Tuesday, 12 January 2016

Mabinogion Poems: The fair maids of ancient Wales



A CYCLE ON THE WOMEN OF THE MABINOGIAN

Yesterday, I spent a time out of time. I was in the National Library of Wales, where some of the oldest manuscripts are kept safe. 

This includes the Black Book of Carmarthen,  One of the earliest surviving manuscripts written solely in the Welsh language, full of handwritten poetry and amazing little doodles in the margins. And, for me, even more wonderful, they also have the original, White Book of Rhydderch
which is the earliest compendium of prose texts in the Welsh language, written by monks at an abbey only an hour's drive from us here, Stratta Florida. The White Book includes the earliest version of the Mabinogi, a wonderful four-part myth that seems to me as old as Wales itself. 
One of the things I like about the Mabninogi, is the feisty women portrayed between its pages. These stories, written down in the 14th Century but which are most likely centuries older, show that women were often ignored, slandered, wrongly punished and often abused by the more powerful sex, but even so they are portrayed with a power that is palpable. 
I was able to hold facimilies of these books in my hand and read through them – clearly, I can't read old Welsh (can't properly speak modern Welsh, yet), but I got a buzz when I recognized words in the text that I'd read in my English language copy of The Mabinogion, which is wonderfully illustrated by Alan Lee.
It inspired me to write some poems about the women, using some archaic poetic forms.

RHIANNON’S ODE

Rhannon by Alan Lee


When did I know your pedigree was forged?
After battle, the great feast of victory,
Toasts of mead and plates of boar our gathering      gorged

Your watchet eyes a valedictory, 
Even the gold-tipped merlin-feathered crown
Hinted at departure, contradictory.

When did I first hatch my plan? My baffled frown 
Took me to my cousin, Queen of Annwvyn
 –You seem distracted, sweet, have you felt down?

Her pale cheeks warmed like apples in the sun
 – He’s been distracted. Not for one full year 
Has he touched me. But, darling coz, I swoon...

Her breath was sweet, her lips soft on my ear
 –Last night was...rapture! Her smile told me all. 
The veiled and hidden secret became clear.

My head buzzed with my singing birds whose call
Shoos time away. My heart fluttered like wings.
My thighs wet with desire. Him, I’ll enthral.

I straddled my white mare, encircling 
The mound of wonders, miracles and harm.
In dreams he sat, saw this sweet fay appearing 

And rose, pulled to me by my whispering charm.
Enchanted hoofs restrained his mortal reach, 
His face the colour of a farrier’s arm. 

My lady, will you rein in and have speech! 
I would, sir, for your horse’s better health.
For we are well-matched, therefore must well meet

I choose a man for character, not wealth,
Star fortune and star cross as my birds sing,
Will more befall? Our fates emerge with stealth...




BRANWEN’S TRIADS


feminismandreligion
Three Tests of my White Breast;

I am struck in the cook’s bad temper
My belly shrivels from the smell of dead things,
My heart suppurates on my sacking at night.

Three Greetings to my Brother;

The starling flaps its wing like a postcard.
Innocent as a babe held over fire
But, dearest brother – do not blame the bird.

Three things to beware:

Grain sacks,
Cauldron, 
Irish guile. 








KICVA’S STORY

Slats of red sun blush our linen,
Her eyes are lined with story,
She’s seen so much;
The cunning breach of promise.
The fairy boy who slipped from between her warm breasts 
And the wall;
Her pleasure in the horsey penance. 
Her stories prick my finger...blood on the sun-stained linen.        

from

Enchantment never gains. 
It spangles you; casts mists upon your eyes;
Can make you laugh, gasp, hoot, act like a fool.
Give you advantage, promptly supply your wish;
But permanence is not a feature.
Magic never lasts.

She took her fairy son and vanished. 
The world drew in.
The people left 
Crops failed.
Clouds dark’d the land and fled
Leaving the earth as dust.
The linen was rust-brown from my blood.


Look for the unexplained.
The tiny mouse who limps
The holy man with money in his purse
Keep firm your nerve. 
Do not weep like a woman might 
Or howl with loss of your man
The secret’s in the spell,
Arianrhod-silver-wheel
In its unravelling.




ARIANROD’S ENGLYN

Men and their vile wands cause war and rape; 
A misshape child – hidden well –
Stitching up of all my flaws,
Chance for me to touch the stars.

In women’s wombs every child of the world;
Lies unfurled. A whispering, mild ,
Cell, to grow, or be expelled...
Miss; expect to be reviled.

Men and their wands leave me cold. I possess 
A veiled caress, protective fold,
Hidden power, uncontrolled
Not cheapened or undersold.

Locked in a tower, do not quake, weep or wail,
Spun in a wheel do not break:
Look to the stars and partake
Of the moon’s beams, ride their wake. 





BLODEUWED’S LAMENT

No one asked me;
Oak, meadowsweet and broom,
They fashioned a frock of floral gauze
And stood me ‘fore the sun
Legs up to my elbows, quivering like a fawn.

Christopher Williams 1930
No one asked me;
Oak, meadowsweet and broom,
Crushed petals bursting from the crystal trap 
He, too stood before the sun
The halo burning round him blurred his face.

No one asked me;
Oak, meadowsweet and broom,
Slipping from the banquet hall, face aflush,
How you doing, Petal? 
A willowy sylph in a dress of flowers.

No one asked me;
Oak, meadowsweet and broom,
If he was tiring of my primrose laugh.
If my own gaze slipped or
If my pistils swelled as the fine gauze slid.

No one asked me;
Oak, meadowsweet and broom,
Conspired assassination of a Prince – 
Were you both so desperate?
Swift punishment; brutal, mocking, timeless.

No one asked me;
Oak, meadowsweet and broom,
How you doing, feather? 
Flight against the white moon,
Warm flesh swallowed whole. Soft love in the trees. 
Wisdom.


 You can learn more about the stories of the Mabinogi at this site

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