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This poem is taken from PN Review 113, Volume 23 Number 3, January - February 1997.Ceridwen's Country
Translated from the Welsh by Richard Poole
Mi gefais awen O hair Ceridwen - Hanes Taliesin
I was born, ignorant of the meaning of boundaries,
to a tribe defeated centuries ago
and left forgotten to farm the fields
on a margin of empire. From my mother's eyes
I learnt there's more to earth's imagination
than the hedges and acres of man's ownership.
A bailiff of shadows my father was,
a shepherd of light on the slopes of the moon.
The winds are our flocks, and our children's task
is to gather the herds of the hot storms
and furiously whip them over the distant cliff
till the rocks sing out in the gusts of the gale
and our village is secure. Armies of night come
to conquer us daily, yet dawn has the power
to complete a perpetual massacre
and free us for some brief hours to the sun;
till the siege of darkness drives us back
to our cottage fortresses, to talk and sleep.
Of the lost men we no longer speak.
Seven years passed, and I grew into a woman.
To begin, each spring, I went to the rock pool
to search in the cauldron of the pure torrent
for the strangers' bodies in the molten snow.
But after I married, I looked no more
for people were talking, and the river was empty.
I sniffed the wind for the three men's breath -
smelt the rustle of pines on slopes of ice,
moss growing.green on rocks and the scream
of a hare in the shadow of the quick buzzard.
But of the men I discovered nothing.
Yet in the summer of strangers, I had a gift:
the life of the borders could transform me
into a flying hawk over seas of peat.
In the trout's court, under a rush lattice,
I slipped like a rainbow of late afternoon
and from the cold current learnt gracefulness.
From the water I rose like a kingfisher
and climbed the air till the blue of my plumes
was one with the heavens and my soul so fine
that I fell back to earth in flakes of snow.
At night, I heard glaciers groaning in pain
and cracks in the deep earth sweating fire;
the buds of the ash-trees tearing free
and the breathy nimbus of the stag
warm on the flanks of stark slopes.
It was then that I shivered in a fever of magic -
scorched by snow, on fire with the moon -
lost in a delirium of the land.
I'd known for years that men would come
to probe my boundaries with cold instruments.
I waited obedient. My power increased.
I poured myself out like water on the world,
and splashed in droplets caressing the backs
of salmon leaping the ridge of the ford;
I tickled the forests with fingers of wind
and rose on the bark of the hoarse fox
through the valley's branches as far as the fell
till the world resounded with the knell of my cry.
My imagination was limitless.
I sensed their steps as they approached,
saw them climbing the valley like ants -
men of empire, missionaries of a faith.
The king commanded! To display his power
officials were commissioned to measure the border
and draw it like a noose round his country's neck.
To my father the surveyor explained himself:
the land's contours must be recorded
in precise detail as the monarch had the right
of patrimony over the bald hill-slopes.
There had to be a census and a house-count,
woods must be registered, fields must be drilled
for sources of oil and secret ores.
A botanist totted our green wealth up,
assessed the potential of fruit and leaf.
Seasons should be logged on a detailed graph -
with lines for rainfall, blocks for ice,
little boxes for storms, and crosses for sun.
Was the weather obedient? Or should the country
irrigate fields and drain its fens?
And what of our sewers? Was the village clean?
Were our women fertile? Children healthy?
Was inbreeding a problem in such a distant place?
The borders must be better administered.
Perfectly simply, my father replied:
'Men of the flatlands understand nothing
of the boundary country. Ask the wind
for the relevant numbers.' Then turned to go.
In a flash he was floored, and the legs of the three
were a forest about him, a gun to his head.
He didn't try fighting…
When he came to the house
the bruises were storms along his back.
I washed his wounds with burning eyes.
And I knew from that time on that the men
must be taught the true nature of boundaries.
We are the souls of the uttermost rocks,
the faults of the heights our frailties too.
Our women marry with the big weather,
storms thread the mountain-passes to the doors
and seek out shelter in our children's eyes.
A man without landscape's a sack of mud:
we pay tithes on our sanity to a cruel creed,
the covenant of granite with flesh and blood.
Yes, I warned the men before their journey began.
I held out before them the map of my palm;
I placed three stones in the centre of the world
and threw them in the river. Coldly they sank
to dissolve into sand under the waterline.
I explained that my hand was the borderscape,
that they were the stones which in the stream
must accede to a merciful transformation.
The men laughed and called me a fool.
Next morning, the three began their work.
I watched from a distance. One of them stood
quiet with his pole at the bottom of the yard
while the other one cast his heavy chain
time and again like a net across the earth,
deaf to the river and the gravel's roar.
Weeks went past, and the three men moved
inch by inch towards the far valley.
I followed with my thoughts, in silent stealth,
lurked with the fox on the summit of the ridge
then spun so high on the current of the cleft
that no one saw an eagle, but a speck of black
in a lonely eye at the top of the world.
And as a girl, in my bed, I willed their fate:
invoking the power of the bare mountains
to fill them with the gravel's vision
and drive them like cattle past sanity's edge
to the marvellous land, a region greater
than kings possess and man can measure.
I compelled them to enter my magic domain.
Their steps slowed. The men grew weary
and fled, in their sleep, to caverns
of dreams so luminous that the light of day
was a drag and a penance after spending the night
wandering chambers walled with gold,
cathedrals of chalky icicles
that trembled beneath the roar of waters
dropping like silk through fathomless halls.
And on the earth's face they saw hidden shapes -
cities in the rock, forests under water;
and there, in the cliff, the torso of a girl
rose statue-like from the softness of the earth -
a woman of granite with moss that fleshed
her staircase of ribs to the peak of her breast.
I observed it all with a raven's soul,
and exulted because the will of the mud
had snatched human limits from under their feet.
They'd stumble like drunkards through ditches of reed,
their universe shattered and systems of stars
whirled from their orbits like swarms of flies.
The botanist forgot he possessed a language
to describe the miracles he saw before him.
With a pencil, he sketched the networks of leaves;
verdure multiplied between the covers of his book.
Trying to close it, he'd smell the dry tang
of savannah, the pollen-scorched wind of the sun,
and poppies fluttered their petals of blood,
soaking his notebook, their magical fragrance
confusing his senses. And in the evening,
lying motionless in the lap of the earth,
he'd feel the branches of his nerves quiver,
his veins loosening and wanting to suck
from his heart's root in an endless spring.
And the surveyor? He forgot his map
when he heard the forests of the coal seams
groaning in underground winds of stone.
He perceived the perfection of tiny insects
trapped gemlike in a mineral death.
The earth was speckled with silver and lead
and he'd sense uranium simmering
far off beneath the hills. At the end of day
he lifted his eyes to the dumb sunset
and picked out the landscapes of the crimson west -
fjords of cloud, archipelagoes of gold,
glittering seas and beautiful headlands
stretching into evening like mercury.
He gazed and gazed, his heart replete
with longing for evening's glorious land,
and cried like a child when the fall of night
snuffed out vision, and left him like a man
mortal on a rock, in a chilling breeze.
By now I'm married, and have lost my gift
to conjure madness over cantons of peat.
But in the summer of strangers-, I was strong enough
to drive them from the village. Praise be to the world,
to the wind that crumbles our rocks into soil,
to the stones that were cast in the magic stream,
to our souls' country, the wisdom of the land.
The original poem, 'Bro Ceridwen', appeared in Gwyneth Lewis's collection Sonedau Redsa a Cherddi Eraill (Redsa Sonnets and Other Poems), Gomer Press 1990.
The epigraph from The Story of Taliesin means: 'I received inspiration from Ceridwen's cauldron.'
This poem is taken from PN Review 113, Volume 23 Number 3, January - February 1997.