Winter’s Tales

The Lethal Queen

The lethal queen holds out her hand.
Her icy fingers grip the land,
and death for these and those
              is her decree.

Her breath is rife among the trees;
its tune cuts through the brittle reeds;
she carves her name abroad
              in bitter runes.

All bleak and bare is damascened
the hueless steel of her demesne –
when rime and hoar are law,
              all must recede.

The hedgerow feels her frost-tipped wand,
with glassy panes she paves the pond
and under this the fish
              is fast entombed;

and chrysalis and nymph must hide
and mouse and robin must abide
in secret, or in dwale
              beneath the soil.

And when her legions breast the heights
to scour the valleys day and night,
white messengers lay siege
              and rampage on,

and cow and calf lie in the byre
and cotters huddle by the fire –
the lethal queen rules all.
              It is as planned.


The Lord of Winter 

And the sigh of that Lord is the wind that roars
from the uplands in winter down to our doors
and lifts the latch and the bolt will rattle,
as though demons without prepare for battle;
that whines through the farmyard and blasts the byre
and reddens the ashes low in the fire;
that huddles the sheep on the bald hillsides;
that knocks and taps in the ancient mines…


From ‘Nature’ and ‘Otherworld’

Note: The term ‘dwale’ in The Lethal Queen is used to signify ‘darkness’. As with ‘atenux’ in the previous post The Funny Five Days, it’s among the unusual words which, for the curiosity of the reader, I like to make use of once in a while. When I wrote the poem, ‘dwale’ had for me but one meaning and one source – the source being the science of Heraldry, a lifelong interest of mine, and a subject on which I have taught classes and made extensive notes over many years for a once-projected, now very much elapsed The Elements of Heraldic Design, destined, with other company, never to see the light of day. ‘Dwale’, at that time, meant to me a ‘tincture’ (colour) used exclusively in German heraldry, signifying a dark, iron-grey; I have since found that it also has a place in one of the over-imaginative, fantastical and debasing developments of later 17th century ‘systems’ of the subject – when good Heraldry had fallen into decline and misuse – in which the names of plants were made to take the place of the tinctures. This notion is probably linked with the other, more well-known, meaning of ‘dwale’ as Belladonna, or, more commonly, ‘Deadly Nightshade’. The poisonous properties of this plant are of course well-known; in mediaeval times it was used medically as an opiate. In the same poem ‘nymph’, which elsewhere I use exclusively to denote the alluring female nature deities of Greek mythology and later European superstition, is here used with its biological meaning of an immature, larvae-type insect form.

The Lord of Winter is an excerpt from a much longer poem, lifted from the original, slightly altered and given its title only for this present post. The original poem,The Rustic Lad’s Dream, is itself taken (for a special reason) from the former Breuddwyd Bachgen Wledig, a punning title for Breuddwyd Macsen Wledig, one of the four Welsh native tales in the mediaeval Mabinogion collection. The complete poem will make its appearance here when the opportunity permits – next winter might be a good time.

The main title, Winter’s Tales, is taken from one of four marvellous collections of short stories by Baroness Karen Blixen (1885-1962), probably better known from the 1985 film Out of Africa, starring Meryl Streep as the Baroness and Robert Redford as her intended lover; the film is based on her 1937 autobiographical book. Under her pseudonym of Isak Dinesen this aristocratic Danish lady – whose father, incidentally, was a trapper and lived for a number of years among native North American ‘Indians’ – wrote her four collections between the 1930s and the 1950s, all superb stories reflecting her deep knowledge of and feeling for history. mostly in an 18th and 19th century setting. Her four collections were Winter’s Tales, Seven Gothic Tales, Anecdotes of Destiny, and Last Tales, all available in a nice set from Random House Vintage Books around the 1990s, and likely reprinted since. No-one should miss the drama of her story Sorrow-acre.

Isak Dinasen I always couple with Vernon Lee (pseudonym of Violet Paget (1856-1935), another exceptionally accomplished lady who won literary acclaim as early as 1880 (how old would she have been then?) with Studies of the 18th Century in Italy. She was, incidentally, a stern – very stern! – critic of William Morris, and comparing her fluid style when writing of the mediaeval and Renaissance periods to the very much mannered (but loveable!) style of Morris, that’s understandable. Vernon Lee and Isak Dinesen shared the same wonderful ability to encapsulate age and time in their descriptions of those earlier periods. Vernon Lee’s stories were set mostly in Italy, and if I were to recommend a couple, they would be Prince Alberic and the Snake Lady, and A Wedding Chest.

Telling Stories

To continue with the ‘stream of consciousness’ theme of the previous post, and dealing, this time, with a situation where contemplation may be subjected to a process through which the actual sight of an object before one’s very eyes may become wholly subsidiary, eventually losing all existential intensity. It is this which may occur during the process of reading, where the print which confronts one may take on, gradually and as one becomes absorbed, less visual validity than the images evoked in the mind – where the mental ‘vision’ may entirely obscure what is on the page being read, and the very turning of the pages themselves. A situation where reading proceeds automatically and unknowingly, with the reader being conscious of nothing but the ‘world’ of the book in which he or she has become thoroughly engrossed.

The Reading Process

The page is there, in front of me;
I see it, black on white.
But black and white, as words pass by,
grow less and less, are veiled,
and fading, slip and drift away,
become subservient to
new images which now unfold, repeatedly…
until, and I all unaware, they hold me close in
pure, subjective phantasy.
The black and white are gone. An automaton
reads on. Are pages being turned?
And if they are, I do not know.
Pages, printed words… a clock ticks
somewhere in another world… subsidiary;
gone, gone is their validity. I’m locked fast in another,
truly conscious, living world they have evoked…
And, ah! I see her plainly, now. My love.
And oh, she is so beautiful, and says
she’s mine. The pledge is made;
tonight we will elope, and leave the world behind.
We’ll flee, begin another life. Just you and me, forever!
All my days, I’ve longed for you, and now,
as in some magic, wondrous dream, you’re mine,
you’re mine, dear love; oh, bliss…
But who is this? I’ll crush the life from him,
the cur – the brute, I’ll redesign his face!
Dare to touch her, will he? – her, avowed just now
to me? Get off her, swine! Unhand the damozel!
I’ll kick you in the – Yes! He’s down! Be quick, my love,
make haste! We must escape before he’s –
What… quo vadis now? Your bijou box?
Too late, you fool! Leave it – look, the gate;
beyond it, open fields – and there, the woods!
If we can gain them, we’ll be safe! Oh, no!
He’s up! He has a knife! Leave it – Leave the box, I say!
Run! Just run! Hold tight my hand and flee, or he will –
What the – ? What the Heck? What’s this?
’It’s getting dark, I’ll ruin my eyes?’ ‘It’s time for tea’?!!
Damn, Mam – again! Can’t you see I’m
somewhere else, and quite oblivious
to the occurrence of external stimuli?

(From ‘Musings on the Merry-go-Round : A Medley of Verse for us Riders of the Earth’)


Note: The Reading Process is a verse rendition modelled on the observations (and the interesting mode of presentation) of American (USA) psychologist Wilfrid Lay (1872-1955) in his 1921 Man’s Unconscious Spirit : The Psychoanalysis of Spiritism; poetically, of course, what Lay had to say has undergone a little metamorphism.  Lay was popular in his day, writing a whole series of books on the theme ‘Man’s Unconscious… ‘ but seems not to appear in any list of leading 20th Century American or other practitioners or theorists of the science. He and Carl Jung, who was amenable to and appreciative of Lay’s outlook, corresponded on the I Ching (pronounced, for those not familiar with it, ‘Ee Jing’), usually known in English as ‘The Book of Changes’. This is the ancient Chinese system of divination which appears to have first originated some time before 1,000 BC during the little-known Shang and Chou dynasties (Jung wrote on this and – as did Joseph Campbell – on that other divinatory system, the Tarot). I have an old 1st edition copy of Lay’s book, bought many years ago, but like a lot of older publications, nowadays, his works may be found in many of the modern reprints (of varying, sometimes not up-to-the-mark standards, sad to say) seemingly universally available. Indeed, from what I’ve observed on ‘The Net’ Wilfrid appears to be perhaps, with many another resurrection, enjoying some popularity. Most of us avid readers will be, of course, well-acquainted with the pleasurable sensation of being totally immersed in the ‘world’ of a captivating book – and a more agreeable thralldom I cannot imagine, even if the poem carries this mode of abduction into something of an extreme.

I have slipped in the ‘quo vadis’ (‘Whither goest thou? / Where are you off to?’) as a little something archaic and fitting to the mediaeval-type dream-sequence setting, and as it will not be an unknown expression to those of us who are acquainted with the book, or those of a certain age, familiar with the very popular film which bore that title. Yes, it became quite a well-known, even fashionable expression for a good while through the 1951 epic film Quo Vadis?, Under its influence I can recall, in my boyhood, the phenomenon of Latin being spoken on the streets of my Welsh town: ’Helo, Dai – Quo vadis?’ went our youthful, jokey greetings; it lasted for quite some time. (And this sort of effect is a psychological curiosity: I remember giving a spelling test to a ‘B’ stream fourth form at a Comprehensive school in England; the results were, in the main, predictably mediocre – but every single student, without exception, was able to correctly spell ‘exorcist’, which I had experimentally included in my list. That bizarre film had not long been released, was at the time a frequent topic of conversation, and had obviously made its mark upon young minds).The title of the celluloid Quo Vadis? was the same as Nobel laureate Henryk Sienkiewicz’ great 1896 novel. I’ve never read it, sorry to say, but – the Crusading Orders being an interest – I’ve read his whopping around 800-page The Teutonic Knights (he never wrote anything much ‘shortish’). This is a vivid fictional description of the national struggle of the Lithuanian and Polish peoples against the oppressive religious militarism of the mediaeval German knightly order, and would serve as a colourful and expansive introduction, for anyone interested, to scholarly accounts of these conflicts such as Eric Christiansen’s excellent 1980 The Northern Crusades. The Teutonic Order was more successful directed against the poor coastal tribes of the Baltic region (well, those  pagans up there needed Christianizing, didn’t they, and the Teutonic Knights were in dire need of a new power base) than it had ever been against the Saracen.

Remains of a Day / Infinities

Remains of a Day

A day’s experiences…
its total portion
a procession of sensations,
coming, going, changing always,
swelling, moving like the waves,
one close upon the other.
Sight gives way to sound
…the shouldering crowd…
touch intervenes,
and taste, and smell
…a meal, a rose…
pleasure, pain,
all overlap, repeat incessantly –
no marshalling, no analysis
to intercede, to contemplate
what constitutes the vibrant pulse
which keeps the string
in motion.

Resting, reflecting,
at the end of day,
the string vibrates on, still.
But parts now resurface from the whole,
small embers stir, and shift, and glow,
and flicker into conscious flame – 
then vanish, unaccountably,
when and where they will.

A random, precious, few,
as memories,
remain.


Infinities

Infinities –
These are the things
which touched our lives
in all the days gone by,
and touch them now
and will do so
through all the years
to come.
There are sunlit hours,
and hours of flowers –
and of shadows,
and of thorns;
and in between the little things,
small happenings, will hide.
Some pass us by,
some will abide
to populate the mind.
Such gladnesses and sadnesses:
the panoply of lives.

From ‘Musings on the Merry-go-Round: A medley of Verse for us Riders of the Earth’

The Funny Five Days

The Funny Five Days

The title refers to that strange time in which we now find ourselves – those weird days between Christmas and The New Year. Because once Boxing Day (that day of rest and recuperation) has gone, then that tranquil/festive duo, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, will have utterly disappeared over the horizon, as though, yes, they did once exist – but gone, gone away with all the left-overs and the wrapping-paper relegated to the dustbin. And we are left, stranded in that timeless desert of the 27th to the 31st, when time stands still and, dazedly, we don’t quite know what day of the week it is; lost in a peculiar sort of vacuum, some borderland, some suspended ATENVX, some unaccounted-for intercalary week which lasts for five fey days… the ‘Funny Five Days’. Here, then, is something funny with which to occupy ourselves during this period of limbo; and if you are among those who still believe in Father Christmas and are thinking ahead to next Christmas, going to bed wondering what edibles you should leave close to the chimney for the overweight man with unkempt hair and beard who, after whipping the heck out of an endangered species, breaks into our homes at this time of year, then please remember:

               ‘Father Christmas is a Welshman;
               He loves his bara brith.
               And if you leave mince-pies for him,
               he’ll smash you in the teeth’

Well, that little jingle is labelled ‘Author Unknown’. But here, below, guest-poets Steffan Balsom, Jenni Wyn Hyatt (Williams) together with myself present a cheerful ‘Funny Five Minutes’, a medley of unrelated snippets which will hopefully raise a chortle or two in preparation for the upcoming year. So, as the earwig said as he jumped off the cliff. ‘Earwig-o!’


Goblin-Spotting

Goblins live in garden sheds
And some have six or seven heads,
It’s hard to catch one by surprise
With all those noses, ears and eyes

They suck the ink from ball-point pens
And make their clothes from cotton socks
They only take one at a time
And always after three o’ clock

Other things a goblin likes
Are lids from jars and bells from bikes,
And shiny things they keep as toys
Especially things that make a noise

They saddle up a paint-brush
And they fly about at night,
They look like tiny witches
Or a bat that’s not quite right

They have a special language
Which is foreign to our ears,
And no-one else can speak it well
Apart from auctioneers

Their size is like a weasel’s
But they rarely scratch or bite,
Although some give you measles
Or a really nasty fright

And that is all I know of goblins
Please don’t ask me more,
‘Cause if I tell, they said they’d move here
From the shed next door

Steffan Balsom


Four go to the Beach

We’ve been let out; we’re on our own;
at last we’re truly free;
no-one to tell us what to do –
we’re heading for the sea.

The lads go striding up ahead
and talk of boyish things,
while we two girlies stop to gaze
at butterflies’ bright wings.

Just as we round the final bend,
the sea comes into view
and, “Je peux voir la mer,” we chant,
the way we always do.

“Who’s for a paddle?” someone cries,
“Come on my trusty braves!”
We roll our trousers to our knees
and scamper to the waves.

A mighty fortress next we build
with moat and drawbridge too,
tall turrets six and arrow slits
in mussel shells of blue.

Our names are written in the sand
in letters bold and clear,
while shells and pebbles fill our pails –
a fitting souvenir.

This tale is unremarkable;
it’s just what children do –
except the youngest of our gang
is rising sixty-two!


Jenni Wyn Hyatt (Williams) 


The Good Old-fashioned Scrum

Dai poked Charlie in the eye.
Charles, half-blinded, went for Dai
but missed and biffed his fwend Cawwuthers –
who swung his fists at many others,
landing one on brawny Bryn,
who belted Wodney on the chin.
Wodney, not to be outdone,
kicked Llywelyn up the ‘Ouch!’
Llywelyn roared out loud
and, lunging forward in the crowd,
managed in that mad mêlée
to bite big Wodwick on the knee.
Wodwick, howling like a loon,
whopped tall Talfryn – none too soon,
for Talfryn, in retaliation,
had bit three others for his nation,
while Evans’ boots had brought the fight
to anything that moved in white.
Who knocked Wil’s teeth out? Fwy, the wat!
(Wil sang ‘false-setto’ after that).
They scragged and throttled any bugger;
it’s what is called ‘enjoying rugger’.
And round and round and up and down
they writhed and tumbled on the ground
like boiling cawl or minestrone,
with language worse than just ‘Baloney!’
In short, that scrum was not polite;
the social graces weren’t in sight.
Who cared the ref – perhaps the ball –
lay somewhere deep beneath it all?
The fault, of course, lay not with red
(at least, that’s what the crowd all said..)

Dafydd Hughes Lewis


The Fearless Captain Goskewiff

There was a silly sailor
Who sailed sideways out to sea
With his bow-sprit pointing eastwards
Where his starboard ought to be

When people said ‘this mode
Of navigation gives concern’
He said ‘Arr, but changing now
Would take me farr too long to learn’

Today, this silly sailor
Is the only one to know
About the penguins in Brazil
And of the polar bears in Borneo

Some say the man is crazy,
Some say he makes them laugh
But none denies he first found
The Siberian Giraffe

Steffan Balsom


Writers’ Block

It comes as an unwelcome shock
to be struck down by writers’ block,
when words that once were wont to flow
are stuck and brain is on ‘go-slow’.

I started a Petrarchan sonnet
but spark-plugs died beneath my bonnet
and so my high-falutin plan
vanished quickly down the pan.

Attempts at forms like villanelle
and rondeau did not turn out well.
Even the three-line Haiku fell
a victim to its noxious spell.

I sat with notebook close at hand
and wished my pen a magic wand
but had to reach the sad conclusion
that magic’s just a fool’s delusion.

I tossed and turned, had sleepless nights,
for how I yearned to get it right!
When every effort went amiss
I ended up just writing this!

Jenni Wyn Hyatt (Williams)


Here be Dragons

‘Beware the dragon, Sir!’
our Dai-o said.
‘Silence, cur!’ the English knight replied,
‘I fear not your guard-dog’s breath, and wear
this bright red cross upon my breast.
And, Lo! – d’you see this so-stiff upper lip?
Zounds! I’m too well-bred
to listen to such dross, insufferable stuff.
Well – Tally Ho!’

Dai found him dead.

Dafydd Hughes Lewis



‘Goblin-Spotting’ and ‘The Fearless Captain Goskewiff’ are from Steffan’s book The East Wind and the Crow, which was reviewed on The Igam-Ogam Mabinogion earlier this month.

‘Four go to the Beach’ is from Jenni Wyn’s poetry collection Perhaps One Day; ‘Writers’ Block’ is from her second volume of verse, Striped Scarves and Coal Dust. Two of her poems also recently appeared in The Igam-Ogam Mabinogion under Carnage and Aftermath.

The Good Oldfashioned Scrumappeared in The IgamOgam Mabinogion in its Nov. 2019-Jan 2020 section; ‘Here be Dragons’ is from Spirit on the Mountain: Poetry from the Cymrysphere.

What else is funny? Well, our two guest poets, Steffan and Jenni Wyn, both spent their early years within a couple of crossbow shots of each other in very much the same part of West Glamorgan. And it so happens that both now live within a horseshoe cast of each other in very much the same part of Middle England – something which neither of them knew until both made their appearance on The Igam-Ogam Mabinogion!

The East Wind and the Crow

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:

(XV)

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.
 

15 (XV)

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!

(XXI)

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.

21 (XXI)

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

(LXI A)

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.

The Farthest Shore

The Shore in November

Bring me
a day
of grey cloud
and rain
that wakes me
and takes me
over washed stones
and fern
and farm,
silver-tinkled
holy streams,
congregations
of leaves laid low,
tumbled walls and
bramble heads
all heavy hung
with dew,
to the cliff-bound shore
wind-hewn
and strewn
with gull and diver
multitudes;
and the hiss
and the boom
of spume in the air,
and the headland
a ghost
away northward
somewhere.

Beyond

Beyond this moonless shore are flung a thousand leagues
of silent sea,
where shifts the restless ocean’s face in hill and vale
and rolling lea.
And ancient farers plied those waves – and costly cargoes
I have seen,
of amber, furs, and ivory… but in some
far, forgotten dream.

Above the darkened land is hung a million miles
of velvet sky,
where drifts the heavens’ gleaming dust, and titan suns
are born, and die.
And starry symphonies I’ve heard, and astral strings
all played upon
the winds which wend those spangled gulfs… but as some
faint, forgotten song.

Beyond the fields I know there run ten thousand miles
unknown to me,
where lift the mighty mountain chains, beyond the plains
of Tartary.
And there I saw a dusky queen, and in her eyes
divined this price –
we’d live and love through all the years… but in some
fled, forgotten life.


A wild, misty shore such as the one in The Shore in November might be placed anywhere in the Celtic West, from Brittany to the Outer Hebrides, and if any of these fit within the scopes of our experience, so much the better. For me, the location can be no other than one of the windswept strands close to my old clifftop home within a mile or so of the most westerly point in mainland Wales. From there (that hallowed outpost of early Celtic Christianity where the very slabs of the cliff face are an episcopal purple), gazing west-south-west over the Celtic Sea and past the unseen coast of Ireland, the wide, shifting plain of the Atlantic lay – and no other landfall for countless leagues until the great continental mass of North America. There, on those dark end-of-year days when the Atlantic winds began to mount their assaults, bringing with them their rain, and all the coastal vista became a mysterious, mantled grey, the spirit of Nature at her rawest and the long-gone centuries’ legacy of ancient stone were keenly felt.

Set upon the very same shore, but this time on a dark, moonless night, Beyond allows the imagination to wander into three perspectives – the gazing outward to sea, the gazing upward at the night sky, and the looking backward to the dark body of the land.

And what shipping has passed this western shore! Nowadays great tankers out of Milford Haven, and container ships from ports all over the globe can be seen crawling across the horizon. But there is no romance in that, and to find something of the sort we would have to go back a little in time, to the early 20th century, at least, and more so the 19th, when passenger vessels out of Liverpool crowded with emigrants, so many of whom were our ancestors, passed by, making their way into the Atlantic and onward to America with its hopes and dreams. And with the 19th century we are firmly back into the age of sail, when Welsh ports large and small were forests of masts and rigging, those of ocean-going vessels and the multitude of coastal traders which plied their way between north and south, and beyond. Such sails to imagine, passing out there. And staggering and thrilling to think, standing today on that shore looking out to sea – and it is the same shore, and the same sea – that out there it was, in that distance and on that horizon which we now observe, those sails had passed, century upon century ago, and that they were seen through eyes, olden, long-gone eyes other than our own. And I am bound to let the more recent past, fascinating as it is, give way to those remoter times.

I would look out on those islands known today by such un-Welsh names – Ramsey, Skomer, Grassholm – these were the three always within sight. Those Norse-given names – Rhagfn’s Ey (Raven’s Island); Skalm Ey (Cloven Island); and further out and lonelier than these two, the bare, rocky ‘holm’ (islet) which has nary a scrap of grass but which is home, nevertheless, to thousands of fishermen; its great colony of northern gannets (the Grassholm, too, which is the ‘Gwales’ of Branwen, where Bendigeidfrân’s seven loyal companions sojourned, but in Faerie’s non-mortal, dreamland time, for all of four-score years). And I would imagine the sleek craft of the Dublin Norse stealing across the great curve of St.Bride’s Bay, or perhaps others from further afield in the Hebrides, the ‘Southern Isles’ of their Sagas, passing by and on their way to harry our own southern coasts. Why, those Norsemen even gave a name to the little skerry, the meagre rock outside small Solva’s picturesque inlet – ‘Graensker’, known to this day as ‘Greenscar’. (And should you ever happen to be looking at a map of the Eastern Roman Province of Pannonia, you will find, there, a garrison town on the Danube Frontier named – yes, you have it – Solva. Both Pannonia and adjacent Moesia had very substantial, embedded Celtic populations, too, so … but no, not a chance of a connection! – Fun Fact only! English ‘Solva’ < Welsh ‘Solfach’, of course. Is Solva [Wales] twinned these days, I wonder? (Solva [Pannonia] might be in Hungary now, I think, and be known under a modern alias). It’s puzzling, to me, how (and why) these places have retained Norse names. Take Swansea (‘Sven’s Ey’); why on earth should this name for the town have persisted? The Pembrokeshire islands, too – the Norse were transients, in Wales, and as far as I know there is no real evidence of their settlement, unlike their Kingdom in Dublin, for instance, or their settlements in the Scottish islands. Why should the local Pembrokeshire Welsh populations continue, or even begin, to call these places by their Viking names? And to wander off a little again, talking of such hijackings, doubtlessly the great goddess Brigid (the ’Bride’ of the Bay) and great indeed she was in Irish mythology, was corralled into sainthood by Pope Gregory’s dictum that pagan beliefs too deeply-rooted to be removed were to be clad in Christian trappings, and heathens thus weaned away from their old beliefs.

Rome policed the ‘western approaches’, and ancient eyes would have spied from any one of our shores Imperial vessels plying their way between north and south – between the naval base of Segontium ( > Caer Segeint > Caersaint) in Arfon and the southern one in Cardiff. At Lydney, on the west bank of the Severn (lost now to the English county of Gloucestershire) was a Fleet Supply Depot, and there were signal stations along various stretches of our coasts; all was taken care of. And 300 years even before the beginning of the almost 400-year Roman presence, watchers might have spied the ship (or ships) of the Greek navigator and explorer Pytheas of Massalia (modern Marseilles) tread our home waters.. Pytheas and what he is said to have accomplished has always fascinated me; I have imagined his pilot taking note of the long outthrust of Penmaen Dewi (St.David’s Head) and the prominent height of nearby Carn Llidi as landmarks for their lost, but much remarked-on periplus.

I stood far out on the Head, once, and called out to him:

‘Ahoy, Captain! Whither bound?’

“See where the red-gold riband runs
aloft there when the western sun
doth sink afar when day is done
behind it?

Look where horizon’s silver race
crosses the shifting ocean’s face –
Is there some other, unsung place
beyond it?

List when the west wind tells its tale
of spectral clouds and landforms pale.
Hark to this bygone captain’s tale
about it…”


Then the wind took his voice, and I could hear him no more.

Pytheas had left his populous pond which had long-time doubled as Emporium and Theatre of War and sailed beyond the Fretum Gaditanum, the Strait of Gibraltar, past the still somewhat enigmatic tin and lead-bearing places/islands said to be north-west of the Iberian peninsula already known to the Phoenicians/Carthaginians – and into the Irish Sea, continuing northward, from what can be retrieved from descriptions in his lost work, even into the Arctic regions and then southward, it seems, along Scandinavia., the Baltic, and Germania. Stories of the existence of a great frozen waste, ‘Hyperborea’, had over several centuries sifted through to the comfortable confines of the Mediterranean, but bravo, Pytheas, who left the warm climes and great cities and actually went there! What a voyage, and what a feat that was! This was during the Greek Classical era, and was fortunately documented. But long, long before Pytheas, who else? What mariners and what manner of craft of the unknowns of the Bronze, the Neolithic? And no-one to tell of the tale! But out there in the bay, and within sight of clifftop watchers, for thousands of years, they were to be seen. That is certain. And this western sea-route had its genesis in a very remote past, and far, far away from our northern lands.

That conditions for settled communities (cereal-grain and livestock farming) were present and were developed in what we now call ‘The Middle East’, the regions of the historical Mesopotamia and The Levant, is well-known to all. The great irony of this remarkable shift in life-style from wandering hunter-gatherers to sedentary communities is that the very condition of staying in one place would, with time and natural population growth, mean that future elements of that settled society would necessarily have to leave it and strike out on their own; in other words, start ‘footing it’ again – they would have to move out, those sons and daughters, on their own, to seek (or rather to create) pastures new. Travel they had to, and travel they did, and their getting up and going set in motion what was to be one of the greatest migrations in human history. Following an initial thrust into the coastal parts of eastern Anatolia circa 7,800 BC, to refresh our memories, their westward progress is very firmly evidenced in the Aegean, the extensive littoral of which would enable them to diversify into cereal-grain farming on the adjacent mainland, sheep-rearing on the islands, whilst also practicing the other major aspect of their coast-based economy, fishing. A pattern which was to prevail for a long, long time, as residents of our own coasts and islands can to this day testify. From there they continued to the Adriatic, then along the whole of the northern coast of the western Mediterranean to the Andalusian region of the Iberian peninsula and on to the Atlantic facade, entering our own waters c.4,100 BC. They had opened up the ‘Great Western Sea Route’.

Imagine what would occur over such a thousands of miles, thousands of years trek! They would meet up with others along the way – the foragers who had preceded them; other Afro-Asians and Indo-Europeans, too, who composed the other (North African and inland European) thrusts of this Neolithic spread. Interactions, resulting from these – adaptions, adoptions, contributions, replacements; exchanges of artifacts, technology, religious ideas; intermarriage, displacement of peoples, linguistic accretions and losses; changes in genetic patterns and in skin-pigmentation from the absorption of light in the higher latitudes… all this. And all the while others, over those same thousands of years, would follow the first pioneers, losing sight of them, settling, building, until the Bronze Age train and then the bearers of Iron came, and overtook, and established their newer ways, and the coastal trading cities sprung up in the long wake. Yes, it is the sails of all of these that would be seen in our Irish Sea.

It was a seaway that would remain open for millennia. During the period of Roman domination, it was allowed to remain open as a mercantile route to their ‘Mare Nostrum’; after their departure it continued the Mediterranean trade, and acted as a busy, resurgent highway during the ‘Age of Saints’. During the Mediaeval period it saw much use of troop transport, as armies were ferried to and fro between France, Wales, and Ireland. And so on, and so on, into the Great Age of Sail… Then, in our own time, there were the Welsh skippers who ran Franco’s blockade during the Spanish Civil War, operating from such ports as Cardiff, Newport, Swansea in southern Wales, and St.Jean de Luz in south-west France, delivering fuel, medicines, guns and ammunition to the Republicans in Bilbao and Santander. The most well-known of these was Captain ‘Potato’ Jones of Swansea, with his real cargo deep beneath the tatws of his tramp-steamer, Marie Llewellyn. There was Captain Lewis James Herbert of Borth, and Captain Dan Nicholas of Tresare, north Pembrokeshire, great-nephew of Jemima. A Captain William Roberts of Penarth, too, was among that band. Between them they rescued, sometimes during bombing raids, an estimated 25,000 refugees on their return trips. And a good number of us will remember – how could we forget! – Sioni Wynwns out of cousin Brittany shouldering his yoke of stringed onions, going his rounds and conversing with one and all in good Welsh. I remember Breton trawlers anchoring for the night off the north Pembrokeshire coast. Those were the seafarers, and that was our seaway.

And what can we say about the night sky? Nothing. For it is there to astonish, to astound us, and make us ponder on what we are. How many times have we gazed in wonder at the great, shining constellations poised over all creation – at the Plough, at Cassiopeia, at the Pleiades; at the great Irish constellation, O’Ryan … but come – let us be Sirius!

Then all the hidden land stretching away from us, as did the sea. The opening lines of the first stanza – ‘Beyond the fields I know’ – begin with words which echo a concept familiar to anyone who has read Dunsany – e.g., ‘Go from here eastwards and pass the fields we know, till you see the lands that pertain clearly to faery; and cross their boundary, which is made of twilight, and come to that palace which is only told of in song’. We could be back, with these words, among the enchanted seven who sojourned in otherworldly Grassholm’s ‘fair royal palace overlooking the sea’… And the closing lines of this stanza give an intimation of that lady who first appeared by candlelight in Ceridwen’s Candle / Manifestations of the Muse in a previous post; she appears in various guises in a number of these poems (as the Naiad in Lays of the Armoured Isle [3]; as the Lady Nemõné in The Wakened Rose / Lays of the Armoured Isle [1], and will make herself known in others to come. She may, as this time, be seen as one among a circle of shadowed faces in the dark interior of a nomad yurt. But it is not necessary, as in the stanza, to visit the vast spaces beyond the Zungarian Gates; for she may also be found on a mountainside in Wales

where the path curves out of sight,
in the chaos of the stones,
in the shadows of the blackthorn and the ash.
She has oak leaves at her brow;
and whitethorn trailing low
in profusion from her waist down to her knee.
Her eyes are dark as hazel haws, her form,
of witching grace; her limbs are apple russet brown.
Flown time is in her face.



She may appear as a Dark Queen, a mountain sprite, or in a candle’s light; as a woodland or water nymph, or as a fleeting face in the marketplace. Or on the wind-swept shore of the beginning, a lone, scarcely-distinguishable figure in the distant haze of sea mist and salt spray. She will be walking away from you, and like Rhiannon, the gap between you and her will always remain the same. She will never allow you to gain her side.

‘The Shore in November’ is from ‘Welsh Past and Present’
‘Beyond’ is from ‘Journeys in Time’
‘Pytheas’ Reply’ is a slightly altered version of the first three stanzas of ‘The Lay of Torcebrand’, from ‘Lays of the Armoured Isle’ in ‘The Lost Manuscripts’
The Dunsany quotation is from ‘The King of Elfland’s Daughter’
‘The Oread’s Song’ is (minus its first line) from ‘Spirit on the Mountain’, the omitted line being ‘I think there is a spirit on the mountain’

Carnage and Aftermath

(With guest poets Brendan Mac Congail and Jenni Wyn Hyatt (Williams)

The Angels of Mons
(Flanders, August 23-24, 1914)

And those who awoke upon that field and knew that they were broke
              and close to death
perceived that an evil angel stood astride them, to inform them,
              from a gore-stained scroll,
that they had fought and bled and died for naught;
that they were but victims of ambitious and deluded men
whose certitude that they themselves and no man else was right
was so deep-graven in obsessive minds
that their word became for all the land a fixed law and an oracle;
that to such errant ends, and for such blinkered men
their good life’s blood was spilled unjustly and as sacrifice.

And there upon the bloodied field those souls had left
there lay a single huge black feather,
fallen from the clouds up-piled above the carnage
from the great dark clapping wings of Lucifer.

Dafydd Hughes Lewis


History

“Reality is in the eye of the beholder,”
Said the fallen soldier.
“For what I have seen, the base and obscene,
Is changed in the story to man’s greatest glory.
With the passing of time the blood and the slime
Do wither and pale, until the real tale,
of mud and of dirt, of fear and of hurt,
Is distorted,
Arranged,
Forgotten,
And changed;
Till evil and hate are holy and great,
When told around fires by cowards and liars.”

Brendan Mac Congail


Last Post at the Menin Gate

I stand again within the Menin Gate
and through the arch I watch the scudding clouds
flushed by the evening sun. The clock’s slow hands
drag round to eight. The waiting crowd is hushed
as out the buglers march. The poignant notes
of the Last Post pierce the air like arrows
then quiver and die. Laurence Binyon’s words
ring out. “We will remember them,” we all repeat.
The traffic rumbles on out in the street;
within the Gate the silence is complete.
Now groups with solemn faces lay their wreaths.
The bugles sound again; a piper plays
his sad lament; the ceremony ends.
The silent watchers slowly come to life
and start again to read the many names
upon the panels. Relatives are found
and private homage paid. Even as we stand
I know that brave young soldiers perish still.
‘The war to end all wars,” yours was to be
but nothing’s changed; the world’s still full of hate
and, as we saunter to the square to eat,
the Stalker Hopelessness snaps at my heels.

Jenni Wyn Hyatt (Williams)


Battlefield 1918

Here they fought.
On this ground they bled and died –
this meadow, where the poppies thrive.

Dafydd Hughes Lewis



Notes on the poems and poets:

The Angels of Mons

This was the second Battle of Mons; an earlier one took place in 1678 as an episode in the Dutch War of Louis XIV, when Mons was part of the Spanish Netherlands. The WWI battle was the first engagement of that monstrous and terrible conflict in which British and German offensives clashed head-on, according to the grand tactic governing the ‘Great War’ – the simultaneous massing of forces on a vast front and on a scale never before employed. It resulted in an initially heavy defeat for the outnumbered British-French force. The poem’s title is taken from a myth which arose that told of ‘angels’ – shining entities sometimes described as phantom bowmen, which were seen on the battlefield. The story is one which mistakenly grew around a short story, ‘The Bowmen’, by Gwentian Welsh writer Arthur Machen, published in the Evening News immediately following the battle. The myth took hold of the popular imagination, becoming widespread and elaborated to the extent that there were descriptions of German soldiers found dead on the battlefield with arrow wounds. The poem is excerpted in a slightly condensed form from my The Apocalypse of Gweir, and has appeared previously in The Igam-Ogam Mabinogion.

History

As in The Angels of Mons above, History tells a tale, and vividly and bitterly, of the deceits which seem everlastingly destined to accompany war – deceits engineered and protracted by the powerful, to be so often credulously accepted by a populace caught up in its hysteria.

Last Post at the Menin Gate

The Menin Gate, in Ypres / Ieper, Belgium, is a memorial to commemorate the 54,000 men of the ‘United Kingdom’ and Commonwealth forces who died in the Ypres Salient before August 16, 1917, and who have no known grave. The Last Post ceremony is held there every evening a 8 o’clock. This poignantly-related poem is a distant aftermath of solemn remembrance – our quiet and respectful tribute to what was suffered and borne by those who, in the spring of their lives, were dragooned as sacrificial thousands from their honest labours in our villages and towns, our mines and farms – and from their families left broken and in mourning. That is the aftermath to which our thoughts are surely pledged, and one which is impossible to forget. It is not for the rival royal houses of Europe, nor for their complaisant ministers, nor for their subservient generals, nor for those who would make coin out of misery.

Battlefield 1918

This Haikuesque tercet is offered in quiet conclusion, and speaks for itself, I hope.


Brendan Mac Congail is an Irish archaeologist long resident in Bulgaria; he is the author of many academic articles on the Celts of Eastern Europe and the man behind the superb online site BalkanCelts which, if new to the reader, is highly recommended. In his articles Brendan deals with the Eastern Celts from the presence of Celtic confederacies in the 4th century BC – indeed, from their seven month siege of Rome in 390 BC for which, in the true Roman spirit of animosity, they were never forgiven – in much of south-central Europe (the Danube basin, Poland, Hungary, the Ukraine, Romania) to their great invasions of and establishment in the post-Alexandrian Balkan territories, and eventually in their easternmost extension of Galatia in Anatolia.  For all of 150 years, too, the Scordisci Confederation was to hold Roman occupation of the Balkans at bay. For the countless students at our Universities held in thrall by their lecturers’ preoccupation with the Britanni and the Gauls, then, it might be to their advantage to read more of Polybius than Tacitus. In closing the note, I don’t think many realize that archeologist Brendan writes poetry on occasion; he does so, and in a striking style.

Jenni Wyn Hyatt (Williams) was raised in Maesteg in the Llynfi Valley, West Glamorgan, Wales. She has visited the WWI cemeteries in France and Belgium on many occasions. Widely published in literary magazines, she also has two volumes of verse to her name – Perhaps One Day (Rowanvale Books, 2017), and Striped Scarves and Coal Dust (R. Haigh & Sons Publications, 2019) both finely illustrated by Cathy Knight. Both books are available direct from the publisher or from Amazon. Her subjects and her styles are wide – and like all good poets, Jenni composes humorous as well as serious pieces. Striped Scarves and Coal Dust includes a section, ‘Cerddi Dau Dafod’/‘Poems in Two Tongues’, her compositions in Welsh with opposite-facing translations into English.

From ‘Journeys in Time’

Dialogues without Words (2)

Josephine

Just once I saw her, Josephine,
one face among the crowd, my eyes,
unwarned, were drawn to her in all
that loud mélange. A gathering
I’d chanced upon whilst visiting 
a friend, a… person I had come to know;
a family reunion of some kind. But they barked
non-stop, they argued. A real smugglers’ den.
I had not much in common with
that hurly-burly clan.

                            A certain beauty
clung to her as it does to some, I know,
though years go by and leave their mark.
Her hair, still full, waltzed round her neck
with every dancing move, and I wondered at such
full and flowing locks which imped around
– I now could see – an amply tricked-out face…

                            Yes, beauty clings
to some, I know. But then, through what? Some noble
grace of being, consort of the first fine flowering,
outwardly and inwardly possessed, that echoes on
in such a soul? I like to think that’s so.

                            But Josie – no.
With Josie it had gone another way; what now remained
unfashioned by an inner grace or quietude of being.
She glanced at me, the stranger guest, and not just
once or twice, her heavily black-bordered eyes
in a struggle to look bright. And then, those
passive lips; coquettishness still angling from within
an all too sensuous self; within – it saddened me – the wreck
where splendid beauty once had been. A haggard beauty, now,
was Josephine.

                            I made excuses,
left the crowd as soon as courtesy would brook.
And as I stood back from the door became recipient
of one final, questing look.



Note: Modelled on an incident mentioned in the correspondence of General Sir Charles William Geoffrey Estcourt, C.B., in a letter to his sister Harriet dated February 12th, 1789. The encounter with ‘Josephine’ took place earlier during that year at St. Philippe-des-Baines, Cote d’Azur, Mediterranean coast of France, where the General was recuperating after service in British India. [From the narrative of Stephen Vincent Benét].

From ‘Of Goddesses and Women’

The Bound God

A sleeping god awoke
as though he was the first to wake in all time.
Around him cold, and dark, and silence,
nor could he move a limb, for he was bound.
‘Ah’, remembered he, ‘I am the god whose destiny
is the darkness and the silence and the cold.
I am that Bound God’.  
And because he had awoken in this place time upon time
and for aeons slept again,
did he in a while begin his journey into sleep once more.
But now, as in a dream, Light came unto him…

Softly she came, peering through the canopy surrounding him.
to look upon the bound and sleeping god.
But he, stirring from the beginnings of his sleep, did speak:
‘Never did I cast mine eyes upon aught but darkness –
yet thee I know. Thou art Light’.
‘Yea’, came her whisper, ‘I looked on thee in thy dark resting place,
and took pity upon thee, thou Bound and Sleeping One’.
The touch of wind on harp strings had her voice,
and again the Bound God marvelled:
‘Never did I know aught but the silence of eternity –
yet thee I know. Thou art Voice’.
‘Yea, and I perceive that I am music unto thee,
thou who lie there bound’.  
‘Then wilt thou not enter, thou of Light and Voice,
and loose these bonds that bind me?’
‘Nay, for my movement in thy stillness and my brightness in thy darkness and
my warmth to ban thy coldness would of certainty beguile thee.
Above which he who is my Master forbiddeth even this prying of mine’.
‘Thy radiance and thy voice beguileth me already. But who is this
that forbiddeth thee? Is it he that doth keep me bound?’
‘Fret thou not upon such matters;  but since. meseemeth,
thou art as prying as I, ‘tis in truth my Master who hath bound thee.
My Master, and thine, for it is he who is our Maker, and thou art bound
for that thou art yet undestined. But he keeps thee thus o’erlong –
though time is naught to him who shapeth stars and gods – 
and betimes have I come to gaze upon thy sleeping self.
I thought not to enchant thee. But since, as thou sayest, thou art beguiled,
and I beguiled as thee… yea, I will come to thee’.
And when she came to him, he beheld the fullness and the brilliance
              and the great beauty of her;
and when she touched him, his whole being was enveloped in her warmth.
When the fetters were undone he clasped her to him, and willingly she came.

How long it was they slept they knew not, but that when they awoke
the dark pavilion which had enclosed them shone now with the brilliance
              of the stars,
and a voice came, drifting down upon them from above.
‘So. There thou art, my wayward goddess – and thou hast found my
              Bounden God’.
And she in the Bound God’s arms did struggle to be free of them, calling
‘Forgive me, Lord! I sought only to give succour to one bound
              in darkness,
who could move no limb, nor hear kind words, and who knew neither
              warmth nor light’.
‘And I had fashioned thee both so differently. Forgive thee, sayest thou?
Yea, that is done, for knowest thou that I ever intended him for thee, and
              thou for him.
But punishment thou shalt not escape, goddess mine, for thou metest out
              as much upon thyself’.
‘How so? How meanest thou, my Lord?’
‘Feeleth thou not thy light diminishing? It floweth into him that wast
              made dark – as soon thou wilt be.  
And feeleth thou not how his strong arms do fetter thee? Thou art the
              Bound One now!’
And when it came upon the goddess that this was so, she cried out for
              her Master’s help.
‘Nay, I will not help reverse what a goddess did choose to do of her own
              free will.
A craftsman only am I, and not a delver into what is to be counted right
              or wrong.
This Wheel that I cast across the dark canopy above must ever spin upon
              its own volition. I steer it not.
But take thou heart, thou kind, unruly goddess, and thee, thou clasping,
              disconsolate god.
For since thou hast of choice been bound together, a prophecy will I make,
              that thou shalt thus remain.
Thou, o light and unfettered god, shalt encircle and embrace this thy
              chosen one for time without end.
And thou, o goddess embraced, will bring forth from thy loved one
              great bounty,
and innumerable will thy children be, to cherish thee until the end of time’. 
By now was the unbound god a-shine with light, and the goddess sombre;
              and she knew herself to be with child.
‘Lord, we thank thee for thy blessing. And must we stand forsaken, now?‘
‘Nay, for he that hath crafted thee may not entirely forsake thee.  
Knowest thou that though thou embraceth thy loved one always, o airy-light
              god, when thou and she doth sleep
I with my glistening, myriad stars will watch over thee both. And brighter lamps
              will I give to thee;
to keep thee in mind of my presence, a kinsman and a kinswoman for thee,
a brother to burn fierce in thy wakefulness, a sister to glow gently in thy sleep.
Brother Sun and Sister Moon will they be named, and thou, beautiful goddess,
the Mother Earth – and thou, god of the broad embrace, her girdle of the Sky.
Signed holy shalt thy family be and blessed by thy progeny. 
But mark that thou shalt be my last works, and that I did make thee of
              mine own life-stuff,
that which wast from the beginning scattered unto powder among my stars.
In them, and in thee, will I henceforth abide forever’.

(The metrical Creation Myth from ‘The Cosmology of the Armoured Isle’)


Note: ‘Brother Sun and Sister Moon’ is a phrase which, on first coming across it, immediately appealed to me. Some time later, I found that these were the words of St. Francis of Assisi, but it was not until a good few decades later (there is so much to learn and so much that must be missed!) that I came across his Laudes Creaturarum / Canticle of the Creatures / Canticle of the Sun. Upon reading it, I found that there were striking parallels between The Cosmology of the Armoured Isle (into which I had promptly adopted the two named siblings) and St. Francis’ Prayer, as the Creation Myth contained in the Cosmology, too, features a single family. Building upon brother and sister planetary entities, though, I suppose that such similarities were inevitable. The poem is part of a class of ‘Fragments’ incorporated into the body of the manuscript which contains the narrative of The Armoured Isle. Of the little of the Cosmology that remains, apart from this principal and apparently complete poem of Earth, Sky, Sun, Moon and stars, there looms large in this cosmic family the sometimes sinister figure of ‘The Grey Brother’ who has many attributes and aspects – he is the Wind as Zephyr and as Storm on land and sea, and ultimately is responsible for the demise of all living things (I have notes for all its members tucked away somewhere, but they must lie under one of many dust-covered piles and are probably pressed into geological strata by now). But there are, in addition, all the minor spirits responsible for Earth’s flora and fauna, and every aspect of the natural world.

There is a secondary connection. The reversal of identities between light and darkness – the identities in the case of the tale being Sky and Earth –  bears a parallel to a number of existing myths of exactly such an exchange between solar and lunar deities, in which a female Sun Goddess’ position is usurped by a male entity. Although the Sun God and the Sky Father are one and the same in European mythology ‘Sun’ is replaced here by ‘Sky’ as an entity entirely separate from the Sun itself (Sun / Sky being throughout the Cosmology  non-interchangeable terms). The conception is rather of the sky immediately above and encircling the Earth – comprising our biosphere / atmosphere and being, effectively, the ‘tent’ or ‘canopy’ of the sky exclusive of the ‘firmament’ of the outer heavens. The already created but aimless Sky Goddess, sensing within herself a lack of purpose, is naturally curious – and as it turns out over-curious, but happily so – to know what exactly lay within that which she had been appointed to watch over for so very long. The coming together seeds the Earth with all its future teeming life-forms – ‘Innumerable will thy children be, to cherish thee until the end of time’; well, until this our own time, anyway, when the bounty of nature has been blighted by its own custodians.

A third connection is that the ‘Bound God’ can be equated with ‘The Prisoner Gweir’ of Taliesin’s Preiddieu Annwn / Spoils of the Underworld. This is a well-known poem, not all that long, but with a whole lot packed into it. There have been a number of interpretations of it – and it is a poem which deserves interpretation as well as translation. My personal homage has always been drawn to the exposition of Alun Llewellyn. I came across what he has to say only in a piece of correspondence (but fairly detailed correspondence) in a  late- ‘60s literary journal, and have been meaning to follow it up ever since; the possibility of further elucidation in a future article was suggested, but despite the fact that I was intrigued by it, foolishly never followed it up (something that I am only now – with a jab in the ribs from The Bound God – very much belatedly investigating in the hope of tracking down the proposed second article). I wonder, too, whether a monograph ever saw the light of day. Alun Llewellyn’s thesis, to me both appealing and persuasive, is that the poem is nothing less than a skillfully constructed cosmological treatise in verse; its knowledge is profound and steeped firmly in Classical philosophy. ‘Gweir’ is used as a synonym for the Earth, and the spatial region of ‘Carchar’ which surrounds him is a closed circuit within which he is imprisoned. It occurred to me that this favourably suited the situation of The Bound God and his watcher.

Excerpts from my long poem, The Apocalypse of Gwair (‘Gweir’ is actually the more accurate spelling) have already been posted up as stand-alone poems (see The Angels of Mons and The Encounter with Time and his Brother in the list of titles).

And the News Today is…

Upon Reading an Item in a Newspaper

I would sew you in a sack,
rat-bastard, together with an ape,
a mad cat, and a snake,
or bind you in a web
with the spider still inside
and stand you in the blackest crypt
to listen to the anguished cries
of those who have committed
crimes like yours and are consigned forever
to the same perdition,
damn your eyes

Note: Written in anger and disgust, and meant to be read rapidly and in that spirit. Every once in a while, we read news items which fill us with horror and revulsion, a sickness inside that human beings can be capable of acts so monstrously evil. They might play on our minds for long afterward; we may perhaps never become immured to them.

It was Cicero who wrote of the poena cullei,  the ‘punishment of the sack’, reserved for parricides, where the perpetrators were sewn into a leather sack with four living creatures – a dog ‘the most slavish and contemptuous of beasts’ [?!]; a cockerel (with beak and claws especially sharpened); a snake (the male principle); and a monkey ‘the gods’ cruelest parody of mankind’. The sack was then thrown into the Tiber. The practice was revived in Germany in the Middle Ages and persisted until the first part of the 18th century.  Abraham Cowley, Essay on Solitude (1668) lists only three animals (an ape, a dog, and a snake), and it is from him that I take my slightly adjusted list, substituting a cat for a dog, with profound apologies to all cat lovers. The reference to the web and the crypt I have taken from the threats of Scarbo the Dwarf in the 3rd Part of Aloysius (Alo-wish-us) Bertrand (1807-1841) Gaspard de la Nuit. ‘Gaspard’ is considered the first prose-poem (I’ve just searched the shelves for my copy, and can’t find it; but a good few sections of it were also beautifully translated by the celebrated Spanish-American writer Angel Flores). Baudelaire stated that ‘Gaspard’ influenced his conception of his Les Fleurs du Mal.


Damnably Correct

It’s the twenty-first damn century,
and all light-hearted comments
uttered publicly will be interpreted
not as humour or as irony, but
deadly seriously. Should you err
by one degree, then you’ll be hounded
by a righteous crowd and by
a media scrambling for publicity.
So get ready to ‘repent’; for God’s sake
say you ‘acted foolishly’, and be prepared
to quit your post immediately.
Depart – and with the maximum humility.

Note: On a much lesser particular than is dealt with in the first poem, I suppose we’ve all become familiar with this tiresome witch-hunting phenomenon of recent years. Surprising is how University, etc., authorities don’t place all their support behind their accused faculty/staff rather than yielding so submissively to outraged fancies.

From ‘A Medley of Verse for us Riders of the Earth’