These eighteen poems are, excepting the first one (which is already accepted for publication), in very draft form and are the basis of a poetry pamphlet I am currently calling Thalassa-Môr. It gets its title because, although it’s about countryside I know, difficult things that have happened, my family and other much loved people and events, I have also threaded through it elements from Greek literature and from Welsh. The title of the first poem is from The Odyssey; ‘Rhiannon’ lower down refers, albeit obliquely, to characters in the Mabinogion. I have also woven in stories from my grandmother and from other elderly storytellers whose auspices and provenance I couldn’t grasp as a child. Was I related to them? I wasn’t and am not exactly sure. The storyteller was the important thing. Anyway, these poems (plus some others) in a much more polished form will be going in different directions in the summer – so fingers crossed. NB: the layout that pops up on wordpress is not how they are set out in my ms, so some of the verses aren’t quite preserved and the left spine is uneven. This is an anomaly I haven’t fixed yet.
Do feel free to comment on the drafts at the bottom of the text. Anna x
‘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 keenest 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 didn’t feel the azure pull,
the mermaid kiss, the tongues that spoke;
she died a desiccated ideath, 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
Mfanwy, 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.
Mfanwy – I was precise; exacting with the fall of dark and bright: I wrote it down.
Mfanwy, 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 –
Mfanwy, stay. Mfanwy, 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.
Mfanwy, stay. Mfanwy, 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 honey bees, 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 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? We musn’t forget
and mustn’t leave the bag at home and mustn’t 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 dulcet love
And all the things I cannot gauge:
Avaggdu cries 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
s drawn from its throat, and when the strand-line 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 on dead daddy’s pretty curse
And rhododendron casket blooms will strip your life and end my verse.
As far as I know, five local (and local-ish) book groups are currently looking at the novel. That is very nice of them. I’ve said that, if I am free and not too far away, I’d love to come and answer questions if a book group would like that. It dawned on me, too, that when I am out and about I should offer to do groups further afield and have also been writing to some wonderful bookshops to that end in mid Wales, Pembrokeshire, Virginia and New York. Oh, what do I sound like? Wales – all over: that’s where my family’s from; the US South is my husband’s patch and NYC isn’t so far from VA where I’ll be visiting mom in the fall. If you’re with a small press – and perhaps anyway – you have to think laterally to get the book out there! But most of all, I just want to reach readers with the book and, where I can, build meaningful encounters and discussions.
So, here are some book group starter questions you could use, if you like. Anna x
Who is Alison and who is Hapless Ally? Are they the same person or two separate people?
Would you describe Hapless Ally as real?
What is your opinion of Santa Maria?
Who is the most horrible person in the book and to whom do you warm most?
What genre do you think the book sits in? Do you call it literary fiction, or does it read as memoir or even, partly, self-help to you? Is it a hybrid?
Did you guess the ending?
What’s the significance of the book’s title? Is it simple and straightforward, or something more complex and nuanced?
Did you like the names for people and places in the book?
Did you take offence to any of the descriptions – for example, of the f…… caravan, the funerals, dying?
There are many literary references shot through the narrative. Some are obvious and documented explicitly in the text (and thus you will see them on the acknowledgements page) but some are harder to spot. So get spotting!
Did you feel that you learned more about mental health from the book?
Did you think that the book gives us insights into therapeutic practice and the sort of help available (although I feel I must add, not routinely available) through our National Health Service in the UK?
Did the book help you? By which I mean, did it make you feel better about your own problems or state of mind? Did it give you a nudge to tackle things that are holding you back and making you unhappy?
Were you able to read it as entertainment, despite some of the themes it addresses?
If you know me, were you able to separate it from me? (This has been an interesting discussion with friends…)
Was the book shocking? If so, why?
Is it a happy ending? Is it over – in a good way?
Who was your favourite imaginary friend – and why? Dolly, Shirley, Albert, JK….
Did you feel sympathy for Santa Maria? For Dad? For Brother who Might as well be Dead? For Terry?
What do you think of Dixie Delicious?
What makes you laugh in the book? Is it the pickled egg murder/horrible deaths/caravan of evil/revenge on the tutus…?
What does the book show us about the power of literature and, more broadly, of the written word? What of the spoken – the “curses ringing”?
I am a mother of three boys, four to fourteen. Some people have asked, ‘Aren’t you worried about what your kids will think?’ Should an author be? Should I, as this author, be?
Why do you think there’s a shift in narrative from first to third person between the prologue and chapter one? Do you think it’s successful?
What’s the significance of the foreword to the rest of the book?
Is Alison strong, or is she weak?
What do you think of having a bibliography in the book? It’s far from a standard feature!
Did all this really happen? Do you believe it did? Why?
Now that last one is, I think, the most interesting question of the lot!
If you were to look at the frontispiece to Killing Hapless Ally, you’d see the disclaimer: it’s a work of fiction; no-one real in it and so on. However, there is also a statement that the book is based on episodes in my own life. More is true than a reader might suppose, because you never can tell what occurs in the interior life of another person or within the hidden confines of home. The key thing, though, is that ‘Ally’, Alison, the protagonist’s alter ego, was pretty much real for me. I heard her as a voice, glimpsed her as a shade beside me, as part of myself; I watched myself become her in order to feel more accepted, and I saw her both as myself and as yet another person to hate and pour scorn. It was complicated, the notion of my allegory coming to life.
I have had people write to me and ask whether I thought I was schizophrenic or had a personality disorder and I suppose I can see why the question might be asked, but it was more that, for me, the person I tried to be didn’t work, because it wasn’t me. She was the voice in my head; alternative me. Lots of people weld on what they think is a socially acceptable self; perhaps I just did it in a more complex way – and of course, I also had a gallery of imaginative friends and of course I had a lot of mental health problems and extremely poor coping strategies in the face of stress. But I had The Books: their authors, stories and characters to help me build and re-build. I wasn’t alone.
So, Ally, or someone like her, had been living with me for over thirty years until….well, you’ll have to see what happens in the book! When I wrote it, I gave her a more detailed life and a more delineated character and so she got to hang around, larger than life, while I drafted and re-wrote and finished the book.
Oh – she and I had been together a long time. And I realised that this was why such a creature was a good subject for my book. I breathed life into her and wrote her more fully into being, didn’t I? I lived with her for the longest time. Now, I am doing it with someone else. He’s called ‘Almost’ and he is a lad from the sea and the estuary and the islands of Pembrokeshire. An ‘Almost, down there, kind of kid’. Except he’s not. If you have read Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, you will have a little inkling of what my fluid, adventuring soul might get up to; he isn’t constrained by mind, or time, or identity or even gender; he goes to some extraordinary places and ends up, Forrest Gump-like, in fabulous and terrible and curious places. You don’t know about mermaids called Nerys and Dilys and Elleri? You will. I’d watch out, because these girls can get out of the sea and up the Cleddau estuary and wreak havoc and the truest of love and adventure. And they are hungry for sex and blood. I want to tell you who Muffled Mfanwy (of Killing Hapless Ally) was before she was constrained, by grief, never to speak again. To show you how ‘Almost’ ends up involved in the Melanesian Cargo Cults, where they revere Prince Philip (they do) and what on earth that has to do with Pembrokeshire (okay, I might have made that bit that up). It is certainly a strange story: I am not sure I would know how to write anything that wasn’t. And did I say the book’s biggest influence is Dickens’s Great Expectations, which is probably my favourite book?
So Almost is hanging out with me. Telling me how he got his name, what he planned to do with it, what he’s seen, what he’s missed and -oh!- how he’s loved. I want to ask him if he transcended his name; if he wanted time to stop. Who was the lady from Lawrenny Quay that he could never leave – and where, Almost, did the mermaids go, and why was the sea part of you, Almost, and why did you cross each one, but always come back to the night-world of the quay and the mud and the winking yachts and the lady in the stained raggedy dress who watched from the window of the big old house and she who you loved and loved best?
Almost reassures me that he will tell me all that, but only after I have made him a second breakfast because he’s famished after his global sojourns. And when I have done just that and he has begun to speak, I can start writing his story again.