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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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this dreaming breath
named from a confluence
long streams tumbled for a while
on the meticulous dance of sun and moon
clothed in scars and mystery, veiled, draped about.
shaped by a host, a singing constellation of unnamed stars.

Having been in the woods
One may never come out.
Though scrupulous,
A whisper breath will still
remain, like the memory
Of mulch in the nostril,
The coolness of the skin,
The crack of twig, a cobwed brush.
We become inhabited-
The same as we ghost
Forgotten places.
Murmur.
Reverie interupted.

Leonard

This poet’s voice.
Like honey,
Like an earthquake.
A gentle mountain
With thunder.
Sun and rain,
we smile, we cry.
All vistors
With return tickets.


Heart’s warmth, the only sustaining fire.
We are huddled beings, backs to the night,
glorious in our strangeness, bred for our dreams.
Peculiar are the haunted songs echoing,
peculiar the views we insist upon, peculiar the words,
peculiar the moments.
revivified by the lightest touch,
ignited by the slightest breath,
flowered and flowering,
the thinnest web of cells strung together,
pushing outwards,
holding back,
translating silence.

This one breath
Is ours.
Then than
Too,
Is gone.
This stream
Of word
Caught in a
Flashlight
Moment
Then
Lost.
Remembering
What is
No longer.
A wonder!

Her shell-like,
Bending low to this little earth.
She will turn away
In sorrow and disbelief
Fall and fade
And become dark
And empty
Once more.

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But ‘we’ is not circled.
We have no edge ( though we think otherwise)
(though we think we think).
We think beginnings and endings,
we think words, breath, silence, breath,
intake the other, exhale the other.
cannot remember any moment beyond
a circumscribed horizon, cannot, even, the dreams,
nor the memories, for sure (was it, was, was it so, was it not?)

There are, of course, clues.
Vagrants, with a certain mildewed smell,
mutter slewed directions, their demon-bright eyes.
(but those we shun, as shadows,
as churchyards at night, as the insisting amoral voices in the mist,
peripheral, shuffled, ambiguous).

The long halls, the rooms, the chambers.
My dear Giordano, such equations, such equators.
So few and tired are the moronic habitual paths,
so broad the primrose paths
to Hell untrod, unstudied.
A rumour of damnation, like a roll of distant thunder,
a storm coming. Well, certainly, there is a storm coming.
From the edges to the centre, from the centre to the edges..
An ending ( of sorts).
And then it echoes around another’s skull.
Seed syllables.
The end of worlds.
The beginning of worlds.

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LLYM AWEL verse 5 Improvisations.

Ottid eiry, guin y cnes;
Nid a kedwir oè neges;
Oer llinneu, eu llyu heb tes.

“Falls the snow, a white covering;
Warriors shun their tasks.
Cold are the lakes, their colour without warmth.”

Each line ends with a long hissing sibilance, the fall of snow, the melt as cold hits warm. The slightly longer last line elaborates the terse imagery and is a lack, draining motion and warmth from the reader’s mind.
The description of ‘warriors’ could be ironic. How strong and brave are they really, who refuse to go out in the snow? Or, in another view, the snow can vanquish even the bold warrior with its implacable purpose.

So falls and falls the snow.
White covers all, all senses white.
No colour for the sight,
No sound nor note to the ear,
All feeling numbed, no warmth here for heart.

The stalwart shrink, the warriors shirk,
The brave turn away, tasks undone.
Huddled small to the fire, faces inward.

For the lakes stretch vast and cold.
Their colour is death and grey pallor,
A wan weight the white drift sinks to.
Extirpated, extinguished, cold on cold.

Drained is the heat of war,
We are rendered aimless,
Lost to thoughtless staring peace.
We fall to not doing,
A sin for man whose fuse
Runs short and hot.

Severed, spun back, reeled in.
Conquered by an easy drift
And silent fall –
A world unbudged,
Resolute in is.
A cold refusal.
A cold covering.

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LLYM AWEL ( part 2 )

Llym awel, llum brin, anhaut caffael clid;
Llicrid rid, reuhid llin;
Ry seiw gur ar vn conin.

The second phrase is ” llum brin” , “bleak hill”.
Jackson makes it ‘bare the hill’. My iTranslate prefers ‘bleak’.
The choice of synonyms are many and subtly divergent: bare, desolate, hostile, barren, are all covered by ‘bleak’, whereas ‘bare’ seems to me a thinner meaning, and confusable with ‘naked’, thus making the association physically personal, rather than the ferociously and unconcernedly unsympathetic ‘bleak’.
At this stage in the poem the poet has just drawn a landscape and inferred from the adjectives (sharp, bleak) a human presence. The final phrase of the line is ‘anhaut caffael clid’ ‘difficult to find/to obtain/have shelter’, implying he/we are out in this harsh weather.
As this is the case, I wonder whether ‘llum brin’ should be read as ‘this bleak hill’, or ‘bleak hilltop’, because we are not to view it as something out there at a distance, but something here below our feet, all around us, because it is out on the exposed hilltop that we would want to find shelter from the elements.

“Sharp breeze, bleak hilltop, difficult it is to obtain shelter”

There is a contrast in the two halves of the line between the impersonal elemental world, and a small human being moving,uncomfortable, through it. In the Welsh, the first two phrases glide and tumble, compared to the jerking, hesitency of the last three words.
The next line resumes the echoing, reflecting alliteration:

“Llicrid rid, reuhid llin;”

and also returns to observations of the seen world: ‘Llicrid rid’ , Jackson translates as ‘The ford is marred’. There is a sense in ‘llicrid’ of pollution, contamination, become fouled. Presumably the weather conditions have destroyed the gentle, smooth crossing place. I have settled on ‘churned up’ to give that sense of disorder and chaos. This then nicely contrasts with the following phrase: ‘reuhid llin’, lake freezes. Slight variations will give a different taste. Jackson translates this line as ‘ the ford is marred, the lake freezes’, but I feel this distances the experience and makes it rather general, something that happens each winter, not something that is causing an immediate emotional reaction in the poet at this moment, on this journey.

‘The ford is churned up, the lake frozen’

These two phrases contrast each other in the same way that wind/ breeze is active and hilltop is motionless. Here the ford has become wrecked and flooded where it is usually calm, and the gentle rippling lake has become motionless and still.
In Celtic worldviews ( even as a continuation from the Bronze Age) both fords and lakes were sacred as gateways to the Otherworld, liminal places to access the spiritual. Here, they can no longer serve that function – the poet feels even more isolated from the succour of the spirit worlds ( and so giving another meaning to ‘difficult to find shelter’).

The last line is:

‘Ry seiw gur ar vn conin.’

‘Ry seiw’ is “it is (even) possible to stand”, gur/gŵr is ‘a man’, ar is ‘on’, vn/un conin is ‘one stalk/grass/reed’

So: it is possible to stand a man on one reed
It is possible for a man to stand on one reed.
A man might stand on a single reed.

Jackson says: ” A man could stand on a single stalk” , which has a nice quality of flow and wonder to it. To my eye, a ‘stalk’ can be too easily visualised as lying flat on the ground, whereas a reed maintains its sense of verticality, and has a more proverbial sound to it.
Nicola Jacobs’ commentary explains this line as meaning the reed/grass is so frozen, so hard that it can be (theoretically) balanced on. But it also suggests a man made hollow by care and hunger, so light, so worn away and insubstantial, that a reed would not bend under his weight.

The ‘sharp breeze’ of the first phrase is echoed by the sharp, blade-like reed of the last, both summing up the discomfort of the season.

I will mull these ideas and work on my interpretation……

IMPROVISATIONS ON LLYM AWEL

Sharp beeeze, bleak hilltop, difficult it is to obtain shelter.
The ford is churned up, the lake frozen.
A man might stand on a single reed.

Splinter cold, breath stolen.
Pummelled, stripped, this ice wind.

Desolate my road, this dead, domed hill,
Rotted brown and wan.

Shelterless, this way or that,
Remorseless the trudge, and dismal.

Every ford is ice mud,
Churned by all the cattle of the world,
Cast, charnel, sullied, broken.

No joyous lake,
No light waved, rippled,
No meek lap nor song.
All iron ice, white and burning stillness.

Worn hollow by winter,
Wormed and wrought, ringed out.
I wince from every blade of it.
Reeds rattle underfoot.
Pierced, I am lost amongst grasses,
Harsh-throated, severed from home.

—-

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LLYM AWEL ( part1)

Llym awel, llum brin
Anhaut caffael clid
Llicrid rid, reuhid llin,
Ry seiw gur ar vn conin.

This long sequence of ancient Welsh verse is named from its first phrase. I was curious to see if I could use some of these words in my artworks. There is a magnetic mystery in words on the horizon of understanding, whether because the language is very old or because it is unknown. Language freed in this way from meaning turns into the music of rhythm and the shape of the mouth. Language is a vessel of sound. Meaning is what fills that shape up in some way. But meaning is not one thing. These gnomic verses, like much ancient poetry, is terse and ambiguous. Translate one way and it carries a completely different mood from translating another way. After all, vocabulary is not meaning. Language builds a picture in the reader/hearer’s mind, and because it is created by another human, it carries its own emotional energy, which may or may not be transmitted whole. Language is translation of a unique experience by and for another. Translation from one language to another first of all loses the implicit rhythms of the original language, and then it often misplaces some of the original emotional intent by a less than perfect matching of word meanings.

‘Llym awel’ seems to be generally translated as ‘sharp wind’, but this itself is a metaphor. Wind does not cut, nor bite, gnaw or pierce. It has no teeth and no sharp edges. The wind, ( if it is wind), is to be perceived through our physical experience. That is what is transferred ( or not) in the meaning. I cannot speak Welsh, neither modern nor Medieval. I have relied in this investigation on accepted academic translations, commentaries and the automatic translations of modern computer programmes. All these provide different viewpoints from whence the original genuine emotional might be unearthed, or else an interesting improvised variation might grow.
Most words have synonyms. Poetry relies often on these to select appropriate metre and rhyme. Bardic Welsh poetry is hugely complex in its internal structure, playing with sounds all the time, following convoluted rules and templates. Translation cannot hope to match any of this well. Poetic commentary and improvised variations may be the best way to approach the feel of the original material, without pretending it translates word for word…..

The first query I came across was the meaning of ‘awel’. My translator insisted on ‘breeze’, giving a completely different word ( in modern Welsh) for ‘wind’. Now the feel and mood of ‘wind’ and ‘breeze’ are very different. So too, ‘llym’ was given as ‘sharp’, ‘ keen’, ‘acute’ – all of related meanings but all with very different emotional energy.
Language relies heavily on habitual idiom and familiar metaphors. We do not question ‘sharp wind’ because we understand that this is not a literal, objective statement. Literal meaning slur and smudge in the creation of a mental picture. By practice we learn to understand when familar phrases mean something rather different. This somewhat complacent use of language is often very different from the meticulous choice of the skilled bard and poet, so it is important not to fall into using the blurred edges of familiar idiomatic phrasing when it can distort or disguise the precise clarity intended by the poet.

We all pass over ‘sharp wind’ very quickly. We get the general drift of meaning, the flavour, but ‘sharp breeze’ makes us pause and reconstruct. It is at once less usual, and a much more particular equation. A breeze is not a buffeting force. It is more akin to an occassional breath. A more harmless movement of air. So when this gentle, slight thing is felt as ‘sharp’ or ‘keen’, then we can automatically readjust the experience. How cold must the air be, for even a slight breeze to cut through to the skin?

So my commentaries and improvisations on these two words were:

Llym awel,
Sharp breeze,
This small stirring drains warmth,
Negates clothing.
Breath breeze makes cold colder.
This breeze breathes ice.

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DEAD EYED LIES

The politician shudder.
That particular discomfort in seeing a
bullshit take form,
that glorious automaton mismatch
between word and intent,
blank rabbit stare of
parroting the speechwriter’s doubletalk,
dead eyed professional lying.
Condescending chumminess.
Pickpockets and cudgels…


WONDERFUL

A wonderful madness.
Such a shriek as eloquent
Will once start a galactic spin,
Such spirit the spit of creation is.
A crackle of applause
From other gods and dwellers
In uncircumscribed bedlams
Who watch and savour,
Then try their shaking,
Laughing hands,
Their own worlds
To breathe into….

DISSIPATE

The world,
the long world congealed in the long years,
the filling up, the emptinesses,
the deserts, the wild winds of emotion,
the weathering, the withering.
All of us, if not before,
if not before,
will melt once again into the world,
Sun burnt,
moon cooled,
star hollowed.
A vapour, a word,
A wish fulfilled.

—–

TONGUE

It will be a gibbering,
an extinct language,
a map of lost continents
and drunken drowned pyramids.
It will be an hullucination of grey spaces,
the ramblings of a senile archbishop,
the over-elaborate orchestrations
of a genius fop.
It will be a universe distracted
by its own impossibility,
forced to invent a language
to replicate some linear order.
It will be a flash of poetry
flickered across a white noise screen.
It will be a ball
bouncing down an empty street.
It will be a simple rice bowl
explaining everything.
It will be radiant dust,
dancing.

ARTS

To extract from and limit chaos,
to select gestures, sounds,
to learn how the gods
prevent themselves from becoming demons,
to mimic daffodils and cloud,
to learn the controls of the mothership,
to pretend time and space
is not the problem….

—-

—–

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