YNYSLAS – A Poem by Gareth Jones
To my father, and his father…
Bachgen yr oeddwn – boy I was, when first we came to Ynyslas.
Short-sleeved, red-kneed, shock-haired, cloth-eared
Letting off steam at Dyfi Junction, taking on coal,
Lying in the luggage net eyeing up the signals
Working out wheels were walking on water
Siwr, dim ffordd – no road, no path, no rail, just estuary
Sweeping on the mail train to the sea at Ynyslas.
An island once was Ynyslas and well may be again,
If levels rise, we’re told, as years ago when castles took in wine and grain
From cargo ships, now sun-bleached carcases on crenellated rock a mile inland.
But nothing stays, still less remains, on Ynyslas
Blue island in its parched lagoon of seething sea and shifting sand.
Refugees we were, come down from Bala with the dawn,
Fugitive from pylon wire and rank anemone.
Belial had been enthroned on Idris seat, Leviathan had seized
Our vale, our lea, our Galilee,
Of turpitude unfathomed squatted succubus
Devouring peace and supping on us.
Inland sea where footsore legionaries tramping up die-straight Sarn Helen
Ridding their imperium of crooked druidry on die-hard Mona, Holy Môn,
Before they face the top in awe had broken stride to scour their feet and augur fate
Through geese traversing left to right on crystal water,
Offering at sacred grove Tomen y Mur before they disappear.
Plantagenet hegemonism faltered here, motte sans moat or mortar,
Broken tower cast down by god of fire and fear.
Now, at water’s edge, in fields that scarcely saw a tractor,
Llyn Afallon of our longings where I swear I saw Excalibur,
Arose in pristine ugliness, four-square, two-fold Narcissus-myrrh
A nuclear reactor.
Pray tell me if the Hallstadt of our forebears suffered nothing worse
Than sycophantic alpine den of doomed dictator,
How did democrats do this, to us? People’s power. To lighten life.
Well listen now, my life was light, my bath was warm,
My eyes were bright until we fled the night and left for Ynyslas.
Dead were the trout Trawsfynydd bred and cancer stalked her shore.
Wedi marw, annwyl Missus Rhys fach, dim ond pum deg oed!
Belly-up, her stomach bloated with the fish that washed up at her door.
Pas devant les enfants. The hush lapped over us like molten tar.
The fifties scarcely laundered, children seen not heard.
But we could tell. Without a whisper, never a word.
The world had changed. He saw. He read. The auspices. The shooting star.
Had he not been there, slave in thrall, scarce blinking of an eye away?
His head above the parapet to view the mushroom pall
And cop the first full radioactive rush from blasted atoll
Skimpier than its sobriquet.
Gellilydan ravaged, was his nightmare, high Ffestiniog levelled,
Plummeting Trawsfynydd on Maen Twrog,
Thus had blameless Eigiau emptied into Conwy past Dolgarrog,
Belching from faulty flanks dislodged by seismic Gwynedd’s fulgence,
Drowning all, bar Sunday cinema, its sinners spared, by grace, divine indulgence.
Fukushima slumbered in atomic bliss, tsunami was a heathen unknown word
Chernobyl Soviet for workers’ pride, proud Nagasaki humbled but unheard.
He knew, my angling, broadcasting tad, the cast, the drift, the spin,
His eyes had seen the glory of the demiurge coming in.
Born in the sign of the Somme, cloud reader, seer, ether-made
Of Baptist Pentecostal strain and sacerdotal utterance tuned to tongues of flame
He was a weatherman, meteorologist by modest, overweening trade,
Prediction his refrain, apocalypse his game.
Son of the Rhos, of gift and guile and smoky glass
Fair-skinned, black-haired, sharp-tongued, hot-biled
Of pallour parlous, veins like runes you read and comb
Those bardic locks on beardless face, the Ordovician druidic tribe
That bearded Caesar, died and rose to send an Emperor to Rome.
This was a man. Of Rhos and elsewhere. Anywhere. But Ynyslas.
The sands run far on Ynyslas, four miles from Porth to Dyfi
Nothing troubles ear nor eye but petrel’s cry and windchill tear
A hundred mile or twenty league from Llŷn to Penmaen Dewi.
Master tanner’s whelp, scrap leather swaddled off the workshop bench
Where limbs awaited men as yet unmaimed, whom fate had named in trench
As this year’s heroes, next year’s cripples put out to beg with cap and trolley,
Indispensable to war the tanner’s tapping hammer saved him and his seed,
Bent back, keen eye and conscientious heart that knew from Christian creed
And ancient mining line that lime corrodes and war is folly.
Brave men hurled their anathematas at heaven or cavalry, calvary-bound;
His head was down in wingless flight like Joseph’s on the Egypt trail
His one eye up the chimney and the other on the boy beside the singer,
Whirring out the threads of time before he cut them twixt his teeth. This was my taid.
As fair a man as lived. And never a word he spoke was of hate or bigotry.
Well-shod sheepskin miracle child stepped over pumiced threshold
Onto penniless foul scouse cobble, raising Red Flag over student fold
With First Class Hons Geography – what else? – as Marx foretold,
The globe still pink but hollow, brittle, seeping blood.
What map could chart the estuaries of war returned in flood?
Reconnaissance his priestly remit; hammer no, nor sickle now, the cocktail shaker
Had bidden goodbye to all that when he danced with Hitler’s corset maker.
No faith so bitter as faith betrayed. All ‘isms die. One much as another.
Unarmed, gliding high above strife, his almanac turned to revelations,
Squaring nimbus, cumulae, zodiac with night bomber formations,
Never a nightmare shared of Dresden, whence his refuge troubled in Trawsfynydd.
But I know for sure, from bitter squall, that of his loved ones one or more
Was left in Birkenau, their ashes to him gall I spit out still at Ynyslas.
The sands run fast on Ynyslas, where dunes once fast are razed
By nightly storm and raised again at dawn by rising tide. A treacherous reach
For sure, a rambler’s mirage. But nothing stirs beneath that beach
But sunken bells and quicksand wells from Porth to Aberdyfi.
Fleeing scourge he sent us here, his band of misfit halves,
Then left on call of duty as an aviator for the skies, the airwaves,
Whence our own correspondent called us on the Sunday Home Service.
‘Mishtar Shones! Dyna hwyl, Missus Shones, llais hyfryd iawn!
Nice voice, good Lord. Where is he now? And when will he surface?’
Patient as Penelope my mam expounds the whys and wherefores
Of his absences; the running sores, the abcess in her gut
To neighbours new, untrusted, merely patriotism or patrician guff.
For truth and decency a widow she will be, her saviour just a rumour till he sail to see
His hill-bound, stone-built home, debentured sight unseen in Feydeau farce
And give his unsought verdict on the Cuban Deal, the Great Leap Forward
And the Saigon Coup. But never yet the sea at Ynyslas.
Freshwater were his dreams, streams of liquid sky, the worm before the fly,
His waders atrophied with waiting, leak and seam and line no other man could ply.
There is a stream I know, where now no fish shall die,
Where he alone would wait and wait and wait and wait to try
His luck in trout or salmon. Cynfal was its hallowed name. They fed him, he fed us.
Before the pestilence that drove us from Trawsfynydd.
Now beneath the dunes of Ynyslas she crouches, windblown, watching for his son,
Who carries from the foam the morganatic match he netted on some distant shore,
Whose kith she cannot ken and still shall love, for his sake and her own, and for
Her fisherman so newly drowned in drink, his voice extinct, a masterful martyrdom,
Surfing pain in his silenced jaw and boredom in his burrowed, borrowed lair,
A slate sarcophagus, his radiation fever and his roving at an end.
The sands drift hard at Ynyslas, the tides sift earth from sky,
The waves throw trees and bones in rows where buried corals lie.
The bells ring deep from seaweed sleep across from Aberdyfi
Far beneath the sweet-salt mead, where forests grew and pterodactyl flew
But not so long ago as did my tad, who saved us here, and left us, for the sky.
We took him back to Cynfal and we fed him to the fish he fed us,
Tipped in silver shower from golden urn through white-rimmed spray
Swept over green weed stone by pewter current to the bay beyond Porthmadog.
All the world he had surveyed and now was angling with his own,
Escorted shoal fleet seaward past Trawsfynydd’s gallows, since then idle
Mausoleum till our graves shall gape, atomic garbage world without end.
Once spared, odds double. Only time and trouble. Mark me, friend.
I am a man, they say, but scarcely feel it in the wastes of Ynyslas.
Long-sleeved, knock-kneed, knack-haired, wisp-beard.
No ash grows in this sand grove and no petrel flies but one jet on its exercise
From Llŷn to Penmaen Dewi.
Work with your hands, lad, said my taid
Work with the law, lad, said my tad
Work with yourself, lad, say I to my mab
And never an hour do we listen, and wherefore?
We all become the man that went before,
The man we fought and loved and never will surpass.
For man is one, and each man just one grain on Ynyslas.
© Gareth Jones, 29th August 2016