What have we here? Eighteen of my poems; one was published before and others appeared in different forms as chapter epigraphs in my second book, novella, The Life of Almost. They are all fixed on thirty miles of coastline – thalassa and môr are sea in Greek and Welsh – forest and quay on the estuary, and it is a place I revisit again, because it is family, generations back, though not where I grew up. Have myths, terrible women, strange deaths, awful advice, smothering landscape and an eviscerating moment when you learn that your parents do not actually love you. Yes, all in its awful beaiuty and melancholy, here we are. Really they need to be read aloud for you to feel their rhythm, sound patterning and hear their curious inflection. I do not consider them good enough to develop as a collection, or seek to publish further but here they are for you. All were written five years ago. You may see the influence of Dylan Thomas, but there are also threads from the Mabinogion and classical texts, as well as references to old songs and sea shanties.
‘Cast out, my broken comrades’
St Justinian at dawn; the boat,
Its clenched hull scowling,
As braced against the swell,
Collected errant figures – all
Adrift, so lost on land, and sad.
We reached out, emptied souls,
To Ramsey Sound; the island
Siren-called us, brought us home
To sea: to stay afloat a while
And find our shipwrecked selves.
It wasn’t in the landing of our craft,
Against the crashing deck of shore,
But somewhere in between the rock
And rock, that melancholy came to rest –
And tumbled down through navy depths
And we were free, unbroken: still.
This poem is published in Anthology of the Sea by The Emma Press, October, 2016.
‘My heart unbroken, then, by fish- frozen sea.’
‘Oh, never fill your heart with trawlermen’
My nanny told, then told: ‘You want
A man with both feet on the ground –
A man with roughened nails, from
Dirt and labour on the land,
Not brined and drenched through by the Sea.’
But Nanny never knew the sound
Of oilskin slipped on clover bank;
Of danger in the stolen hull,
Of silver, limned above your head,
While thwart hands toiled through the night,
And washed me up and brought me home.
I wouldn’t learn: I dreamed of pearls, full fathom five;
I sang of gales, the tang of salt,
The storied depths of sea and sea –
Limb-frozen journeys, far from home
With yellow light on midnight crests.
But Nanny told, then told, ‘You want
A man with bone-dry shoes, inland;
Your sailors leave you high and dry,
They catch and throw and pack in ice
The keenist heart that you can toss.’
But Nanny never knew the song
Of siren journeys way out there,
Of labour stoked by heat and loss –
She did not feel the azure pull,
The mermaid kiss, the tongues that spoke;
She died a desiccated death, in clod
That choked, while primrose mocked.
Still, out at sea, I rocked and bobbed:
We drew the finest catch that day.
Madonna of the Cleddau
The sea coast was too far for you.
To keep inland was your advice,
Away from Jack Tar, foreign folk:
Stay cloistered on this estuary.
Madonna of the Cleddau, come:
Square jaw, dark eyes and, counterpoint,
Retroussé nose and powdered cheeks:
And born of earth, not briny downs.
You birthed eleven, stood back up,
With apron on and sleeves rolled high,
Delivered livestock, lipstick on,
With plaintive songs of field delight.
But, round the wall, the sea began,
Spoke not to you: you had no thought
To jump and best a warmer wave;
A voyage out was lost on you.
What did you care for them or theirs?
Madonna’s night world of the quay
Had supernatural force: the owls,
The rustle of the hawk, black elms,
The screech and call and elsewhere sound.
Such pale wings drew on navy sky
As you looked out across the flats
And thought that this was world enough,
The kelp, the wrack was only stench.
I’ve seen it now, your home; your hearth:
The summer quay was bunting dressed,
The village pub all polished up,
No gossip, snarling by the bar;
A ‘Country Living’ August snap,
All cleansed of snuff or pewter cup,
Sent gentry, as you might have said.
And rag and bone man, gone to dust.
Madonna of the Cleddau, mine:
I sing to you from farther shores:
I wish that you had gone to sea –
We could have basked there, you and I.
It never changed, waves’ thunderous moods
Could not be altered, made anew.
I look at Cresswell now and wish
The sea would roar and cry and break
The weeded walls, the altered beds,
Bring wrack and shells to grace the stones
Where mortar tidily restrains.
When did I
I went out early, tiger-clad, for bravery’s sake
To try the sea. Its bite was worse than mine –
It told harsh words and mumbles spat a briny sound
Of fury’s heart. And I was spent, so roared no more.
Returns a sea echo
Had I not been mute, still yet, as Milton might,
I should have cried to miss a mirror in every mind –
Not to have glimpsed the swallow, bright,
Such cresting clarion call and bravest hunter’s horn.
I might, I say, have wished to be alone,
Caressing so the dampening blossom now –
Finger tipped to velvet wings at dusk,
Unbound by duty, or amaranthine depths.
To sit on quiet rosy evenings, darkness settling by
In bowing woods, with harebells pealing close.
For stillness made replete what things I saw –
And bosom sentiment was only that.
Such contemplation of this hour was wasted not:
The honour was replete.
But very now, then up the churchyard path
A fox came, sharp; the beech tree whispered thanks.
Thus honour was in being quiet,
Reverent in this storied landscape, still.
Myfanwy, I loved
Myfanwy, as you were: bay window, a side light, and a black background.
Then as you were again: middle room – direct front light. I was specific.
Myfanwy – I was precise; exacting with the fall of dark and bright: I wrote it down.
Myfanwy, as I hoped you were. But you smiled and sailed away, sassy girl.
I sat for hours as the shadows fell, knowing what night must still portend: my craft.
I drew a nail across a pane and scratched your name, invisible to others as
The evening settled in. I knew that morning brought a monogram in window frost
For you to see and I to know: I showed you how its feathered lines and confidence
Spoke truth to us – that you could stay. The frost had crept along the span
To show you how this foolish clot had said the most that could be said
And then I spoke – and ruined all. A foolish joke: my love; my word –
Myfanwy, stay. Myfanwy, do not sail away.
I tried to draw another length to keep you here: pellucid worlds for us to share,
yet how I knew what I had done. You cared not yet for crystal casts,
the shapes recorded day by day. The metaphor for heavenly plan
Was lost for you in my thwart hands – and so I scratched and tried to show
A simple script, its blazon – you. I fell and fell, and no-one knew.
Oh, sassy girl, why should you stay or want a watcher of the skies,
a gabbling fool, like me? Why, no. Myfanwy, stay. Myfanwy, do not sail away.
If I should fall, then say to me the reason clouds form as they are,
Why ice should seed along a scratch, why I should love my six-point star.
I do not know or care to see the smiles that fall in brazen line,
But innocence and clearest eye embolden me to make her mine.
I speak of love and quiet worlds, the county town on winter nights:
The sweets of honeybees, a view of ruby sky and amber lights –
Of unctuous syrup mixed with snow, auroras made of rosy glow,
My borealis blood red sheen – if I should fall, then make me know.
When I am not and you are here, beholden to this dusty room,
Be gentle with the tenuous forms of memory; do not grieve too soon.
Consider this – why should we be, ephemeral and urgent? How?
And speak to me with confidence, declaim for me on cliff or prow.
In nature’s fragile frame I see a world that lives beyond the hill,
Beyond the log pile, salt and shed; behind our eyes when we lie still.
And when I fall, then say to me you read its language, pure and keen –
And set my records on my desk and light my lamp: make them be seen.
‘Always there were uncles’ (Dylan Thomas, A Child’s Christmas in Wales
I longed not to talk to him, the schoolmaster;
He was always old, even as a boy, Llewhellin.
His eyes blorted thick, his voice rasped:
Never a pretty thing was he.
But I misses him now, you see, that old man
Cresting the corners of the foxgloved lanes –
Standing at Walton West, scowling at the tankers
Bound for Milford from great bright places
He hadn’t seen and didn’t want.
And I misses the silent pouring of tea
And the picking of apples from his headland-wizened trees;
the storied estuary, century feuds and nodding campion.
And I cry when I scent, alone, the violet patch, dug up,
Where I found him. And he was gone, eyes closed and young.
In this drear place, I see my family loved
In celandines and mugwort garlands drawn;
I do not know what tears or mossy lies
They fought so hard to keep from being said
Llewhellins, thick and fast and tired and gone,
Their stories drawn in stone or footstep sand.
Still to be sad
In the old shop on the harbour walk I saw a note: ‘Be Mine:
Were you that girl I saw on the sand, turning to face me
Against the gale? I think you saw me, and I want to know.’
It was there for weeks, that note, rusting in the sun,
And brushed by arms of the boys running from the beach
For ice cream and the papers for bored parents.
And weeks more it hung, unnoticed, torn;
Down in shreds it was, a girl would never see;
But a girl had never seen. She’d been looking instead
Over the shoulder of the keen bright boy
To the man who broke her heart: a challenge –
Find me, save me. Do not let me now walk out
Into the sea. But in the keening of the wind
And the straining of the gale, all turned away
And she was gone and the slips of note removed,
For something clean and tidy and not sad.
Druidstone Haven. A sonnet
We climbed the downward spiral of the trail
To best the shedding fingers of the cliff,
I’d promised you, oh love, I could not fail
I’d prove to you against our lovers’ tiff,
That there was treasure to be found that day –
Albescent moons to cradle in your hand –
Sea urchins fine, a little world to say:
Echinocardium, wanting to be grand.
But my world was not yours, you did not care
To hold the little lanterns in your palm –
The hollow globe within the greatest fair,
You did not care if such should come to harm.
So cracked the sea potato on the tide:
I knew, although I smiled, my love had died.
‘Girl, get the grave bag from by the back door!’
‘I’m doing it now, in a minute!’
‘But have you got there the water in the milk bottle,
the scrubber and the cloth and the scissors,
they’re rusty but will do to trim?’
‘Yes, yes, I see them now.’
‘But have you got them, have you? Must not forget
and must not leave the bag at home and must not take it
to the graves half full, is it done now, is it all and are you sure?’
‘Yes, I am sure.’
The bag was bundled and the car was roared and the dead were glad
of a well-kept stone and the brambles trimmed and no-one cursed,
like they did, all did, in life, and the door was keyed and the grave bag was refilled
and sat just as it should, and the life was endless not altered,
even in this loud new world.
Rounding the headland at St Brides and sighting the small churchyard,
Cariad, you were aware, weren’t you now, that things were changed that day?
You saw us with the girl, cousin by marriage, I think she was,
And all was well because she was not you. You were, weren’t you now,
The same age and the same beauty and the same dimension, even, roughly now,
And all so different because she was not you. And daddy said, I know he did,
‘Ah, my lovely girl, my cariad, look at your lovely golden hair
And your blue eyes and the light foot and a tumble of a laugh’ –
But that was not for you, but for your cousin, by marriage I think she was,
And she was fair and pretty and you with your welter of a laugh
And your thin voice and your pinched nose and you my shameless,
shameful little girl, mine but not mine and yapping now
as we rounded the headland at St Brides. Sing to the sailors, girl,
cry for the mermaids if you see them there, but in this dark world
where cliffs heap up and the boy drowns and the wrack fills,
think always that none of this cares for you, but for her, cariad.
Lewis, who went away
When I was a kid, Lewis took his own life.
I heard them say he took it, but where it went,
I couldn’t say or wasn’t told. Perhaps it had
been drained, in the sloop, with all his pints,
or thrown gladly off Stack Rocks with a shout
that he married well and was a man they liked,
but I don’t know. For once, though I was very young,
I saw a look from out the corner of his eye as he shipped
off, went laughing with the pot boys and his girl:
that look it said, I think, that Lewis wanted rescuing,
but no-one came, as the sea foam danced in Cardigan Bay.
The Auger shell, unbroken, in the palm,
still yet, such tenor of this hour upon this tide,
I wait at Nolton, looking out to sea:
you do not come. I nurse the shell,
its whorls and tidy chambers tell
of secrets and of things I cannot know;
the grains of sand, or filament of carapace
swept up inside its little maze,
its rooms, its tidy cap, once came from elsewhere,
elsewhere on this tide, I’ll never know. And you,
I wait for, still, looking out to sea. I hear you laugh
and cannot say from where it came, but seabirds circle low.
I throw the shell where anemone and spider crab
have made their home – more life reclaims it now,
as your laugh is lost to me, in warm thrift and gorse
and the tenor of this hour upon the tide.
My mother taught at Wiston school,
Her hands were lithe, her mind so sharp,
Her friend Rhiannon worshipped her
And plucked her name upon the harp
Which sat all gold, in sight of all,
Rhiannon’s talons told mother’s fall –
She plucked a death upon the strings,
Her dainty nails scratched their goal:
‘Your mother will have feet, not wings
And with their clay, they’ll crush her soul –
Oh, read The Mabinogion, dear,
You pretty pretty little child –
For you shall be my daughter fair,
my son Avaggdu’s ugly – wild –
the thick and thwart upon his brow
why should she have while I’ve not got?
Your mother taught at Wiston school
and so I tell you, she shall not.’
She plucked and plucked and screamed her rage
now mother’s clad in primrose dell,
But I can’t go and see her now,
Rhiannon keeps me in a cage
And sings to me of sweetest love
And all the things I cannot gauge:
Avaddgu scowls, for he’s not loved
And spits upon upon sweet mother’s grave.
The Famished House
‘Around here, the trees suck air and, at night,
when the last shriek of the plump and pretty-breasted curlew
is drawn from its throat, and when the strandline treasure
is dulled and shredded against the rock, even in fair weather,
well then: that is the time that the houses take their fill.’
‘Nanny, is it true?’ ‘ Oh yes. Around here when the moss
spawns bad, it creeps across your foot if you slowly move,
so be sure to move quite fast, when the twilight stalks,
then that is the time that the houses take their fill.’
‘Nanny, is it true?’ ‘Oh yes. When the jewel sky
and the lapping wing, have beat their very blood
into the hour, take heed; the tidiest stones
we built such with, will stretch up so to bark at silly men,
the silliest from away, for we shall know
what is to come, as groaning, crafted stone leans in
to kiss a sleeping face and staunch, in wild rebellion, dear,
the men that wrest it proudly from the ground.’
‘Today we will go inland dear, to see the rhododendron bloom,
Away from sea scent, sunset shell; away from me, away from you.’
We travelled for hours on little tracks, their way being marked with showy prime,
It was, at first, of some delight, but then my love spoke of his crime:
‘So, stay here, love, forever held, unless you scent the estuary,
And I fly high, to England bold, away from you, away from me.’
Ah dear, you underestimate my knowledge of this mazèd land,
You did not hear the laughing breeze, dead mammy’s come and with her hand
She’ll pen you up, beside the Rhos, and I will run forever free,
I’ll not stay here, forever held, not stay with you but live for me –
An orient boat will rescue me, blown fast on daddy’s pretty curse
And rhododendron casket blooms will strip your life and end my verse.