Imagine the Old North

Imagine the Old North. What can it be? Can you see it in this land, from your green hill across the marsh how the ordinary people saw it?

Can you see ravens in trees amongst the crows? Was it common enough for magpies?

Can you imagine the rumours of embittered warlords and honey-tongued bards who sung their praises? Can you taste weak beer or braggot? Do you feast on dog or wild boar?

Can you imagine living in a world where the animals speak? How will you learn their tongues? Will they lead you into their expanses?

Your books are filled with stories. Can you imagine the ones who got away? How their hearts beat on river-banks and they were pierced by spears as carrion birds circled? How the sleek otter swept into the depths and carried their death-cries to his young? Can you imagine what the ravens whispered in their thatched nest?

Can you imagine the task of bringing peace to the battle-dead?

Where all the darkness of history wanders and I hold the spirits of Annwn back… can you imagine?

What can our poetry be? A sound, a scream, a panorama of the Old North in a beam of light?

River Ribble from the Ribble Way, east of Ribchester Bridge
*Questions posed by Gwyn ap Nudd.
**Photograph of the river Ribble from the Ribble Way east of Ribchester Bridge.

The Edge of the Dark

‘as ‘th’ edge o’ dark’ threw its weird glamour over the scene, boggarts and phantoms would begin to creep about to the music of the unearthly voices heard in every sough and sigh of the wandering wind…’
– James Bowker, Goblin Tales of Lancashire

This landscape has only just been claimed and in its deepest knowing holds the memory of the edge of the dark. The majority of Lancashire’s towns and fields developed where thick shaggy mosses, carr and marsh held rule. Its people lived on the edge of darkness, the edge of unknowable waters, the edge of the otherworld.

Is this existence on the edge the source of its legends? Its fairy lanes and dells, boggart bridges, cloughs and holes, its headless phantoms and saucer-eyed spectral hounds?

How far do these stories stretch back in the minds of its people? Are they the creation of an industrial age that sought to banish darkness and uncertainty with city walls yet built a new hell in its abominable mills: its Dickensian fairy palaces as the wilderness outside grew wilder?

Are they based on the wildening of tales always strange yet homely: of the household boggart whose help might be bought with butter or milk but whose wrath could estrange a family; of fay whose magic could curse or cure; of water spirits who gave of themselves and their secrets but only at great sacrifice?

Could these stories signal an endemic relationship with the otherworld stretching back through centuries? Through Anglo-Saxon boggarts and barguests to the arcane myths of Britain to the repository of stories about ‘Yr Hen Ogledd’ ‘The Old North’ in Welsh mythology and beyond to a near forgotten oral tradition? All hinge upon the cusp of thisworld and the otherworld: the edge of the dark.

In Welsh mythology the otherworld is known as Annwn: the not-world, the deep. It is the beyond of adventure, the locus of alterity. Its landscapes are unstill, its deities and monsters have many faces. It is a source of beauty and terror, of awe, of Awen, the divine inspiration quested by the bards and awenyddion who crossed the edge of the dark to explore its depths.

The ways between the worlds are fraught with danger. Safe passage is only granted at a cost. Those who return from the otherworld are never the same. Thus they shroud themselves in the cowl of the edge of the dark.

Those who live on the edge see our precarious reign over the land and its myths is illusory. Tower blocks and elaborate street lamps are ephemeral as Dickens’ fairy palaces. Electric lighting is no defence against the edge of the dark, which seeps in because its memories are deeper than us, its darkness more permeating than headlights.

These memories evoke intense loss and mourning. Yearning for the fluting wetland birds, bog oaks, reeds, rushes, and hoofed and pawed animals of the wild quagmire we banished. For the fairies and boggarts we dare not believe in. For the gods of the otherworld who haunt the edge of the dark with pawing steeds and sniffing dogs whilst we seal ourselves in a not-world that is not Annwn choosing to occupy tiny lamp lit portions of thisworld beyond the bog’s rushy melodies.

Immersed in false light we neither perceive the people of thisworld nor Annwn until the rain pours down, the marshland rises up, and the weird glamour of the edge of the dark undoes all security as the deepest memories of our land and its legendary reality return.

Greencroft Valley

Gwyn Portrait, April’s End

The huntsman has ridden all night, following the brilliance of the spirit roads- the shining tracks that criss-cross the island of Britain. Instead of returning home he remains here for dawn, listening to the idiosyncrasies of each bird’s song, watching dew form on blades of grass, on petals of hawthorn blossoms and may flowers.

He is and is not the mist, riding through damp meadows over hills, mountains and moors on a pale horse accompanied by a hound of the same complexion. He is and is not each sun-lit cloud he travels with, the touch and whisper of the wind.

He cannot stay here long, for this world we see as the land of the living is not his. He must return home to Annwn, the Otherworld, to prepare for a battle that cannot be won. To fight for a maiden he shouldn’t have loved, shouldn’t still love… in bluebells and forget-me-nots, emerging greens and white and yellow flowers he sees her colours.

For a moment he is possessed by memories of their passion, and the crimes it drove him to. A glimpse of his blacked face in a reed strewn pool shows no amount of war paint can mask his guilt, which he must live with for as long as there are people to sing his songs.

He searches for a sign. What is Judgement Day? When is it? Although he knows the language of the trees and plants, the tracks of every wild creature and the flight of birds, these questions are beyond his power to divine. When the worlds end, will Creiddylad and I be together again?

May Flower, Penwortham

Fairy Horse

Fairy horse fairy horse
Dancing on the brink
Of a cliff’s sharp edge
Above time’s dark sea.

Fairy horse fairy horse
Horned and winged
In a beam of bright moonlight
Her cold coat gleams.

Fairy horse fairy horse
With hooves of steel
Is quick to the hunt
And quicker to the kill.

Fairy horse fairy horse
Swift as poetry
And deadly as moonshine
Defies reality.

Fairy horse fairy horse
Eternally wick
Will never surrender
To a virgin’s tricks.

Fairy horse fairy horse
Will never be named.
She will never be caught.
She will never be tamed.

Faery Horse

Wild Hunt Villanelle

When the wild hunt rides on a thundering night
Hurtling from the deeps and bowers of unseen Annwn
They raze all life with their sundering might,

Sweeping heavens black warriors of starry white
Unite with rebel cries to form a spectral fugue.
When the wild hunt rides on a thundering night

Cities tremble as the harrowing horns descry
Ghost white horses, hounds of death and long lost truth.
They raze all life with their sundering might

As they gather up the souls of the dead in flight
Striking with a fear none but their kindred can endure.
When the wild hunt rides on a thundering night

Bringing down the skies and singing back the light
Around our fires only hope can see us through.
They raze all life with their sundering might

Then vanish to Annwn from tumultuous heights
Ending the old year and heralding in the new.
When the wild hunt rides on a thundering night
They raze all life with their sundering might.

Gwyn’s Feast

Welcome guest, make yourself at home,
My processions are coming home for autumn.
There is no lack of wood upon the hearth,
The hounds are calm, the horses fed and watered.
Put knife to meat, drink your share from the horn,
There is endless plenty in my cauldron.
Join and dream to the songs of my bards,
They play a magic from the world’s beginning.
Beneath the Faery moon and Annwn’s stars
All things are sung back to wonder.
Welcome guest, make yourself at home,
My processions are coming home for autumn.

*The original manuscript ‘Gwyn ap Nudd and St Collen’ (1536) relating Gwyn’s feast on Glastonbury Tor can be found here:  http://www.maryjones.us/ctexts/collen.html It’s possible it took place on Michaelmas day, September 29th, which marks the last day of summer and beginning of Autumn.

Forest

Faery Lane, May 2013

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I.

A forest
holds a very small possibility
in the sigla of trees
and in a ruddock’s song.

Raindrops lace the ivy,
in a cinema of shade
fairytales catch hands
with desperate grace.

II.

For in my nightmare
the leaning yew fell down.
The door to Annwn closed,
although the wolves still howl.

The people were dead,
the gods were gone
and the ghosts no longer mourned
their shadowed passing.

III.

Yet the forest
kept alive the possibility
of hope emerging
from its bowers

like a white stag bounding
from Annwn’s mounds
with red-eared hounds
and antlered huntsmen.

IV.

Now we read
the sigla from the trees
and listen out
for a ruddock’s song.

In the cinema of ivy
our myths still dance
a forest of possibility
in a raindrop’s glance.

Faery Lane, May 2013

White Mare Waking

Cow Parseley, Greencroft ValleyGreen grows white tipped
cow parsleys a head high,
citadels of intrigue
to a wild cavorting eye.

Daisies peek. Curiosity paws.
Garlic stinks time bomb shards
expanding a quivering nostril.

In green freedom she rolls
turning sun over grass,
cloud over bough,
kicking her heels up.
Spring is here!

Shaking off the old,
treading invisible horse paths
of a lost long maned herd,
her restlessness ripples
through green tips and white flowers.

The Search for Mabon

Mabon son of Modron… was taken when three nights old from between his mother and the wall… No-one knows where he is, nor what state he’s in, whether dead or alive.’
– How Culwch Won Olwen

Narrator:
On the verge of May when the veil is thin
Between city and suburb and faery hall and glen
Modron born of Avalon bewails her missing son.
If he is not rescued, summer will not come.

Across Britain’s suburbs and industrial towns
A clarion blast sounds on a white bone horn.
The landscape reverberates like water at its call.
Plunging steeds leap forth bearing fair Cai tree tall,
Bedwyr swinging the spear of nine blows,
Gwalchmai hawk eyed screeching,
Gwryrh each language speaking,
Cynddylig guide, Menw the enchanter,
And Eidoel son of slaughter.

Cai:
We’ve searched all of Wales and England too
Mabon is lost midst the sky scraper rows.
The impenetrable wall we cannot break through.
Hidden is his prison and invisible its rooms.

Gwalchmai:
We’ve lost the wolf and elk, walrus and bear
See the drays of grey squirrels have replaced the red.
The countryside has evaporated, bees are humming scarce,
The wildest animals are gone. This land is sunk in death.

Gwryrh:
I’ve spoken to the cattle, sheep and pigs
And the household pets but they no longer speak.
I’ve tried asking people but they neither see nor hear,
While the darkness keeps darkening and Modron weeps.

Menw:
The curse on this land cloys denser than a spell,
Its wizards are more cunning than the witches of Caerglow.
As Mabon’s release is their shining sun
If he remains in prison then their days are done.

Cai:
Why should we care?

Gwalchmai:
The subjects here are our distant sons and daughters
Prisoners like Mabon in their tower block quarters.

Bedwyr:
And if Mabon is not sought,
Twrch Trwyth will not be caught,
The razor he carries stolen,
Yssbaddaden will not be shaven
And Culwch will not win Olwen.

Cai:
Then we must seek out the oldest animals.
I believe a blackbird can be found nearby.

Blackbird of Cilgwri (on the Wirral Peninsula):
When I first came here I alighted on an anvil,
Watched engrossed the glow of the furnace and hot iron.
My song combined with the hammer as I pecked,
Joined by centuries of smiths until only a nut remained.
When factories replaced the forge I hid it.
My nut and I survived the blitz.
I have seen industry rise and fall and suburbs sprawl
But know not the prison of Modron’s son.
Yet I know one shaped before me who might
And if you wish I will serve as your guide.

Stag of Rhendynfre (in Cheshire):
When I first came here there was an oak sapling
That grew like my antlers branching into a mighty crown.
It fell, leaving a stump red with blood. Over Farndon
Welsh and Angles, Royalists and Roundheads fought.
I have seen battles aplenty lost and won
But know not the prison of Modron’s son.
But I know one shaped before me who might
And if you wish I will serve as your guide.

Owl of Cwm Calwyd (in Gwynedd):
When I first came here this vale of Conwy was wild wood
Destroyed by men, grown back, brought down again.
I have seen mine shafts sunk, pit men gone
But know not the prison of Modron’s son.
But I know one shaped before me who might
And if you wish I will serve as your guide.

Eagle of Gwernabwy (in Gwynedd):
When I first came here from my tall rock I tasted the stars, rolled
Their crackle on my tongue and passed their wisdom to my young.
Now my rock is sunk, the sky forbidden. To Gwynedd
I have seen carloads of holiday makers come,
But know not the prison of Modron’s son.
Yet in a lake on the Severn dwells a salmon
Who drowned me before I wrenched fifty tridents from his spine.
I think you might benefit from his wisdom.

Salmon of Llyn Lliw (on the mouth of the Severn):
Mabon was once prisoner in Gloucester’s wall
But now the cell is empty, his captors gone.
Rumour tells me by the Ribble in the North
Mabon is imprisoned in another house of stone.

Narrator:
Down the old tram road they see the Ribble’s shining vista,
Hear the song of the river, catch the moonlight shimmer.
From the dazzling pitch and flow a salmon pokes his nose.

Salmon of the Ribble:
Stand upon on my shoulders and to Mabon we will go.

Narrator:
The intrepid troupe assemble on the salmon’s back
And ride to the north bank with their steeds swimming behind.

Salmon of the Ribble:
Cross through Avenham Park to the city of Preston.
Listen for the groan of Mabon in his prison.
Modron’s son is cruelly engorged
In the seat of all that’s wicked- in the Centre of St George.

Narrator:
Lances high to starry sky, flags unfurled the cavort ride
Crashing over tarmac and bursting neon lights
To rally at the entrance of the centre of all evil
Where the elevators slide and the lifts glide baleful.
Artificial lights light the artificial caer
And a one eyed giant bawls

One Eyed Giant
Who goes there?

Cai:
Mount the lance, draw the sword, stay the shield, set the spear,
We will tear down the walls like the fire cracks a bier.
Wheel the steed, raise our arms, to this wickedness amend
Wrest the son from his prison, by the hand of my friend.

Narrator:
Doorways shatter like a crystal cave in
Steeds arc bucking like the breath of Faery
Down the false lit corridor their swiftness chasing
To the circlet hall where the giant is waiting.

His circular eye is as gold as wealth
His maw brims wide to devour the world
Glistening black as a politician’s soul
He unwinds his scales into dragon form.

Cai smites with lethal bright immutable sword,
Growing taller than the tallest of the trees on Avenham park.
One thrust from handsome Bedwyr strikes nine blows
Driving the serpent into dismal throes.
Eidoel Aer, pepped for the slaughter
Cuts a phalanx of sores into the creature’s quarters.
Gwalchmai’s hawk pecks its eye bone bare
Cai thrusts his sword into the eyeless stare.
The scales subside like a sliding slogan
At the flick of nine wands the spell is broken.

Ascend nine wizards in immaculate suits
They float on greed and designer shoes.
Their ties are tied in perfect knots
Like the bonds of life in the hangman’s garrotte.

Menw steps forward with his wand of hazel

Menw:
Subtle illusionists, cease your evil!

Wizard One:
Fools of Faery, you don’t stand a chance
When the light of the world lies locked in our banks.

Wizard Two:
Deep in our vaults Mabon laments
As we sap out his life to sustain our command.

Cai:
Curse your greed, we will have our inspiration.
Menw, weave a spell, let us fight his liberation.

Narrator:
Menw raises his wand, the hallowed hall crackles
And rocks in rivets like a dome in shackles.
Shop faces fall like dull dumb dolls,
Beauty’s errant features leak ugly holes.

Deep within the atmosphere the air is shimmering
Strangled in their suits the wizards are shrivelling.
On the strike of spear and sword thick runs the gore
Sluicing parapets of wealth down the stairs and out the doors.
Slicing through disguise, every garment falls
The knights of Faery tear down the wall.

From the house of stone, Mabon rises,
On the slender stroke of dawn, as a shaft of beaming light.
Pure and youthful, small but bright,
His miniscule frame holds infinitesimal might.

He leashes his hound, mounts white dark mane
Travailing forth at a time of desperation.
Gathers the reins, readies his bow,
Notches an arrow for a-hunting he must go.

Hence Mabon was sought,
Twrch Trwyth was caught,
The razor was stolen,
Yssbaddaden was shaven
And Culwch won Olwen.

Modron born of Avalon gathers in her arms
And rejoices glad her fleeting son as beaming summer comes.