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 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)
Jeremy Hooker has been for many years a major figure as both poet and literary critic. He has had an enduring interest in nature, landscape, and place. So it’s both an honour and also a lovely fit for Awen to have published a collection of his principal essays on the relation between ‘poetry’ in the broad sense (including literary fiction) and the ecological. I’ll let the description and comments from the back cover speak for themselves:
Ditch Vision is a book of essays on poetry, nature, and place that extends Jeremy Hooker’s thinking on subjects that, as a distinguished critic and poet, he has made his life’s work. The writers he considers include Edward Thomas, Robert Frost, Robinson Jeffers, Richard Jefferies, John Cowper Powys, Mary Butts, and Frances Bellerby. Through sensitive readings of these and other writers, he discusses differences between British and American writers concerned with nature and spirit of place. The book also includes essays in which he reflects upon the making of his own work as a lyric poet. Written throughout with a poet’s feeling for language, Ditch Vision is the work of an exploratory writer who seeks to understand the writings he discusses in depth, and to illuminate them for other readers. Hooker explores the ‘ground’ of poetic vision with reference to its historical and mythological contexts, and in this connection Ditch Vision constitutes also a spiritual quest.
‘For thirty years and more I have admired Jeremy Hooker’s poetry, criticism, and journals. These essays touch both upon some of his familiar and deeply loved subjects, and on concerns that are more recent. His prose is clear and resonant, a pleasure in itself. His views are always challenging. He is, and has been for many years, a necessary voice.’ John Matthias
‘Lovely intense encounters with landscape come into these essays. Suddenly, in a discussion of poetry, there is the presence of warm earth on a Spring day in chalk country, or sunlight coming through trees, or drying shingle when the tide has just withdrawn. Throughout Hooker’s writing about poetry, place and environmental concern, there is this direct and frank openness to particular moments of experience, and the power they have to keep people constantly changing. Hooker searches for an environmentalism rooted in these moments of intense and poetic yet everyday experience, but also alert to global perspectives and to history. In this search, he reads other poets, including several who have been unjustly neglected, and tells the story of how place and memory influenced his own development as a poet. To all of this he brings the skills that his poetry, his childhood and his places have given him – his love of imagery, speech-rhythm, conversation and colour.’ Richard Kerridge
By Irina Kuzminsky
June 3, Waterloo Festival, St John’s Waterloo
On a spectacularly sunny English summer day some of Britain’s best poets gathered at St John’s Church Waterloo to send out their own call for awareness of the ecological crisis threatening our planet and therefore us. Sponsored, most appropriately, by the World Wildlife Fund and ARC (http://arcworld.org) and curated by poet, author and psychotherapist Jay Ramsay, Writing on the Wall was an ambitious part of the Waterloo Festival – a day of eco-spiritual poetry with speakers, poets, musicians and singers. The day also offered the opportunity for audience involvement through a rich selection of options: a guided walk through the Waterloo and Lambeth of Blake and Rimbaud with Irish poet Niall McDevitt, a poetry writing workshop with Sian Thomas, or a singing experience with Caroline McCausland and Anam Cora.
The focus of the day was eco-spirituality and a wake-up call for us to see the state of the planet we are a part of, a state brought about largely by our own role as exploiters rather than guardians of the natural world and of each other. Artists, in the deep sense, are called to truth-seeing and truth-telling and this was what all the contributors to the day sought in their individual ways to accomplish. It is no indictment of them that most of them are not mainstream household names. As Jay Ramsay pointed out, if they, and their views, had been mainstream, the state of our ecology – and spirituality – would have been different to what it is now. In any case, it has always been the voices from the periphery, those who come from outside the establishment, who make a difference, and who are responsible for revolutions in ways of thinking and of perceiving, and this is no different today. Those who bring in the truly new, regardless of how the established appropriate to themselves sobriquets and buzz words such as ‘ground-breaking’, ‘modern’, ‘challenging’, ‘innovative’, are still outsiders today. Anthony Nanson of Awen Publications, an eco-spiritual publisher, made an impassioned plea for the support of independent presses making the point that they have always been the ones to publish the important truly new non-mainstream books of their time.
The day got off to an inspired and inspiring start with contributions by poets Jay Ramsay and Jeni Couzyn, business thought leader Giles Hutchins, who spoke unforgettably on the Illusion of Separation, and vicar and BBC broadcaster Peter Owen Jones. All spoke with eloquence and from the heart, as did the afternoon speakers, Dr Glyn Davies, Executive Director of Global Programmes at WWF, international activist Jane Samuels, writer and poet Sarah Connor who proposed a new Bill of Truth, and Awen publisher Anthony Nanson.
It was particularly heartening to hear from speakers such as Giles Hutchins and Jane Samuels on the role of poetry. Not poets themselves, they were a clear illustration of how poetry can and does make a difference in people’s lives, inspiring them to look at the world in a different way, and to make a soul connection with it as it were.
The poets themselves, all of them included in the spiritual poetry anthology Diamond Cutters, edited by Jay Ramsay and Andrew Harvey (Tayen Lane), presented their work in the concluding concert. Jeni Couzyn, Helen Moore, Paul Matthews, Jehanne Mehta, Jay Ramsay, Victoria Field, Sian Thomas, Irina Kuzminsky, Aidan Andrew Dun (with pianist Lucie Rechjrtova), Niall McDevitt – each was memorable in their own way. Jehanne Mehta and Aidan Andrew Dun collaborated with musicians to enhance their readings, a beautiful illustration of how effectively music can combine with the spoken word. The final poem of the day was a reworking of Rudyard Kipling’s famous poem If by Jojo Mehta, striking in its simplicity and truth. The concert concluded with hauntingly beautiful musical presentations by Anam Cora, an all-women vocal ensemble led by Caroline McCausland, and flautist Nigel Shaw, who makes his own flutes, including a replica of a bone flute, one of the earliest ever found.
The amount of thought-provoking material and presentations packed into one day was incredible and more than enough for an entire immersive weekend. Part conference, part roundtable, part poetry readings, part workshops, part concert, the day left the audience well and truly sated and filled to overbrimming. All in all it was a Herculean effort by Jay Ramsay who enabled and organized the event and all credit goes to him.
The accompanying booklet, besides acting as a programme, provided examples of the individual poets’ work, as well as including poetry chosen by the participants, making it a fine poetry pamphlet in its own right.
Throughout it all St John’s Waterloo provided an excellent example of how a church can extend its reach into the community and bring people to an engagement with the spiritual through the arts. We all owe a big debt of gratitude to the Canon of St John’s, Giles Goddard who also led the opening and closing meditations, and to the members of the church for opening up their space to us, poets, artists, singers, musicians, photographers, sculptors, who see their art and creativity as a gateway into the spiritual and a way of engaging with the Supreme Creator of all.
Can poetry save the planet? It can bring about a groundswell of awareness and it can ignite minds, hearts and souls through words which reach beyond the illusion of separation and find an echo in an other.
The Awen authors are:
Back row: Paul Matthews (2nd from left), Aidan Andrew Dun (10th from left), Anthony Nanson (12th from left), Helen Moore (extreme right).
Front row: Irina Kuzminsky (6th from left), Jay Ramsay (9th from left), Jehanne Mehta (11th from left).
by Anthony Nanson
Charlotte Hussey’s Glossing the Spoils is rather more than a collection of poems. It will have a particular interest, not only to admirers of edgy and crisply constructed verse, but to anyone engaged with medieval romance, legend, and epic, especially in Celtic, Old English, and Arthurian traditions.
Awen have now published a new edition of this book, first published in 2012, with an expanded introduction by the author in which she goes into more detail about her fascinating method. The ‘Glossing’ in the title refers to the ‘glosa’, a poetic form that functions as a gloss, or commentary, upon a pre-existing text. Each of the poems in Glossing the Spoils takes a short extract selected from a medieval source – such as Beowulf, Mabinogion, Geoffrey of Monmouth, Parzival, and many others – and expands this into an expertly metred poem that imaginatively both unpacks that moment in the source story and evokes resonances with the modern world. This nuanced relationship between ancient and modern is then neatly reinforced by concluding each stanza with one line from the source extract.
Let me show you what I mean with an example. Charlotte’s poem ‘Tree’ is based on this extract from the Arthurian tale ‘Peredur Son Evrawg’ from Mabinogion:
On the bank of the river,
he sees a tall tree:
from roots to crown one half is aflame
and the other green with leaves.
The first stanza of ‘Tree’ goes like this:
She passes through a skeletal wall,
door blown off, its skeletal
frame leaning inwards. The drone
of the bombing squad begins to fade
as an eerie music like wind through the ribs
of something large grows louder,
rising over the rubble, stirring her
to cry and laugh and wish to sleep,
not knowing whether, like a dreamer
on the bank of the river,
— and so the narrative continues into the next stanza …
An encyclopaedic knowledge of medieval literature lies behind these poems. Charlotte Hussey is a scholar in this field and teaches courses on Breton, Irish, and Arthurian literature at Dawson College in Montreal. The poet Lorna Smithers has described Glossing the Spoils ‘as exemplary in re-envisioning the oldest myths of Western European tradition with formal mastery’. This is truly bardic poetry and I hope you will enjoy it.
Buy directly from Awen – awenpublications.co.uk/
Buy from Amazon – https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/1906900523
By Robin Collins
this great mnemonic,
land of the English, Celt and flint knappers of another age.
The seas wrap around her cliffs,
never letting the kingdom sleep,
haunting her people
with the foam capped thud of waves,
telling us to remember, remember.
The seas carried our distant ancestors,
unrecorded faces and names,
making the way across,
that ancient pollination of migration.
Britain in the becoming,
the great life stream of cultures.
Without the crossing over,
this island would be unnamed;
for all the towns and rivers
we speak were names
on a tongue that came
over the waves.
This is who we have,
swirling in the coda of our blood:
The sea reminds us we all go back
to some long forgotten family in a boat,
making the journey to stay,
to home make.
This island in the midst of moving peoples.