Regeneration by Meirion Jordan

Meirion Jordan’s new collection of poetry, Regeneration, is most immediately a handsome and engaging object. Its two sections, entitled ‘Red Book’ and ‘White Book’, are presented back to back and inverted; and each has a separate cover of smooth card – white lettering on a red background for the Red Book and the inverse for the White. Except for this detail, the covers are stylistically identical. Striking in their simplicity, their only adornment is a shakily looping Celtic spiral.

To appreciate the considered materiality – the tangibility – of Regeneration as a printed book is to gain, without reading a word of its contents, cognisance of Jordan’s literary project. Its two distinct parts allude to the Red Book of Hergest and The White Book of Rhydderch – the medieval Welsh manuscripts that encompass the texts now known as the The Mabinogion, which, as Jordan explains in his Preface to the Red Book, ‘have come to rest, in archives, well guarded and away from the mainstream of culture’. ‘These poems [Jordan continues] are nonetheless a reminder that their presence is still felt, and that like all other secondhand or discarded books they were once participatory acts.’

Regeneration by Meirion Jordan review
Regeneration
by Meirion Jordan
100pp, Seren, £8.99

The palpable presence and confluence of the remote and more recent past – its capacity for regeneration – in the modern world and in present-day consciousness, is the overarching theme of Jordan’s intricately crafted and beautifully realised collection. In the Red Book, Jordan re-envisages the characters, events and ancient landscapes of the Mabinogi and the Red Book of Hergest more broadly as reflections in what he calls his ‘inescapably modern mirror’ (Preface). ‘Elfed’, ‘Arawn, lord of Annwn’, ‘Pryderi’s Grave’ and ‘The Birds of Rhiannon’ are outstanding examples – as is the brooding ‘Culhwch’. ‘He who seeks to approach his own buried past’, Walter Benjamin once wrote, ‘must conduct himself like a man digging’. Likewise, in ‘Culhwch’, the poem’s speaker literally and figuratively unearths a simultaneously personal and subsumed cultural memory – that of Olwen’s destined suitor and his milieu:

Deep under autumn, ten

spadefuls down I found him,

the red king: bloody

 

with iron and ochre, his head

split from the spade’s heel

snatching at frost

 

and sugarfine leaves;

his afterlife blazed

and crackled under my boots.

 

[. . .]

 

[. . .] he stood splaying

his gifts of flints and torcs

over the garden’s rucked,

leafless squares, where I left him

turning to the wind’s hum,

into the crow-flight and rain.

 

Culhwch and Olwen is thought to be the first work of prose to feature the legendary figure of Arthur. In the long poem that comprises the White Book, Jordan sensitively turns over the now ‘well-trodden ground of [Arthurian] literary tradition’ (Preface) to explore the interstices of lore and lived experience, myth and memory. ‘Arthur’, the speaker of part twelve (the Malorian Le chevalier mal fet), considers:

his paradox to be water

and vessel, the voyager plumbing

those dark, unreachable years.

 

Arthur’s ‘paradox’ is foundational to the White Book: fluid and elusive – his story endlessly refracted by the stories of others – he also simultaneously functions as a ‘vessel’ for personal and cultural reawakening and reflection. As Jordan reveals in the Preface to the White Book, ‘I wish to explore how [the] [. . .] fundamentally distant world of Arthur relates to the one we live in, and how the links between the inevitable demise of Arthur and our own farewells to whatever parts of our lives we are forced to leave in the past may be re-forged’. The life and death of the poet’s Grandfather, for example, is mapped touchingly and searchingly onto the life and death of Arthur himself; ‘Arthur/ was my king’, the speaker reveals in the poem’s ‘Prologue’, just as a footnote recalls the poet’s Grandfather’s last years, and his death ‘at not quite 96 years old’:

Arthur

was my king:

before the names, the places where sunlight undifferentiated

touched waters  I was the dream        I woke

& that was a beginning

 

 

Meirion Jordan joins a long line of writers and artists to have drawn inspiration and relevance from the stories of King Arthur and the literature of the Red Book of Hergest and White Book of Rhydderch. And yet, in its own way, Regeneration also marks ‘a beginning’ – another captivating phase in the perpetual lifecycle of myth and text.