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

Tuesday, 30 March 2010


I like the word ‘dazlious’ invented by the character, Linda, in the film Snow Cake (see my last blog post). The Urban Dictionary defines ‘dazlious’ as “an exclamation of beauty and awe” and gives a transcript of Linda’s story which puts the word in context:

"Mr Fantastic from the Fantastic Four, he's got arms made of elastic so they can stretch for two, maybe three hundred miles.
He's been imprisoned in a cave for seven days with no food and no water and no light. But on the 8th day he manages to loosen a rock and push his way up through the top and up into the daylight. Just as the sun is coming up over the mountains and filling the sky with this white-yellow light. And there's this stillness, and in the few minutes he's got before his captor, the evil Dr. Doom returns, he stops for just one second. And all he can hear is his own breathing. But he's totally overwhelmed by how big the world is, how small and unimportant he is. And as he turns around you see his face look to the sky and he says very quietly, so that no one can hear him, he says 'Dazlious.'"

I am one of those ‘charmed by cute contrivances like “dezlious” [sic]’ as one critic in the New York Times puts it. Dazlious is a word I have a use for; I seem to find the world increasingly dazlious. When I do, I want to express it and I have a few stand-by lines from various poems that sneak into my mind. If, for instance, the night is full of stars with a bright moon half-hidden by clouds yet illuminating them, I always think of Keats’ lines: “When I behold, upon the night's starr'd face / Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance” and I say them to myself -- it helps for some reason to express my feelings of awe at the beauty and mystery of the night.

At other times, perhaps coming out of the house into a glorious Spring day, early in the morning when the world seems young and fresh, I find Wordsworth’s lines on the French Revolution on the tip of my tongue: “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive/ But to be young was very heaven!” At other times, on a day which just seems full of wonder and possibility I might wave my arms around a bit and recite “ O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay! he chortled in his joy” -- although obviously not when there are people around.

So 'dazlious' is a word I've added to this little repertoire. I think we can say a bit more about it than that it’s an exclamation of beauty and awe. To begin with it’s an adjective. It has the adjectival ending “-ous” which gives the meaning “abounding in, characterised by, of the nature of”. Its root is fairly obviously ‘dazzle’ meaning “to blind temporarily or confuse the sight of by overpowering brightness, tempt or delude or startle by brilliant display or prospect”. So we could say it has the meaning ‘an abundance of being dazzled’. However if we simply added ‘–ous’ to ‘dazzle’ we’d be most likely to get ‘dazzlous’ -- dazz-lus, which sounds very lacklustre, the stress is too even and uninspiring. But with ‘dazlious’, just the addition of the ‘i’, giving the sound i: as in ‘deep’, transforms it into a much more delicious word. It makes us linger over the ‘daz’, stressing it, elongating the word and our experience of it: daz-lee-us. The sound itself is uplifting.

One day last week, having been hunched over the laptop for hours, I decided to go out for a walk. The sun had started to go down behind the hill and there was a hint of frost in the air. As I set off, zipping my coat against the cold, a flock of geese suddenly flew over, heading towards the coast. Because the sun was low in the sky it shone brightly onto their white underparts and as they beat their wings the shafts of light were broken, causing a rhythmic flashing as the geese moved soundlessly across the sky above me. I watched, entranced, until they disappeared into the west. Then, standing in the middle of the lane, my head still turned to the sky, I said, very quietly so that no-one could hear me, “Dazlious!”

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Snow Cake

Snow Cake is one of my favourite films. Not because it has a Welsh director, Marc Evans, or music from Welsh bands Stereophonics and Super Furry Animals or even because Sigourney Weaver and Alan Rickman are in it... although these things certainly contribute.

It’s a drama focused on the friendship between a high-functioning autistic woman, Linda, (Sigourney Weaver) and a man, Alex, (Alan Rickman) who is traumatized after a fatal car accident. I came across it on television one evening and was intrigued by it. Unlike the usual Hollywood films which have fairly predictable patterns of narrative, I didn’t know what this film was going to be about, where it was going, what would happen. The people in it seem as if they could be real people, unlike the polished and air-brushed version of people you habitually see at the cinema. And there was a lot of silence, meaning I had time to observe.

Apart from this, Snow Cake portrays, to some extent at least, the concept that we are all differently-abled. At times the able-bodied/minded characters are completely disabled by their emotions. Linda finds it difficult to form relationships with people but so does her neighbour Maggie. The story suggests that we all have handicaps of one sort or another. Ideally by helping each other we can learn from our differences and enjoy things about each other – but the film doesn’t sentimentalise this or make it look easy. The script was written by Angela Pell who has an autistic child herself.

I love Linda’s invention of ‘Comic Book Scrabble’. In this version of the game the players are allowed to make up words using their available letters. The catch is that they then have to use the word in a story or sentence relating to a Comic Book character.

I’d like to try it out. As well as being fun, I think it would be instructive to play with words and intuit meaning from the way they sound, to employ that part of the brain that makes up stories.

The film finishes on an uplifting note but you know that isn’t the end of it. I think it shows us something about how life is. As Paul Gallico puts it in 'The Lonely':

“For you could be a man [or woman] only when you could be the things you were and face up to the truth without flinching and denying it. And the truth was that in life on earth there was no such thing as happiness without pain, victory without defeat. There was joy and enchantment and beauty to be garnered on the path, but at all times too, there were burdens to be born.”

All the characters, in the parallel universe that fictional characters must surely inhabit, will still have burdens to carry, but they have all garnered some joy and enchantment and beauty along the way and hopefully will continue to do so.

Oh, did I mention it's also funny?

Friday, 5 March 2010

Kings, Druids and Trees: the Virtue of Steadfastness in Audacht Morainn

Audacht Morainn (Testament of Morann) is a 7th century Old Irish text which belongs to the medieval genre of Speculum Principis or Mirror for Princes. These texts were instructions to kings or princes on aspects of rule and behaviour.

In the
Audacht Morainn the judge Morann Mac Moín gives advice to the young king, Feradach Finn. The text mentions fifteen virtues proper to a ruler: Mercy, Justice, Impartiality, Conscience, Firmness, Generosity, Hospitality, Honour, Stability, Beneficence, Capability, Honesty, Eloquence, Steadiness and Truth in Judging. For more on this see Alexei Kondratiev: Virtues from the Audacht Morainn.

I find it interesting that three out of the fifteen which Alexei identifies relate to the quality of steadfastness:

Fossad (modern fosadh) meaning 'steadiness', 'stability';
Sessach (modern seasmhach, from sessmach) meaning 'sturdy', 'strong', 'steadfast' and
Forusta (modern forasta) meaning 'well-grounded', 'sedate', 'composed'. (Alexei states "The noun is forus, modern foras, which originally means ‘established base'.")

To those who are more used to the four Cardinal Virtues of Aristotle and Plato: Temperance, Wisdom, Justice and Courage, and the three Theological Virtues of Faith, Hope and Charity, this emphasis on the value of steadfastness is unusual and thought-provoking. It has been rather overlooked or minimised in more recent times.

Let's look first at the differences between the three.

Fossad, according to Alexei, means literally 'having a seat under oneself', and denotes "consistency and firmness in one's position, not easily swayed by outside opinions." The online Dictionary of the Irish Language (eDIL) gives 'stationary, fixed'.

Sessach, as we have seen, means 'sturdy, strong, steadfast' and the idea, according to Alexei, is someone who stands his ground and is not easily intimidated. There seems little difference between this and fossach, 'firmness in one's position' but I think the principle meanings of sessach, 'sturdy' and 'strong' are the key, emphasising the importance of strength -- here strength of mind which enables one to stick to one's position.

Forusta meaning 'well-grounded' and coming from the idea of 'having an established base' was, according to eDIL, generally used of 'persons experienced, sedate and of settled character'. So the ability to be well-grounded, to have a firm foundation, arises here perhaps from having learnt from experience and become settled and composed, at peace with oneself, sure of oneself.

So consistency and firmness in one’s position, strength of mind, and the ability to learn from experience, giving a firm foundation and enabling one to be settled and composed, are seen as desirable qualities in an Irish ruler and by extension in the ordinary citizen.

Are these qualities which were desirable or necessary to a druid? Our word 'druid' comes in a roundabout way (via Latin and Gaulish) from the hypothetical Common Celtic word *
dru-wid-. "Dru-" can be traced back to the Indo-European root *deru- which means "to be firm, steadfast".
Wid-" goes back to *woid-e (he knows), from the root *weid- (to see). English cognates of *deru- are "true" and "tree", and of *weid- are "wit" and "wise".

One linguist therefore interprets "druid" as meaning "he who has firm or steadfast knowledge". Another interpretation "knower of trees" has less credibility now, I believe. However, in a way they both carry a similar meaning since trees are rooted and therefore firm and steadfast -- hence our words "tree" and "true" from *

As you can see from the picture of the oak at the top, a tree needs to have roots which penetrate almost as deeply into the earth as its branches reach into the sky. It is this rootedness which enables the tree to grow, to flourish and therefore to offer benefits to the environment around it -- from providing food for animals and insects to offering shade and processing oxygen and carbon-dioxide.

Alden Watson, in his article The King, The Poet And The Sacred Tree, asserts: “That the sacred tree [
bile] was intimately connected with the concept of kingship is shown by its presence at the king’s inauguration site.” The tree was seen as being able to shelter the tribe and one, Eó Mugna, was so large it covered not only the whole tribe but also the tribal territory.

The poets, the
fili, were the survivors of the druid class in Ireland. Of five sacred trees mentioned in ancient Irish texts -- Eó Rossa, Eó Mugna, Bile Tortan, Bile Dathi and Craeb Uisnig -- four are associated with poets or their successors, the saints. The poet Bimudine lived by Bile Tortan; Eó Mugna is felled by Ninine or in another account, by a group of poets; Eó Rossa was felled not by a poet but by a saint (the poets’ powers were transferred to the saints in the stories and legends) and Bile Dathi fell on the poet Dathan, killing him.

The right of kingship may have been bound up with the poet and the tree: Ninine felled Eó Mugna because the king had refused something Ninine had asked of him. Generosity was one of the requirements of kingship and poets expected to be well-paid for their services. By felling the tree Ninine was severing Domnall’s right to kingship, showing that the poet was both king-maker and destroyer. That the poet Dathan was killed by Bile Dathi suggests that the sacred tree itself could take away the role of chief poet to one who was found to be unfit.

According to one inaugural ode, it is the poet who hands the rod of kingship to the king at the inauguration site and although the bishop and nobles are present, only poet, king and gate-keeper are granted access to the site. The rod was sometimes described as a hazel wand and the hazel appears elsewhere as the tree of wisdom. Watson attributes wisdom as the quality which is mediated from the tree through the poet to the king but as the sacred tribal trees are not hazels but large trees, ash, oak and yew, I wonder if it is the virtue of steadfastness, with all the nuances we have seen, that are bound up in this sacred three-way relationship. Perhaps the transfer of the hazel wand to the king as a symbol of wisdom is separate from the idea of the

At any rate, as the article concludes, “The sacred tree stood at the center of the religious and symbolic life of the tribe, drawing it together through the relationship of king and poet, from whose association stemmed the order and coherence essential to the very existence of society.”1

As the Buddhist Jack Kornfield states: “The laws that govern wise relationships in politics, marriage, or business are the same as in inner life. Each of these areas requires a capacity for commitment and constancy, for taking the one seat.”


While working with the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids course material on the element Earth at the beginning of the 1990s, I had a vision in my mind’s eye of another benefit of the quality of steadfastness.

I saw an image, as bizarre and instructive as a dream image, of a stone circle. The stones were all upright and connected by an elastic band which held them in tension and harmony. Then as I looked, one of the stones became unstable and began to lean forward. At a certain point this had an effect on the other stones which began to twist this way and that as the harmonious tension between them was lost. At the same time I had the realisation that by keeping grounded and steadfast, in some indefinable way I enabled others to keep or find their stability. If I became unstable, uncertain by leaning or being swayed by others, some essential harmony and uprightness was lost.

In my case, it had a lot to do with boundaries: by sticking to my boundaries and remaining steadfast others would also find their boundaries and be encouraged to live with integrity. If I swayed too much away from my own values and my own good, giving away my power to others, it was possible to actually have a corrupting influence on them.

As always there are fine lines to be drawn between refusing to yield what is good for oneself and being selfish. And more generally between firmness and a rigidity which refuses to listen to others. The key is that the virtues should be taken as a harmonious whole, rather like the stone circle. They then temper each other so that, for instance, steadfastness does not deteriorate into rigidity or hardheartedness because is it tempered by
Trócar, Mercy, the word also carrying the meaning of the ability and willingness to empathise with others, and by Gart, Generosity, as well as by Fírbrethach ,which, as Alexei says, means giving the correct judgement, not allowing one’s personal bias to interfere with the determination of what is right and wrong.

1. Alden Watson, The King, The Poet And The Sacred Tree in Études Celtiques 18, 165-180

Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Imagine a woman

Imagine a Woman

Imagine a woman who believes it is right and good she is a woman,
A woman who honours her experiences and tells her stories,
Who refuses to carry the sins of others within her body and her life.

Imagine a woman who believes she is good,
A woman who trusts and respects herself,
Who listens to her needs and desires, and meets them
With tenderness and grace.

Imagine a woman who has acknowledged the past's influence on the present,
A woman who has walked through her past,
Who has healed into the present.

Imagine a woman who authors her own life,
A woman who exerts, initiates and moves on her own behalf,
Who refuses to surrender except to her truest self and to her wisest voice.

Imagine a woman who names her own gods,
A woman who imagines the divine in her image and likeness,
Who designs her own spirituality and allows it to inform her daily life.

Imagine a woman who is in love with her own body,
A woman who believes her body is enough, just as it is,
Who celebrates her body and its rhythms and cycles as an exquisite resource.

Imagine a woman who honours the face of the Goddess in her changing face,
A woman who celebrates the accumulation of her years and her wisdom,
Who refuses to use precious energy disguising the changes in her body and life.

Imagine a woman who values the women in her life,
A woman who sits in circles of women,
Who is reminded of the truth about herself when she forgets.

Imagine you are this woman...

© Patricia Lynn Reilly, 1995

Here is a poem for International Women’s Day. This one is a spell, in my opinion, a little piece of word-magic; read it and feel yourself expand into places you didn’t know were uninhabited.
Even in the West where women, more or less, have equal rights, there’s still a kind of colonisation of women’s minds by the masculine. The default view of the world is still a men's view and women’s experience is marginalized even though it is fundamental to the human species.

Poetry, for instance, has been dominated by male poets for centuries. The poet Kate Clanchy says: “ Poets must read before they write and for the woman poet this means reading mostly male poets. A woman poet inherits the corpus of poetry equally, in theory, just as she now has equal rights under the law. But, just as women are still actively carving out real equality under the law, so women poets must work to inscribe themselves on poetry. It is harder for the women poet to find echoes of her own experience in the corpus of poetry, harder to hear something which sounds like her own voice. Of course this affects the way women write.”

Love poetry is littered with references to the beloved: her golden tresses, her breasts, her thighs, her lips, her soft voice, the way she moves. How do women describe the physical and mental attributes of men –and other women - that they find attractive? It is not easy to think of any poems that do this. And just as the portrayal of women in films influences how we see ourselves today, the images of women in poetry must also have influenced the way women see themselves.

Kate Clanchy states that the female experience of love and passion has been a taboo in poetry and that “women poets have responded either by omission or subversion. Emily Dickinson wrote of love deferred, permanently impossibly, ‘on the shelf’; Elizabeth Barrett Browning pretended her poems were translated ‘From the Portuguese’; Elizabeth Bishop avoided the topic; Stevie Smith preferred cats. It takes until the last half of the 20th Century, until Sylvia Plath and the great Anne Sexton really began to write about female desire in all it glory and enormity.”

The subject of motherhood has also been lacking in the canon. Even recently Kate’s collection Newborn was met by reviewers with comments on the unsuitability of the topic: “either because it was too conservative, or too happy, or, mostly, because it involved me talking about myself. It still offends, it seems, for a mother to talk about her love, or even more to talk about her lack of love – though when it comes to men in love talking about themselves it’s considered a classic poem.” 1

I remember being moved reading a poem by Frances Horovitz, For Adam, nearly twelve, in which she describes an incident similar to one I had had myself: “Driving home/ a lorry tailed too closely/ down a hill./From my rear mirror/ it seemed huge cab/ and tyres one inch away/ from you, asleep./ I drew in./ Trembling at the wheel/ I wept and swore/ at all machines and men/ that threatened you..” 2 And I was struck by how unusual it was to read in a poem something that described in such a particular way the fears and fierce love of motherhood. It made me feel – what? Strengthened, added to, in some indefinable way. The experience being not ‘just’ something to be shared within the subculture of other mothers but the subject of published poetry and in the public domain.

So, women’s experience is marginalized and yet is fundamental to the human species. A paradox. But there is power at the heart of every paradox.

Recite this poem to yourself and, wherever you are, feel yourself expand like the sails of a ship energised by the wind. Where do you want to go? Whatever we are restricted by, there are no restrictions to the imagination. So, imagine a woman… a woman who honours her experiences and tells her stories...

1 All quotes by Kate Clanchy from Dividing Lines, Mslexia 24, (2005), 20-23
2 Frances Horovitz, Collected Poems, Bloodaxe Books, 1985


To coincide with International Women’s Day, ActionAid are releasing a unique haiku poetry book. See me, Hear me, Read me brings together the voices of internationally-celebrated women (including Dame Judi Dench, Julie Waters, Yoko Ono, Carol Ann Duffy and Bonnie Greer) and inspiring women they work with around the world.

Voices for change

This collection of poems is a celebration of the resilience, humour and hope of women everywhere, but it also highlights the struggles they face on a daily basis.
Alongside the haikus are portraits of women they work with and facts to put the poems in context.
See me, Hear me, Read me will be available to buy on International Women's Day (8 March) priced at £15. You can order your copy here.