A round of rondelets

In rides the rain;
All day the crow-black clouds have grown.
In rides the rain
To lash the sodden land again –
Soak wind-bent thorn, time-scattered stone
And high-hedged lanes I walk alone.
In rides the rain.

Up comes the gale
With teeth and fists and dark intent.
Up comes the gale
As power-lines and barbed wire wail
With twisted trees in shrill lament;
The world the wild wind’s instrument.
Up comes the gale.

Now falls the night;
A lean wolf stalking round the hill.
Now comes the night;
The twilight yields without a fight.
I turn my collar to the chill
But long miles lie before me still.
Now falls the night.

Approach the door:
Old oak, black iron, bolted fast.
Approach the door
Where my road ends; I’ll march no more.
Cast coat and hat aside at last,
Find rest until the storm has passed.
Approach the door.

Beside the fire
With four thick walls enfolding me;
Beside the fire
All journeymen like me desire
Is here: with wine and company,
The hard road’s just a memory
Beside the fire.

The sun appears –
And with it, hope for better things.
The sun appears
To banish night and all its fears,
Strike copper fire on kite’s broad wings
And warm me on my wanderings.
The sun appears.

 

More from our festive sojourn in west Wales, and another form I’d not tried before – the rondelet. Like the triolet, it has a refrain line (A), which in this case appears three times and is written in iambic dimeter; the rest is in iambic tetrameter. The rhyme scheme is AbAabbA.

Having played around with it a bit, I must say I like its straightforwardness and economy. It has a rather ‘naïve art’ feel to it, so I chose simple subjects, which ended up telling an equally uncomplicated story, partly inspired by some memorably weather-beaten walks in the country around my mother-in-law’s house.

As well as the red kite, the wolf, extinct in this islands for almost three centuries, emerged unlooked-for as a recurring theme (can’t quite bring myself to use the term ‘motif’) while we were away. It may have something to do with my reading over the last few weeks, which has consisted largely of the Norse legends and Icelandic sagas! He’ll be back again soon, I’m sure. N.

Englyns: From Ceredigion

1.

I’m lost. I had not planned to come this way.
Heart gripped in Fear’s chill hand
For there are, I understand
Dragons living in this land.

2.

An island in a sea of rain-raked grass
Where kites wheel watchfully.
Thick-walled, four-square sanctuary
With food, fire and family.

3.

Two circles, dug deep, high on this bleak hill.
Walled with stone, roofed with sky.
Where we watch the red kites fly,
Armed men stood once, doomed to die.

4.

The red kite, wind-borne, keeps his lone watch while
The frozen forest sleeps:
In the hearth a bright fire leaps;
Round the house, Midwinter creeps.

 

The englyn is new to me, but it is, of course, a very ancient form: part of the Welsh bardic tradition, englyns are still regularly recited at Eisteddfod. Like the Japanese haiku, the englyn is based on syllable count – 10 in the first line, then six, seven and seven – with the added twist that the sixth syllable of the first line introduces the end-rhyme for the following three lines. Confused? I was.

Anyway, we were staying with my wife’s family in west Wales over Christmas, so it seemed the ideal opportunity to blend medium and material. The second poem in this sequence is about my mother-in-law’s house, while the third was inspired by the Iron Age fort on the hill above it. No apologies for the repeated red kite references: having once been hunted virtually to extinction, they’re now as common as sparrows in those parts. And very beautiful they are, too. Happy New Year to one and all. N.

Rust in peace

 

The country here is littered with their bones;
Half-hidden carcases lie everywhere –
In ditches, under hedges, in that shed
Collapsing on itself. They are the dead
Left by the weary, never-ending war
Between the land and those who work to claw
A living from thin soil shot through with stones.

A roller, bust in hopeless halves. A plough
With coulters, mouldboards, landsides, beam and share
That once gleamed brightly, pitted, dull with rust;
A baler thick with long-gone summers’ dust;
A set of heavy harrows, choked beneath
Tall nettles, broken tines like missing teeth.
Their fall from grace complete, abandoned now –

Redundant, superseded, or plain wrecked
And left to rot. No money to repair
Or reinstate them. Killed by this terrain –
Its cruel contours, rocks and endless rain –
They stand as red-stained steles to all the hopes
Of fast, efficient working on these slopes
Sharp salesmen led their buyers to expect.

But someone, somewhere, still recalls the day
That shiny new machine was standing there
In pride of place: the farm folk gathered round
To peer and prod; and him, aloof and crowned
With glory as the only one who knew
Exactly how it worked, what it could do –
Not dreaming things could ever end this way.

 

Another piece brought back from west Wales, where the steep, stony land and pitiless rain are hell on men and machines. This follows the same form as my earlier Insomnia – if only to prove to myself that my invented scheme (with the stanzas linked by the ‘B’ rhyme in the second line – what was I thinking?) would work a second time!

Ruba’i: Kite-flying

Rain’s coming. Soon the day will die:
Before the weather hits, we’re high
On this steep slope, to catch a sight
Of kites against the scowling sky.

One pink-and-purple-quartered, bright
And tugging playfully, held tight
By my small girl on wind-taut string.
The other at a watchful height –

A russet silhouette – the king
Of these green hills. With copper wing
And deep-notched tail he tames the breeze;
His hunter’s eye sees everything.

One kite knows only certainties
Control, restraint and boundaries:
One has the freedom of the air
And all its possibilities.

I watch my daughter standing there,
Her laughing face upturned, aware
The moment will soon come when she
Will wish to fly, and I must dare

To let the string run long. Now, we
Are here together – happy, free.
And that means most of all to me
For she means most of all to me.

 

Off the grid

It’s been too long. I must go wandering
Again, be free of this, live off the grid
A while, and work the way the old ones did:
Sans phone, sans internet, sans everything.
With dog at heel I’ll stalk the woods and hills
In solitary communion with the land
And put my words on paper, pen in hand –
Sans Microsoft, sans formatting, sans frills.
And so I disappear, but do not doubt
That I’ll return – this is my life, my trade
As I have said – and bring new poems made
By means to trust when all the lights go out.
No broadband reaches where I’m heading to
Which lets me reconnect with what is true.

 

Last post till the weekend, folks, as we’re making a dawn run to deepest (and, if things run true to form, dampest) west Wales tomorrow for a few days’ R&R chez mother-in-law. As always, my heartfelt thanks to my treasured band of fellow WordPress poets for your support and encouragement: look forward to catching up with you all very soon. N.

[The sharp-eyed among you will notice that, although this is (yet another) sonnet, I’ve finally departed from my favourite Shakespearean variant. I don’t know whether this one has an official name – as far as I knew I was making it up – but I enjoyed playing with a new rhyme scheme (ABBA CDDC EFFE GG instead of the usual ABAB CDCD EFEF GG). And of course, there’s more than a slight nod to Will in lines 4 and 8. Credit where it’s due, I always say. N.]

A tale of our times

Cuts

He walks
Towards the grey stone house
Like a battlefield surgeon coming down the line
Or a man who, shaving hastily, contrived to nick
An artery in his neck.
The warm red rain has spattered his face,
Soaked his cap and shirt-collar,
Stained overalls and hands like some apprentice butcher’s.

He knows
This was a task he should have tackled
Back when they were calves,
The horns mere buds, and their removal
No more than a touch of glowing iron,
A brief sharp stink of burning hair –
A job for life in a minute’s easy work.
Now, left so late, it took three men
And a whole sodding day of trodden feet,
Shouting, straining, geysers of muck,
Maddened beasts slamming on sleepers and steel;
An improvised corrida, short on finesse,
Long on blood.

He begrudges
The time, the hurt, the fat fee to the sweating vet;
Still, it had to be done:
Seeing them swaggering into the yard,
Cocksure with their weaponed heads,
There was no question. The wounds, torn wire
And their seigneurial strutting at the trough
Left him no choice
But the crush, the needle and the blade. Yet

He finds
He cannot say who won this one. He’s left
Slumped and blasted, arms hanging like empty sleeves; the beasts
Bewildered, polls still stunned
By adrenaline local and the shock of shears.
All change in the herd, he thinks:
A social shuffling, a shift in power.
A bullet bitten, the right thing done.
But as he stumbles in to wash and eat
He shakes his head. And does not smile.

You're through to voicemail

Off the hook

I’m sorry;
I’m not available
To take your call right now:

The air in there
Is sour and sick,
Thickened with work,
Tainted by worry
Like the gust of last night’s beer
From the pub door Sunday morning.

Now I’m out
Of reach of the bank, the Revenue’s men,
The trivial tyranny of whencanyougetitdoneby,
And the world falls away
Like the sheep-speckled hillside
Beneath the red kite’s wing.

Just a coat between me and the wind
That playfully snatches at collar and cap;
Boots pressed into the old, soft turf
Like the fifty-pence-piece in my Grandad’s palm;
The dog stops, turns, looks at me and laughs
And a lone crow tips me a knowing wink.

Can’t say
When I’ll get back to you.

This should give you some idea of the week I’ve had. Wish it was half-term again, and we were back in Wales.

Close encounter

To boldly go

In his overalls, bulky boots
And thick fleece hat pulled right down over his ears
He lumbers, slow, stiff-legged,
Over the sodden ground
Like a spaceman on an alien planet
Where the atmosphere’s thin and bitter cold
And the gravity’s turned right up.

The mission commander remains behind
On the quad-bike that squats like a moon-buggy
On its fat balloon tyres
And from the seat, he barks peremptory orders
At the half-dozen sheep
Gathering round the trough,
Grateful for this daily visitation
From another world.

I saw this little scene played out on a dog-walk in Wales the other week. I think the whippet (who was wearing his fleece jacket at the time) felt rather inadequate when he saw the collie standing on the quad-bike seat in the freezing wind, barking joyously, having almost certainly spent the night outdoors too. I was certainly conscious that I’m not nearly tough enough for a life like that. Then again, how many of us are?

Life force

Miracle

I don’t need
To see five thousand fed
On loaves and fishes,
Blind eyes opened,
Or a man shake off the tomb like a twenty-four-hour flu.

Just show me
A calf
Thirty seconds into life;
A heap of wet rags in the straw.

Her wide-eyed dam licks every glistening, astonishing inch of her;

And with the steam still rising
From her new piebald coat,
The calf snorts, shakes her head and strains to govern
Those outsize, unruly legs
And stand,
Drawn to the udder by a power
She can’t resist, and I cannot explain.

My mother-in-law’s house in Wales is on her brother’s dairy farm. My daughter and I went down to visit Uncle R one afternoon, and arrived literally seconds after a heifer calf had been born. My daughter, who’s nine, was captivated by the new arrival (who’s since been named after her) and I was reminded that miracles not only can happen, but do. You know them when you see them.

In the master's footsteps

Dylan’s way

My feet fell in
With Dylan’s way
Along the Aeron,
Where it slips and tumbles
Demob-happy as it nears the sea
Dipper-deep over salmon-smooth stones.

The red kites rode the wind
Over the woods

And I drank deep
As the Young Dog himself
On the lash in Laugharne
Of the giddy, untainted air.

Dylan Thomas loved the Aeron valley in Ceredigion, and regularly walked along the lane that runs past my mother-in-law’s house. His ghost is good company.