Monday, 1 September 2014

"BETWEEN LAND AND SEA"

I’m staying in a cottage near Aberdaron with beautiful westering views across the Irish Sea, a copy of R S Thomas’s Selected Poems in the bookshelf and a picture of RS on the sitting room wall (a late portrait with his characteristic wild man of Wales expression).  The owner tells me that RS used to come round to watch the rugby on the family’s television.

Although R S Thomas wrote his early “Iago Prytherch” poems at Manafon and spent 13 years at Eglwys Bach, it is Llŷn with which he is most associated – a “bough / of country that is suspended / between sky and sea” (“Retirement”).   So many of his poems contain Llŷn allusions and his most profound responses to the natural world were inspired by the landscapes and seascapes of the peninsula.

In my teens and twenties I was a volunteer gardener at Plas yn  Rhiw and I remember Honor Keating telling me that R S was going to have Sarn Cottage, the ancient cottage which sensibly sits sideways to the wide sweeping bay of Porth Neigwl (Hell’s Mouth is its English name).  The poet was about to become Vicar of Aberdaron, Y Rhiw and Llanfaelrhys.  When he retired Sarn Cottage was his home until a few years before his death in 2000.

I wander down to Sarn Cottage, quieter now than in R S Thomas’s day due to a couple of landslips (near the edge of which the cottage perches precariously).  The road which used to be right outside the poet’s gate has been diverted further inland through the woods where I would meet him out for an afternoon walk.  The cottage is concealed now by overgrown hedges and trees, but the grass is short on the path to the door.  Here is the source of the poem “Sea Watching” in which the poet describes himself as “the hermit  / of the rocks, habited with the wind / and the mist.”

My friend asks me what other poets are associated with Llŷn.  I can only think of two who live/lived here.  I admire the work of Christine Evans, particularly her long poem Burning the Candle and her beautiful Bardsey book (prose and poems) with superb photographs by Wolf Marloh.  I bought her collection Growth Rings on a visit this week to the fine art gallery, Plas Glyn y Weddw, at Llanbedrog.   Who else?  In the 1920s the South African poet, Roy Campbell, lived for a couple of years very near the cottage where I am staying.   He and his wife read Milton and Shakespeare aloud to each other and lived a subsistence of lifestyle.   Campbell boasted of a Hemingway-style exploit when he rowed a doctor out to Bardsey Island in a terrible storm to attend a difficult confinement.  The local boatmen refused to attempt the crossing to the island whose Welsh name, Ynys Enlli, means the island in the current.  They knew its treacherous tides too well.  Campbell likened a certain kind of poetry to the kind of self-sufficient existence he and his wife lived on the peninsula:  “Write with your spade, and garden with your pen, / Shovel your couplets to their long repose. / And type your turnips down the field in rows” (“The Georgiad”).

Alas, I am ignorant of the Welsh language poets, only reading snippets of them in translation.  But there are several poets writing in English who have visited the area and written about it – Gillian Clarke (“Fires on Llŷn”), John Fuller (“Nant Gwrtheyrn”, “Walking below Carn Guwch”), Patrick McGuiness (his brilliant “Walls Lleyn” includes spaces through which to see the sky).  I discover more writers in A Llŷn Anthology (edited by Dewi Roberts) which I buy on a visit to Plas yn Rhiw on Sunday afternoon.

Llŷn is a place of poetry.  That’s reinforced by a visit to the new Porth y Swnt visitor centre.  On arrival is,  appropriately, R S Thomas’s poem “Arrival” (painted on driftwood planks) - I suspect RS would have been horrified – “The Small Window” comes to mind.  There are poems by several writers throughout the centre and one wall has a beautiful display of poems on canvas roped to posts, suggesting the land and the sea.  The poems and their writers are listed in the information leaflet – I ask about an anthology and am told that they are working on one.  Later in the day I see a poster advertising a reading of R S Thomas’s poems in Aberdaron church – the “stone / church, that is full only / of the silent congregation / of shadows and the sea’s / sound” (“The Moon in Lleyn”). 

This is a landscape that gets under a writer’s skin.  The cottage I am renting for the week is just a short walk from Porth Ysgo where my poem “Seal” is set.

Seal

We skitter
past derelict mine workings,
scratch through gorse –
its yellow flowers
spicing the spring air –
and leap the last stone steps
to the shore.

They’re ahead of me,
tearing off clothes,
printing the soft sand
with their feet
gasping and shrieking
as their winter skin
hits the nacreous sea.

They swim
with youth’s easy grace.
The cove’s gentle arms
enclose them.
A black float
off the headland
marks where men drown
their pots each night.

A dark head glistens –
they are joined
by another.  No one
sees or hears him arrive.
They tread water and watch
a whiskered face
shining fur
heavy shoulders
the plectrum eyes of an old man.                                                                                     

Weeks later, walking
past uncut oats and kale,
I hear seals out on the skerries
half a mile away.
Ghostly, amelodic,
their voices
not a lament or cry
but a cantata

of abstract sound.
The music
of sea caves and tide race,
singing for the days
we hide inland.
I think of storms
and my two sons asleep
sailing on a sea of dreams.


© Mary Robinson from The Art of Gardening (Flambard 2010)

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