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Rivers: Wales Arts Review Residency

I’ve known rivers:
I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the
flow of human blood in human veins.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
~ from ‘The Negro Speaks of Rivers,’ Langston Hughes

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I’ve begun my month as Wales Arts Review‘s Artist in Residence where I’m exploring the two rivers I grew up between: the Rhymney and Sirhowy. I’ve been interviewing people who are connected in various ways to these rivers, walking with them along their favourite stretches. I’ve been otter spotting with Jeff Chard, listened to my father talk about coal and river song, and learned much about the fluidity of language from Dr. Elin Jones, one of the last speakers of Gwenhwyseg, a Welsh dialect of Gwent.

Here’s a link to my first piece introducing the residency.

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On Wednesday, I read poems at the Welsh Assembly to launch the Weeping Window poppy exhibition to mark the national centenary of remembrance of those who sacrificed in World War One.

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I was commissioned by the Welsh government to write a poem in response to the exhibition. I sat in the foyer watching the poppies being assembled; it was quite moving, observing the care with which they were handled and placed.

There were so many poems I wanted to share with the audience on Monday, but time allowed for only three. I read Hedd Wyn’s ‘Y Blotyn Du’ and Ifor ap Glyn’s ‘Reading his shirt’ which is what soldiers in the trenches called picking the lice from their clothing. I remembered my grandmother’s book of Whittier’s poetry, given to her in 1918 to commemorate those who served in the war. Her brother George Hunt, one of these men. The poem I wrote was in response to Wilfrid Wilson Gibson’s poem which because of its simplicity, its human-ness really impacted me:

The Question

      I WONDER if the old cow died or not.
Gey bad she was the night I left, and sick.
Dick reckoned she would mend. He knows a lot–
At least he fancies so himself, does Dick.

Dick knows a lot. But maybe I did wrong
To leave the cow to him, and come away.
Over and over like a silly song
These words keep bumming in my head all day.

And all I think of, as I face the foe
And take my lucky chance of being shot,
Is this — that if I’m hit, I’ll never know
Till Doomsday if the old cow died or not.

In my poem, I imagined this soldier, long dead, finding his way back to his valley where his cows were. What have we learned? What would those soldiers who gave their lives think of the way we live, the way we forget the price of war.

‘And Have we Done with War at Last?’

(After ‘The Question’ by Wilfrid Wilson Gibson)

Home at last, the headstoned soldier,

finds all manner of things changed, unchanged,

the kissing gate grown over, the capel closed

and his love who pulled petals from daisies

–in the cemetery, cold.

 

His bwthyn bach where pig meat hung from beams,

the crackle of hearth and kettle song—all echo in him deep,

and hurt in their being gone.

 

The field choca-block with houses now where his cows once grazed,

oh how he had worried over their keeping;

he leaves, for good, this once-his village;

and fills the valley with his weeping.

 

In Cardiff the poppies have come

and see, he’s one amongst them,

he knows too well their crimson hues and their endless tangles of iron.

 

These bold blossoms spill like blood from cedar beams above;

let them flow into the hearts and hands of those who govern

so no more poppies will be plucked

with:

War?

War no more.

War?

War no more.

 

 

Title: ‘And Have we Done with War at Last?’ from Robert Graves’ poem ‘Two Fusiliers’

Here’s a link to the video of my reading.

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Making Ink

He who plants plums
Plants for his sons.
He who plants damsons
Plants for his grandsons.

In mid-September 2016, I picked some damsons from the tree at Llwyn Celyn the medieval house where I am poet-in-residence.

Damascene

I froze the fruit and last night went to Catherine Lewis’ studio: Colour Field

 

 

The damsons still held the scent of summer, as soon as we boiled them, there was an expectation of jam dense in the air.

 

 

 

I learned that the ink’s colour depends on the acid used as mordant and the tannins and so we experimented. Incredible range of tones from the same source.

 

 

I felt as if I was back in the chem lab in school, experimenting, mixing witch-like. It was good to be stirring a blood-red liquid, spoon instead of pen, aluminium pan instead of page.

I wondered if the generations of women from the house had done this too, made dye, ink? Perhaps with fruit from the same tree?

Cath is an alchemist, she has jars and jars of fruits, nut shells, flowers, leaves, even rust-making objects steeped in an ever-reddening fluid like small specimens in formaldehyde.

 

 

The ink isn’t quite ready, what to do with it when it is? I want to write a poem for the house, a sort of witch’s bottle in words, a sort of jaw-bone or hobnailed boot of words like those found in the eaves that had been placed centuries ago when the house was built. To stave off evil spirits, to invite good things.

On discovering the damsons last year, I wrote my intention to make ink:

 

Artistic Movements

 

We, in the threshing barn

hunker down to hear eight centuries

of art created in this valley of Ewyas,

this Llanthony Valley; rich tapestries;

slides of winged angels and romantic

elevating of the priory (re-named abbey);

Turner, Warwick-Smith, Sandby,

Hodges, Colt-Hoare, these men,

these men, these men felt

exalted, contemplated mixed pigments,

disturbed skies, stirred-up-rivers,

fixed ruins in their fine mellow yellow tints,

deepened lines, shadows still heightening

sunlight, sunlight on the valley.

 

We, in the threshing barn snapped back

from Gill’s Nude Girl with Hair, by a turbulent

thwack of the tarp at the doorway.

What’s it keeping out as we wander

wonder Wordsworthian, learning landscape

through art, learning place from

the tip of this speaker’s tongue,

the hiss and hum of the projector

(and the bats quiet in the rafters,

their stories still wing-tucked)?

 

Beyond the barn in Llwyn Celyn’s demesne,

in the once-grounds by the stone wall being rebuilt

the damascene tree, damson

plums, drupaceous, testicular,

purple bold against its green,

skins bulging with unmade ink;

 

the dyer gathers her trug, will boil,

release autumnal colours from slumber

—will stain her fingers, the page.

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Shedding and Self-Healing

A month since I’ve been to Llwyn Celyn. Much of the scaffolding is off, coming off, the roof is beautiful. First time I’ve seen the chimney. It looks ready for a fire. Stories get told around a fire, heart of the home.

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Scaffolding Being Taken Down

To the left, the corrugated sheets are being removed from the beast house now that the walls have been reinforced. There’s a symmetry here: roof on, roof off but the thread uniting that doing and undoing is the necessary exposure of the inner.

Today carpenter, Gareth Irwin was on site with a Welsh stick chair he was commissioned to make:

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Elm Slab and Ash Spindles

This beautiful piece of furniture demanded to be touched. But it was more than furniture, it was the passing down of history both in its ‘genre’ (the kind of chair tenth century king Hywel Dda had once owned) but also in the traditional way Gareth had made it, with some ancient tools and also tools he’d created. It caused me pause: making the tools in which to make your art. To be that connected. Gareth is a greenwood carpenter, goes into the forest, finds the tree, sees it in its tree-essence and after cutting it down, gives it another shape, form, longevity. ‘It’s not just timber’ he said, ‘it’s tree wood.’

I asked if it’s true trees heal themselves:

 

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The ‘T’ Reveals an Injury the Ash has Healed

When there is an abrasion, fire damage, an animal gash to the bark of a tree, all its senses set to closing that part of the tree off, sealing it over to stop bacteria seeping in through the open wound. Much like us, I suppose, except these scars are only seen when the tree is cut. No necessary exposure of the inner, here then.  Gareth told me, the self-healing of a tree is so intelligent that the scars from young shoots-that the tree kills off as they become unnecessary-actually lie dormant. If the tree’s crown is cut, these scars, these once-twigs, will be resurrected. Imagine what might grow from our scars if they were called back into opening.

At lunch, one of the volunteer’s Jack Russel, Todd, darts past and emerges from under the digger with a baby rabbit in its mouth. We try to get him to drop his squealing catch but there’s no way he’ll comply. With a few swift shakes of his head, the kit’s neck is broken and it lies jaw-clamped, limp. Todd pads off and deposits the lifeless creature right inside the beast house.

I took myself to the waste tump for quiet, away from the murder of rabbits and the bang of hammer, slide of corrugated sheets and blare of radio. I sat amongst muck and robin song and the sight of a red kite hungry for something.

 

Amongst all the debris from the house,  I find three random objects, try to force myself to write a poem connecting them (I often ask students to do this, why not try it myself?)

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I get as far as the thick willow crockery, a bowl perhaps that once offered apples from the orchard behind me. The breaking of the pattern renders the story indecipherable (didn’t I used to know it off by heart? My grandmother-who told it to me over and over-did). But I get stuck on the chunk of rusted metal in all its autumn bleed. What was it a part of? The blade from a plough? An old oil drum or a coal bucket. A coal bucket filled with coal and carried in all weathers and all conditions (pregnant, unwell, young or old) the never-ending heaving of coal. But in reality, coal was probably not used here, it was wood that lit the heart of this house, surely? No matter, my mind is thinking of the grandmother I never met who on carrying a bucket of coal lost the boy she was almost-ready to birth. Grandmothers and stories, labouring, crockery-and-hearts broken. Hard hats, protection. Irony.

As I set off down the hill, I see the field is wool-scattered.

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The sheep are shedding unnecessary coating, lightening themselves of that which got them through winter but no longer serves a purpose. Apparently, the tree sheds its bark too, Gareth told me. We shed skin. Medieval dust fell onto my book when I sat in the hall of the house, remnants of centuries of wood, grain, jackdaw nests, skin flakes of generations who lived and worked here. It’s instinctive this moulting. It’s both the letting go and evidence of renewal.

When I get home I find a poem in my inbox ‘Rimwalkers’ by Lesley Wheeler, the first line about the finding of a dying baby rabbit.

And I’m surprised/not surprised when I open Facebook to receive a notification of one of Mandy Lane’s latest sculptures:

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‘Elizabeth Andrew’s To-Do List’ at Duffryn Gardens Evokes the Problems of Still-births for Miner’s Wives in the Early Twentieth Century

I don’t know what to say about that: these connections, inner thoughts which manifest synchronistically or the fact that I could not make a poem, could not make the tools in which to capture those connections. The roof on, roof off =the coming and going of ideas which allows ideas, thoughts, to intersect. Sometimes, they reveal themselves to us with such precision there is no poem that will serve the encounter (at least none I could write).

No poem today to revive the beating heart of that rabbit; just an indication that things are being made, that there is an intelligence at work and that we/I do not always have to try to pin that down in a poem, that I can just acknowledge and let go.

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