Gelli Fach

Gelli Fach

I'm a cell, I'm fragmented, I change my form;
I'm a repository of song, I'm a dynamic state.
I love a wooded slope and a snug shelter,
and a creative poet who doesn't buy his advancement.

Wyf kell, wyf dellt, wyf datweirllet;
wyf llogell kerd, wyf lle ynnyet.
Karaf-y gorwyd a goreil clyt,
a bard a bryt ny pryn y ret.

From: Legendary Poems from the Book of Taliesin, edited and translated by Marged Haycock

Thursday, 23 December 2010

Christmas, the Light of Winter-Time

Picture by Margaret Tarrant: Medici Cards

Although not a Christian, I always celebrate the festival of Christmas as the light of winter time. The birth of a child who brings light to the world is as good a metaphor as any for the rebirth of the life-giving sun.

The festival of Christmas was a part of my life from the beginning, being embedded in the culture I grew up in (although my parents weren't religious), and I fell under its spell, entranced by the candlelit carol services and the poetry of the King James bible. I still recite Isiah 9:2 as I light the Christmas candle:

"The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined" .

When I go to bed on Christmas eve I always have a sense of something wondrous about to happen. Perhaps it is simply conditioning because of the childhood magic of waiting for the coming of Santa Claus and, growing older, this becoming merged with the carol 'O Little Town of Bethlehem' with its opening picture of the dark streets, sleeping but dreamless, and then:

How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given
So God imparts to human hearts the blessings of his heaven

These days I'll think of the return of the sun as being the wondrous gift but the concept of the sun shining on all and giving its blessing to everyone is a good one and in this spirit we may think perhaps of our own hearts not only receiving a blessing but also radiating it out to others.

Although I abhor the way Christmas has become commercialised and degraded it seems to me that it still retains a memory of ancient times - a midwinter feast in defiance and celebration just as we slowly begin to move forward from the deep heart of darkness to face the hardest days before the light gains enough strength to nurture life again - a delicate and precarious time rather like convalescence.

Christmas is a time when the promise of love and fellowship, family, peace and joy is never quite or even wholly realised but nevertheless a time which stands as a testament to our human desire and hope for these things. So although often more honoured in the breach than in the observance, we still value them and they serve as a point of orientation which this festival remembers.

I celebrate the Solstice too so my festivities start on the 21st with the lighting of one of Peter Neuman's Solstice and New Year candles and - for the last few years - a Solstice tart. Morrisons supermarkets sell these in December and although they call them 'fruit flans', to me they are sunwheels with their radiating pattern of fruit, gleaming like treasure, culminating in mandarin oranges arranged around the outer rim.

The days from the 21st to the 25th are special days and one day I'll be organised enough to be restful as the sun rests until the 24th, but because I usually get caught up in the general rush and expend more energy than I have, I'm grateful for the 'time-out' that occurs during those few days of the Christmas holiday - a time of stillness echoing the sun's stillness of the previous few days; a time when everyone can catch their breath and step off the relentless merry-go-round for a while.

So often out of step with the contemporary world, I actually welcome Christmas as a festival where I can share the Spirit of the Time with my fellows on this little island in the north of the world...

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

December and an Irish Poem about Winter

The month of December, of short days and long nights,
there are ravens among the young plants, rushes on the moor,
the bee and the nightingale are silent…

Mis Rhagfyr, byrddydd, hirnos,
brain yn egin, brwyn yn rhos,
tawel gwenyn ac eos..

Welsh, Verses of the Months, c.15th century

                          Photo: Angela

Irish Poem about Winter from The Guesting of Athirne

In the black season of deep winter
a storm of waves is roused
along the expanse of the world.
Sad are the birds of every meadow-plain
(except the ravens that feed on crimson blood)
at the clamour of fierce winter;
it is rough, black, dark, misty.
Dogs are vicious in cracking bones;
the iron pot is put on the fire
after the dark black day.

Dubaib rathib rogemrid
robarta tond tūargabar
īar tóib betha blāi.
Brōnaig eōin cach īathmaige
acht fīaich fola forderge
fri fūaim gemrid gairg,
Garb dub dorcha dethaite.
Dīumusaig coin cnāmchomaig,
Curt[h]ir ar æd īarnlestar
īar lō dorcha dub.

(Original early Middle Irish edited by Kuno Meyer, English translation by Kenneth Jackson)

Sunday, 14 November 2010

Poetry and Performance

Poets of The Word Distillery after the 'Out of Our Heads' performance
(I'm the one holding the poster)

I’ve been meeting up with a group of local poets to workshop poems for just over a year now. They’ve given a couple of performances at the local Arts Centre during this time and I decided to be brave and join them for this November’s event.

Although I’ve done quite a bit of teaching, given talks, performed the odd poem at book launches or celebrations and conducted two or three ceremonies, I’m always – not to put too fine a point on it – terrified. The last time I recited a poem (not one of mine) was at my son’s wedding a few years ago. I didn’t make a very good job of it, so I was aware that my performance could be a total disaster. But – as those who follow this blog may know – poetry is becoming part of my spiritual path at this stage of my life, and because I draw inspiration from ancient Celtic poetry which was only or mainly oral, I felt it was important to explore and promote this aspect of the craft.

To prepare I read up on the performance of poetry in medieval Wales. Of course there are major differences between Welsh medieval poetry and the poetry of the present day. For one thing it was formal, often in strict metre, whereas today it is mainly free verse, mine included. Another major difference is that it in the early period it seems to have been performed not by the poet but by a professional reciter, to the accompaniment of a string instrument played by the reciter or a musician. (One fourteenth century poet asked: what good would a poem be without a harp to accompany it?) Only later, it would seem, during the period of the 14th to the 16th century, did the poet recite and accompany himself.
I was rather interested in the word used for ‘to recite’ , ‘datganu’, literally ‘to sing back’. I don’t know what the underlying concept of this word was – it could be something fairly prosaic perhaps, such as the idea of the poem being sung back to the poet – but it sparked off various mystical overtones for me. If poetry is inspired, i.e. breathed in from the Muse or the Awen, then to recite it is to breathe it out – to give it life and offer it back to the source - and out to the external world.

Uttering something is also creative and may be an act – or enactment - of truth. The performance of the law in early Ireland not only served as an aid to memory for recording judgements but also created and transformed law. So, I mused, performing poetry is also creative in itself and an enactment of truth, however humble, homely or personal.

I didn’t really expect to find any useful information about how to successfully perform one’s poetry, but surprisingly the Gramadegau’r Penceirddiaid (the Welsh Bardic Grammars), and the Statute of Gruffudd ap Cynan, offered me some, courtesy of Patrick Ford.

Firstly: ‘Tri pheth a beir kanmawl kerdawr, nyt amgen: dychymycvawr ystyr, ac odidawc kerdwyryaeth, ac eglur datkanyat’. ‘Three things that bring praise to a poet: imaginative meaning, formal excellence, and clarity of recitation.’ (GP)

Secondly: ‘Tri pheth a gytbreinant ymadrawd (ac a’e) teilygant: ehudrwyd parabyl, a (chywreindeb) synwyr, ac annyan(a)wl dyall y datk(einyat)’. Three things that bring honour to (poetic) expression and make it worthy: fluency of expression, elegant sense, and full understanding of the reciter’. (On the other hand, ‘pŵl datkeinyat’ , ‘dullness of the reciter’ results in a loss of dignity.) (SGC)

Thirdly: ‘Tri phetha vrddassant gerd: ehudrwyd ac ehofynder parabyl ac ethrylith y datkeinad’. Three things that ennoble poetry: the liveliness, confidence, and natural ability of the reciter. (GP)

It would suit me, I thought, to have a datgeiniad to recite the poems for me while I stood ‘proudly by’ as one Irish commentator put it. Although, as the Bardic Grammars pointed out, it is rare that a reciter is able to recite a poem exactly as the poet composed it. But in the absence of such a person I had another entity to fall back on: the persona. And as confidence was an important component of the performance of poetry, I felt that I needed to call upon a confident persona that the unconfident self could hide behind…

So, I concluded, what I needed was fluency of expression, elegance, a sensitive reading of the poems which brought out their meaning, liveliness – and a confident persona – simples! as the meerkat says…

As well as this useful advice, I was greatly helped by Ami Mattison’s wonderful website/blog poetryNprogress which I happened to find. Her 11 Tips for Spoken Word Beginners were invaluable. The most useful I found were these:

1. Develop a unique performance style. Always express your poetry in your own style.
2. Rehearsal is fundamental to consistent and successful performances.
3. Never apologize or make excuses and don’t explain.
4. Love your audience. Ami says this is the most important and I couldn’t agree more. She says that when you perform it’s not about you, it’s about the audience. Respect and love them by giving them everything you’ve got to give in your performances. It’s a privilege to share your poetry with an audience of strangers…

This last one really helped me. Most of my fear of performing is fear of the audience: I think that they are there to criticize me - perhaps it’s to do with the household I grew up in! But no, they have paid good money to enjoy themselves, to be entertained and perhaps learn something. And so, I reasoned, it was my job to entertain them, to give them everything I’ve got. They might not like it but that’s up to them: all I had to do was fulfill my part of the bargain.

So, having rehearsed and borne in mind the advice of the medieval bards and Ami, I stopped on my way out of the house to ask for the blessing of the ‘household gods’: Brigit for eloquence and fluency, Cernunnos for a touch of wild wisdom to energise the art - and the Buddha to remind me to retain equanimity and a philosophical outlook if the whole thing was a disaster.

I didn’t drive my usual way into town, instead going by way of the coastal village of Borth to pick up some throat lozenges from the chemist (as I had rather unfortunately caught a cough and cold from my family at the weekend). The chemist was closed so I didn’t stop but set off up the road which rises above the sea, towards Aberystwyth. There was a slender waxing moon, high above the bay. Rather than a heavenly body, it looked like a crescent cut out of the black material of the sky, giving a glimpse of a silver realm beyond. Threading my way along the dark and winding country road, I suddenly had a strange feeling - as though I were going, not to a poetry performance but to an initiation ceremony. Although still scary, it was a rather heady and exhilarating feeling and so instead of shrugging it off I let it settle around me as I drove, until, coming to the murky orange lights on the main road at the edge of the town, it dissipated and I forgot about it.

* * *

Well, my voice wasn’t as good as it could have been – I wasn't able to use it to its full capacity and had to break off to cough once or twice – but I did my best, trying to speak clearly and enliven the poetry, to embrace my confident persona and remember that performing my poems was an act of truth, a sacred thing. And I loved my audience rather than being afraid of it (well, perhaps a little afraid).

Today I got an email sent from a member of the group, commenting on each of us. He said, “Hilaire was a natural performer, she was totally at ease with the audience-- a real pro.” So, I think the preparation must have worked and I should like to recommend the advice of the ancestors, the medieval bards, as well as the poetryNprogress website.

I’ve realised, too, that to step into new territory, even if it is a small step to the other side of the footlights, or a larger step outside one’s comfort zone, is to be initiated into a new perception and a new knowledge…

1. In fact, our word ‘recite’ meaning ‘to repeat or utter aloud something previously composed, heard or learned by heart’ comes via French from Latin: ‘Re’ plus ‘citare’, ‘ to cite’. And ‘citare’, interestingly, means ‘to set in motion, to call’. So perhaps our familiar word recalls an underlying Indo-European idea of the creative power of words to bring things into existence?

2. See Patrick K Ford, ‘Aspects of the Performance of Poetry in Medieval Wales’, Bangor University Foundation Lecture, March 2003.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

November and a Poem for the Ancestors

The Verses of the Months

The month of November, the fool grumbles,
The wethers are fat, the woods are half-bare…

Mis Tachwedd, tuchan merydd,
bras llydnod, llednoeth koydydd…

Welsh, circa 15th c

For the Ancestors at Nos Galan Gaeaf

As life’s hours tick beyond autumn
and winter shadows the far hill,
bats gather where once swallows played
and the birch lets fall her golden leaves.

I sit with you, silent ones, to share this meal,
however harsh our words once were,
however discrete our lives,
our worlds leach now one into the other – a gentle confluence -

and like blood the dark ale carries your spirit
to rest, in this small circle of light
where united we gather strength to nurture
whatever future may be born.

Outside the marigolds glare down the approaching dark
While beyond the river, the crane is flying with my wings.

Thursday, 28 October 2010

St Ffraid: Brigit in Wales

Interior of church, St Bride's Major
photo: Paul Williment

I’ve finally finished writing about Brigit in Wales, St Ffraid, and uploaded it to my website. It’s several weeks after I’d planned to have finished it but various things have intervened to delay me and I also realised that I’d lost the insight I gained after being ill in the New Year: that by moving forward a small footstep each day –“ the footstep of a cock on a gentle evening when his crop is full” – things get done in an almost miraculous way. I’d become too caught up in wanting to have done something instead of enjoying the doing. So I relaxed about it and thought ‘It’ll be finished when it’s finished’!

I’d been meaning to write something about St Ffraid because there isn’t much about her on the web – as often happens, Wales is rather neglected. So it was a work of service to Brigit and to Wales – that sounds rather pompous – what I mean is that it felt like something I ought to do rather than something I was desirous of doing. But, as with all work of willing service, I have been enriched by it. I have felt much more connected to the story of Brigit in Wales: to the custom of St Brigit’s Ale which I plan to revive in some small way; to the places and rivers associated with her – especially the church at Llanon which I am inspired and uplifted by and the Braint on Anglesey which is another area I’d love to visit one day; I was pleased to find the Welsh form ‘Gwas Sant Ffraid’ in the tradition, meaning ‘servant, follower or devotee of St Ffraid', since, finding it more and more difficult to assign a label to my spiritual path (more of than another time) the one firm designation I give myself is ‘devotee or follower of Brigit’.

I was also conscious while I was researching and writing, of how slender a thread the Welsh story of Brigit is and how grateful I am to the tradition bearers who have contributed to spinning this yarn so that we can learn something about it today. In particular, of course, we are lucky that Iorwerth Fynglwyd’s cywydd has survived. He was one of the Beirdd yr Uchelwyr or Poets of the Nobility who were composing after the fall of the last prince Llywelyn in 1282. More specifically, he was one of the Cywyddwyr (c. 1350-1650) - the poets who developed a new form of poetry, the cywydd, which, although still linked to the tradition, was often more personal and emotional. Instead of a formulaic approach to mention of the saints, the Cywyddwyr displayed what seems to have been a genuine devotion to them. Iorwerth Fynglwyd was known particularly for poems which encapsulated some truth or proverbial wisdom and some of his cywyddau were the most popular in 16th century Wales. He lived at St Bride’s Major, Glamorgan, and therefore would have been especially familiar with the story of St Brigit.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Sabine Baring-Gould and John Fisher carried out amazingly extensive research into the British saints – there would have been much less for me to say if they hadn’t written about Brigit – and in our own time Elissa Henken, professor of Folklore and Celtic studies, has written two interesting books about the Welsh saints, including material about Sant Ffraid and female saints in general.
And there are many more poets and scholars besides, providing links with the tradition so that we able to discover and be inspired by it.

Statue of Brigit, St Bride's Major,
with pen in her left hand and book under her right arm
photo: Paul Williment

Friday, 1 October 2010

October and an Irish autumnal poem

The month of October, the axle is hard worn,
the stag is wanton, the wind is swift…

Mis Hydref, hydraul echel
chwareous hydd, chwyrn awel…

The Verses of the Months, Welsh, circa 15th c

Irish poem about Autumn from The Guesting of Athirne

A good tranquil season is autumn,
there is occupation then for everyone
throughout the very short days.

Dappled fawns from the sides of the hinds,
the red stalks of the bracken shelter them;
stags run from the mounds
at the belling of the deer herd.

Sweet acorns in the high woods,
corn-stalks about cornfields
over the expanse of the brown earth.

Prickly thorn bushes of the bramble
by the midst of the ruined court;
the hard ground is covered with heavy fruit.
Hazelnuts of good crop fall
from the huge old trees of mounds.

R[aithe] fō foiss fogomur
feidm and [for cech] ōenduine
la tóeb na llā lāngarit.
Lóig brecca [a broin]d osseilt
Dītnit rūadgaiss raithnigi.
Ret[h]it daim a dumachaib
[f]ri dorddān na damgaire.
Derccain suba a ssithchailtib
Slatta etha imm ithgurtu
Ós īath domuin duind.
Draigin drissi delgnacha
fri tóeb in lāir leithlessi,
lān do mess trom tairnith[ ].
Tuittit cnōi cuill cāinmessa
do robilib rāth.

(Original early Middle Irish edited by Kuno Meyer, English translation by Kenneth Jackson)

Saturday, 25 September 2010

Shadows and Shimmers: Conversing with the Otherworld

I said in my last post that I’d write something about my relationship with Brigit as goddess and saint. My plan to visit Brigit’s church at Llanon more often had made me start to think about this, mainly because I was a little uneasy about using the church in this way; it seemed rather like accepting hospitality from people some of whose views I profoundly disagreed with. And since my main connection with Brigit is as a goddess of poetry, healing and smithcraft, just where does St Brigit fit in?

The trouble was that once I started to muse about all this I found I had pulled at a thread which led to a very long tangle! What did I believe about gods and goddesses and God. What was my relationship with Christianity and with neo-paganism? I decided to try and put into words my thoughts and intuitions - not easy to do, to formulate something coherent and communuicable. I found it interesting as an exercise though and was curious to see what would emerge.

So I’m going to start at the beginning, and I don’t expect to finish it in one post but will divide it up into perhaps three parts.

How I understand the spirit world and deity.

I find it difficult to believe that an all-powerful God made the universe and I don't tend to believe it has a purpose. It seems to me to simply exist in a dynamic state with its own natural laws. The way Lao Tsu describes the Dao - "That which can be expressed is not the eternal Dao" etc - gives an idea of its mysterious unknowability. I think in this instance I have what the poet John Keats called ‘negative capability’ which he defined as when a person “is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” Maybe scientists will be able to penetrate its mysteries at some point in the future – or maybe not. The quantum physicist Niels Bohr said that the world is not only stranger than we thought, it is stranger than we could think - almost echoing Hamlet's words to Horatio: "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy".

I wonder if we have evolved on this planet with intelligence and senses that might not have the capacity to see, or perceive or understand the spiritual world – much as we cannot hear sounds that dogs can hear but which undoubtedly exist. Certain drugs which alter people’s chemistry and physiology cause them to be able to see things another way – different colours, shapes, movement. So our physical make-up determines how we see/perceive/understand the world and what we think of as reality.

I always remember watching the scientist Carl Sagan describing how a three-dimensional object would appear to a two-dimensional being who would be unable to conceive of it. (The aim of this was actually to help us to understand the fourth dimension, since we are trapped in three dimensions). Amazingly, I found the very clip on YouTube so here it is:

While this doesn't give an exact analogy, it is suggestive of the way that some people experience supernatural or mystical phonemona. It seems to me entirely possible that there are dimensions we cannot conceive of but which we occasionally glimpse in shadows and shimmers and whispers.
I have only my limited powers of reason, my intuition and my own experiences to draw upon to make this unseen realm, this Other world, intelligible to my own satisfaction. What follows is simply a working hypothesis - I don't know what the truth actually is.


It seems to me that because the spiritual world or the Otherworld is invisible to us - because we are only dimly aware of it through shimmers and whispers - we can only describe it and relate to it by drawing on the imagination. We make up stories about it - creation myths, the activities of the gods and goddesses and so on - we people it with beings somewhat like ourselves but with supernatural abilities or with bizarre creatures and mysterious beings. Imagination, then, becomes the tool through which we try to understand, describe and relate to this other unseen dimension; imagination becomes the tool through which we try to understand and relate to a greater reality.

To me, this model makes sense of the different religions there are in the world, the different gods and goddesses and supernatural beings - and why people with different beliefs have visions, hear voices, experience presences consistent with their own particular religion, in near-death experiences for example. These deities and other spiritual visitors may seem to be mutually incompatible unless you conceive of them as diverse tools that various people and groups have developed to enable them to access the Otherworld, through prayer, meditation, visualisation and art. In this view, the gods and goddesses become sacred instruments enabling us to access a larger reality.

Do these deities actually exist? Yes and no. "No" in that I don't think that such beings exist in the forms we imagine in that dimension, "yes" in that they exist as mediums or proxies, as an interface between this world and the Other. An imperfect interface that works erratically and/or selectively and sometimes not at all - rather like the remote control on my new mini digibox which sometimes responds immediately to my wishes and sometimes refuses to allow me to switch channels or access the menu or makes strange messages appear which are incomprehensible. (Most annoying, I have to say!) Or to put it another way, I am not my name "Hilaire" - but if I am in range or not unable or unwilling to respond, then when my name is called or I am addressed, I will answer to it.

I am assuming here that an 'other' dimension exists 'out there' as it were. But it is also possible that this Otherworld is not outside but inside us. The psychologist Carl Jung thought of the gods and goddesses as archetypal forces within our collective psyche. Modern science has begun to investigate the workings of the brain by neuro-imaging and seems to be coming to the conclusion that supernatural experiences are merely the result of physiological processes. For instance, apparently 80% of people experience being aware of an unseen presence when areas of their brain are stimulated by artificial means. Job done, the conclusion seems to be, it's all just the brain causing illusory sensations. But this seems to me just to lead to more questions. What is stimulating those areas of the brain when there is no human intervention? What effect does increasing blood supply to that area of the brain have? Might it enhance certain functions and abilities, the perception of unseen presences for instance?

Neuro-imaging has discovered that people in meditation are able to diminish the flow of blood to the parietal lobes - the area of the brain that is associated with orientating ourselves and awareness of stimuli among other things. Again, this seems to lead scientists to the same conclusion - that the feeling of loss of ego and merging with the timeless is only a sensation caused by physiology. But what might we be able to tune into when some of the parts of the brain that help us to be aware of our surroundings are switched off? Relieved of the distraction, perhaps the area of our brain that allows us to experience another way of being is enhanced, rather like when you are trying to hear someone speaking against loud music from a radio; when it is switched off, what the other person is saying can be heard more easily.

It does seem possible that when we are relating to something that seems to be outside of ourselves we are actually simply relating to an area of ourselves that is out of our conscious access. In my consideration of the mysterious way that poetry sometimes appears I am aware of the huge role that the unconscious part of the mind plays. Yet consciousness itself is still a mystery and it's possible that the unconscious mind is in some way connected to another dimension.

I tend to think that the brain and the conscious and unconscious mind are not a closed system. My reasons for this are rather "fluffy" and purely the result of intuition. For one thing, the awareness of other beings or presences or energies are often activated by certain places or natural phemonena in the natural world, and for another, I expect some people reading this will have had the experience, as I have, when in a certain heightened state or simply a state of well-being and good functioning, of coincidences, opportunities and luck coming into one's life and moving us forward in tune with our path in life. At those times the outside world seems to be participating in our reality to give us a helping hand. Well, as I said, this is "fluffy" but that is the experience!

All this may seem "wondrous strange", as Horatio said of the ghost of Hamlet's father. It is strange. So is quantum physics - so strange in fact that even quantum theorists don't really understand what is going on, they can only explain the phenomena. Quantum reality defies common-sense, is at odds with Newtonian science and even logic - one of the mainstays of science - has to be modified: quantum logic is known as 3-valued logic because as well as 'true' and 'false' it has to also posit 'maybe'.

The "many worlds" interpretation of reality states that at every act of measurement of quantum phenomena by a human being, the physical universe divides into separate universes. Apparently a majority of quantum physicists believe this is true...

I'm not saying that I think quantum reality is the unseen realm - I'm just saying it's very strange, only recently discovered and beyond the ability of the best scientific minds to totally understand. So I don't really have a problem with imagining and relating to another reality which isn't yet, or ever will be perhaps, compatible with scientific thinking.

William James, 1842-1910, the American psychologist and philosopher, had some interesting things to say in his lectures on The Varieties of Religious Experience. For instance: "Yet the unseen region in question is not merely ideal for it produces effects in this world. When we commune with it, work is actually done upon our finite personality, for we are turned into new men, and consequences in the way of conduct follow in the natural world upon our regenerative change. But that which produces effects within another reality must be termed a reality itself, so I feel as if we had no philosophic excuse for calling the unseen or mystical world unreal." His approach was ultimately pragmatic, as is mine, and I agree entirely with the personal statement he makes at the end of the lectures:

"The whole drift of my education goes to persuade me that the world of our present consciousness is only one out of many worlds of consciousness that exist, and that those other worlds must contain experiences which have meaning for our life also, and that, in the main although their experiences and those of this world keep discrete, yet the two become continuous at certain points, and higher energies filter in. By being faithful in my poor measure to this over-belief, I seem to keep myself more sane and true..."


Next time I'll write about the particular story I embrace as my sacred instrument for relating to the Otherworld - the story of Brigit.

Sunday, 29 August 2010

Some images of St Brigit in Wales

As I mentioned in my last post, I visited the church of Llansantffraid ym Mechain on my way to Sheffield a couple of weeks ago. The church has been much enlarged and altered since its 12th century beginnings, and walking into it, with the mellow light seeping in from the yellow glass window behind the altar, I had the impression of a large and welcoming cave. The picture in the east window is divided into three, with St Bride on the right hand of the king of heaven. She is shown as a nun with a bible and crozier, traditionally carried by bishops and abbots.

Here she is in more detail, courtesy of Paul Williment's excellent site dedicated to Brigit.

On the south wall there is a window with the heading 'Charity', given by Isabel Cumberland in 1928. On my last visit, the then vicar's wife told me that it shows St Brigit. She appears here dressed in rich robes, holding an apple. The story about Brigit and the apples illustrating her charity appears in the 9th century Bethu Brigte, translated by Donnchadh Ó hAodha, and is as follows:

Once she was hurrying on the bank of the Inny. There were many apples and sweet sloes in that church. A certain nun gave her a small gift in a basket of bark. When she brought [it] into the house, lepers came at once into the middle of the house to beg of her. ‘Take’, said she, ‘yonder apples’, Then she who had presented the apples [said]: ‘I did not give the gift to lepers.’ Brigit was displeased and said: ‘You act wrongly in prohibiting gifts to the servants of God; therefore your trees shall never bear any fruit.’ And the donor, on going out, sees that all at once her garden bore no fruit, while shortly before it had abundant fruits. And it remains barren for ever, except for foliage.
Another virgin brought her apples and sweet sloes in large quantities. She gave [them] immediately to some lepers who were begging. ‘She who brought it will be sound’, said Brigit. ‘O nun, bless me and my garden.’ ‘May God indeed bless’, said Brigit, ‘that big tree yonder which I see in your garden; may there be sweet apples on it, and sweet sloes as to one third; and that twofold fruit shall not be lacking from it and its offshoots.’ And thus it was done. As the nun went into her garden she saw the alder tree with its fruit, and sweet sloes on it as to one third.

I sat in the pew beside this window and looked towards the window behind the altar. There is a partial screen separating the nave from the chancel where the choir stalls, the altar and the window are and it effectively separates the congregation or audience from the participants in the service. It made me think about religion as performance and I wondered what it would be like to be present in that church on a sunny morning with light streaming through the window and the choir singing.

Apparently the first decorative windows appeared in Christian churches around 348 - 410 AD and are mentioned by Prudentius. Stained glass was brought into Britain via Gaulish churches and the earliest evidence goes back to 675 AD. The Gothic period saw the construction of the great cathedrals of Europe and stained-glass windows really came into their own then. Abbot Suger of the Abbey of St. Denis rebuilt his church in one of the first examples of the Gothic style. He brought in craftsmen to make the glass, believing that beautiful objects would lift people's souls closer to God. I considered how wonderful it would be to build a shrine to Brigit, Goddess of Poetry, Healing and Smithcraft, and commission a beautifully-coloured stained-glass window, aligned to the south...

After the 16th-century Reformation in Britain many stained-glass windows were destroyed because of the condemnation of idolatry but they were re-introduced during the 19th century Gothic revival.


My visit to Llansantffraid ym Mechain was rather hurried as I was on my way to Sheffield and wanted to get to the motorway before the rush hour. But a week later I went down the coast about 10 miles to the village of Llanon for a more leisurely visit to another church dedicated to Brigit, with the alternative spelling of Llansantffraed.

The day I went had started in a very mundane way with a trip to the Co-op to do the weekly shopping. When I'd finished the sky was beginning to brighten and on the spur of the moment I decided that it would be a good time to go and take a picture of the window in Llanon. What ensued was a lovely and rather magical experience, the sort you can never plan for but which sometimes appear like a visitation of grace. By the time I arrived at the church the sun had come out and the sky was blue. I'd bought a sandwich and went into the churchyard where there was a convenient bench leaning against the wall; there I ate my lunch while butterflies chased each other over the grave stones and a young buzzard flew overhead. Tucked away at the back of the village next to the sea, the feeling of peace was tangible and soothing.

After sitting for a while, I went into the church and took several pictures of the double window which depicts St Brigit and St Non with her son, David, the patron saint of Wales. St Ffraed is shown as 'St Ffraed, Leian', St Brigit the nun, and appears with a cow and a bowl of milk. Above her is a swan to match the dove, the emblem of St David, which is above St Non in her window. St Ffraed's robe is blue, the wimple lilac and the effect is of simplicity, unlike the robe she is wearing in the Llansantffraid ym Mechain window - the difference perhaps in iconography between 1928 and 1971 when this window was dedicated. Certainly the feeling I was given by the Llansantffraid ym Mechain windows was of Christ and the saints as formal, remote and distinctly aristocratic while these presented a much more accessible and approachable image!

The Llansantffraed double window commemorates the rare phenomenon of two female saints in one parish. According to a leaflet in the church, the remains of an old chapel dedicated to Non are thought to be in the village. The ruins are claimed to be that of the Chapel-of-Ease. Like Llansantffraed church this would have originally been a monastically-based Celtic worshipping cell. It ceased to flourish after medieval times but was affiliated to Llansantffraed church as late as the beginning of the 18th century. According to The Lives of the British Saints, a conventual foundation of St Ffraid's was said to have existed about a mile north of Llanrhystyd, on the coast, a little to the north of Llanon.

The St Non's Chapel near St David's in Pembrokeshire which I visited a few years ago, has windows representing not only St Non but also St Ffraid and St Winifred, as well as a statue of Mary with her baby son, so it has a strong feminine presence. I'll post some photos of it another time.

The stone font in the Llansantffraed church is rather lovely; it is described as 'peculiarly decorated' in the church leaflet and is probably the oldest object in the church.

The little church inside has the feel of a chapel, white-washed and simple, although the windows are colourful and rich. The east window shows the risen Christ (as, in fact, does the Llansantffraid ym Mechain church); in the Llanon window he is standing in front of a cross holding out his arms, palms upwards. Apparently this is unusual as most east windows show scenes from the Crucifixion. As the leaflet available in the church highlights, it focuses on the wonder of the Easter message and I prefer this, to the emphasis on suffering and death of the Crucifixion.

After spending some time looking around and reading the notice-board I went and sat outside on the wall, to read the leaflet. Suddenly there was a resounding tap, tap, tap. I looked up, expecting to find that someone was on the other side of the hedge hammering, but to my surprise saw a song thrush only a few feet away beating a snail against a stone on top of the wall to get at the fleshy part inside, something I've never witnessed before. The thrush seemed to have a little hideaway in the hedge with an opening out beside her anvil stone and I guessed she'd used it before to prepare her lunch. This bird with its lovely song and connection with anvils seemed an appropriate one to come across in relation to Brigit.

Photograph © Debbie Bozkurt

The Ceredigion coastal path runs alongside the church and I hope to go back with a picnic and explore a little way along it before the summer is over. In fact I decided that I'd return to the church again - using it as a place to go and talk to Brigit at special times, perhaps when I feel the need to connect with the qualities attributed to her as saint. I find that making a special journey, however short, makes the occasion more potent.

Partly what was special about this visit was that it reminded me of several rather similar visits on sun-filled days to sacred places in Ireland. The west coast of Wales is reminiscent of the west of Ireland - and there were many links between the two countries along the seaways in times past. Llanon was once the home to a ship-building works and there are many grave stones in the churchyard bearing witness to this.

I was reluctant to leave but eventually set off back up the coast. On the way I saw a sign advertising strawberry cream teas and drove a few mile up into the hills to sit outside in the sun (and wind) looking out over the green fields and hills while I drank tea and ate scones with jam and cream. They weren't as good as Uncle Leo's but the presentation and setting made up for it!

While gazing out over the Welsh landscape I pondered the nature of my relationship with Brigit as both goddess and saint... but more of that next time.

Three more good things: scones, the beauty of the landscape and one's own company.

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Sunny days in cafés

Well, I haven’t got on very well with my piece about St Ffraid… I changed a sentence and went to the university library to get a copy of The Holy Wells of Wales but that was it for last week. Ah well, I still like to have a plan, even if I don't stick to them.

However I did have an enjoyable time socialising. I’ve been to my favourite café – Uncle Leo’s Ice-cream Emporium – with friends a few times. They serve tea there in old-fashioned teapots with china cups and saucers and plates that don’t match. I tend to like things that don’t match; I seem to have an overall bias towards diversity.

Their tiny scones with cream and home-made jam are delicious and they also have Victoria sponge which is currently my favourite cake (it used to be carrot cake).

Because there were some sunny afternoons I took a book outside to read - Dark Speech: The Performance of Law in Early Ireland by Robin Chapman Stacey. You can’t separate the law from poets and poetry in early Ireland so every chapter is packed with information and insights that I found quite thrilling (sad but true). There is a lot about rosc – the archaic non-syllabic verse which is interspersed with the prose in the Cauldron of Poesy text – so that will help me to sharpen up and bring into a better focus what I have said about it in the first part of my article - which I thought I had finished!

I also went to see the film Wild Target which I enjoyed – it was a British action comedy, rather like the old Ealing comedies. In fact it was a bit like The Ladykillers which is one of my favourite films.

Wild Target
Uploaded by moviestune. - Classic TV and last night's shows, online.

I also went up to Sheffield for an unexpected visit to my son and his family. As the journey takes me through Llansantffraid ym Mechain I was able to call in at the church – which I last visited about 12 years ago. I wanted to take a picture of the windows showing St Ffraid to add to my web article. I plan to go down the coast a few miles this week if it isn't raining and take another photo of the window at Llansantffraid church, Llanon. I’ll post them next time.

Meanwhile, back to the café – I have a plan to meet up with a friend and go there for a quiche one evening. Then it’s less than a stone’s throw over the road to the Victoria Inn where we can have some Guinness and sit on the beach. How wonderful it is to live so near the seaside! I hope to get on with the writing again this week though…

Three of my favourite things: tea, cake and discussion.

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

At the time of first fruits

At this time of first fruits I thought I'd write about various projects I've been working on lately. I've been feeling frustrated that none of them have ripened into fruition but perhaps it is better to look at it another way - as the work so far being the first tender fruits.

The Cauldron of Poetry is is the most important; I’ve been working on it for nearly a year on and off and have been intrigued by this Irish text about cauldrons and poetry for well over a decade. It's going to be in three parts and I have actually finished the first draft of the first part - the most challenging for me. It is an exposition of the text. The second part will look at the symbol of the Celtic cauldron and the meanings that have accrued to it. I have this in note form.

The third part is not yet started – it will look at how some of the ideas of the first two parts – as well as some other ideas and practices of early poetry – may be used today. I expect this part to be the easiest and most exciting as it will flow from what has come before and won’t involve checking facts and referring to other texts all the time.

There were times when I really questioned why I was working on this, what on earth was the purpose of it. But at one point, reading around the subject, I had a moment of epiphany when I felt that my spiritual life and my poetic life were beginning to converge and this writing about the Cauldron was part of the journey to that union. Whether this will turn out to be the case or not, I’m not sure. Sometimes these intense moments of inspiration are not realised – but obviously I still have to follow it to its conclusion and see what happens.

St Brigit in Wales: Sant Ffraid - I decided to write about Sant Ffraid because I was looking on-line to give a link to some information about her on my web site and found very little. In theory this piece of work shouldn’t take very long as I have most of the information I need. In theory!

Poetry and the Otherworld: this is a working title and is almost written but exists only in my head – nothing on paper yet except some quotes from modern poets which I’ve collected. It’s about where poetry comes from and why early societies connected it with seership and the Otherworld. Sometimes today poets report that they hear poems which appear mysteriously. I’ve had this experience myself many times and part of the piece will describe a personal experience of working with Malidoma Somé, an initiated elder of the Dagara tribe of Burkina Faso, Africa. I wanted to attend some of his workshops after reading his books and thinking that the Dagara were a people actually living a lot of the practices of the early Celts (and their more recent folklore traditions). I had my most complete experience of a ‘received’ poem during this time, as well as gaining other insights into a possible connection between poetry and seership in early societies.

There are more articles I've planned or researched or started to write but these are the three I want to concentrate on and then I intend to have a break from prose and non-fiction and spend more time on poetry.

I've a busy week this week, mostly socialising! But I hope to finish the piece on Sant Ffraid - I'll update my progress next week. It would be lovely to say I'd finished it and then I could move on... What I should like to do then is finish Poetry and the Otherworld and the second part of the Cauldron by Calan Gaeaf/Samhain. There's a plan... I always like to have a plan...

Saturday, 24 July 2010

Collected Poems by Frances Horovitz

"Celtic Gods Celtic Goddesses" by R.J.Stewart, artwork Miranda Gray. Copyright worldwide

An Old Man Remembers

‘…and Gwydion and Math made for Lleu Llaw Gyffes a wife out of the flowers of the oak, the broom and the meadowsweet and her name was Blodeuedd. And when she betrayed her husband with Gronw Bebyr, Lord of Penllyn, for punishment she was turned into an owl…’

in this valley she walked
I remember
a woman with the smell of wind in her hands
walking at nightfall in the floating dusk
veiled in the petals of an early spring

they say she was made of flowers
flowers yellow and white
of spring and summer
and drifted away on wind and water
when the shape spell dissolved

certain she was a flower in our valley
her breasts were flowers red and white
and her eyes and the scent of her
and certain there was never a warm child in her arms

but she lay in her lord's bed and was loved
she bore him his cup and his meat
gold was given her, white linen
and many songs by the firelight
of longing and pride

the valley contained us
a flower for a queen
lust swelled our harp strings
we grew fat on our dream

now I remember
her shadow swims clear
there was blood in the valley
a stranger
blood in the bowl and the spring
red sullied white
two lives destroyed
and white petals scattered
in a cold racing wind

some say of that frail woman of flowers
her love turned her to owl's wings
and lonely now in the valley
with foxes and ravens she rules

and certain at nightfall
when the owls cry out
I think I see her clear
a white shape on the hill
-but this is an old man's longing
a shadow, a dream
a memory of harp-song and flowers
and a fair woman walking in the spring

from Frances Horovitz, Collected Poems (Bloodaxe Books, 1985)

* * *

This rather haunting poem brings us to a new relationship with the Blodeuedd story, giving an eye-witness account which brings the events a little closer while looking at them from a new perspective.

The poems in the collection could be said in general to show us a connected world whether they portray human relationships – a lover, a husband, a son; the natural world of leaf and bird, of bone and stream; the dead; the ancient sacred places such as West Kennet Long Barrow and the Uffington White Horse or the myths that are part of human culture. All are evoked with an imaginative intensity which dissolves time and distance and is never sentimental or trite.

I first came across Frances Horovitz in an anthology of love poems from the sixties. Her poems stood out as being more subtle and sometimes thought-provoking than many of the others which often had a certain exuberance and crudity perhaps typical of the subject at that time. In Loving You, reprinted in this collection, the poet moves “as soft as old silk” in the room where her lover is, but an elongated line almost mid-way through the poem, standing out starkly in contrast to the rest, startles us when the poet declares: ‘I could mark you through to the bone’ before retreating and deciding to walk gently “soft as silk/loving you”.

I like the edginess, the feeling of danger that pervades many of the poems. Humans have the power to hurt each other, even if they will do none. Nature too is as cruel and as kind as humans are. There is an honesty here which doesn’t avoid these realities but offers us a richness of experience and an elemental beauty as compensation.

More often than not the landscape holds some kind of threat; in Crow the bird is ‘a dark spy in the land’, in Journey ‘the leaves are black/ and grab at my face’ while in Winter Woods “our warm blood stills/ the sun is livid in exile/ we have encroached -/ this is not yet our land”. But sometimes too the natural world offers solace as when soapwort and figwort act ‘as torch and talisman against the coming dark’ in Flowers or when ‘Bird-song and water bear away grief’ in Old Song. And among the last poems Frances wrote before her early death at 45, is the beautiful Evening where, as she waits for the ‘lessons of grief and light’ she sees the luminous hills and knows there will be the holly tree, the hawthorn, mistletoe and the thronging foxgloves, sees also the bluebells ‘heaped in a pot/ still hold their blue against the dark’.

One of my favourites in the Collection is the Poem Found at Chesters Museum, Hadrian’s Wall. I have visited this museum with my son and particularly noted the inscriptions which the poet has so skilfully heard and made into a poem here: the invocation of the gods and goddesses, the catalogues of tools, like incantations, identifying the roles of men and women and finally the faltering of the inscriptions as the past fades and moves beyond our reach. You can hear Frances Horovitz read it herself here on the Bloodaxe web site, along with four other of her poems, including Flowers, mentioned above. She was renowned for her reading of poetry, possessing, as her publisher Bloodaxe says, “a rare ability to hear a poem and become its voice”. In her reading of this poem, its true power is beautifully revealed. [The new edition of her Collected Poems, 2011, comes with a CD.]

The other thing I think special about this collection is the voice of the mother and her young son glimpsed through several of the poems – a relationship not often sustained in poetry collections. The Letter to My Son written not long before her death, is heart-breakingly poignant and the final resolve is wise advice to any parent on letting go of their child:

“- and this, your early body, soul and mind,
hold me to myself
when all else falls apart.
These memories are mine:
The rest of you I let go free,
my child who will be a man.

So many of the things I find most important in life are here, the intricacies of our relationship with landscape and the natural world, other human beings, the past and present, our own myths. And more than that – it is a rare collection because it lets us follow the poet to a place where few poetry collections go – almost to the last moments of life. Her husband, the poet Roger Garfitt, has bravely and judiciously included her last poems in a section entitled Unfinished Poems and Fragments. Wilson Ward sparsely describes a fellow inmate of the hospital, the aptly named Mrs Rivers, who floats out of the world, leaving everything behind as we all must do; the final poem, Orcop Haiku, leaves us with a brief glimpse of the view from her September window as she lay, confined to bed, but still engaging with the landscape beyond.

The images are spare but rich, sometimes haiku-like, evoking the beauty and precariousness of life, and there is wisdom here too. As James Wood commented in The Times, “One is reminded, gratefully, of John Updike’s appreciation of Wallace Stevens: “What a good use of life, to leave behind one beautiful book."

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

Callanish Haibun

The Callanish Stones: a haibun by Noragh Jones

On the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides an old woman tells me tales of the Callanish Stones dancing on Midsummer Eve. In the white nights of the far north the great circle of stone beings awakes and honours the ancestors entombed in these red moss bogs. As midnight nears, the giant stones shift and stir for one short night of celebration. Before dawn they are back in their ancient places, for on Midsummer Day they guide the rising sun down their stone road to light up the innermost heart of the stone circle.

watched by mild-eyed cows
the lurching stones
do their highland fling

* * *

A fine drizzle is falling. In the midsummer glow that is neither sunlight nor moonlight I enter the stone circle and walk around aimlessly, wondering where to take my place and wait for the witching hour. I watch myself keeping to the edge and avoiding the tall centre stone. Tribal memories of human sacrifice? In the end I prop myself against what I hope is an unassuming stone outside the main circle. I drink coffee from my Thermos flask. I take deep breaths and try to meditate, but the pull of the awakening stones is too strong. I look skywards. A lively south westerly has risen and is chasing the clouds across the darkened moon.

shifting shadows
stone beings hunkered
on the black bog

Five minutes to midnight. I feel the hairs on the back of my neck prickling. Soon I’m shivering all over. The stone ones don’t want me here on this night of all nights. And I don’t want to be here either. If I will myself to stay I’ll be a madwoman by dawn? Well, maybe only the hair turning white overnight? Who knows?

Fingers numb, I pack my rucksack and make for the road. My feet sink in the gripping bog. The wind tears at me, forcing me back with every step forward. The light that is neither day nor night deceives me. Are the stones really dancing there across the red moss? And what if I joined them? Teeth chattering, I drag my puny self away from the power of the circle, till I am more or less an ordinary human being again.

Such loss, such gain…

When I look back from the safety of the tarmac the familiar moor has already gone. And in its place?

reeling planets
the dancing stones
are juggling sun and moon

From Stone Circles: Haiku and Haiku Prose by Noragh Jones

Thursday, 24 June 2010

Gŵyl Ifan: A Welsh midsummer festival

Free nature photos

Gŵyl Ifan,
the Festival of St. John the Baptist on June 24th, was the midsummer festival traditionally celebrated in Wales. It was one of the three ysprydnos or spirit nights when the world of the supernatural was closest to ours (the others being Nos Galan Gaeaf on 31st October and Nos Galan Mai, or Nos Galan Haf, on 30th April).

Three key elements of this calendar festival were: y fedwen haf, (the summer birch), the bonfire and the herb St John’s Wort.

Y fedwen haf

Reports of this custom come principally from Glamorgan although there are others from as far apart as Anglesey and Carmarthenshire. The birch was raised on the eve of St John’s Day and, according to one account by the blind poet, William Roberts, from the eighteenth century, the pole was adorned with colourful pictures and the young women decorated it with golden wreaths covered with ribbons. On the top was a weather-cock with gold feathers and ribbons on its tail and underneath that was a floating banner. Much dancing and merriment took place around the birch.

Y fedwen haf from the summer dance festival, Cardiff
see the Gŵyl Ifan website

There was a tradition of ‘the theft of the birch’, by which villagers from a neighbouring parish would try to steal the pole, so that the presence of strong youths was required to guard it. The theft of the birch had serious consequences because it was seen as a huge disgrace and no birch could be raised again until another had been stolen to replace it.

The bonfire

A bonfire was as central to the celebrations as it was at the festival of Calan Mai. Marie Trevelyan describes it vividly:

"Three or nine different kinds of wood and the charred faggots carefully preserved from the previous midsummer were necessary to build this fire, which was generally done on rising ground. Into this fire various herbs were thrown, and girls with bunches of three or nine different kinds of flowers would take the offered hands of boys who wore flowers in their buttonholes and hats, and jump together over the midsummer fire. Wild merrymakings these were, and the young people threw the flowers from their posies, hats, hair, and buttonholes into the heart of the flame. Roses and wreaths of various flowers were hung over the doors and windows on St John’s Eve and Day."

If anyone – human or animal – were to jump over the fire on St John’s Day, they were thought to be given immunity against fever and disease for a year.

Trefor M. Owen relates that the origin of these bonfires was in fires of actual bones (hence bone-fire) where the position of the bones after burning was used for divination purposes.

St John’s Wort

The plant known as St John’s Wort was widely revered in Celtic countries. In the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, it was spoken of in terms normally used for noble lords and chieftains as allail, 'of great renown', or loinneil, 'splendid', 'elegant'. The plant was thus honoured and while picking it the person would also recite the purpose it was required for and the intent in taking it, according to the Carmina Gadelica. In Wales it is known as dail y fendigaid or 'the blessed one’s leaf', and llys Ieuan, 'John’s herb'. As you can see from the picture above it is five-petalled, golden yellow with prominent stamens reminiscent of rays of the sun. The stamen, it should be noted, is the flower’s male reproductive organ which produces pollen.

St John’s Wort was put over the doors of houses to keep evil spirits away (mugwort was an alternative if it could not be found) and if gathered at noon on St John’s Day was considered to be effective against many illnesses.

Divination was practised as at the time of the other ysprydnos, since messages and influences could leak through from the Otherworld. Commonly, these divinations concerned the length of life and the likelihood of marriage. One way of divining the length of life using St John’s Wort, even as late as the middle of the nineteenth century, is given again by Marie Trevelyan:

"Take as many St John’s worts as there are people in the house. Clean these free of dust and fly, and hang them on the rafters of the room. Each wort was named after an individual. Those whose plants wither first, die first."

She also tells us that to forecast marriage, spinsters used to make a wreath or garland with nine different kinds of flowers. Then, while walking backwards, they would try to throw the garlands onto a tree. The number of times it fell to the ground represented the number of years they would remain unmarried.

Alexei Kondratiev states that in Brittany the place of the St John’s Wort was taken by the aour-yeotenn or ‘golden herb’ which shines like the sun in the dark on St John’s Eve and at no other time. Mysteriously, it could only be seen by those with the gift of seership. It is possible that this magical herb was actually the St John’s Wort seen in a symbolic or mystical way.


Trefor M. Owen, The Customs and Traditions of Wales. University of Wales Press, Cardiff, 1991.
Trefor M. Owen, Welsh Folk Customs. Gomer Press, Llandysul, 1987
Marie Trevelyan, Folk-lore and Folk-stories of Wales, EP Publishing Limited, Wakefield, 1973
Alexei Kondratiev, The Apple Branch. The Collins Press, Cork, 1998

Thursday, 17 June 2010

Monoecious silence and other nonsense

Arrowhead (Sagittaria Sagittifolia): a monoecious plant
from the book "Wayside And Woodland Blossoms", by Edward Step

I recently did an exercise by Karen Swenson from the book The Practice of Poetry. It consisted of choosing unfamiliar words from a dictionary, assigning different parts of speech to them and using them in a poem. The object of the exercise was to concentrate more on sound than on meaning. Here is my attempt:

In dargion safety the sparrow lings softly,
as the orphrey, shallooning his wings,
ginks and clacks to the Trisagion west.
Coffling wanly the niblick sinks
into the monoecious silence.

I found it interesting that ‘orphrey’ (actually an ornamental border on ecclesiastical vestments) must have subconsciously reminded me of osprey and led me to turn it into a bird - showing how we may be influenced by similar sounds to infer meaning, often without realising it.

I liked the phrase 'into the monoecious silence' and wondered if I could recycle it to use in another poem. The dictionary told me it meant, as a biological term, 'with unisex male and female organs' and as a zoological term, 'hermaphrodite'. "Ah", I said to myself, "that won't work then!" But no sooner had I thought that than my mind did a little hop, skip and jump (the way it does) and informed me: "A monoecious silence is one which is sufficient unto itself". And, yes, in a poem you could say that, since poetry isn't wholly subordinate to the structures of meaning that would pin words down… It's one of the reasons I like poetry so much - the alchemy of sound, meaning and association; the mental gymnastics.

This set me thinking about Noam Chomsky's sentences:
1. Colorless green ideas sleep furiously
2. Furiously sleep ideas green colorless.

Chomsky said “It is fair to assume that neither sentence (1) nor (2) (nor indeed any part of these sentences) has ever occurred in an English discourse. Hence, in any statistical model for grammaticalness, these sentences will be ruled out on identical grounds as equally "remote" from English. Yet (1), though nonsensical, is grammatical, while (2) is not grammatical.”

People have tried, successfully, to incorporate the first sentence into a prose piece, drawing on the several meanings of the words. There is this, for instance, by C.M. Street:

"It can only be the thought of verdure to come, which prompts us in the autumn to buy these dormant white lumps of vegetable matter covered by a brown papery skin, and lovingly to plant them and care for them. It is a marvel to me that under this cover they are labouring unseen at such a rate within to give us the sudden awesome beauty of spring flowering bulbs. While winter reigns the earth reposes but these colourless green ideas sleep furiously."

The second sentence is not so easy to use in prose, being ungrammatical, but it doesn’t present too much difficulty for poetry. For example, off the top of my head:

Across the pale defeated hills
furiously sleep ideas,
green colourless.

Poetry does not depend upon grammar to quite the extent that prose does. It incorporates other ways of understanding than by logical processes. The evocation of emotions and intuitions from the varied meanings of words and their sounds, from their echoes and resonances, means that poems may even incorporate contradiction –“green colourless” - and paradox and still convey something meaningful. T. S. Eliot said that “Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood” and this partly explains how. The right brain is engaged as well as the logical left brain.

Jung has talked about the rush of psychic energy that symbols may give us, caused by the conjunction of different images; their union releases an insight, making us go “Aha!” I think the same psychic charge occurs when the mind does that little hop, skip and jump in order to go outside the usual structures of meaning and expand its understanding when confronted by words used in uncommon and uncharacteristic ways. Which is why I think poetry is often more exciting than prose...

Saturday, 29 May 2010

Night at Rhosybeddau

I was afraid of the night
as of an enemy,
but first was the moon
shining on his dark face
and as he drew near
I saw the birds of dawn
lay sleeping in his wild black hair.

“Don't be afraid”, he said,
"for the golden flame of the sun
has touched your heart,
and there I may not enter.”

I wonder now,
if that glow should ever fail,
would the birds of dawn
sleep in my hair?
Would the moon
illuminate my face?

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Hags, cranes and hammers

Photo by John Eagle

Writing about the sour-apple hag reminded me that I’d meant to tidy up and put on my web site an account of a journey I made in 1997 to visit the Hag of Beara in Ireland. It describes visiting some special places on the Beara Peninsula as well as musing about my own mid-life journey through the rather uncomfortable hinterland between the ages of mother and the hag. So here it is at: Pilgrimage to the Hag of Beara

I used Noragh Jones’ Meditations for Hag Sacred Sites on the Beara Peninsula as a template for the journey and posted that as well. If you are not able to go to the Beara Peninsula it can still work as a guided meditation for the mid-life journey: Meditations for a Hag Pilgrimge

I also ruminated a bit more about the old woman as spinner and winder of yarn, remembering the three hags in the Irish tale of Finn in The Enchanted Cave of Keshcorran. In the story Finn and his band were hunting in Northern Connacht and so incurred the wrath of Conaran, a Danaan lord, who sent his three daughters to capture them:

"Finn, it is said, and Conan the Bald, with Finn's two favourite hounds… came upon the mouth of a great cavern, before which sat three hags of evil and revolting aspect. On three crooked sticks of holly they had twisted left-handwise hanks of yarn, and were spinning with these when Finn and his followers arrived. To view them more closely the warriors drew near, when they found themselves suddenly entangled in strands of the yarn which the hags had spun about the place like the web of a spider, and deadly faintness and trembling came over them, so that they were easily bound fast by the hags and carried into the dark recesses of the cave. Others of the party then arrived, looking for Finn. All suffered the same experience - they lost all their pith and valour at the touch of the bewitched yarn, and were bound and carried into the cave, until the whole party were laid in bonds, with the dogs baying and howling outside." (Silva Gadelica, Standish Hayes O'Grady)

Like the Greek Fates, these three old women are connected with spinning yarn. In this case it is enchanted yarn, having been spun left-handwise, against the course of the sun and hung on holly sticks. The association of hags and spinning yarn, as I surmised in my last hag post, does seem a natural one. Spinning and winding the yarn could be an occupation suited to elderly women since it doesn't require too much exertion or mobility – and it was a skill which was essential to the well-being of the community since it provided the means to make cloth for clothing, blankets, hammocks, bags, rugs, baby-carriers and so on. As an Irish triad says: "Three slender things that best support the world - the slender stream of milk from the cow’s dug into the pail, the slender blade of green corn upon the ground, the slender thread over the hand of a skilled woman." These crafts are believed to be among the earliest and most primitive invented: there is evidence of woven articles from Turkey and Mesopotamia 7000 to 8000 BC.

It was a way in which the grandmothers could have been ‘economically viable’ and earned their keep. I can imagine it being quite pleasant – women perhaps getting together and working while chatting, gossiping and… spinning a few yarns. Some of the matters of the community were no doubt chewed over and some things set in train that might well have affected the fate of some of its members – marriages decided upon, a word here and there in the ear of a son or son-in-law about the suitability of someone for this task or that.

The Grandmother Hypothesis suggests that there is some evolutionary advantage for women having such a long post-fertile period; that there is some 'genetic intention' for postmenopausal women. Some anthropologists believe that the human species took a leap forward when people started living long enough for grandmothers to survive and be able to look after the children – thus freeing their sons and daughters to do other work: hunting, gathering, building shelters, fetching water and so on. Others dispute the hypothesis, arguing that the grandmother herself would use up resources that could be used for new young. But perhaps spinning, winding yarn and weaving were also their contribution?

There is evidence from all over the world of old people being dispatched or abandoned when they became a burden by consuming resources without contributing anything in return. David Rorie gives some interesting examples from Scotland, England and Brittany which suggest that once violent acts may have given way to ritual and incantation. Also interesting is the association with cranes. In Easter Alves, in Morayshire, there is an account of ‘ringing the Millen Bridle’ – a method by which the death of a sick old woman was hastened. It seems likely from the account that the Bridle – whatever it was, for the word in Scottish may refer to a particular piece of wood used in carpentry or the piece of iron fastened on the end of a beam of a plough as well as the more familiar meaning – was kept by a guardian and during the ‘ringing’ of it, a magical formula was recited:

Cran’s flesh or wran’s flesh
Come oot thy way.

Campbell, in The Superstitions of the Scottish Highlands recounts that if someone is thought to have lived too long and it is desirable to get rid of them, their death may be brought about by shouting three times through the key-hole of his room:

Will you come, or will you go?
Or will you eat the flesh of cranes?

Anne Ross states that according to Julius Caesar in the first century BC the ancient Britons refused to eat the flesh of cranes in case it had been human in an earlier life and Giraldus Cambrensis (12th cent.) observed the same taboo in Ireland.

In Brittany there is a report of an elaborate ceremony to hasten the end of an old person by use of er mel béniguet, the holy hammer. The beadle of the chapel was the guardian of the hammer which was kept in the recess of the church wall. When it was brought to the sick person’s house, the oldest person, a woman, held the stone to her chest, bent by the weight of it, and made the sign of the cross with her right hand three times and then raised the stone above her head: “waving it and saying: ‘Mathô-Talen, for the last time commit they soul to God, for here is what will relieve thee from the agonies of death, and lift from thee the burdens of life’. The ends of his fingers having been wet with holy water, he slowly made the sign of the Cross with the right arm. Lowering the stone little by little with both hands, she at last placed it gently on his forehead, steadying it with her left. Then again raising her right, she cried in a shrill voice: ‘By the Holy Trinity, in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, thanks to the holy hammer of Saint Meltro, the deliverer of the aged, rest in peace, Mathô-Talon, for thou hast lived well!’ Hardly had she finished when the old man drew his last breath: his limbs stiffened and he gave up the ghost while saying, ‘God be thanked!’” There were known, apparently, several such ‘holy hammers’.

Aubrey gives a similar account from seventeenth century England where a ‘holy mawle’ was hung behind the church door and when a father was seventy and of no more use, the son could fetch the hammer and knock the father on the head with it.

Rorie notes, “the word for hammer or maul (mell) is the same in both Scots and Breton, and it brings us in touch with the ‘millen’ of the ‘bridle’; for ‘to mill’ in the Scottish vernacular, is ‘to give one a beating, to drub’. *

On a rather more heart-warming note, here is an Irish example of a wide-spread folk motif of grandchildren coming to their grandparents’ aid:

'A man had a father who had grown too old to do anything but eat and smoke, so the man decided to send him away with nothing but a blanket. "Just give him half a blanket," said the man's son from his cradle, "then I'll have half to give you when you grow old and I send you away." Upon hearing this, the man quickly reconsidered and allowed his old father to remain after all.' (Irish Folktales, Henry Glassie)
* All accounts above from David Rorie, Folk Tradition and Folk Medicine in Scotland unless specified otherwise.