A Book Review
The East Wind and the Crow is a remarkable book by any measure. I would go as far as to say that in its scope, breadth and depth of knowledge, wit, and pure surprises it almost defies review. Author, essayist and poet Steffan Balsom has launched upon us an absolute kaleidoscope of a book – one which is at once serious and humorous, and spangled with revelations which left me wondering at their depth of insight, and at the outlandish quirkiness which often serves to further drive home their vitality. The book is divided into three sections: Poetry and notes (which comprise some two-thirds of the book); essays; and a section of short stories and sketches.
The rationale of and background to some of the poems are provided in the author’s introduction, but the body of notes which follow them deal with much more, and it is recommended that these are read along with each of the poems. Their subjects range from the exalted to the commonplace. Names there are in plenty (Tresmegistus is there, and Taliesin). There are goddesses rather than a god: In ‘Stella Máris’ we see the mysterious and the beautiful; in ‘A Pagan Hymn’ the exquisitely-named Nema-Nematona; in ‘Bastet’, the goddess transformed. The rebel is there – ‘No fist could hold / this frozen rage / had I the mind / to smash the cage’. (Here, the poet is writing of someone else, but I like to think – no, there is no question about it – that these red-blooded lines tell us a lot about the poet himself; and there are more than a few allusions to the unrighteous of this world receiving their comeuppance). There is much impish word-play, as in ‘The Gods Anna Kissed’ (but no spoiler is offered, just now!).
Here is the poet’s ‘Stella Máris’:
You see her now and then,
An icon out of time,
The rider sits serene
As a Culdee or a mime
She isn’t in this scene,
She doesn’t care or curse:
She is the tranquil centre
In a spinning universe
Her hoof they call the Crescent,
Her bridle is the Night,
Her brightness incandescent
In the dark, our Lady Light
She led us in the fabled years
Of freedom ere the fall:
She has but slept, not disappeared –
She shines yet after all
What do you see when you look out
At worlds that died too soon?
I see the Maiden Guide of Hosts
Standing on the Moon
I see her Voice in flaming runes,
Awake by night, asleep by noon,
I see her breath in morning’s dew:
I see her smile upon us few!
(Rhiannon was partly held in mind, the poet tells us, when this was written).
And here is his ‘Elfydd’:
Land of Gods, and ancient speech
Land of odds too high to reach
Land of Gold, and Land of Silver,
Iron muskets, steel revolvers
Land of Gods, bought cheap as dirt
Land of hope and land of hurt
Land of Lords, brought low as death
And scattered on the world’s last breath
Land of all who went before
Land for which we wept and swore
Land of all our dreams defiled
To take back once we’d slept awhile
Land of ours and never lost,
Land of cares and endless cost
Land which we may never own
But those who do have never known
‘Elfydd’ might be a word not many know. Like most of our vocabulary, it has a Proto Indo-European root – in *albho-, meaning ‘white’, and developed in its various forms through Gaulish, Brittonic, etc. It is found in the Gaelic name for Scotland, Alba. In the Book of Taliesin it is contrasted with Annwfn / Annwn, the ancient Welsh Underworld; in the Black Book of Carmarthen as a place where flowers grow, and seems, on the whole, to refer to ‘land, surface, [this] world’, the habitable surface of the world we humans tread. It has undergone semantic shift toward ‘land, country’, to reach, in poetry, ‘land of ours’ – and we all know which land that is.
This richness of names abounds throughout, and ‘Bastet’, already mentioned above, is another which will not strike a note in every mind; it may be an unfamiliar one, but it is about a creature-goddess very familiar to us all, and halfway through the poem – Shazam! – she quite suddenly reveals herself. While ‘Stella Máris’ and ‘Elfydd’ are rhymed, ‘Bastet’ and many others are in a flowing free verse; ‘Sept Loups Voudoux’, in French and Breton (with the Breton then paraphrased in English) is one of these, and the occasion for this composition, the poet tells us, ‘was a visit … to the Cross of the Seven Wolves, south of Caulnes, Aodoù an Arvor (Côtes d’Armor)’. The poem is about Brittany’s interior – ‘the ‘Argoat’ like Welsh ‘Argoed’, the forest country, where ‘They were still lifting the banners long after everything was wrongly ‘settled’. No longer just ‘defend this land’, but ‘take it back’ ‘. There, the Chouannerie , and here, the Rebeccaites, and those of the south-east who stood on their own two feet in ’31 and ’39…
For some years, Steffan worked on a metrical version of that early Welsh masterpiece,’The Gododdin’ of Aneirin. I have been able to read some of it, and was enthralled by the flow it retains throughout, and the degree of accuracy it maintains. I cannot wait to hold a published copy in my hands. ‘Aneirin Gwawdrydd (and Ifor Williams)’, says Steffan, ‘are today among my greatest influences’. An introduction, for those who may be unfamiliar with the poem, or who wish to brush up on it, or perhaps learn more, would tell us that Gododdin is ‘the name of a Brythonic kingdom in north-east Britain (southern Scotland extending into north-east England) at a time when Germanic intruders pressed upon its southern borders. Aneirin’s poem, which survives in Early Middle Welsh (with sporadic Old Welsh passages) , is set in about 600AD, when ‘three hundred’ (Middle-Welsh ‘trychant’) picked warriors of Gododdin, following a year of feasting, bore down upon the enemy stronghold of Catraeth. Of the 300 (the number is not precise, and could, from other evidence, be somewhat more), only a handful, including Aneirin, survived to tell the tale. The poem itself implies that only Aneirin survived the battle. (Certain stanzas, nonetheless, hint that a small number survived – ‘un gwr o gant’, ‘one man of every hundred’, which would seem to indicate single figures, but more than one. The crux of the matter is Aneirin’s insistence that the Gododdin almost ‘wrecked’ the Anglic/Northumbrian army – before themselves being overwhelmed by the impossible numbers, with very few able to extricate themselves at this point). His poem is a series of elegies for those fallen. Especially notable are Cynon, Madog Efled, and of course Mynyddog Mwynfawr, the semi-mythical chieftain of Mynaw Gododdin (i.e., Lleddunion / Lothian, name-checked as Lleuddfre [Lothian Hill, probably Castle-Rock] and Din Eiddyn [Edinburgh] ). The form of the poem tends to evoke a war-memorial. It is, in essence, a sonic church-yard’.
Here are three excerpts selected from Steffan’s rendition of this mighty poem. First come the original words (in heavy type), followed by his metrical translation:
Ovreithyell gatraeth pan adrodir.
maon dychlorant eu hoet bu hir.
edyrn diedyrn amygyn dir.
a meibyon godebawc gwerin enwir.
dyforthynt lynwyssawr gelorawr hir.
bu tru a dynghetven anghen gywir.
a dyngwt y dutvwlch a chyvwlch hir.
ket yvem ved gloww wrth leu babir
ket vei da e vlas y gas bu hir.
For Catraeth’s lands, as often told,
Our greatest died, and ne’er grew old;
Through endless wars, defending lands
That else fell in Godebog’s hands
Trailing biers bore trunks bled dry,
Our loathsome fate – betrothed to die
Tudfwlch swore, and Cyfwlch Hir,
And we drank poison bright and clear,
By candlelight it tasted well:
The finest curses brewed in Hell!
Gwyr a aeth gatraethbuant enwawc.
twin a med o eur vu eu gwirawt.
blwydyn en erbyn urdyn deuawt.
trywyr a thri ugeint a thrychant eur dorchawc.
or sawl yt gryssyassant uch gormant wirawt
ny diengis namyn tri o wrhydri fossawt.
deu gatki aeron a chinon dayrawt
a minheu om gwaetfreu gwerth vy gwennwawt.
Warriors to Catt’rick went,
Wine and mead on heroes spent:
From golden cups, they drank it up,
A year of feast and faith to sup
Three and three score, then three hundred,
Golden-torqued, they struck and plundered,
Full to gunwales with the liquor,
Gone to earth, a candle’s flicker,
Dogs of war, our Cynon, Aeron:
Blood-begot, my verse pours on
O winveith a medveith yt gryssyassant.
gwyr en reit moleit eneit dichwant.
glow dull y am drull yt gytvaethant.
gwin a med amall a amucsant.
o osgord vyndawc an dwyf atveillyawc;
a rwyf a golleis om gwir garant.
o drychan riallu yt gryssyassant gatraeth;
tru namen vn gwr nyt atcorsant.
61 (LXI A)
By works of wine and mead
They made to battle
Praise their reckless hearts!
Raised around the self-same still
They wolfed the ale and had their fill
Mynyddog’s feast has left me sad
I lost the finest friends I had;
Three hundred knights to Catraeth went,
And one came back – all laughter spent
Meticulous explanatory footnotes, obviously the product of years of research, a trove of accumulated knowledge and deep literary, linguistic and historical perception, follow many of these stanzas.
Whether in the poetry or other sections, surprises display themselves, such as the sudden appearance of the ingeniously-labelled diagram of a ‘Graeco-Egyptain Slide-Rule’. Throughout, too, there are the author’s own startling observations, a good number of which are laced with wonderfully witty quips, each one sure to raise a smile. The final ten poems are delightfully ‘silly’, the crown, undoubtedly, going to the side-splitting ‘Goblin Spotting’.
The essays are masterly, dealing with philosophy, historical linguistics, etymology, esoteric symbolism, and more. There is some incisive societal analysis. But it would be a sin, and a gross one, to leave it at no more than that barren overview; oh, no, there is much more to it than that! Recently, Steffan wrote to me ‘I always think the ‘essay’ is well-named. French for ‘well, I tried…’ Tried? Tried? No! For his essays, this man goes on a massive shopping spree to the Emporium of All Thought. He comes back. He opens his bag – and behold! He spreads out before us a brand-new tablecloth, richly embroidered in patterns of the deepest purples, the most scandalous scarlets, the softest azurelle. And from its swirls and curlicues and meanders, from the endless intertwining arms of its tri- and tetraskellions he draws together threads which startle in their newness, and others which have lain dormant, unawakened and unformed in our sleepy minds for a lifetime, yet now spring out before us! What more can be said, but – read them! For they are the product of a poised, varied, stimulating mind. As one famous writer publicly remarked of another, up-and-coming writer almost a hundred and forty years ago – I remember this as the latter, a brilliant, wide-ranged, wonderfully descriptive writer, is a great favorite of mine – ‘… a man capable of putting versatility to new uses. He is a specialist in every branch of information. I hope to hear that he is writing a book which shall be a translation of the mysteries of his own mind and imagination’. A hundred and forty years ago or just yesterday, this describes Steffan, and I would love to see a collection of his superlative essays between two covers. As for being ‘a specialist in every branch of information’, in our correspondence I have often addressed him as ‘Mr. Polymath’ – and that is exactly what he is.
The tail-end of the book is devoted to the light-hearted. There is the entertaining ‘A Brief History of Muddy-Evil Britain’ to humorously put things in their proper – and perhaps not always appreciated as much as they should be – perspective. There are ‘Two Lost Arthurian Tales’, and even in these humorous stories the author’s wide grounding in history and literature shows through – where, for instance, in one of these he makes good use of the quest-formula which appears in the Welsh mediaeval tale Culhwch ac Olwen of the celebrated Mabinogion collection. (There is much, throughout the book, which either brushes on or deals directly with the Celtic world, both ancient and modern).
It would be wrong to try to identify a single theme which runs through such an indefinable, all-embracing content, but the message which remains with me if this: That nothing has changed since ancient days – it is power and power alone that has always governed us all; but the fight is in some of us still. And in the midst of this, the true poet (and few there are these days) with head raised, is able to perceive and write about a beauty which has always been there, and the concern that it shall, despite the odds, persist. And, balm for the spirit, there is a smile to go with it all, for this poet is a Cabellian imp, fit to negotiate even with wise Nessus for the use of his gleaming shirt and, with it resting easily upon his back, in a world-changing mood march boldly upon Versailles.
Steffan was born in 1976 in Wales’ west-Glamorgan, lived for many years in England’s north Yorkshire ‘precisely the part where it meets Cumbria’, has since his youth sojourned for long periods in the Brittany he loves, and is presently resident in rural Middle England. His main interests include, in his own words, ‘writing, drawing, music, languages (especially the Celtic languages) and linguistics, philosophy and ancient history’. He adds that he ‘would much rather have been born during the Iron Age, considers modern life stupendously tiresome, and avoids it as far as possible’. The East Wind and the Crow (Austin Macaulay Publishers, 2019) pbk.158 pp., 13.99 Pounds Sterling (Kindle edition. US$3.94) is available direct from the publishers or from Amazon and similar outlets.
A Book Review