Under the Quarry Woods 

Under the Quarry Woods 

Land is never land alone. Even the less populated parts of Wales are rich in poetry & myth as well as history. At times in the caravan at Brynbeidog, when cloud came down, I felt myself alone on a small island of visibility. What I learnt over the years is that isolation is an illusion, though it can be a desperate & even a fatal one.

Is it always the same sky on this blue planet? Or is it egotism alone that makes the past seem like an old newsreel? There must be something in the moment that is always the same in potentiality. With time the dead come to seem far away, and eventually all remains & all memory are dissolved. We call them ‘the old people’ and look curiously at a skeleton, perhaps with a slight smile, as if recognising a remote relation, but far too distant to care about. But they lived their lives under the same sky, and for them too it was always the moment.

Snow bees are swarming, as I saw them long ago, at Y Felin Penpompren, ‘my love unreturning’. Only to think that was thirty-five years ago, when I was in my twenties, and it felt, for me, like the end of the world.

March, I want to say, March, as though by saying it I could stop the month where it is. And if I could, snow would pile on snow, buds remain unbroken, and all the flowers to come sealed underground.

On the path a peacock suns its open wings. Brimstone on a dandelion, yellow bringing out the gold on the whole flower face. A peacock chases off a bee, as a crow would harry a buzzard.

A faint pulse on a small pond. A moth, almost the same colour as mud on the bottom, drowning. Saved with the tip of my stick. But everywhere among the teeming lives are lonely deaths.

Poets make such a fuss of their self-drama, myself not least, but I find that consciousness at its purest & deepest issues in prayer.

‘All a poet can do today is warn.’ Wilfred Owen’s circumstances were different from ours; or were they? It doesn’t take an imagined view of Earth from a different planet to see our wars as part of the same wasting process. Yesterday the torn fields of France; tomorrow, perhaps, Star Wars; and always the war on nature – which, for a time, some people have learnt to live on, but we don’t know how to live with.

What am I doing here, in south Wales, heartland of the old coal industry, country of Senghenydd & Cilfynedd & Aberfan, the ground deeply & extensively mined, and now, on the surface, smoothed over, industrial remnants disappearing into the landscape?

At least I know I’m not at home here. There are no illusions of mine clinging to the country I can see through the window. If there is to be a way for me, I shall have to discover it.

What I am seeing – houses, trees, hills, the configuration of the land – remains an enigma to me, ‘runes’ which I am less able to read than Alun Lewis could read the runes he saw from the mountain over Aberdare.

I know that my way of looking owes almost everything to distance. Alun Lewis himself, at the time of writing the poem, was perhaps more of a stranger than he realized. Yet, in seeing the unknown in the known, he was simply being realistic, too. Whatever the life of the place had been, he couldn’t see what it, or his own life, would become. In that sense, even the oldest inhabitant is a stranger.

Only it is human to think we know.

Outside the house, on the steep lane uphill, a path winds into the quarry, among mossed oaks – green acorns spilt from their cups on the ground, brambles, fern, some late Himalayan balsam. I come to a hewn rock face. Elsewhere big slabs of stone, like the tablets of nature’s law, lie angled on the hillside. By the path, almost hidden in grass, a toadstool, the size & colour of a new cricket ball, but with holes exposing white flesh where some creature has eaten into it.

The quarry was the source of stone for the mines, the Deep Navigation, which were constructed some one hundred and thirty years ago. From its rim today I look down on vegetation partly filling it, and at former pit villages in upland valleys, where the Regeneration Agency is at work.

Our living room window seems to fill with cloud as it comes up over the hills, curls & sheep’s wool tufts outriding on a great mass like an inverted polar landscape, and, within it, pools of clear blue.

Black Brook tumbles over & round rock falls with a loud rushing noise. Chink & twitter of small birds hidden high in trees. Almost everywhere a jay, or several jays, one on the grass feeding, before it sees me. Magpies & woodpigeons active too. And grey squirrels, elastic-bodied, rippling, looping & unlooping, like question marks. What it must be like to flow over the ground!

In warm, bright sunlight I visit one of my favourite places in Treharris Park, above the house. On a grassy slope, partially shaded by a beech tree, the trunk divided into three, bent over piggy-back fashion, almost full in the morning sun, there’s a rock, big as a dining room table, beautifully weathered and striated, and patched with whitish grey & pale greeny blue lichen, and with bright green moss growing on its damp sides. This makes a perfect natural seat, and behind a First World War trench mortar, known locally as the Cannons, has been placed.

Spider silk nets gorse bushes, strung in orb-webs beaded with dew between iron railings above the quarry, and dense as small patches of fog on grassy banks. Also strung between branches of hawthorn & other small trees. Beautiful asymmetrical webs, no two the same. And not a spider in sight.

The Cut of the Light: Poems 1965-2005 is a substantial selection from Jeremy Hooker’s previous ten volumes of poetry. His other publications include Imagining Wales: A View of Modern Welsh Writing in English, Welsh Journal and, most recently, Openings: A European Journal. He is an Emeritus Professor of the University of South Wales, and a Fellow of the Welsh Academy and of the Learned Society of Wales. He received a Cholmondoley Award for poetry this year.