Friday, September 26, 2008

Perfect Blemish

Strange how books find a way on to your shelf and strange too how cultures on the margin suddenly connect with each other. I read a first-class review by Caitríona Ní Chléircín in last week’s Foinse on a new bilingual collection of poetry by Welsh poet, Menna Elfyn called Perfect Blemish/Perffaith Nam (Bloodaxe). Not knowing anything about Elfyn I was more than happy to be guided by Ní Chléircín’s insight and ordered the book on the Internet. I then ran into Caitríona in Dublin on Tuesday where she was reading her own poems and Elfyn’s book arrived after that – and I am enjoying it.

I can’t speak Welsh and, in fact, dropped the language while a student to study Breton instead. I just could not get my head around Welsh. Consequently, my knowledge of Welsh literature has been confined to material in translation and to that of the big guns of English, R.S. Thomas and Dylan Thomas. I am happy to say that Elfyn’s work has opened another door into Welsh culture for me. (In the notes, she writes that she was imprisoned for a while as part of the campaign for the Welsh-language Act. Don’t expect me to do the same for an Irish-language Act!)

I will leave the last word to Menna Elfyn herself and her lovely poem, The Orchard-keeper.

The Orchard-keeper
(in memory of Gwynfor Evans)

Governance is not a sleight of hand
but a furrow set, then deepened.

In the clearing,
in the orchard keeper’s hand,
burnished to brightness,
nursing the green shoots until they spring
to meadowsweetness.
This much he does for us.

A nation is an estate
whose fruits
are weeds, mired
until a true gardener should sow the seed,
midwife the small buds to
the throng of blossom
through his vision.

His fingers’ span is unmeasured –
a sign of fair weather to come?
A matchless
Let there be sun.

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