Lovely review of The Blue Cell by Éadaoín Lynch for New Welsh Review: “… a powerful simplicity… sensitive and lyrical treatment”.
A little reminder about the new Poetry in Presteigne festival, where I’ll be reading with Nicky Arscott on 17th October. Thanks to Nicky for the poster!
I’ll be reading at the new Poetry in Presteigne Festival in Powys on Saturday 17th October, with Nicky Arscott (who is also a hugely talented artist – have a look at her website). I’ll be launching my pamphlet, “The Blue Cell”, and the full programme can be found here – there are some extremely interesting things happening. Looking forward to it!
I’m happy to say that my new pamphlet, The Blue Cell, was published by Rack Press earlier this month. The poems are concerned with moments in the lives of various early Welsh saints: some relatively well-known, such as Gwenffrewi (Winifred), and others of more local fame.
For me, the stories of the Celtic saints have an appeal comparable to the stories of the Mabinogion – to which they are at root related. In both sets of legend we find the same unquestioning acceptance of magic, a cast of similarly powerful, headstrong individuals whose lives are nonetheless subject to stronger, supernatural forces; and, in these individuals, we find the same curiously blunted responses to danger, disaster or heartbreak, which leave an impression of characters affected by human emotion, and at the same time not behaving in truly human ways.
In the Mabinogion and in the stories of the Celtic saints, we see grand themes of human emotion and action – love, revenge, forgiveness, despair, revelation – and we see the expression of these emotions on a grand scale. So, in the second branch of the Mabinogion, when Branwen realises the devastation brought to Britain and Ireland by her brother’s attempt to rescue her from her cruel husband: “Alas, Son of God,” said she, “Woe is me that I was ever born: two good islands have been laid waste because of me!” And she heaved a great sigh, and with that broke her heart. And a four-sided grave was made for her, and she was buried there on the banks of the Alaw.
Episodes like these are moving and passionate, but the more subtle register of human thought and feeling – doubt, worry, tiredness, relief – is harder to find. This is partly, of course, because neither the tales of the Mabinogion nor the tales of the saints are exercises in social realism, but ancient pieces of inherently formulaic narrative. They are structured around key motifs, and have passed through so many hands that only the most crucial details remain constant. What is more, neither the saints nor the cast of the Mabinogion are straight-forward mortals. The Four Branches of the Mabinogion are generally understood to be medieval redactions of earlier myth, and their characters to descend from Celtic deities; while, as Elissa R. Henken points out in her excellent book The Welsh Saints: a study in patterned lives (D.S. Brewer, 1991), “the Welsh saints have less in common with the martyred saints of Europe than with the mythological and secular heroes of their own land”.
In other words, the courtly romances of the Mabinogion and the legendary lives of the saints have a common origin in pre-Christian Celtic tradition. Many of the same tropes occur in both places: people turned into beasts, people stuck to objects, people associated with magical artefacts, and so on. Nonetheless, there is an important distinction: however their stories developed, and with whatever archaic gods they might have become conflated in folklore, the saints themselves were real historical figures, and devout Christians. Where the magical activities of the mythological heroes are proof of personal wizardly power, the miracles performed by the saints are evidence of God’s grace.
The saints lived from day to day in a world of earth and flesh. Sex and violence are common concerns in their stories, and are sometimes luridly described. They leave footprints in stone, and cause springs to burst from the ground. How, in the earliest days of the Celtic church, were the material and spiritual worlds balanced? How did the saints – how does anyone – live in both at once? How do the ways in which we weigh up the physical and the spiritual change as religious conventions change? I didn’t write my poems with any of these questions particularly in mind, and I’m sure that the poems provide no answers. But as I looked back at the early Welsh saints I began to wonder; and these are real questions, I think, however fantastical the stories that prompt them.
The impetus behind this poem was an exhibition of Haitian art, ‘Kafou: Haiti, Art and Voudou’, at the excellent Nottingham Contemporary gallery a little over two years ago. This was the largest exhibition of Haitian art ever held in Britain, and presented works by Hector Hippolyte, Wilson Biguad, Georges Liautard, André Pierre and Pierrot Barra, among many others. Briefly mentioned in the exhibition was André Breton’s stay in the country between December 1945 and February 1946. Breton, founder of the Surrealist movement, had spent much of the second world war in exile in New York, increasingly isolated from the Parisian intellectual and artistic scene on which he had once been such a forceful presence. His lecture tour of Haiti enabled him to recover some of that influence and revolutionary cachet: his lectures were hugely popular, and the series of café-discussions he had intended to lead was cancelled after the first (rather awkwardly for an official visitor) inadvertently inspired first a student strike and then a general strike, and arguably contributed to the fall of Elie Lescot’s government.
If Breton made an impact on politics in Haiti, Haitian art and culture also made a strong impression on Breton. He was a guest of the Centre d’Art in Port-au-Prince, sadly destroyed in the earthquake of 2010, and there had his first encounter with the work of Hector Hyppolite. Hyppolite was a Voudou Houngan, or minister, whose paintings the director of the Centre d’Art had stumbled across decorating the walls of a roadside rum-shack outside the city. Breton was fascinated not only by Hyppolite’s technique, but by the spirits and ritual scenes depicted in his work, and he grew keen to witness Voudou ceremonies for himself. (This was something he had time to do during the unexpected hiatus in his lecture series.) In Voudou’s mutable, subversive imagery – its mystical veves, geometric motifs drawn fleetingly on the ground where ceremonies are held, its blending of symbolism from West African and Catholic traditions – and in its acceptance of the spiritual world’s frequent intercession into the material, Breton seems to have found a reflection of Surrealist concerns: with the pressure of the subconscious, with the fusion of interior and exterior realities, with translation between states of being.
The momentous effects of Breton’s visit to Haiti possibly resulted from certain misunderstandings on both sides, or at least from an over-eagerness on the part of both guest and audience to appropriate the preoccupations of the other. But nonetheless, a mutual influence was felt and a connection was made – one which makes for a good story. My take on it can be read here.
Greatly enjoyed reading at the Imperial Hotel last Thursday – it was lovely meeting everyone, and a fabulous open mic. Thank you to Mike for inviting me, and to all those who braved the “weather bomb”.
Merry Christmas all!
Looking forward very much to reading at the Imperial Hotel in Merthyr Tydfil next Thursday: 11th December. 7.30pm, with open mic!