Margaret’s weekly prompt for ragtag Saturday is ‘tracery’. In words and photographs, she offers us nature, pared back to the bones. Like Margaret, I take much from the skeletal branches of winter trees. When I think of tracery I think of intricate and often irregular pathways: interlocking, overlaying. Tracery is embodied by the slumbering arterials of naked branches against a winter sky.
In architecture, tracery refers to the stonework elements which support the glass in gothic windows, yet there is also the delicate tracery of a butterfly’s wing. Tracery: a juxtaposition of delicacy and strength.
This month I have been creating my own tracery. Throughout March, Paula at Book Jotter has been hosting Dewithon 19: a celebration of Welsh literature. I chose to take part by immersing myself in the literature of this small country and it has led me in a range of directions: making connections; creating new paths; forging new trails and opening doorways to unexplored worlds.
What follows is the beginnings of the tracery in my Welsh immersion experience. There is too much for a single post; the novels will come later. It has been created by authors, poets and presenters – those Welsh-born and those with what I’m thinking of as Welsh souls. They have contributed to an experience replete with myth, triumph and tragedy.
In ‘The Snow Spider’ trilogy, Arianwen wove fantastical images into her intricate cobwebs which enabled Gwyn to see entire new worlds. And she has played her part in the creation of my personal Welsh lattice: a tracery of riches which have connected, coalesced, reinforced, underpinned, challenged and enlightened. Within my web I have diamonds dripping from these delicate threads. Dewdrops of culture, tragedy, conflict and passion.
At the heart of my fabric rests the Mabinogion. It contains the earliest surviving prose stories of the literature of Britain – not just Wales, for it originated before divides became divisive. But the Welsh it was, who preserved it for those of us who came after. It was written down in Middle Welsh in the 12th and 13th centuries, after centuries of bardic story-telling. So much of what I have read this month leads back to the Mabinogion. Its ancient power appeared to me as I bumped against it, to be as deep-rooted as the Welsh mines and mountains in the psyches of Welsh hearts, which has meant, it seems, that even today, writers think of Wales and think of the Mabinogion and pick up their pens.
As souls and lands to the east were diluted and moulded by Saxon and Norman conquests, it fell to the Welsh to preserve this ancient mythology of our British Isles and they continue today to safeguard our literary heritage through modern re-tellings for both adults and children. Sometimes the links shine with overt strength and sometimes with mere butterfly touches, but the old tales of Branwen & Blodeuwedd, Llŷr and Math are manifest in many tales today. From that ancient source I can trace sparkling paths across the ages to contemporary pieces, and know that their roots lie deep.
Marion Eames’ book did more than trace a layman’s path through centuries of writings; more than provide an underpinning to the other books I was reading. ‘A Private Language? a dip into Welsh Literature’ … What does it say of me that I never considered that this very clear title meant what it said? I blithely assumed that the title referred to works by Welsh writers or works about Wales herself – which of course, it does. But its focus is on literature in the Welsh tongue. I would never have made such an assumption had the title been: ‘.. a dip into French Literature’ or Spanish, Russian, German …
I can only hang my head and add that this was a personal comeuppance which left me open to absorb the gentle but pointed references made by Marion and by others, on the challenges of maintaining and celebrating an ancient language with a rich bibliotheca quite apart from English works. I also learned much from a pair of documentaries fortuitously aired during March, which have a tie-in book entitled ‘Wales: England’s Colony?’ Written and presented by historian Martin Johnes, parts of the documentaries felt partisan, certainly, but there was balance too and I have gained a far greater understanding of the challenges faced by the Welsh, both in the efforts to keep their language alive and in responding to their uneasy position alongside their larger neighbour.
This has been reinforced by a more direct experience. We have been learning Cornish since the beginning of this year: a language whose status is even more perilous than its close relation and Brittonic bedfellow. I am not Cornish but after just a few months I have a passion to support its revival. How then, must it feel to carry the heritage of Welsh speakers where the language was for decades suppressed and derided? My Welsh spider’s lattice trembles with the passion of those fighting to preserve a native tongue.
It’s impossible to consider Wales and her literature and not encounter poetry. Gillian Clarke is a former National Poet of Wales – a position I was unaware of until this month, which again holds a gentle but significant message. I chose to read, not a book of her poetry, but a book by her and about her as a poet. ‘At the Source, A Writer’s Journal‘ is difficult to categorise. It brings together her life, her inspiration, her love of the land and of nature, and yes, the Mabinogion.
I found this to be a wonderful book, which I’ll write about separately and I’ll re-read many times. It’s not a book for everyone, but it has become a shining jewel for me: a sparkling dewdrop on a gossamer thread.
I’ve encountered many other poets this month: dipping in and out of those well-known from the early half of the last century and reading the book chosen as the readalong for the month: W H Davies’ The Autobiography of a Supertramp. Here is another piece of life-writing, very different to Clarke’s – but once again prose by a poet. And another poet who crosses between poetry and prose is Owen Sheers.
His verse drama The Green Hollow was commissioned by the BBC to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the mining disaster at Aberfan in 2016. It stands alone on my tracery: a drop of shuddering water clinging to my gossamer weave and threatening to shatter the intricate pattern with its weight – with the weight of tears. This short book and the drama for which it was written recreated the tragedy of Aberfan more vividly than I can begin to describe. But I shall try, because it deserves its own review; because I need to preserve my own response to this work. And because I need to respect the tragedy that gave it life.
There is more. But this piece is long enough. I shall my leave Welsh web shimmering as it stands for a while. Just as the spider takes her time busily weaving and traveling to and fro among her threads, there is no need for me to construct my own in a single frenzy. Tracery takes time; the novels will wait. I’ll add more in the coming days.