Thursday, July 26, 2012

rhown garreg ar garreg

“Before the horn of summer caught the tune
Born in the shell of grief. The velvet bone
Of sea-weed forests melted in the noon
And every frond bent down to clasp the stone.”

~ Idris Davies, Sonnet

Sojourning through various regions of Wales, becoming accustomed to landscape and light, my attention was consistently drawn toward the ancient. Antiquity and modernity live alongside one another, often superimposed. Town centers have castles and cathedrals at their hearts, sending forth roads from sites of mediaeval market places. Noticing many stone structures, along with natural formations, and megaliths, it is a marvel to consider their histories. Whether walking along the highest edges of castle walls, or weaving my steps within circles of large standing stones, my imaginings meandered with “what people and times these places have seen!” Sculpted and chiseled blocks were quarried, hauled, and fashioned by many human hands. By their very presence, megalithic boulders and cairns are mysteries. Encountering these sentries, we are left to wonder at their ages and purposes.

Often the hillside stone houses and rugged towers appear to emerge as extensions of the landscape as consistently as the seacliffs themselves. The earth’s very composition is everpresent as it manifests in slate, granite, and soil. On the occasions I’d navigate raindrenched trails, I experienced the terrain attaching itself to me. “God breathed on the clay,” Tozer once said, “and it became humanity; and as the Holy Spirit wafts through us, we become clay.” Simultaneous with my fascination regarding the assemblages of massive stone structures, and with the ancient groupings of enormous dolmens, is to ponder the presence of ancient witnesses in these times. Indeed, there are older antiquities extant- not just in Wales, but in other parts of the world. Yet in these examples, among the stories and memories of densely earthen forms, the past journeys to the present.

From my bead in the time abacus, I am able to freely walk amidst mediaeval royal courts and around ancient ritual sites. With pencil, notebook, and camera, my explorations were abetted by flexible modern shoes. My perceptions had been trained in another hemisphere, a wide ocean crossing away. The ancient intentions of these structures have come to absorb contemporary views and purposes. Their builders and residents may not have imagined the stone edifices were destined to become monuments along paved roads or streets. Further still, any person of any background or social standing can enter. Visiting castles on weekdays, there was plenty of silence and space, allowing for countless writing perches and unobstructed vistas.

Druidic stone circle, Bangor.

The megaliths and cairns appear sturdy, calm, and majestically indifferent. They seem to elude the idea of defeat. And yet, I am simply one of countless pilgrims that arrive to see these places and view the world from their vantage points. In my gratitude, I savored the time for writing in these places and being able to listen to the elements.


Views from atop the walls of Conwy

Conwy represents an example of a castellated town. The turretted castle stands on solid rock at the peninsula-like eastern corner of the walled town which is also encompassed within its built perimeters. To enter Conwy’s town center (as the town has surely grown beyond the mediaeval walls), it is necessary to pass through an arched stone castle gate. It is said that more than 1500 builders and stone-cutters built these structures in the late-13th century. The town church, at the center, dates back to the 12th century. The ancient is very much alive- in creative ways. On the morning I walked the castle grounds and towers, a group of schoolchildren had been busily writing their assignments while seated in the drawbridge area. One of the castellated town walls has a café built into it, not surprisingly called the Tower Coffee House.

Above: Tower Coffee House.
Below: A Conwy street.

Above: A public bus passing through a Conwy gate.
Below images: Essentials within the town's walls: Public Library, bakery, and post office.

Walking the Conwy perimeters, up high atop the walls, there are sweeping views of both town and distant region. Some sections of the walls serve as places to store backyard furniture, and vehicles have to take turns passing through narrow arches in the walls. A parish church uses contiguous sections of the walls for its Stations of the Cross. The relief sculptures are striking in their contexts.

Cefn Bryn

Cefn Bryn is a broad ridge on the Gower peninsula, upon which is the neolithic Arthur’s Stone. This enormous glacial boulder is a cromlech dating back to approximately 2500 BC. The popular legend, as it was explained to me, is about King Arthur walking along the shores of Carmarthen Bay. Irritated by a pebble in his sandal, he threw it across the water and it landed in the form of the boulder on Cefn Bryn. The site had been used for ceremonies beginning in the Bronze Age. Arthur’s Stone is massive, and can be seen from far away, standing by itself on its elevated plain. Walking around it, I was fascinated to see how it mysteriously stands on several smaller upright rocks with a freshwater spring underneath. Though I was there on a windswept afternoon, the sides of Arthur’s Stone were warm to the touch. The view from the cromlech, toward the ridge’s descent to Carmarthen, is as impressive as the Stone’s site itself. I made sure to spend time writing there, though simply looking at the scenery was much more captivating.

That we are drawn to motion ourselves in one direction or another, through great distances or short errands, is itself a mystery we uniquely possess. We tend to refer to a path as “leading us,” but more likely compelling intentions are what drive the soul to take to the trails that lead our steps. Deep within is a continuous urge to strive toward the sites and sources of our hopes. To castle, cromlech, and crag, my paces respond to structures formed from earthen elements. Stone upon stone, garreg ar garreg, the present displays the historic, and the human soul strengthens.

My travels have been training me to carefully listen to ancestral wisdom. What stories do the ancients convey, and are there words to the message? In specific places in Wales, especially those of my mother’s memories, I collected a few small stones and seashells as artifactual reminders. I also brought along shells from Maine to leave in various places, and along with larger gifts to Welsh friends. At the dolmen bearing the name of King Arthur, I did not wish to take even the smallest fragment. Rather, I placed a bright Maine scallop shell into the springfed pool beneath. Casco Bay is a long way from Carmarthen Bay, yet my modestly mortal steps represented the traversal. The words from the stones-upon-stones are to reverence and remember.

A seashell from Maine descending into the pool beneath the cromlech, King Arthur's Stone.

Through cairns and castle keeps, I’d imagine myself in these places when they were not viewed as monuments. What would I have done in a world so different? Then I thought of my 21st century self visiting castles and places like Cefn Bryn, and how we would all perceive one another. As a soul explores a site, the element of time becomes a fulcrum point. While travelling physical distances, then continually transforms into now. In voyages of absorbing the historic, we continue pacing into the future.

("Rhown garreg ar garreg," is a line in a Welsh folk song, meaning "we'll put stone upon stone.")

Sunday, July 15, 2012


“A tiny dingle is Milk Wood
By Golden Grove ‘neath Grongar,
But let me choose and oh! I should
Love all my life and longer

To stroll among our trees and stray
In Goosegog Lane, on Donkey Down,
And hear the Dewi sing all day,
And never, never leave the town.”

~ Dylan Thomas, Under Milk Wood

A thorough sojourn into Dylan Thomas country brings the pilgrim traveller from Swansea to Laugharne (pronounced "larn"), as well as contiguous Carmarthenshire and the Gower Peninsula. The southern coast of Wales, west of Swansea, progresses to winding roads, villages, cliffs, and sands. Considering how Dylan had lived his young years through the Depression and the bombardments of World War II, my impression is that Dylan grew to cherish the contrasting tranquility of Laugharne- as well as some of the local characters he later portrayed in Under Milk Wood.

Arriving in Carmarthenshire, after crossing the country from north to south, advancing westward from the industrial cities of Cardiff and Swansea, I experienced a gradation toward open rural landscape and ocean. Walking from The Grist, near Laugharne Castle, to Market Street, then Victoria Street, the handful of shops, tea rooms, and taverns gave way to the Cliff Road- which thins and threads into Dylan’s Walk. As paths silence and simplify, the landscape broadens.

Pilgrimage by its very nature unfolds, continues, extends, and enwraps. The voyage of discovery is a vehicle whose value appreciates with mileage. Each introduction and extended walk broaden the spectrum of the soul’s sense of creation. Coastal terrain, replete with turns, exemplifies the uniqueness of each single stride and corresponding vantage point. Welsh roads wend and ascend with the land, unveiling views with movement. Motion is implicit- not simply of physical paces, but also of thought. Thus, intrinsic to the pilgrim journey is opportunity: As one’s steps manifest their inquiries, opportunities may be sought as well as created. Inevitably, the pilgrim traveller cannot be entirely passive. After all, to seek is to be actively conscious.

With two visits to Laugharne, in the space of a week, my thoughts returned to the very purposefulness in travelling to Carmarthenshire, to South Wales after North Wales- and even to Wales itself. To explore is to inquire of a place, and both sojourns to Laugharne each became something extraordinary as my steps would reach the path to the Boat House, called Dylan’s Walk. As the leafy narrow path turns leftward, with the estuary at the right, the places I’d seen in pictures and on book-covers blossomed into the living three-dimensional present. From the tiny writing shed to the ledgelike Boat House, my senses convinced me of my arrival. This was an instance of reality far exceeding anticipation. And surely the impression was not confined to the boat house alone. The home’s fresh-aired environs provide its contextual impact. The jutting structure is surely moored to Laugharne, its estuary, the ancient castle nearby, and coastal roads.

The Boat House at high tide.

Leaving some Maine shells for Dylan.

On the first occasion, I visited the Boat House as part of a gathering devoted to writing, the spoken word, and cultural exchange. Throughout a balmy mist, an eclectic group that shared an admiration for Dylan shared anecdotes about the writing journey. Jackie Hayden read from his new book which compared Bob Dylan with Dylan Thomas, in a musician’s journey. A distinguished poet who is also the Arch-druid of Wales read Dylan Thomas in the beautifully lyrical Welsh language. (When we greeted each other, I wished him “shalom aleichem, from one ancient root to another,” and he liked that very much.) The writers’ evening concluded with folk music from Wales and Ireland, along with jovial toasts of wine- all on the wooden deck of the Boat House- followed by a conversational nighttime procession of writers and musicians along Dylan’s Walk to the Portreeve Tavern. Indeed, and integral to the sharing of journeys, pilgrims enjoy one another’s company. More toasts and cheers, with pencil and journal just under the rim of my plate of fish and chips. An evening for all the senses.

Dylan's Writing Shed

My second visit was on a sunny and quiet late-morning. It was a chance to really visit the house’s interiors and stroll the length of the sands between Dylan’s Walk and the town. There was time to see the writing-shed and enjoy just a few conversations and plenty of silence. The initial visit emphasized people, and the quieter second visit was for the surroundings to speak to me. And I could build upon an established sense of direction. Exploring a new place enkindles impulses to stabilize one’s bearings. It may take the form of sensing where north is, or east, or the ocean, or the direction to the center of town. That sense of bearing can manifest in steeled cities of millions, as well as around the village clock. Exploration provides for the absorption of environment and place.

Laugharne Castle

From the daytime estuary walk, I was able to view the town from atop the towers of Laugharne Castle. The small town blends references to the region’s antiquity, along with testaments to Dylan’s life. Brown’s Hotel, the Seaview House, and their situating narrow streets provide more stations for the literary pilgrim. Dylan fancied the “timelessness” of the old-fashioned “dwindling seaport,” with its intimate confines and simpler ways. He described Laugharne as “a legendary lazy little black magical bedlam by the sea." Though barely forty miles from the city of Swansea, Laugharne seems a much greater distance away. An equivalent (though with greater distance) would be the contrast between Boston and Downeast Maine. Before setting forth from Laugharne, en route for Rhossili and Carmarthen, it was of great importance that I see Dylan’s grave to pay my respects. He had died in New York, and I’ve visited Saint Luke’s on Hudson Street, in Greenwich Village, where his funeral had been. His grave is at Saint Martin’s, in Laugharne. I left Dylan some Maine seashells, and told him about what a Portland lad does for work in the land Sarah Orne Jewett called The Country of the Pointed Firs.

Now my thoughts of these journeys are retrospective, and my perceptions of Dylan’s life and writing are enhanced. Equally enhanced is my admiration for Wales, once again with Dylan’s footsteps in the lead.

Rhossili and Carmarthen Bay

Saturday, July 7, 2012

good companion

“Don’t be too harsh to these poems
until they’re typed.
I always think typescript
lends some sort of certainty:
at least if the things are bad
then, they appear to be bad with conviction.”

~ Dylan Thomas

Being entrusted with the Dylan Thomas birthplace and family home for a week was both a profound honor and a matter of great comfort. I felt entirely at home. It had been made very clear to me by my hosts that I could open, sit on, cook with, and operate anything in the house. But making myself at home means doing things with care and reverence. Obviously, all the furnishings and decorations are antiques. I marveled at how the chairs, sofa, clocks, and tables must have greeted an extraordinary variety of visitors. As a gracious guest, I ate and sipped from well-loved plates and cups. An old travel habit of mine is to always bring along a small radio; in a rather lifelike manner, a radio will adapt to its environs and receive only its most proximate signals. Though incongruent with the 1900s-era house, I discreetly placed the little set on the Thomas dining table, tuned to Radio Wales. After all, the present visits the past which greets the moment.

My wanderings in the plain yet unusual house inevitably led to finding some favorite perches. From outside, the house resembles the other contiguous row houses. The home’s distinction is found within; it was clear that Number Five has a kind of soul, one that welcomes and approves of inhabitants being at ease- and writing. On my initial explorations of the small rooms, I was immediately captivated by the typewriter on the desk in the family study.

This Imperial Good Companion sounded through the working days of the elder D.J. Thomas, schoolmaster, and his celebrated son and one of the world’s great poets- Dylan Thomas. Along with everything else in the house, the old typewriter was unlocked and just as casually accessible as the shelved books, the spindled gramophone records, and the hutched dinner plates. At first, in my respectful deference, I’d write next to the tools on the desk, with my typewriter next to Dylan’s and using my fountain pen next to his ink stand. Being a guest in the house, it was already a great gift to inhabit the space and write at the desk.

At first, I typed alongside the Good Companion.
The Splendid and The Good Companion : how salubrious!

But my hospitable and trusting host encouraged me to live in the house, and not simply inhabit the rooms. Arriving one morning with the first of my reading audiences, the house’s curator could hear my typing from the outside front path, and entered exclaiming, “what a perfectly wonderful sound!” It may have been very many years since sounding streams of typed words had filled the front rooms. The following day, returning to the desk, I tried writing on the Good Companion. Compared to my 1960s Olympia, the antique machine seemed raw and tinny- but it worked just fine, albeit through a dry ribbon. Remembering that I had packed an extra typewriter ribbon for my journey, I ran up the sets of steep steps to my suitcase. But before making the dash, standing up from the old typewriter, I habitually patted it with a “be right back.” After a thumb-blackening respooling of my spare new ribbon onto the old metal Imperial hubs, I began writing with the Good Companion.

The Good Companion writes again (note ribbon wrappings at left). Test example in photo below.

After switching to Dylan's typewriter, I set aside my fountain pen, in favor of his ink stand and dip pens. Indeed, I was well at home!

Picking up speed, I developed a feel for the uncalibrated roller-advance and the way typed letters strike at the top of the platen facing upward, compared to the more modern orientation of typebars striking at the operator’s side of the roller- facing the typist. The bell had an egg-timer’s chime. Typing journal entries and a few letters to mail, I thought of D.J. Thomas, Dylan Thomas, sounds of words, forms of words, and aromas of rained-upon slate surfaces through the open windows. Through the day, my unscrapably inked thumbs and index fingers were writer’s emblems in a great Welsh city of writers.

The Uplands section of Swansea, Wales.

The Uplands neighborhood of Swansea has the ambience of a compact, self-sufficient hilltop village within a metropolis. Surely, the city has its own distinctive character, though I recognized glimpses of old familiar places in Portland and Boston among the steep terrain and bay views from even the humblest buildings. Meandering streets wind out of an artery called Uplands Terrace and collect at Gwydr Square.

Views of shops on the Square, with a noble bakery red dragon (above), and the newsagent's (below).

Above: the view toward Cwmdonkin Drive (Dylan's street) from the Gower Kitchen pub. Below: shops along Uplands Terrace.

Harrison's of Swansea : best stationer in town, and the proprietors are as fabulous as the goods they sell.

At the square which converges several roads are shops, eateries, and pubs- essentials which include bakeries, second-hand shops, a bookstore, a grocer, and Swansea’s best stationer: Harrison’s. One morning, after mailing letters into a slot in a stone wall, procuring bread at Davies, and cheese at Sainsbury’s, I stopped in at Harrison’s. The best errand saved for last was an enduring reward, as Mr Werrett the shopkeeper found a beautiful British-made unlined journal for me- which I purchased- along with a supply of rich blue-black ink, Derwent pencils, and Gillott pen points (all British made). In our very pleasant chat, we talked shop, comparing notes about the materials we use to practice our crafts. It was heartening to hear the Joseph Gillott company is still producing; I’ve been writing with their pen points since I first took up calligraphy when I was twelve. Mr. Werrett kindly packed the blank hardcovered journal well for my long journey back to Maine. We wished each other a good summer, and I climbed the curved streets back up to Dylan’s house.

Re-outfitted to continue exploring and writing, breaks in the weather opened the ways for journeying to southwestern Wales. With Dylan’s house as a home-base, it was as enjoyable to be indoors as outdoors, and surely the spirited Good Companion was never far away.

Below: writing in Dylan's childhood room.

Gower Peninsula