We walked alone together up the steep hillside, finding our own desire paths through the boggy heathland, climbing our own mental inclines, the hidden engines of our hearts driving us forward, the mental cable of our thoughts reeling us up the slope – providing the traction of deferred gratification. We had come the wild West Brecons to make mythopoeic pilgrimage to Llyn y Fan Fach, a glacial tarn associated with the Tylwyth Teg, the ‘Good Folk’ of the Brythonic tradition, and with the legend of a lake maiden.
On the brow of the hill, catching breath, we caught a first glimpse of the llyn, a cauldron of water held by savagely beetling cliffs, which dropped precipitously to its shimmering fastness. The surface was a digital mirror, pixilating with waves of re-rendering detail. The wind, kinked into tight vortices, catspawed the gelid waters into sudden surges of serration, looking for all the world like a murmuration of otherworldly beings just beneath its reflection of the apparent reality. Here, another was co-existent. It was easy to believe this place to be a portal to Annwn, or the parlour of identical lake maidens, giddy with their doppelgänger dance – lost in their own enchantment, their hall-of-mirror beauty echoed into infinity, and laughing at the maddening effect it had on incautious wanderers who became bedizened by their alluring shimmer.
It was hard not to be drawn in, not to succumb to the spell-binding gravitational pull of Llyn y Fan Fach’s gramarye of place. We found a ledge to eat our lunch on – with a reassuring boulder acting as a buffer zone between us and oblivion, hundreds of feet below. At three thousand feet the wind was breath-taking, and it was essential to sit out of its icy slap. Hunkering down, we broke bread, offering some to the tutelary spirit, with a bit of cheese to be on the safe side – though casting it into the void from the precipice was not risk averse. Such was the custom – and it’s wisest to heed local knowledge.
We chewed over aspects of the lake maiden story, turning it in our conversation to reveal different cleavage plains. Depending on the version, the apparently fortunate farmer is granted the comely lake maiden as his wife upon stern conditions set by her otherworldly father – that if he should strike three causeless blows, he would lose her forever. This seems temptingly easy to avoid, so he agrees, thinking that he would never strike his beloved new bride. But with folkloric inevitability, like salt to meat, the three causeless blows occur – sometimes ‘provoked’ by the fairy wife behaving in, surprise surprise, a fey-like manner: laughing wildly at a funeral, or crying sorrowfully at a christening. By the time the third ‘blow’ is struck (usually a playful tap on the shoulder), the farmer’s fortunes have reached their zenith. But with the geas broken, the lake maiden withdraws her favours and leads all their fat livestock into the waters of Llyn y Fan Fach. Remarkably, the offspring of their union remain (unlike in equivalent selkie tales), each with a strange gleam in the eye, and the descendants of these become the renowned Physicians of Myddvai, gifted with uncanny powers of healing.
The gifts of the Otherworld, it seems, arise mysteriously and can vanish just as unexpectedly. But on a more human level, perhaps the tale tells us never to take for granted the ones we cherish. That love, and its cousins – affection, friendship, companionship – are blessings we should count every day. Perhaps it is a proto-feminist folk tale. The female protagonist, has, for once, agency. She chooses to manifest before the farmer, and she chooses her time and manner of withdrawal. Her graces we can no more grasp and claim as our own than the catspaw upon the waters. An essentialist reading, however, would suggest that men and women are fundamentally different, and we will never fathom each other’s depths. Whatever the truth of the tale – and its facets are many and morphean – the overwhelming mystique of the place remains. If magic still lingers in these lands, then this is one such frost-pocket.
And it is in such places that I have found inspiration over the years – fountains of awen that I bathe in through my efforts of making pilgrimage. Innumerable times I have experienced their numinous power, their landscape-medicine, and felt compelled to articulate and honour the genius loci in, most of all, poetry, which I have found captures such little epiphanies more concisely, more holistically, than any other form. A photograph captures two dimensions, a poem, four, if not more. One’s body is the camera, and the experience is ‘recorded’ in an intensely visceral way. This embodied knowledge is poured into the poem, which distils it, one hopes, into memorable wisdom – though only time will tell. To be fully in the moment is all. Often the act of taking a photograph can take us away from the actuality of the encounter; whileas a poem (or drawing) can take us more deeply into the moment. A photo can act as a handy aide-mémoire, but notes – or a sketch – done in situ are far better. They retain the tang of the wild.
We traversed the perilous ridge of the Black Mountain and descended quickly as body temperature plummeted – this was not a place to dally, but for a brief while it felt like we had walked amongst the gods, imbibing the rarefied atmosphere of myth.
Copyright © Kevan Manwaring 3 May 2018
Silver Branch: bardic poems by Kevan Manwaring is published by Awen this summer:
With thanks to Anthony for an epic day, another ramble-sublime!
By Anthony Nanson
Chrissy Derbyshire is a master of style – lyrical and accessible, archly ironic, and yet at the same time charged with the sensual feyness of Faerie. The eight stories in Mysteries take tropes from myth and fairy tale and animate them, through the alembic of lived experience, with a potent contemporary spark. The ten poems also included in this collection do the same, in a more focused epiphanic way. In the literary cosmos, Chrissy’s work fits somewhere between Tanith Lee, only with more sense of humour, and Storm Constantine, only more lyrical. Ten years after this book’s first publication, Awen is pleased to release a second edition, including an additional story and three extra poems, with a foreword by fantasy author Kim Huggens and stunning cover art by Tom Brown. You can order Mysteries, like all our books, from the website.
Here’s the information from the back of the book:
This enchanting and exquisitely crafted collection by Chrissy Derbyshire will whet your appetite for more from this superbly talented wordsmith. Her short stories interlaced with poems depict chimeras, femmes fatales, mountebanks, absinthe addicts, changelings, derelict warlocks, and persons foolhardy enough to stray into the beguiling world of Faerie. Let the sirens’ song seduce you into the Underworld.
‘All of the pieces in Mysteries are entertaining. But they also speak twice. Each one has layers of meaning that touch on the ultimate that cannot be put into words and speak to our inner landscapes that are so full of desire for meaning. Chrissy’s journey, elaborately retold in the arena of mythology, is our own journey.’ Kim Huggens
This Friday 20 April we’re publishing a major new work by Jay Ramsay, to coincide with his 60th birthday. It’s called Pilgrimage – a journey to Love Island. The Love Island in question is Scotland’s sacred isle, Iona, so the new book will be big brother to Mary Palmer’s Iona (Awen, 2008).
Jay will be reading from the book at Hawkwood College, Stroud, on 20 April as part of an event with Andrew Harvey on the theme of sacred activism (8 p.m., £12/£9).
The FREE LAUNCH PARTY for Pilgrimage is on Wednesday 25 April at Black Book Cafe, Stroud GL5 2HL (7.30 for 8 p.m.) and includes poetry by Steve Morris, Polly Howell, and Gabriel Millar and music from the Day Jobs. Everyone is welcome!
Pilgrimage is available to order from the Awen website. Here’s some info about the book from the back cover:
In the summer of 1990 Jay Ramsay set out on pilgrimage with an interfaith group from London to Iona. The result is his most ambitious book-length poem, an astonishing tour de force in the tradition of Wordsworth and Chaucer. Epiphanic, conversational, meditational, psychological, political, it divines ‘the cross’ of spiritual and ecological being in Britain’s radical tradition, as symbolised by Iona as the crown of the Celtic church and the direction that Christianity lost.
Constructed as a series of 25 ‘days’, the narrative builds symphonically like waves of the sea up to its visionary climax. Full of stories, reflections, memories, and images, Pilgrimage is above all a love poem, an invitation into the greater love that is our true becoming where we can find the God most personal to all of us – alive in the heart of Life.
‘Pilgrimage is an important outpouring from one of Britain’s leading poets wrestling with the Christ story, the human story, and the story of where we need to go as a species. Travelling with Jay is never anything less than a journey into the past, with adventures in the present, and visions of hope for the future.’ Martin Palmer
‘It is strange and beautiful how everything he passes comes into colour, into focus – is born. And I ran along after him and listened as he changed the colour of the sea and broke down doors.’ Peter Owen Jones
by Jay Ramsay
It occurs to me again today that the task for poetry couldn’t be clearer where poets are choosing to bring their work into the field of social justice and (as Andrew Harvey would say, with utmost relevance) ‘sacred activism’.
The real story, which is surely the environment now, is being masked by a puppet show diverting our attention from what urgently matters in our collective consciousness. However, every effort is being made through the best of social media to keep that story at the frontline of our awareness.
Of course, our human story matters as well: we live at a time when all the world’s wrongs are being exposed in a time of transparency. This great transparency, in my view, has the absolute backing of the spiritual world where that transparent light originates. When that light informs a poet’s eye, we also have poetry that matters.
You must have asked yourself, as I have many times, what does the spiritual world make of the state we are in? With a new century so quickly mired in sourness that is at the same time an unavoidable process towards our awakening, the dark before the dawn, the End Time, Revelation … and now with two important films released recently on both sides of the Atlantic: The Post, with Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep, recalling the great Vietnam cover-up through a series of White House administrations, and the Washington Post’s brave decision to publish leaked documents; and on this side of the pond Darkest Hour, where Churchill stood firm in 1940 against all the forces of appeasement to take Hitler seriously as the very real threat that could have (would have) changed our island history.
As a dear friend and local poetry lover, Sally Whitman, said who saw it (and I paraphrase): ‘I mean, what kind of Britain do we want ? A trivial nation, or what?’
This is transparency in action, through the Self, through intuition; and of course this is fire in the heart which is the passion that knows how much it matters: this is where we will recover our moral compass, and not only that, but our own authentic orientation as people living now who want to make an empowered contribution.
As Robert Bly, 92 this year, put it in ‘Advice from the Geese’:
Every seed spends many nights in the earth.
Give up the idea the world will get better by itself.
You will not be forgiven if you refuse to study.
(Reproduced in Diamond Cutters: contemporary visionary poets in America and Britain, ed. Andrew Harvey & Jay Ramsay, Tayen Lane, San Francisco, 2016)
In the first essay of this remarkably wide-ranging book Jeremy Hooker refers to examining an entire life of a district. He looks at Gilbert White’s consideration of the “human (including antiquities) and nature where he found them, side by side; he did not need to go beyond the bounds of his parish to find the fullness of nature”. Hooker is looking at the idea of what might be contained in the word wilderness and recognises that there has been none in the British Isles since the Middle Ages:
“…even in the sense of the word given by Dr Johnson in his Dictionary (‘a desert; a tract of solitude and strangeness’), wilderness is nowhere to be found upon an American scale in these islands.”
I was tempted here to recall a passage from the ‘Anoch’ section of Johnson’s Journey to the Western Isles where the urban figure from the world of…
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by Ken Masters
‘Hello everybody, assuming you can hear me! I am the ghost of Aristotle, and I haunt the Elwin room at BRLSI, especially when the Philosophers have their meetings and are in their full, satisfyingly “middle-excluding” flow, forensically objectifying, reifying, and literalising everything that their minds can come up with. I must tell you, however, that I am in “shock”!
‘Into this hallowed room (I remember a gratifying visiting Professor of Logic, who, whilst debunking “Eastern Philosophy”, and cutting short his fourteen pages of definitions of “consciousness”, waved his arms in the air, inviting in the energy to energise the very expression of his de-bunking – which intangibility I can not possibly recognise, classify, or exonerate) came one Lindsay Clarke, propagating one irritatingly intangible “(A Dance With) Hermes”, full of vital “presence”, whom I hoped I had seen off aeons ago. Give me Apollo any day. His Talk, (or was it a Lecture, or a Book-relaunch), had the normal BRLSI format of Introduction, Talk, and Questions – but how long would he go on for, with Questions, to give the audience time to sign that tall pile of books I could see, that they might or might not wish to buy?
‘My normal, space-excluding, rigorously defined categories, which allow no variation within them (for me, white is white, and black, black, rather than anything varying between), were challenged from the outset. So, a “A Talk is a Talk, not a Book re-Launch as well”, and I resent having my question-time squeezed! (I’ll have to invent another category, which will then also be “objecti-fiction”, but don’t tell anyone.) LC talked of Hermes as a “betwixt and between, THRESHOLD sort of creature; mischievous, equivocal and nonchalant about boundaries and definitions”. Ugh! (I once heard of an Anthropologist called Mary Douglas, who wrote a book called Purity and Danger. Plenty of impurity here! Of course, I must discount any emotional reaction I might have.) This trickster “god” already had us “by the goolies”, to use a metaphor that I shouldn’t. LC then went on to tell us that he himself had already received the same treatment! He explained that Hermes would never let him be pinned down (in any categorical system); so, were his “Poems” really poems, with or without the quotation marks, or were they verses, or “squibs” – “call them what you like”! If that was not enough, Hermes confused the rhyming schemes, again to defy the usual. Then LC mixed his talk with “poems” to illustrate just how far Hermes tweaks the “normal forms” and dancingly inhabits the “twixt thresholds”. When it came to Questions, I sensed that the audience, so transmogrified and bemused (the Philosophers had probably voted with their feet beforehand, and the event was promoted for a general audience rather than specifically for the poetry afficionados) that they could hardly articulate any question or argument sophisticated enough for my taste, even with LC moving to the front. BUT they found Lindsay Clarke, and what he had to say, “wonderful”! I was warned off from the outset, through the introducer’s accolades for LC’s novel, The Chymical Wedding – “alchemy”, I ask you! She then foreclosed the Questions – or were they Comments? – because there were few, so far—or perhaps because of that heap of books waiting? As a good empiricist, I do not have quite enough evidence to say. More shock – the queue was very long, and, instead of leaving, people talked while they waited. Few left immediately! All that vigorous though strangely calm hermetic “stirring up”, and the Clarkey intangible “presence”, had had its effect! I don’t begin to understand, or where to start on the “Content”!
‘I eavesdropped for a while, into their chat, their emails afterwards, maybe relevant for a blog, definitely not a book review: or have I got that wrong as well? What sort of category is “blog”? Anthony Nanson was talking with Ken Masters about a blog, who then went off to commune with an equally delighted Alan Rayner. Here are some snippets from what they had to say afterwards: Alan Rayner emailed to Ken Masters et al., “Hermes symbolises the ‘mutually-inclusive middle’, the immortal, intangible holder of the dynamic threshold that brings receptive spatial stillness (darkness) and responsive energetic flux (light) into the mutually inclusive embrace from which material form emerges in place-time.” What language! Hope he’s defined his terms! I should mention that that KM had asked AR to express what he perceived about Hermes and his Dancing “in a nutshell”. Actually, AR coined the expression “the vitality of the intangible” for Hermes, just afterwards. This man creates “poems” and “art” as well as precision in language that a philosopher or scientist might approve, even if what he says is “non-sense” within normal paradigms. BUT I’m belatedly realising that, as I categorise and objectify, everything starts to die …’
Hello everybody. I’m Ken Masters, an old colleague of Lindsay’s from way back, re-met in good old BRLSI; and I am now writing this blog by invitation. Hope I won’t let you down. Such a shame, Aristotle, that you continue to haunt, and not just BRLSI. Through your ‘abstract rationality’, and ‘scientific knowledge’ based on it, you dismiss the ‘intangible’, and objectify; for instance, as you start to train us to use would-be empathic, artificially intelligent robots; to perceive living organisms as machines, computers; see trees as ‘sticks in the ground’ rather than fountains of water-flow, etc., etc.! Perhaps Alan Rayner will help us to see how old Aristotle remains important – but in his place. Alan’s recent book is called The Origins of Life Patterns in the Natural Inclusion of Space in Flux, and he gave it to Lindsay at BRLSI. He also goes on to say, in another email, ‘yes, I think some others would greatly enjoy Lindsay’s book, notwithstanding a bit of “All-oneness” in places, which Hermes would not appreciate. It is a work of creative verbal genius and classical scholarship … I had this extraordinary dream about the tennis match between Apollo and Hermes (some years ago) before my breakdown/breakthrough into explicit awareness of Natural Inclusionality began … Humanity now needs Hermes, and it needs N.I. very badly.’ (Which is why I, KM, am blogging.) So, what’s this about a ‘bit of “All-oneness”’, and why would Hermes not like it?
My Commentary on the ‘nutshell’: I hoped Hermes would refuse to listen to poor old Aristotle, especially where the ‘living and the intangible’ are concerned; and instead of ‘excluding the middle’ between LIGHT and DARK, facilitate the ‘mutually inclusive embrace’ instead. ‘Dark and light’ are distinct, but never discrete, separate, or opposites. (We can consider the Daoist yin/yang sign, with the yin dynamically within the yin and vice versa.) They are not to be entirely merged into an invariable, indefinite, All-one, grey ‘whole’, as the world turns, but mutually and dynamically embrace, ‘distinct but never entirely discrete’. But this is not quite what Hermes seems to do, in ‘His Opus’, no. 3, ‘Coniunctio’. ‘“Separate; coagulate” … First analyse the mass in [separate, Aristotle] pieces, then [with Plato] bring together what’s been torn apart … Sun and Moon, the King and Queen are contraries that must be reconciled before he can be whole, and from their union, a child.’ Seems logical? Yes, but this is the very approach Aristotle likes: ‘coagulating “Oneness”’. However, in ‘He [Hermes] Takes Off’: ‘Beyond sleep and waking, life and death, he flies into that elusive space that opens up where fire and water, heavy earth and and weightless air, and all such opposites are reconciled by his sublime imagination.’ Something different does happen. What?
Lindsay quotes quantum physics, technological advance: ‘but what will it profit us if, in the process of gaining technological control of the world [i.e. following Aristotle], we lose touch with our soul’; and he thus celebrates ‘the intangible’. (Read ‘Envoi’.) Now Alan, as a serious life scientist, also goes right back to first principles and the quantum level, to explain how intangible ‘quantum’ space, at sub-atomic levels is empty, continuous, still, frictionless, receptive/non-resistant, un-cut-able, everywhere – not ‘bounded’ like any monotheistic God, into any separate ‘wholes’ – infinite, eternal. The very strength of the RECEPTIVITY of (not discounted, cf. normal physics) space, included as such in Natural Inclusional Science, produces energetic FLUX; and, from this, ‘particles’ are ‘in-formed’ by induction. By being made of 100 per cent space and energy, not 99.9 per cent, they have both a tangible and an intangible ‘presence’ – and ‘influence’ beyond their physical form. No ‘particles’, aggregated as space-excluding ‘building-blocks’ into solid ‘wholes’, can ‘cut’ space; rather, space, remaining STILL, permeates everything, animate or animate, when it moves, or moves itself. As I walk around in ‘place-time’ I therefore do not carry ‘my own space’, the same ‘bag of space’ with my body envelope. Different local space then permeates as I move. I receive it, and the receptivity induces a more or less ‘dynamically coherent’
energetic flow that the trained inner eye can actually perceive. This is why I am a Qi Gong practitioner, and why this authentic Daoist tradition validates Natural Inclusion as a perspective that I believe we need to become paradigmatic (though not ‘complete’). Neither Abstract Rationality nor Holism will quite do. ‘Wholes’ are usually thought of as ‘definitively, completely, and rigidly bounded “Unities”, entirely abstracted from context; either an aggregation of likewise separate, identical smaller “wholes”, or a “total, utterly homogenised”, merged, blend.
My introduction to Qi Gong, with a Chinese master, was to ‘imagine all the spaces in our bodies’ – e.g. between organs – then find that, with a light focus, they start to blend. We then become, within our skin, ‘empty’. In deep meditation, this skin itself ‘dissolves’ within consciousness, but not entirely. In Buddhist meditation, the body can appear entirely to disappear, into the ‘all’. In Qi Gong meditation, there is still perception of some ‘distinctiveness’. We do not lose our uniqueness into the ‘Unity’. Instead of ‘Wholes’, Alan prefers to talk about ‘Holes’, ‘Hollows’, ‘Emptiness’, in personal experience and his own Natural Inclusional ‘practice’. From this vitality of the imagination, emptiness, comes the sense and perception of ‘no severance’ from other life-forms, which implies being ‘fully-present-with’, immediacy. I sense this with Lindsay, and it involves a hermetic transformation. If we cannot do this, or at least accept it as a possibility, we are in the hands of building literal and perceptual WALLS to protect our (spurious) sense of ‘unity’ and ‘completion’.
Back to Hermes! ‘He Considers GUTS and Such’:
He likes it when we hanker after truth
in things, yet smiles to see how serious
we are in postulating theories
of everything …
and Hermes knows the universe expands
each time we think we’ve got the explanation.
Not this, not that, but both, or maybe none
of the above, his tricksy wisdom understands
what unassisted wisdom fails to see:
the tongue can’t taste its buds; the only snake
to swallow its own tail does not mistake
itself as literally true … nor, he thinks, should we.
I thank Alan Rayner, over the years, for sharing his naturally derived perspective, truth, of Natural Inclusion. His vitality and imagination, creativity in poetry and art, surely come, as do Lindsay’s, from ‘no isolation, or severance’.
I thank Lindsay Clarke for The Chymical Wedding, The Water Theatre, and now for his extraordinary and very special ‘Dance with Hermes’; for the wonderful ‘no-isolation, or severance’.
Words and logic alone cannot express truth as merely literal, even when talking of space, energy, flux, stillness, infinity everywhere and form somewhere. Look Alan up at the ‘bestthinking’ website, or on YouTube? His radical, evolutionary perspective of Natural Inclusion is something I need, like I need Hermes, and I don’t think I’m the only one. Lindsay wrote his ‘Note on the Threshold’ to introduce. He and Hermes seem to me to be also at the threshold of Natural Inclusion. Hermes, in ‘Koinos Hermes’, is ‘ever the unexpected messenger, who sends you glimpses of the wet fire and the lit dark in the loded stone’. But I’m not entirely convinced that the ‘magic work, of which one may not speak’, with HIM ‘begins and ends’ alone, unless it questions what he himself appears to say. I think it does.
POSTSCRIPT. As a dancer of traditional Greek and Balkan dance, I love Lindsay’s ‘poem’ A Dance with Hermes. As a homage to Hermes’s ‘winged buskins’, ‘lithe muscularity’, or ‘his kinetic stance that makes his godly body seem to dance where others merely walk’, I offer a short extract from The Broken Road, the final volume of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s trilogy telling the story of the eighteen-year-old ‘Paddy’ who set off in 1933 to walk to Constantinople. In the chapter ‘Dancing by the Black Sea’, Patrick, wet, cold, and starving (apart from the bottles of raki he has forgotten about in his knapsack), arrives at a cave near the beach, to find a fire, welcome, food, wine, six Bulgarian shepherds, and six Greek sailors, not to mention a broken bagpipe, mended by Patrick with an elastoplast. To cut a wonderfully told story short, dancing begins: ‘As the drone swelled, one of the younger fishermen began a burlesque Turkish belly-dance … It was very convincing, even to the loud crack that accompanied a particularly spasmodic wrench of haunch and midriff, produced by the parting of the two interlocked forefingers of either hands they were held, with joined pals above his head. The comic effect of this dance was all the greater, owing to the husky and piratical appearance of Dimitri, the dancer. “He needs a charchaff,” one of the shepherds cried, and bound a cheese cloth round the lower part of Dimitri’s face and across the bridge of his nose, like a yashmak. The rolling of his smoke-reddened eyes above his veil, turned him into a mixture of virago, houri and Widow Twankey.’
That was just the start of it. Hermes was surely at work. Hope you have enjoyed it.