Tag Archives Hilbre

BETWEEN RIVERS WINTER 2024: A SELECTION OF POEMS BY GLADYS MARY COLES – ALAN HORNE

BETWEEN RIVERS is a quarterly series edited by Alan Horne. It is focused on the area bounded by the rivers Alyn, Dee and Gowy, on the border between England and Wales in Flintshire and Cheshire. You can read about the background to Between Rivers in the Introduction.

For our February 2024 issue Between Rivers features the work of the prolific author Gladys Mary Coles, who has not only published ten volumes of her own poetry, together with a novel, but has also edited thirty anthologies of poetry and prose, and produced volumes combining poetry with visual arts, while teaching Creative Writing at Liverpool University. Her writing has won many prizes. Born in Liverpool and with a longstanding connection to Ruthin in Denbighshire, she writes with an international scope but often with a close attention to the local: Liverpool, the Wirral and the Dee estuary, north-east Wales and the Clwydian hills. In addition to all this, she has a profound engagement with the early 20th Century novelist Mary Webb, author of Precious Bane: Coles’ Flower of Light was the first major biography of Webb, and she has published two further books about the novelist, edited a selection of her poems, and is President of the Mary Webb Society.  Webb’s vivid feeling for the natural world in her Shropshire home plainly resonates with Coles’ own work.  Of which there will be more: in preparation is a further volume of poetry and a book about Webb’s Shropshire.

One way into Coles’ earlier poetry might be through the volume of new and selected verse published by Duckworth as Leafburners in 1986. This includes the poem On Offa’s Dyke, about the eighth century structure which marked the boundary between Mercia and the Welsh kingdoms. Originally published in the 1984 collection Stoat, in Winter, the poem was used in the reopening of the Offa’s Dyke Centre following the recent pandemic. One of the ideas behind Between Rivers is that complexities of border and identity can be found right here, at the heart of the United Kingdom. So, one of the characters in Clay, Coles’ novel of the First World War, announces himself as the Irish invader of a Liverpool street built, named and inhabited by the Welsh. In addition, Coles observes in her biography Mary Webb that, for Webb, “the Border Country that merges into the Beyond” is also a border country of the mind and spirit. On Offa’s Dyke traverses these territories.

 

On Offa’s Dyke

 

Once a concept, now returned to concept

except where the mounded soil

hints of activity, toil,

scoopings, bendings, craft

of earthwork unknit by wind-work.

 

Once a long snake, sinuous over the land,

over hill heights, above cwms:

now it’s disintegrated skin

is ghosted in the ground,

buried in its own earth

yet visible here and there

like the life of Offa, Mercian King.

This, in itself, evidence of him,

hegemony’s power, fear –

the tangible remains.

 

Their truths the walls of history hold:

Hadrian’s, Jerusalem’s, Berlin’s –

humanity walled in, walled out,

a wall for weeping on, a wall for execution;

and all our inner barriers, divisions

numerous as the species of wild growth

embedded in this dyke –

taken by the only natural army.

Leafburners also includes poems from her Liverpool Folio, also published in 1984. Printed in a large format, Liverpool Folio combines her poems with many photographs in an evocation of personal and family memory of the city and its environs. As the child of Liverpudlians I was pleased to find it a world away from media clichés about the city. Liverpool Folio meets Between Rivers at the extremes of the range of each: on Hilbre Island in the Dee estuary. Coles’ poem From Hilbre Island is accompanied by the photograph of the same name by Lindsay Coles.

 

From Hilbre Island

 

Dissolution of day

on the estuary;

night’s vast advance

on the evening tide;

and I, rock lichen, cling

listening to sea-distance,

the murmur of a harmony

within a greater harmony

 

while from the fretted shore

humanity emits

a thousand brutish sounds

diffused and lost:

 

as on a distant plain

the sound of centuries repeats

and noise of conflict boils

from blue-skinned warriors

or scaly knights who swarm

like early amphibians

floundering, sea-emerged.

 

Poems from the 1985 collection Studies in Stone are also represented in Leafburners, including a remarkable sequence, Winter in Clwyd, where close observations of the natural world, built up line by line, open out into an understated drama.

 

Winter in Clwyd: A Sequence

(for my mother, Gladys M. Reid)

 

  1. Snow takes the mountains
    advance forces the frosts:
    no field escapes
    each blade sprigged
    like blast-dust on trees
    the fright-white ghosts of summer.
    The vale in frost-sprayed gown
    a thin hemline of mist
    below the hills.
  2. The Clwydian’s great white shoulders
    nude giants turned to stone
    hiding their faces.
  3. A farmer’s fence along the topmost field
    is a charcoal line demarcating
    from white hill to white sky.
    In the distance sheep move in flock –
    a yellow turgid river
    the dog fussing on its banks.Before me, pencilling of undergrowth
    pointillism of stubble. Closer now,
    I see bird-pricks, flick of wings,
    fox-marks narrow with long central toes,
    indentations of dragged tails – rats
    or slender weasels – the matchless blobs
    of rabbits and, behind, unmistakable
    manprints. Secretly in snow
    new graphics have appeared.
  4. Light breaks over eastern Clwyd:
    the hill hollows fill like breakfast bowls
    milky to the brim. Snow on the tops,
    crystalline mounds dissolving
    at the edge. Changing light eludes
    no matter how long I stare.
    I notice how mountains, their fronts
    in deep pleats at early morning
    become smoothed out by coffee-time.
    I hold a steaming mug: froth clings
    like stale snow the rain disperses.
  5. On the chess board of fields
    a dark King stands cornered
    in check to a white Queen:
    the heavy oak, immobile, hedged in
    before a silver birch, slim
    moving in all directions.
    It’s the wind’s game.

 

A later collection of poems is The Echoing Green of 2001, and our other selections are taken from that. This book contains two sequences about the Shropshire landscape which are outside the remit of Between Rivers but which reward attention: Kingdom of Sphagnum relates to the north Shropshire mosslands and is used by Natural England in its presentation of the area; and The Land Within deals with the life and experiences of Mary Webb. But the first poem from this collection which we will present here is Convolvulus, which picks up on the Roman Catholic tradition in Flintshire.  Note that Coles makes use of the word Nain, Welsh  for grandmother.

 

Convolvulus

 

Mid-July, the bindweed high in the hedge –

a ‘tatty’ hedge Nain calls it, sitting in the yard,

tilting her kitchen chair, as sunlight pinks the sandstone

of soot-crusted walls. The tall house casts its shadow

over the dusty privet, shades Nain’s face.

 

She tells me of the day before –

the large white coach packed with mothers

winding through Flintshire lanes, higher into hills

by Halkyn mountain, to the sheltering greystone Friary –

and how, uncrumpling themselves, the mothers stood

in the peace of Pantasaph, a peace so palpable

they felt they could touch, hold it in their hands,

bring some home with the Holy Pictures.

 

Each one chingled a rosary, processing uphill,

kneeling on the bare ground of the path

at every Station of the Cross, until at last

they formed a circle round the crucifix,

huge, tethered to the hill-top like a mast.

Here they prayed, made secret requests.

Nain wouldn’t tell me hers, but smiled,

whispering as if the wind would hear –

‘A poet, Francis Thompson, once stayed there.

We were shown the window of his room.’

 

Afterwards, downhill to Holywell,

a blessing at St Winefride’s ceaseless spring.

Some mothers wept in the candle-lit shrine,

clear waters calling, reflecting inner wounds;

and constantly rising from the source

its bubbles seemed, Nain thought,

a waterchain of souls, renewing forever.

 

I wanted to bring her flowers, plucked convolvulus

but the white chalices folded in my hand.

 

Our final selection, also from The Echoing Green, is a markedly different poem. Augury draws on the legend of Blodeuwedd from the collection of Welsh folk tales known as the Mabinogion.

In the tale, Llew Llaw Gyffes is unable to marry a human wife, and a wife, Blodeuwedd, is made for him out of flowers. (In English, Blodeuwedd could be translated as ‘Flower-Face’.) She and her lover, Gronw Pebr, conspire to kill Llew. He is injured with a spear but survives and takes his revenge. Gronw is forced to suffer a similar spear-stroke, and is killed, while Blodeuwedd is turned into an owl. Readers of a certain vintage of children’s novel may recognise here the source for Alan Garner’s The Owl Service. In a way, Coles takes the story up after the legend’s endpoint, creating a remarkable contemporary myth. Rather than any conclusion from me, I think we should end with the poem.

 

AUGURY

 

Blodeuwedd, The Mabinogion

 

Tall bedraggled pines, the day’s incessant rain

early nightfall and a river-road. You plunged

swift whiteness into the stream of light

intent on some small creature spotlit

on the camber, caught in my car’s beams.

I felt your winged death impacting,

kept steady as you were woven in

becoming one with metal, rubber.

Not an everyday extinction. Born

of need, and one I saw as a portent.

Next morning, cautious, tense,

I looked at last around the rim

of tyre, wheel-arch, finding you

translated

from feathers into fur into flowers.

 

And death followed three-fold.

 

Last night, one year later, your return

waiting on the wires, intent

close to the cottage eaves.

Your ululation as I arrived,

how you opened your wings like a cloak

to enfold me; how you became

one with the moon’s translucency

your call dwindling into the blackness of Bryn Alyn.

Today, on the slate path to our door, I find

three gifts – your feather, white-tipped,

a dead but perfect field mouse,

a sprig of broom.

 

 

‘AI’ & ‘REMEMBRANCE OF THINGS PAST’: POEMS & GRAPHICS

By Posted on 6 Comments

The poems were inspired by conversations with the artist, Evie Chapman. The ...

‘A SHROPSHIRE LAD’…

By Posted on 3 Comments

…is the first book of poetry I owned – a breast pocket ...

THE FASHION OF THE EARTH

By Posted on 0 Comments

In a letter published in The Times in May 1936 – the ...