Garden of the Senses

Garden of the Senses, a poetry cycle written by Jenny Lewis, was commissioned by the Oxford Literary Festival and Pegasus Theatre, Oxford and performed in April 2005 at Pegasus Theatre. The performers were Jenny Lewis, Yasmin Sidhwa (director), Melissa Holding (composer/ musician) and Menelva Harry (choreographer/ dancer).

Part 1: Anchoress

This sequence was inspired by Ancrene Wisse (or Ancrene Riwle), a 13th century rule book for anchoresses, written by an anonymous priest. Once the nun had entered the anchorhold (or cell) she would never come out again. Earth was thrown against the side of the anchorhold and a Requiem Mass held to signify her retreat from the material world. So great was the rejection of flesh (and the devil) that some anchoresses starved themselves – trying to exist only by taking the sacrament. Not surprisingly, their lives were short.

The epigraphs, translated from a Northumbrian dialect of Middle English, are taken from the book. They have been set to music by Melissa (Holding) and are sung before poems to set the scene. For example – And was he not also a recluse in his mother’s womb – is said by the priest to encourage the young anchoress to imagine herself imitating Christ’s life by experiencing her cell as the womb of the Virgin Mary. She who chatters grinds chaff – is a warning to the anchoress to remain silent except when in prayer and for essential communication. Those birds fly well which have little flesh – encourages her to fast. Come to me my beloved – describes unio mystica where the anchoress enters an ecstatic state of union with Christ. The language is drawn from the Song of Songs (based on early Arabic love poetry) which made great use of the technique of synaesthesiawhereby the senses are mixed together so that music can be drunk, colours heard, felt or tasted.

Read two of these poems

Part 2: Gypsy

This piece was inspired by a trip to Rajasthan and by the film Latcho Drom, by director Tony Gatlif, which charts the development of Romany music and culture from the deserts of Rajasthan, through the Middle East and Eastern Europe to contemporary Spain. I wrote it as a colourful and humorous storytelling piece specially for Yasmin to provide an enjoyable balance to the more austere Anchoress.

The central theme

The two pieces are based on a central theme of love and the transformational nature of love. The anchoress in her bare cell has an intense inner life which is expressed in ecstatic language. In contrast, the life of the Rajasthani gypsy has no boundaries, but her inspiration is still love – except this time it is physical, human love. The two pieces have a central idea which is interpreted differently in each. In Anchoress, Christ is the long awaited bridegroom, and the anchoress’s love is spiritual:

Now I am a garden of scents.
I am a flower opening
in my bridegroom’s heart

In Gypsy it is the young Maharajah with whom the girl has fallen in love. Her love is sensual:

And then I was a garden of the senses
I was a flower opening
in my bridegroom’s heart