WINTER: November - December 2005
Gillian Clarke’s Journal
by Gillian Clarke
I’ve been reading about stone. I’m amazed all over again to be reminded that, apart from water, it is wind that wears stone away. The world’s winds flowing over hills and hollows, rasping at rock, licking islands and continents, scraping the finest layer of dust from one place and depositing it in another. Hither and thither over the world go its shifting molecules. So every day the mountains lose a skin. Every day they are both less and more. Topsoil is scraped from plough-land, deserts scoured, rock honed to sharpness. What an exfoliation!
This reminds me of a wonder I heard the late night radio weather man tell his listeners one unseasonably warm spring night years ago: that hot, dust-bearing winds from Africa were sweeping Britain, and a red dust had been noticed on cars. I went outside and wiped a cloth across the bonnet of the car, then brought it into the light. It was stained with what looked like a rust red pollen. Saharan dust! Spring, and the swallows would soon be back from the south to nest and raise their young in the lofty roof of our shed. Birds and stone-dust riding the hot wind from Africa. The spring night was suddenly electric with a sense that our planet is intimate and knowable, shivering in its skin, shedding that skin to the wind, and that technology has given the Earth the means to tell us what it has always known.
What set me on this stony path was working on a commission to write about a megalith which I’ve known all my life, since early childhood days spent in Pembrokeshire with my grandmother on the farm. The megalith is a massive but elegant cromlech known as Pentre Ifan, in the hills above the Irish Sea. The huge weight of the capstone seems scarcely to touch the orthostats. Within sight of the sea, under the granite outcrop of Carn Meini - source of the bluestones of Stonehenge - Pentre Ifan is a pictogram from the alphabet of stone. I read its silhouette as the very word for cromlech. Carn Meini is formed from igneous granite, as old and as hard as any rock on the planet, an outburst of molten dolerite and rhyolite from the Earth’s mantle. Under Carn Meini the fields slip downhill to the sea, the underlying sedimentary rock blown away in the wind, aeon by aeon, from Carn Meini’s bony shoulders.
A new word. Orogony: that which happens in a period of mountain formation. The cunning Araucaria, King of the Guardian crossword setters, devised this clue:
‘Gold I return to American city for mountain building’. 7 letters.
First ‘or’ (gold), then ‘ego’ (backwards), and finally New York. Mountain building. Orogeny. Orogenesis: (Greek: oros: mountain + genesis: creation.) It is strange how often a word arises from nowhere to meet a current preoccupation, and how likely it is that it will crop up again, somewhere, soon.
All Saints. All Souls. All Hallows. All light seeping away, each day narrowing by a few more seconds in the countdown to the winter solstice. Before we know it the Advent calendar will be opening its doors one by one. My winter journeys begin. We will have performed for Poetry Live in thirteen cities by Christmas.
After a companionable twenty-five mile drive to the station with David, the train carries me out of Aberystwyth on a darkening Sunday afternoon, heading for Newcastle. I feel that particular sorrow associated with waving goodbye from a train that is out of all proportion with the mere five days I’ll be away from home. I settle, shoring myself against the onset of homesickness, making a private cell out of the tiny space comprising two shabby seats in the little Arriva train. Sunday paper, phone, notebook, journal, sandwiches, bottle of Blaen Cwrt water. (You can’t buy it. It rises from an aquifer 54 feet below our garden.) I choose the aisle seat, the one in front of the void where I stow my travel bag. The window seat to my right is the least likely to attract a fellow traveller. The table seats fill first, and only if the train is packed will someone ask me: ‘Is anyone sitting there?’
Sunset. The mountains are black on a red sky. The curve of the river and the mountain tarns are blood. A pair of red kites are flames in the last light of the sun. Snow lies un-thawed in deep ravines. Aberdyfi glows, luminous across the Dyfi estuary. The sheep run as we chug up the valley out of Machynlleth, turning east into the shadows. The train cries as it races along the single track through steep oak woods and past lonely white farms you can’t imagine ever finding by road, soon to surrender to the long winter night.
I love the song of the train as I love the cry of the curlew, a foghorn’s warning, an owl in winter. These are haunting, sorrowful sounds. This reminds me of something our neighbour Evan said when he called to let us know, as a courtesy, that the Teifi Valley hunt would be out drag-hunting on Boxing Day. He knows, as do all members of the hunt, that we do not support hunting with dogs. The conversation was, of course, in Welsh. We repeated the usual rules: if the hounds cross our land, no rider must follow; if the hounds pick up the scent of a real fox, no terriers, no terrier men, no digging. As always this was courteously agreed. Then he said, of the baying of the hounds and the sound of the huntsman’s horn, ‘Mae’r pobl yn hoffi’r miwsig.’ ‘People love the music of it.’ ‘Miwsig’ , borrowed from English, is often used in speech.
The train cries, and I add the music of hounds in their bloodlust to my list of haunting sounds. The carriage is now lit, the windows black. This mood of overwhelming melancholy will deepen until we reach the Midlands, to be swept aside by the business of changing trains at Birmingham New Street, and to lift utterly as we purr over the Tyne to arrive in Newcastle, and I’m in a taxi talking to a Geordie driver, with the prospect of the hotel, dinner, a glass of wine, a warm room, a long, hot bath. Then, five cities later, five days and evenings in the good company of poets, I’ll be on my way home, going over the pleasures of the week, the liveliness of each auditorium packed with over a thousand teenagers, the atmosphere described by a journalist as ‘barely contained anarchy’ that turns to silent listening as the poets step forward to read. By early February 2006, after eight weeks of touring Britain, we will have performed for 75,000 GCSE students.
Snow in November. I don’t remember snow so early. Winter here in the mild west really begins after Christmas. Is this the harbinger of the once-in-twenty years hard winter the weathermen have been forecasting? Deep snow has fallen in the east of England, and a delicate veil lies on Ceredigion, melting fast in the sun. Part of me dreads being cut off somewhere on my Poetry Live travels in the midlands or the north-east, unable to get home for the weekend. Another part thrills at the thought of waking to the unmistakable luminous light of snow, and watching it slowly fall, deepening by the day, stopping the world. Comes a memory of that childhood winter when the lake at Cold Knap froze, and I almost drowned my sister in a foolish adventure onto the ice. I kept that memory locked in the guilty strong-box of the mind until, one day, it rose and troubled me until I found the words and wrote ‘Legend’.
The rooms were mirrors
For that luminous face,
the morning windows ferned
with cold. Outside
a level world of snow.
Voiceless birds in the trees
like notes in the books
in the piano stool.
She let us suck top-of-the milk
burst from the bottles like corks.
Then wrapped shapeless
we stumped to the park
between the parapets of snow
in the wake of the shovellers,
cardboard rammed in the tines of garden forks.
The lake was an empty rink
and I stepped out,
pushing my sister first
onto its creaking floor.
When I brought her home,
shivering, wailing, soaked,
they thought me a hero.
But I still wake at night,
to hear the Snow Queen’s knuckles crack,
black water running fingers through the ice.
I have known two white Christmases, and one that almost made it. The longest, coldest winter I remember began one icy Christmas Eve in the ‘60s. It was bitter cold, and above us was the clearest of starry skies as we stepped out of church after midnight mass. On Boxing Day it began to snow. I was two and a half months pregnant, and watching my step. My daughter’s second birthday was a month away. It snowed until March, and our uncleared avenue in a Cardiff suburb lay snow-locked one hundred metres from the main road where the snow-ploughs and the gritter lorries plied, and double-decker buses sailed through a black mush of old snow towards town, libraries, shops. The depth and underlying slipperiness of the snow on the footpaths and the deep ruts of the frozen avenue kept me, the two year old and the pushchair locked in our castle of ice. The insides of windows were engraved with ice-ferns. I wore fingerless gloves indoors. The pipes froze.
Favourite winter poems come to mind. Keats’s ‘Eve of St Agnes’: ‘the hare limps trembling through the frozen grass …the owl for all his feathers was a-cold’.
And Christina Rossetti’s lovely ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’.
In the bleak midwinter
Frosty wind made moan
Earth stood hard as iron
Water like a stone
Snow had fallen, snow on snow
Snow on snow
In the bleak midwinter
In between Poetry Live I fit my visits to and duties for Cardiff. The October one-hundredth birthday lunch is followed by a grand dinner to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the day Cardiff was declared the Capital of Wales, on the eve of the winter solstice. A new poem wanted, with one week’s notice! I well remember the declaration fifty years ago. In school we took sides: Cardiff v. Swansea. For me there was no contest. How could this city of superlatives not be the obvious choice? The biggest coal exporting port in the world: the loveliest city centre, with more green spaces than any; the most diverse ethnic population, and the oldest established immigrant community. Already, as a child, I was in thrall to the white buildings in their avenues and lawns, and was a familiar in the Museum. But what clinched it for me were the stone animals on the castle wall. Especially the bear.
I’ve tried to ignore Christmas. I hate the bling, the cheap glitter, the unremitting materialism, the waste, the flashing lights, the destruction of rural darkness by the spreading disease of giant illuminated inflatable Santas and snowmen and, God help us, cribs. I want an airgun for Christmas so that I can shoot Santa Claus and watch him deflate with a hiss. Lights fidget on houses all the way from Ceredigion to Cardiff, eating the ozone-layer and melting the Greenland glaciers. Where is the romance of the one lit tree in the window we used to count on winter walks with the kids? Grrrr! Humbug!
We feast on the darkest night
at the midnight of the year
brazening out the narrowing days with light.
Out there in our temperate city
an ice rink glitters on a civic lawn
as if we dreamed Victorian glitter
when the lakes were dancing floors,
the rivers froze for goose-fairs
and all was marble winter out of doors.
For now, let the city put on party clothes.
Dress every tree with electricity.
Switch on the lights. Let streets and houses glow.
When the party’s over, and we step into the night,
maybe with the Ice Queen’s wand of cold,
an imagined hush of snow will touch the heart,
and we’ll know, for the pleasures of here and now,
we are borrowing bling from the glacier, slipping
Greenland’s shoulder from its wrap of snow.
Oh, ice-makers, who can make a frozen floor
in the maritime air of our mild city,
to the melting permafrost bring your alchemy.
Chain the glacier. Put the wilderness under locks.
Rebuild the gates of ice. Hold back the melt-water
for footfall of polar bear and Arctic fox.
Then, suddenly, on Christmas Eve, we bring in the tree a blue spruce and while David is off over the land gathering greenery to deck the hall well, our glass walled dining room - I listen to the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols and unpack the box of decorations. I take them out one by one and hang them on the tree, remembering each one again from somewhere, or someone. Some are so old they date from my own childhood, or the time when the children were little.
Unpacking the Angel
Twelve papier mache apples
taken one by one
from their dark season in the loft.
Eleven glass balls, one broken.
My children swim to me
from their brittle windows.
Birds flown from the mirrors in the rich house
of the lady who asked us to tea
when Dylan was three, and beautiful.
Tangled strands of Woolworths’ Lametta,
saved nearly forty years from a first flat.
Putti from Venice,
from the flaking plaster of churches,
from Bellini and Canaletto.
They feather the room like light off water.
The journey to Bethlehem in brass. The crib
from Tubingen. The Holy Family
I made from Polyfilla, wire and rags.
Snarled strings of light bulbs on green flex,
vines of stars, the lights of far-off cities.
From the Christmas fair on the Kurfurstendam
two crystal drops, rousing from the drafts
that stir the tree the whine of air-raids,
the church in flames, stained glass bursting.
And the Berlin angel whose sleeves still bear
a trace of concrete from the broken wall.
On the twelfth day we’ll undress the tree:
twelve papier mache apples, eleven balls,
ten birds, Lametta, putti, painted crib,
the Holy Family, the burning city,
angels of mercy and death. All into the box
with flakes of human skin, glitter, glass,
pine-needles sifted to corners and under the flaps,
dust, maybe, from every year of my life.
David returns, laden with larch boughs, holly and ivy from the wood. He begins his annual task of dressing the room. It’s almost dark outside, and the glittering tree is reflected in every window, a forest of Christmas trees. Scents rise in the warmth. Spruce needles. Spices. For the time being I can believe in it all again.