Review: Silver Branch by Kevan Manwaring

Silver BranchSilver Branch is a collection of poetry by Kevan Manwaring charting 25 years of dedication to the bardic path. It brings together poems from over a dozen collections selected on the basis that Kevan has performed them in public from memory or they lend themselves to recitation.

The book opens with ‘Speak Like Rain: Letters to a Young Bard’. These letters were ‘inspired by Rainer Maria Rilke’s famous sequence to the young poet Franz Xaver Kappus’. Kevan adopts the persona of Tallyessin (Taliesin) speaking to his former self, Gwion Bach.

Taliesin, the shining-browed bard of inspired poetry in the Brythonic tradition, is central to Kevan’s work. Taliesin is not just a role model. Like the bards of ancient Britain Kevan not only seeks inspiration from Taliesin but channels his presence. He describes how this has transformed his performance:

‘When I first started to work with the master bard, Taliesin Penbierdd, I found my performance transformed: I became more fluid, as if mirroring the metamorphoses he went through. His creation myth was the first story I told unscripted at a party – and it was a success. After that, I identified strongly with him; he became a projected higher self. By ‘channelling’ him, I became a more confident performer.’

The letters are packed with worthwhile advice for aspiring bards. As an awenydd I was moved by Kevan’s metaphor of being possessed by the awen as the divine speaking ‘through you, like rain from heaven’. I also appreciated the emphasis on finding time for silence to hear ‘the voice of the universe’ and the need for good craftmanship, which he sums up perfectly with the Welsh phrase ‘Cerdd dafod’, ‘tongue music’. The single most important point, for me, was to ‘speak your truth, from the heart.’

Unsurprisingly, many of the poems in the collection are based around Taliesin’s stories. ‘The Taliesin Soliloquies’ is a sequence exploring the ‘The Story of Taliesin’ from various perspectives. Here Kevan gives voice not only to Gwion/Taliesin but also to Ceridwen, Afagddu, and others.

Kevan is at his finest in his depiction of Ceridwen chasing Gwion after he has received Afagddu’s awen in ‘a moment’s lapse, / a sudden splash’ . He masterfully captures the being of each animal from Gwion as a hare ‘long ears swept back, / best paws forward. Rabbit foot, bring me luck’ to Ceridwen as a black hen, ‘There is no hiding from me / I am the destroyer of worlds… I will find your weakest point / and tear you apart.’ Gwion is reborn as Taliesin from Ceridwen’s womb after she has eaten him, ‘my brow, my beacon, / a frail light in the vastness, / a candle in the storm’ – an enticing image.

Kevan’s representation of Afagddu is also evocative:

Shadow is my skin;
I am night-in-the-day,
I bear my own pall –
my footprints
a puddle of inky peat.
Ceridwen’s sea-crow,
first-born forgotten.

Afagddu and Morda give voice to the consequences of Gwion receiving the awen. ‘The cauldron split, its hot broth spilt, / my awen wasted, in a flash.’ ‘The cauldron cracked… the contents poured into Gwyddno’s stream… the crooked one… poked my eye out.’ The culprit, characteristically, shows no remorse.

Followers of this blog will know I have mixed feelings about Taliesin – I admire his poetry but do not condone his taking of the awen* or his assaults on Annwn and its inhabitants. Thus I found myself wincing when I read ‘Prydwen and the Cauldron’, Kevan’s retelling of Arthur’s raid on Annwn to steal the cauldron, written in the voice of ‘Pendragon’s Penbeirdd’. Here the ‘bright’ ‘oak-hearted king’ fights against ‘shadow winged nightmares’ and wins the cauldron at the price of returning to Avalon to become Annwn’s next guardian. The ending is a unique twist and it was good to see the price emphasised, but I struggled with the uncritical representation of the warmongering Arthur as a tragic hero.

The Taliesin poems show that bardic poetry can be put into the service of good and ill. You’ll be relieved to hear that, unlike Taliesin, Kevan himself does not support war and raiding other worlds. He is, in fact, critical of war, along with environmental and social injustice, and uses his awen to speak out against these ills. ‘The Child of Everything’ and ‘Bio*Wolf’ are critiques of genetic engineering. The poems in ‘The Love of the Land’ sing the sorrows of a wounded land where dragons fight and ‘Mad Kings rule’ along with the joys of moments of poise and deep peace. Other poems give voice to the wealth of myths and folklore of the Celtic pagan traditions. The Birds of Rhiannon sing, Manawydan appears as an ‘ancestral mariner’ and Brigid is invoked at her ‘forge of words’.

I’d recommend Silver Branch to all who are interested in the bardic tradition as a testimony to the journey of a true bard who has followed his heart. Kevan’s success as a performance poet shows that, even in a world opposed to spirituality wherein poetry is undervalued, it is possible to attain one’s dreams.

Read this book, be inspired by it, but don’t forget about Afagddu ‘eyes green in the edges of the world / waiting’.

You can buy a copy of Silver Branch from Awen Publications HERE.

*There are two different versions of this story. In Peniarth MS III, the text Kevan draws on, Gwion receives the awen by accident. In the earliest version, which is found in Elis Grufudd’s Chronicle of the History of the World, Gwion purposefully shoves Afagddu out of the way and steals it for himself.

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