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, 5 December 2015

Prayer, the Abbess of Kildare and Turning Back the Streams of War

Cill na Craoibhe Olóige/The Olive Branch is a group within Ord Brighideach which has a particular focus as part of its flame-keeping vigil to pray for peace, justice, and healing for those affected by war and conflict. The 8th century Bretha Crólige (a collection of legal material relating to medical provision) gives a list of 12 women excluded from the rule of nursing in Irish law (instead they are compensated by a fee being paid to their kin). One category is 'a woman who turns back the streams of war' and a gloss on this states 'such as the abbess of Kildare or the female aí bell teoir [lit. 'flame of the theoretical life' thus: contemplative, recluse, hermit], one who turns back the manifold sins of war through her prayers.' Whether or not this practice started in Brigit's time it was presumably one of the functions of the Abbess of Kildare during the years when the sacred flame was tended there.

Today as I close my flame-keeping vigil for Ord Brighideach International, I recite the prayer I wrote in 2011. Now, more than ever, we need to keep peace in our hearts, our minds and our intent.

Prayer for Peace  

We ask for the light of your flame
To enable us to see clearly,
To illuminate the darkness,
To show us the shadows
Cast by our own light.

May the flame of your inspiration
Help us to express and comfort,
To understand and explain -
Encourage us and guide our actions. 

We ask for the gift of your healing
To soften our pain,
And mend the wounds
We have inflicted on one another -
Bless us and make us whole.

May the fire of your forge
Enable us to shape our future
With courage and determination,
Using the flame of justice,
Tempered by compassion.

We ask for your protection
Against all that would harm us.
May the beacon of your flame
Show us a path to peace
That all may follow.

Rob fír/May it be true.

Friday, 11 September 2015

Flame-Keeping for Brigit: Sophia and Brigit

My flame-keeping shift for Ord Brighideach fell during my stay at Gladstone’s Library this time. I wasn’t able to keep a candle alight for 24 hours while I was there, but there is an inner flame as well as an outer flame that needs tending and that I paid attention to.
I wore my Brigit’s cross pin throughout the period and visited the chapel/meditatation space evening, morning, afternoon and evening to sit quietly in contemplation and recite poems and prayer. There is something special about having a place set apart for spiritual work. Although I feel I can talk to Brigit anywhere, such a place seems free of any outside interference, more concentrated and focussed.

I also spent time outside, since it was a day without rain, though not as warm as one would hope for in August. At the back of the building is a garden with a statue of Sophia, Greek for Wisdom, viewed as a goddess by the Gnostics and others.

Carved by sculptor Tom Waugh, Sophia has graced the gardens since 2010. Around her are four stone benches  carved in Welsh and English with the words Cariad/Love, Heddwch/Peace, Gwirionedd/Truth, and Cyfiawnder/Justice. Words which are eminently fitting for contemplatation during flame-keeping. In fact, Sophia has much in common with Brigit: remember that in Cormac’s Glossary she is described as ‘Brigit the female sage or woman of wisdom’.  The Book of Wisdom (judged apocryphal but of spiritual value by the Protestant church) says this about Sophia:
Wisdom is more mobile than any motion;
because of Her pureness She pervades and penetrates all things.
She is a breath of the power of God,
a pure emanation of the Glory of the All-Mighty…

She is a reflection of Eternal Light
and image of His Goodness.
Though She is but one, She can do all things,
and while remaining in Herself, She renews all things;
She is more beautiful than the sun
and excels every constellation of the stars…

She reaches mightily from one end of the earth to the other,
She orders all things well.
Chapter 7, vv 24 - 8:1

In Proverbs she is described as ‘standing in the top of high places, by the way in the places of the paths’ and says:
Hear; for I will speak of excellent things; and the opening of my lips shall be right things.
For my mouth shall speak truth; and wickedness is an abomination to my lips.
All the words of my mouth are in righteousness; there is nothing froward* or perverse in them.
They are all plain to him who that understandeth, and right to them that find knowledge.
Receive my instruction and not silver; and knowledge rather than choice gold.
For wisdom is better than rubies; and all the things that may be desired are not to be compared with it.
I wisdom dwell with prudence and find out knowledge of witty* inventions…

Council is mine, and sound wisdom: I am understanding; I have strength.
By me kings reign, and princes decree justice.
By me princes rule, and nobles, even all the judges of the earth.
I love them that love me; and those that seek me early shall find me…

I was set up from everlasting, from the beginning, or ever the earth was…

Blessed is the man that heareth me, watching daily at my gates, waiting at the posts of my doors.
For whoso findeth me findeth life...
Chapter 8, vv 2; 6-12; 14-17; 23; 34-35

There are parallels here with Brigit the goddess of sovereignty and Brig the jurist.

 Behind the statue of Sophia, the path leads to a woodland area, one of my favourite places to stroll and another good place to sit and contemplate Wisdom as the dappled light falls around you... 

"For whoso findeth me, findeth life"... Musing on this I thought of the words of Jesus "I am the way, the truth and the life" - these words could apply equally to Wisdom (for her mouth speaks truth). Perhaps he saw himself as wisdom. Or perhaps, as in Gaelic Christianity, if Brigit, the Woman of Wisdom, was his foster-mother, Wisdom is what she passed on to him and what he came to embody.

"She is a reflection of Eternal Light
and image of His Goodness.
Though She is but one, She can do all things,
and while remaining in Herself, She renews all things;
She is more beautiful than the sun
and excels every constellation of the stars…

She reaches mightily from one end of the earth to the other,
She orders all things well."

* witty - clever, wise  *froward - wilfully contrary

Monday, 10 August 2015

Cernunnos at Lughnasad

Cernnunos at Lughnasad

Although I haven’t seen any precedent for it, I celebrate Cernunnos at Lughnasad. This arose as a purely intuitive act but I realise that it makes sense in many ways. First of all, for me personally, since Lughnasad completes the growth cycle of the interaction of the Land with the People begun at Imbolc when Brigit presides over the initiation of the growing season, it places Brigit and Cernunnos at opposite sides of the circle of the year, a symmetry I find pleasing as these are the two divinities I engage with. Secondly it makes sense in terms of what I have come to believe about Cernunnos. As I’ve written before (see the sidebar where they usually appear as some of the most popular posts), I consider that Cernnunos is a very ancient god dating back to the time when our ancestors were hunter gatherers. Lugh, who shares some attributes with him, I believe comes from the time of the rise of agriculture. The festival of Lughnasad celebrates Lugh, the hero of the harvest, who, in the different stories told about him, wrests it from the hostile forces of nature (the Fomorians or the Cailleach) through various means - battle, skill, strength or trickery.

The work of the hunter gatherers, however, would have been on-going throughout the year, rather than tied to the growing season and the final harvest. Cernunnos being not only a Lord of Nature but also a mediator god, allows humans to access the abundance of nature and keeps the destructive forces at bay. In exchange he would expect offerings and worship. The model here then is not that of a battle between human beings and nature but one of exchange, reciprocity and mutual respect.

The Hunting Blessing and Carmichael’s commentary in the Carmina Gadelica give some idea of the ritual aspect of hunting, the anointing of the hunter and the calling on divine beings, along with the restraint necessary to ensure the stock of animals and birds was not depleted thus achieving a balance with nature:

A YOUNG man was consecrated before he went out to hunt. Oil was put on his head, a bow was placed in his hand, and he was required to stand with bare feet on the bare grassless ground. The dedication of the young hunter was akin to those of the 'maor,' the judge, the chief, and the king, on installation. Many conditions were imposed on the young man, which he was required to observe throughout life. He was not to take life wantonly. He was not to kill a bird sitting, nor a beast lying down, and he was not to kill the mother of a brood, nor the mother of a suckling. Nor was he to kill an unfledged bird nor a suckling beast, unless it might be the young of a bird, or of a beast, of prey. It was at all times permissible and laudable to destroy certain clearly defined birds and beasts of prey and evil reptiles, with their young.

                            Hunting Blessing

FROM my loins begotten wert thou, my son,
May I guide thee the way that is right,
In the holy name of the apostles eleven
In name of the Son of God torn of thee.

In name of James, and Peter, and Paul,
John the baptist, and John the apostle above,
Luke the physician, and Stephen the martyr,
Muriel the fair, and Mary mother of the Lamb.

In name of Patrick holy of the deeds,
And Carmac of the rights and tombs,
Columba beloved, and Adamnan of laws,
Fite calm, and Bride of the milk and kine.

In name of Michael chief of hosts,
In name of Ariel youth of lovely hues,
In name of Uriel of the golden locks,
And Gabriel seer of the Virgin of grace.

The time thou shalt have closed thine eye,
Thou shalt not bend thy knee nor move,
Thou shalt not wound the duck that is swimming,
Never shalt thou harry her of her young.

                                           The white swan of the sweet gurgle,
                                           The speckled dun of the brown tuft,
                                           Thou shalt not cut a feather from their backs,
                                           Till the doom-day, on the crest of the wave.

On the wing be they always
                                           Ere thou place missile to thine ear,
                                           And the fair Mary will give thee of her love,
                                           And the lovely Bride will give thee of her trine.

                                           Thou shalt not eat fallen fish nor fallen flesh,
                                           Nor one bird that thy hand shall not bring down,
                                           Be thou thankful for the one,
                                           Though nine should be swimming.

The fairy swan of Bride of flocks,
                                           The fairy duck of Mary of peace.

How far we have come from this kind of honouring and restraint in our own dealings with nature! As I’ve said before, I believe that we modern humans have Lugh’s strength, skills and ingenuity in abundance and are aggressively continuing to subdue nature and ensure plenty (for some) in a way that doesn’t have anything to do with honour, respect or reciprocity and which is leading to a great extinction of species, depletion of the earth’s resources and will likely to lead to our own downfall.
There is a danger of course of romanticising the past (Carmichael himself may have embellished some of the material he collected) and taking for granted the many benefits of the present but I see no harm in being inspired by elements of the past to create a vision that pays tribute to both Cernunnos and Lugh; which acknowledges our strength, skills and ingenuity but combines them with honour and respect for the true source of all our abundance and the maintenance of a balance between us and nature - since there is nothing we have that does not come directly or indirectly from Earth and Sky. The way we are moving at present is a far cry from this vision but I consider it necessary to maintain it and try to bring it into reality even in small ways. Divergent thinking - as diversity in general - becomes useful, if not vital, when circumstances and situations change; a strategy for survival. 

So imperfectly, but doing the best I can, I am trying to take care of the land I have in a way that is respectful, that does not destroy or resort to overkill, that gives something back to the earth and allows a share of the harvest to some of the creatures that inhabit this little patch too. An honouring of Cernunnos keeps me mindful of this.

At this festival when I am celebrating the beginning of the harvest, I make an offering to him of a few wild strawberries as a portion of the Wild, a few of the first runner beans as a portion of the food I have cultivated and, as a portion of the wider harvest, blueberry scones made with blueberries from the garden and wholemeal organic flour, with blackcurrant jam made by my daughter-in-law with blackcurrants from her garden. Flowers too of course, mainly roses, with marjoram, mint and vervain, the enchanter’s herb.

I wear a mask during the rites. It’s something instinctive - I’d never wear a mask for Brigit - but somehow in doing so I become self and not-self and feel as though I can relate to Cernunnos better in an in-between state. The mask is green with a suggestion of foliage so I take on an aspect of the Wild that we come from. An aspect of the Other which is also Ourselves

Tuesday, 7 July 2015

Yoga for Disabled People

It was International Yoga Day about 2 weeks ago - so as usual I am writing a related post belatedly! But better late than never. I wanted to talk here about yoga for disabled people since I have been discovering the benefits of it. If you are not disabled yourself, please pass this on to anyone you think might benefit (including people bound to a office chair for most of the day!). Of course, this comes with the proviso that not all exercises are suitable for all people so please consult your yoga practitioner or health-care expert. For instance, I suspect that the twists and half-twists aren't good for my spine which is curved and now has arthritis so I am not doing these until I have consulted my osteopath later this month. I tend to go ahead with what feels right to me and ask her if I'm not sure but diving in isn't the right course for all kinds of disability or indeed everyone.

Some time ago I found a book in a charity shop called Yoga for the Disabled by Howard Kent. The book is out of print but there are a few second-hand copies available on-line. Reading the first few chapters I was inspired by what the author was saying. Basically, as it says in the Upanishads, "Breath is life and life is breath". So, as Howard Kent states: "If we are to seek to combat our difficulties, whether they be mental or physical - and, in fact, all difficulties are ultimately a combination of these factors - we must begin with the breath". Natural respiration provides the whole basis of the body's energy. "It balances oxygen and carbon dioxide, it ensures the effective combustion of oxygen with the food we eat to make the energy forms of proteins and other essential substances. It also controls the varied electrical impulses which are basic to the whole of our life and these monitor the functioning of all aspects of the body." If we are alive we breathe, even if we are disabled, and so by focusing on 'right' breathing, we can enhance our health.

This made sense to me - and I also had the intuition that the fire I was lacking, which I talked about HERE, might be encouraged and fed by focusing on my breathing.

Nevertheless, although inspired and 'getting' the message I found myself putting off the practice. The exercises he advocates are mainly done on the floor (some are suitable for people in wheelchairs however) and I have difficulty getting up and down from the floor. Then again there is the question of where there is a suitable bit of floor, big enough and not too draughty or dusty. I let these things put me off starting... until just after Imbolc or Brigit's Day this year when I began to feel a renewal after a year of being unwell and having to reorientate myself not so much from my direction in life as the way I was moving along it. I suddenly began to feel the urge to spend more time in practice rather than in my mind, and physical practice through yoga felt like an important part of this. For my birthday a few days later, a good friend sent me a book called Chair Yoga: Seated Exercises for Health and Wellbeing by Edeltraud Rohnfeld  (there is also a DVD I've just discovered). She'd ordered it unseen and wasn't sure how useful it would be but it is excellent and I was able to take to it easily.

So for 5 months I have been doing the exercises in it each morning, along with elements of my spiritual practice. I have occasionally missed a morning or two when very tired or rushing out without having left enough time but it has become a habit now. At first I was eager to do it each morning, then after a few weeks I found it was becoming a bit of a chore. Examining why I realised it was because I was finding some of the exercises rather hard work. I have a belief in hard work - which isn't very good for me -  but decided that if they were stopping me from doing any yoga perhaps I should cut down on the number of times I did those particular ones rather than not do any. So that is what I did and it has worked well. Some mornings I even do more of those particular ones.

There are exercises for all parts of the body including the finger and toes and eyes... if you can move any part of your body there will be an exercise for it - and if you can't, you can breathe. Focus on what you can rather than what you can't.

I had a sense that it would be good not to leave out my paralysed leg. There are one or two muscles in it that I can twitch slightly - though often not enough to be visible to the naked eye. So I have twitched those and made any tiny movements I can. I'm not sure if the twitches and movements are becoming any stronger, I think they are, though marginally so, but I am more in touch with my leg and find myself  'twitching' sometimes when sitting at my desk - like now. Any improvement in muscle tone will be beneficial in terms of blood circulation which will then benefit my general circulation. At any rate, from my state after Christmas when I could hardly stand because of pain in my un-paralysed foot, I'm now pain-free except when I really overdo it and get a reminder from my foot: "Think of me! I've been doing most of the work for 63 years, give me a rest and a massage." So I do. "Think with your body" the Buddha says.

Perhaps the most delightful change is that doing the yoga along with the time set aside for prayers and liturgy, affirmations and orientation for the day is bringing my awareness of self into that of body/mind/spirit instead of being mainly in my head and ignoring my body as too problematic. One of the things that contributes to this is that in everyday life my movements on crutches are difficult and ungainly whereas my yoga movements are full of grace, calm and a quiet intention. They feel more like an expression of my inner self.

This YouTube video gives you a taste of it:

Finally, to quote the Buddha again: Set your heart in one place and nothing is impossible to you.

Recommended Books

Yoga For The Disabled: A Practical Self-Help Guide to a Happier Life by Howard Kent, Sunrise Publications, 1996

Chair Yoga: Seated Exercises for Health and Wellbeing by Edeltraud Rohnfeld, Singing Dragon, 2012


There are quite a few videos on YouTube - search for Yoga for Disabled People. In particular I'd recommend Matthew Sanford who appears in the video at the head of this post. Search under his name or for his website:

Saturday, 13 June 2015

The Gardener and The Goddess - now available here

 Poet and writer, Jane Whittle, explored Britain alone on foot for many years before settling on the coast of West Wales, where she began to make a garden from a patch of un-tamed mountainside 'in a place where rainbows land'. The poems in this book arose from that mysterious space between dream and reality experienced in the landscape, first by solitary long distance walking and then by sinking a root in one unspoiled place. They are accompanied by the author's own illustrations.

The poems are divided into two halves. The first half are in the voice of The Gardener, the woman who has stopped her physical journeying and has settled, finding 'new strength/to stay at home'. We are taken on the Gardener's inner journey through the seasons, from spring when 'New arrivals/crowd their neighbours/budding intermezzos drown in brazen greens' to winter, when 'The earth is hard on new flowers/broken by gales and frost'. Through her we meet the Goddess in different guises as she allows the Gardener to see the magic of the garden emerge and to experience her at the source of much that is around us - in a faltering stream, in the colours of the rainbow, in a leaf uncurling, in the cycle of elderberries from flower to wine.

In the second half we are privileged to hear the voice of the Goddess herself, first as Eurynome from early Greek myth who created the earth with the help of the serpent Ophion but banished him when he tried to take all the credit, then as she reveals herself in water, in wind, in a poem but above all in the earth. 'Lay yourself down/ and become land' she says, 'Listen - you will hear me'. 'As I turn and re-turn/, I return you to life.../  Remember my story.'

Jane Whittle's language throughout is skillful, simple with the simplicity of archetype, conveying in a few well-chosen words a depth of meaning that offers us new insights and delights.

Copies of The Gardener and The Goddess published by Brigit's Forge ( ISBN 978-0-9574106-1-9) are available to buy from this website (see sidebar) whether or not you have a PayPal account.

Friday, 20 March 2015

Brigit - Provider of the Seed-Spreader

I recently found a reference to Santes Ffraid (St Brigit) which I hadn't heard of before. It's by the 16th century Welsh poet William Cynwal in his poem O Blaid Y Gwragedd - In Defence of Women. The poem was written in response to a satire by another poet against girls and women 'am ddryced eu' marweddiad/ yn nechreuad yr oesoedd' - 'for the ill of their behaving/in the beginning of ages'. Eve, of course.

He begins by recounting the story of Jesus and the woman who was caught in adultery and about to be stoned:

Wrthynt Iesu a ddyfod
'Hwn ohonoch sy heb bechod,
coded garreg, rhoed ddyrnod;
ei llabyddio sydd amod'.
Ac euog oedd yr holl wlad
a Duw y Tad yn gwybod.

to them Jesus said, 'Let
him of you who is without sin
raise a stone and fist
to kill by covenant.'
The whole land was guilty rather
and God the Father knew it.

He goes on to say that Mary came from Eve as recompense for her sin and arrogance and that the Trinity gave five virtues to maids and not to men:

wedi hynny fe ddyfod
ac iawn i bawb gydnabod
y llanwai hil y wraig 
nef a daear hynod.

With that in mind it's proper
that we should all
gentle woman's progeny
as filling sky and earth.

He outlines the five virtues and then names woman after woman who have contributed something of value to humankind. According to the poem:

Pan oedd y byd wrth ddechrau,
heb na gerddi na llysiau,
Seres, gwraig o'r rhyw gorau
a ddyfeisiodd bob hadau
i drwsio bwyd yn ddiwael
ac i gael aroglau.

And when the world began
with no herbs or gardens,
Ceres, the best sort of wife,
invented every seed
to garnish the fine food
and give it a good flavour.

But the accomplishments of the women are not always what you might expect: Nicostrata, of the tribe of Seth and Adam o'i hathrylith yn fwya' / ac o rad Duw gorucha' - out of her greatest learning/ and God's highest grace - produced the origin of the first Latin letters and a girl called Isis 'a hon oedd ddoeth i'w bywyd/ a chraff ymhob celfyddyd/ a mawr ei chyfarwyddyd - a wise one in her living/ and sharp in every art/ and a great story-teller - devised in pictures the characters of Egypt. Palathas invented the means to spin and weave wool when everyone was naked.

Brigit merits her place because:

Pan oedd wŷr  fry'n troi cwysau
ar ol erydr a thidau,
heb orffwys na chwarae
yn poeni ei traed a'u breichiau,

dyfeisiodd San Ffraid leian
chwelydr harddlan eu moddau.

When men of old turned furrows
behind the plough and chain,
without rest or play
torturing their feet and arms,
Saint Brigid the sweet sister
made seed-spreaders for them.

The virtues of women and girls are the traditional ones - they are noble, pure, proper, courteous, gentle of speech, fair, sensible and prudent - but they are also learned, wise - and they invent things needed to make the lot of humankind easier.

I rather like the description:

Gwraig sy lon a bonheddig,
fal gwenynen o'r goedwig
hi a wna lawer o' chydig

A woman is merry and noble
and, like a bee of the woods,
she will make much from little.

The poem ends:

O daw gofyn a gwiriaw
yn uchel ac yn ddistaw
pwy a wnâi yr araith hylaw
ar draethodl a'i myfyriaw,
Wiliam Cynwal, ac nis gwad
pan fyddo'r wlad yn gwrandaw.

If it is asked and verified
aloud or secretly
who made this fit oration
and rhymed this meditation,
William Cynwal won't deny it

though you cry it through the land.

Good for him I say. And I'm delighted to have this glimpse of another tradition about Brigit in her capacity of compassionate provider.

(All quotations and translations from The Burning Tree by Gwyn Williams, Faber and Faber Ltd, London, no date.)

Tuesday, 10 March 2015

International Women’s Day: Poems about Rape

In the latest edition of Mslexia, the magazine for women writers, Sarah Hesketh writes that deeply intimate poetry collections are a form of feminist activism. She mentions the poetry blog series of poems Against Rape on the Peony Moon blog and, reading the poems, I remembered that I’d planned to write a post last year for International Women’s Day on poems about rape. Here it is, a year and a day late.

As Moniza Alvi, writing in in her Foreword to the anthology Feminism, Literature and Rape Narratives points out, although rape is increasingly in the public eye, it still bears the stigma of taboo – “of that about which we dare not speak or write”. She goes on to say:

“Rape is an unsafe subject for poetry, while war is a wholly accepted category, and yet rape is constantly reported as a facet of war. Primarily, rape is considered a women’s issue, though this is, of course, hardly the case, and perhaps this is partly why it is considered a literary taboo, particularly when conveyed from a female viewpoint.”

The poems in Alvi’s book Europa contain many poems about rape as well as other trauma. She believes that any subject can be suitable for poetry and because poetry has potential for “the piercing and memorable” it seemed important to her that it is used to influence this particular instance of trauma.

Yet there are concerns. If, as Alvi posits, one aspect of poetry is to give delight, should rape poetry be a different kind of poetry? Her answer is to use myth to explore rape and trauma, “giving a kind of delight through the imaginative qualities of the story”.  I find myself uncomfortable with the word ‘delight’ in this context even though I know what she is getting at. I think it might be more suitable to say that myth and metaphor are able to make the poem ‘aesthetically pleasing’. I am aware that some of those who hear accounts of rape enjoy them salaciously, delight in them, as in Adrienne Rich’s poem Rape where the speaker has gone to report her rape to a cop who has grown up with her brothers:

…And so, when the time comes, you have to turn to him,
the maniac’s sperm still greasing your thighs,
your mind whirling like crazy. You have to confess
to him, you are guilty of the crime
of having been forced.

And you see his blue eyes, the blue eyes of all the family
whom you used to know, grow narrow and glisten,
his hand types out the details
and he wants them all
but the hysteria in your voice pleases him best…

Using myth and image to create distance is a useful device for discouraging such voyeurism and trying “to bring a kind of beauty or artistry to a discordant subject”. Alvi’s poems are beautiful, clear and sparse, sparkling with suggestion, and no less hard-hitting for addressing the subject from a distance. Particularly notable is the poem Mermaid, based not on the Hans Anderson story but on the painting by Tabitha Vever entitled When We Talk about Rape which is the cover image for the Europa collection. Here's an exerpt:

            he slit

down the muscular length
exposing the bone in its red canal.

She played dead on the rock

             dead by the blue lagoon
             dead to the ends of her divided tail.

He fell on her, sunk himself deep
into the apex.

Then he fled
                      on his human legs.

Human love cried the sea,
the sea in her head. 

Some poems, however, are more blunt and explicit, as in Marge Piercy’s Rape Poem:

There is no difference between being raped
And being pushed down a flight of cement steps
Except that the wounds also bleed inside.

There is no difference between being raped
And being run over by a truck
Except that afterward men ask if you enjoyed it.

There is no difference between being raped
And being bit on the ankle by a rattlesnake
Except that people ask if your skirt was short
And why you were out anyhow.

There is no difference between being raped
And going head first through a windshield
Except that afterward you are afraid not of cars,
But half the human race…

Alvi thinks it possible for rape poetry to rise above the confessional and quotes Pascale Petit: “When I read out my poems that have very personal and sometimes shocking content, I still concentrate on them as art rather than statements or “confessions”. That’s what I’m interested in, the transformative aspect, the image-making, chant or song of them. Afterwards, when people ask questions or react to the subject matter, I remember that they were rather revealing”.

My own poem about rape is packaged in the form of an intimate “confession”; the speaker confiding in the audience. I have crafted it - based on an actual rape - to convey its insidious nature, how its tentacles may reach into language itself even when the survivor thinks she is free of it. I have also given the rapist some individual attention, making him more than the stock shadowy sadistic figure. Not all rapists are the same. I hoped by this to provoke a discussion: What makes a man rape? What is he thinking and feeling? It’s time the focus was turned on men rather than just on the victims of rape. Society teaches ‘Don’t get raped’, not ‘Don’t rape’. If women's behaviour is scrutinised, why not men's? We need an honest and searching debate to look at the problem.

A rare poem by a man concerned about rape is this by Farhan Akhtar, a Bollywood film director and actor, who set up a social campaign in India, Men Against Rape and Discrimination or MARD. The poem, with its insistent rap structure, is surely ripe for performance:

What is this country that I live in?
With no equality
And the quality of life
Differs from husband to wife
Boy to girl, brother to sister
Hey Mister, are you the same?
Contributing to the national shame
Replacing your mothers
With the bent ideology of another's
perception that women have a particular role in society
Fills my heart with anxiety
Where is all of this going?
What will emerge from these seeds that we're sowing?
It makes my head spin
But I'm not giving in
Will keep asking the question
What is this country that I live in?

What is this country that I live in?
That takes away her right to love
Brutalises her with an iron glove
Rapes her without fear
of there being justice for her tear
We've demeaned our goddesses
Gone back on all our promises
Become a gender distorted nation
Given our conscience a permanent vacation
what do I tell my daughter?
That she's growing up to be lamb for the slaughter
we've got to make a change
Reboot, reformat, rearrange,
and never give in
no matter how much our head may spin
Just keep asking the question
What is this country that I live in?

However I am beginning to have some qualms about reading my own poem in public, important though I think it is not to hide these poems away as if they are not a suitable subject and as much as I like the idea of intimate poems being a kind of feminist activism. As Sean O’ Brian has said, “The poem is an event happening in the act of reading” and Moniza Alvi asserts “It is important that the poem itself becomes an experience, rather than being merely a vehicle for something” - for the audience then the poem may become an experience of rape.

I have read my poem at a number of events but the last time I read it I noticed out of the corner of my eye and the corner of my mind that as I introduced it a woman in the audience looked uncomfortable, shifted in her seat and then looked down at the floor, a pained expression on her face. Thinking about it afterwards I realised that she was trapped in the situation, that the poem might have triggered memories she’d rather forget and that she couldn’t simply get up and leave without announcing something she would probably rather not say. My poem starts with the memory of a rape being triggered by an article so I felt I should have thought more about the possibility of this happening through a spoken poem. Even reading poems about rape on the page or screen may be triggers, as the Peony Moon blog warns its readers.

But at least on page or screen the reader has a choice to look away and being silenced is not an option if things are ever to change. I remember what W.H.Auden said, in his poem in memory of W. B. Yeats:

For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth. 
(My emphasis)

When I was raped… I discarded certain assumptions I had held about how the world worked and about how safe I was. Alice Sebold (from Lucky)

Caught by an article in the Guardian
I thought I’d write a poem about a rape
from many years before.

I meant to tell how he’d driven to the Common,
forced my head back when I tried to scream
till I thought my neck would break
and my decision then to just give in
and hope he didn’t kill me.

And how he dragged me to the ground
broke into me and yelled at me to ‘move’ –
as if he thought there could be any rhythm
between his act and me.

How afterwards he fell apart,
became a shrunken thing,
leaning over the roof of his car
like a wilting plant,
crying and begging for forgiveness.
And I then standing still intact
because somehow in the decision to surrender
I had kept possession of myself.

But that night – of the day I planned the poem –
I had one of those dreams I sometimes get
where there’s menace and someone in the room.
I fight – I always fight – and grab his face
and twist and smash and wake
to hear soft footfalls stalk the bedroom floor.

So though I kept possession of myself
something was born of that encounter
that slipped unseen into my future,

insinuates itself between me and safety,
contaminates innocent words like
'neck' and 'car' and 'common' and' move'
and not so innocent words like
scream and scream and scream.

Wednesday, 11 February 2015

Bride is welcome! Bride is come!

Brigit's Day has come and gone and never before have I been so aware of the change as I am this year. Last year was a dismal one and the winter particularly so. But over the weekend a subtle change occurred and I've been feeling the shoots of my usual enthusiasm and creativity return.

This year, for the first time, one of our number was unable to come on the evening of her day, so after taking the shawl out to hang on a tree for Brigit to bless, I dressed the Bride doll myself, made up her bed, decorated with snowdrops, shells and quartz and softened with the wool I'd gathered from the Park at Hawarden, went to the door and standing on the threshold, holding the door jams, I sang an invocation to invite her in. The song I used is one by Nickomo and Rasullah - it's very gentle and evocative. I sometimes play it on my whistle as I can't sing in tune, but this year I sang and it didn't sound too bad! You can find details of the songbook with the music and the CD, both called the Song of the Land, on Nickomo and Rasullah's website. (Their Brigit's Blessing is lovely as well.)

It was quite special to have this time alone meditating on Brigit and as I was choosing ribbons and sewing them in place to make a gown for the rush doll I felt in touch with previous generations of people who had made a figure to represent the return of spring, not only in Ireland, but I suspect in other countries in the distant past. I was also aware of the festival as one of the return of the light, of the sun, the very first spark of spring rather than spring itself. It chimes for me with the perception of Brigit as a goddess of the dawn, of the beginning of light, of enlightenment.

The next day, Brigit's Day, I made lunch and my two friends came to celebrate with me. After we'd eaten we recited Ruth Bidgood's Hymn to Sant Ffraid (Brigit's name in Welsh) for 3 voices, as we have done for the last few years. This year I was the first voice and I felt the words at the beginning resonate with me:

month of Sant Ffraid.
Earth has long lain white, rigid,
locked into lifelessness.
Ice on river, no lively running:
ice on field, no soft furrow:
ice on byre, no boon for beasts:
ice on hills, no high pasture:
ice on heart, no hope leaping."

And later, a moving on, a freeing as I said the words:

month of the quickening,
month of Brigid the Threefold,
muse, healer, goddess of fire.
Ice clutches copse and cataract;
earth faints with cold, craves to be free.
In grey of grim dusk,
in black of bleak night,
a cry dies, a life is given.
Blood blots the Bridestone,
flame springs, fire supplicates -
Bride, goddess, bring now
the breaking, the slaking,
the flowing, the growing!"

Several pages later, in unison, we invoked Ffraid:

"We call you now to walk on the riverbank,
to break the ice, to free the river.
We greet you now
from your churches and your wells,
from the cold sea-coast and the colder hills,
with the immemorial cry,
'Ffraid is come! Ffraid is welcome!'"

After this we set to work weaving crosses. The rushes came from a different place this year and were thicker and stronger so they didn't bend so easily but we persevered. While we worked we shared some poems and talked about our lives.

I feel as if I am moving into a new phase where I crave more simplicity, more of an uncluttered life. I've always been reluctant to remove side shoots from plants or some of the apples that form a cluster and prevent just one or two reaching a good size. All things want to live, the life of plants spills out into these growths, who am I to stop them? But last summer I began to see, or to feel in my bones, how this may stunt growth and weaken the plant. If I want good-sized fruit that ripens well, it's necessary to limit unchecked growth. I could see the analogy with my own life - how 'spreading oneself too thin' may result in a weakening, especially when one's energy is limited, as mine is. I was beginning to crave the cutting down of ideas and projects so that I could focus on the few important things that I would like to bear a rich fruit.

So this is my agenda for the year ahead. I hope to be successful in this. I'm beginning to declutter, it feels more urgent as I may move at some point to be nearer my siblings or my son and family since my mobility is deteriorating. In which case I need to start clearing out the many drawers and cupboards in this house, getting rid of the dross and giving away things which aren't useful or beautiful, things which, in a subtle way, I feel are weighing me down. I hope to emerge lighter, more focused, more fruitful, more fit to engage with whatever lies ahead.

I certainly feel a renewal of my spirit. But last year has not been wasted, for one thing it has shown me that I haven't achieved that Still Centre which enables one to keep one's balance, one's equilibrium, through the vicissitudes of life, though I have moved some way towards it. This gives me the prod I need to spend more time in practice - with meditation and ritual work centred on Brigit, with yoga exercises to make up for my lack of walking, with carefully chosen creative work and with Being-in-Nature. My Buddhist calendar for February supports me in this resolve, saying:

'It is better to practice a little than talk a lot.'  Muso Kokushi. Or write a lot perhaps?! (But I hope to write my blogs a little more regularly, though shorter posts perhaps.)