Harry Gilonis: Isolated in Aber Cuawg

Isolated in Aber Cuawg (first half)

 

My mind’s requirement, to be sat atop a hill -

yet that cannot move me:

short is my road, desolate my circumstance.

 

Sharp is the gale, the cattle-track bare.

As, today, the woods put on bright colours of summer,

I burn with ague.

 

I’m not able-bodied, keep no company,

don’t wander outside.

For as long as it pleases, let the cuckoo sing.

 

The cuckoo is garrulous, sing-song with the day,

profligate with melody in the meadows of Cuawg.

Sooner be prodigal than miserly.

 

In Aber Cuawg the cuckoos are singing

from flowery branches.

The cuckoo is garrulous, but let him sing long.

 

In Aber Cuawg the cuckoos are singing

From flowery branches.

Woe to one isolated who hears them continually.

 

In Aber Cuawg, the singing of cuckoos.

It troubles my mind

that, having heard them, a time will come when I do not.

 

I have listened to the cuckoo in the ivied tree.

My clothes are becoming looser.

Grief for that which I loved is growing.

 

I have listened to the voices of birds

from the topmost tip of the storm-tossed oak.

High-up cuckoo, no-one forgets what they’ve loved.

 

Singer of continual song, voice filled with longing,

intent on his course, moving like a hawk,

cuckoo, eloquent in Aber Cuawg.

 

Loud are the birds, and the valleys damp.

Luminous the moon, cold the small hours.

My mind is raw from the miseries of my disease.

 

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?

 

Loud are the birds, and wet the shingle.

The leaves fall, the outcast is downcast.

I cannot deny it — I am low tonight.

 

Loud are the birds, and wet the foreshore.

Bright the sky, and expansive the wave.

The heart is palsied with longing.

 

Loud are the birds, and wet the foreshore;

bright the wave, expansive its moving.

That which youth held true,

dearly would I get that back again.

 

Loud are the birds on the track to the heights.

High-pitched the yelping of hounds in the scrubland.

“Loud are the birds” again.

 

 

This is a fairly faithful rendition of the first half of an untitled 9th century AD Welsh poem known as Claf Abercuawg.  The full version, with additional apparatus, can be found in my book Isolated in Aber Cuawg, published by Oystercatcher Press (Bethesda, 2020), buyable for a fiver via www.oystercatcherpress.com/product/isolated-in-aber-cuawg-by-harry-gilonis/  This first half (which works as a separable unit) is reprinted here by kind permission.

claf is a sick person (modern Welsh, ‘patient’) and was the term used for a leper.  Diagnosis was based on inaccurate medical knowledge and covered many other conditions. The symptoms reported – pain, fever (stanza 2), loss of weight (stanza 7), sleeplessness (stanzas 11 and 12) – are typical of real leprosy; note also the legal response to being a claf, enforced social isolation (stanzas 2 and 3).  The resonances during the Covid-19 pandemic hardly need ramming home, though I will highlight contemporary parallels in insomnia (stanzas 11, 12] and mental distress (13).

Aber Cuawg is an area of north Wales around the river Cuawg, probably what is now called the Dulais, which flows into the Dyfi near Machynlleth; their combined waters (aber, ‘estuary, confluence’) make a marshy, sandy, shingly entry into the Irish Sea (stanzas 13, 14).

.

Some of the modes of the Claf won’t seem unfamiliar to readers of live contemporary poetry: the intermittency if not absence of narrative; the fluidity of genre; the shifting, sometimes absent, subject-position; the lack of coherent time-frame.  Causal links, even those as bland and low-key as a linking ‘and’, are usually withheld.  All of these devices were everyday in Welsh poetic writing of the 9th and 10th centuries – a sign that English-language avant-gardists should beware over-easy complacency. The readerly free play in which description plays off against emotional reportage which plays off against narration, all taking place in different places at differing times, with specificity inflected with universality and vice versa, is key to reading the Claf, now as then.

 

notes

This is emphatically not a scholarly translation (though I’ve paid keen attention to ‘the scholarship’). Accordingly I have not provided a Welsh text.  I have chiefly followed that provided by the Claf‘s most recent editor, Jenny Rowland (Early Welsh Saga Poetry, Cambridge, 1990). Her text and translation can be found on the Wikipedia page for Claf Abercuawg

 

stanzas 4 and 5 ‘Aber Cuawg’ is broader than the name suggests, and takes in the surrounds of the river Dulais: hills (stanzas 1, 16), meadows (stanza 4), woodland (stanzas 5, 6, 8, 9) and  valleys (stanzas 11 and 12). The sequence skips hither and yon temporally and spatially, but its physical geography is plausible.

stanza 10  For Welsh listeners the cuckoo calls cw, cw? (‘where, where?’) with an implicit sense of loss.  It is only the male cuckoo  that makes that characteristic call; their flight is very similar to that of the sparrow-hawk.

stanzas 11 and 12 Being awake in the small hours could be either insomnia – a symptom of leprosy – or part of a church penitential practice intended to atone for it (see the close of the full poem…).

stanza 15 Whereas most early englynion, in the Claf as outside it, are three-liners, this is a 4-line variant. (Later this length was to become standard.)

stanza 16 The first line’s ar edrywy ard could read “on the heights of Edrywy”, as that is a known Welsh place-name.



Harry Gilonis is a London–based poet, editor, critic and publisher (the ‘semi-dormant’ Form Books imprint). His books of poetry include Reliefs (1990), walk the line (2000), and eye-blink (2010) and a selected poems, Rough Breathing (Carcanet, 2018) (extracts from his long sequence unHealed, based on the Welsh Canu Heledd, can be found therein, along with other Welsh-related pieces). A collaboration with Rhys Trimble, NONglyns (very loosely based on englynion by Cynddelw Prydydd Mawr) should be out from The Literary Pocket Book in Pontypridd later this year. His pamphlet Isolated in Aber Cuawg appeared with Oystercatcher Press in 2020: http://www.oystercatcherpress.com/product/isolated-in-aber-cuawg-by-harry-gilonis/

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