On Being Welsh
(In A Land Ruled By The English)
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.
To Be Welsh in Gower
To be Welsh in Gower is to spell it funny
and pronounce it worse: Gwyr.
It's to know how to say Pwll Ddu.
It's meeting the cows in the lane to Brandy Cove
and knowing them all by name and reputation,
which one kicks, which one gores,
when to walk in the middle of the lane,
and when to jump for the safety of the hedge.
It's to know the difference between the twin farmers
Upper Jones and Lower Jones.
It's to recognize their sheepdogs, Floss and Jess,
and to call them with their different whistles.
It's knowing the time of day by sun and shadow;
it's knowing the tide is in or out
by the salt smell in the air
without ever needing to see the sea;
and now, in this far off land,
it's hearing your stomach growl for crempog orteisen lap
whilst memory's fish-hook tugs at your heart
like your father hauled at salmon bass
in Rhossili, Pennard, and Three Cliffs.
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 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.
To be Welsh in Swansea
To be Welsh in Swansea is to know each stop
on the Mumbles Railway: Singleton, Blackpill,
the Mayals, West Cross, Oystermouth, the Mumbles Pier!
It's to remember that the single lines turn double
by Green's ice-cream stall, just after the Rec,
where the trams fall silent, like dinosaurs,
and wait, without grunting, for one to pass the other.
It's to read the family names on the War Memorial
on the Prom; it's to visit Frank Brangwyn
in the Patti Pavilion and the Civic Centre;
it's to talk to the old men playing bowls in Victoria Park.
It's to know that starfish stretch like a mysterious constellation,
at low tide, when the fishnets
glow with gold and silver, and the banana boats
bob in the bay, waiting to enter harbour,
and the young boys dive from the concrete pipes
without worrying about pollution.
But when the tide turns, the Mumbles Railway
has been sold to a Texan, the brown and yellow busses
no longer run to Pyle Corner, Bishopston, Pennard, Rhossili;
sweet names of surf and sea, where my father still fishes
for salmon bass, casting his lines at the waves
as they walk wet footprints up the beach
to break down the walls of the castles I built on sand.
To be Welsh in Castell Coch
To be Welsh in Castell Coch is to call the storm crow Bran
and to hail King Arthur in his suit of feathered armour.
It's to know you're in Annwyn when you descend to the dungeons.
It's to see Merlin's eyes, trapped forever in an oaken jail.
It's to watch rain clouds sweep in from the sea;
it's to see black armies gather in the valleys
when storm clouds wage blithe battle;
it's to feel the arrow's sting,
as hail rattles through the window.
Cloud battalions, invaders from the coast,
march towards us over the Wenallt
and down Caerphilly Mountain.
Now, from the highest tower, you can see Taff's Wells:
but can you taste the coal grit in your teeth
as the river flows out to Blackweir and the sea?
To be Welsh in the Rhondda Valley
To be Welsh in the Rhondda Valley
is to change busses 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.
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.
In the Cave
Brandy Cove, Gower
No: I do not understand these things.
I have had few visions;
no bush has actually burned for me.
Though I have sat in this cave for many a day
there has been no thunder, no earthquake,
and no thin, small voice has called my name.
I have only heard the wind and the waves
and the sigh of the sea-birds endlessly flying.
Who set the curlew's cry between my lips?
Who dashed the salt taste from my tongue?
I will never forget the wet sand foaming between my toes
nor the cracked rock crumbling under my hand...
... yet I never fell,
nor was I trapped by the sea below.
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