Writing the Rural: Maggie Harris’ ‘Cwmpengraig, Place of Stones’

landscape photography of brown and green mountains
Photo by Adrian Dorobantu on Pexels.com

 

As I get older, and with no children to root me and turn me to the future, I look for who I am in the places that I inhabit. I have lived here in north Yorkshire all my life. I have never moved more than twenty miles from the place where I was born. I live in a valley carved by glaciers. I am ringed by the north sea, The Wolds, The North York Moors and endless farmland reaching inland. I read a lot about ritual within landscape while I was researching for the PhD (which is on hold and I have no idea what will happen with scholarship applications next year) and how we interact with the landscape we live in, how it informs our sense of self. When I write for Yorkshire Life magazine I am writing about the sea, and facing that wide expanse of blue that means you have reached the edge and can go no further. But mostly, in my own work, I am looking inwards to the valley and the moors and Wolds, feeling for my ancestors in the earth there. My people have been farmers around Thirsk for a long time, hundreds of years, though my mum’s side, we think, were cattle drovers from the north. We have ancestors in some of the small Wolds villages, names in the cemeteries that bear us like branding. But never far away: all within this area, all fairly near the valley that I now live in. I’m tempted to take a DNA test and see what comes up in my genes. My dad says my aunty did one and it basically just said Yorkshire through and through so perhaps a waste of time. Still, there is always an itch to find roots, to know myself somehow, or rather to imagine myself as the thing I want to be. I would hope for Viking, something even more northern perhaps, but realistically I suspect I am Yorkshire, Yorkshire, Yorkshire. I recently did some research on the anglo Saxon cemetery at Heslerton, in which, from the records, there seemed to be a difference between what might be assumed ‘the locals’ and the incoming Saxons: The germanic Saxons being tall and long boned, the locals being shorter, wider. I look at my family and think, yes, we are all five foot not very much and yes, wide, tough, could probably drive an auroch and a plough quite successfully. What has any of this got to do with my choice of poem today? I can’t imagine travelling and taking root somewhere else. But realistically, non of us know where we have travelled from, where our ancestors seeded themselves and look root. I find my guest poet’s story fascinating because she knows where she has come from and she knows where she is. What I mean by that is that her writing explores the landscape as a place to be in and be a part of, but a place that doesn’t define, rather it is to be absorbed. She seems to say that landscape can change around you, and you have to let it enter your personality. Her poems seem to say that you can be from more than one place at the same time. I love it when my eyes are opened by poetry and poetry, being a language of image and emotion is like opening a window directly into someone else’s experience. Maggie Harris is a Guyanese born writer who moved to Kent in the seventies, then to West Wales in 2007 for ten years, before returning to Broadstairs in Kent in 2017. I bought her collection, After a Visit to the Botanical Garden published by   Cane Arrow Press after I’d put a call out of social media asking for recommendations of women writers writing about the landscape and the impact of it. Maggie kindly directed me to the poem you’ll find below. The collection, incidentally, is extraordinarily good. It is transportive, often witty, often moving and just sumptuously written, beautifully crafted poems and a really safe pair of hands. Once I get through my current reading pile I will be going back to Maggie’s work, and there is plenty to choose from. Without further ado, here’s the poem:

Cwmpengraig, place of stones

Where yuh navel string bury is not necessarily home
Dis gurl gon walk my grandmother say
And walk I walk from Guyana to West Wales
And leave I leave that place of oceans and slave bones
For bruk down cottages and hills where people still pray

And come I come with my forked tongue split syntax
Of Hinglish and street Creole to wander lanes
With no names and no map where even
Sat-nav wuk hard to find being alimbo
Beyond satellite beyond stars

And stars and dreams of stars and songs
Called these Welsh from home
To cross oceans to a continent
Of the imagination

And is peel dis country peel like onion
Garden cups my cottage in its fists of seasons
Caring nothing for my ignorance
Of names, pronunciation, language
And History running in the stream right there
Beneath the stone: mill-worker foot-bottom still indent
Ghost voice talking story wild a catchafire
How he catching boat with intention get the hell outa dis place

It nat fuh him to know some gurl would bring his story
Right back here and tell him tales of sugarcane
And captains tracing latitude and longitude
With quadrant, quill and octopus ink

Is laugh he would laugh, true true
Whilst that stream keep gurgling,
Stones keep tumbling,
Underscore the footfall of my feet.

 


Cwmpengraig

Nage lle mae’ch llinyn bogail wedi ei gladdu
Yw’ch cartre—mae’r groten ma’n mynd i fynd yn bell
A mynd yn bell wnes i o Guyana i Orllewin Cymru,
Gadel, gadel y lle oedd yn llawn esgyrn caethweision
A moroedd. A chael yn ei le, adfeilion o fythynnod a bryniau
lle mae rhai yn dal i weddïo.

A dod gyda ‘ nhafod, dwy fforch iddi, ffordd o siarad hollt
Rhyw lediaith o Saesneg a Chreoleg y strydoedd, i grwydro
Lonydd heb enwau na map a lle mae hyd yn oed Sat-Nav
Yn gwegian ar goll, mewn gwagle
Heibio i’r lloeren , heibio i’r sêr.

A sêr a breuddwydion am sêr ac alawon
Wedi ei henwi’n yr heniaith, oddi cartre
I groesi o gefnfor i gyfandir
Y dychymyg.

Ac yn pilo’r wlad, ei bilo fel winwns
Llond dysgl o ardd yn ei ddyrnau o dymhorau,
Gan boeni’r iot am fy anwybodaeth
Am enwau, ynganu, iaith na hanes
Sy’n llifo o’r nant honco monco
Ger y garreg; ôl troed a gwadn gweithiwr
O’r felin yno o hyd, a llais ysbryd yn gof
Y cyfarwydd am y goelcerth
Fel y daliodd gwch gyda’r bwriad o sgathru
A baglu hi o’r lle. A phwy feddylie y bydde rhyw ferch
Yn dod â’r stori nol yn ei chôl gan sôn am blanhigion siwgr
A chapteniaid fyddai’n olrhain lledred a hydred
Cwadrant y lle, gyda chwilsyn ac inc otopws.

Am chwerthin – fydde’n marw o chwerthin,
Ar fy myw tra bydd yr nant yn barbalu
A cherrrig yn dymchwel,
Dan fy nhraed, dan droedle fy nhraed.

 

Translation by Menna Elfyn

What do I like about it? I like that Guyana is so present in the poem: in the language, in the view point. There are so many roots here, so many strings reaching backwards and forwards to place, to identity, to family, to nature. That first line, wow. You can’t read it without it being a strong voice in your head. It’s possessive, it possesses the reader and opens the poem up –  the narrator is going to tell you a story, and it’s going to be about travel and about belonging and though non of it is overtly spelled out, it is all there. There’s a vulnerability to it, and a defiance. I like the careful choices around punctuation and white space and what that does for the poem, opening it up, breaking rules as if the rules are not known. I like the repetitions, those little nails holding the poem together and guiding it. It is fluid, it moves; this is a poem that is almost alive in the way it searches memory out, like a fox or a dog. And then there’s that rhythm driving everything forward like walking, like travelling.

And is peel dis country peel like onion
Garden cups my cottage in its fists of seasons
Caring nothing for my ignorance
Of names, pronunciation, language
And History running in the stream right there
These lines in particular strike at something inside me. ‘caring nothing for my ignorance.’ The landscape, nature, it doesn’t care if you belong or not, you are incidental, and there is a peace in that sort of anonymity, isn’t there. And I like the connection to the mill workers, a nod to the heritage of the land being taken up by the narrator, a recognition of the stories embedded in every place, no matter where you go.

 

The other thing i love is that it comes with a Welsh translation, on Maggie’s website, it comes acknowledging the presence of another land and another tongue, and that’s how it should be.

Don’t forget that you can sign up to the next course now, which starts on the 1st June, details: Telling Your Story

 

Until next time, take care.

 

x

3 thoughts on “Writing the Rural: Maggie Harris’ ‘Cwmpengraig, Place of Stones’

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