Whisperer

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Whisperer

The bird whisperer, bag of bread crusts in his hand, walks towards that lake I knew so well in my childhood. His friends, the ducks and geese, wait for him to arrive so they can have their breakfast. The whisperer is late today and emerges slowly from the early morning damp and mist.

The whisperer’s friends are hungry and impatient. They leave the lakeside to waddle across the road in a lengthening gaggle, fastest at the front, laggards strung out, straggling behind. When they reach him, the whisperer stops for a moment to greet them. Ducks and geese and traffic stand still as the whisperer pulls the whole world to a halt. Watching him, I remember how, when I was a child, those same sharp bills nibbled at the crusts I held in my fingers as my father rowed our hired boat over the lake’s smooth waters.

The whisperer crosses the road with his flock strung out behind him. Drivers and passengers take photos and videos on their cell phones as the battalion marches on, down the slight slope, back to the waterside where the whisperer scatters crusts and breadcrumbs and throws corn as if it were a shower of stars from the firmament.

Greying skies threaten above dark waters. At lake’s end, above the waterfall, the monument to Scott of the Antarctic pierces the gloom with its fine, white tower. Scott sailed from this city in search of new lands and adventures at the South Pole. Like me and many others he left, never to return.

I look at the bruises that decorate my wrinkled hands. Neither spots nor wrinkles were there when I left that lake behind me, was it really fifty years ago? I view the video on YouTube, shot from an I-phone in a parked car, and my eyes mist over. This was my home, this was the land of my fathers, this was the land of choirs that would always welcome me back with song … yet I no longer go back.

The video is grainy and bears grey threads that mimic the passing clouds. I gaze on that well-remembered lake: there, so many years ago, I swam in its waters, ran and biked along its winding paths, rowed around its edges in and out of the reeds, and fed the lake birds as I floated beside them. I remember all too well the warmth of spring and the joy of the returning sun that strew gold daffodils beneath budding trees.

I see myself reflected in the computer’s screen: my wrinkled skin wraps my shriveled flesh in the same way crinkly paper winds itself round an Easter egg. There is so much inside that binding, so many memories and secrets that dream their lives away inside me. I close my eyes and for a moment I am once more that youthful body flashing its jack-knife blade into those rippling waters …

Evening comes and I stand in a shimmer of moonlight at the garden’s edge, my hands held out to catch a falling star. Alas, I seize only the mutterings of snowflakes strung between the constellations. My scarecrow dream stretches out a long, thin hand and clasps bright treasures in its tight-clenched fist. Inverted, the Big Dipper hangs its question mark from the sky’s dark eyelid. A honking of geese haunts the highway high above me. I swivel from north to south to catch an impression of darkness swift and sudden that blots out the scattered grains of stars.

A finger-nail of rising moon emerges from the trees and hoists itself skywards. The moon hones its cutting edge into an ice-thin blade and the lone dove of my heart flaps in its trap of barren bone. Moonlight and starlight run twin liquors, raw, within me. Stars nearby fade in its brightness. I have built a fire inside the house. When I go back in, my goose quill pen scratches black lines in my journal as I weave words by firelight across a flickering page. Ghosts of departed constellations drown in the nearby river. Pale planets scythed by moonlight bob phosphorescent on a rising flood of memories.

Comment: This would be a “raw poem” were it not a piece of “raw prose”! I found it among my notes late last night and revised it and put it up this morning. It was based on a YouTube video of a man, the bird whisperer, feeding geese at Roath Park Lake in Cardiff, South Wales. When I was a teenager, my family moved from Swansea to Cardiff and Roath Park was a short bike ride from our new home. The Scott Memorial stands at the lower end of Roath Lake, just by the waterfall. Apparently Robert Scott sailed from Cardiff on 15 June 1910 in a converted whaler in an effort to walk to the South Pole. Like me, when I left Cardiff, he didn’t return.

Here’s a link to Robert Scott: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Falcon_Scott

This is the video on which the piece is based: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=clbbMt2sl0k

Brandy Cove

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Brandy Cove

for my cousin
Frances
who lives in
Australia

I remember helping our nana
climb the steep slope
from the beach to the headland.

“It’s easy, nana,” I said. “Look!”
I leaped from tussock to tussock,
up the path, each patch of grass
a stepping stone leading me upwards.

She stood there, below me,
breathing hard, her left hand
held against her chest,
just beneath her heart.

“I’m catching my breath,”
she said, panting.

I ran up and down, then held out
my hand to help her.

It was so long ago.
Who now will hold out
her hand to help me
as I too age and grow
slow?

Dydd Dewi Sant Hapus.

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To be Welsh on Sunday


(This poem should be read out loud,
fast, and in a single breath!)

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 ribs
and the dark liquids flow, not warm, not cold, just right,
and family and friends are there beside you
shoulder to shoulder, with 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 the umbrella is a sunshade
on an evening like this when the sun is still high
and the children tumble on the grass playing
soccer and cricket and it’s “Watch your beer, Da!”
as the gymnasts vault over the family dog till it 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 Ty Coch, The Antelope, The Butcher’s, The Rhiwbina Deri,
The White Rose, The Con Club, the Plough and Harrow,
The Flora, The Woodville, The Pant Mawr, The Cow and Snuffers …

… God Bless them all, I knew them in my prime.

Comment: When I was living in Wales, back in the fifties and the early sixties, the country divided itself into counties that could drink alcohol on Sundays (wet Wales) and those that couldn’t (dry Wales). There were twelve counties in those days and people commuted from the dry to the wet, on Sundays, if they wanted to drink. Some took the wet / dry divide very seriously. Others didn’t. Where do I stand? I refuse, even now, to say. But check out, very carefully, the attached photo. Not every rugby coach has his name engraved on a beer spigot in a rugby club in Santander, Spain. Happy St. David’s Day, everyone. Dydd Dewi Sant Hapus.

Overnight Rain

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Overnight Rain

Do you remember sharing the single
bed in my room in Bristol? It was
not so much the sound of raindrops
falling, but rather that of water gurgling
through gutter and pipe that kept
us awake, turning to each other, rest-
lessly for comfort and dreams.

Downstairs, in our little yellow
house, the dogs are quiet. Upstairs,
rain drums its rhythms on our thin
tin roof and I cannot go to sleep.
The grass will be much too wet
to tackle and scrum: tomorrow I’ll
call around and cancel practice.

Funny how this season winds down
to its end. Tomorrow, no practice.
Then two more games, three maybe,
and a portion of my life will fade
into history. How many forty minute
periods can the human mind retain,
with wins and losses all crammed in?

A strange thing, memory. Even now
I can sing the tunes from the kiddy
shows I watched so many years ago:
Bill and Ben, The Woodentops, Andy
Pandy, Muffin, The Magic Roundabout.
Some nights, in my wildest dreams,
Mr. Plod, the Policeman, still comes

into the tv room with shiny handcuffs.
He leads me to my childhood cell,
high beneath the eaves, and I am
condemned to bed with nesting birds
rustling beneath the roof, rats and mice
scratching, half-heard waters whispering
off-beat lullabies: all oddly disturbing.

Comment:

This is one of my favorite poems from the sequence of love poems I wrote for Clare back in the nineties. It recalls the persistence of memory: how all things are linked throughout our lives and how one thought triggers another. The phenomenon of rain is the starting point for a journey back to a time or times that still remain firmly embedded in the writer’s mind. Memory is indeed a strange thing. I am certain that no two people recall the same incident in exactly the same way. How could they when viewpoint and memory create such wonderful and different links?

One thing I will never forget: the rats and mice in the rafters of our bungalow in Gower. My father and grand-father built it in 1928 and my uncle was the caretaker who took loving care of it throughout his life. They did their best to keep the bungalow vermin free. But we closed it down in September and over the winter all manner of things found their way in. Those first spring nights, until the rafters were cleared again, were full of the sounds of nature’s revolution against humankind.

The other thing I remember very vividly was the lack of running water and electricity. Wood stoves, a fireplace in the dining room, an enormous cast-iron kitchen range, wood and coal burning, on which my grandmother cooked and did the baking. Then there were the cows that wandered through the bungalow field. They would be there, all night, nurtured by the bungalow’s warmth. Many’s the night I wandered out to the outdoors bathroom, the out-house, in fear of a meeting a nocturnal cow. One of my worst memories: walking barefoot through a cow-pat, warm and wet, and the moisture rising up soft and squishy between my toes. Those were the days … the stuff of which memories are made …

 

Wales

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Wales

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.

They wrapped her in a shawl and hugged her
till she cried herself to sleep
suffocating in a straitjacket of warm Welsh wool.

So how do I explain the sheep?

They are everywhere, I say, on lawns, in gardens.

I once knew a man
whose every prize tulip was devoured by a sheep,
a single sheep who sneaked into the garden
the day he left the gate ajar.

They get everywhere, I say, everywhere.

Why, I remember five sheep
riding in a coal truck leering like tourists
travelling God knows where
bleating fiercely as they went by.

In Wales, I say, sheep are magic.

When you travel to London on the train,
just before you leave Wales
at Severn Tunnel Junction,
you must lean out the window and say
“Good morning, Mister Sheep!”

And if he looks up,
your every wish will be granted.

And look at that poster on the wall:
a hillside of white on green,
and every sheep as still as a stone,
and each white stone a roche moutonnée.

To be Welsh in the Rhondda

 

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To be Welsh in the Rhondda Valley
 
To be Welsh in the Rhondda Valley
is to change buses at the roundabout in Porth;
it’s to speak the language of steam 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
or purchased in the corner store at Tonypandy.

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

Here flame and gas spell violent death.
The creaking of the pit-prop
warns of the song-bird soon to be silent in its cage …
… and hymn and heart are stopped in our throats,
when, after the explosion, the dust settles down,
and high above us the black crowds gather.

On Being Welsh

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On Being Welsh

I am the all-seeing eyes at the tip of Worm’s Head;
I am the teeth of the rocks at Rhossili;
I am the blackness in Pwll Ddu pool
when the sea-swells suck the stranger
in and out, sanding his bones.

Song pulled taut from a dark Welsh lung,
I am the memories of Silure and beast
mingled in a Gower Cave;
tamer of aurox,
hunter of deer,
caretaker of coracle
fisher of salmon on the Abertawe tide,
I am the weaver of rhinoceros wool.

I am the minority,
persecuted for my faith,
for my language, for my sex,
for the coal-dark of my thoughts;

I am the bard whose harp,
strung like a bow,
will sing your death
with music of arrows
from the wet Welsh woods;

I am the barb that sticks in your throat
from the dark worded ambush of my song.