Carla Manfredino reviews Bondo by Menna Elfyn, a collection of language poems which are lyrical, poignant, and quintessentially Welsh.
If there is a poet addressing important issues about language today, it’s Menna Elfyn in her latest collection of poems, Bondo (Welsh for ‘eaves’). There’s no tub-thumping in the book though; the poems are a quiet call for the reconciliation of diversity, a reminder that cultural nuances are what make life meaningful.
Bondo’s first poem ‘Misting’, explores the uncertainty of belonging, and Wales is its starting place. The epigraph- ‘You mention fields, air, rain, this is all I know about Wales’- is taken from a letter by the contemporary Basque writer Arantxa Urretabizkaia. Basque, like Wales, is another country whose language has been endangered. There are similarities between the Basque and Welsh, as the informative but sometimes sporadic gloss explains (The phrase ‘Gymanfa’ in ‘Singing school for starlings’, for example, isn’t given a translation).
In Bondo we discover ‘Lan da lan’ is the Basque phrase for everything but also all words that sound similar to Welsh. The Basque terms do not appear in the English version of ‘Misting’ although the poem would benefit from their inclusion as the translation feels a little slack in places. But the English version is not without music and has been thoughtfully composed. The diphthongal, sliding rhymes, ‘sometimes/ our eyes will rise’, mirrors their searching beyond the horizon for hope. The poem also suggests the problematic nature of national identity and what it really means to be an inhabitant of a place- ‘Ages ago we came here, and yet/ are still confused by the mysteries/ of who we never were/ and what we’ll never be’.
The last line of Bondo’s second poem ‘Benediction of Eaves’, ‘may your eaves’ lease/ always bring you joy’, is a reminder that our earthly existence is transitory, and we don’t really own anything. Even language is given to us. But we do own our unique experience in the world. In the poem ‘Exit’ the metaphoric doorway is described as an ‘azimuth’; the direction of a celestial object from the observer’s view, and an apt word in this context. Isn’t that the basis of our every experience? The shape and distance of anything is measured by our individual perception, which will almost always differ from another’s?
And with experience, we retain our memories of them. The speaker explores this through pieces of jewellery. In ‘The Ring’ she asks, ‘What gold ring can measure/ the hidden fingerprints/ of a life?’. The poem asks what it means to own a piece of jewellery and then to lose it, not through forgetfulness or neglect, but by forces beyond our control, namely ageing and death. There is more than one perspective in the poem, a reminder of how our perception alters over time. From the speaker’s first-person narration of her long-haired, carefree hippy days, to the more distant third person narrative in the final stanza, where a widow in a care home has her wedding ring as the sole reminder that she was once married. This ring encapsulates an entire experience of life for the woman in this poem.
The sequence ‘Marwnad for Languages’ contemplates the universal struggles with language, both past and recent. From the ancient myth of the hummingbird on the tower of Babel shedding its four hundred feathers, ‘each is a language’ (and where humans were last heard speaking one united language), to the death of Boa Senior in 2010 (the last person to speak Aka-Bo in India). These gnomic poems are from a series of anecdotes collected over the years. Marwnad is a Welsh language form of elegy, and a fitting structure for the sequence. The form cuts to the core of what they are mourning; there is true sadness in their brevity. The decline of language is reflected by nature: the manta rays in the Maldives are disappearing along with the Dhivehi language of their land. The consonance in the line ‘drones and all that digital dross,/ white noise drowning earth’s poetry?’ emphasizes the destruction of not only literature, but culture too.
Amongst ‘the oranges, / barley and rice’ in these vanishing traditions, Elfyn asks ‘Did the recording of the languages cause them to disappear?’. It isn’t the first time that machinery being detrimental to our lives has been suggested, but in the context of these fleeting but wide-ranging meditations, it is a fact made all the more alarming. The final line, ‘while the cuckoos of Abercuawg/ call until the end of the world’, draws attention to the mourning (Abercuawg being a place mentioned in the medieval englyn-poem, a lamentation of the speaker’s exile and homestead being in ruins). Jan Morris, in an article about R.S. Thomas over two decades ago wrote, ‘For to us pantheists art itself, like Abercuawg, is God’, showing how important this is. An elegy for Thomas, ‘Peacemaker’ (‘Y Gwrthdystiwr’), commemorates a protest march in the late 80s, and sets the theme for the next section of the book: elegies for those who have fought for their country.
Bondo culminates in a series of poems about the 1966 Aberfan disaster called ‘Poems of Unravelling’, and these short poems take on different events and characters. There is hope in ‘The Gate’, the final poem about the Gleision colliery mining incident and the Sikkim earthquake, which occurred a few days later. In the context of the poems in this book, the vast geography covered reads seamlessly, and no detail seems out of place. It serves to emphasise the interconnection of all beings, despite distance or the language we speak.
Like the father who stands in the pulpit the Sunday after the loss of his son in ‘Homily’- ‘parted for a little time’- the message binding these beautiful poems is to have faith, even in the face of futility. As Elfyn writes in ‘Marwnad for Languages’, regardless of where we are from or where we are going, ‘we must note/ in Corinthians 14.21/ that even a stranger’s language/ must choose love’.
Bondo by Menna Elfyn is available now from Bloodaxe.