Thursday 13 February 2020

dewi stephen jones

Review of Ffynhonnau Uchel, Dewi Stephen Jones, cyhoeddwyr – Neb, £6.50.

[from Bobi Jones’ website]
[publisher was Gwasg Gomer]

Note. This a partial translation of a review by Bobi Jones of a book in free verse. I must say I find Bobi deeply unsympathetic, as a nationalist who rejected modernity so far as to become a neo-con, but this is a compelling review.

>>This is a remarkable volume which should never have been written. From one point of view the whole publishing system of contemporary Wales was constructed to prevent things like this from happening. This is noticeable right away in a historical context. It is the second volume of Dewi Stephen Jones, [b. 1940, AD] after Hen Ddawns, 1993. Things like this don't happen every day. In the last century, there is a series of poems by Waldo- ‘Cwmwl haf’, ‘O bridd’,’Mewn dau Gae’, and a handful of others – which experience a bit of an inexhaustible challenge to careful readers down the years. There are a dozen unusual poems by Saunders Lewis. I don’t detect other poems of such a quality before this volume.

Some of Dewi Stephen Jones’s amazing work belongs to this band. His powers of suggestion are just as rich as those of his predecessors, and his language as enchanting. In a remote part of the world Dewi Stephen Jones is the most ambitious Welsh poet today. It is hard to believe that anyone is slower in shaping his poems than he is. But in a country which is inclining towards a ‘popular’ standard as its only measuring cord, and also towards poems for children or performance,(with the consequence that so much of its poetry is more elementary and more superficial than any other country I know about), a poet is under suspicion who weighs and measures each word for weeks. Poetry of this kind is as if we were being pulled out of the pit of colonialism. Things like this volume are not, in any century, found on every street corner. People are not expecting it. But I can seriously promise a careful reader many years of pleasure in these thirty-six pages. His age was one heavy with invisibility. No poet was more out of sight than he. He is the Emily Dickinson of our land. But in this hidden state he shaped his secret treasures.

The wisest way, perhaps, of introducing the book would be to gloss two poems in particular. First, let’s look at ‘The pigeons’. [the same word means ’doves’ and ’pigeons’ in Welsh, AD] And let’s concentrate for a moment on one chief theme, that is the relationship important in this post-modern age between dividing and unifying. This union of course is the essence of thought and the essence of language, always. And the chief flaw of the whole crazy and worthless post-modernism, in a metanarrative so full of flaws, was trying to separate those two. I will quote the poem complete:

They ignore the dizziness of the slope
and the unstable footing of the observer
as he turns to try and hold the course
of his flock and get an arc of flawless disappearances
like a shoal of fish they are not although in the blue depth.
Lost wild tenants, turn in my salt skull.

They turn within bounds without following a path.
Last night were the rings of the raindrops, the geometry of glass,
spreading their perfect vibration across the surface of the water of a lake
until they died out at the bank. The doves are in the rhythm and metre
of their flight, true to the shadow of a place, a wall of nothing
which keeps them from turning into the maps beyond. They rebound.

Low, they approach three times, many more,
before drawing a figure of eight, reaching the position
and darting back holding a pattern of turning and returning
like a circle and its echo over in the mirror which is none
but the air of their flight. When they are high in the softness of breath 
of the principal wind, their circuits are wider like the circuits of sadness.

Raising my head I sometimes hear the power of wings
and my pigeons come into view suddenly yards away 
and turn at such a steep angle until they pull up ahead of me
and appear like a disappearance – the feather
of a moment piercing a blind eye – though the sound
of their flight is like an earthquake above the loft of the day.

Close to the shed they fly lower than the eaves
diving smoothly and rising to scrape the roof
before them. This is a ceremony going round
and round without their great path stopping
and like a fairground ride you are bound
to feel resistance. But the walls do not exist.

It is clear how the bard is fumbling constantly and imaginatively for the unity he feels in this flock of pigeons: keeping compass … and getting an arc … round… you turn in my skull… they turn round within a boundary without going… circles… the geometry… perfect roundness...and so on. Then, let’s note the tension of opposition: dizziness unstable… disappearances… they are not… loss… parting.. until they died out… rebound… and so on. But the unity of pattern is winning. There is a neat form in the circular movements. In one view, what is obtained is a series of images or separate portraits following each other without a real developing narrative. As in each of Dewi Stephen Jones’s poems, we get wonderful depths. Poem after poem, is opened an experience which is thrilling to those who read slowly. No doubt that the pigeon raising is happening in an industrial social background of: ‘above the loft of the day’ … ‘close to the shed’… like the world below. But in this context society is experiencing the same division and union. It is true we are being led to a freedom where “the walls don’t exist”. But this narrative is obtained in the thematic harmony, the ‘narrow walls’. Striking is the splendid comparison between the pigeons above the shed going “round and round and their great flight and like a ride in the fair you are bound to get resistance". But the walls do not exist. All of life is in this passage.
What ‘lens’ was in the first volume, is the ‘map’ in this volume. Of course a mapping is found in the subconscious of the ‘Pigeons’ themselves. <<
It ‘should never have happened’ but the conservatives should have prevented it from happening.
(I have put the word 'flawless' for a Welsh word which means both 'round' and 'complete'.)
I think attributing so much to Saunders Lewis is an exaggeration. But I am very glad that Bobi has gone so far for Dewi Stephen Jones. I read his poems in Tony Bianchi’s 2005 anthology and really liked them. I subsequently couldn’t find a copy of his first book, to follow up, and then missed the publication of his second book of 2012, which I now find is unobtainable. Because I can’t locate second-hand copies, I don’t think these books sold very fast or got into paperback. I am not going to go into the pattern of modern Welsh poetry, either conservative nationalist/Christian poetry or poetry in the modern style, because the problem is abidingly one of translation.

I have only translated about 1/3 of Bobi’s review. Here is a poem which Bobi quotes:

Unwaith ar lethr mynydd
cyhyrog, un o'r cewri,
ar bnawn i roi bloedd
heb wyntoedd ogylch ei bentwr,
aros yng nghysgod y corun
i yfed o'r persbectifau
brown a gwyrdd
y Berwyn a'i gylch.

Oriau'n gynharach
ar ros uchel torrais syched
fel y lleill, gwefl a llaw
yn dal blas y dŵr
o wyneb hen ffynhonnau,
dwy ffynnon
ond â'u dyfroedd oesol.

Pwyllais uwch eu pyllau
croyw, syml nes i'r criw symud.
Aethom i ben eitha'r
gadwyn, sefyll ac oedi,
nes o ganfod un ddisgynfa
rwydd heibio i'r sgri
ei throi hi am y llethrau is.
Cymryd saib ...
Aeth hanner canrif heibio.
Fy nydd, y dydd yw'r gwastadeddau
wrth y ffin (ai rhith yw ffyniant?)
heb droi ymhell ond bodio'r map
yn y galon o bryd i'w gilydd ...
Ac rwy'n cerdded ar i waered yn yr haul
i lawr y cwm at le'r coed.
Yn iach ffynhonnau uchel.

I think this is the title poem, Ffynhonnau Uchel (or ‘high springs’).
Bobi (1929-2017) was so nationalistic that he went back over the history of Welsh poetry in the past 200 years, identified poets using themes which weren't ancestrally Welsh, and proclaimed that this couldn't be good poetry because it wasn’t Welsh enough. Suspected of English influence, etc. This really irritated me. He dealt with the defeat of the Welsh language movement by exaggerating his demands of all the separate actions so that they would supposedly repeal the defeat. This involved indefensible aggression towards everyone who wasn't a fanatic, and certainly the Anglo-Welsh majority and Welsh-speakers who weren’t ultra-nationalist. Actually, fanaticism itself is profoundly un-Welsh. But as he grew up speaking English his school Welsh wasn’t good enough for him to write in the strict metres, and this indirectly explains why he favours poets like Dewi Stephen Jones who don’t follow those metres. Actually, Bobi was one of the pioneers of free verse, back in the Fifties.
Perhaps I should bring on stage the fact that DS Jones wrote two books about Bobi Jones' poetry. I feel a certain guilt about Bobi, let me translate an easy poem (from Bianchi's anthology).

ABC of Europe

The lucky ones get shot
with guns, others get shot
by countries.
Take for example the Celts.

We must do something about
the poor things who are left, you think,
who are still capable
of thought. A sack of silences in
their mouths like cigarettes, and
lighting them with one bare
word - Market.

Then travel back through Slovakia. There was
a Celtic element there, but it
has been wiped out. And then arrive in
Poland where there was a Celtic element, but it
has been wiped out. Then through
Austria where there was a Celtic element, but it
has been wiped out. To the former Gaul
where there was a Celtic element,
but it has been wiped out.
Then I arrived in Wales, and

It is hard to fault this, it is witty and dogmatic at the same time, so I don't want to go on and say he is a bad poet. But he doesn't flood me with enthusiasm, and so I have let myself off reading several thousand pages (well, maybe only 2000) of his poetry. One obituary says "In all Bobi wrote over one hundred books in the Welsh language, the most that anyone has ever written." Unstoppable, clever, infeasibly prejudiced, repetitive, didactic, pious, institutionalised, anti-modern. I guess everyone needs a list of 100 Welsh books they aren't going to read - a bucket list, maybe a bobi list. At the time of his first book of poetry, in 1957, he seemed modern and certainly didn't fit into the traditional poetry around him. Readers had difficulty with his poetry.
Bobi decries post-modernism. However, he was also very clear that colonialism dictated Welsh behaviour, and English behaviour towards Wales. That is, he does not accept the validity of "everyday consciousness", he thinks it is inauthentic because of the "unconsciously internalised" political history of the communities we belong to. But you can't swallow all the post-colonialism set of arguments and then say that you are anti-post-modernist - because you have accepted the key elements of it. I think he is right about the colonialist legacy. (Wales was a colony of the Normans, then the Anglo-Normans, for some centuries, longer in the east than in the west. This is quite complicated to explain.)