', Ellen Dillon

Excerpt from Ellen Dillon, ‘Lament (will rise again)’, in Excavate (Oystercatcher, 2020)

It cries,      whatever is changing,      even
to make itself better.         The light
of the future never stops hurting us,      not
for a single instant.      It’s here
     burning in every one of our daily actions
it’s anguished                even in the faith
     that gives us life,      in the conflicted commitment
to these workers            who            mutely,
in the region of      that other      human      front,
           raise their red rag of hope.

Week sixteen - ‘Ariadne’, in Rarefied (falling without landing), Lucy Sheerman

Excerpt from Lucy Sheerman, ‘Ariadne’, in Rarefied (falling without landing) (Oystercatcher, 2017)

She strolls over the small, bright square of grass,
each blade frosted with light, waxed lyrical.
The real world creaking at the edge of sight.
Marooned in the night she counts her blessings –
invisible bruises, bluish flowers.
Graceless, grass returns to dust. Passionless,
weary expectation fades past tending.
She just looks upon the moon and the stars,
gifts he gave to the dark and empty skies.
Incongruous as rain in the desert.

Week seventeen - I walked in a desert, Stephen Crane

Stephen Crane, ‘I walked in a desert’, in The Black Riders and Other Lines (1895)

I walked in a desert
And I cried,
“Ah, God, take me from this place!”
A voice said, “It is no desert.”
I cried, “Well, But –
The sand, the heat, the vacant horizon.”
A voice said, “It is no desert.”

Week eighteen - 'Fado', Peter Hughes

Excerpt from Peter Hughes, ‘Fado’, in Bethesda Constellations (Oystercatcher, 2020)

we moaned at length about the heat
& Amalia Rodrigues
simmered through the headphones
in the orange aisle of B&Q
where insubstantial strimmers nest
in chunky cardboard boxes
slowly eliciting the question
of how much modulated
crushed & flatpacked pain
you could inscribe this year
into a single syllable
that’s lifted & sustained
up over & above
the final trace of light
before the first sharp stars
of silence sing again

Week nineteen - ‘Restless Earth: After Édouard Glissant’, Vahni Capildeo

Excerpt from Vahni Capildeo, ‘Restless Earth: After Édouard Glissant’, in Light Site (Periplum, 2020)

a bird cuts loose from your face
your face uproots the bird
your looks belong with feathers

i say the sea
does it?

if a wave lifts
if the lift comes
from the wind, they believe what?

of silence

Week twenty - 'Choir', Peter Hughes

Excerpt from Peter Hughes, ‘Choir’, in Bethesda Constellations (Oystercatcher, 2020)

an amateur choir
is filling the hall
with love songs
on the last day of September
this nimble wind
both in & out the doorway
of maybe Citizen’s Advice
& the gorgeous warmth of the chip shop
rumours & a heart of gold


Week twenty-one 'The Bed', Zoë Skoulding

Excerpt from Zoë Skoulding, ‘The Bed’, in Celestial Set-Up (Oystercatcher, 2020)

our bed was swallowing a year for every hour we slept in it
our bed was a cut-price mattress from Finneys' closing-down sale
our bed was two singles stuck together
our bed was the gap in the middle we fell into
our bed was a bed of nails glittering in the dark
our bed was a crevasse where the snow was still falling
our bed was lit by slowly turning planets
our bed was northbound on the southbound M6
our bed was an underpass echoing with traffic
our bed was too small for our cramped arms
our bed was a home for tiny invisible creatures
our bed was balanced on an outcrop of radioactive rock
our bed was a ramshackle space station mended with a butter knife

Week twenty-two - ‘The Celestial Set-up’, Zoë Skoulding

Excerpt from Zoë Skoulding, ‘The Celestial Set-up’, in Celestial Set-Up (Oystercatcher, 2020)

when does holding out your hand
                                  become a question

which way to the centre
                       and how will I know when I get there

when the city is both a practice of scars and
                        a pattern of what's in the air
                                              in other words in song
an accumulation of detail invisible until you're dead

for now we wander slowly about the star sphere
          in a discontinuity that exists as aperture
to defer the sound of an ending not to
          stop there just look
                                don't look at the sun

This series is part of the Writer in Residence’s opening theme, ‘Silence, Crisis and Excess’.