Swansea

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Swansea

To be Welsh in Swansea is to know each stop
on the Mumbles Railway: the Slip, the Rec,
Singleton Park, Blackpill, West Cross, Oystermouth,
the Mumbles Pier. It’s to remember where single
lines turn double by Green’s ice‑cream stall.

It’s to know where the trams fall silent, like dinosaurs,
and wait without grunting for one to pass the other.
As you wait you can hear the winter roar of the rugby
crowd or St. Helen’s summer “click” of ball on bat.

Today the tide is out and the nets are golden with starfish
as if a night sky stretched across day’s horizon.
Mudflats rule the bay beyond the sand, and banana boats
ride the distant waves, waiting for the tide to turn.

When it does, the Mumbles Railway has been sold
to a Texas millionaire and the brown and yellow busses
no longer run to Bishopston, Langland, Caswell,
Pyle Corner, Pennard, Three Cliffs, Ilston, Rhossili:
sweet names of sea and sand where my father fished
for salmon bass, his thin line cast defiantly at a rising sea
that would smash the walls of the sandcastles I built to last
forever, unaware that time’s rising tide would breach
their defenses, leaving them in ruins on the summer
beaches where I dreamed my buoyant boyhood away.

Commentary: The Mumbles Pier from Limeslade. This is the first water color painted by my father’s brother, my godfather after whom I received my second name. He took up painting after he retired and became a quite accomplished amateur water colorist. He gave me four of his water colors, I particularly wanted this, his first, and the later ones are excellent, especially the award-winning paintings, of which I have one.

Rhondda Fawr

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Rhondda Fawr

To be Welsh on the coalfield
is to speak the language of steel and coal,
with an accent that grates like anthracite ‑‑
no plum in the mouth for us; no polish,
just spit and phlegm that cut through dust and grit,
pit‑head elocution lessons hacked from the coal‑face.

We sing arias and deep, rolling hymns
that surge from suffering and the eternal longing
for a light that never shines underground
where we live our lives and no owners roam.

Here “gas” and “fall” mean violent death
and the creaking of the pine pit‑prop is a song‑bird
suddenly silent in its cage warning of danger
soon to be upon us…

… words and music stop in our throats
as up above us the sad crowds gather.

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Village Bully

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Village Bully
Pyle Corner,
Bishopston

“Shall I thump you one?” he asked.
And the fist that removed five teeth
from an opposition player hovered near my face.

He was always like that with smaller men:
a punch, an elbow, a kick, a threat so loud…
yet people his own size frightened him.

Many times I saw him back down from larger boys
and when someone was bigger,
well, that was always another story!

I’ll never forget him though: superb
against Cubs, Brownies, and Girl Guides,
but when the real Boys came to play,
why, he had one of his off days.

We called him “the million-pound body
with the one-shilling brain.”

Hate drove him. He lived off it, thrived on it,
until one day he discovered that the face
he really hated was staring back at him
every morning when he shaved.

He went downstairs, put his head in the oven,
and turned on the gas.

Sheep

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Sheep                               

Wales is whales to my daughter
who has only been there once on holiday,
very young, to see her grandparents,
a grim old man and a wrinkled woman
who wrapped her in a red shawl
and squeezed her and hugged her
till she cried herself to sleep
lunging for lack of space and air,
suffocating in a straitjacket
of warm Welsh wool so tightly bound.

So how do I explain the sheep?
They are everywhere, I say.
On lawns, in gardens. I once knew
a man, a friend of my father’s,
whose every prize tulip was devoured
by a sheep, one single sheep
who sneaked into the garden
on market day when they left the gate ajar.

Sheep are everywhere, I say, everywhere.
I remember riding on a passenger train
and seeing sheep leering like tourists
peering from dark coal wagons travelling
God knows where and bleating
fiercely as we passed them by.

In Wales, I say, sheep are magic.
When you travel to Paddington
on the train, just before you leave Wales
at Severn Tunnel Junction,
you must lean from the carriage window
and loudly call “Good morning, Mister Sheep!”
and if the one you greet looks up,
why, provided you’re good and quiet
for the rest of the journey,
your mum and dad will buy you
something nice in London.

My daughter shows disbelief. And “Look
at that poster there:” I say, “a hillside
of white on green, and every sheep
as still as a stone,
and each white stone a roche moutonnée.”

Commentary: I couldn’t find a Welsh sheep in my photo collection, so I used this photo of Pre-Columbian Incan sheep substitutes instead. Llamas is probably a Freudian slip or a typo for lambs. See: there’s reason for everything and a link between all things, even llamas, vicuñas, and alpacas, like this pair from Kingsbrae Garden Barber Shop Shorn Quartet. The other two from the Barber Shop Alpaca Quartet are around somewhere. I’ll go and look. Ah yes, here they are. Listen carefully, and you may hear them sing.

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Sunday in Wales

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Sunday in Wales

To be Welsh on Sunday in a dry area of Wales
is to wish, for the only time in your life,
that you were English and civilized,
and that you had a car or a bike and could drive or pedal
to your heart’s desire, the county next door, wet on Sundays,
where the pubs never shut and the bar is a paradise
of elbows in your face and ribs and the dark liquids flow,
not warm, not cold, just right, and family and friends
are there beside you elbow to elbow, shoulder to shoulder,
and the old ones sitting indoors by the fire in winter
or outdoors in summer, at a picnic table under the trees
or beneath an umbrella that says Seven Up and Pepsi
(though nobody drinks them) and it serves as a sunshade
on this Sunday evening when the sun is still high
in the summer sky and the little kids tumble on the grass
playing soccer and cricket and it’s “Watch your beer, Da!”
and the gymnasts tumble over and over the family dog
who hides beneath the table and snores and twitches until
“Time, Gentlemen, please!” and the nightmare is upon us
as the old school bell, ship’s bell, rings out its brass warning
and people leave the Travellers’ Rest, the Ffynnon Wen,
the Woodville, the Antelope, the Butcher’s, the Deri,
the White Rose, the Con Club, the Plough and Harrow,
the Flora, the Pant Mawr, The Cow and Snuffers,
the Villiers Arms, the Cricketers, the Mexico Fountain,
the Church (the one with handles on the prayer books),
God Bless them all, I knew them in my prime.

Comment: In the old days, when there were twelve counties in Wales, each county voted whether or not to permit the consumption of alcohol in public houses (pubs) on Sunday. Those counties who forbade Sunday drinking were called ‘dry’ and the others, who permitted it, were called ‘wet’. I remember hearing about the rush from Sunday Chapel Services in dry counties as the church-goers headed over the border into the wet counties where they could fill up in the proper fashion. The pubs listed at the end of the poem are all in the Swansea or Cardiff area, and yes, I have visited them all. The poem was designed to be read in a single breath … at quite high speed and in a Welsh accent. Alas, it takes me more than one breath now and I, like the ageing church-goers, must stop a couple of times as I wend my way down Memory Lane, from the dry to the wet.

Time-Spirits

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Time-Spirits

Zeitgeist

Zeitgeist is a concept from 18th- to 19th-century German philosophy, translated as “spirit of the age” or “spirit of the times”. It refers to an invisible agent or force dominating the characteristics of a given epoch.
Wikipedia

Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

“Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.”

Poems for troubled times.

Introduction

Our world finds itself in an incredible mess right now. Somehow, we have to sort it out. Images and metaphors tie past, present, and future together. We must pick our ways through the difficulties of these troubled times, as you must pick your way through the intricacies of these poems. Many of you will give up. Some of you, the chosen few, will make your way to the heart of each poem.

These poems are deliberately cryptic. Each one is a mind game I am playing with you. I do not underestimate you. I have placed clues throughout each poem and if you follow the clues you will arrive at many of the poem’s hidden meanings. Some poems are more difficult than others, their meaning more recondite. Others seem very straightforward, yet still contain secrets.

            This style of poetry has a long history going back to Anglo-Saxon riddles and way beyond, back into the mists of time. Luis de Góngora (1561-1627) and Francisco de Quevedo (1580-1645) specialized in similar forms of recondite poetry, often based on metaphor and the juego alusivo-elusivo, the game of alluding to something while eluding the act of saying what it is. Jorge Guillén (1893-1984) and Federico García Lorca (1898-1936) also played this game, as did Octavio Paz (1914-1998). In the works of all of these poets, the clues may rest in the poem or they may be found in a generic knowledge of the mythology of the poem’s exterior world.

             Always remember that “those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it” (George Santayana). Otherwise expressed, in the words of T. S. Eliot: “Time present and time past / are both perhaps present in time future / and time future contained in time past” (Burnt Norton). The seeming anachronisms in these poems suggest that all time is ever-present and that each new day presents us with events that have already occurred on many occasions.

Commentary: The idea for Time-Spirits aka Zeitgeist was born around the kitchen table in Island View on Saturday, 22 December 2018, during a literary conversation between Gwen, Victor, and Roger. A poem at a time, one after another, grew from that table top chat. The result: 70 poems, not easy to read, deliberately difficult, that reflect our troubled times. My thanks to Geoff Slater, line-painter, who drew the cover picture: Robin Red in Claw and Breast, a symbol of nature ‘red in tooth and claw’. So are we in the words of Albert Camus who writes ‘nous sommes ou les meurtriers ou les victimes’ . Is it the early bird that catches the worm? Or is it the late worm that gets caught by the bird? Whichever: it’s the worm that gets eaten, until the robin bites the dust, when he is eaten in his turn. Just think of it as nature doing its regular recycling …

 

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Mannequins

 

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Mannequins
McAdam Railway Station #12

“He startles the unaware, that man by
the door, in uniform, with his youthful
looks and old-fashioned peaked cap,

fingers poised by his silver watch chain
ready to pull out his Waltham pocket watch
and check the time against the master-clock.

Two ladies wait in the waiting room.
One wears winter robes of red and black
while the other wears velvety green. Both

are motionless, one seated, one standing. Yet
if you watch them from a corner of one eye,
you will see shadowy gestures as their lips move.

Overnight they have changed into summer
clothes, gauzy, almost see-through, flowery
patterns, light-weight wedding boots, laced,

restful, cool, thin-soled. ‘Are you for real?’
I ask the standing one, for a joke. When she
nods and winks, a chill settles over the room.”

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