Friday, 13 March 2015

the comb of a fighting dragon

Something to wave farewell to late winter with, and, I have to admit, give praise as spring starts to reveal her elegant hand. One of the lyric poems I have been working on (with Tony Hoagland), and a local story with a touch of walking its bones. Year course is now FULL with big waiting list - the ONLY available School of Myth event for the next 12 months is the Ted Hughes weekend with myself and the brilliant Hugh Lupton (1-3rd May scroll down to flyer). I will be at Crick Crack lecture series on May 6th, THE ONE THEY TRACK WITH SILVER - my lecture and telling on Trickster. Google i'm sure is hoarding all relevant details - London, Swedenborg House my memory is telling me.

From Dafydd ap Gwilymn, Welsh, c. 1325 -1380, and Irish, unknown; eleventh century.

No world but white.

Even words of a girl won’t
shift me from the peat-fire.

Here's what I say to her:
that I would arrive
as white as the clothes
of a miller.

Not a grand look
for romancing.

Flakes land like feathers,
ridged down my back
like the comb
of a fighting dragon.

God has issued his decree -
from January on,
we are to be hermits.

This winter, my Irish cousins
tell me of the misery
of the wolves of Cuan Wood:
so bent with cold they cannot rest;

The eagles of Glen Rye
are breaking icicles
from the bitter winds
with their deadly beaks.

Full lakes
are frozen seas;
tiny meres are full lakes,

Horses spin
on the these iron fields
like priests with brandy;

fishes plough the grey waves
just to keep warm.

Snow mounts higher
than the mountain.

Bells are frozen in the black chapel.

The shield hangs idle on the warrior's shoulder.

What Price to Lay an Eye?

The Church House Inn stands firm at the crossroads of Holne, whilst a silver torrent churns down past its solid oak door. Everything I survey is dripping, soaking, has had any possible shred of warmth drained from it. Through a shrouding mist plods one horse rider, replete with luminous top; other than that the hamlet seems utterly contracted.

It does not seem, I admit, the perfect beginning to a great Dartmoor spirit-story. The story begins in an old cottage at the edge of the village, but as I glance round, all i’m seeing is an array of satellite dishes racked precariously up on small, shuttered up, modern houses on the road out of here.

I start up the road from the village, past the old red-phone box, past the barn that briefly held the trellis, ribs, roof and neatly folded greying canvas of my yurt when I could no longer find a quiet place for it.

It is always a longer journey than expected up to the cattle-grid that is really the guardian stone for that entry point onto the moor. That slight tightness to the thigh, the deep gulping of oxygen-fat air - you feel that you have earned the unfolding views. The yellow of the western gorse pokes through the mists. To the right arches valley after valley, tor after tor, a rippled blur like a buzzard's wings skimming the surface of a grey pool, all feathered browns and cool teal. Punk rock sheep wander around looking miserable, blue fur sprayed as identification for farmers. It’s really cold. Again. And I have many miles to go. So, as I walk I begin the story, speaking its myth-line to underneath the tarmac. The occasional car passes, school kids pointing and laughing at the muttering man with his odd gestures to buzzards and far off hills.



Night. A storm on the moors. Rain battered a harsh tune on cottage windows, cattle sheds shuddered as if needing rope. The old midwife, Morada, had stoked the embers, had just crawled between her blankets, was settling to sleep. It was then she was disturbed by a knock at the door of her Holne cottage.

She pottered down through the flickered shadows of the creaking house and opened the door. Peering into bright rain and flooding track, she was greeted by what she recognised as an earth-soul, a Benji, a fairy. A slim figure on horseback, he leant down - a murmur in the agitated night - and offered her ten gold guineas to deliver his child. His voice was strange, like water passing over stones.

She swiftly agreed. That was a great deal of money. He bound her eyes in a handkerchief and they took to the green lanes, up to the high moor and into mighty gusts of wind and rain. Past Vennford lake, over the bridge at Hexworthy, past the old chapel and then on in the general direction of Bellever Tor.

Old arms grip
a slim waist,
alive in the surge.

This rooted oak
now hugs tight
her fey chauffeur,.

A girl again
straddling the rain-horse,
the glitter bright track,
this clattering night.

Somewhere out in the fusty acres of grizzled weather they got to the Benji’s cave. A few waxy candles spluttered next to pools of brackish water and mossy humps, indeed the entrance was little more than a small hole, deep ridged with brambles.

Inside it was utterly different, like the longhouse of some ancient moorland king. Ornate patterning skilfully hewn into thick pillars, the floor cosy with animal skins, a fire glowing, its smoke was sweet, like dried herbs. And there was music: music so tender it would have pricked tears from your eyes. Morada crouched by the fairy-wife and settled to her task. Fairy or not, this ritual she knew. By candle light she delivered the baby, wind screeching through the sodden branches outside. The whole moor was a-shake that night.

Part of her instructions were to rub an ointment – a kind of mud - on the baby’s eyes. She did so, but, of course got antsy to try a little herself. Just the one eye. What could be the harm? Well, it stung a little but that’s it. After a time, she was delivered home to her door, pockets heavy with gold.

Hard to forget
such a meeting
with the
hidden dignitaries
of Dartmoor.


Sometimes in the
furthest stable,
the last field
between the farm
and the forest.

Who horses never tire,
who’s musics never cease,
who’s food must not be tasted.

Quite a secret.

Like tasting the kings wine.

A day or two later she wandered down the lanes and into the market town of Ashburton, and everything was different. The stars were clearly visible in the daylight, cats were as large as hounds, salmon leapt from the river Ashburn with the faces of foxes – the whole world was rocked, luminous, awake. She tried to steady herself with a whisky in the snug back room of the Exeter Inn, just off the market, but even that didn’t work. Maybe buying supplies would sober her eye. But at the bustling market she, of a horror, spotted the fairy rider ambling slow and unseen through the throng. In a fraction of second he turned his attention to her. She almost stopped breathing. He cantered forward and leant down on his saddle, his face obscured by a battered old hat. “Which of your eyes can see me?” he breathed. When she slowly pointed to the left he, in a flash, scooped it out with an icy blade.

She carried a dark pit where her left eye should be for the rest of her life. Children would run to the door of her cottage and then away again, just to say they had. When she finally died of old age, they cleared her house and found those ten gold guineas under her pillow. As the villagers gleefully picked them up they became oak leaves, withered and fell apart.

what price to lay an eye?


1 comment:

Simon Hodges said...

Love the Welsh poem - can't wait for the full collection!