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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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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Tracks

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Tracks
McAdam Railway Station #12

“Put your fingertips on the rail,
see if you can feel its pulsing beat.

No heart rail rhythm now. No tremble.
Put your ear on cold metal:

nothing but silence. No murmur,
however distant. Black fly whine.

No-see-ums flit. The train track’s
buzz of harmony is lost and gone,

replaced by careless nature. Listen
to the wind whistling in the woods,

hark to spring sounds, so subtle,
grass growing, rust accumulating,

sleepers turning over in their graves,
silent, rotting beneath forgotten rails.”

Comment: Nothing so lonely as an abandoned railway track, rusting beneath snow and rain, the wooden sleepers rotting into oblivion. That said, the Southern New Brunswick Railway still carries freight trains through McAdam, and it is the railway station that suffered, with the loss of passenger traffic, rather than the rails themselves. What a pleasure, incidentally, to hear the hoot of the approaching diesel, to count the wagons as the train came to a halt outside the station. Then came the joy of watching the engine separate wagons from the main train, shunt them into sidings, return, and take the freight train, slow at first, but rapidly gathering speed, out of the station and away into the distance. Such memories. So many ghost trains riding those rails. So many ghosts bewitching the windmills of the child’s mind that still inhabits the ageing brain.

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Murals

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Murals
McAdam Railway Station #11

Painting a mural,
inside, interior
wall, knowing it will
stand time’s test.

Viaduct broken,
a tumbled engine,
Canadian workers,
railwaymen all,

some from Macadam,
pebbled the floor,
handrail, radiator
camouflaged for war,

part of the painting.
Depart from the station.
Turn right. Straight ahead,
flaked peeling paint.

So sad, this outside
mural, exposed to winter’s
snow, frost, winds, and ice.
So vulnerable

and so ephemeral.
Such a short-lived
summer, over in a day.
Butterfly on a rock.

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Comment: This sequence comes from the indoor and outdoor work (murals) of my friend Geoff Slater. Geoff told me how ephemeral were the outdoor murals with a life-span of about ten years before they needed redoing. After that, the paint starts to fade, then crack, then dry and peel away. Our Canadian winters with their icy cold and the ensuing springs with their frost and thaw do not help. The protection, no ice, no snow, no sun, no rain, afforded to the interior murals means that they will last so much longer. Our outdoor art, unless cast in the firmest stone, is ephemeral. Like a butterfly, it will not last much longer than a brief summer day. Hence the final metaphor.

Faces

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Faces
McAdam Railway Station #10

“White at windows
when trains pass through
in June on their way
to summer and sand.

Wind-tousled, tanned
at summer’s end
returning home to
Boston and Montreal.

I remember them
waving their hands,
flickering white hankies
as they went by.

This station is a ghost train
that travels through time
instead of space. Stand
still as silent stone. Wait.

Look: there’s someone,
waving at us now
from that window
on the second floor.”

 

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Hospital

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Hospital
McAdam Railway Station #9

“I was here the day they
took the hospital away.
I gave some writing workshops.
Teachers upset, students in tears,

everywhere, fear and despair.
‘I was born in that hospital.’
‘My grandfather died there.’
‘Where will my child be born?’

I helped them write down
their memories and fears,
their hopes and dreams.
My lesson plans vanished.

How could they survive
when life’s rising tide
broke all bulwarks,
flooded open hearts.

A wounded community,
diminished by its loss,
they took me into their hearts.
Their loneliness wrapped me.

They wrote down memories.
Tears stained every page.”

Comment: This is one of my memories of being in McAdam. I was invited to run a series of writing workshops there, under the Writers’ Federation of New Brunswick  (WFNB) WiSP (Writers in Schools Program). I arrived there the week the announcement was made that the local hospital would close. I remember all too well the effect that this announcement had on the local community and I have tried to express that anger, sorrow, despair, fear, resentment in the above poem. More than anything, I felt the sorrow and despair of students and teachers. It is so easy to make an executive decision, at a distance, to rip the beating heart out of a living community on financial grounds. It is so difficult to revive the patient after the act of removal. What amazes me about McAdam is the effort hat volunteers are making to rebuild their town. Their words and deeds are truly impressive: as impressive as their magnificent railway station, now declared a national heritage site.

S.O.S

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S. O .S.
McAdam Railway Station #8

“Dozing in the cab, I was.
Smelt a different smoke.
It wasn’t my engine’s.

Looked around.
Saw flames. One, two,
three houses on fire.

Steam was up. Yessir.
Three short hoots I gave.
Three long. Three short.

S.O.S. Mayday. Mayday.
S.O.S. S.O.S. Kept going
till house lights came on.

People running. Leaving homes.
Jumped out of the cab.
Ran out to help them.

They thanked me.
Said I had saved their lives.
What else could I have done?”

Comment: This is a third hand poem. It came to me from Geoff who heard the story from the hardware store owner who witnessed the fire. The narrator is the anonymous engine driver who raised the alarm. Of course I don’t know exactly what he did, said, or thought. Our knowledge of history can be divided into two great moments: the momentous events, recorded by expert historians via diligent research, and intra-historia, as Miguel de Unamuno, that great Spanish philosopher and rector of Salamanca University called it, referring to those small, individual moments when history is made by anonymous human beings who did what they had to do and then faded into the anonymity of a distant past, now wrapped in silence, as is the store-keeper and the driver of the train.

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