In the Valley of the Irfon

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Poetry

Birth Pool

A dark pool, gloomy and grave
Nothing seen in its brown depths
Rocks or creatures hidden
Around it mountains loom
 
But on a hot day I lower into its coldness
Feet slip on slimy rocks
Buffet submerged stones, I gasp
At the cold, enveloping darkness
 
Then understanding its boulders
Feeling the pebbled shores
I slide in its slickness through luxurious waters
Know on naked skin: perfection
 
Together we share the dark pool
Skin slides pass skin.
As we dance in the cool darkness
We create another memory of love
 
This, of course, is a baptism
A baptism in the dark earth’s waters
Something began here and something ended
Here is the possibility of a new body birthing

Second Sight

Now, shrouded
earlier a shank, an esgair of rainbow
grew from the place
out there
over the hills
obscured by the rain
 
out there
summers ago
the air heavy with heat
we swam
naked in black waters
 
Now, blue sky breaking
windows smeared with fresh rain
I see green mountains
emerging from mist
and out there
remember happiness

Welcome

to the big and the beautiful
the small and the scared
the wicked and the winsome
the pious and the pretty
 
Welcome
 
to the babies in nappies
and the old men in Armani
 
Welcome
 
to the men in black
and the women in white
 
Welcome
 
to the red and the gold
the blue and the buff
the bronze and the silver
the muddy brown
and the bright pink
 
Welcome
 
if you aren’t sure
or you might be right
if you wish you were
or you wish you weren’t
 
Welcome to all who wonder
and welcome to all who want

An Irfon Thanksgiving

God of the harvest we thank you for the earth
 
For soil rich and ripe
for the creatures of the earth tiny and writhing
for the worms and the fungi, the moulds and the mosses
renewing the earth and making it fertile: ready for the seed
 
God of the harvest we thank you for the green
 
For chlorophyll and the miracle of life
for light transformed and air reformed
for energy stored in sugars
and oxygen liberated… that the world might breathe
 
God of the harvest we thank you for grass
 
For the sweetness of the hills
robust through the winter, flourishing in spring, resilient in summer heat
for the grazing and the hay and the silage:
the mother of the flocks and the carpet of life
 
God of the harvest we thank you for wood
 
For hedges spiky and stock-proof
for trees shady and strong
for gift of berry and bounty of damson, for magic of mushroom and secret of nut
for all that grows and swells and lives from the earth
 
God of the harvest we thank you for mountains
 
For earth rising to heaven
for pasture in the summer and snow in the winter
for the rhythm of the land
for the beauty of the sight
 
God of the harvest we thank you for water
 
For the flowing of the garrulous streams
for the wet of the rain bringing life in abundance
drenching the earth, feeding the green, growing the grass, nurturing the wood
flowing from the mountains into the valley
 
God of the harvest we thank you for the stock
 
For the wool of the sheep and the fat of the cattle
for the milk of the cow and the lean of the pig
for all that lives and dies and brings us food
for all that births and renews the flock
 
God of the harvest we thank you for the birds
 
For buzzard and kite in shining sky
For chicken scratching the earth
and laying our breakfast
for the little birds singing and echoing our praise
 
God of the harvest we thank you for farmers
 
For the early mornings and the long summer nights
for the care of the flock
and the love of the land
for all that is done to feed us and clothe us and sustain the land through the long slow years
 
God of the harvest we thank you for our gardens
 
For beans in abundance wreathing on rods
for root in the ground and berry on the bush
for food shared
and the taste of the earth on our plates
 
God of the harvest we thank you for forests
 
For the foresters nurturing the trees
for the wood grown over decades
for fuel and timber
and the memory of that tree crossed long ago
 
God of the harvest we thank you for each other
 
For kindness and compassion
for arguments resolved and disagreements accepted
for walking alongside when the way is hard
and sharing the joy when the way is good
 
God of the harvest we thank you for this land
 
For the animals who lived it
for the people who build it
for all that it gives us: the food and the shelter, the warmth and the love
our home where we live and we move and we have our being.

Soul music

Sing to the Lord a new song
Let everything that has life, praise the Lord
 
Mighty baritones
and soaring sopranos
Husky jazz divas
and screeching rock vocals
Mongolian throat singers
and Gregorian chant
 
Let everything that has life, praise the Lord
 
Solo violinists
and cascades of strings
Tiny piccolos
and blaring trumpets
The wailing sax
and the weird theremin
 
Let everything that has life, praise the Lord
 
Synthesizers
and Hammond organs
Electric pickups
and drum machines
Computer code
and pre-recorded tape
 
Let everything that has life, praise the Lord
 
Singing in the bath
and a child's rhyme
A wheezy hymn
and a happy jingle
The blackbird's song
and the raven's cry
 
Let everything that has life, praise the Lord

Swallows

A hundred swallows filled the air
singing
swinging through sunlit sky
preening
perched on a telegraph wire
flushed
in a dazzle of fluid flight
 
Then silence
 
And low over trees a scudding hawk
 
pursued
at speed by a swarm of a hundred chittering squeals

A Brecknockshire Jesus

If I met Jesus in these Welsh hills
who would he be?
 
A shepherd quiet on the high hill
transfigured by light breaking the grey sky?
 
A forester chainsaw in hand
felling a tree and its dark crossbeam?
 
A prophet standing in the Irfon waist-deep
calling the people to repentance?
 
A priest dressed in black
counting the 30 coins in the collection plate?
 
A botanist scouring the forests
for the last lost liverwort?
 
A fisherman patient on the riverbank
baiting his hook with forgiveness?
 
A hotelier opening his doors
to the lost and forsaken, the worried and scorned?
 
If I met Jesus in these Welsh hills
would he be a child or a woman
or an ordinary man who looked just like me?

Assumption Day

Mary's day in deep August
The weather's hot
The skin sticky
The trees dark, heavy green
 
Swallow-skimmed sky filling with clouds:
Heaven's blue slowly smothered
By the rain-bringers
 
For today Mary will not rise lighter than the air
But the mother will stay with us
Heavy, warm, fruitful
Buried in the dark earth

Flow…

Cloud

I come from mist
from air
from sky-damp
smothering
hammering
down on the stationary earth
I come
in wetness
in the fullness of air
unburdening

Bog

I gather on blade, on stone, on sheep, on wool
seeping into earth
trickling into darkness
weighing the ground with the wetness
with soak
I come
into land
heavy, heavy, heavy
with the dampness

Stream

Out of soak
out of seep
I gather drop by drip
into tiny trace, into streak, into silver thread
I run
I gather faster
pace by pace
into rivulets
into stream
into brook
leaping
dashing
down
over rock
flinging
shining in sun
cantering
I come
into the breakneck gallop
of life, living
running
free

Forest

into darkness
into tree
into the tall place
I clatter
but shrink down into my blackness, into my wetness, into my fastness
hurry past
and I come
out
into light

Pool

I fall
Oh! through light
Oh! through bright
Oh! through air heavy
clattering on rock
into myself
into darkness
deepness
depth

wait

in the cup of earth

silent

before fullness swells me
and I come
into the lip
of running
clatter splash
and rush
yet more

Life

I am lived in
I breathe
Insect skips over me
drops into me
births
And birds swim in me
Dipper and
Kingfisher
and Heron still as tree
and splash, the Otter chasing
fish
The roots turning, turning, wreathing
All lives in me
I come
and bring life

Field

I flow
I smooth
I run
and sweep around meadow
horse
hedge and gate
the measured land
I come
into man's world

Man

past road
under bridge
rush
and race
and running fast
tangle of fence plunged in me
detritus
Then past brick
past building
(stationary and strange
no sway
no change)
but smell of man seeps into me
foaming
sticky
I cannot sluice it
but I come
clattering through village
through farm
through man and all his means

Wideness

I fill
I drench
I flow
I suck stream
and ditch
and leech of land
I swell
I bend
I come strong and full and deep
tree-banked
dark watered
irresistible

I am Irfon
I come
I flow
into gushing river
into sea
into ocean
into world
I come
I flow
and I am Irfon

Follow the Christ

Follow the Christ
out on the wild hill
wind and raven your companions
Journey to a new land
the secret valley
where prayers have subverted the centuries
 
Follow the Christ
here, down gentle lanes
through familiar country
where families have bred and bought
Gather around the hearth
and peer into the mysteries of the fire
 
Follow the Christ
out of the dark forest
out of the threatening gloom
and the old wolves howling in the soul
Be safe in the castle of faith
and sharpen your blade for the battle

An Epynt Sequence

Maunday Thursday

We clamber towards Calvary
The mountain is still white with snow
even as the sun slowly exposes the frozen earth beneath
and flocks of dirty sheep wander in search of green
Inside the barns the ewes are lambing
but outside they shiver in the murderous wind
And we clamber towards Calvary
through the detritus of modern consumption
over the wreckage of Christendom
back to some image of Jerusalem
where the Lamb of God gathers his fragile friends
before the howling gale descends

Good Friday

On good Friday the sun is bright and warm
glistening on the ridge of snow
but deeper
hidden
in the gullies
there is still blackness
cold, still blackness
lurking in the wild place

Holy Saturday

The freeze deepens
Daffodils who valiantly survived the snow
are flattened by the deep frost:
looking tired and weary beyond redemption
But maybe the sun will revive them
May be there is yet warmth in this cold spring

Easter Day

Today not shut inside
cozy, warm, bed-cuddled
but wild
open
huddled
on the frozen heights of Epynt
and as we left to return to the simple comforts
of breakfast in the village hall
the sun poked an orange disk into the brilliant sky
rising with startling speed
over an extravagant Easter Morning

Llangammarch

This place
These people
 
See, a ridge between two rivers
where a church lives, still breathing amongst tombs
and around it homes spread; council depot, hotel, one track of a railway line arcing between sheep-spread hills
 
The village has long since reached over the river bridge
to chapel and shop and two rows of houses
then scattering piecemeal into the foothills of mountains
 
Life has been lived here:
horses traded
fish fished
cars raced in early mornings
 
And there are still the quiet places:
a lost field hidden between river and railway,
down by the dipper-bridge where otters play
and here in the deep, still church-heart where a saint once prayed

Singing With The Birds

In a break in the rain
he appears in the crab apple
softly fluting
A song thrush in winter
testing his voice for the trial of spring
 
A brown arrow speeds the river
turns
banks
belly flops the water
and dips in greeting on the gravel shore
 
Sitting out here in early-morning
(best when the light has just broke)
birds will sometimes fly fast
close by my head
and I duck in laggardly protection
but one day
perfectly still
a blue tit landed on my blue hat
and, for a moment,
I and the world was perfectly at one
 
 
Under the eaves of the church
the sparrows nest:
where we provide a crack
warm-feathered love will grow
 
Into the sky the kite circles
such smoothness of sweep
such careless grace
and he a scavenger
a hunter of the earth’s rank flesh
 
Caught for a moment in the circle of my binoculars
a blue tit shines with startling colour;
how does the land of muddy green and grey brown
produce this fidget of restless light?
 
Everywhere
on leaning fence
in apple tree
dropping to earth
perched on a broken post
She turns to me a redbreast
and asks a question
I puzzle to understand
 
There was nothing that afternoon
No dove descending on smooth wings
No goosander wary and noisy in scattering flight
Not even a great tit pealing the still air
Just silence under the grey implacable heavens
Until
Splendid in black and yellow
Busy on alder cones
A bright siskin, redeemed the day
 
Every day I watch the crows
carrion, jackdaw, rook
and each time I ask
are the wings long?
is the beat strong?
are they acrobats of the huge sky?
are they the legend we call
Raven?
 
On the church roof, pert and proud
Pristine and perfect in plumage
A pied wagtail
Nodding to his many admirers
 
These fly overhead
 
The huge whiteness of swan
 
The wild thrill of geese
 
The strange black cross of the cormorant far from the craggy coast
 
They are the skulkers
the hunters beneath bush,
behind pot
the mysterious troglodytes
of the winged world
 
Spring creeps slow
amongst these wild hills
the peep of the nuthatch
the squeak of the greenfinch
the wild anger of the song thrush
driving away the magpie!

Corpus Christi

Here is the word: Receive
receive this all of you
 
The rain in its wettingness
The sun in its shinyness
The serenading of song thrush
The whirling of wind-rush
The cloud in black and gray
A wet Welsh day
 
Receive this, all of this
 
And flesh of the God-man
and blood of the Christ-man
and grace
and the divine face
and food from above
and extravagant love
 
Receive
and swallow
and ruminate
and contemplate
and digest
 
The divine gift
all black and earthy and raw
all white and holy and light
all gift
all love
 
Receive.

from Elegies and Songs

A green river
An island thick with scrub
A country of lush grass and damp wood
And beyond… the eternal rolling hills

On a walk from Cefn Gorwydd, I got lost
Descending deeper into unknown territory
I drove a herd of six black cattle down to a distant field
there, they watched me wild as a sect of Celtic Saints

Spring here comes thriftily
Trees are reluctant to spread leaf
Blossom blooms cautiously
This earth, it seems, must earn its release

A tiny bundle on the grass
So white, so still
So certainly lifeless
but then the lamb rises, totters, fastens on the life-giving teat

Encircling the church at Pentecost
a dozen swifts fly in wild formation
screeching the return to Earth
of the sky-bound Holy Spirit

After a few days of summer
The wind blew
The rain swirled
Drenching everything with the memory of winter

They are gathering the ewes for summer pasture
The quad bikes roar
The voices shriek
The lambs learn the nip of the sheep dog’s teeth

The summer of 2012 was cold and wet as a mountain bog
Nothing grew, except the ravenous slugs
And gardens reverted into weedy swamps
A thousand years ago, it would have left us starving; buried the old and weak

Around the honeysuckle a weird mist swarms
Over the river a many-winged creature sweeps
Strange fairies dance in the evening light
This is insect world: the fountain of life

No Corncrakes call here now
Only the cranking of the engine
The creaking of the machine
When the silage is cut in mid-summer

The fields of wheat are long gone
Working horses are never seen
But when the subsidies fail
Will sheep vanish from the green hill?
 
Autumn comes stealthily
An edge of wind
A darkening of berry
A brown sadness of awakening death

Ash trees loom in the field corners
and cling to the steep bank
Wise sentinels, they wait patient
for the death-spores. The devastation

Coming out of church into St. Cadmarch’s Field
I look up and see
Sculpted in living colour
That, of which, I had been trying to speak

Winter is the land’s Sabbath
Drink may now flow freely
in every Sunday pub
But earth cannot so easily forget time’s rhythm

Mist lags on the valley floor
Sun will not burn it, heat will not lift it
Today we live in the netherworld,
Knowing neither night nor day

The snowdrops, once so bright
so thrusting, so hopeful
are beginning to tire, beginning to fade
It is the first death of the year

The Ballad of John Penry

Hidden in the shadow of the grave Epynt
John Penry was born
In the mist and the darkening rain
By the black river Dulas
 
Cefn Brith was the name of his homestead
A long, low house
Modest but prosperous
And well situated to catch the speckled sun
 
Here he was raised
A warm and comfortable home
Seedbed of an inquiring mind
Mother to a child of dangerous intelligence
 
First educated by the Parson of Llangammarch
He was quick and able
Progressive and questioning
Well-equipped to flourish at the grammar school in Brecon
 
Latin and English he learned
Grafted on to the Welsh bedrock
But never supplanting his love of home
The warm hiraeth for his native land.
 
In 1580 the fatal choice was made
From the dark, warm depths of Wales
He journeyed to the low lands of England:
The bright, shining spires of Cambridge
 
And what a world was there!
Men of learning and understanding
Delving the ancient arts of rhetoric and logic:
Creating a new breed of educated men
 
Penry was a Welsh boy in an English world
But he settled
Learnt the grammar, stretched his mind
Embraced the unfamiliar and the new
 
And of all that Penry learned in Cambridge
One thing shone brighter
One thing touched deeper
One thing captured him heart and soul:
 
A Pearl of great Price, beyond all others:
True Biblical Religion
The vision of a Reformed Church
Leading God’s elect into perfect holiness
 
He became a Puritan
Rejected the ritual of the Romish church
The rules of bishops and prelates
Cleaved to Calvin’s condensed religion.
 
But returning home to the dark hills of Wales
He was troubled
Yes, he loved his family, delighted in home
But their religion? Superstition
 
Old practices, unreformed
No knowledge of the Bible, no light
The broad and easy path which leads to hell
It troubled him
 
He pleaded with his kin
Showed clearly, plainly God’s laws in Scripture
But could it be that his own dear family, his mother, his sisters
Were not numbered amongst God’s Elect?
 
Penry returned to England, uncertain, anxious
Wrestling in his soul until…
The light shone
The mist on the black mountains cleared!
 
His people had never known true religion
Never heard God’s Word in their own tongue
Or listened to the preaching of Godly men!
The light shone. This was his vocation. This his call
 
God had called John Penry to be the Welsh Harp
To ring loud and clear the cause of Wales
Expose error. Purify the Church
Set free the Word of God to save his land
 
He wrote an ‘Aequity’, a ‘Humble Supplication’
Piled argument on Scripture, Scripture on argument
Showed clearly what needed to be done
To save the land of Wales…
 
It was accepted for publication
Puritan’s applauded him
But when it reached Whitgift, the prelate of Canterbury
The clouds gathered, the darkness swelled
 
Who was this young preacher to criticize the church?
Question God’s appointed representatives?
He was summoned, questioned
Thrown in jail.
 
In the dark cell he pondered
Had not God ordained him,
Called him to this work?
So why thwarted? Why chained in darkness?
 
Then searching Scripture, praying
Once more the light dawned! The sun rose!
Whitgift was no agent of Christ, no godly man
But a servant of the Antichrist. A wolf in Christ’s fold!
 
Penry was released. Warned. A marked man
But now his path was certain. His way light
He wrote, with others, many pamphlets
Exposing truth. Making error plain.
 
They found a printer: Waldegrave
A skilled man and godly, who printed their words
But secretly
Evading Whitgift’s spies
 
And so the word spread
Pamphlets clearly expounding God’s truth
Became a web of godliness:
A healing virus spread abroad in elected hearts
 
It was exhilarating for the young men
Pushing the technology of printing
They mocked the hypocrisy of priest and prelate
Exposed the false religion which held men slaves
 
But it was dangerous
Informers could be anywhere
Even in the midst of the godly
People grew anxious, feared for their lives
 
Often the printing press was moved
From London to Daventry;
Coventry to Warrington:
Just beyond the reach of Whitgift’s long fingers
 
But not for long
An informer was captured and revealed all
Whitgift clenched them in his cleric grip…
But not Penry, he escaped, fled to the haven of Presbyterian Scotland
 
By now Penry had married
And his wife, Eleanor, joined him in Scotland
But once more Penry became troubled
Once more he questioned his faith
 
Presbyterian Scotland should have been a paradise
Reformed under the preaching of stern John Knox
It had rejected bishops, all remnants of Romish ritual
But it was not holy
 
The church did not live solely under God’s law
It was still entangled with the State
Not free to be a holy people
It served not God but the dictates of man
 
Three years Penry live quietly in Scotland
Turning in his mind his short life
Scouring Scripture
Seeking the way of true holiness
 
Then Whitgift’s spies found him
And Elizabeth wrote to her cousin James
Demanding his return or banishment
James agreed
 
Now everything was clear
Once more the light shone
The true church is separate, independent of the State
As Scripture said “Be ye not yoked with the ungodly”
 
Purified by his Scottish digression
Penry returned to London
Entered once more the stronghold of the Antichrist
Lived his body as his words demanded.
 
London was a joy
Here at last he lived the life his soul long for
The warmth of family: four daughters and wife
Re-creating distant Wales
 
And a church of True Believers: God’s Elect
Eager for the preaching of the word
Meeting in a brother’s house or quiet wood
Free of hierarchy and Whitgift’s long claw
 
And the excitement, the thrill
Of walking God’s narrow way
Outwitting the agents of the Antichrist
And living with Christ under the shadow of a cross
 
It could not last
One night in the depth of Islington’s woods
The believers we gathered for prayer
Fervent as Christ in Gethsemane…
 
When Whitgift’s men appeared
Armed with clubs and swords
They arrested every man
Locking them in a makeshift cell
 
But Penry escaped
Like Peter evading the prison guards
He prayed his freedom
And made his way to a brother’s house
 
Around him the Fellowship gathered
Secretly ferrying him to Stepney
(A village to the east of London)
Where he found refuge
 
But not for long
The vicar, a bishop’s man,
Was suspicious
And once more Penry was captured, held in chains
 
He languished in the dungeon
Cut off from light
Darkly pondering his fate
How had a boy from Breconshire ended here?
 
He thought of his wife
And his four children
Deliverance, Safety, Sure Hope and Comfort
How he missed them –
 
Their childish innocence so resonant of home
Had he abandoned them?
Did their names mean nothing?
Had he no comfort? No deliverance?
 
No. He was God’s chosen one
To plead the cause of Wales
This was his candle in the gloom
When the darkness of despair threatened to engulf him
 
He had been a good and faithful servant
And had not squirmed beneath the tyrant’s boot
Whatever came
He would be ready
 
Two months he was in prison
He wrote letters. Pleaded his cause
Sought the ear of the Queen
But there was no crack
 
Church and State was set against him
His ideas were too dangerous
His actions too courageous
This Welsh candle must be snuffed out
 
On the 29th of May 1593
John Penry was taken to the place of execution
He never saw his wife
He never kissed his children
 
He had no opportunity to preach a final sermon.
Before a straggle of strangers
He was hung upon the gallows
John Penry was dead

 

The God of John Penry: a hymn

Sing we the God of John Penry the martyr and prophet
Calling us still though the world’s winds do blow us and buffet
Speaking the Word, what we have followed and heard
None can constrain or control it
 
Eternal God of the mountains and cities of people
Master of rulers and Queens and the priests of the steeple
Let truth be heard, sounding the power of the Word
Filling the hearts of God’s people
 
No man can master the freedom of God and love’s power
Beneath no tyrant will we bend and fearfully cower
We hear the Word, and trust in what we have heard
Now is God’s victory: love’s hour

Tune: Lobe Den Herren (Praise to the Lord the Almighty)