She Beg She More


Crashing headlong
Over the stone-toothed hills,
In thrall of the chase,
Clawed feet dancing over the land
Like fingers on sitar-strings;

The earth is her fret-board,
Upon which she plays
The savage and triumphant song
Of her ancestors

The ground falls away beneath her
She weighs up fifteen feet
In one heartbeat,
The rhythm unbroken,
She plummets,
Pounds the road,
Leaps again,

And lands primly on a fence-post
I draw in my breath,
And, like a gunshot,
The head spins,
and the beautiful,
Merciless eye pierces me
I am not your master, cat

Am I, then, your equal?
Perhaps, we are equal in this;
We see through the tarmac,
The concrete and the lies

And I leave my words
Like dead mice
Upon the doorsteps of the world.

Steffan Balsom

Note (1):   Bastet. The Egyptian Goddess of Cats. Probably pronounced more like ‘Basta’. No giggling at the back. The feminine suffix -t tends to be swallowed, a little like our British ‘glottal stop’. This came to me as I watched a particularly well-formed cat thundering down the hillside: above all, the way it negotiated the wall, and the drop to the road beneath it, reined itself in, and glanced momentarily in my direction before continuing the hunt, down the hill and towards the sea. I’m more of a dog person, but I always appreciate perfection when I see it. [Steffan]

Note (2):   Apologies are offered to any gentlemen readers who might have been misled by the article’s main title, She Beg She More.  Let me explain: This comes from Sí Beag Sí Mhór, a tune for the harp attributed to brilliant, blind Irish harpist Turlough O’Carolan (1670-1738). In Irish Gaelic, this is properly written (so I believe, and please correct me in the ‘Comments’ section if I’m wrong, as with anything else which pertains) as Sídhe Beag, Sídhe Mór, which may be translated as ‘Little Spirit, Big Spirit’, and refers to The People of the Goddess Dana. In Irish folklore especially, and in other Celtic cultures, these are those we have come to designate ‘The Fair Folk’ or ‘The Fairy Folk’ – in Irish, the Tuatha De Danann, or the Sidhe (pronounced ‘Shee’). So, as we have the great Egyptian goddess Bastet and her minuscule following, the multitudinous, mischievous race of the cat, we also have the great Irish Goddess Dana and her reportedly minuscule, mischievous race of ‘Faery’; in each case, – and as used in the title a late, popular corruption – it means (sorry, gents!) no more that ‘Little Fairy, Big Fairy’. I’ve seen it and similar variations used, particularly in the labelling of popular music of the ‘Celtic’ brand. On one CD, I noted that some enthusiastic but (unknowing?) musician took it a step further, and actually changed O’Carolan’s title to ‘She Begs for More’. Horrifying, but true. Same happened with the lovely Welsh melody Lisa Lân, ‘Fair Lisa’ on a CD I have. It’s a collection of English folk-music, and some bright spark has included among them this Welsh tune and changed Lisa’s epithet into a surname; she’s now Lisa Larne. Hopefully the culprit didn’t realize it was not an English tune, and/or had only heard the name, and not changed it after having seen the written form. Welsh bach and Irish beag, incidentally, are cognates, both meaning ‘little’, as are Welsh mawr and Irish mór, both meaning ‘big’.

O’Carolan’s big and little comes from two hills, situated close to each other and apparently one of lesser height than its companion, in County Leitrim, Ireland. If you haven’t heard O’Carolan’s harp pieces (there are very many) they are wonderful, and highly recommended. As far as reading goes, among the books on the subject with which I happen to be most familiar are W.Y Evans-Wentz, The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries (1911), a classic thesis; Robert Kirk, The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies (1690), an abstruse personal record; W. B. Yeats (ed.), Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry, (1888), a representative folklore collection; and Maureen Duffy, The Erotic World of Faery (1972); despite its somewhat misleading  title, a meticulously researched, erudite study in the history and literature of ‘faery’ belief.

So here, in Steffan’s poem, we have the assured grace of the cat, and within its overtly painted movement and subtly suggested part-rhyme there moves alongside her (for this is surely a ‘she’) the unseen shadow-spirit of her ancient tutelary goddess. Like Steffan, I have to say, I’m more of a dog person. I did have a cat stay with me for a while. One of her first acts was to swipe a Ch’ing Dynasty bowl (late 18th century) off its high shelf. Smashed to smithereens. She was quickly on the alert, deftly dodged me, and was gone!  I remember thinking, as I picked up the pieces, ‘Why, the little… Bastet!’ She was a good-natured little old lady, though, and nimble enough on such occasions. If you want to know my real, tongue-ever-so-lightly-pressed-into-cheek opinion of the tribe, there’s Triptych contra Felix in the Feb.-Apr. 2021 section. [Dafydd]

Steffan has made several appearances on The Ig-Og, in:

‘The Funny Five Days’ (a Christmas medley)            
Nov. 2019-Jan. 2020

‘The East Wind and the Crow’(a review of Steffan’s 2019 book of the same title)
Nov. 2019-Jan. 2020

‘Strife on the Borders’ (Excerpts from Steffan’s metrical version of the celebrated Middle Welsh poem ‘Y Gododdin’)
May-Jul. 2021

The Eleventh Hour of the Eleventh Month… (In memoriam: a selection for Remembrance Day)
Nov. 2021-Jan. 2022

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