The Glass Aisle

29 August 2017 // Poetry

Paul Henry reflects on the evolution of his poem The Glass Aisle and a remarkable collaboration – with Stornoway frontman and ornithologist, Brian Briggs – which crosses borders between poetry and songwriting. The pair bring The Glass Aisle to our Good Life Experience stage in a few weeks’ time.

The Glass Aisle is set on a stretch of the Monmouthshire and Brecon canal above Crickhowell and the village of Llangattock. I’d been walking this length of towpath each day, between bridges 110 and 120, for a good ten years, hesitant about trying to put into verse its ghosts, its trance-like presence across the seasons – half-man-made, half-natural. I’d grown up by the sea and this languid drift of water, for all its beauty, its wildlife and fauna, had felt comparatively sterile. Built for heavy industry, restored for tourism, it felt…unreal:

The wind picks at it, water feature of its past, stapled to the land. An arch makes a moon that cows amble over and O it is tame…

But gradually, this very sense of unreality got under my skin and became the source for a new poem. The canal was secretive, haunted. Above bridge 118, known locally as “the union bridge”, loomed the site of an old workhouse, now houses. I started seeing the faces of its Victorian ‘inmates’, as they were branded, in the lime mortar under the canal’s bridges, and hearing their voices in the trees. Fragments of a poem made themselves known.

Some nights they kept me awake, small brooks whispered in the walls, too many at once, so I couldn’t tell a story from a prayer, an owl from a name on the wind…

An Arts Council of Wales ‘Creative Wales Award’ allowed me to explore the idea of a long poem and to collaborate with others: a playwright, Carolyn Sally Jones; a sound engineer, Terry Lewis and a songwriter, Brian Briggs. I’d come to poetry through songwriting and am very much a lyric poet so, in retrospect, it’s unsurprising that working with Brian, former frontman of Stornoway and one of the UK’s finest singer-songwriters, proved such a rewarding creative exchange. I’d first met Brian, who is also a Nature Reserve Warden with the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust through his wife, the poet Jane Houston, and was aware of his passion for ornithology, an added delight, when the two of us walk the towpath and speech plays second fiddle to birdsong.

Hushed in lofty nests they wait – Sutherland, Callas, de los Ángeles… Marg Jones, Servant, Cardigan Becca James, Servant, Cwmdu Harriet Morris, Servant, Llangattock

Refrained across The Glass Aisle is a roll call of the workhouse’s ‘inmates’ from a nineteenth century census. Two other characters found their way into the poem: John Moonlight, a local poacher about whom little is known and Mary Thomas, a lone parent who, in 1841, was harassed by the workhouse Master and then herself placed “under order of removal.” Mary becomes a muse-like figure in the poem, and hopefully resonant of the other displaced voices who came from as far afield as America and Germany.

Mary, some nights I see you between the giant redwood and the kilns, half-immersed – Millais’ Ophelia – the summer’s flowers in your outstretched hand…

Another presence in the poem is the ghost of Marconi who, surprisingly, was witnessed sharing some of his early experiments for radio on the towpath above Llangattock. I was walking the bank one
summer evening, wondering how (beyond a recording which opens the performance) I might allude to Marconi’s legacy in The Glass Aisle, when I saw a telephone engineer up an old telegraph pole. He was trying to fix a wire which crossed the canal to the site of the old workhouse. The sun was setting over the Sugarloaf and, snagged inside the branches of a tree, he cut an iconic, almost sacrificial
figure:

The line to the old workhouse is down. The telegraph pole is caged in a tree, the engineer wedged like a sacrifice inside the branch’s lattice-work. The sun puts a match to him, his luminous goggles, his helmet’s white bud twitching to birdsong…

Here was my connecting line between present and past. Over the course of the poem, the engineer is tormented and driven insane by the mantra of inmates’ names in his ear-phones.

The performance you’ll hear at the festival is one where poem and song lyric echo and talk to each other. Lines and phrases are repeated across the two genre. I don’t want to fully comprehend how Brian and I worked together on The Glass Aisle. I’d write a lyric version of a part of the poem and then Brian would set it to music, changing the odd line. I might then go back and change the poem, in the light of the song. Then we’d rehearse the song. Occasionally I’d write a melody line…I suppose the best collaborations exist somewhere between craft and mystery, like the canal:

Let us praise bright polyphony needling through glass, the kingfisher in summer flying with its twin in the pane…

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Paul Henry’s poem The Glass Aisle will be published by Seren in 2018, in his forthcoming collection of the same title. The performance version, with Brian Briggs, will continue touring next year.

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