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

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."


  1. Lovely poems!

    That's a view of the Blodeuedd story that brings a different shade of emotional perspective to the usual modern interpretations.

    Thanks for that link to her readings. I'm going up to Hadrian's Wall in a couple of weeks so if I can visit that museum I'll think of the poem while I'm there.

  2. The Chesters museum is well-worth a visit. There are several around that part of the Wall which have some very interesting things. I love that area - the wildness, the history; my mother was brought up round there.

    Also worth a visit is the temple to Mithras at Carrawburgh. Frances has a poem about that too: Brigomaglas, a Christian, speaks... There's a relief of Mithras rising from the rock. He wears a cloak and has a crown, its rays are cut through to a hollow niche at the back of the altar where there'd have been an oil lamp; when lit the light of the lamp would have shone through the openings into the darkness of the temple. I'd love to make a relief of Brigit like that so that candles could be placed behind it and would shine through like the rays of the sun.

    There was a shrine to Coventina nearby and a statue of a mother goddess was found in the antechamber of the Mithraeum. So the feminine is there too...

    Hope you have a lovely visit - I'm envious!