Rewriting the Middle Ages

LIAM GUILAR likes a radical reimagining of a venerable Welsh work

Isolated in Aber Cuawg

Harry Gilonis, Oystercatcher Press, 2020, 19 pages

‘Claf Abercuawg’ is a Welsh poem composed perhaps in the ninth century. Claf, as a noun, means a sick person, a patient or a leper1. Abercuawg is an area of north Wales. There is an ‘I’ who looks out at the landscape and speaks about it and his isolation.

This pamphlet contains an English translation of 32 three line stanzas, a short introductory essay, placed significantly after the poem, and some textual notes. The essay is a concise, necessary introduction to the differences between this poem and a modern English one. The pamphlet is visually attractive, robust enough to handle the rough usage it has received, and overall very good value for money.

The opening line announces the poem’s difference: “My mind’s requirement, to be sat atop a hill”.

In the 1970s, Glyn Williams translated this as “To sit high on a hill is the wish of my heart”2

Superficially, Williams sounds more natural, and perhaps immediately preferable. But the differences in word choice and order reveals the strength of Gilonis’ translation.

Generally3 the contemporary trend seems to be to assume that the people of the Middle Ages were modern people in funny clothes, suffering from bad ideologies and severe technological deprivation. The consequences of such assumptions are numerous and they are all bad. The logic runs that because these people are us, then their stories can be presented as we think they should have been written, or would have been written if the original composers weren’t so clumsy. And because they are ‘like us’ then they should have known better. Therefore, the things modern observers find reprehensible in medieval behaviour and ideals can be easily condemned and preferably erased, because both are easier than trying to understand the essential alterity of the period.

The most invidious and invisible form of this domestication is when a translator surreptitiously converts a medieval text so it operates to modern, post-Romantic assumptions of how poems should function, and how a modern person would behave or think in that situation.

Gilonis, to his credit, avoids these traps. Ironically, part of the effectiveness of this translation lies in what he hasn’t done. “My mind’s requirement” does not sound like modern English. But it’s grammatical and makes sense. He walks the fine line between respecting the alterity of the original and turning the poem into something that works in English. He does this without domesticating the original, or turning it into a museum piece.

The translation, as translation, can be compared with different translations. Here are three versions of the last verse; Gilonis’ is the third.  

The Leper was a squire; he was a bold warrior

In the court of the King

May God be kind to the outcast.

Jenny Rowland4

A youth was Leprous; once a bold leader

In the royal palace.

God be kind to the outcast.

Joseph P. Clancy5

Isolated, once a warrior, once a champion, daring

Once in the court of a king

May God be kind to the outcast.

I prefer Gilonis’ version, but the key objective difference is the disappearance of ‘leper’. While Jenny Rowlands goes to some length to show how the speaker of the poem is indeed a leper, she’s also aware that it is not the only option (pp.191-193). The original poem would not have excluded other interpretations. As she points out, the solitary figure in a hostile landscape, well-known to readers of Old English, is as much a symbol of life on earth (with or without God) as a literal character. But translating claf as ‘leper’ would be to choose one option and for the reader of the translation to limit those other interpretations. It also throws the poem into the distance.

Gilonis defends his decision not to translate claf as ‘leper’ in the notes. The poem isn’t distanced from the modern British or American reader and the other possible readings of the text remain open.

Obviously the idea of someone isolated due to illness has an immediate contemporary relevance. The temptation would be to push the point, the use of deliberate anachronisms being a popular technique. Gilonis writes: “The resonances, in 2020, don’t need ramming home” (p10).  In 2020, ‘isolated’ was such a loaded word it should resonate without ventilators or prayers for vaccines turning up in the translation.

One of the strangest features of this poem is that, as in Old English poetry at this period, the speaking ‘I’ is an empty space anyone one reading the poem can step into. It’s merely a subject position, not an historical or fictional character, nor the product of autobiography. This is emphatically not a dramatic monologue in the Browning/Tennyson tradition, nor an ‘I’ in the tradition of English poetry from Wyatt onwards. While some speakers in the ‘saga poems’ of medieval Wales are characters in a fuller story, the speaker in this one exists only in this poem.

Some early Welsh verse, like this, simply don’t operate to the rules we assume govern modern poetry in English. There’s no clearly developed progression from an opening to an ending. There’s no ‘internal coherence’. The poems operate to their own rules, and those rules, leaving aside the complicated metrics, simply aren’t post-Renaissance or classically inflected English. There is description of landscape, but whether it’s meant to evoke the speaker’s mood or describe a place is questionable, and whichever answer you pick in one instance will be undermined in another.

Description is jammed against statement: but the relation of the two seems marginal, and the statements, as in the second line below, might be gnomic wisdom or just statements of fact. Either way, their relevance is never obvious:

Bright are the tops of the valleys; long the small hours.

Expertise is always praised.

Am I not to be granted the sleep due to the ill?

Temporally the poem hops around, sometimes in the same stanza. The overall effect is that the poem is swirling, but the swirl isn’t spiralling to any conclusion, just to the last word, where the poem stops. Gwyn Williams only translated ten of the 32 verses, but the ’extraction’ (his term) doesn’t seem to damage the poem in any way.

For general readers of English poetry, the pragmatic value of early medieval poetry, treated honestly as it is here, lies in the challenge it makes to the learnt reading practices of the school room and the lecture hall. A poem like this one, that obviously works, but not to ‘our’ rules, is a confrontation with the limits of our reading practice, and our assumptions about what a poem is, does, and can be.

This difference between what worked for a medieval Welsh audience and what a modern reader of poems expects gives the translation another level of interest. The original might have been written over 1,000 years ago, but this translation wouldn’t be out of place in something like Harriet Tarlo’s 2011 anthology of ‘radical landscape poetry’6.  

As such, it’s a blunt reminder that any claims made by ‘avant garde’, ‘experimentalist’ or ‘postmodern’ poets in the 21st century for the ‘innovative’ or ‘ground breaking novelty’ of their work is undermined, if not flatly contradicted, by the history of poetry. Whatever ‘it’ is, ‘it’ has usually been done before. This should negate the familiar excuse for writing abstruse nonsense – ‘But it hasn’t been done before’ – and focus the question on ‘Was it worth doing?’

  1. []
  2. Welsh Poems Sixth Century to 1600, Faber and Faber, 1973, p.23 []
  3. ‘Generally’ in terms of popular culture, films, books, and public discussions []
  4. Early Welsh Saga Poetry: a study and edition of the Englynion, D. Brewer 1990. p. 497. This is the essential encyclopaedic text, commentary, study and translation of these poems. Rowland makes no claim for her translations as ‘literature’ []
  5. The Earliest Welsh Poetry, Macmillan 1970. p.94. Clancy reverses the order of the last two verses so this is the penultimate in his translation []
  6. The Ground Aslant. An anthology of Radical Landscape Poetry, Shearsman, 2011 []

Shores, stars…and unmade beds

Bethesda Constellations, Peter Hughes, Oystercatcher Press, 2020 28 pages

The Celestial Set-Up, Zoë Skoulding, Oystercatcher Press, 2020, 24 pages

LIAM GUILAR combs through two new poetry pamphlets

Oystercatcher Press is one of the many small presses keeping poetry alive and well and providing readers with the opportunity to sample a writer’s work for a relatively small cost. Both these pamphlets are by poets with substantial back catalogues. 

Peter Hughes’ Bethesda Constellations contains three short sequences of that name, samples from two works in progress, and some individual poems.

The three Bethesda Constellations provide mini-galaxies of images:

the rain in all these 
seaside Brexit towns 
goes into the night 
a single taxi 
never moving 
from the station.

The stand-alone images collaborate to evoke place, but also a range of moods from the serious to the whimsical.

The other poems range from these sparkling details to pieces that tetter on the edge of what C.S. Lewis called ‘Privatism’; the feeling you get as a reader that you’re overhearing one side of a conversation about a party you weren’t invited to and know nothing about. Often this can occur in individual poems. ‘re;lode26’   starts  in specific kitchen details, not just garlic but “& four fat cloves/ of this year’s garlic” to:

I saw you stick 
a mini octopus 
on the front 
of your SG 
which served 
as temporary amp 
& living strumbuddy

It’s difficult so know what that means, or what the context is that would give it meaning. The three ‘Re:lode’ poems are part of an ongoing collaboration, and therefore taken out of their own contexts, though Re:lode30  with its seamless integration of song, local history and imperialism is one of the most enjoyable pieces in the pamphlet.

Such moments as the one quoted above are fortunately rare. On rereading, the movement away or towards the particular within a poem creates a feeling of exhilarating movement, as though you’re a passenger in a vehicle taking a blind bend at speed. This is particular true of the shorter pieces, like ‘Ant’ or ‘Choir’, which begins:

an amateur choir 
is filling the hall 
with love songs 
on the last day of September

and proceeds to

rumours & a heart of gold 
shuffle back onto the street 
& on beyond the street light.

Zoë Skoulding’s The Celestial Set-Up seems to invite a different reading practice. ‘Why are you telling me this?’ seems the valid question. 

The elusive Rosa Luxemburg

 ‘A Rose for Rosa’ opens the pamphlet. It begins,

This is not the grave of rosa luxemburg she is not here you will not find her neither will you find her at the memorial to rosa Luxemburg at the lichenstein bridge… 

and so on for 29 lines of unpunctuated prose, in which variations on ‘she isn’t there’ and ‘you won’t find her’ link any number of statues, monuments, streets, buildings or institutes named after Rosa Luxemburg.

Many of the poems like this one feel like writing exercises. ‘The Bed’ begins:

Our bed was never made from a still-rooted olive 
Our bed was never planed with a brazen adze

with its nod to ‘The Odyssey’ but then continues for another 26 lines each beginning ‘Our bed was…’

As a writing exercise encouraging students to consider metaphors and how they work, this might be fairly common, but the end result is a list that is rarely interesting for a stranger who doesn’t know who the first-person plural refers to and can’t make the plethora of images cohere and say something of interest about ‘us’ or ‘the bed’.

For much of this collection I was left wondering if my presence as a reader was essential or even if it had been considered as part of the process.

‘Displacement Fixing by Steerage’ sounds like a parody of officialise, but since I haven’t read the document in question, I’m left wondering what I’m supposed to do with lines like this:

No matter from what point of ebb’s northern hindrance you look at it, it’s always within one delivery of true note

The same is true of ‘A Divinatory Calendar’, a sequence of 13 five-line poems. They are verbally inventive, but phrases like “Get to the point just when it dissolves like salt in drizzle bristling the skin” or “The habits of highly productive people include lying down at the crossroads covered in ash” had an initial attraction that didn’t survive too much consideration.

‘A Strait Story’ is neither a story about the Menai Strait or a straight story about a boat trip. Something happened in the Strait, but the facts and the writer’s response to them are presented in a baffling way that suggests both are an opportunity for a bit of writing rather than a desire to engage the reader with the experience.

The piece is divided into prose paragraphs and short passages set out as poems. This could be a nod to earlier Celtic genres where the prose conveyed the narrative and the lyric was used for speeches or moments of intensity. But there’s little narrative, and of the four ‘lyrics’ two are simply lists that have gained little by being written out in verse.

Despite the invention of the internet and the explosion of opportunities for publishing and reading poems, pamphlets still play an essential role in the circulation of poetry. For many poets, their first collection still takes the form of pamphlet or chapbook. For the more established, pamphlets offer a wide variety of possibilities: the chance to try out new work and see what kind of reaction it receives, or to use as a calling card.

For the curious reader, pamphlets offer a cheap way of reading a lot of different poetry and sifting the cacophony of unfamiliar names and vaguely familiar claims. For a relatively small cost – these two cost five pounds each – you can dip into a poet’s work, spend some time with it, and decide if you think the poet’s publication list is worth pursuing. You, reader, should buy some pamphlets.