The King of Britain's Daughter
by Gillian Clarke
An architect said, "I see a vision. I can't see the building yet. No lines, no walls. Only space and light". That's how it feels when a poem is about to form: there is excitement, a blurred image and not quite discernible lines, but the form has yet to emerge. Even if there are words it is too dark to read them, though a phrase or a line may be legible already. However, the moment this unclear vision declares its presence one can be certain that the poem can be written.
For me, the poem arrives in a coinciding moment of language and energy. Its subject is like a novelist's plot - merely an excuse to rummage in the mind for language. There are few plots and all writers share the same small store, using them over and over again. When a poem is on the way it feels as though energy has been lying in wait for language. Or is it the other way about? And whence does that language come flooding, as strongly as any of the driving human passions, and as suddenly, as mysteriously? The poem is begun in that moment of germination, though it must be unmade and made again in the cold light of the mind before it can be called a finished work of art. To have an idea for a poem is to have nothing at all.
In 1990, at the first of the Hay-on-Wye Literary Festival weekend "Squantums", the plot offered to six poets late on Friday evening was 'Border: Fatherland, Motherland'. What I saw at once was that border country in the self where mother and father meet, an edge where there is both tension and conflict. At the same time it was the border where the two languages of Wales define themselves and each other, and the definition of self and other was one of the most intriguing aspects of the subject. The meaning of border deepened, layer by layer. I saw those borders inside Wales like a backwards journey into history where the post-industrial south dwindles among tin sheds and tethered alsatians, where sad ponies starve on the yellowed grass of slag, and where, one ridge onwards, another Wales begins as a mountain tilts westward into pasture and wooded valleys. Somewhere in this complex mental landscape of fractures and sutures a childhood tilts into adulthood. The poem I want to discuss was prompted by that moment. But before I can arrive at that poem, I should return to the place whence I think it came, and try to chart its long progress.
The Irish sea breaks on the shores of my father's land of Dyfed, specifically a small stretch of north Pembrokeshire. We are walking the beach. My father is a great story-teller, and today he tells me the story of Branwen and Bendigeidfran, the children of Llŷr, explaining to his young daughter, mythologically, historically and geologically, two features of the coast close to my grandmother's farm, known as Fforest. One is a vast rocking stone, or logan-stone, probably Neolithic, balanced on the cliff and visible from the farmhouse. It is, according to my father, the giant Bendigeidfran's apple, or sometimes his pebble, as the story is ever-changing. The other is a black rock-pool vaguely the shape of a footprint and as big as a bath, which fills with sea water at high tide. It is, my father tells me, a footprint burnt into the shore by the enraged Bendigeidfran, setting off for Ireland to rescue Branwen from her cruel life as the rejected wife of the Irish king.
As a child I used to play a game which I called "big and little", which now seems to me a primitive version of a poet's game, physical and imaginative in nature, yet a child's way into a questioning habit of thought. Half-close your eyes and stare, or blur your ears. A stone becomes a planet. Your breath is the wind, a quarrel is a storm, a storm becomes a war. It works the other way too. Your cupped hand can balance the pebble of the setting sun before it is dropped into the sea. With a finger you can blot out a Neolithic stone, or a planet. Take a magnifying glass to your thumb-print. Place a hair under a microscope. These are geographies. It is a game played with scale and perspective that has always fascinated me. It prepared me for the theory, later encountered when I began to study Shakespeare, of man as microcosm, the epitome of the macrocosmic universe.
A poem can be a long time coming. Mine often send signals decades before they arrive. I first "studied" Shakespeare seriously for A level but by then I had often been taken to the theatre and was sufficiently familiar with more than a dozen of the plays to find the characters and their language entering my dreams. I knew passages by heart. I had Lawrence Olivier's autograph. I had seen his spittle glitter on the air when, as Titus Andronicus, he hissed "because I have no more tears to shed" in a whisper that carried to every ear in the house. Theatre was the most glamorous source of stories that I knew.
Of all the plays it was King Lear which first and most powerfully touched the fiction of my own inner life. At ten years old I was taken to see the play at Stratford-on-Avon by one of my father's three sisters, an aunt who was no scholar, merely a railway clerk with a love of books. Soon afterwards she took me to The Tempest. They seemed familiar dramas, these father and daughter plays set in a damp Atlantic Ocean past in which I felt I stood and walked and spoke, and had my own part to play. In a recurring dream of childhood I'm walking by the sea and someone is whispering, "The isle is full of noises".
From my infancy Europe had been at war, and the theatre of war, as far as I could understand it, was the radio. My father was a broadcasting engineer with the BBC, so there were radios in every room. The radio on the ocean-facing windowsill at Fforest was a teller of wild tales that came straight off the Irish Sea, as did the rain and the wind and the refracted light of the setting sun. These were stories of a great enemy who must be killed so that we could all be safe again. My father's radio was the voice of the story-teller. Later, when I was ten, I was to hear Shakespeare's words, and would at once know they were describing the "sounds and sweet airs" of Fforest. It was not difficult to imagine my grandmother's farm as an isle full of noises, cut off by the sea, poor roads, weather and the family from bombs, sirens and air raids, though not from the rumours of war. Life into language equals fiction.
It was that complex experience of real life tangled with the life of the imagination that lay in wait for the language I was to hear that first time at the Memorial Theatre, Stratford. To two connecting stories I already knew - the story of Branwen, and my own – was added the story of Lear, which came in words so awesomely mysterious that I was to remember fragments of it forever. It would enter the ground of my mind, along with hymns, and passages of the King James translation of the Bible regularly repeated just as theatrically in Chapel. I was an early reader, and I entered books at an age when it is natural to confuse the real world with the world of literature, the self with the characters in stories. Thus, alongside nursery rhymes, "the moon doth shine as bright as day", or "the man in the wilderness said to me", playground games, "Poor Mary is a-weeping", biblical language such as "tell it not in Gath, publish it not on the streets of Escalon", and the great Welsh hymns, "Dyma cariad fel y moroedd", "here is love like the sea", or the hauntingly simple poetry of "there is a green hill far away", came the equally strange and beguiling spells of Shakespeare, spells such as "Nothing will come of nothing. Speak again". I have not, nor will I check these quotations from the Bible, the hymn book, and from Shakespeare. This is how I remember them. This is how the words must stay, even, perhaps, in misquotation. Those words, in that order, are a part of the "fiction" I have been writing all my life.
The earliest poem-harbinger of 'The King of Britain's Daughter', as far as I can see, was a poem called 'Llŷr', written around 1980. It was commissioned by the late Sam Wanamaker for one of his series of anthologies, Poems for Shakespeare. 'Llŷr' recalls the earliest ecstatic moment of my own experience of Shakespeare's spellbinding power. It carries hints that, like many children, I was in thrall to language, from the first lullaby, the first nursery rhyme, the first hymn, the first playground chant. Llŷr, King of Britain, is Lear, and my father, and he will later hand on his role in my mind to his son, Bendigeidfran (the brother I never had), or Bran, to give him his shorter name. There is no hint of that story in the poem 'Llŷr'. I am Cordelia, and if Cordelia is the daughter of Llŷr, she must also be Branwen. So it was that, without knowing it at the outset, I embarked on the ambitious project of a long poem about childhood in a time of war, with The Bible, The Mabinogion, The Complete Works of Shakespeare, and a book of nursery rhymes in hand.
In the poem 'Llŷr', precursor of the later sequence, I use the landscape of Llyn in Gwynedd, where I happened to be staying when I wrote it.
Ten years old, at my first Stratford play:
The river and the king with their Welsh names
Bore in the darkness of a summer night
Through interval and act and interval.
Swans moved double through glossy water
Gleaming with imponderable meanings.
Was it Gielgud on that occasion?
Or ample Laughton, crazily white-gowned,
Pillowed in wheatsheaves on a wooden cart,
Who taught the significance of little words?
All. Nothing. Fond. Ingratitude. Words
To keep me scared, awake at night. That old
Man's vanity and a daughter's 'Nothing',
Ran like a nursery rhythm in my head.
It is no accident that I chose the fourteen line stanza and, more or less, iambic pentameter. The formal use of capitals initialling each line now looks old-fashioned to me. I abandoned a stiffer earlier draft using regular rhyme, though the chiming within the poem is important to it, and deliberate.
The remembered performance by Charles Laughton is substantiated by others, and I believe it to be the one which mainly influenced the description in Leon Garfield's 'King Lear' in his version of Shakespeare's stories,
a mad, wild old man, stuck all over with wild flowers, and
crowned with weeds
Gentle hands had taken him, and tended him, and washed
him, and put him in fine soft clothes.
(Shakespeare Stories, Leon Garfield)
The evidence of obsessions that would later be developed in 'The King of Britain's Daughter' can be drawn from hints that lie in the poem 'Llŷr': "the significance of little words", the list of the words which Shakespeare plays with in the drama, and
a daughter's 'Nothing',
ran like a nursery rhythm in my head.
Rereading the next stanza now, I am surprised and pleased to see the image of the bruise in the sea, a metaphor which, by the time I wrote 'The King of Britain's Daughter', I had forgotten I had used before. I see no reason to avoid repeating the natural and instinctive use of such an image, since it is the thread of unity holding poem to poem, book to book. In 'Llŷr' the description of the height of the cliffs comes from Shakespeare, as well as from personal observation of looking down at the sea from the cliffs of Llyn,
I watch how Edgar's crows and choughs still measure
How high cliffs are, how thrown stones fall
Into history, how deeply the bruise
Spreads in the sea where the wave has broken.
Shakespeare puts it this way,
And dizzy 'tis to cast one's eyes so low!
The crows and choughs that wing the midway air
Show scarce so gross as beetles,
and fifteen years after 'Llŷr' I wrote,
On the headland is an absence
where it fell some winter night
between here and childhood,
and the sea's still fIzzing
over a bruise that will not heal.
('King of Britain's Daughter')
Although the cliffs I experienced as a child were real cliffs, it was when the experience met the language of Shakespeare that I knew how to feel their height. It was the language of poetry that turned the dizzy view from a cliff-top into a whole experience, from a vertigo of the body into a vertigo of the mind and the imagination. 'Llŷr' links other aspects of the Lear memory with the future King of Britain poem: "figures of old men", "the bearded sea", and "guilty daughters". The last verse submits to an irregular, perhaps an eccentric rhyme scheme:
Night falls on Llyn, on forefathers,
Old Celtic kings and the more recent dead,
Those we are still guilty about, flowers
Fade in jam jars on their graves; renewed
Refusals are heavy on our minds.
My head is full of sound, remembered speech,
Syllables, ideas just out of reach;
The close, looped sound of curlew and the far
Subsidiary roar, cadences shaped
By the long coast of the peninsula,
The continuous pentameter of the sea.
When I was ten a fool and a king sang
Rhymes about sorrow, and there I heard
That nothing is until it has a word.
That "nothing", unconsciously stolen from Shakespeare, has be-come, I suppose, the absence on the cliff, the fallen stone, the father who died, which I will explain when I discuss the 'King of Britain's Daughter'.
The storm in Lear is almost one of the characters in the play. Weather is a ready metaphor, and winters in Pembrokeshire hurled the great Atlantic at the windows of Fforest Farm. Downstairs, family life seethed in a "cawl" comprising, in various combinations at different times, a large cast of characters coming and going about the constant figure of my grandmother. Those exits and entrances were of my father, mother, sister, three aunts, an uncle, and several surrogate uncles who were farm workers. I think of the ash tree lashing the windows in a poem by D.H. Lawrence where downstairs his parents are quarrelling. Not only adult rows, but the babble of downstairs after a child's bedtime, the imperfectly tuned disharmonies of radio, talk, dispute, hint and rumour, send upstairs to the listening child a message that the world is full of tumultuous secrets. Legends made sense of the rumours, as was, I believe, their original purpose, when the earliest story-tellers made metaphors of human history and psychology in the light of man's understanding of the world at the time. Both our childhood and our ancestral selves might see war as a giant, for instance.
Staying at the Smithy, Llanthony, owned in the early nineteenth century by the poet Walter Savage Landor, on the first day of the Hay-on-Wye weekend in June 1990, I began work on my commission. I wrote a poem under the working title 'The Stone', and at second draft changed it to 'The Rocking Stone'. Once I had chosen the stone, already described above, as my symbolic key to the poem which, I knew, had been lying in wait for decades for its language, it was as if I had placed it in a sling and swung it hard - and I'm aware here of the biblical reference to another giant, another stone. 'The Rocking Stone' moved with its own momentum, or, to use its own history as a metaphor, once it had rocked too far it lost balance, and nothing could hold it back. For indeed, by the time the poem was written the logan stone had gone. After millennia of erosion it had fallen at last, in a storm I suppose, to be lost in the depths of the sea at the foot of the cliffs before I could write about it, although it was certainly there on the headland throughout my childhood and into my early twenties.
I took a sheet of paper and wrote: "Llanthony. 2nd June 1990. On the headland is an absence, / where it fell, some winter night / between here and childhood. Since / I've searched the beach". Then I crossed out the four lines and tried again. The first sixteen words, as far as "childhood", remained in every succeeding draft, though with different line-breaks, until the poem was published in May, 1993. Not the stone but its absence became the poem's generating moment, Cordelia's "nothing". My own father had died before I was twenty. The stone had already left the sling. It was the "airy nothing" to which I would try to give "a local habitation and a name" (Midsummer Night's Dream). I’d always wanted a brother, and a fantasy brother was the next best thing. Was the giant brother Bendigeidfran/Goliath/father killed by the poem? Can remembered life survive the fiction we make of it? Is this the purpose and meaning of elegy? On the sixth sheet dated 2nd June, is a version of 'The Stone' which concludes:
balanced its mass so delicately,
four thousand years withstanding weather
like a dozing horse.
('The King of Britain's Daughter')
three lines which remain in every draft until the poem reaches its completion. The following four lines, which first appear in version three, contain the exact words of the final published one:
On the headland is an absence where it fell
some winter night between here and childhood,
and the sea's still fizzing
over a bruise that will not heal.
('The Stone', 3rd version)
The poem then proceeds on an increasingly determined course, through themes and phrases that will later develop into two whole and separate poems, the first and third of the final sequence. In draft four, almost all of both poems are there, tangled together, as the ideas rush in too fast to sort them out. In a draft written later that day, seven out of twelve of the lines that will conclude the published sequence, 'The King of Britain's Daughter', are already written:
When I took you there,
a pebble of basalt in my pocket,
I showed you the white farm, the black beach,
the empty headland where the stone
balanced its mass so delicately,
four thousand years withstanding weather
like a dozing horse.
('The King of Britain's Daughter')
For the sake of chronology I will return to the other half of the theme set at Hay - Motherland - and to the other poem I wrote on the first day. At the time I thought I would write eventually on both themes, (in fact, I believe I will, in a future book), and that if a long poem were completed, it would reflect both sides of the border, because at the time it seemed that the interesting area was the border itself, the scar, the edge of conflict and healing.
In pursuit of motherland I wrote 'Sunday'. The first image that came to me was that symbol of marriage and Sunday dinner, the wedding silver. From that came the golden question mark, the little hook that locked those old gilded leather cutlery cases, their lids lined with padded white satin under which bone-handled dinner and desert knives, two kinds of fork, silver soup and desert spoons were laid to rest all week in their beds of violet or cobalt velvet, sometimes "Sylvo-ed" before being stored. Fish knives and forks, and tea spoons, were laid in separate boxes.
These are ceremonial objects, and Sunday was a special day.
Many children in those days (the nineteen forties and fifties) found their parents' interpretation of these ceremonials differed. For my mother, Sunday lunch was the centrepiece. For my father, the day's pleasures lay in the freedom of the workshop, in mending and making things. For a child there was, in the air of such a day, such hope for familiar magic that it must, ultimately, disappoint. To be with the two loved people offers the possibility of joy, maybe an outing, the healing of rifts. But Sunday is also where father, mother and child meet at the border where the fissures and the tensions are. It's where the barbed wire is. It ends in tears, of course.
'Sunday' was written on June 3rd at Llanthony in two hand-written drafts and a typed one. The third draft is almost the same as the one which is published in the collection, The King of Britain's Daughter. The house we lived in, from when I was about ten until I was an adult, had a basement. In the first draft I am in that basement, in my father's workshop, and my mother is "upstairs", on the ground floor, "unhooking the golden question mark". In draft two the final version of the first two stanzas is decided, except that the earlier "locked" has become "unlocked", a moment of release instead of entrapment, maybe. The writing of the poem was an honest journey into remembering, an attempt at the accurate recapturing of detail, the spoons and forks "powdery with Sylvo", the oiled bits of the drill, the colour of the oil. Then I recaught the day's emotions and found the miming cat among the more obvious remembered things, church bells, the smell of sprouts. Poetry is a hook for memory. Out of the excitement of writing emerged, to my surprise, "the small horizon of the water-jug", the connecting looking-glass surfaces of water and mirror that must have remained from the sill and horizon of house and sea I had been preoccupied with in 'The Rocking Stone', and beyond which there was to be found another world. Water and mirror would lead me to the garden pond where I would find, resting at the edge, a stone. It seemed natural, an accurate memory though perhaps not from that particular day, that the child grieving over a spoilt Sunday would lie beside the water with the cat, "inching a stone to the edge, until it fell".
Since 'Sunday', the earliest version of 'The Rocking Stone', and the lines which would conclude 'The King of Britain's Daughter' were all written and drafted in the few hours between reporting to an audience eager to know how we were getting on with the task, the writing was interrupted by several public discussions. I recall describing to the audience the surprise I felt at the fall of the stone into the pond. I knew at the time that I was writing about pain and darkness, about a child sulking, but the final line came to me a split second before I could realise that I was foretelling the fall of the logan-stone, the absence on the cliff, and the other absences and "nothings" that the yet unwritten longer poem would contain. I recall taking a quick breath of excitement, a coming up for air, as image and understanding of the image filled me before the ink had dried on the page. At that moment the child in fantasy, and the real child I had been, (for it really did happen), became the storm that pushed a Neolithic boulder into the sea. It was in that moment of connection that the stone gained its full potency as a poet's object of desire, a weapon to slay a foe.The other symbol to set down its mark here is the horizon, which is to become so important not only in the sequence, but in the whole collection, The King of Britain's Daughter. The horizon will be as significant as the stone in the long sequential fatherland poem yet to be written.
In the salt-blind dining room
I levelled myself against the small horizon
of the water jug. The mirrors steadied.
Horizons are about the crossing of oceans, the track of light on the sea, the path into the sunset taken by the Startrite children in an old advertisement, the two little figures in a Charlie Chaplin film, setting off on their adventures, the road through the magical peaks in Rupert Bear books, story-book characters with their bundles on sticks, off to seek their fortunes. I have elsewhere talked of how I saw radio as my first travelling. At a turn of the tuning knob of the radio (which stood on that other horizon, the window sill) I could hear the place-names and languages of faraway places. These glassy levels, horizontals and verticals, are thrown by the wobble of tears in the "salt-blind" dining room.
In the outburst of a first idea, a few hours of work will bring a short poem into being. To develop such an idea into something much more, longer, deeper, more satisfying, something more is needed. I have thought long about this, in order to help others with their writing. The most potent source of energy for me is intense concentration. It sounds so obvious that I wish I could find a more striking word than "concentration", without reaching for terms like "meditation", which suggests something quasi-religious. However, a creative concentration must be deep, uninterruptable, and self-centred. The other useful intellectual tool is research. This could mean reading, or looking, among other things. I would like to broaden the idea of research here. For my purposes I needed factual books, on geology for example, and maps of the coast. There are often verbal treasures to be found in the language of geology, geography, science and technology, a fresh vocabulary and a startling imagery. But I need poetry too, and by broadening the meaning of "research" I include the necessity to read the best poetry in order to write it. Nothing is more inspiring than the work of fine writers. In the early stages of all intense writing periods I carry books around with me, and many of these are poetry books. Beginners often express their fear of imitating other writers, but reading which is sufficient in quantity and richness is nourishing and thrilling. The true poet finds a voice to respond to the dialogue of poetry, and will strengthen in eloquence in the excitement of such discourse.
What excited the first words into life in 'The Stone' were the languages I'd heard in childhood, and the possibility of language that spoke from the stone itself. I began to consider the legend, and the metaphor it suggested, the levels of meaning it brought together, the significance it gave to the present. Images moved towards each other. Boulder / skim-stone / sun / sand-grain; horizon / sea, / window-sill; radio / father / voices / stories; war / giant / quarrels / storms. The possibility now occurred to me to connect the many-layered, much-sourced story with the living experience of the present. I felt there was a connection between the brother-sister relationship, of which I had no experience, and the father-daughter relationship which I knew. I would return to Fforest, now, in the present tense, addressing the listener, my companion, telling him the story. This, I decided, would make the poem immediate for myself and for the reader.
In any case there was no avoiding the poem now: the ideas were coming in too fast to record. I would attempt to parallel the legend of Branwen and Bendigeidfran with real life through remembering. I saw art but not artificiality in the idea, since the story of Branwen had been made my own. My father had given it to me. I noted themes for poems as they occurred. A few months after Hay I wrote in my notebook:
shipwrecks and mysteries; The Marie Celeste; The Titanic: photograph of the shark in the ballroom, ships, 'Sparks' officer', [my father had been a merchant ships wireless officer for the Marconi company], Morse code, linking circles, lime kilns, houseboat, Concorde, radios.
Research can always offer a fresh vocabulary, and a map of Pem-brokeshire soon yielded rich geological language. I walked the cliffs and beaches again, rediscovering what I thought I had forgotten. I swam out into the bay and around the cliffs, searching for the drowned logan-stone,
Today I swim beyond the empty headland
in search of the giant's stone.
Do I see it through green translucent water,
shadow of a wreck, a drowned man's shoulder, a clavicle
huge as a ship's keel wedged between rocks?
(poem 14, 'The King of Britain's Daughter')
Writing is itself a way to salvage memory. Staring at the page, beginning to set down the first marks, like drawing, and diving under the sea in search for the stone, set going submarine thoughts. Within this undersea which I have elsewhere called the other country ('Seals', Letting in the Rumour), lies the archaeology of both the sea-bed and the subconscious. I soon remembered shipwrecks my father had told me about, or about which I had read. There were other forgotten, half-understood things down there, a memory of my mother, for instance, dressed up for a dance, which brought with it an unaccountable sense of loss. The glittering ball-gown merged with a beautiful and famous photographic image of a shark swimming down the staircase into the derelict ballroom of the Titanic,
a staircase in the sea
and something gleaming in the deepest water.
(poem 10, 'The King of Britain's Daughter')
I recalled the scientific knowledge my father had shared with me, especially on subjects like radio, sound, light, space, the stars. Sometimes, as the BBC Outside Broadcasts Engineer, he took me with him on his site-planning visits to chapels, village halls, castles, marquees, even fields. A remembered visit to a chapel set going the poem, 'Radio Engineer' which became poem number 11, and which I believe to be at the heart of 'The King of Britain's Daughter'. I quote it in full.
i The Heaviside Layer
Staring into the starry sky, that time
in the darkest dark of war and countryside,
'What is the stars?'
my father asked,
then told me that up there,
somewhere between us and Orion,
hangs the ionosphere, lower, closer at night,
reflecting his long wave signals back to earth,
light bending in water.
But things get tight and close,
words, music, languages
all breathing together under that old carthen,
Cardiff, Athlone, Paris
all tongue-twisted up,
all crackle and interference,
your ears hearing shimmer
like trying to stare at stars.
You'd plan for it, set out equipped,
warmed in and out before you left the fire
for the dash up the dark stairs.
Hot milk, hot water bottles, coats on the bed.
The quickest way to get warm
was to make yourself small,
to pinch shut the edges
of flannelette, carthen, eiderdown, coats,
to breathe in the stuffy cave till you fell asleep
under the breathless weight of the Heaviside layer,
and woke, stunned, into a crowing light.
With wires, transmitters, microphones,
my father unreeled his line
to cast his singing syllables at the sky,
unleashed and riding airwaves up and up
to touch and be deflected,
moths at a silver window in the air.
I saw it, a cast line falling back
through shaken light above the pool,
sound parting water
like a hare in corn.
Outside in the graveyard
I collected frozen roses,
an alabaster dove with a broken wing
for my hoard in the long grass,
while he unreeled his wires down the aisle,
hitched the microphone to the pulpit
and measured silence with a quick chorus
from The Messiah.
Still I can't look at stars,
or lean with a telescope, dizzy, against the turning earth,
without asking again, 'What is the stars?'
or calling 'Testing, testing' into the dark.
Once that poem was written, I knew that 'The King of Britain's Daughter' would be the elegy for my father I had waited thirty years to write.
In the summer of 1992, a commission came from the Hay-on-Wye Festival for me to work with composer Adrian Williams to make a cantata out of the sequence. I returned to the handful of poems already completed, including 'Radio Engineer', and, with singers in mind, I wrote the deliberately simple and dramatic 'Songs of Branwen' and the 'Lament of Bendigeidfran', and placed them immediately after 'Radio Engineer' in the sequence, thus setting the most important of the personal poems side by side with the legend.
By the time the last stanza of 'Radio Engineer' arrives, I am alone. I am the older generation now that I have no father. His voice testing the microphone and the acoustics of a chapel is my voice shouting into space "Is anybody out there?". The evocatively named Heaviside layer, against which long wave radio signals are bounced, (so named because it was discovered by Professor Heaviside), and the old traditionally woven Welsh wool carthenni on the beds in my grand-mother's farm, had long ago merged and became metaphors for each other in my mind. My father often quoted from Sean O'Casey's The Plough and the Stars. Gazing up into the night sky and saying, "What is the stars?" was the nearest we, born into a Welsh Baptist tradition but not practising it, got to questioning the mysterious possibility of God. The significance of stars in the dark sky, "in the darkest dark of war and countryside", troubles poem after poem in the sequence. In poem number 9, 'Giants', Bendigeidfran is back, but this time he is stamping his raging foot not on a rocky shore, but in space, bringing together legend and late twentieth century technology, making myth out of breaking the sound-barrier:
Tonight, as Concorde folds her tern-wings back
to take the Atlantic,
I hear a giant foot stamp twice.
You can still see the mark he made,
a black space in the stars.
Bendigeidfran's footprint has become a negative, a space where nothing is. When I first read aloud to myself the final lines of 'Radio Engineer', I felt dizzy at what the words were telling me. I had been aiming for a simple language, and to curb my natural extravagance with words. I had hoped to cut a clean syntax out of stone and horizon, to purge my work of adjectives and adverbs. For a writer the language is everything and everything is in the language. Ideas follow language. Symbolism collects about it. Metaphor speaks through it. The horizon is the water-table of 'Anorexic', (a poem in the collection The King of Britain's Daughter, but outside the sequence). It is a window-sill, water-table, the surface of the sea, the ionosphere, the lateral gossamer of a spiders web. In the castle of Branwen's exile in Ireland, "the rising sun / on the wall like a crock of marigolds", refers, without first asking my permission, to a jar of marigolds on the farm windowsill of Fforest.
Finally it becomes the legendary apple, turns into a pebble of amber, into the game called skimstones, into a rocking stone, into all stones. It is, being a rising sun, the stone rediscovered, the hot star by which we live. Likewise, without asking me, in the closing lines of poem 16 which concludes the sequence, language hands me a stone,
Walking the beach
we felt the black grains give
and the sun stood
one moment on the sea
before it fell.
(First published in How Poets Work, 1996. edited by Tony Curtis (Pub. Seren)