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All Lost Things Lie Under Closing Water

December 2009

For a year I have observed a family of mute swans. I haven’t see them every day, or even every week, but I have watched them at regular intervals throughout one year of their lives on the river Ely, in Cardiff. Swans have always intrigued me, wild birds you could approach, beautiful, mysterious presences in the parks, lakes and rivers of childhood. They were never quite earthly creatures, but half-mythical, and terrifying when they lifted their huge wings and inflated themselves like storm-clouds, stretching out their necks, hissing like fuses.

I spent about seven years of my childhood in a house just across the road from Cold Knap Lake in Barry in South Wales. I love the name, Cold Knap. I can’t explain its origins, but it must carry some old story from the long gone past. All place names do. When I hear it I see the Knap, a headland, maybe under snow in a far away winter, or under a summer sky, and beyond it the sea, the Bristol Channel with its two blue islands, Flatholm and Steepholm. I have written several poems about remembered events at this lake, including a winter memory called ‘Legend’. In this poem, as in ‘Cold Knap Lake’, a real memory moves from recalled fact into the suggestion of myth, and the title considers how we turn all our true life stories into a kind of fiction in which we feature, in my case as a guilty heroine. The winter was real. It was the fabled frozen January of 1947. I have photographs to prove that the winter happened, the deepest snow anyone could remember, the lake frozen hard, my sister and me on the ice, she in a make-shift sledge, me holding the rope.

Legend

The rooms were mirrors
for that luminous face,
the morning windows ferned
with cold. Outside
a level world of snow.

Voiceless birds in the trees
like notes in the books
in the piano stool.
She let us suck top-of-the-milk
burst from the bottles like corks.

Then wrapped shapeless
we stumped to the park
between the parapets of snow
in the wake of the shovellers,
cardboard rammed in the tines of garden forks.

The lake was an empty rink
and I stepped out,
pushing my sister first
onto its creaking floor.
When I brought her home,

shivering, wailing, soaked,
they thought me a hero.
But I still wake at night
to hear the Snow Queen’s knuckles crack,
black water running fingers through the ice

Our house over-looked the park, and from infancy until I was 8 or 9 years old, I could see the gleaming face of the lake from my bedroom window. I hold in my mind an early image of the lake, seen between blue and white curtains through the bars of my cot. When I was old enough I’d run to the park most days with a bag of stale bread crusts to feed the swans, and linger there to muck about at the lake side with a gang of friends. I’d hold out the bread, then drop it and run. The swans scared me. I feared they would pick me up and carry me away to live forever on an enchanted island. They might be the swans of King Arthur, or the spellbound children of Lir.

‘Out with you upon the wild waves, children of the King!
Henceforth your cries shall be with the flocks of birds.’

In Irish legend the children of Lir are turned into swans. In the collection of Welsh stories known as the Mabinogion, this king is named Llŷr. Birds are commonly used in Welsh mythology, and in Arthurian legend swans are associated with the underworld, the other-world, the underwater. That space between our world and somewhere else seemed real enough to a child who knew fairy stories and myths. My mother told me that I read too much and didn’t have my feet on the ground.

The swans on Cold Knap Lake did not cry as the swan-children of Lir did. These were mute swans. Their only sound was the ungrateful hiss as I approached with my offered bread. This poem describes something that happened when I was about five years old.

Cold Knap Lake

We once watched a crowd
pull a drowned child from the lake.
Blue lipped and dressed in water’s long green silk,
she lay for dead.

Then, kneeling on the earth,
a heroine, her red head bowed,
her wartime cotton frock soaked,
my mother gave a stranger’s child her breath.
The crowd stood silent,
drawn by the dread of it.

The child breathed, bleating
and rosy in my mother’s hands.
My father took her home to a poor house
and watched her thrashed for almost drowning.

Was I there?
Or is that troubled surface something else
shadowy under the dipped fingers of willows,
where satiny mud blooms in cloudiness
after the treading, heavy webs of swans
as their wings beat and whistle on the air?

All lost things lie under closing water
in that lake with the poor man’s daughter.

Years later I took my own children to feed the swans on Roath Park lake in Cardiff. That is what swans were for – reason for parents to take their children for a healthy walk to the park on a Sunday.

Reaching into distant memory for the subject, imagery and words to write a poem such as ‘Cold Knap Lake’, I must time-travel past all the years of my life to that single moment. The moment is stored in memory, locked up, as Yeats put it, referring to the poet’s creative sources, ‘in the rag-and-bone shop of the heart.’ All but forgotten until now, the remembered day is out of focus and must be made sharp and alive with as much carefully recalled detail as can be mustered, with its colour, sound, smell, emotion, associated ideas, nuance and texture. Poetry must strive to make that moment live again. What is dragged up from under the waters of the lake of memory, along with the facts, is what filled the imagination of the child I was: the stories, rhymes, films, and book illustrations. Like an archaeologist digging down through carbon-dated layers of time, a poet finds not just a simple set of facts, a true incident, but much more.

In ‘Cold Knap Lake’, at least two selves are at work. Let’s first take the child-self. When I was five, like most children I had both a real life and a story life. My mother read to me, taught me to read before I went to school, sang me nursery rhymes. My father told me stories, mainly from Welsh legend, and he brought them to life by setting them in our geography, our coast, our hills, our lake. The legends of Grimm and Anderson, Greek and Roman and Celtic mythology, and many others, were part of my story-life, and were read and told to me before I could read them for myself. In one book in our house there was a reproduction of the famous painting by Millais of Ophelia floating in a flower-strewn brook over which leaned a willow. An older version of myself, my ten or eleven year old self, knew that Ophelia had lost her mind and killed herself in despair. Here’s how Queen Gertrude reports her ‘muddy death’ in Hamlet:

There is a willow grows aslant a brook
That shows his hoar leaves in the glassy stream;
There with fantastic garlands did she come
Of crow-flowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples.

In writing ‘Cold Knap Lake’ I bring back my five-year-old child-self to my adult self, and write with the adult’s accrued knowledge and experience. I try to recreate that long ago day. As a child I had seen Millais painting of Ophelia, as an adult I had seen Hamlet several times, had read ‘The Wild Swans at Coole’ by W.B.Yeats. I had watched the real child pulled from the water long before,

‘Blue lipped and dressed in water’s long green silk,’

and I remembered the painting of the drowned Ophelia as I wrote:

‘Or is that troubled surface something else
shadowy under the dipped fingers of willows,’

Yet, on that long ago summer day when I was five, all was well.

‘my mother gave a stranger’s child her breath’

My mother was the hero of the hour. She made the little girl better, as she always made me better, and in my mind the saved girl lived happily ever after.

*

I’ve lived in the countryside of Ceredigion for 25 years, where my familiar is a female, white-speckled blackbird. She and the usual garden and field birds, flocks of starlings, fieldfares, golden plover and the red kite take my attention. There we have no urban park nearby, no large lake, no swans. Mute swans are largely urban birds, park and lake birds, royal birds. They are wild creatures which don’t quite belong to the wilderness. I first met my new favourite pair of mute swans as I leaned from the balcony of a twelfth floor flat on the river Ely in Cardiff in December 2008. This is where I stay when I have work to do in the city – school visits, readings, gigs, events. We have now spent fifty nights in the flat since January 2009.

Mute swans spend their lives in or close to one area. They are companionable creatures and move around their waters in families and larger groups. They can fly, but they don’t often form great flocks and take to the sky. Sometimes they form large communities. Sometimes just one pair of swans can be seen on their own stretch of water, a male and female, a cob and his pen. They pair for life. The flocks of migrating swans in Yeats’s ‘The Wild Swans at Coole’ are, no doubt, whooper swans, or maybe bewick swans. But all swans belong to one bird group, and in my mind they all have legendary and literary connections.

In the autumn of 2003, the Radio 4 Today programme broadcast on line a wonderful project on migration. That year, before the autumn movement of the whoopers and bewicks began, many birds were caught and tagged, and 6 whoopers and one bewick were also fitted with tiny transmitters linked to weather satellites. I followed the on-line journey of the 7 tagged swans live every day as they migrated from Russia to Britain. Some made it. Some didn’t. Some lost their transmitters. It was a moving experience, sharing the private life of these birds. I logged on many times a day, obsessed, anxious for every bird. Sometimes a bird was missing, the signal lost, and I worried until communication was restored. Birds migrate because they must. They takes to the skies because they are hungry, cold, need to move to more generous climates to survive. They seemed to me to be a parable for all the wandering people of the earth, escaping famine, war, oppression. So I wrote ‘Migrations’.

Migrations

Signals
between a weather satellite
wavering among the steady stars
and seven swans tagged with transmitters,
asleep on a lake in southern Finland.

First light. They wake,
wheel off the water, beating west,
the Russian Arctic tundra out of mind,
the future, the washy estuaries
of Dyfi, Neb and Ouse.

It’s nothing new. On wing, on foot,
the hungry take to the roads of a restless earth,
in flight from famine, slaughter, war,
on ancient journeys across seas, deserts,
across the latitudes and longitudes.

But this is new, intimate, tracking
the secret flight of a whooper swan,
its heartbeat in my hand
as it homes a thousand miles,
to winter on a lake in Wales.

I fly with it, imagining space
beating with luminous wings:
satellites, angels, souls,
the seven ghosts of Concorde
blowing the firmament,

the world’s roads dark
with human travellers,
each caravan of hunger
a mythic journey to an inn,
in want of shelter, water, bread.

The migrating swans headed, as usual, for Britain, some as far as Ireland. The subjects of W.B.Yeats’s poem, ‘The Wild Swans at Coole’, are doubtless the ancestors of these same migratory creatures. The note of longing in Yeats’s poem, its elegiac tone of praise and loss, suggest that it is also a love poem. Almost every poem by Yeats is haunted by love and loss, above all by his early, enduring, unrequited love for Maud Gonne, who haunted his life and poetry. His swan poems weave his own griefs, this and other loves, with the legend and troubled history and politics of Ireland.

The Wild Swans at Coole

The trees are in their autumn beauty,
The woodland paths are dry.
Under the October twilight the water mirrors a still sky;
Upon the brimming water among the stones
Are nine-and-fifty Swans.
The nineteenth autumn has come upon me
Since I first made my count;
I saw, before I was well finished,
All suddenly mount
And scatter wheeling in great broken rings
Upon their clamorous wings.

I have looked upon those brilliant creatures,
And now my heart is sore.
All’s changed since I, hearing at twilight,
The first time on this shore,
The bell-beat of their wings above my head,
Trod with a lighter tread.
Unwearied still, lover by lover, they paddle in the cold
Companionable streams or climb the air;
Their hearts have not grown old;
Passion or conquest, wander where they will,
Attend upon them still.

But now they drift on the still water,
Mysterious, beautiful;
Among what rushes will they build,
By what lake’s edge or pool
Delight men’s eyes when I awake some day
To find they have flown away?

That last line may have been a ghostly echo in my mind when I wrote,

‘all lost things lie under closing water
in that lake with the poor man’s daughter.’

We first saw our swans on the Ely on a winter afternoon from the balcony of the flat when we were just looking, just wishing. We needed a pad in the city. Prices had dropped by half. There was a credit crunch. We were sick of almost falling asleep driving westwards to Ceredigion late at night, or paying for a hotel. The two hour, 100 mile drive home along the M4 and country roads after my every National Poet duty in Cardiff was becoming a burden.

We thought we were buying a useful place to stay overnight in the city, but what we really bought was a view of the river winding down through a wooded valley, Castell Coch in distant woods, that comes and goes in mist or clarity, hills and distant mountains, and the company of birds. Just below, in the river, cormorants on a row of buoys hung their wings out to dry every morning, a heron visited from the heronry half a mile upstream, and once, a kingfisher cut its electric blue flash across the water. Best of all, we had a pair of swans as neighbours. To the right, north-east in the near distance, the city with its traffic and trains and boats and planes, its towers and spires and blocks of flats, supermarkets, the blue brow of Ikea, the Millennium Stadium floodlit on match nights, and straight ahead, spanning the river a quarter of a mile upstream, the road bridge busy day and night with strings of traffic to and from the Bay. But it was the sight of the swans, the cob and his pen on the river below us, that clinched the deal. In late January 2009 we spent our first night in the flat. Excited about our new adventure, we stepped out on the balcony to look down at the river. The swans were luminous on the black water. Never far apart, never far away, they are the last thing we look at before going to bed at night, the first every morning.

White

After the theatre, stirred by song and story,
we watch the winter stars from the balcony.

twelve floors down from our room above the river,
two ice-floes in flux on flow. Each candela

is a swan asleep, as white, as luminous
on the black waters of the bay as ice.

Stilled at the edge of the Severn’s turbulence
and the tangled waters of two river currents,

their whiteness is the definition of lumen,
swans paired for life, a cob and his pen,

wings and necks folded in one dream,
and all the colours of white, which only seem,

Sujata, the very opposite of the blackness
of your black squirrel in Caracas,

but are the same, the one
white rainbow, black, one spectrum.

All the spare light in the world is stored
in the folded wings of a pair of sleeping swans.

I did not see the mating. I leave the description of that tender moment to Michael Longley,

‘This was a marriage and a baptism,
A holding of breath, nearly a drowning’

Longley sees the female weighed down by the male, her neck dipped under the surface of the water ‘like a bar of light’.

Yeats, in his sonnet ‘Leda and the Swan’, imagines a very different mating from the legend of Zeus and Leda, who will give birth to their daughter, Helen of Troy. Zeus turned himself into a swan to rape Leda - most un-swan-like behaviour.

‘A sudden blow: the great wings beating still
Above the staggering girl…’

By February our swans were sitting on eggs, taking turn to forage for food. They had built their nest in rushes on the shore of the backwater that lies below our balcony. The backwater is a small stretch of still water like a small bay to the side of but not cut off from the flow of the river. The backwater below, and the river flowing south from the hills and on past the blocks of flats to the Bay and the open sea, make us feel as if we are in a tower on an island. It is quite a busy river. At night an occasional pleasure boat floats up-stream and away under the bridge, strung with lights for a floating party, and in its own good time glitters back down stream trailing the skirts of its own reflection, past us, out of sight to the Bay. By day we see fishing boats, river authority people, and power boats that too often exceed any sensible speed limit. But our swans have chosen for their nest our quiet, out-of-the-way loop, where waves diminish to ripples and a gentle rocking by the time the backwash reaches them. In spring, 2009, we arrived one day to find that seven cygnets had hatched, seven fluff-balls taking a lift on their mother’s back, riding the water nestled in the ramparts of her wings. Soon she would tip them into the water, and later help them back to shore by lifting them onto her back again, and with a little shuffle, shake them ashore among the rushes. The male drifted not far off, between the still and the flowing water, seeing off all comers with his fierce magnificence. Each time we visited the flat, before doing anything else we checked and counted the swans. Through summer and autumn the seven cygnets flourished and grew, their necks lengthening, shedding their down, white feathers appearing among the pale brown. They grew adventurous, and swam long distances in the family group or alone on the open river, the adults never far off. By autumn we noticed how they liked to try their wings, lifting them and beating the air for a moment as they stood on the shore, showing the whiteness spreading among the brown feathers underneath. They seemed to relish their new strength and the part lift-off between air and land that it gave them. By early autumn they had grown almost to the size of their parents, though they were not yet pure white in plumage. Yet still these grown birds gathered as a family, as they did when they were fledglings, to be shepherded by the adult pair. Always, in the evening, the adults and seven grown young homed to their backwater. It is admirable parenting. The fidelity of the adults, their devotion, their instinctive responsibility, is deeply moving to see. I love them.

Suddenly, summer is over. One already darkening Saturday, we are obliged to turn the clocks on – ‘spring forward, fall back’, I remind myself. I resent it. It does not have to happen, so why does it happen? At a stroke, it seems, we shoo away the natural light and must live indoors in the longer dark evenings, switching lights on ever earlier. Gloom descends in my soul. In mid November, at 4 o’clock in Ceredigion, it is too dark to see despite a clear sky. My words are black against the glow of the screen. Too dark to work in the garden, too dark for a walk in the fields, too dark to see in the house. I can no longer see the keyboard.

November 15th, Cardiff.

‘Look! Quick!’ David calls me to the window. A thrilling sight: suddenly, from up-river, at first beating the surface of the water under the bridge with the tips of their wings, churning it to a whisk of waterlight that in Welsh we would call ‘llymru’, flummery, a froth of lace, or beer, or milk. The cygnets gain height and lift, a flock, a flight of angels following the curve of the river, six young swans, looking almost pure white now as they fly into sunlight, rising higher and higher until they pass below us at, perhaps, 7th floor level, their wings making the air creak and boom, on out of sight towards the Bay and the sea. Beneath them, over the disturbed water of their children’s glittering reflections, their parents drift, with one cygnet.

An exhilarating sight! But does this mean it’s all over? The pair of swans, and their passionate concern for each other, and their young? One cygnet remains. Should we worry about that one? I think of Yeats, his yearning, his poetry in the time of the Irish troubles of the early twentieth century, of civil war, soldiers, violence, and always that sense of beauty and loss in his poems. Suddenly his words speak for me too:

I have looked upon those brilliant creatures,
And now my heart is sore.
All’s changed since I, hearing at twilight,
The first time on this shore,
The bell-beat of their wings above my head,
Trod with a lighter tread.
Unwearied still, lover by lover, they paddle in the cold
Companionable streams or climb the air;

November 27th.

Autumn has been a dark time for us, with the deaths of friends and family, losses in our own lives reflecting the news of almost daily deaths in war. Funeral processions. The Last Post. Silent crowds. Closer, there have been five deaths, five funerals. A woman neighbour; a man neighbour; a friend’s husband; another friend’s husband; one of my closest friends and our boss at Poetry Live; then the shocking suicide of a friend, a member of our extended family. This final funeral, full of poetry and music, took place in an English city.

I have worked here in my eyrie over the Ely in Cardiff alone all day, watching the river change. Even in our bright room in the sky, with its wall of glass, it is dark enough at half past three to need to switch on the lights. The river is silver under the angled light of the sky. Below me, on the steely surface of the backwater, the pair of adult swans drift with three of their cygnets. So the young, having tried their wings, have come home. Yeats’s nine-and fifty swans probably flew far away on their annual migration to Russia for the winter. What if, he wonders, they never return? Maybe love will never come to him again. His was a troubled early twentieth century, with civil war in Ireland, still under British rule. There is far more than a picture of swans in his poem, and much more in mine. Indeed, Yeats’s ‘Wild Swans at Coole’ have drifted, ‘lover by lover’, and flown away many times in my mind since I first read the poem years ago. It is, no doubt, part of me, part of my own thinking and of my consideration of my swans too, layered into me and my poem as are all the stories of childhood, all the poems, as well as Shakespeare, Millais, and all the million images of water and of swans long forgotten.

But now they drift on the still water,
Mysterious, beautiful;
Among what rushes will they build,
By what lake’s edge or pool
Delight men’s eyes when I awake some day
To find they have flown away?

December 1st. Cardiff

I am here between travels. This still, cold morning six swans drifted down river towards us, the adult pair, and four cygnets. Now they move slowly below the balcony on the still water, foraging among the floating plants. It is a scene of family calm. Three, maybe, have flown away. We will be watching. There may be a post script, as a new season arrives.

‘Legend’, from Five Fields, Carcanet, 1998
‘Cold Knap Lake’, from Collected Poems, Carcanet, also appears, with notes, in the GCSE section of this website, and in the 2011 AQA GCSE anthology.
The Children of Lir. Irish legend.
Hamlet, Shakespeare.
‘Migrations’, from A Recipe for Water, Carcanet.
‘The Wild Swans at Coole’ appears in the 2011 AQA GCSE anthology.
Yeats first saw Maud Gonne, a British officer’s daughter and a famous beauty, when she was 17. The story tells that she was standing in a window with a tree in blossom in the garden beyond the glass. He fell in love at that first sight, but his love was never returned. Whenever he refers to a blossoming tree in his poems, it is assumed that he is referring to her.
‘White’, from A Recipe for Water, Carcanet
Sujata Bhatt, poet, friend.
‘Swans Mating’, the Collected Poems of Michael Longley
‘Leda and the Swan’, W.B.Yeats