1: Words Inside a Birthday Card
If you go down the path between the cathedral
and the steep Dean’s Steps up to the green,
you come to two stiles, and can go three ways:
left beside the retaining wall under limes;
right, into the lush churchyard with yew trees
circled by low walls and leaning crosses;
or straight ahead between a playing field
and a wild-flower meadow towards the river.
If you go to the river there are more choices:
left or right, on or over the embankment.
I didn’t scramble down, as I sometimes do,
to skim stones across the water and watch
and slow down enough to appreciate
the life of the mallards swimming, flying,
shaking themselves vigorously, diving.
Time was short today, I was stiff, I was cold,
three reasons not to stop but to keep moving.
I went on without regret, getting warmer,
on one of the parallel paths towards the weir,
but I hadn’t gone far before I stopped to hear
a robin singing, and going on singing,
and I leaned back to look right up, and yes,
there he was near the top of a lone tree,
and I watched and went on listening and heard
as well as the robin other birds singing,
and the river overcoming all resistance,
and looked around me as the birds sang on
and the air in this enclosed spot warmed me,
the chilly north-west breeze screened out.
I saw insects all of one sort, halfway,
to wasps in size but softer, quieter,
like a ladder of angels ascending
and descending beside the robin’s tall tree,
and thought how easy it is to ignore
insects because we don’t approve of them,
but felt how welcome these were here
as part of the livingness of the world.
And the same with young sycamore growth,
so often a nuisance in the wrong place,
but here were young sycamore leaves opening,
which I’ve watched progress at intervals from
bare branches to points to furry buds to this
in recent weeks, leaves open and opening,
not yet full-sized and more russet than green,
and suspended among them were these fine
mobiles of generation apparatus,
and giving time to taking all this in
changed me, I’d been impatient and depressed,
but that all fell off me while I was there.
I walked slowly onwards to the weir
with gulls in a row all along the top,
sometimes taking off singly on spread wings
to circle and fly around and land again.
There was a crouching heron here as well,
not moving. I watched, herons being neither
rare nor common in this place, but I couldn’t
wait any longer for it to do something,
and I saw how open-air life goes on,
both quick and alert and far slower than I
could stand, birds with their brief lives, their long days,
enduring from one cold sunrise to the next.
I had only an hour to spend among them
between one appointment and three others,
so I went back up to the cathedral
where I chose this card and lit a candle.
2: A Lost View
There’s a view at Llandaff I’ve carried with me
for years wondering if I made it up, because
every time I go I look for and can’t see it.
I stand at the top of the path that leads
down the hill past the cathedral’s west door
looking towards the river and what I see
is lovely but it’s not what I remember.
Yesterday thinking wearing my best trousers
might prevent me getting further than the stile
at the bottom of the hill because of mud,
I decided to do the fripperies instead
of marching straight down intent on water,
and I climbed the little mound with fallen stone
and a dainty path round the stone which leads
nowhere and doesn’t look interesting
which is why I haven’t climbed it for ages
and oh! there it was at last, my lost view,
with the west front three-quarter face
below me in the hollow and towering
literally above me with its northern spire
overtopping the tower in the south corner,
and a glimpse of rural hills beyond, one
of which must be Caerphilly Mountain,
its pass guarded by the Traveller’s Rest –
starting point for many a bygone walk.
Then I walked down the hill and realised
I tend to forget there’s a metalled path now
across the meadow where I once saw fox-cubs
at dawn and often see groups of magpies
so I was able to go on, thinking I’d have to stop
when I got to the river, but I also forgot
there’s a good path on the raised embankment,
and I thought of Shelley writing I always
go on until I am stopped, full-stop, and I never
am stopped, full-stop, and I saw that the path
down from the embankment to the place
where once the pebbles I spun across the water
made rainbows with the drops they centrifuged
was actually fairly firm and dry,
and I thought I am not going to go there
surely, but oh, here I am doing it.
I didn’t go to the edge and didn’t mind.
The stones were mostly covered by the high Taff,
swollen with global warming and on speed.
So I walked on to the glorious weir
where the white water does its imitation
of Victoria Falls or Niagara.
I thought I’d have to go back the same way
because of mud – my best trousers again –
but I was able to step round puddled earth
and do the circuit, following the path
under the retaining wall below the woods.
I was back near the stile before I knew it,
because my mind was full of happy thoughts.
All the time I was walking the sun xshone,
and I couldn’t remember feeling so well,
and I waved my arms about and sang
and made inarticulate sounds of joy.
I went into the cathedral and bought cards
and presents and had a laugh with the nice
grey-haired lady who wouldn’t charge me
for one little booklet that wasn’t priced,
so I said I’d put two pounds in the box,
but took back from the counter the 10p
I’d replaced with two 5s just before
she took the lot, and I said, fair’s fair,
which was when we laughed, and I just
had time to go and find the reliefs
of the Six Days of Creation by Burne-Jones
I’d found on a postcard but never seen
before, either on a card or in situ,
though I’ve been coming here so many years.
3: Visions of Llandaff
Summer rain on leaves and old stone.
Nobody about. I’m seeing things,
but more than seeing is the feeling –
the way the permeation of water
through air under tall trees and taller spire
creates a soft fellowship in which things
bloom and are tenderly magnified,
stone and lichen on stone, ivy leaves,
daisy-like erigeron on the low wall
where the grass slopes from the lych-gate sharply down
to the high south side of the cathedral
with the dog-tooth semi-circle round the door.
It’s that feeling that was offered me
and which I only partially received,
allowing myself to be distracted by
looking and by looking for camera angles.
I rerun the walk in thought to gather up
that vision like the fragments of Osiris.
This is the gentlest of derelictions,
failures, missed opportunities, a part
of being human, a spur to do better
with the next gift that is offered, as gifts
are offered, which we sometimes have grace
to accept with more or less attentiveness.
I remember an intense early version
of this transfiguring, lonely, sixteen,
less lonely for being alone for once,
walking around the old castle at Wertheim
surrounded by tall trees and a soft rain,
a squirrel the one other unrooted thing.
I move down past the cathedral to where
the paths all meet and the ground levels out.
There’s a large muddy pool under the wall
on the path that leads to the wide weir,
which must be a foaming cataract today.
The path straight ahead across the field
is surrounded by angelica’s white umbels,
tall as a man and dense and dishevelled,
pearled and magnified with shining rain.
In the churchyard an old grey cross leans
just visible through rosebay willow-herb,
taller than a man, in purple bloom.
The elegant gold cockerel on the spire
is so high, the eye reaching to sight it
needs to reach again to encompass it.
Even inside the cathedral I see
more than I usually see, the wood
and furnishings of the pulpit, Epstein’s
huge Christ that divides the nave into two.
For once I don’t just see, I register this
incarnation of the divine as human,
standing stiffly in straight, encasing robes,
head raised to heaven, strong hands by his sides
open and facing forwards. I see the knight
on the marble tomb beside his pious wife
with the French poodle at his stony feet.
I linger longest at the small carving
in wood from 1430 of a nun
in a raised sloping bed, half upright,
surrounded by bearded men with hollow,
kind, and holy faces, meant to be
the Virgin being read to by Saint Peter.
Outside again, I see how beautiful
the rain is now, dancing on the brown slabs
of paving stones in front of the Dean’s Steps,
leading up under trees and then obscured.
I cross their glistening sheen and then turn left
up the steep path under more trees,
feeling the rain and crowding presences
of so many and such different plants, masses
of luxuriant wet growth, and think again
of Hopkins’ lines, ‘let them be left, O let them
be left, wildness and wet; long live the weeds
and the wilderness yet,’ and feel I have,
for all my inattention, completed something.
I look through yesterday at the day before
and still see first the honey-coloured stone
of the square tower as I tilt my head
to see it outlined on cloud to the top.
I see the sculptured group from 1430
and realise Saint Peter would not have read
to Mary dying. What could a book tell them
better than what Jesus whom they knew
had said, of which they needed no reminding?
But I love the carving’s truth to the time
in which it was made, the sweetness of the faces
of the monks pretending to be early saints.
I almost prefer Llandaff in the rain.
The emblematic glow on my retina
on Thursday at waking had the warm colour
of the stone on the cathedral spire,
taking precedence over all of Wednesday.
At noon yesterday I looked up again
at that stone spire and saw how its power came
from blending several colours, yellow and brown
being interspersed with red and white and grey.
But this morning the presence that centred
my meditation was still from Tuesday –
the tall blooms, purple and white, concealing
a slanting dark cross on an ancient tomb,
enveloped in an atmosphere condensed
into a myriad drops as tender
as the Schumann song I heard a tenor singing
this morning as I moved about the kitchen.
That the cross leaned and was half-hidden
was not a bitter commentary on grief
and the futility of memorials,
but an image of a reconciling
of our lives, remembered and forgotten, with
the perennial beauty of wild flowers,
so fresh, new every year, shining with rain.
John Freeman was born in Essex, grew up in South London and studied English at Cambridge. He lived in Yorkshire before moving to Wales where he teaches at Cardiff University. A Suite For Summer is his ninth collection of poems. Other collections include The Light Is Of Love, I Think: New and Selected Poems (Stride), and Landscape With Portraits (Redbeck). Stride also published a book of essays, The Less Received: Neglected Modern Poets. The essay ‘We Must Talk Now’ appeared in Cusp: recollections of poetry in transition, edited by Geraldine Monk (Shearsman, 2012). In 2013 John Freeman won third prize in the National Poetry Competition. His latest volume is White Wings (Contraband 2013).
Artwork courtesy of Valériane Leblond – ‘Does dim dal’