Eborakon: Gwyneth Lewis – Henaint/Old Age

Gwyneth Lewis – Henaint / Old Age, a double pleasure in Welsh and English.

Pleasure despite excruciating pain. I find myself recommending a tormenting thrill. Gwyneth Lewis’s Welsh poem Henaint and her translation of it into English, Old Age are excellent examples of the wonderful double enjoyment that a poet working in two languages can offer.

To read the Welsh poem and find its adjacent English version is like diving into one pool to discover it linked underwater to a twin, from which one emerges, amazed to have experienced two related worlds whose contents are refracted to the eye and ear by differing slants of colour, angle and echo: an exciting, astonishing experience – and repeatable! Do read these poems now here in the  Special Online Issue: Europe of Eborakon poetry magazine.

The impossible is achieved: one lives the same moment twice. The step further, into the almost miraculous, is that, even better, one lives it afresh. The calibre of the English translation makes this possible. Each poem succeeds.

Of the many things that could be said about these poems I want to proffer only a few remarks.

This is not the poetry of pyrotechnics. There’s nothing showy here. There is, rather, a tremendously assured hand at work. What strikes me first and foremost is a mastery of structure, so sure it is a delight in itself.

For example: the poems’ titles earn their keep: they appear, vanish but return with a precise and devastating impact.

Henaint / Old Age is the concept offered at the outset but one is immediately tugged firmly away and plunged into the plight of Judge Sisamnes and ‘the details’ of a painting of his being flayed alive as punishment for mercenary corruption, Am werthu cyfiawnder / For selling justice.

I was baring my own teeth in an involuntary imitative reaction to this horribly intimate stripping. The Welsh rendition is particularly effective here because the mouth’s shaping of dynn.. dyn…ddiosg itself requires something of a teeth-on-edge grimace.

Fel pe bai’n hosan ychydig rhy dynn
A chroen dyn yn rhywbeth i’w ddiosg…

…like a sock a little too tight,
As if a man’s skin should be shed….

We’re deep into this terribly exact exposure of flesh for twenty-four lines, our sympathy with Sisamnes, despite his crime, because of the appalling suffering we are being obliged to imagine, no, witness − any thought of old age forgotten − when with a suddenness equal to the shift away from the title at the outset, we’re wrenched back to it, brutally:

Merthyrdod henaint. / Old age is a martyrdom.

The Welsh has a relishable economy here: merely two nouns set starkly together.

However, that word martyrdom (though accepted because empathy with Sisamnes has been earned) gives an important twist to the reader’s mental wrist, wringing out the reaction the poet is working towards. Sisamnes was not a saint but a criminal yet martyrdom keeps one’s sympathies firmly where the poet wants them, in a visceral identification with the suffering person, whether guilty or not.

And the next word, Nawr / Now propels us straight into another detailed account of the witnessing of suffering, that of the poet’s elderly father and of
others / Under the lash of that infidel, time…

A mere seven lines canvass the plight of the tormented aged but Sisamnes has sensitised us and we grasp, as if through our own pitifully thin skin, the torture of an old man …

Yn methu cerdded gan fod croen ei wadnau’n
Rhy denau – fel traed morforwyn!

Struggling to walk as the skin on his soles
Is too thin – like mermaids’ feet!

even as we are jolted, again, by the poet’s determined, authoritative voice to put our attention where it needs to be – and this time we are placed as witnesses; witnesses who are given the responsibility of interpreting a scene for ourselves:

Pan fu farw Sisamnes, rhoddwyd ei etifedd
I eistedd yng nghadair y barnwr, ei groen
Yn lledr o dano. Bob tro deuai ei ddeiliaid o’i flaen
Am gyfiawnder, llosgai yng nghadair ei gyfrifoldeb.

When Sisamnes died, his son was set
To sit in the judge’s chair, that skin
Beneath him, leather. Each time
His subjects came before him for justice,
He burned on the throne of his shame.

This son-judge is unlikely to repeat his father’s crime. The reader, who takes his own father’s place in the scheme of time, is similarly prompted to consider how his forebear’s fate is influencing his own behavior and also how none of us can escape time’s flaying, exposing cruelty.

This concluding section contains two striking examples of difference in the English and Welsh vocabulary: in English we have Sisamnes’s son; in Welsh his etifedd, his heir; in English the final word is shame; in Welsh responsibility, with tones of accountability. The Welsh, to my ear, is therefore a shade more institutional.

These poems appear in Eborakon’s online feature on European poetry thanks to Prof. M. Wynn Thomas of Swansea University. I take it Gwyneth Lewis endorsed his linking the poems to ‘the recent referendum’ but I suspect, as he seems to also, that such a linkage was ‘temporarily large’.

He writes:

“Let it be plainly stated: Gwyneth Lewis’s poem – even more taut and pungent to my taste in Welsh than it is in English – has very little to do with this issue. It is clearly (and very poignantly) about loss, ageing, mortality, and indeed the whole process of ‘inheritance’ (an issue of inescapable potency for any Welsh speaker of today).

“But its co-incidence with the referendum inescapably endows it with a further resonance. The dereliction of the duty of public leadership; the sadistic turn in the self-righteously punitive response; the bearing by future generations of the resulting legacy of shame and guilt; such themes, subordinate though they may actually be in the text, may seem to loom temporarily large in the biased eyes of today’s readers.”

I have deliberately not included an example of the Gerard David painting that inspired these poems. They are so visually acute that an illustration is not essential. A quick Google will pull it up.

These two poems provide two opportunities: to witness a collision between corruption, the operation of justice, an absence of mercy and the effect on the innocent but implicated; and to wander in ‘the baffling forest’ of deserved and unmerited suffering.