Teithio /Journeys by Matthew M.C. Smith

Cefnwlad / Hinterland

He stands at dusk in tyre tracks, sump-destroying ruts; the lane between the terraced houses of Welsh stone leading to waste ground. Grass is hip-high and dandelion seeds lift off, take flight freely. He walks among the wreckage of abandoned cars.

The cool of evening envelops him. A day of scratches, scrams and stings. Bramble cuts raise staple marks on bare skin, on his ripped stained shorts, new maps of blackberry and grass in towelling. The haze of a bonfire permeates long gardens, drifting to shrouded trees; thickets of unclaimed land. Birds pipe down; rooks, crows and blackbirds settle on coiled boughs.

Evening’s pink blush engraves the sky with electric-orange. Shinning up onto the rainbow-rusted car bonnet, he turns to the sun; it bleeds out battery acid over the pulsing artery of the low west highway. From the distant hills above Nazareth chapel, the lights of villages and farms become a night-time compass.

The other boys have gone in. Home will be a hot sweat of kitchen, steaming bath and a rough flannel over the face: coal-tar or Cussons soap rubbed into smoky, urchin fingers. Then bed. Evening dims, lilac, faint curling of wood-smoke dying to embers. Laughter is heard from the TV set downstairs, the occasional bark of a dog and clink-clink of John the milkman, in his outhouses next door.

A netted curtain is hooked onto the pointed silhouette of a replica of Apollo Saturn V, teetering on the window-sill. On the narrow strip of bedroom carpet, Lando Calrissian hangs out of the Millennium Falcon cockpit by a foot, headpiece and plastic crook still attached. A ripped dot-to-dot pad lies by moccasin slippers. On his blanket, the children’s Oliver Twist, a book he knows off by heart, slips slightly from his fingers.

A shred of moon rises through silver birches. Ursa Major pricks the night with still, sharp claws. The city flickers to the south; dark pastures of Drummau mountain fly through his dreams. He soars to the northern region of stars.

Cosmoleg / Cosmology

from static
                     we make our slow Rosetta
linger lone
                      in void of dark

no one
                     can hear us
in these rooms
                      of silence

this is our language
                                    of stars
fingers of intricate play
                                & movement

there are lights
                           faint and far
as moths we are drawn
                            & dance

~~~~~~~~

Sea glass slips                    reflections
beachcomb through black
chain of lights                   a draped bay
pointillist neon                  towers in night
hear the ancient thrum of the city

~~~~~~~~

Sweye’s Howes

We sit, hunched on the sea-wall, eating strawberry ice-cream. Dragon tails of our children’s kites twirl and loop, fall and are caught, unravelled in moments by little fingers. The kites rise again, giddy, on air-currents. Peals of laughter. Voices heckle screeching gulls wheeling against the shattered backdrop of the mountain, wings beating in a glare of heat. I fix on the rock-strewn cliffs, their spiked vertebrae of peaks, trace outcrops and ridges to a lone cirrus cloud.

Later, they return to the caravan and I decide to go for a walk to locate the tombs seen on a map of Gower, landmarks that lie somewhere over the hill. I take the path from the beach to the spring-gate. It leads to a beaten track, criss-crossing the steep slopes, ascending worn, grassy pathways between patches of ferns. My feet grip moss-frayed rocks as my walk edges lurid clusters of purple heather, the stinging brush of yellow gorse on knees and calf muscles. A lizard flickers, skittering. Sun-basked stillness. I climb a cascade of barely-submerged, stones, scattered footholds up steep uneven routes, stop and turn. The ocean’s gleam of gold tide-lapped, serpentine headlands.

The view over the mountain reveals Gower peninsula, a patchwork of fields and dotted farms, stretching from horizon to horizon. Descending the other side, the sea can barely be heard, a shadowed heathland of bracken and heather. Eventually, I find landmarks — two burial tombs known as Sweyne’s Howes. In local legend, these stones were named after a Viking, the adventurer Sweyne, said to have reached the south shores of Wales. The arrangement of stones, however, are much older than the Scandinavian raider of legend. Three-to-four thousand years old, the scattered ruins of the chambers pin this untamed place to a period of history when its ancient people created elaborate graves, whose full significance and function is utterly lost and can only be guessed at.

The twin tombs, a hundred feet apart, have been flashed by the light of millennia, shadowed in dark eternities of racing cumulus, worn by unceasing wind and rain, observed through time by occasional, bewildered pilgrims. One tomb lies collapsed, remnants strewn, capstone still prised above the ground and beneath, a stony, narrow hollow. The wreck of the megalith is a dispersed, cairn-like perimeter, the dolmen stones pitted with tiny, shell-like structures covered in frayed fur of lichen. Standing erect, three uprights rising over head height with no capstone above, the other tomb is surrounded by debris, forming a strait-jacket. When I stand inside, I feel body and mind slipping in the stony surrounds of deepest time. Who was buried here? What grief or revelation inspired their making? What forces pulled down and spread much of the encircling rubble, spoiling these grand graves? I step from the tomb, leaving ruination to trek back towards the living.

Sweynes Howes are two bronze-age burial monuments in Llangennith, Gower, Wales. They are thought to be three to four thousand years old.

~~~~~~~~

Janus

East, west,
impenetrable gazes
of faces – sculpted, smoothed
shapes of rock.

Take it in your arms,
cradle the porous stone,
profiles enshrining the shadowing past,
the thin-edged future, veiled eclipse.

See it toppled, broken in water –
shattered column of Janus;
dual-gods perish; binaries die in time.

Open the sluice to wide earth,
let in the screaming light, the low, weeping sun,
where birds flock, fall, in the silver sky.

~~~~~~~~

Mynydd Drummau / Drummau Mountain

The contours of the hills in the lower Swansea valley resemble draped goddesses, sleeping giants, broken crowns. Smooth undulations or jagged points encircle the valley lending a sense of serenity and majesty above coalesced districts, villages and retail parks. They are bisected by the M4 motorway from east to west and by the river Tawe that winds to the sea from the wilderness of the Glyntawe, some twenty miles uplands to the north.

This morning, the grey and green shapes of the hills are softened by low, fleecy-white mists that will lift sometime before midday. I walk through a whispering spell of sun, feeling the peace of photons warming my skin, illuminating the stems, petals and clusters of leaves just off the pathway. Birds serenade me with weaving songs.

Bright dewdrops, pristine miniatures, caught in heavy spider-webs. Either-side, the hedge-tops are brightly lit revealing gnarly, arthritic, finger-like twigs. The lane rises to the fields of Mynydd Drummau past sprawling farms, their fields filled with abandoned tractors and rusted machinery. In the distance, across acres of curling vapour, dogs are making a racket. Cows graze, raising their heads to look at me before returning to their monotonous cud chewing. I haven’t walked up this path for years but soon pass the familiar, shady copse of sessile oaks on the right, hearing the glassy stream, seeing the abandoned shed, now roofless, infested with ivy.

Mynydd Drummau separates the Swansea and Neath valleys, a disembodied shoulder and arm of pennant rock, veined with worked-out coal seams. In the Ice-Age, glaciers came as far south as this now-temperate region. Villages skirt the hulk of mountain for thirty miles around. Some of the cliffs are sheer, revealing fractured steeples of stone and exposed crags. Above our village, Birchgrove, pastures rise like a patchwork of parachutes. Farmlands appear remote and inaccessible.

I wrote a story about the mountain in junior school, a tale about aliens that came down at night, met by a boy from Birchgrove. He followed the bright lights and communed with Martians in a forest at its summit: a much-condensed, Welsh version of ‘Flight of the Navigator’, ‘E.T.’ or ‘Close Encounters’. I was a child of the ‘80s and these were the blockbusters children watched, the generation caught at the comet-tail of Apollo fever and the space race. The tale won first prize on St David’s Day and I remember the yellow rosette I received in assembly in front of lines of children in red tops or Welsh costumes, wearing pinned daffodils and leeks. As we sang ‘Calon Lan’and the national anthem, my mind raced to the mountain and the visiting aliens in their flying saucer. That was the year of Halley’s Comet.

The mountain itself is hard to visualise. On my walks to school, in my view from home all those years ago, I couldn’t accurately picture the scale of its picture-postcard slopes and coniferous forests. I wondered what it was like up there and imagined secret hideouts, the lonely, yet tranquil, lives of the farmers. Both rural idyll and bleak wilderness.

As I approach the first farmhouse on the narrowing lane with its gates and ramshackle fences, more memories stir. A school trip unlocked some of the secrets of the mountain. Our J3 teacher — as I recall — Mr Pudner, took us on an all-day ramble – sixty children aged 9 – 10 years old and two other staff. We walked in a long line up this very lane, stopping first by the kitchen of a farmhouse, the muddy yard clogged with cowpat. A pack of dogs heralded our arrival that day from an enclosure and Mr Pudner, an enthusiastic, bespectacled man, spoke to an imposing, Amazonian-sized lady who strode out from her kitchen to see us in her wellies and jerkin, her pony-tailed, greying hair pulled back tightly. She urged us to keep to the rights of way and did not smile.

We trudged the ever-rising acres, stopping to sketch objects of interest, climbing over styles, avoiding crusts of sheep-dung and made attempts to imitate or scare the sheep splashed with red or blue markings. I remember us taking photos on disposable cameras. Up there, in the centre of the mountain, like Hillary and Tensing-Norgay, we the intrepid explorers saw views of other valleys, their prospects, colours and hues altogether different. Some places were darker, more forbidding than our valley, relieved only by points of slanting sunlight through banks of cumulus cloud. At last we came to the place.

‘This is Carreg Bica’, our teacher said, ‘a standing stone of the Beaker people; thought to have been placed here three to four thousand years ago, boys and girls.’

I pictured the bronze-age people in skins, sackcloth and rags, holding up torches of flame, dragging this enormous jagged, 4.3 meter sandstone, heaving it with ropes and levering it into the ground. Stonehenge-type people with devotion to their land, their sacred stones and their dead. He told us of the functions of megaliths like this – meeting places, markers, places of ritual and secret ceremonies.

When I think of Drummau, when I feel its gravitational draw, I think of those inspired pagans still dragging their sacred rock, dancing around it, shadows cast by sunlight or flame. I wonder at the story of the golden, Celtic torc and sword, reputedly found under the stone but not traced since. By Carreg Bica, there are the remains of burial cairns, heaps of stone covering the human remains of the ancient dead.

I don’t remember how we got home after our trip to the past. We descended a quarry like a mangrove swamp, the treetops hooding the wetland wood from the sun. We held newts plucked from shallow, shaded pools. We may have taken a bus waiting for us by the shops in Skewen village or walked back to school along a narrow country road. I was there in my body, but I never left the mountain.

I walk the lone acres of bracken and heather. I follow trails in an attempt to recover a long-lost path from decades ago. Memory, body, imagination; real and unreal, coalesce. I think of our teacher gazing at the ancient stone, looking from horizon to horizon, the industrial inferno of Port Talbot to the east, the serenity of the mountains of Gower to the far west. He is taken away for moments. I am here, three decades later, beard greying, solemn, drawn to the same landscape.

We ghost places in life. Spirit, blood, body, rock, intermingle. I touch the lichen on the mighty stone that points blindly to the sky, scratching it but making no mark, my creased face caressed by the breath of the mountain.

Ebargofiant / Cool Oblivion

“llithro i’r llonydddwch mawr yn ol”(from ‘Dychwelyd’ by T.H. Parry Williams)

Choose life;
extract yourself from systems,
circuits, voices, spies in ether.

Crawl as servant, slave,
from your masters,
take freedom in roadless deserts.

Leave gasfields burning.

Echoes in canyons, drift of caverns,
find your channel in rock,
seeking nothing, nothing at all.

Close your mind in cool oblivion,
hide inside your silent shadow,
your blood slows to deep time’s pulse.

Bryn Celli Ddu

(A Bronze Age tomb in Anglesey, Wales)

Sentry stones mark earth’s tomb;
a gathering ceremony under zodiac blue.
Time coils in patterns on rock,
we weave our way through passage into dark.

Is this the womb-temple,
the mouth of Annwn,
through ciphered row of rocks?

Fires danced, shadows on the hill,
tongues lost before bones.

With dawn’s rising light,
keying the Solstice sun,
through grave passage
we inch along, wide eyed,
and in its chamber, turn,
to behold the touchstone

guarding the deep;

Goddess eternal.

Thanks

I would like to thank Robert Frede Kenter for his careful editing of this hybrid piece; thanks also to Eliot North for reading some of the prose pieces in earlier drafts. Gratitude also to Tim Howard for his photos in the ‘Mynydd Drummau’ piece and Haf Elgar for her assistance with Welsh translation. All other photos are by the author other than the picture of space, which is from Creative Commons.


Matthew M. C. Smith is a writer from Swansea, Wales. He writes about myth, history, landscape, cosmos and the human condition. He is published in presses, such as Anti-Heroin Chic, Seventh Quarry Press, Re-side, Broken Spine, Wales Haiku Journal, Back Story and Other Terrain. He is editor of Black Bough Poetry. Twitter: @MatthewMCSmith @BlackBoughpoems FB: @MattMCSmith @BlackBoughpoetry

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