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Remembering

How many times is it now, this land drained desolate by war?
The straight roads laid out to speed the killers and the already dead.
How they watched the sunlit shields from the heights above Beulah.
How they stood or melted away.
And the wheeling of the ravens and the hungry, circling foxes.

Cold ghosts in white shifts on every stair,
the cough and the chill that will not go.

Poetry is nothing
If not remembering.

As they pass by the curling paths the drovers will make the Welsh girls laugh,
Talking of their yearning for hills and mystery.
The always shaded hollow roads, singing the words of their own language,
Whistling their dogs to move the herds on.

Roads to remembering,
A dark poetry.

And John Dee, whose blood was Welsh,
Followed Giordano Bruno into the Palaces of Memory
From where, perhaps, he learned the distinguishing of angels from demons
And looked into the dark pools of silence and the language of eternity.
His roads were not smooth.

To find a true remembering
is the herding of sheep without boys or dogs.

Wherever we are, it will be a long road home to the place we remember.
Poor Silver John, made bad to scare children,
Lost on the back of night, drowned and lost in bogs.
His eyes, blind sightless moons.
He will never see home again,
All roads turning like eels,
Though the way he is sure he knows…

Memory comes like a summer shower:
Slanting certain rain from a blue sky.
Then in a moment gone and only the reflected puddles left
To join what was with what is.

And who shall there be to recall all the names of the lost?
We, who are now less than this bitter dust.
At our old nation’s heart the blistered blackened tower.
Encompassed by wheels of denial, unnamed, unnumbered.
A concrete void, eyeless, staring at a royal sky.
This tree of burning, falling fruit, shattered and poisoned, discarded,
Rubbed out.

There is nowhere, it seems, not one place, not one vestibule,
Not one chamber in the brain where memory can be found.
It swirls upon us like a holy fog, wrestles us unwilling as an angel on the road,
A ghost on the stairs landing, a voice at dead of night.
We fear we are nothing without it.
Our one purpose: to not forget, to re-infect the future with the past.
A line of names, a road of deeds,
Following the footsteps, fading, fading.

Footnotes:
How clear, how obscure should a poem be? It is not an essay, so meaning might be subordinate to sound and image. But nonetheless, meaning should walk the knife edge if a certain stream of thought is being shared. This piece was for the 2017 Llanwrtyd Eisteddfod with a set title of ‘Cofio’ (‘Remembering’) and a maximum of 50 lines. As usual, a month or two was spent mulling over some themes and then I returned to the first that I wrote, making a few small adjustments and changing line lengths to fall within the required length. ( other poems published here this month are also fragments on the same theme).
The words should stand and the sounds should dance. The meaning might come and go, depending on whether the reader recognises the references or not -something upon which the poet has no control, never has, never will. But in our (Welsh/British) tradition, poetry was a means to transmit knowledge, to be mnemonic. To entrance, but also to remind the listener of the vast corpus of traditional information and to create meaningful links between past, present and future.

The first verse is located in the Irfon valley where I live and where Llanwrtyd is nestled. It pictures specifically the Roman legions who built roads and forts here to keep watch and subdue the inhabitants, the Ordoviciae. Luckily for the Romans, this Celtic British confederacy of the central uplands of Wales supported the rebellion of the Iceni under Boudicca, thereby justifying a complete and utter genocide of that tribe as retribution ( genocide was one of the Romans favourite means of ‘civilising’, though warring Celtic tribes were not aversed to similar actions). This event is merely a model and prelude to all other armies and rightful rulers emptying this land of its people and resources. The First and Second World Wars continued, indirectly, to the fragmentation of traditional rural communities. Above the village of Bealuh ‘land between heaven and earth’, the ridges of an Iron Age enclosure look down on the valley floor.

Roman roads replaced by the drover’s roads that criss-cross Wales and along which the vast herds of cattle and flocks of sheep were driven into England to the big cities and their markets. If one knows a little Welsh, one knows to be wary of some pronunciations. The drover’s may be talking to the girls about the landscapes they love, or they may be talking about sex and genitalia. ( one of the words for ‘hill’ being very close to the word for ‘sex’, and one of the words for ‘mystery’ also a euphemism for ‘genitals’).

John Dee, the advisor of Queen Elizabeth I, was born in London but his father came from Radnorshire. He was undoubtedly a genius of his age, drawn into the metaphysics of alchemy and the scientific revelations of fervent Protestantism. It is known that he met Giordano Bruno, an Italian metaphysical intellectual who used the ancient Classical mental device of the Memory Palace to hold vast stores of information and near perfect memory recall. Dee conversed with angels, formulated an angelic language, was employed by European monarchs to transmute gold, and was the first to suggest the creation of a ‘British Empire’, based on naval supremacy. He died in poverty with his vast library of books, one of the best in Europe, pilfered and destroyed by neglect and ignorance.

Back in the Radnor hills, a well-respected animal healer, John Lloyd, was murdered one night for his earnings. His body was discovered under the ice of a frozen pool. His memory was used as a way to scare children into good behaviour: “if you are not good, Silver John will come and get you..” and perhaps Robert Louis Stephenson picked up the tale somewhere for his Long John Silver bogeyman.

And then to the current forgotten dead. Three months since the fire in Grenfell Tower, a certain indelible stain on the state of the nation. Evidence scurried away, denials all round, media silence where there should be unremitting howls to reveal all the truth and all the lies. Such a symbol at the centre of the land. The beam in the eye. The burning money tree, the cast away human fruit.

Finally, a wee bit of science and religion. Though there are organs and structures within the brain that need to function correctly to be able to lay down and recall memories, there is no ‘storehouse’, no location in the brain where memories are piled up. Remembering is a whole brain process where pathways and roads of habit are somehow stimulated to recreate a past internal or external event. A passing second reference to angels, messengers of God, who, like memories, insist on being listened to by hook or by crook – as Tobias found out when he was divinely mugged on the road. Paths, roads, incursions, disruption, discomfiture, knowledge, revelation, forgetting. All a web spun out by a freewheeling poetic mind only just under conscious control, in much less time than it took to unravel some of the imagery. ‘Not sure what it all means’. Well, that is the nature of the poetry of the deep mind. And long may it confuse and feed us

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THIRD BRANCH

In brown light, thick as honey,
A book of instruction lies open that is a door.
Listen now, listen to these pictures.

How the reckless, (and even those we once thought wise),
Rush after what has been lost.
Into the fortress of emptiness,
Into deserted palaces and courtyards calling, calling.
And how they, we, I, reach for a clear golden perfect thing
And in that moment become immovable, entranced,
The fountain of all life bubbling inches out of reach.
The golden chains, (each link a true remembering
Of the one before), disappearing up into eternal blue
That holds the perfect vessel, that is equally curse and blessing.

If it has but one clear meaning, then it is not our poetry.
(A vessel chased and engraved with hypnotic flow,
Imperfect symmetry of ripples on a summer stream.)
If we are not led astray, it is not our poetry.
If we do not forget ourselves, wondering how we came here,
What it may all mean, then it is not our poetry.
We shall become poisoned by it and purged by it,
Blessed by it and made full with it. Stripped of skin,
Made shining and given new names, the names of ghosts long gone.
For the truth is: it shall revive the dead, made perfect again but speechless.
Only through our own voices now can they wander this world,
And we haunt them as they inhabit us.
Memory and forgetfulness.

A patch of sunlight sweeps the hills
And is gone.
These clouds, these hymns, these voices.
For a moment we shall fly upward, then remembering,
Fall down once more below the soil.

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This is how it is

This is how it is, or maybe.
(memory is a dark poetry,
old as clouds and as fickle.)

a mountain remembered:
golden and easy
and green in the evening.

this mountain leans into rain:
a glossolalia
of rivers.

this mountain:
lost for days in mist,
and dreaming.

this mountain cloak
draped over horizons,
cloud-shadowed,
bruised purple.

this mountain:
a joy to the stranger,
a burden to the desolate.

this mountain:
benign and warm
and sprinkled with sheep.

this mountain:
cairn-topped,
Its dead long gone
Into small things.

this mountain:
leaning skywards,
always growing upwards
mouthing hymns,
forgetting nothing.

this is how it is, or may be.
(memory becoming landscape,
too vast and folded for one glance).
evaporating our vocabularies,
a rearrangement of whispers.

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AUTUMN SQUALL

There are few words here.
Bleak hill, cool breeze.
Iron hard is the ground
Of the present –
It will not give way.
Seeing is the stark choice
Of poets,
Dreaming of what was and is
And feeling the bones push
Through the thin skin
Of the day,
Sky-bright and bitter-edged.
We will grab what we can
And always wish for more.
Certain hunger there.
Sharp breeze, bleak hill.


A short reprise on ‘llym awel”. As days grow shorter it may be that I will continue my explorations of this oldest of British poetry, so akin to the nuances of T’ang poetry and the haiku of Japan. I am about half way through. After a year’s break it will be interesting to see how the verses get assimilated.

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Book of Changes

I
Wind river
Ocean airs
Clouds race
Birds watch
From shelter
With anchor feet.
Sounds stretched thin.

“The Creative is heaven.
It is round, it is the prince,
The father, jade, metal, cold, ice;
It is deep red, a good horse, a lean horse,
A wild horse, tree fruit.”

II
News from far off
Sorrow and treachery.
Collecting radish seeds
As they ripen
Between the rains.

“The great prince issues commands
Founds estates, vests families with fiefs.
Inferior people should not be employed.”

III
Dawn already in the east.
Rain in the west.
We wait for news, and names.
The kettle bubbles.

“The well. The town may be changed,
But the well cannot be changed.
It neither increases nor decreases.
They come and go and draw from the well.
If one gets down almost to the water
And the rope does not go all the way,
Or the jug breaks, it brings misfortune.”

IV
Standing still,
All the flock, backs turned
To the wind.
When the storm is over
The grass shall taste sweeter.

“Innocence. Supreme success.
Perseverance furthers.
If someone is not as he should be,
He has misfortune,
And it does not further him
To undertake anything.”

I recently picked up a copy of Richard Wilhelm’s “I Ching or book of changes”. I had it many years ago, and though it is probably not the best translation, it carries a certain, stately grandeur in its language. This morning, in stormy weather, I decided to see what happened combining a few short verses I had written with random selections from the book. Meaningless and meaningful. Everything becomes oracular. Juxtaposition revealing the mysteries of the mundane.

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REMEMBERING OF A SOMETHING

I shall not remember this,
Nor shall be remembered for this.
And yet for a moment I am here,
Settled between grey hills in slow rain.
My love, still sleeping, her dreaming breath
A slow mist down by the river.

Where did it begin?
Moving on, just so,
As a shifting sunset.

Stone stretched thin until it admits hollowed light.
Dark cliffs wane, and here we are:
Saints as numberless as sheep,
Sheep as numerous as clouds.
Clouds piling to heaven then whispering to nothing,
Pushed by hills older than themselves.
The river runs thick and dark, naming each stone.
It is as easy to forget, sometimes, as to remember.
(Bitter ashes, black soot, husks huddled that once had faces).
How fast the grass covers it all, takes away cause and reason.

Here we are:
A silted green valley down to the sea at Llantwit,
Where the giants watch a slow eternal game of gwyllbwydd,
Playing out to itself between the ruled lines of cliff and ocean.
In the sunny town, eating pizza, we watched the wheezy trucks
Squeeze between the kissing buildings.
And the church bedded there, clutching the old stones removed
From rain and birdsong, mute and sullen awaiting uncertain resurrection.

Palaces of remembering are the storehouses of forgetfulness.
Dust and regret and time running on empty.
Familiar roads have become strange,
For we have wandered too far, and run out of words.
Nor have we yet forgiven the fools that led us here,
Nor the fools that followed.

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INK WASH

open window.
now and then:
sighing cars
roll by.

gutters muttering
in light summer
rain.

time caught
on cobwebs,
lost in cloud.

sedge grasses flower,
green trees
statue-still.

Li Po hums
and sketches
silence.

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