Thursday, 26 May 2016

A Place to Write

We call it the study,
a small room, book-lined and quiet,
just off the kitchen,
refuge from domestic hubbub
yet connected,
separated only by a curtain.

Here are brought the day's gleanings, 
enchanted moments
and knotty puzzles, 
shimmering wisps of inspiration
snatched up in memory
for later calm reflection,
piled, as it were, on desk
and floor, illuminated
by well-remembered characters
and stories that leap down
from bookshelves and nestle close
to nurture fresh adventure.

Here are learned contemplation 
and the discipline of daily wrestle,
crafting captured scenes into words
that yield up their essence
beneath a window
teased by lilac and honeysuckle
and, in autumn, falling damsons
that beak concentration. 

© Janet Henderson 26th May 2016

Saturday, 7 May 2016

Breakfast with a View

Kittens in the carob tree,
geckos on the wall,
waiters gliding to and fro
responsive to our call.

Bougainvillaea flowering
vivid pink, red, white,
pastizzi, croissants, almond cake
laid out for our delight.

Scrambled egg and sausage,
mushrooms, bacon, toast,
served on terrace with a view
of glistening Maltese coast.

To east of us, Comino,
and Xewkija's* handsome dome,
magic breakfast memories
stored up for taking home.

© Janet Henderson 7th May 2016

* pronounced shoo-key-a

Table Cat

He sits by your table and waits,
eyes lovingly fixed on your plate,
if it's fish, he'll appear in a trice
abandoning hunting for mice.

He's ginger or tabby or black
and seemingly one of a pack,
but, in truth, it's each cat for himself,
tracking down the best morsels by stealth.

He will woo you with eyes full of love,
wrapt attention trained on your each move,
but the second you lay down your fork
he'll disdainfully turn tail and walk.

He frequents secret harbour-side spots 
then at lunch down he jauntily trots,
warm place in the sun left behind,
whiskers eager to detect a good find.

And that, my dear friend, is your dish,
whether rabbit or lamb shank or fish,
for by charm to steal mouthfuls of that
is the work of a Gozitan cat.

© Janet Henderson 7th May 2016

Sunday, 1 May 2016

Ceridwen's Child

Where beauty fails to manifest
mother's love yearns to compensate
bestowing a poet's spirit
on Morfran. As Gwion Bach tends
inspiration's bubbling cauldron
it seems maternal care cannot
so readily be exercised
by proxy. A fatal error.

by Christopher Williams 1910

Awen's shining face of wisdom,
shekinah in a Celtic guise,
blinds Morda and causes Gwion's
young hand to tremble, a bard's fear
stirring, baleful, within his gut
as he licks the golden liquid 
clean - potion that seeds a lifetime's
toil chastening words to lyric flow.

Dropped kettle, the fire extinguished
beside Llyn Tegid's fertile shore,
catastrophe for progeny 
of Tegid Foel, Ceridwen's mate.
Dashed hopes and hastening feet proclaim
disturbance of the natural realm; 
hare, fish, bird, grain of corn pursued
by greyhound, otter, hawk and hen.*

What cosmic madness here at play?
Freakish mutation churns the air,
Ceridwen agitatedly
transformed again from hen to dame,
brings forth a child so fair of face
that all intent to seek revenge
for Gwion's theft of Morfran's draught
is stilled and soothed and lulled away.

How so? Not fickle mother-love
but hormone-drenched discovery 
accompanying every unsought birth,
love's copious elasticity
surprising the least welcomed, most
unplanned gestation. She wavers,
conflicted by first loyalty 
to Morfran, tender for this child.

Dark despair, solicitude, self  
doubting shame, or shrewd ambition
to cast this son upon the sea?
A second womb of coracle
lends leathery shelter to the boy
whose fearful voyage bears him south
to Aberdyfi's treacherous coast, 
Elffin ap Gwyddno's sanctuary.

Strange birth! Muses' conspiracy
evading natural law to gift
Wales her Ben Beirdd Taliesin,
an accoucheuse with subtle powers
to weave a cloth of words that sing
a nation's tales down centuries,
whose shining brow* cascades wisdom
ancient, mysterious, luminous.

©Janet Henderson May 2016

* Ceridwen and Gwion (after tasting the potion) possessed the power of metamorophosis. To avoid Ceridwen's wrath (because he had tasted and therefore stolen Morfran's inheritance of wisdom), Gwion changed successively into a hare, a fish, a bird and a grain of corn; she turned into a greyhound, an otter, and a hawk to pursue him and finally she became a hen and gobbled up the grain of corn. In her belly, it turned into a child and she became pregnant and gave birth to Taliesin.

** Taliesin means 'shining brow'.

This poem explores the birth of the Celtic poet Taliesin, a historical figure who lived, possibly, in the 6th century and whose poems capture struggles between rulers of the kingdoms that preceded present-day Wales, Scotland and north west England. He has also captured hearts and imaginations down the ages.

Ceridwen - Taliesin's mother variously portrayed as goddess of birth, transformation, 
                   poetic inspiration and sorceress  
Morfran - Ceridwen's ugly son to whom she wishes to give the gift of wisdom as
               compensation for his looks
Awen - the name given, in mythology, to the cauldron containing the magic potion that
            inspires poets and gives rise to wisdom
Shekinah - Hebrew word for the glory that accompanies the presence of God
Morda - the blind servant left in charge of Awen
Gwion Bach - the young servant who stirred Awen and licked his thumb clean of a few
                    drops of the magic potion (the first three drops contained the gift of wisdom
                    but the rest of the potion was a deadly poison)   
Tegid Foel - Ceridwen's husband
Llyn Tegid - a lake in North Wales (Bala)
Elffin ap Gywddno - son of Gwyddno Garanhir, ruler of Cantref Gwaelod, a lost kingdom
                             now under the sea (Cardigan Bay around Aberdyfi). Later a Prince in 
                             his own right and patron of Taliesin
Ben Beirdd Taliesin - a Welsh title for Taliesin meaning 'Chief of Bards'

Tuesday, 19 April 2016

Swarthmoor, Easter 2016

We arrive, 
see the grey walls of the hall
unrelieved by the dappling of afternoon sun.
Later we walk down the garden, 
drawn by the evening light
and, suddenly,
a heavenly burst of purple,
rich, royal and reminiscent
of a saviour's walk,
a field of blazing crocuses
set amid stone walls
and yellow grass
summoning us toward
a hill
where shadows and glory 

© Janet Henderson 2016

Swarthmoor Hall was the home of Margaret Fell and her husband, George Fox, the founder of the Society of Friends. It is now a Quaker retreat, visitor and conference centre situated near Ulverston in the Lake District 

Saturday, 26 March 2016

Ellen and Georgina

Ellen Henderson

Of my father's mother, Ellen,
I have no memory at all
just one momento, a photo,
a smiling sepia governess,
composed, in neat Edwardian dress
and in her face I catch my own,
a mirror-imaged likeness, there
for all to see;
my father smiled with his eyes
and so do I and so does she.

Ellen died when Dad was seven - 
a rare blood disease in days of
donor to patient transfusion.
As strangers poured out their life-blood
into her veins then how much more 
must she have poured out her heart 
at leaving her young son and twins
whose lives were rocked
by their maternal loss,
cared for by friends bereft and shocked.

Of my mother's mother, Georgie,
I have a store of memories;
cuddles in bed, Winnie the Pooh,
stories heard sitting on her knee,
the saga of her rings, "This one 
will be your mother's, this one's for
Aunt Gwen but this one's mine alone
and I shall be
sent to my grave with it 
as on the day Taid* married me."

Old hands, young fingers together
chopping carrots and shelling peas,
nostrils tickled by roasting beef
or baking cheese and onion pie;
embroidery and lavender,
pinks, roses and piano
all treats to enthral, then earwigging
the grown-ups' talk 
of who was ill or dead
before an evening seaside walk.

But both have helped to shape my life,
their influence felt in subtle ways.
I still hear Nana Georgie's soft
"Keep going, always sing, each day
be brave to try out something new."
And though I never talked with her,
had no familiar name to give,
Ellen's wisdom 
shone in the words of all
who recalled and shared her vision.

©Janet Henderson March 2016

*'Taid' is the usual name for 'Grandfather' in North Wales.

Thursday, 4 February 2016

We Walked by the Stream

In winter he asked,
'What's in your heart?'
'Darkness and agony.'
'Now light will enter.'

In the spring he asked,
'What's in your heart?'
'Joy and laughter.'
'So Divine life comes,'

In summer he asked,
'What's in your heart?'
'The desire for wisdom.'
'Thus knowing dawns.'

In autumn he asked,
'What's in your heart?'
'The desire to yield.'
'This is the time of fruitfulness.'

©Janet Henderson 4th February 2016


In the car park, 
rain spattering the windscreen,
grey walls topped with slate 
enclosing what it's possible to see, 
space shifts. 

Boundaries of opportunity draw in 
with dizzying unexpectedness
making her sick to her stomach.
The light of unsought prescience flames,
beacon-like, in her mind

branding the moment  
a tattoo on her soul.
Trust shatters,
its explosion littering the future 
with shards of deceit.

A short exchange
unequal and uneven,
words thrown prematurely on the table,
rejected, set aside, snatched up,
reworked in direct defiance of dissent. 

Once released, dissimulation will avalanche, 
distorted phrases gain pace
in minds and hearts, on paper and through media,
forcefully burying all honest

appearances served, 
reputations flayed, destroyed,
veracity concealed by a high-speed, anonymous
maelstrom of internet flow 
wreaking havoc.

In the car park,
the rain turns to sleet,
and she knows without yet knowing
the creeping, wintry fingers 
of misrepresentation.

©Janet Henderson 14th January 2016

Monday, 1 February 2016

The Final Breath

In the hour before lunch, 
the nurses' station unusually calm,
Friday's consultant writing notes,
a doctor's words catch my ear.
"Room four, her breathing's flat today."

Leaving the office chatter,
I slip across the trolley-ridden corridor, 
open the door a crack 
and see no visitors,
just Ada, propped on pillows, 
pallid beneath the bubbling mask, 
waxy and greyer now than earlier. 

I close the door. 
First thing, she'd smiled, 
a rare moment of connection beyond herself, 
but now her energy's all focused inward 
as sense begins shutting down
in preparation for death's hard travail.

I watch the mortal struggle, 
the surrender of each precious vestige of liveliness,
sights, smells, all desire for intake.
This is a birth to something else,
a handing-on beyond touch and sound.

The door clicks. 
The doctor enters silently.
No words are shared, only witness
as we sit and kneel, cradling a hand,
attention fixed on Ada's face and form, 
her heroic, ever-stiller, bed-bound beauty.

Only when breath ceases do we speak,
as her colour drains to blue-tinged pallor.
"You know, each time, I think we've seen a miracle?"
"Or been at some sacred rite,
the migration of a mysterious spark,
one moment here, the next one flown."
"What hidden power withdraws 
from holding us in life?"

So death's threshold seems less end 
than brink, as when the cord is cut
the moment after birth
releasing mother and child from
gasping, pain-filled fear and strain,
launching the adventure of separation
and new life.

In the hour of death,
as the body returns to compound and chemical,
a silver cord is severed,
the waters of life spill out, at last,
from their cracked, often-mended, golden dish,
a container lent for these days of this life,
not meant to endure beyond.
©Janet Henderson 1st February 2016 

In the final stanza I was thinking about Kintsugi, the Japanese art of mending cracks in pottery with gold to highlight the beauty of an object broken by usage. Rather than disguise the cracks, the potter re-incorporates them into the aesthetic of the object. The cord which holds us in life is referred to in Ecclesiastes 12.6 in the context of thoughts about length of life. 

Monday, 4 January 2016

Two Kinds of Rain

Chapel cattle cluster in the field's corner 
black as coal dust against a sombre sky.
Swirling clouds deposit moisture
like muslin saturated and dripping
over the cheese in Nain's larder. 
The wet, wet, wet of it all
mizzling, dripping, pelting,
windsweep and gust lulling to steady, relentless fall.
Today's deluge comes, horizontal, from the sea,
drowning seagull cries in salt spray and teasing squall;
on other days it descends from high Pumlumon,
sodden clouds blotting out light and sound,
muffling the struggling day. Then easterly winds
chase the cloud-edge, beat and thin it,
exposing sporadic radiance and hinting
at relief and a path to the sun.
Often I have opened the garden gate
in damp or drench, wanting to turn
on the path and retreat to fireside and kettle,
impelled outward only by the insistence of work.
East or west, the downpour chaps the skin,
invades the joints and fuels a longing for dry heat.

© Janet Henderson 2015

Thursday, 3 December 2015

December 2nd

Preternatural darkness at lunch time today,
light draining from the sky over Sherwood Forest,
a brooding atmosphere of foreboding beneath the mist.
We wait.

Winter's darkness over Parliament this evening

as they vote to bomb the region near Raqqa
and a panicy chill grips Syrian stomachs.
They wait.

Moonlit darkness tonight as they set out to drop bombs

that kill some, half-kill others,
randomly condemning to life blighted by pain.
London and Paris wait.

It will be dark when terrorists come again

directing violence, refuelled by atrocity,
against people in whose name bombs were dropped.
The world waits.

Is it to be never-ending darkness?

Unrelieved by peacemaker or diplomat,
failing, year by year, to bring consolation
to devastated souls plunged into an abyss
of chaos and maddening grief?
Whom does it serve 
when we bomb innocents into a crater
where night consumes day without end?

This cavernous hell isn't British or Syrian or French

or Muslim or Christian or Russian or secular.
It's the dark cauldron of swirling evil.

Give it a stir! In the name of 'good',

in the name of 'right', in the name of the bomb
and 'with Britain's place at the table secured',
give it a stir before the foul brew can settle
and reveal a new humanity
bubbling to the surface 
as Arab and Briton discover we are united  
in fear for our children's security.

© Janet Henderson 2nd December 2015

Written on the day of the British parliamentary vote on air stokes against ISIS in Syria, just after the result was announced. I hope the sardonic irony of the last verse comes through.

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Mwy iddo na hyn!

English voices 
down time,
snatched comment remembered
and taken to the core of his being.

'You're different.'
'You're argumentative.'
'You interrupt.'
'You're too emotional.'
'You've had a sheltered upbringing.'
'You have that wonderful voice,
 so tuneful and sibilant.'

'We went to Wales and they spoke English,
 deliberately, to exclude us.'
'Oh the Welsh! They're devious but very musical,
 warm but slightly untrustworthy
 and cool to the English in the North.'

'And you'll be following the rugby, won't you?'

If only you could see within his heart there lie
a wealth of riches from two languages,
a history steeped in poetry and myth,
vision shaped by majestic countryside
and hard-working, loving, close-knit community -
a Celtic, European, egalitarian heritage,
a place of nurture where
politics and faith and life
are open to passionate exploration.

Is your imperialistic fear born 
of not being able to understand the words?
Linguistic difference poses a threat you can't control?
Yet he stands complicit in your desire to subjugate
and explore a wider, flatter landscape.

Welsh voices, 
each time he returns,
gathering impetus, 
crescendoing to drown him out.

'You don't speak Welsh?
 Oh, but you do understand it?
 (Beth ydw i wedi ei ddweud?)'*
'Your Welsh is too formal,
 too English, 
 too posh.'
'It's Aberystwyth Welsh, very Taffia.'

He speaks in Welsh,
the reply comes in English.
'Where's he from?'
'Who's his father? Did you know him?'
'Twenty five years he's been in England.'

'Don't you bring that Saes** air of entitlement!'

If only you would let him join you
with his faltering speech and un-Englishness,
but you silence him with your perpetual
examination of how Welsh his Welshness is
and fixation on the pedigree of his conversation.
And when he's reduced to uttering nothing,
you wonder why he crossed the border
to chase and find the voice denied him.

Does his flight compound 
some imagined sense of inferiority,
posing a threat you can't restrain?
Yet he's complicit in your uncertainty,
anxious, too, at the loss of Welsh identity.

He is nowhere, nowhere,
roots dug up and thrown aside
by the very fruit they produce.
He gasps for the air of understanding,
thirsts for the waters of kindness
and finds his resilience in independence.

*(What have I been saying?)
** English

© Janet Henderson August 2015

The title of the poem means 'There's more to him than this!' The poem describes a condition of being caught between two cultures and belonging, or perhaps being allowed to belong, to neither. Creative as this tension can be, it is also profoundly disturbing and isolating. The use of stereotype and cliche is intended to build the sense of frustration and annoyance - can't people see beyond this?