Award-winning poet Paul Henry looks back on last month, and shares the moments he enjoyed the most:
A new year should crawl, not leap out of bed, but a builder is hammering the slates above my heavy head, so loudly and persistently that I stagger out to the back of my house. Ah, no ghostly gang of roofers but a green woodpecker, in the groove between two arches, pauses between blows to check me out – “Orite butt? Late night, was it?” – before returning to the job. He looks both festive and tropical in his red hat and bright green jacket.
It’s a month of hunkering down on the side of this hill above the Monmouthshire and Brecon canal. Creatures hibernate, humans hunker down. It’s a fire-making month, and a month for revisiting my favourite snow poems: Frost’s Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening, MacNeice’s ‘soundlessly collateral’ Snow, and Edward Thomas’s poem of the same title: ‘They have killed a white bird up there on her nest …’.
Across the Usk valley, southerly slopes of the Black Mountains come into focus, the rocky Darren, Table Mountain and Sugar Loaf shed their hangovers of snow. The canal below has lost its deciduous camouflage.
I must tell Brian Briggs about the woodpecker. The former frontman of Stornoway is my creative collaborator on The Glass Aisle. Brian’s passion for ornithology spills into both his songwriting and his work as a Nature Reserve Warden with the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust.
This is also a month of rehearsals, ahead of launches for book and CD versions of The Glass Aisle in Cardiff and in Oxford. I’m hoping Brian’s former bandmate Jon Ouin, who produced the CD, will join us onstage in Oxford. As I write, both the CD and The Glass Aisle poetry collection, published by Seren, are at the printers. Ah, the pressures of January!
But there must be time for hunkering down…of the ilk John Clare describes in The Shepherd’s Calendar, when ‘…Comfort flies to close-shut rooms, / And sees the snow in feathers pass / Winnowing by the window glass;’. Clare brilliantly evokes this sense of human and creaturely hibernation in the January cadence of his poem.
My middle son, Jack, is back from Hiroshima, where he’s lived for the past three years. It’s his first visit to my place and he’s dressed for the part. When he goes out the back for a smoke, the sheep mistake him for the farmer and rush to the fence.
Jack also has rehearsals this month, with Answer Me!, the thrash/punk/metal band he plays bass in, six thousand miles away (physically and musically) from The Glass Aisle. We walk the stretch of canal where the poem and its songs are set, passing the site of an old workhouse where one of its Victorian ‘inmates’, Mary Thomas, who features in the poem, was harassed by the workhouse master and then herself banished. At bridge 120, above the Glanusk estate, we loop back up through a plantation where saplings wait to be launched from their tubes. My three sons are men now. I wish Jack could stay longer. On the day he flies back to Hiroshima, a poem from the new book appears in The Spectator:
The Nettle Race
Tilting into the garden wall
three boys’ bicycles,
frieze of an abandoned race.
Briars cover the chains,
their absent riders’ chins.
The tortoise rust won with ease.
Slowly the sun leans
towards its finishing line.
Terry Lewis visits, to record a few thoughts on national anthems for a Radio Wales programme he’s making, this to chime with next month’s Six Nations rugby internationals. Terry recorded The Glass Aisle’s opening, on the towpath here in Llangattock. He lives in Ystrad Mynach near Aberfan and has driven “over the top” to get here. The “ top” is Mynydd Llangatwg – a wall of hill where the topographical legacies of Powys agriculture and Blaenau Gwent mining meld on a wild plateau. I go this way for rehearsals in West Wales, zig-zagging up nearly two thousand feet to join the B road from Llangynidr to Beaufort. Peppered with sheep, horses and cairns, its boggy wilderness makes for an atmospheric crossing, especially late at night in the mist, or when snow arrives. Two cattle grids, six miles apart, mark its borders: one as you approach the valley towns of Brynmawr and Ebbw Vale, the other above Llangattock. Cross south over the first and you can buy a two-bedroomed, terraced house for around £60,000; veer north after the latter, into Crickhowell, and you might pay treble that amount. On the Usk valley side, the daytime view is Anhygoel!, as my Auntie Pryd frames it, with the Black Mountains stretching out to Llyn Safaddan (Llangors Lake).
Llangattock Escarpment, grimacing with the souls of quarrymen, forms the backdrop to The Glass Aisle. (Tramways brought their labours down to the canal’s
lime kilns). The hillside’s grassed-over tram road is popular with walkers and botanists. A bigger draw is the vast labyrinth of cave systems it hides and the rare species of bat these shelter. But it’s ‘The Lonely Shepherd ‘ (aka ‘The Peaky Stone’) a tall, limestone rock, left by quarry workers at the hill’s eastern edge, which points to the heart of this middle-world between crook and pick. Its figure looks both ways, north to the Black Mountains and south to Clydach Gorge. Its legend, and its memorial, is half-shepherd, half-quarryman.
Researching the six anthems for Terry’s programme, I’m struck by how they’re more about borders than freedom, mostly calls to arms. I take comfort in how the Welsh anthem, a father-son collaboration, values language and landscape, beirdd a chantorion (poets and singers) over slaughtering enemies. It’s more reflective. And I like how all these anthems evolve across time, how people sing the clearest verses and ditch the densely written ones. But they hook us before we develop any critical approach to words, become part of our emotional DNA, our instinct to belong, to build walls, shut out strangers. After Terry heads back “over the top”, I’m left wondering if, beyond Casals’ and Auden’s cautionary Hymn to the United Nations (‘Let mortals beware of words/ for with words we lie…’) there could ever be a global anthem. I suppose aliens would have to invade us first. Meanwhile, when rugby players sing them in stadiums their boot-studs will root down to deeper, bloodstained fields.
Last night there was a blizzard on Mynydd Llangatwg. This morning the Sugar Loaf and Table Mountain rise out of the Usk’s misty duvet into clear blue. Crickhowell is hidden.
I see Billy Farmer on the towpath below, followed by his two collies, Bob and Meg (there used to be another, Duke). Billy tends a flock of sheep in Llangynidr and another in Gilwern. In his seventies now, he cycles the ten miles between the two each day, his own parable on wheels.
Apart from the odd blackbird and thrush, the branches hardly sing. A robin busks on, nuthatches tweet, long-tailed tits and goldcrests call, collared doves and wood pigeons coo, crows, rooks and jackdaws caw…soon there will be songs.
All months hold all seasons now, on this island. Ask Billy Farmer. The canal’s pane freezes, clears again. Snow comes and goes on the Black Mountains. January opens and closes its fist. My youngest, Ioan, has turned twenty-three. The woodpecker has moved on…I must try harder next year, to excel at hunkering down.
Joe, my eldest son, rings at 4am, to say I have a granddaughter called Alice. In the hours before seeing her, behind a half-awake smile, I keep replaying a snow scene that brought similar joy. I was driving up the A470 just north of Merthyr. On the lower slopes of the first hills, the families of the town and its valley had risen to go sledging, their coats and hats colouring in the snow’s canvas –
They woke up rich, citizens of Snow,
dragged sledges up from the valley,
stippled the steep fields with coats –
let brush-strokes of laughter slide,
turned coal white in small hands,
built monuments to the sun
made angels of themselves.