Caught by the River

On Growing & Writing

Sophie McKeand | 18th June 2017

Words: Sophie McKeand

I was born to the sound of starlings murmurating across the north Wales coastline. The Rebel Sun rode low in an early February sky as the Irish Sea gnawed across my ribcage. My hair was knotted seaweed. Water swelled sand dunes into my belly & a flock of seagulls took up residence in my mouth.

As a young child I dearly loved a blue trike even though, in dreams, it never moved fast enough to escape the mad woman whose face was at the door of every house I ran to begging for help to escape her. I learned not to put down roots. By the sixth junior school I was utterly bored of moving-without-consent but the dinner lady determinedly wheeled me into the head’s office on those damned rollerskates. After that I wore the form of a seal & crashed through the ice on the forbidden pond.
I was a troublesome & willful weed.

I wove an eight page carpet of gold & blood that ended with ‘but it was all a dream’. The teacher told me I needed to write less: the task was to expand thoughts across two pages, the territory clearly marked, she was unimpressed with overwrought flights-of-fancy. After that I washed the letters down the sink, pushed them through the plughole like half-dead spiders & learned to ride horses instead.

In high school I soon grasped that strange, difficult students like me got bullied, whereas loud, aggressive people didn’t. I improved my shapeshifting technique. By day I took on the form of a scorpion, became adept at skiving school in the most obvious places: the park, the library, town, while getting high on the worlds of Marion Zimmer Bradley & Ursula Le Guin; inhaled Tipp-Ex thinner & aerosols. At night I was a crow: sharp, mistrusting, common.
This was my childhood education.

When the madness hit my house was flattened. How can you prepare for absolute clarity? The hedgerows warbled my name to snowdrops & rainfall. Each time they did so I pictured myself as a bird: I am a sparrow I whispered over & over so as not to wake the fire dragon who would hurricane out of my mouth each time I sang. I could not swallow her. The sparrow-form was incinerated myriad times before I finally accepted the truth & the dragon died. She now curls in my stomach. She is me. I have a twice-born heart.

Why has it taken so long to find my voice? I have fished down this throat with toothbrush & spoons; vomited myself up with chips, chocolate & wine but I couldn’t reach her, no matter how hard I retched. Years later I realised this is because I am more than physicality & learned to root while mapping the internal & external landscapes of Cymru in poems; shaping the contours of each piece on the page before translating into performance.

The Rebel Sun has fashioned me into an insurgent with her persuasive strength, with his expansive heat. This collection is written in homage to the Sun God(dess) in all their many forms as well as to the landscape of Cymru that birthed me. Exploring this land, I unearth her language of Cymraeg; discover one-word-poems; smooth them over & over. These are the river stones rolling beneath my soft, watery belly: hanes: story/history; dysgu: learn/teach. Yin & Yang perfectly balanced in a word. I read Gwallgof (madness): gwall = broken, cof = memory, & better understand my mind. Sometimes I pile these words into cairns. All of this is a true story. Everything happened exactly as I tell it to you now.

In some ways all hope is lost, although scaling this Dark Mountain is not as terrifying as it sounds. There is a certain freedom in acceptance, in knowing you can do nothing in the face of the rampaging behemoth of capitalism but chant poems & throw snowflakes at his eyes.

No longer a tree, I am shedding bark like a skin; unwinding roots like corkscrews. Migratory creatures sing to me in dreams. Four walls & a roof suffocate. I have become deeply affected by the tyranny of stuff. Is all ownership theft? I believe so more these days. This knowledge crawls across my skin & the land like fire-ants.

Once an old woman visited in dreams to explain my water element was out of synch. Still I cannot stop writing about dŵr. I am becoming the water cycle. Dŵr dach chi. As are you. I will learn to precipitate, fall to the earth’s surface as a condensed form of water – flow out as a river to embrace the Irish Sea.


Sophie McKeand is an award-winning poet and the current Young People’s Laureate Wales. Her new collection Rebel Sun is out now in hardback with Parthian Books. She’ll be reading on our stage at this year’s Port Eliot Festival, taking place in July.

Sophie McKeand on Caught by the River/on Twitter/Sophie’s website